In Heavy: An American Memoir, Kiese Laymon investigates the intersectionality of male privilege alongside his oppression by writing an open letter to his mother, a professional academic who beat and abused him — and loved him. He outlines his unpredictable relationships with women, his mother included, and his body, in its Blackness and weight. Laymon considers the impact of American culture (fixated on progress yet reluctant to atone for its brutal history) on his encounters with abuse and his resulting feelings of shame and worthlessness.
Heavy is energized with authenticity and vulnerability. Laymon writes his memoir to his mother: “you,” a single mother working to educate herself and her child in a world that doesn’t view either of them as human beings. This direct address is not a new approach in memoir — it’s been done by James Baldwin, Ta Nehisi Coates, and Ocean Vuong, to name a few authors. This device is a necessary vehicle for telling this story, however, because Laymon’s mother assigned him essays to write, when he was in trouble, when he was grappling with something difficult, when she wanted to influence his behavior.
In his book, not only is Laymon wrestling with his Blackness and heavy body, but he’s also struggling to make sense of being abused by a woman who loved him, a woman he loves too. To save him from the judgment of the white gaze, his mother beat him. She was misguided and angry from her own trauma as a Black woman, but her efforts were intended to protect him. She was mothering him with her abuse.
This book spoke to me in a way I never expected it to. I am not Black, nor am I a man, but I have fluctuated my entire life between being “technically not overweight” to “technically overweight.” Mine is not the ideal body, and I credit that mostly to learning poor eating habits as a child and adolescent, to being unable to afford healthier options. I related to the way he spoke about his body, to the efforts he made to take up less space. What’s more, I felt his cognitive dissonance surrounding his relationship with his mom. My biggest fear in life is turning out like my mother — growing her obese body, living in my car like her, exuding her shame — and I love her. And hers is the only approval that truly matters to me. Reconciling this ambivalence is both Laymon’s mission and mine.