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Monday, Nov. 2, 2009

David Small’s Candid, Absorbing ‘Stitches’

Graphic memoir depicts troubled life saved by art

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On the frontispiece of David Small’s graphic memoir, Stitches (W.W. Norton), is a wonderful, three-panel sequence picturing a young boy on the floor with paper and art supplies. In the first panel, he is standing on his head, balancing on the blank page in front of him. In the following two panels, he disappears into the page, like a diver dropping gracefully into a pool, until only his legs and feet are showing.

Much has been said and written about the healing powers of art, but in this lengthy (300-plus pages) work of sequential art—and by far the finest, most emotionally absorbing work of any type that I’ve read this year—Small, an award-winning children’s book illustrator, takes his readers through a harrowing childhood and adolescence in which disappearing into art is not only an escape; it’s a matter of survival.

It’s hard to imagine a more dysfunctional family outside of the realms of fiction. Small’s father, a radiologist, is stilted and withdrawn, barely a presence around the house. His mother, a closet lesbian, rules the roost with stern looks and a type of cruelty exacted by smoldering silence, broken only occasionally by words aimed like darts. His grandmother is so disturbed that she locks her husband in the basement and sets fire to the house. His brother copes by beating on a kettledrum. David has his art.

Their stories and backgrounds are told in sparing but detailed vignettes, complete with beautifully rendered illustrations as stark and chilling as Small’s youth. The book gets its title when David, at 14, develops a lump in his throat. After surgery supposedly performed to remove a cyst, he learns that he’s lost a vocal cord and his thyroid gland, leaving him virtually speechless and with a huge, zipper-like scar on his throat. His father eventually confesses that, in repeatedly X-raying David throughout his childhood, he is responsible for his son’s cancer. David can’t even scream out his anger.

The road to recovery is nightmarish, taking years and dragging David through a process of self-discovery that would make all but the most abusive parents shudder. David’s journey is a lonely one, filled with despair, anger, horrific dreams, bitterness and anxiety. When he eventually confronts his parents about his cancer, which had been hidden from him, all his father can say is, “The fact is you did have cancer… But you didn’t need to know anything then… And you don’t need to know about it now. That’s FINAL!”

David seeks the counsel of a psychiatrist, presented in the character of a white rabbit straight out of Alice in Wonderland,who sees the emotional wasteland that this teenaged boy has become. The psychiatrist is kind but direct: “You’ve been living in a world full of nonsense, David,” he tells him. “No one had been telling you the truth about anything. But I’m going to tell you the truth… Your mother doesn’t love you.”

The rest of the book details how David deals with this knowledge and how he resolves his family conflicts, including a heart-rending scene at his mother’s deathbed. Growing pains should never be so excruciating, and, as David Small illustrates with the force of a powerful kick to the gut, family truths can cut the deepest.

In some ways, this book reminded me of Tobias Wolff’s This Boy’s Life, or, in the graphic memoir vein, Art Spiegelman’s Maus, both being magnificent accounts of artists’ confrontations with their roots, their youths. These books are nothing short of necessity, of catharsis, of the kind of healing that can be accomplished only through artistic bravery.

We’re lucky that David Small had his art.