- W.W. Norton & Co., 336 pp.
The Illustrated Nightmare Childhood
On the front cover of this graphic novel five scowling faces glare down though blank eyeglass lenses at the tiny, frail figure of David Small as a child who is making a futile attempt to put a pillow inside a pillowcase. Over the figure of an old woman with a gaping mouth and ragged hair is a caption that reads, “by my durn grandson, DAVID SMALL…Durn it!” And that is our introduction to Stitches: A Memoir, by the award-winning children’s illustrator and author, David Small.
This fairytale-turned-nightmare begins in the gray haze of smokestack Detroit in the 1950’s when David is six. We’re given a bird’s eye view of David’s town, and then his house where the door is left open. You have your first glimpse of David lying on the living room floor, drawing, just as you would see him if you actually walked through the door. Then, as if your eyes are a shifting camera, you see him closer from the back, then from the side. The next frame is a wider angle of David, which takes in the kitchen where a terrifying shadow spreads itself across the floor. And that is our introduction to David’s mother who communicates with a “whap” of a cabinet door or a “Knh,” her little cough. When you aren’t seeing the story through your own eyes, you’re seeing it through David’s. From the top of the steps, you peer with him into the basement to watch his father let out his anger by punching a punching bag. “Pocketa, pocketa, pocketa.” And you not only see little David holding his Teddy bear, but you know by Small’s brilliant drawings how it looks and feels to David to watch his brother, Ted, beat out his anger on a drum. “Bum, bum, bum,” and later you see Ted’s big-booted foot coming down on David with a “ker-pow!” Besides drawing, David has his own way of escape—sleep, and getting ill. But, as we see in the terrifying drawings of his radiologist father giving him neck adjustments—“kkrraackk,” and shots and enemas and even treating David’s sore throats and sinus condition with radiation, his escape is just another trap. The quiet horror of the cropped image of David’s face, just his eyes, nose, and part of his mouth, seen as he might have seen himself while lying on a table, looking up at his reflection in the metal surface of a piece of medical equipment, will stay with you long after you finish the book.
Silence is a major theme in Stitches. There are very few words in this book other than the imitation of sound, a perfect device for depicting a family where no one is allowed to speak, and where family members must hold in their shocking secrets. The mere movement of his mother’s fork a half-inch to the right spells dread at the dinner table. Her silence is forced on others. When David gets older and she finds he’s reading Lolita, she burns his books. When David’s mother’s friend notices a growth on David’s neck, his parents wait years before checking out what it is. After all, doctors cost money and money doesn’t grow on trees, never mind that his father had gotten a big raise and his parents bought a new car and filled their house with new furniture. But when his parents finally get around to looking into David’s growth, he’s given a “harmless” operation to remove the benign tumor and wakes up with a horrible long scar on his neck and no voice. They had taken out one of his vocal chords. His drawings of his scars and the disembodied open mouth with the only sound tumbling out that it can make, “Ack,” are heart wrenching. He is never told he has cancer and discovers it himself when he reads a letter from his mother to his grandmother.
If this weren’t memoir, the only writers who might have conceived of such a story were Kafka and Poe and The Brothers Grimm.
When you finish the book, you realize that no drawing is superfluous, even the frontispiece where you see little David kneeling with his head down on a piece of paper taped to the floor. The second drawing, his head has disappeared below the surface. In the third, he has succeeded in getting so far below the surface that only his legs are sticking up. Read on and you find out that David is obsessed with Alice disappearing down the rabbit hole. He even tries to dress up as Alice and ends up abused by an angry mob at a playground, parents included. “Faggot,” they shout at him. And yet, not to give away the story, David’s ultimate deliverance is with the help of someone he regards as The White Rabbit.
Not only does the perspective shift in Small’s cinematic drawings, but he also is able to enter the points of view of the very people who abused him, He doesn’t merely survive. He transcends.
Finally, with Stitches, the artificial divide between “illustrator” and “fine artist” has been bridged. The way many of the drawings are cropped brings to mind the painter, Alex Katz. Except there is nothing “cool” or “detached” about Small’s drawings. When David gets his vocal chords cut, the horror of the drawings bring to mind Edvard Munch’s iconic lithograph, The Scream. The creatures that come alive in David’s nightmares are as haunting as what you’d find in the work of the Swiss artist, Henrich Fuseli. And yet, Small’s drawings never lose their childlike quality, which is the best that art has to offer, isn’t it?