Susan Orlean is a celebrated writer, but she moonlights as an expert on tear ducts. For three years, she's co-hosted the podcast "Crybabies" with Sarah Thyre, where guests discuss what movies, songs, books and other works make them cry, from Earth, Wind and Fire's "That's the Way of the World" (her personal trigger — a reminder of a breakup) to a Ruth Bader Ginsburg speech.
“No one enjoys being sad,” she says by phone, but crying is “a full body workout that feels strangely enjoyable. It may be similar to the reason people watch scary movies. . . . You say, okay, I’m not a robot, I actually have emotions.”
She’s also learned: “Parents cry a lot over sentimental or nostalgic things. Kids don’t have the capacity for nostalgia yet.”
For our issue on the 20th anniversary of the tear-inducing "Titanic," The Washington Post put out a call to readers asking what makes them cry. Some were expected, like the death of Bambi's mom, the Beach Boys song "God Only Knows," and the endings of "Field of Dreams," "The Shawshank Redemption" and "Friends."
But there were also the surprising and inspiring, such as the reader who cried from a YouTube video that set scenes of Power Rangers to the song "Under Pressure." A New Hampshire woman with a voice disorder cried for s15 minutes after "The King's Speech." A reader in Illinois cried for an hour after reading a story on Pinterest about a butterfly that died in a person's hands.
Here are more of our best submissions, grouped loosely by theme (and edited for space and clarity). Spoilers abound.
OUR CRUEL WORLD
Margret Elson, 65
The movie “Harriet the Spy”
In 1996, when I was 44, I took my twin daughters to the matinee theater in our town to see "Harriet the Spy." They were 10. Like most of the kids and parents, Emma and Kate laughed when classmates poured blue paint on Harriet. I didn't. But the scene where Harriet gets home from school and dunks herself underwater, in her bathtub — and stays under for what seemed like way too long a time — did me in. I cried real hard. For Harriet and for the probable bullying my kids might face in the next few years. And for the memory of junior high school and how once a week, one of the girls in my group got ostracized. I never participated, and it never happened to me, but watching the pain, it caused still hurt.
Nikita Mandhani, 28
“Game of Thrones,” Season 1, Episode 9
I was in New Delhi with a friend, and I remember I just couldn't sleep at night because I was thinking about "Game of Thrones." I finally got up and started watching. Ned Stark was my favorite character, and he was my hero. The moment he died was like the end of all good for me. It wasn't his death that made me cry, but knowing that the world was cruel, that honest and inspiring people sometimes lost. I just couldn't stop. My friend was terrified. I just can't forget how empty I felt.
Kyle Rudgers, 47
The movie “Shadowlands”
When I was just short of 9 years old, my mother was killed in a car accident. At one point during the grieving process, I remember my dad just stopping what he was doing, sitting on the basement steps and crying. I didn’t know what to do except go up to him and hug him.
Fast-forward 15 or so years, and I found myself for the first time watching the Anthony Hopkins/Debra Winger movie "Shadowlands."Toward the end of the movie, after Joy Gresham (Debra Winger) has died, C.S. Lewis (Hopkins) goes upstairs to the attic, where young Douglas Gresham (Joseph Mazzello) — who was about the same age as me when I lost my mother — is sitting alone. After a discussion where Lewis is trying to reconcile his faith with his grief, Douglas says, "I sure would like to see her again." Lewis begins to cry and says, through his tears, "Me, too."
But that’s not the part that makes me cry.
There is a shot from behind, just them, in the dim light, sitting on a landing, weeping, holding each other as though this was all they could count on. And that shot, even 40 years after my mother’s death, harks back to the time when I sat with my father, missing my mother, on our basement steps.
Kim Kay, 26
The song “Summer of ’69”
Any nostalgic song makes me think about how the wonderful moments the songwriter wants to revisit will never, ever come back. And then I think about how the very moment I’m listening to the song will only be a memory, and how it’s part of the slow march of time that brings us one step closer to our ends.
These feelings first started listening to "Summer of '69" in high school, but now I hear nostalgic songs most often when I'm at bars, drinking. Then, my sadness usually morphs into anger, because not only is the DJ ruining my mood, but the rest of the bar is singing along to a song celebrating the impermanence of each of our lives and trying to get me to join in.
I know, people say these songs are catchy, but I’d rather not start dwelling on my own mortality at 1:30 a.m. on a Friday night.
Johnisha Levi, 40
I had purchased this book for my husband but started reading it because he was still finishing up something. It really captured a lot of the heartache of being a pioneer in a segregated environment and was very effective at depicting the battle for civil rights waged in Nashville. Wallace is an 18-, 19-year-old kid facing death threats simply for daring to play basketball, and his school and teammates were often completely oblivious!
Everyone who criticizes the NFL or other athletes for politicizing a sport should read this book — because here is an example of sports as the ugliest, vilest theater for American racism. I was so overwhelmed by one passage that I didn’t even care if people saw the tears rolling down my face on the train.
Ali Anderson, 58
The miniseries “Band of Brothers”
When Easy Company discovers the concentration camp, while they’re first liberating the prisoners, an old, old man walks up to one of them and, with tears in his eyes, kisses the soldier on both cheeks. Breaks me into a million pieces.
