In Kiese’s Laymon’s powerful work, Heavy: An American Memoir, there is a voice that goes unnamed. This pervasive voice exists in more than an authorial sense. It’s an antagonist, a driving force whose intimate, often insidious dialogue with Laymon steers his actions. Some might suggest this entity isn’t a character in its own right, but rather the collective voice of the author’s lifelong influencers; a mixtape sampled from the constant commentary of childhood schoolmates and teachers, white kids and adults, coaches, relatives, love interests, abusers and friends. Having lived for years in the manipulative grasp of an eating disorder, I would suggest that throughout Heavy, particularly in the college years, Kiese is in dialogue with his anorexic voice— a non-stop narrator with an internal identity all its own. As the memoir takes us on a journey into the vortex of disease, it becomes evident that Laymon’s relationship with his anorexic voice was, and perhaps still is, as nuanced and real as anyone else in his life.
Heavy is written as a letter to Laymon’s mother. Using second person, the reader is introduced to his mother as “you.” We also meet Grandmamma and a number of other influential individuals. Early on, it’s clear the young Kiese hates a lot about his body. His thighs aren’t “muscly enough,” for example. The relationship and repulsion is more than physical. He senses losing his body to “an emergency,” he is “too terrified to identify.” From childhood, Kiese finds ways to numb his feelings and erase painful thoughts. Still, some things cannot be pushed aside. The early whispers of his voice are too powerful. The lure of a scale is irresistible. He will later turn to the scale as a mechanism for both weight and mind control, a numeric-nemesis of sorts. In response to his parent’s divorce, a psychiatrist suggests exercise, along with controlled carbs and sugar, as a way to improve the relationship between Kiese and his mother. When his mother tells him to get his “fat ass” out of the car, it stings. “I didn’t think you saw it,” he admits. But it’s not until Coach Gee ridicules Laymon in the high school locker room that the anorexic voice is truly triggered. “For the first time in my life, I thought about the sweat and fat between my thighs, the new stretch marks streaking toward my nipples. I felt fat before. I felt husky every day of my life. I’d never felt what I felt in that St. Richard bathroom.” It should be noted that for males, sports and their emphasis on the athletic body are often triggers for anorexic and/or bulimic behaviors. This is not too dissimilar from early pre-Karen Carpenter understandings of anorexia as a dancer’s disease due to its popularity with body-conscious, perfectionistic ballet dancers.
In spite of a seismic shift that moves the protagonist from overweight to overwhelmed, Laymon is able to stand his ground and “bend”—a coping mechanism his mother modeled. “I was learning from you how to make anything, regardless the size or shape, bend,” Kiese writes, sharing how he compressed his body – breasts, love handles, stomach, into a t-shirt far too tight for his XL body. Soon after this locker room incident, during which shame soaked into the young boy’s body like a sponge, Kiese has his second doctor visit ever. The good-news-bad-news reporting of the doctor’s diagnosis pits the satisfaction of weight loss against the severity of a heart murmur. “I loved the sound of the word murmur and I loved that I was coming back to Mississippi with a murmur, a smaller body, and a new relationship to writing, revision, memory and you.” Pivotal moments filled with promise, referred to as “a new relationship” or turning a page, surface several times over the course of the memoir. Laden with expectations, these transitions are often short lived. These are mother son moments, but there’s also a powerful page-turning moment that transforms Kiese’s relationship with his voice. It’s triggered by a single sentence from James Baldwin’s Nobody Knows My Name: “Any real change implies the break-up of the world as one has always known it, the loss of all that gave one an identity, the end of safety.” Kiese remembers taking those words in as if “the sentence was written to me” and, in that moment, an existential reckoning begins. “I thought about the safety I found in eating too much, eating too late, eating to run away from memory,” Laymon shares.
“I stopped eating red meat, then pork, then chicken, then fish. I stopped eating eggs, then bread, then anything with refined sugar. I started running at night. I added three hundred push-ups a day. Then three hundred sit ups. I began the summer weighing 309 pounds. In two weeks, I was 289. In a month, I was 279. In two months, I was 255. By the end of the summer, I was 225 pounds. I jogged three miles before bed, and three miles in the morning. I ate one meal of ramen noodles every other day.”
From this moment on, Kiese feels most in control even as the reader understands he is spiraling out of control. What we are not seeing or hearing is the inner voice that is goading him on. While not aware of it, Kiese may also be mirroring his mother’s way of coping with her own addictive demons. “I think part of me feels most calm during those really quick destructive storms,” she had told him. The reader senses that Kiese’s destructive storm, like his mother’s, will be far from quick.
After doing so much damage to his body, there does come a point when it can no longer sustain Kiese’s voice-driven demands for exercise and restricted eating routines. Instead of seeking out help, Laymon seeks out a substitute. When his body “…would not let me push it hard or far enough, it fell in love with the attention of tired casino dealers who pitied, prodded and resented. Always in that order.” This transfer of love seems to serve as a means of maintaining vestiges of the voice. Like the dealer, the voice manipulates through pitying, prodding and resenting—also in that order—only adding praising to set the whole cycle in motion.
