Heavy: An American Memoir

Kiese Laymon | 2018

Book Summary:

In Heavy, Laymon writes eloquently and honestly about growing up a hard-headed black son to a complicated and brilliant black mother in Jackson, Mississippi. From his early experiences of sexual violence, to his suspension from college, to his trek to New York as a young college professor, Laymon charts his complex relationship with his mother, grandmother, anorexia, obesity, sex, writing, and ultimately gambling. By attempting to name secrets and lies he and his mother spent a lifetime avoiding, Laymon asks himself, his mother, his nation, and us to confront the terrifying possibility that few in this nation actually know how to responsibly love, and even fewer want to live under the weight of actually becoming free.

A personal narrative that illuminates national failures, Heavy is defiant yet vulnerable, an insightful, often comical exploration of weight, identity, art, friendship, and family that begins with a confusing childhood—and continues through twenty-five years of haunting implosions and long reverberations.

My Review:

Fitting, having read this book months ago, im now, on Mothers Day morning, just getting to writing my experience reading it. Kiese addresses this book to his mother. His mother, abused by her husband and boyfriends, in turn abuses her child and those around her, over educated, underemployed, consumes herself with things that matter little, in order to avoid larger more troubling things like her son being molested, abused and abusing his body. His mother, that asks him for money, concerned not of where it comes and lying about what its for. His mother, his problem, not his solution.

Ive been a haunted by what I would right about my experience reading this book for months. I enjoyed the book. Not in a juicy, titillating way but, because I think the story should be heard, passed along. There are bits I think will ring true for many. Characters and dysfunctions that will seem familiar. I recognized the young men from young Kiese’s neighborhood, always trying to ‘get girls’ and the girls that unfortunately, got, ‘got’. The young men that demonstrated a certain toxic masculinity and nonchalance towards women and sex, not because its how they felt, but because their introduction to sex was through a sitter/older adult taking advantage of them. They were confused about their role in the encounter and therefore in relationships and life. Hurt people, hurt people. Kiese’s mother, chasing degrees at all cost, hoping education would validate her, make her worthy. All while being physically and emotionally abused by boyfriends. Beating her son because she was being beaten, by the system, by life, by her man. Kiese, receiving abuse and witnessing abuse all around him, internalized it. Ate his feelings. Prayed someone would save him. When he told his grandmother who loves him, she does nothing.

The book is written mostly in an ordinary prose, littered with scholarly language and poetic colloquiums only some of us will understand. Im thinking of Kiese and his schoolmates at a mostly all white institution referring to their recognized black boy joy as ‘black abundance’. If the words written are true, and I suspect they are someones truth even if not his own, Kiese gets very personal, even admitting in language that almost sounds justified, that while a black professor in primarily white school, he graded white folks papers harsher than others.

I think the story climaxes during this later admission when he also shares his heightened state of controlling his weight. He had grown to love the way “loosing weight felt greater than how food tasted”. Running 20+ miles daily after long days in the classroom, not eating.

Pros and Cons are hard for me to distinguish. Some of the same reasons I liked the book are connected directly to some negative points for me. I enjoyed his harsh honesty and direct but poetic manner of telling his story. But often its emotionless, as if he wasn’t present. He tells, quite vividly, of his abuse from others and what he does to himself, but none of it is ever resolved or really addressed outside of the fact it happened. In a climatic moment, we experience pages of him collapsing from exhaustion and hunger in his apartment, seemingly close to death. The next chapter, his fine, in a relationship and headed to a casino. 🤦🏾‍♀️

In a sense, Laymon delivers on his promise, a memoir in the literal definition of just being an account of his history. He fails to offer any insight to how he feels today about his past. How he has either grown from or past it. Im left thinking somewhere today, he may very well be on the verge of exhaustion & hunger. (To be sure, I googled him and his webpage shows a smiling full figured man. So, probably not, starving.)

I also note his birthdate, a year and a month after my own. Heavy was published in late 2018. If allowing him a few years to work on this book, I may grant him a pass on excising demons. Trust me, in the early 20-tens I was still making mistakes. However, what they say about turning 45 is true, it brings VVS level clarity. I pray that for him and also for a follow up to Heavy. Complex and #GoodBook 8 of 42.

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