Stitches: A Memoir
by David Small (W.W. Norton & Co., 2009)

Stitches is one of those books that's a relatively quick read, but it certainly isn't something I'd rush through. In fact, it's one of those rare graphic novels that I actually had to put down for a few minutes when I felt the pages were turning too fast because I wanted to be sure I absorbed it fully.

Simplicity combined with mastery, and an unexpected outcome, are what makes this story so compelling. Artist David Small spent three years on this autobiographical account about losing his voice to cancer at age 13. Small presents this painful episode, warts and all, in perfectly done illustrations that convey worlds in a single scene, painting a picture of a home life that makes you grateful for the parents you have, however screwed up they might be.

Small's family was silent about their emotions, but this silence covered a labyrinthine and deeply internalized structure of disillusionment and frustration. Not many people can so perfectly capture the viewpoint of a young child. Small makes it seem effortless, though it cannot have been easy in the slightest to reveal dysfunction like this to the world. His childhood was a nightmare of distant parenting, with a radiologist father who treats his son's many childhood illnesses with heavy doses of radiation (resulting in his cancer) and a mother whose lack of compassion drives her to cruelly torment him at every turn, even yelling at him for not turning out a light switch.

The most horrific example of their neglect was their refusal to treat their son's cancer. The growth on his neck was dismissed as harmless and was ignored for over three-and-a-half years. Instead, they bought a new car and new furniture in an attempt to increase their social standing. If another doctor hadn't diagnosed it, David might never have survived. Instead, he wakes up after two "routine" operations without a voice, having lost one of his vocal cords as a result of the tumor's removal. Worse yet, his parents chose not to inform him he had cancer, telling him instead that it had been a benign cyst. If he hadn't broken into his mother's desk and read one of her letters to his grandmother in which she confessed to lying to him about the diagnosis, he would never have found out the truth.

Though you might wonder how anyone could live with such selfish parents, their actions are completely understandable in the context of the 1950s and '60s, when people did not know about the effects of x-rays until years after it had been widely used as a curative, nor were emotions a subject discussed at every dinner table. Not only that: his mother, as he discovered one afternoon, was a closeted lesbian whose self-loathing was painfully worked out on her husband and children in tidal waves of anger and deadly cold silences.

Small actually has compassion for his parents when he could easily have had held on to the vast reservoir of anger that might have destroyed a lesser person, and that compassion is there on every page, side-by-side with brutal honesty. His mother, whose mental state could only be guessed at, eventually emerges as a human being who was probably doing her best, even when she didn't say anything about the pain she must have been in. David's father likewise makes an interesting turn. Silences can destroy everything, even the human body. Honesty, however, can move mountains.

Stiches is a perfect example of a graphic novel not only working perfectly as a storytelling vehicle, but as the best possible vehicle for expressing states of being that simply can't be put into plain print, no matter how descriptive. The moody, washed out look is rapidly becoming very popular among graphic artists as a method for conveying repressed emotions and strained emotional states of being, and there's plenty of it here, saying more than words ever can about a difficult upbringing. Collected into one powerful slideshow, they tell the story in the most straightforward and accessible way.

It's pretty easy to see why this book was nominated for a National Book award. It's a tough story to tell, but stories like this need to be told. Carrying around messy baggage and resentment does no one any good. Sometimes only complete honesty can relieve the pain. The bleak beginning is redeemed by an uplifting ending. Difficult as it is, Stitches could inspire anyone to believe that hope can light can grow in the darkest places.

[ visit the author's website ]

review by
Mary Harvey

25 September 2010

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