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Warning: This article contains mention of sexual abuse.
Just as the whole is less than the sum of its parts, memoirs are often less a story of one individual person but rather a collection of friends, mentors, and family that shapes that person’s life.
While many may read Jesse Leon’s ‘01 memoir ‘I’m Not Broken’ as the story of one person tackling the immense adversity of his life, Leon ultimately offers a much different perspective, reminding readers to express gratitude for the impact of community support on their lives.
Growing up in a Mexican barrio in San Diego in the 1980’s, Leon describes a simple early life of helping his mom with household chores and cooking. As these interests adhered to the stereotypically female roles of a Mexican household, Leon experienced bullying from his older brother and father early on in his childhood. “I’m Not Broken” begins by following a young Leon as these problems at home coalesce with racist comments at school and ongoing sexual abuse. The result is a combination capable of breaking even the strongest of wills.
This book may be hard for readers to digest. Leon first describes the difficulty in expressing his sexuality to a father that leans heavily into a culture of machismo, frequently making fun of Leon for not demonstrating many of what he believes to be the qualities of manhood. He then reflects on his sexual assault at age twelve, explaining how a trip to buy water balloons at a local corner store turned into a chilling encounter. Leon describes the dehumanizing experience of his multiple-year involvement in a system of sexual abuse, even receiving death threats against speaking out.
It is with unfathomable courage that Leon so openly shares this experience with readers. And while Leon explains that it took him years to self-identify as a victim, the impact of the sexual violence was immediate: “Everything about me, everything about little nerdy Jesse was going to change. Never again would I let anyone see the fear or the sadness that I felt inside. From that night on, I would hide and protect that scared little boy. I resolved never to be hurt like that again.”
The first half of Leon’s memoir follows this narrative of derailment at a startlingly exponential pace, as these troubles at home coupled with racist comments at school and sexual abuse snowballed into something worse: drinking and doing drugs at school, physically fighting classmates, and lashing out at his mom.
And while most high schoolers spend their time writing their name on their college applications, Leon worked as a sex worker, losing his name and sense of self: “I played the roles I needed to play. I was Carlos, Jose, Tony, Xavier, Adrian, Robbie, Mugeul, or any other name that would come to mind…To lose my name was to lose myself…I was a sex worker — used to being objectified with no human value other than sex.”
Sixteen-year-old Leon leaned on the crutches of drugs, alcohol, and violence to live through these traumas. And there’s a sense of frustration and situational irony while reading Leon’s memoir, as so many people in Leon’s life can’t see his internal dialogue of mental illness and struggle. But finally, much to the relief of both Leon and the reader, while many seemed to normalize and overlook his behavior as that of another troubled teenager, a few people take notice — resetting Leon’s life.
A school counselor places Leon in a program to finish high school on time. A San Diego State University student looking to recruit Latino high school students introduces Leon to the possibility of a college education. A girlfriend convinces Leon to attend Narcotics Anonymous, where Leon would meet his sponsor.
With each new person in Leon’s life, the reader gains another life lesson, another pivotal piece of advice that guides Leon. And while some memoirs read as a personal reflection with little regard to an audience, it seems that Leon so openly shares these intimate moments in his life with a sense of altruism, gifting the reader these same life lessons that redirected his own life.
Out of all of the lessons and quotes from important people in Leon’s life, one of the most touching comments came from Leon’s NA sponsor. After Leon comes out to his sponsor as gay, his sponsor immediately responds, “‘I love you exactly for you who are. Remember, Jess, people who judge don’t matter, and people who matter don’t judge.’” Leon uses his writing to pay homage to the impact of these angels throughout his life, commenting on the collective power of community to shape the individual.
After writing his UC Berkeley college thesis on the HIV crisis in prisons, a mentor encouraged Leon to apply to graduate school at Harvard. It wasn’t until Leon came to Harvard, however, that he realized the bittersweet nature of becoming a success story: that when radiating personal triumph, the importance of mentors and friends can be reduced to shadows. “I learned there that being the success story comes with both a benefit and a curse,” he writes. “Sometimes people interpret my success as that of an individual who pulled himself up by his own bootstraps, as opposed to my success being the product of a network, of the efforts of many people, some of them total strangers and at different touch points in my life, who made sure I did not fail. For me, there were no bootstraps.”
By offering this quote at the end of his memoir, Leon reminds readers to think of a higher power in life that leads to these often random, yet pivotal relationships as a gift to move forward. A skim of this book will provide readers with one life story: the unbelievably rocky, yet victorious life of Jesse Leon. A deeper read, however, will reveal that dozens of important characters shaped the course of Leon’s life.
—Staff writer Sarah M. Rojas can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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