The graphic novel memoir Stitches by David Small (W.W. Norton, 2009) haunts the reader with stories from David’s troubled childhood in stark black, white, and gray illustrations. David’s childhood seems oppressive, and the variety of perspectives that David uses to show the seas of faces around him gives an added feel of overwhelm that correlates well to the events happening in the book. Despite the deep themes, David’s story ultimately provides an inspiring, albeit emotional, commentary on becoming who you are meant to be and finding your voice.
David’s childhood home life is not peaceful. His mother’s mental illness leads to violence against her sons: “Her silent fury was like a black tidal wave. Either you get out of the way or . . .” As you might suspect, the following page has an illustration of a young boy being sucked into a tidal wave. David’s father, a doctor, gives David regular medical interventions in order to help the sickly young boy become stronger, including regular X-rays to check his sinuses. David wanders into a hospital lab with small bodies floating in jars, which gives him nightmares. And that is not all. His older brother shows him medical text books with disgusting growths, which also haunt him. His grandmother likewise exhibits signs of mental illness, making her home, during summer vacation, a scary destination.
With all of these stresses, David flees real life. As a young child, his go-to escape is pretending to be Alice in Wonderland, a character that stumbled into a different land and experienced her own oddities. His strangeness isolates him from others in the neighborhood, which leads to bullying. But David has another escape: his drawing. My favorite spread is that in which this young boy jumps headfirst into a paper. Only his feet remain as he slides down to a cartoon world of friendly animals.
The center point of David’s childhood story is his surgery at age 14, where, upon waking he finds to his surprise that he can no longer could talk: the surgery had removed one of his vocal cords. His parents don’t even explain that this was because doctors had discovered cancer. This loss of David’s own voice is a perfect analogy for how he feels in his own life: “When you have no voice, you don’t exist.” He had never had a voice in his own home. Now he has physically been left without that main communication method, and his family is not communicating with him. As teenage David tries to come to terms with his new reality, he dreams of being trapped in a giant house and walking through Alice-like passages and doors, all leading to a “temple whose guts had been bombed.” He paints brick walls and closed doors.
Through the book, David’s love of drawing emerges as his one way to express himself without needing his voice. In the end, this is what saves him from the same fate his mother and grandmother followed, which was succumbing to their mental illness without a way to control it. David’s story ends on a hopeful note as he determines to follow a different path from his predecessors.
David’s art is simply fantastic. At one point (after his grandmother had abused him by burning his hands in hot water), he says, “While that was happening, I saw it all from two points-of-view, hers and mine.” His illustrations throughout the book show these perspectives, and so many more throughout, including a beginning series of frames to set the scene as Detroit and his upside-down view as he hangs from the monkey bars. His own perspective on a situation (such as the anesthesia mask coming toward him) combines with the outside view to make a vivid scene ripe with action. David’s illustrations zoom in and focus on eyes and tears (both the happy ones and the terrifying ones), and the images evoke our emotions throughout the book.
So although David Small’s memoir is full of a strong sense of loneliness for a child moving into adulthood, this true memoir brings to light the hope that comes from finding our own voice, literally and figuratively. David’s story follows a wonderful story arc that not just draws in a reader because of the interesting events and stark art, but also because of the metaphors and symbols that make his story come alive. It feels like more than just a story.