Kiese Laymon’s Heavy provides a searing reminder of how all of us are harmed by the violence, racism, and toxic masculinity upon which the United States is built. The book’s subtitle, An American Memoir, is apt: Sharing stories from his own life, Laymon is able to convey major truths about how this country functions and the casualties it creates.
“America seems filled with violent people who like causing people pain but hate when those people tell them that pain hurts,” he reflects. Heavy is a book unlike any I had read before, both in its revelations and Laymon’s evocative, enjoyable prose.
Centered on Laymon’s home state of Mississippi and his relationships with himself and his loved ones, Heavy delves into themes of bodies, weight, race, racism, sexual violence, physical abuse, and intergenerational trauma. The memoir invites us to grapple with how we as members of U.S. society have internalized the values upholding this country’s social hierarchy, and how that internalization can spur us to harm others, especially those we love. Importantly, Heavy also pushes us to think about how we harm ourselves as we consume and reproduce American culture.
Heavy opens by complicating dominant notions of the causes of American suffering. Much of the book is narrated through Laymon’s interactions with his mom and grandma, two Southern Black women who raised him and developed his consciousness. While he is awed by their strength and grateful for their love, Laymon also investigates how his matriarchs have internalized and perpetuated some of the violence and apathy they inherited as Americans. In so doing, he demonstrates that harm inflicted on an individual by American society does not necessarily translate to the will to do the deep internal work to reject its core values.
Sex. Abortion. Parenthood. Power.
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In the opening chapter, Laymon recalls a difficult conversation in which he tried to get his grandmother to reflect on her trauma from growing up in the Jim Crow South and the sexual abuse she experienced at the hands of white and Black men.
“This summer, it took one final conversation with Grandmama for me to understand that no one in our family—and very few folk in this nation—has any desire to reckon with the weight of where we’ve been, which means no one in our family—and very few folk in this nation—wants to be free,” he states.
Laymon shows how the violence at the core of U.S. society can permeate all our interactions, if we let it. Instead of focusing on the broad structures that uphold white supremacist patriarchy, Laymon is able to show how these systems infiltrate our ways of seeing ourselves and being in the world. He recounts how, as he starved himself and pushed his body past its breaking point, his colleagues and loved ones responded with admiration for how he made his body conform to norms of what successful people look like. All they saw was a successful young Black man who made it from the South to be a professor at one of the nation’s elite East Coast institutions. Through his memories, Laymon shows readers some of the ways in which marginalized populations are not exempt from America’s harmful ideology:
I wanted the book to begin and end with the assumption that if white Americans reckoned with their insatiable appetites for black American suffering, and we reckoned with our insatiable appetites for unhealthy food, we could all be ushered into a reformed era of American prosperity .… I wanted to write a lie.
Heavy focuses on Laymon’s own experiences with Blackness and masculinity and challenges readers to rethink what those identities mean. White readers can take inspiration to examine how white supremacy and patriarchy inform how we operate in the world—not only in more obvious iterations through being racist or being beneficiaries of unjust spoils—but how we actually dehumanize ourselves and those we care about most using these logics consciously or unconsciously.
One of Heavy’s major themes is lying. “Our dishonesty, cowardice and misplaced self-righteousness, far more than how much, or how little we weigh, is part of why we are suffering. In this way, and far too many others, we are studious children of this nation,” he states.
For Laymon, telling lies was a tool for objectifying himself to fit into a picture of “success” in American society, and for controlling and manipulating others, especially women. Much of the dishonesty in the book is shown through Laymon’s complex relationship with his mother, a professor who instilled in him the skills to be a pathbreaking writer and to love and mentor Black students in Mississippi, but also beat him severely throughout his childhood and manipulated him into handing over large portions of his income to fuel her gambling addiction. In turn, Laymon also manipulated and lied to his mother and other women who were central to his life.
Talking about his mother, Laymon writes:
Every time I lied, I wanted to control you, control your memory of us, control your vision of me. I was afraid to talk about being emotionally abusive, about gorging, about starving, about gambling all my money away, about wanting to disappear .… I didn’t think there was any way you could love me if I really showed you more of who, and what, and where I’d been. So I did what we do. I told you the truth about white folks’ treatment of me without being honest about how I treated myself and others close to me while surviving that treatment.
Much of Laymon’s self-examination is shown through his relationship with his body. The book is punctuated by measurements—how much Laymon weighed and his percentage of body fat at different points in his life. Through narrating his body’s journey from its heaviest weight to its lightest and back again, he provides insight into how obsession with thinness and being “in shape” are rarely connected to well-being. Our consumerist culture pathologizes those who are heavier but assumes thin or buff individuals are happy and healthy. Laymon demonstrates that our bodies don’t always reflect internal health, and that many thin people also have troubled relationships with food, exercise, and self-esteem.
Before Heavy, I don’t recall reading a book where a cis man was so honest about the pervasiveness of misogyny and rape culture, and how these hurt men in addition to women and nonbinary people. His deep consideration of the issue contrasts with many men’s lip-service accounts of being feminists. Heavy reveals how rape culture is reproduced through men’s silences as well as the lessons men and women teach one another implicitly or explicitly. “I never heard the words ‘sexual violence’ or ‘violent sex’ or ‘sexual abuse’ from one family member, one teacher, or one preacher but my body knew sexual violence and violent sex were as wrong as anything police or white folk could do to us,” he states.
In the wake of the rise of the #MeToo movement, many men have claimed to be surprised by the extent to which women are affected by rape culture. In Heavy, Laymon describes witnessing a coercive sexual encounter at the age of 12 between a 15-year-old girl and older teenage boys, along with his own sexual abuse and that of the women in his family.
He reveals that boys and men do know about the pervasiveness of sexual violence and make a choice to participate in it or do nothing about it. When talking about Layla, his friend who was pressured into having sex with older boys so she could swim in their pool, Laymon writes, “I was taught by big boys who were taught by big boys who were taught by big boys that black girls would be okay no matter what we did to them .… I stood there wondering why the shallow grunts and minisqeaks coming from the boys in Daryl’s room made me want to be dead.” Laymon also includes the fact that he didn’t confront the boys about their actions or take steps to make sure Layla got the support she needed, but rather went home and waited for his mom.
Through being honest about some of the ways he hurt women, Laymon exposes the subtler harms of toxic masculinity. This is revealed through his internal response when a girl he had a crush on in high school shared with him her experiences of sexual abuse:
The night Kamala Lackey told me her secrets, I promised I’d never sexually violate or sexually abuse any woman or girl on earth. The existence of that promise was enough to excuse myself for lying to Abby Claremont and any other girl who wanted to have sex with me. I was sixteen years old. I’d become something far more violent than a Hulk. I was a liar, a cheater, a manipulator, a fat, happysad, bald-headed black boy with a heart murmur, and according to you and the white girl I lied to every day, I was a good dude.
Heavy does not provide clear-cut answers or the satisfying resolution I wanted. My own hope for a happy ending may speak to the unrealistic fairy tales that our societal narratives tell us are just around the corner, despite all the devastating factors that Laymon unmasks as undermining health and happiness for most Americans.
Rather than extending the false promise of the American Dream, what Heavy offers is a vulnerable narrative that exposes realities many people would rather not share with those closest to them, let alone the general public. It is
a brave and beautiful account that dares readers to think about how to recognize and reduce the small, everyday violences that are our national inheritance, and hopefully how we can become more human in the process.