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Heavy: An American Memoir [Book Review]

Summary

Heavy: An American Memoir by Kiese Laymon provides an in-depth and personal discussion of a variety of topics but primarily focuses on racism, sexism, and identity. Written in the second person as a letter to his mother Laymon looks back over his life as a Black boy growing up in Mississippi. As he shares his experiences and those of the people around him, he explores how burying our pain and hiding from difficult conversations does us as a community and America at large a great disservice.

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Let me just say that having lost my grandma a few years ago I love Laymon’s relationship with his grandmother and their conversations. Conversations that might be awkward or uncomfortable for most people flow naturally between these two. His grandmother is incredibly honest and open with him, sharing her experiences and perspective. 

Grandmama is open about the abuse and harassment she has suffered during her lifetime. I understood her message about not allowing the way other people viewed or treated her to break her spirit or have an impact on the way she views herself. On the one hand, it seems like a plausible way to cope with a difficult situation. But at the same time not dealing with that trauma seems like it’s not a good long-term solution. 

There’s an underlying theme throughout the book of the damage caused by secrets and buried pain. And that many people are uncomfortable talking about these painful or difficult topics. Instead, they prefer to ignore or bury the truth and more readily accept lies. So often we discuss the resilience of Black people, the history of facing trauma and abuse in the world but still being able to survive. 

Laymon explains that he’s been taught by the males in his life that it’s okay to mistreat black girls because they’re black and will be fine regardless of whatever they endure. This misogynistic ideology is incredibly problematic as it plays into the trope of the “strong black woman”. To be specific it fits the description of misogynoir. The idea that black women have historically endured a lot and can be burdened with further mistreatment because we can take it. It falls in line with the saying that “hurt people hurt people”. But at what point do we stop simply shrugging our shoulders and ask the important questions and do the work to fully heal?

Young men and Jackson get major props for running trains on girls or joining a gang. Dangerous and dysfunctional behavior is not just normalized but improves a young man’s social standing. Laymon and the boys with whom he grows up learn from a young age that it’s ok to cause harm to others to elevate your position or feel better about yourself. 

Through these experiences, Laymon learns that people are willing to harm those who are unlike them especially if the victim is disadvantaged or has less power in society. Thus perpetrators harm others simply because they can. He observes that there’s a lot of emphasis placed on what needs to be done to keep black boys safe in Mississippi but there’s no similar discussion or effort put into keeping black girls safe. 

He explores the topics of racism, sexism, and the intersection of misogynoir. Providing examples from his childhood shows how some behaviors of Black males towards Black females are excused and even expected. While the same behavior would be unacceptable if coming from white males.

Laymon both witnesses and experiences sexual abuse at a young age. Sex, secrecy, and violence intermingle because his early experiences are unhealthy and inappropriate. When those factors combine with his desperation for attention and affection it leaves Laymon willing to accept whatever he can get even in the form of abuse.

He rejects what he learns when young men gather in groups and also when groups gather where men have automatically been deemed the leader. Laymon explains that his dislike of the church is a result of women being the driving force of the congregation but being pushed aside and silenced by the male leaders of the church. Instead, he prefers the informal meetings held at the homes of his grandmother and her friends. In this informal environment, there is a greater focus on loving and supporting each other rather than jockeying for position.

There is a related theme throughout the book about who we aspire to be, who others aspire to be, and what those aspirations mean for who we are versus how we wish to be seen.

As an educator, Laymon’s mother places a very high value on education. She believes it can be a saving grace, delivering him from poverty and also protecting him from hostile agents of a racist society. As a result of encouragement from his mother and good academic performance, Laymon leaves his local school to attend a prestigious private school. 

He arrives at the school with a few classmates from his local school and having different experiences and aspirations, they all adapt differently to the school. The school is predominantly White and one of Laymon’s old classmates, Jabari, desperately wants to fit in and seemingly has the easiest time making the transition. Jabari hopes to one day live like the White people at his school and sees the environment as a training ground of sorts. 

But he doesn’t realize that these people whose acceptance he so desperately wants, think and speak negatively about him. They see his external factors and pass judgment but don’t fully understand him or his situation. Kids can be mean and insensitive but having teachers hold such negative views of a student should cause discomfort. Teachers are responsible for educating children which can have a tremendous impact on their future. Having a teacher regard a student in terms that would be mean-spirited coming from a child is problematic.

