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Having a Bawl

Nancy Eisenberg

Crying: The Natural and Cultural History of Tears. Tom Lutz. 352 pp. W. W. Norton & Co., 1999. $29.95.

Crying may be a familiar phenomenon, but it also is complex and difficult to fully comprehend. In part, that is because tears can serve many purposes. Crying provides a cultural and scientific history of thinking and findings regarding crying from the earliest known representation of tears in the 14th century B.C. (in Canaanite clay tablets) to the present. The emphasis is primarily on crying as depicted in literature, religion and philosophy, and the arts. The book also includes some coverage of physiological, psychological and anthropological work on the topic, especially on the physiology of crying, crying in infancy and the psychological consequences of crying.

As the author notes, many more questions are raised by this book than are answered. He concludes that there are good tears—heroic tears (for example, before battle), tears of exceptional sincerity and tears of pleasure—as well as tears of mourning, submission and sadness, and crocodile (insincere) tears. Tears sometimes may facilitate human interactions and closeness and sometimes are seen as manipulative, humiliating or self-indulgent. Although we usually think of tears as being the domain of females, the literature and historical documents suggest that tearlessness was not always considered appropriate for males. It appears that females, in comparison to males, are physiologically more prone to cry; nonetheless, Lutz illustrates how cultural roles and rules, which have varied over historical time and contexts, appear to shape weeping behavior. In addition, Lutz reviews anthropological findings on mourning, which varies dramatically across cultures—from the practice of hiring professional mourners rather than the survivors publicly mourning to the survivors harming themselves. In all these domains, the vast range of possible interpretations of crying is considered, and the multiple uses of crying in social interactions is demonstrated.

Lutz's review of the "psychology of tears" is more a history of ideas in the field than a current synthesis of research findings. The psychological issue addressed in most detail is whether crying serves as a method of catharsis that purges the system; views of psychologists and psychiatrists throughout the 20th century, as well as ancient Greek philosophers, are brought to bear. In addition, parents' reactions to children's crying, the effects of crying on the parent-child relationship and changes over time in parents' views about crying are discussed. As a psychologist, I found that discussion of anthropological data and historical writings on the topic quite interesting, although it is difficult to glean from the book a clear picture of the current state of knowledge in the behavioral and social sciences on the topic of crying. Review of the scientific work on this topic is sufficient for a book for a general readership, although far from comprehensive.

Other scientific topics addressed are the adaptive (evolutionary) significance of crying and the physiology of crying, including biological mechanisms involved in crying. In the discussion of these topics as well as findings from the behavioral and social sciences, the author thoughtfully considers alternative explanations for patterns of results and issues such as direction of causality.

This book's strengths are the author's breadth of knowledge and the blending of ideas and findings from many disciplines, including history, the arts and the sciences. Ideas from diverse perspectives are interwoven to provide a historical and cross-cultural understanding of the many and often contradictory roles of tears in human interactions and society. A weakness of the book is its organization; sometimes there are leaps from in one domain (drama or literature) to another (scientific work) that undercut the reader's ability to synthesize a coherent view of our current understanding of crying. Nonetheless, the book is thought provoking and stimulating and provides the reader with some grasp of the complexity of human emotion and its expression.—Nancy Eisenberg, Psychology, Arizona State University

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