Kiese Laymon’s Memoir Heavy Examines Trauma, Race, Addiction, and Memory

In what is called “a memoir that can scald your heart,” Kiese Laymon weaves a gorgeous and must-read narrative that illuminates the complex relationships between trauma, race, memory, and addiction in the lives of African-Americans.

Laymon was raised by a mother who was herself in an abusive relationship and struggling to ward off poverty in Mississippi. He writes with moving sensitivity, nuance, and compassion about how while she beat him throughout his childhood, she herself was taking beatings “from life, from our town, from her partner.” Through his writing, Laymon illuminates the complexity of love, violence, and trauma, exploring how his family and childhood was impacted in numerous ways by structural inequality and racism.

In order to cope, Laymon turned to food, veering between extremes of starvation and bingeing. As he notes, “…The layers of particular kinds of abuse, be they personal and structural, I think led to me eating way more than I should have. I was a very, very big kid. Luckily, I was a big, athletic kid, so I didn’t have to deal with a lot of the bullying that a lot of other big kids had to deal with. And I definitely didn’t have to deal with the bullying that a lot of really big women had to deal with. But I just ate. I ate. I ate as a way of hiding. And then eventually, I started to starve as a way of attempting to hide and attempting to disappear.”

He writes clearly and powerfully about how his struggles with food, weight, and body images morphed into a gambling addiction, one that he shared with his mother: “I think there’s a shame when we show people and tell people that the money that we are able to make we aren’t able to keep – right? – and especially if it’s tied to a kind of, like, mental illness. So I started to understand halfway through my gambling addiction that I wasn’t going to the casino to win, though I told myself that’s exactly what I was going to do. I was going to creatively lose as much as possible.”

There is no neat and tidy recovery narrative. For Laymon and for Black men in America, trauma is ongoing and persistent. Laymon’s hope lies in the written word and the power of speaking the truth about what one has known, a form of “freeing Black memory:” “I realized telling the truth was way different from finding the truth, and finding the truth had everything to do with revisiting and rearranging words. Revisiting and rearranging words … required will, and maybe courage. Revised word patterns were revised thought patterns. Revised thought patterns shaped memory…. I just had to rearrange, add, subtract, sit, and sift until I found a way to free the memory.”

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