Laymon’s mother believes that him using proper spoken English and grammar will serve him well and possibly save his life. Yet, Laymon’s mother struggles financially despite being very educated. She sees all of the danger that could thwart Laymon but seems blind or at least less concerned with the problems that are present in her life. We don’t get as much insight into her backstory so it’s unclear if her reasoning is a matter of being male-identified, delusional, idealistic, or a combination of all those things.

“America seems filled with violent people who like causing people pain but hate when those people tell them that pain hurts.”

Laymon spoke a word with that sentence. It speaks to the history in America of Black people and Black women, in particular, suffering at the hands of society. Then being told to not complain about the pain. To bury those hurts and move on without expressing our feelings. To be victimized by the actions of another person only to have them then try to force you to remain silent. Or to have them tell you that your feelings are not valid or are not an acceptable topic of conversation.

On a more personal level, Laymon experiences this and analyzes the hurt people around him who have been victimized. They have all been pressured into keeping their victimization a secret. This helps their abuser avoid having to deal with the consequences of their actions being discussed in the open. They demand silence because it gives them the ability to be as heinous as they desire while still maintaining whatever false identity they want to present to others. 

I liked Grandmama’s perspective that the focus shouldn’t be on making those who oppress you empathize with or feel your pain but rather not allowing them to dictate what or how you should feel. Grandmama disciplines Laymon but doesn’t beat him as his mother does. Her goal is to teach him right from wrong but not to brutalize or harm him. I think that poses some pretty deep questions about corporal punishment. 

It’s not my place to tell anyone how to raise their kids. But I don’t understand the ideology of beating your kids within an inch of their life with the supposed goal of keeping them safe from danger. Your parents and the home they provide should be a haven in the world. Some parents confuse discipline with abuse and turn themselves into the very monsters they claim to want to protect their children from. 

In general, most teens are insecure as during that time in life people are navigating their way to adulthood and figuring out their identity. Laymon is especially insecure because he is overweight which has made him uncomfortable with his body. He yearns for attention and affection from the opposite sex but feels unattractive. So he’s overjoyed when a classmate, Abby, takes a romantic interest in him. 

But the situation is complicated to a degree by her being White, them living in Mississippi, and all the historical and present implications of those factors. Wanting to be loved and touched by a female, any female who is not a family member, he welcomes her interest. But he hides the relationship from his mother fearing that she might read too deeply into things and deem him a sellout.

All hell breaks loose when Laymon’s mom and Abby’s parents inevitably learn about the relationship. Laymon’s mom challenges him to think about what attracts him and Abby to each other and what they’re getting from the relationship. At first glance, the relationship seems to be a simple instance of teenage puppy love. But analyzing Laymon and Abby’s true motivations puts the relationship in a different light which shows its true nature as being dysfunctional. 

There’s a lot of discussion about survival in the sense of enduring hardships and then trying to overcome the consequences or deal with the aftermath. With regard to both race and gender this is an exploration of how Black people in general and Black women, in particular, are regarded as having a superhuman ability to survive regardless of how bad things get or how much they might have to endure. 

But it also raises a question about the accuracy of this description. Abusing others and causing hardships in their lives and then turning around and applauding them for their strength to endure is a manipulation to excuse and rationalize the continued abuse. It promotes the idea that they are unlike other people and are fully capable of handling whatever is thrown at them. It strips the victim of their humanity by creating the falsehood that they have superhuman strength. It absolves the abuser from accepting full accountability for their actions and the impact of their abuse by claiming that it doesn’t hurt the victim. 

As Laymon gets older and moves from being a teen to a young adult he begins to run up against the increased difficulty of being a Black young man existing in and trying to navigate predominantly White spaces. He pushes back against teachers and fellow students who view him through the lens of negative assumptions and stereotypes of Black people. But there is a great deal of pressure and discomfort in trying to not be another stereotype while at the same time not allowing classmates and professors to delve too deeply into who he truly is. 

Being pushed by his mother from a young age to read and write to better understand and express himself Laymon gets into the practice of constantly writing and editing his thoughts and observations. He is smart but by the time he gets to college a lot is weighing on him and he shows signs of being depressed and overburdened. Yet he’s highly motivated and is a diligent student in his Introduction to Women’s Studies class. The course’s content resonates with him as he relates to the topics that are discussed. It opens up new avenues for him to sort out the dysfunction that he saw and experienced during his childhood.

