This ‘Skinny’ Boy’s Life
Former Aspenite Jonathan Wells pens a powerful memoir on weight and masculinity
267 pages, hardcover; $26
Ze Books, August 2021
As a boy, Jonathan Wells didn’t realize he was skinny until people started telling him so. He might not have thought it was a problem at all if others didn’t make it a problem.
In his new memoir, “The Skinny,” the poet and former Aspenite recounts the cruelty that his small stature inspired in both adults and kids.
It begins with a physically abusive Latin teacher at his prep school, who sits on the skinny boy to shame him for his size, and follows him overseas to boarding school and into home where his father wishes his son to be – physically and otherwise – someone other than himself.
Early on, when at age 14 he weighs just 67 pounds and his mother takes him to a doctor, Wells gets what might be the best advice in the book from the pediatrician: “You’re going to be what you’re going to be.”
He counsels that the boy is indeed skinny but there’s nothing wrong with him. If only the adults around the boy could have accepted that.
His dad still pushes the kid to drink milkshakes, to undergo exercise regimens, to take human growth hormone supplements and questions his sexuality – sending him to a prostitute to lose his virginity.
With a poet’s gift for economy, Wells’ prose is spare yet the book is lush with detail and emotional texture. And while the book is heartbreaking and infuriating, it’s not overwrought in detailing abuse and it’s not vindictive toward the abusers.
Wells steadily keeps the book’s perspective through his boyhood eyes, not pulling back to wax on about his decades of hindsight, not zooming out to the wider societal context of ‘70s masculinity or the complications of millennial masculinity. A reader of an early manuscript of the book, Wells recalled in a recent phone interview, wrote ”What did the boy feel?” on page after page, encouraging Wells to bring us inside. Wells took the advice. It’s a powerful, radically vulnerable narrative choice that keeps the reader in the young Jonathan’s head and caught up with him in the thorny expectations place on him around being a man, or in particular the expectations for an affluent white boy of the time to become a particular kind of man.
While “The Skinny” is a crucial addition to the growing literature on the topic, Wells does not directly weigh in on the current cultural conversation around toxic masculinity and shifting definitions about gender roles. The book is better for it, existing instead in the same timeless space as memoirs like Tobias Wolfe’s “This Boy’s Life” – a model for Wells, who met Wolfe here during his Aspen years – speaking to the ageless questions around coming of age and problematic father figures.
Wells worked on the book for eight years. It was rejected by a demoralizing count of 60 publishers and, Wells said, “many agents.” So the pre-publication praise for “The Skinny” has been a surprise for Wells.
“The reaction is really unexpected,” said Wells, who lived in Aspen with his wife and four children between 2002 and 2015 and was a fixture on the faculty at Aspen Summer Words and a boardmember at the Aspen Writers’ Foundation (now Aspen Words). “Really, nobody wanted this book.”
Advance plaudits came from memoirists like Bill Clegg and Aspen Words’ Adrienne Brodeur and “The Skinny” was chosen by Vogue as one of this summer’s best reads.
The tail end of the book powerfully explores Wells’ lack of resolution about these experiences, even as he attempts to confront his father about his actions there simply is no “why” behind it all. Still, Wells said that the process of writing “The Skinny” in itself helped him understand this period of his life emotionally. He hadn’t taken his skinny years seriously until now, he said.
“The idea started as a joke,” he recalled. “To my friends, to my wife, my weight was hilarious. I thought it was just a peculiarity. So I thought, ‘This is a funny idea. I’ll write the history of my weight.’ And then as I started to write I realized this is not funny, that it actually had some pretty dire consequences.”
He looked back on medical records and passport stamps and talked to his younger brother to put together details, but mostly relied on his memory to write “The Skinny,” finding surprising perspective on his teen years.
“It provided immense clarification,” he said.
It was actually The Viking (my Yankee-in-Europe), not I, who had been invited to visit an historic whisky making business in the Scottish Highlands, namely the Glenfiddich Distillery located in Dufftown in Speyside.
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