One of the most profoundly isolating human experiences is to finish a movie in the theater and, looking to your left and then to your right, discover that you are the only person not wiping their eyes and sniffling. My mother, a crier, recently told me that while watching “Wonder” in the theater a few weeks ago, she looked to her left through her tears to see a young man watching the movie by himself and crying. She told me she felt an immediate connection to him. “I felt like he was a nice man,” she told me, words heavy with nostalgia. “I felt like he was my friend.”
For most of my adolescence, I could never cry at videos and media, despite my best efforts. I wanted to be the girl who got choked up at “The Notebook” and blubbered at the end of “Titanic.” “How distinctly feminine,” my date would say, wiping a tear from my cheek and pulling me in for a heartfelt embrace. But I remember sitting in the back of a darkened theater watching “Les Misérables” with my eyes plastered open, refusing to blink, begging for a single tear to leak out of me. But nothing came.
The first time I can ever remember crying at a movie was at “Parental Guidance” during my freshman year of high school. I had just moved to a new town and went with my entire junior varsity soccer team as a sort of bonding exercise. The intricacies of the movie were not important. But in brief, it stars Billy Crystal and Bette Midler in their third act as they try to reconnect with their kids to varying degrees of success. What is important is that it has 17 percent on Rotten Tomatoes.
As the movie came to a close, I felt the hot flush of a quickly approaching cry come over me. That was not the vibe of the rest of this JV soccer team outing. I shot out of my seat just before the credits and raced to the bathroom. I soon discovered my period had started with a remarkable vengeance during the course of the movie. I had bled through not only my underwear but also my jeans and undoubtedly onto the movie theater seats between my peers.
My psychology teacher told our class the premenstrual syndrome isn’t actually a real affliction, that it is just the mind playing tricks based on culturally bound ideas of how someone on their period should behave. I believe this to be incorrect for a number of reasons, chief of which being that I don’t cry at a movie described as a “clichéd, cloying, and predictable treacle fest” because of some damn social constructs. I don’t know which part of that story should be most humiliating for me, but I will say with some confidence that I was humiliated by all of it. I called my mom from the bathroom and hopped into the car home ASAP.
The idea of crying at movies was indicative to me of some deeper soulful body within others, but whenever I saw it in myself, it was traumatic. More than anything, a truly cathartic cry means to completely give up control, if only for a few honest moments, which takes a lot more than looking into something bright until your eyes tear up.
Sometime near the beginning of last semester, I began to find myself crying at everything — not meltdown sobs, but let’s just say my tears have been successfully jerked more times than I care to count. I don’t connect with movies more now than I did at the beginning of my sophomore year. I didn’t gather some major key that I’ve been missing. It just started happening. In a documentary I was watching about Samuel Beckett, the narrator said Beckett refused to have his voice recorded and then played a clip of him talking. I was so overwhelmed that I started to cry, even though I had fully heard Beckett’s voice just weeks before in a recording played for my English class. While on a recent flight, I started crying before they even showed the “Toy Story” title screen, overwhelmed with what I knew Woody and the gang had in store for the next two decades. I spent one afternoon watching every “The X Factor” golden buzzer video I could and crying at every one of them.
Responses to art are a truly unpredictable thing. I like to talk about things that have made me cry a lot. It is more tangible than a moment of quiet contemplation, a surefire marker that I felt what I was supposed to feel, I felt it more than you felt it, and oh, boy, was it powerful. I tell everyone I meet how much I cried at the end of “Brokeback Mountain” or at the Paper and Packaging Board commercial where the little boy writes letters to his dad in the army in the hopes that one day one of these people will look at me and feel an immediate connection. They will think she seems like such a nice girl. They will think she is my friend. And they will be right.