Laymon was overweight from a very young age as a result of unhealthy eating habits. He eats to comfort himself when he’s unhappy. But it’s not just a matter of when he eats but also the amount and quality of the food. He consumes large amounts of food items that are not meant to be eaten as standalone meals or anything but small quantities. For much of his childhood, his mother struggles to make ends meet so usually there’s not much food in the house and certainly not healthy food options. There’s a certain emptiness that he seems to be trying to fill with food. Not just the amount of food that he’s eating but the very act of eating given that food is so scarce within their house.

As a young adult Laymon decides that he no longer wants to be overweight. Instead of continuing to be unhappy and insecure with his size, he begins to do the work needed to lose weight. At first, I applauded him for taking action and going after the thing that he wants in life. But it became clear that his problem wasn’t just with food but was actually at a deeper level. 

I don’t know what the exact term would be but it just seemed to be an overall obsessiveness with whatever preoccupies him at the time. He goes from overeating to severely underfeeding and over-exercising his body. He goes from one extreme to the other, overeating and being very overweight to starving himself and being underweight. He reaches his weight loss goal but without doing the work needed to deal with the problems that were causing him to overeat he carries them with him on his weight loss journey. 

He loses weight, decreases his body fat, and sculpts an entirely new body for himself. But he still feels and sees himself as the overweight boy he had been as a child and teenager. The hurt he experienced while living in an overweight body is still with him. He loses weight but his body is still unhealthy because he is emotionally unhealthy.

Throughout much of the book, Laymon’s mom looms large. And given the unfortunate reality that so many people within our community grow up without fathers, I didn’t spend a lot of time thinking about where his father was. So it was interesting to learn about his parents’ relationship and his relationship with his father. 

At one point Laymon thinks back to the boys he grew up with and the fact that while his father didn’t live with him most of the other boys had a Black father in their home. And most of the fathers who were in the home taught their sons how to be tough. But few taught their sons how to handle and express their emotions at all, let alone in a healthy manner. He doesn’t lament not having his father in the home as he feels his presence would not have made him a better or more loving man. 

So often society points to the lack of Black fathers in the lives of their children as being the reason there are so many problems in the Black community, especially with regards to males. I don’t think that’s untrue but rather not that simple. Laymon’s mother is in the home and has emotional issues of her own which affect her relationship with him and thus how he feels about himself and interacts with others. The reality is that regardless of the specific makeup of a household it’s incredibly important that the parents and adults who surround children as they develop are emotionally healthy and stable so they can teach the children to be emotionally healthy and stable.

Having experienced hardships with regards to food insecurity and money troubles, Laymon is very worried about those things from a young age. As we get older and learn more about his mother it becomes clear that many of the problems in his life are not necessarily his mother’s fault but rather learned behaviors and coping mechanisms that he has learned in part from her and the people around them. It’s a bit unclear or at least I don’t remember the details of his mother’s relationship with food. But it becomes obvious that while his mom might not have been earning a lot of money, she might have also been mismanaging the little she had. 

It’s interesting to see how he comes to understand these things and how best to deal with them. Like any other form of addiction, these are problems that will require lifelong management and vigilance. And while Layman doesn’t have everything completely figured out I enjoyed and cheered him on he worked out identifying what needed to be fixed, exploring the root cause of his problems, and making an honest effort to deal with them.

Throughout the book, there are these two opposing perspectives on the best method of survival. One proposed solution is to close yourself off and not give your abuser the satisfaction of knowing how much they’ve hurt you. The opposing strategy is to open yourself up by acknowledging and discussing how someone has hurt you to get them to understand your pain. But I think Laymon settles on a happy medium between the two where a person honestly and openly speaks out about the wrongs that have been committed against them. Not with the goal of the abuser acknowledging or apologizing for the wrongs they’ve committed. But rather to give voice to their experience and refuse to allow the abuser to silence them or dictate their feelings. 

Heavy is an incredibly difficult book to read but not in terms of the language or writing style. I had a hard time reading about the violence and dysfunction that Laymon witnesses and experiences. My heart broke for him and the other people in the story. But I agree that it’s important to learn about and discuss these difficult topics and to have people dig deep and share their experiences. We all carry our own hurts, pains, and disappointments. Maybe if we all explored and shared these things instead of hiding or avoiding them we’d not only be able to resolve our own issues but might be more compassionate and less willing to harm others.

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