Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
We are proud to celebrate 40 years!

'I'm Not Broken' is about being broken — and building a new life


Jesse Leon's I'm Not Broken is about being broken — but also about changing, growing, and building a new life.

A sad, brutally honest, and emotionally gritty memoir about "a poor, sexually abused, drug-addicted Chicano kid," I'm Not Broken is the kind of narrative that vividly brings to the page the realities of someone ignored by the system and trapped by the streets.

Jesse Leon was born in San Diego in the 1970s to indigenous working-class Mexican immigrants. His childhood was spent in a violent household where his mother did everything she could to keep the family afloat while his womanizing, abusive, "old school machista" father failed to hold a job and his older brother ran around in the streets.

Despite all that, there was hope for him because Jesse — nicknamed Nerd — was a smart kid. That all changed when Jesse was only 11 years old and a trip to the store to get balloons for a water fight ended with Jesse being molested. It was an event that — through threats, confusion, and fear — turned into a regular thing and, eventually, led Jesse to becoming a child sex worker. Scared, alone, incapable of telling his family, and confused about his sexuality, Jesse endured the abuse for years, surviving by learning to disassociate and adopting different personalities when he was at school, at home, and being forced to have sex with older men.

Immersed in a hyper-masculine machista culture, Jesse turned to violence and drugs as coping mechanisms, and his schoolwork suffered for it. I'm Not Broken chronicles his harrowing, inspiring journey from those days to becoming a graduate of Harvard University.

I'm Not Broken is not an easy read. Leon writes with candor about everything he experienced, including things like child prostitution, the start of the AIDS pandemic, life on the streets, the way the system repeatedly failed him, abuse at home, gang violence, racism, suicidal thoughts, depression, and addiction. Leon was a young man who endured years of abuse and struggled to accept his own sexuality because of it. It also made him angry at the world, and destructive, self-harming behavior became a way to express that anger. However, his remarkable journey was also filled with people who cared about him, and reading about the way in which he turned his life around, learned to accept his sexuality, dealt with being the only young person of color in Narcotics Anonymous meetings, and eventually returned to school with a different approach is inspiring. It is also a story that shows the importance of reaching out — and how even the most misguided youth can still fulfill their potential when given the right opportunities.

This memoir reads like a novel, but it's important to remember it's not. "The child inside me was dead," writes Leon. That line, heartbreaking as it is, is far from the worse thing in I'm Not Broken. Leon calculates that between the ages of 12 and 14, he was forced to have sex with more than 300 men: "Fifty-two weeks in a year and two visits to the store per week makes 104 men. Multiplying that by three years brings the total to around 312. But this does not include the shopkeeper and his friend, nor the fact that often there were two men waiting for me."

Yes, that's brutal, but the unflinching way in which Leon talks about himself and those around him should be mandatory reading because it exposes a lot of systemic flaws that are still affecting people today. For example, doctors didn't give his mom the best care possible because they didn't care enough to deal with the language barrier (she only spoke Spanish). Also, Leon went to therapy for years and his therapist knew about the sex work, but she refused to talk about it and never met with Leon's mother despite the fact that she asked many times.

"Before I turned seventeen, over twenty of my friends and acquaintances had died of gang violence, overdoses, or accidents from drinking and driving," Leon writes. These things still happen, and they require attention. Much like classic memoirs of marginalized young people of color like Luis J. Rodriguez's Always Running: La Vida Loca: Gang Days in L.A. and Sanyika Shakur's Monster: The Autobiography of an L.A. Gang Member, I'm Not Broken is more than the chronicle of one man's life; it is a map that can helps us understand the places in which help can turn the life of the disenfranchised into success stories.

Leon's memoir is a powerful, raw chronicle of survival that morphs into a moving story about mentorship, strength, familial love, self-transformation, the power of education, and the importance of self-acceptance.

Gabino Iglesias is an author, book reviewer and professor living in Austin, Texas. Find him on Twitter at @Gabino_Iglesias.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit