This is a book about healing internally and extending that healing to those closest to you.
Kiese Laymon’s Heavy: An American Memoir offers its readers a space for radical healing. Structured as a confession from a Black man to the mother that both made him the writer and intellectual he is, as well as emotionally crippling him from the cradle, Laymon writes with an honesty that forces reciprocation. His experiences as a Black man growing up in Mississippi to tenure-track professor at Vassar are specific and universal, and you cannot leave a chapter untouched by the pain, laughter and fearless exploration humanity expressed before you. Laymon’s truth exposes the heaviness we all carry on our bodies and in our hearts, composing a requiem for the brokenness we all want to hide. This is a book that will hurt those for whom empathy is an atrophied muscle and inspire those of us who have never been able to find the right words to express the pains we’ve caused and the joys we’ve experienced.
The book begins with a statement of purpose that is meant to gain our trust. It lays out the book he meant to write and exactly what an American memoir means: a hagiography, a lie, a history that demands nothing of its readers and subject. Heavy was pitched as a weight-loss memoir, the tale of a three-hundred-pound man bringing himself down to one hundred and sixty-five through diet and discipline. It was supposed to be a book about healthy living and healthy choices, but anyone with experience with body dysmorphia and anorexia knows that you cannot describe radical fluctuations in weight honestly by focusing on “healthy choices.” The gains and losses are emotionally driven and dangerous, which brings us to teenage Kiese and the beginning of the story.
Kiese Laymon was a big, Black child being raised by a single mother in North Jackson, Mississippi in the ‘70s and ‘80s. His mother was a political scientist and educator who often appeared on local television during election seasons but could not keep the lights on in her apartment. The local grocery stores kept a picture of her at the cashiers because she so often bounced checks. She is a beautiful, complicated woman who managed to find money for books and encyclopedias for the edification of her son. She would assign Kiese daily writing assignments to sharpen his intellect and occupying him at all hours. Keeping her son alive and out of prison drove her decision-making, but those very decisions often put Kiese in places where his body and sexual wellbeing were at risk.
“You made me read more books and write more words in response to those books than any of my friends’ parents, but nothing I’d ever read prepared me to write or talk about my memory of sex, sound, space, and fear.”
Poverty informs all of Kiese’s young life, establishing patterns that will shape his adulthood. He eats and drinks to excess as a teenager to numb himself to his reality. He can hear his mother having sex in the small house they share. He can hear the violence of her getting beaten by her regular lover. He spends his summer days at a neighbor’s house with a group of older boys and girls and witnesses the casual sexual violence administered to the girls. He learns to lie to his mother and take the beatings for his lies. Eventually he learns to heighten his pain threshold so he is numb to his mother’s belt. Stretch marks and scars mark so much of his childhood trauma, but he doesn’t really see his heaviness as a burden until high school. Quick on the basketball court and with his wit, he doesn’t really feel shame until his high school coach mocks him at a weigh-in.
Scales become one of the tormenting refrains in Heavy. The tick-tick-tick of the rising numbers represent a loss of control, even addiction as Kiese hunts for half-eaten slices of pizza on the floor of his dorm in college to stave his loneliness. Starvation and exercise become a form of sculpture, chiseling away at the fat to find the muscles underneath. The numbers tick dangerously low and there will be no bottom in sight. There are all kinds of ways to break a body between eating forgotten pizza to eating nothing at all unless the number on the scale gives you permission. He always sees the fat boy no matter how hard his body gets.
Whether overweight or sculpted, the heaviness of White’s mediocrity is ever-present in Laymon’s life, taking form in teachers, college administrators, drug dealing college students, Congressmen, Senators, the family his grandma does the laundry for and the police. The racism comes in large historical events like the Clarence Thomas/Anita Hill hearings, Rodney King, 9/11 and Katrina, as well as the quotidian fears of being Black in America. His mother taught him to navigate White power struggles, ignoring smaller slights to focus on the larger issues. But the small slights are the larger struggle, and that rage of having to be twice as good as your White colleagues and still be underestimated is essential reading for anyone privileged enough to doubt the inequity of the Black experience in America. These are the testimonials that make White Americans so desperately uncomfortable, so they must be told again and again until there is nothing left but belief.
“The nation as it is currently constituted has never dealt with a yesterday or tomorrow where we were radically honest, generous, and tender with each other.”
This is a book about healing internally and extending that healing to those closest to you. It’s about a child becoming adult enough that he can shepherd his mother into a more profound, less destructive kind of love. For the White Americans drawn to Heavy due to its deserved praise, this should be a book where we listen for the similarities. There are many. Kiese Laymon has had the courage to offer us his beautiful, flawed humanity, but the differences are vast and systematic. And until we accept that we won’t begin to heal.