HOPE FOR HUMANITY
Allison Widder, 35
The movie “Sing”
My daughter watches "Sing" nearly every day, and every day when Ash the porcupine takes the stage to sing "Set It All Free," I cry. Every day. In particular, the part when she begins to stomp her foot, and the crowd responds in kind. Why? Maybe it's in remembrance of those teenage feelings of love and loss? Maybe it's the unity of all the people in the crowd, reassurance that even in the dark days of Trump, we are all still people who believe in the goodness of others and who all basically want the same things? Or that it's my young daughter watching and realizing she will be hurt by someone one day? I don't know.
I usually try to busy myself during this part of the movie, cook, clean, whatever. But inevitably I go and watch.
Eva Hochberger, 27
An episode of the 99% Invisible podcast, “This Is Chance: Anchorwoman of the Great Alaska Earthquake”
During my morning commute Nov. 6, stuck in the traffic for the light on Riverdale Road and Kenilworth Avenue, the following made me cry: “It was a station in Anchorage, running on backup generators and a cracked transmitter. A station in Fairbanks picked up that signal and repeated it. And a man in Juneau somehow picked up that Fairbanks station, called a radio station in Seattle and let the broadcast play over his phone.”
I’ve heard this episode before, and this is not even the saddest part. The radio broadcast it mentions is about an earthquake that killed over 100 people. This didn’t even mention the death or destruction. It was just the connection between people that made me cry. Gently though, as if it was just drizzling.
Charley Rico, 38
The movie “Nacho Libre”
Who cries during a kids movie about a monk/wannabe Mexican wrestler? It happened so quickly and without warning. Annoying.
It didn't happen the first time I saw "Nacho Libre," in the cinema I used to frequent as a teen growing up in Hilo, Hawaii.
No, it happened the second time I saw it, from the comfort of my lounge room in Australia with my 18-month-old baby girl sitting next to me while her father drifted further and further away from us. He eventually left before finding comfort in the arms of a much younger, much taller and much-less-me gal pal.
I began noticing things about Nacho that I'd missed before. And suddenly, I was Nacho — misunderstood, belittled for his unwavering dedication to fulfill his dreams.
At the end, when he finally wins his match, he's jumping around in disbelief, scanning the crowd for . . . and then his eyes lock with Sister Encarnación and she screams "Yes!" and then more quietly, he says, "Yes," along with a small fist pump. The camera cuts again to Sister Encarnación, who's nodding in agreement, and you can see his unrequited love is no longer.
I used to cry a lot, but not because I was happy. My tears that day were of joy. . . for the unexpected twists life throws your way that at first seem insurmountable but always, always, turn into something wonderful; for the realization that I was only 27 and while I knew I was about to find myself a single mother, I also knew my life wasn’t over, and one day I’d allow myself to be free.
A PARTNER WHO DOESN’T GET IT
Autumn Fox, 36
The novel “Of Human Bondage”
I started reading "Of Human Bondage" by W. Somerset Maugham when I was 26 — about 10 years ago — while on vacation in the Dominican Republic with my then-fiance. For each new heartbreak and mortification Philip Carey, the novel's protagonist, endured, I would find myself weeping uncontrollably.
My fiance asked repeatedly why I insisted on finishing the novel if it was so painful to read, and I honestly could not give him an answer. Perhaps it was sympathy, empathy even, that I had for Philip. Perhaps it was just a much-needed catharsis. I have wished and sought after another book that could be so devastating, but such a release at the same time, but have yet to find it. The one thing that came of it, however, was I knew then that I could never marry a man who couldn’t see the beauty of something that has the power to make us cry.
Kathryn Castle, 65
It's not so much what I see that makes me cry, it's more about how I cry — especially in movie theaters. You see, my husband teases me mercilessly when it happens — and happen it does, often. I hate this, and somehow have learned to cry only out of one eye — the one farthest from him! He's sitting on my left, my right eye tears up. On the right — yep, tears only from the left eye. This way, I can surreptitiously wipe away the moisture without being caught. I do this automatically, without trying. Weird, right?
Nick Belperio, 54
“Dream Weekend,” a commercial for Subaru
At the University of Cincinnati, I teach a Writing for Media course, in which we watch numerous examples of ads. A student sent me a link for the Subaru ad, which revolves around a man and his dog celebrating the dog’s birthday. It’s a sweet commercial, set to a Willie Nelson track, showing a kind of canine “bucket list”: rides in the car, favorite treats, new shoes to chew, a date with a female dog.
When I played it in class, I noticed something I hadn’t seen the first time: a bone-shaped birthday cake that says, “14th + ¾ .” In the dark, in front of my students, it hit me: This isn’t a birthday celebration; this dog isn’t going to make it to 15. Holy crap, this dog is about to be euthanized, and this is their last weekend together. It ruined me instantly, reminding me of every pet I’ve ever loved and lost.
The spot ended, and instead of turning up the lights and discussing its effectiveness, I stood there at the podium, head in my hands. Tears, snot, all of it. Awkward silence from my students as I choked out, “I’m sorry. Give me a minute. I wasn’t prepared for that.” I got myself together, turned up the lights and died a little when I saw how embarrassed my students were. You won’t be surprised to learn I no longer screen that spot in class.
Pat Roberts, 56
Budweiser Christmas ads
Dogs and horses, every time.