“A memoir,” Isabelle Allende once wrote, “is an invitation into someone else’s privacy.” The personal reflections of Saeed Jones in How We Fight For Our Lives thrust the reader into the author’s inner psyche as a black adolescent growing up gay in 1990’s Texas. As Jones moves from his earliest memories through secondary school and college, his chronic anxiety is palpable, almost as if we can feel his anxious heart pulsate through the words on the page. Jones lays out his daily conflicts with family members, friends, and other classmates, and one can’t help but feel the sense of dread Jones must have felt awaking every morning trying to hide his true self from those who know him best.
Just as some cultures have a hundred words for “snow,” there should be a hundred words in our language for all the ways a black boy can lie awake at night.Saeed Jones – How We Fight For Our Lives
The suppression of his sexuality remains a black cloud above every conversation, interaction, and decision the younger Jones makes. He is decidedly aware of the rampant homophobia prevalent in 1980’s Texas and he notes the available literature on the subject of homosexuality seemed to want to scare him straight, writing that books and pamphlets equated gayness to contracting AIDS. He began to feel as if the simple thought of desiring men was akin to attracting the disease as if it were “a logical sequence of events, a mathematical formula, or a life cycle” he was fated to experience. Still, Jones found comfort in other literature like James Baldwin’s Another Country, a story “sad, sexy, and reeking of jazz, the story had it’s arm around my waist. I could walk right into the scene, take off my clothes, and join one of the couples in bed.”
These conflicted feelings contributed to complicated relationships with his family, especially his disapproving grandmother and less-judgmental but still concerned mother.* Thus began a familiar dance – Jones attempting to hide all he could from his family, and his family attempting to “correct” his deviant behavior or simply ignoring it. The inability to reconcile his worlds leads Jones to go dark, launching him into an often ruthless journey of sexual and existential self-discovery throughout his junior and senior years of high school and following years in college at Western Kentucky University.
He is unapologetically frank in the memoir of his sexual encounters throughout these years, yet the true takeaway from each encounter is not in the specifics of each fling or romance but in how these moments influenced Jones’s sense of self. These are not always positive moments, and they highlight the often miserly path those without a certain identity face in looking to claim their niche in a an intolerant environment. To try and discover hisself, he remembers using his body sometimes as a vehicle for a forgotten soul looking for love, or as a weapon against the world, or a key to unlock pleasures in others, often unleashing a cycle of self-loathing and hatred.
A tale of self-reflection – what happens when the only people we can identify with are besmirched, hunted, or killed – Jones’s gift is putting his anguish into words, allowing his reader to understand his struggle even if the reader would otherwise be ill-equipped to comprehend his story. Although the memoir does not have as much time for self-reflection as many feel memoirs should (Jones is only 33-years-old) they tell an important story nonetheless, a story that is better served when the wounds are fresh rather than scarred over. In writing this memoir, Jones allows the reader to not only examine the influences on Jones’s life, but also forces them to reflect upon the incidents that shape their own.