How to Make a Slave and Other Essays

by Jerald Walker

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The Heart Summary and Analysis

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Walker’s twin brother, Jim, was in a failing marriage, struggling for a decade to make things work. His wife, a heroin addict, went through periods of sobriety during which her personality became “soft-spoken and kind,” but her more frequent lapses were disastrous for their family. The three children she birthed were also born addicted to heroin and “pleading for help,” much like their mother.

Jim met his wife at a time when both were trying to steer their lives back on track. Each was separately taking a class at a local community college as they studied for their GEDs, she with hopes of getting off welfare and he with hopes of leaving his position as a hospital orderly. He didn’t notice the track marks on her arms and legs at first but later told her that they didn’t matter. By the time she relapsed, Jim had already fallen in love with her, much to the dismay of his family.

The Walkers could not understand Jim’s decision to marry this woman; initially they tried to psychoanalyze it, attributing his feelings to a “nurturing complex” or his own “low self-esteem.” Finally, Walker simply began hoping his sister-in-law would overdose and die. 

On one particularly violent evening, Jim reached for a bottle of beer which he’d placed in the freezer when his wife approached him in a “wild paranoia,” accusing him of being unfaithful. She was high, and in her fury, she stabbed him with a knife, nearly totally severing his thumb. Calling 911, Jim reported that his wife had “fucked him up.” Their kids emerged from their rooms, summoned by their mother’s frantic screams. When she threatened to “make [their] fingers bleed” if they didn’t go back to bed, Jim realized the futility of his marriage. As the sirens approached their home, Jim’s wife sorrowfully embraced him, snuggling her nose to his neck. However, Jim realized that this was the end of his marriage.

Some time later, Walker received the call from his brother that she had, indeed, overdosed and died. Though this created feelings of guilt, Walker was thankful that her death had not included his brother, as he had so often envisioned.

Analysis 

Drawing on both the literal and figurative meanings of “the heart,” Walker examines the bonds between people in this essay. His twin brother fell in love with a woman who was caught in vicious cycles of self-destruction. Jim’s desire to stay with her, marrying her even after her addictions were made clear, astounded his family. They longed to protect him from the dangers of her drug-riddled world, where sometimes “thugs” showed up at the family home looking for her and where threatening messages were left on the family’s phone. Walker wished for this woman’s death because of the continual pain she leveraged against his brother and their children. As a twin, Walker feels deeply bound to his brother, their hearts having formed together, beaten alongside each other, and emerged into the world at almost the same moment. Jim’s wife presented a threat to this cherished bond, her own heart ravaged by substance abuse and leaving her incapable of meeting the emotional needs of her family. Thus, this essay examines the ways in which hearts form bonds, often inexplicably, and how those bonds sometimes break under the weight of insurmountable obstacles.

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