In the award winning Audible version of Heavy, read by the author, I am almost certain I detected a tone that suggested Laymon is either nostalgic for his anorexic voice, or still in contact with it. In response to his Uncle Jimmy, who insists that he’s “eating like a white girl,” Kiese responds, “I just love losing weight. That’s really all it is. I just love losing weight.” I listened to Laymon’s reading and was struck by the voice’s staying power. It was as if it still lived somewhere in Laymon’s muscle memory. Or perhaps I’m projecting. My own anorexic voice was my best friend and my worst enemy for decades and, while muted, I’m convinced it lingers still. But I’m a white woman. The kind of white woman associated with dieting, perfectionism, and anorexic and bulimic behaviors. A white woman who never got asked if I was a “dope fiend” or a “diabetic” when I “gleefully” passed out in a department store, just as Kiese does at a supermarket checkout line. Gleeful is how Laymon characterizes fainting. It is just one of the many positive descriptions he chooses for pain—pleasurable descriptions that an anorexic voice will ultimately validate as it cheers on the body and the mind possessed. “My penis shines more since I have less layers,” is one of Laymon’s most confident, albeit intimate, voice-induced moments. It’s just one poignant example of the many ways magical thinking distorts reality or, perhaps, becomes reality.
Heavy isn’t about anorexia, but it’s not not about anorexia. It’s about revision and revised relationships. It’s also about lies, all of which, at the end of the day, are part and parcel of the anorexic experience. This is a disease of restriction, denial, deception. By the time Kiese realizes “misdirection was fun, but…also exhausting,” the reader recognizes that Kiese is fighting an on-going internal battle, part of which we are privy to and part of which we are not. There is an intriguing parallel between the disciplined nature of revision and the all-consuming desire to revise one’s body. “Whenever I looked at myself in the mirror,” writes Laymon, “I still saw a 319-pound fat black boy from Jackson. When I touched myself or saw how much I weighed or my percentage of body fat, I knew I’d created a body. I knew I’d made a body disappear.” Laymon also viewed his control over a changing body in the same light as his control over tenses in a piece of writing. “The heaviest version of my body was past tense. My current body was present tense. There was no limit to how light I could be, and I knew I needed to live in the future.” When his body does hit its limit, when it is unable to stand, he writes “the tenses in my body were colliding.” Still, his voice refuses to admit defeat, and magical thinking is on full blast.
“The following day was the first day in 2,564 days I didn’t run at least six miles. I hopped myself over to my scale. I weighed 163 pounds. I tried to burn calories by hopping a mile on my right foot, but just holding my left leg off the ground was unbearable. I didn’t know how I could sweat enough to get me back below 160 if I could not walk…I lay on the floor of that tiny apartment listening to tenses in my body.”
It is quite likely he also was on that floor battling a voice in his head.
In interviews conducted since the memoir’s launch, Laymon has acknowledged that his anorexic impulses are not behind him, that there are days he still sees not eating as a badge of honor. In a recent Guardian interview, he has also questioned why eating disorders, the most deadly of psychiatric diagnoses, “aren’t flagged up for all people in the same way.” Studies support his observation, confirming that professionals often fail to ask black men and women about eating disorder symptoms in spite of weight concerns. There is still not enough known about why the anorexic voice will take root in some individuals and not in others. It is clear that this voice doesn’t focus on gender, race or socio-economic status. It seems to care more about an individual’s vulnerability, their self-esteem or even chemical imbalances. Still, cultural aspects do have an impact on the anorexic journey for Black and Brown men and women. More culturally specific research needs to be prioritized. For those with eating disorders, just knowing that there really is an anorexic voice can be helpful. Knowing that they can separate themselves from, or even confront their voice, is a potential step toward healing. For their families, who learn to walk on egg shells, it is also critical to understand the role of this voice, how it calls the shots, how it masquerades as control and will power, all the while attacking their loved ones from within. “I’m interested in why we can see disordered eating in white women, but not other people,” Laymon states in the aforementioned Guardian interview. By sharing his truth in Heavy, Laymon not only opens our eyes to a Black male anorexic experience, but he opens our hearts. We can’t listen until we can love. Heavy attunes our ears to a voice that thrives on secrecy and lies. Kiese Laymon didn’t want to write a lie. He stood up to his voice, speaking truth to power, so Black men and others might stand a chance as well.
Rochelle Newman-Carrasco credits her NYC Lower East Side roots with her love of culture, humor, and language. She holds a BFA in Theater from UC Irvine and an MFA from Antioch, Los Angeles with an emphasis in CNF and Literary Translation. Her essays have been published in Off Assignment, Lilith, Lunch Ticket, Role Reboot, NAILED, and others. She is the co-author of ZigZag, a recently published bilingual children’s book. Her memoir-in-progress, which explores anorexia and workaholism, was inspired by HipBones and Cool Whip, a solo show she wrote and performed.