In ‘Heavy,’ Kiese Laymon Recalls the Weight of Where He’s Been

Posted October 31, 2018 7:37 p.m. EDT

Kiese Laymon started his new memoir, “Heavy,” with every intention of writing what his mother would have wanted — something profoundly uplifting and profoundly dishonest, something that did “that old black work of pandering” to American myths and white people’s expectations. His mother, a professor of political science, taught him that you need to lie as a matter of course and, ultimately, to survive; honesty could get a black boy growing up in Jackson, Mississippi, not just hurt, but killed. He wanted to do what she wanted. But then he didn’t.

“Heavy” is a gorgeous, gutting book that’s fueled by candor yet freighted with ambivalence. It’s full of devotion and betrayal, euphoria and anguish, tender embraces and rough abuse. Laymon addresses himself to his mother, a “you” who appears in these pages as a brilliant, overwhelmed woman starting her academic career while raising a son on her own. She gave her only child daily writing assignments — less, it seems, to encourage his sense of discovery and curiosity than to inculcate him with the “excellence, education and accountability” that were the “requirements” for keeping him safe.

"You made me read more books and write more words in response to those books than any of my friends’ parents,” he writes, “but nothing I’d ever read prepared me to write or talk about my memory of sex, sound, space, violence and fear.”

Still, just as language can cordon off meaning, it can also open up new possibilities. Reading the words in his notebook, Laymon knew something was there, waiting for him to uncover it: “I just had to rearrange, add, subtract, sit and sift until I found a way to free the memory.” And eventually free himself, too, though the liberation on offer doesn’t feel light and unburdened; it feels heavy like the title, and heavy like the truth.

Laymon’s mother loves him, and he loves her. She also beat him regularly “for not being perfect,” wielding belts, shoes, fists and clothes hangers. When he briefly attended a majority-white school in eighth grade, the whippings took on an added layer of humiliation — not so much his, but hers. “I knew you didn’t want white folk to judge you if I came to school with visible welts,” he says, so she would make a ruin of his back and his thighs, where nobody could see. To save him from the judgment of white people, she beat him; to save herself from the judgment of white people, she hid the beating. Even as a child, Laymon knew that none of his white classmates was getting punished because of what black people thought.

At that point, Laymon was an eighth-grader who weighed 231 pounds, eating his way through jars of peanut butter and guzzling blue cheese dressing from the bottle. He would think about “the sweat and fat between my thighs, and the new stretch marks streaking toward my nipples.” He despised his body and wanted to be desired. “Like most fat black boys,” he writes, “when flirted with, I fell in love.” His mother’s student would baby-sit him and touch him in ways that made him think she might be his first girlfriend. What he describes couldn’t be called anything other than sexual abuse, even if the confused boy who craved a girlfriend never called it that.

Laymon revisits and revises his memories, inhabiting how he felt at the time, a child in the 1980s, and comparing it to how he feels now, in middle age. “Heavy” traces his life over the years, through high school and college and graduate school. He gains weight and he loses it — starving his body down to 159 pounds — before gaining it back all over again. Food, whether too much or too little, was a way to punish himself. Money served the same function, too, as he goes from watching his mother’s addiction to the slots to acquiring a gambling problem of his own.

All the while he is observing and absorbing what is happening around him: Anita Hill and Clarence Thomas, Rodney King, the police shootings of Tamir Rice and Philando Castile. Taking the commuter train into New York City after 9/11, he stands up on behalf of a South Asian family getting some guff from a couple of guys in the car. “For the first time in my life,” Laymon recalls, “I experienced not having the most fear-provoking body in a contained American space.” But his altruism, he concedes, is muddied by his own self-regard. On the train back home, he writes, “I remember feeling sad there were no ‘Muslim-looking’ folk in my car whom I could feel good about defending.”

“Heavy” is filled with frank admissions like these — moments when Laymon realizes that his own vulnerability didn’t prevent him from exploiting the vulnerability of others. He attended a meeting with intersectional feminists, where he said nice things about the necessity of supporting black women, right after stealing from a black woman he cared about and right before lying to her on the way home. Looking back on his childhood, he recalls how the older boys he spent time with would boast about “running a train” on a 15-year-old girl (the “shallow grunts and minisqueaks” he heard coming from the bedroom made him “want to be dead”) in exchange for allowing her to swim in the deep end of the pool: “I was taught by big boys who were taught by big boys who were taught by big boys that black girls would be OK no matter what we did to them.”

Laymon describes how his grandmother, born poor and black in Jim Crow Mississippi, was “better than anyone I’d ever known at bending, breaking and building words that weren’t in the dictionary.” He envisions the same “work of bending, breaking, and building the nation we deserve,” but at the very end of “Heavy,” he feels the languid tug toward irresolution. Salvation would feel too weightless — as if he could forget who he is and where he has been. This generous, searching book explores all the forces that can stop even the most buoyant hopes from ever leaving the ground.

Production Notes:

“Heavy: An American Memoir”

By Kiese Laymon

241 pages. Scribner. $26.