David Small is an award-winning illustrator of children’s picture books. He used his artistic talent to make life meaningful, let alone livable.
His graphic memoir — cartoon scenes with narrative — of his 1950s childhood is to be released September 8. This weekend, I read an advance copy in two short sittings.
The unsettling images and the story they tell kept me looking at the next page, and the next, and the next. I now, still, keep looking. In gray and white, they unveil the cruelty of David’s repressed parents who raised their two sons in a Detroit home of hidden emotions, silence and deeply rooted rage. There is no color in this book, Stitches: A Memoir, of any kind.
David suffered with breathing difficulties, and his father, a radiologist, treated his condition with excessive doses of radiation. It was the accepted therapy in the ’50s.
When David developed a lump in his neck, at age 14, he went through two operations that removed a vocal cord and his thyroid. No one told him he had cancer. His father’s treatment was the likely cause of it. David couldn’t talk.
This memoir is yet another dysfunctional family horror show. But Stitches stands apart by its distinguished style.
Instead of digesting difficult narrative passages of emotional abuse and neglect, we see it in facial expressions: the young David’s innocence, isolation and fear; his mother’s stinginess and bitter anger; his father’s cold, professional distance.
We see it in the unfolding of disturbing comic-strip sequences.
David runs away when he’s 16 and lives in a one-room inner city apartment. We’re not told how he pays for anything to survive, let alone how he gets into college and then Yale’s art school (which I learned from the press release). But these gaps in information at the end of the book don’t make this story any less powerful.
Thank God for the white rabbit that enters David’s life when he is 15. The image represents a life-saving psychiatrist who says to David, “You’ve been living in a world full of nonsense, David. No one had been telling you the truth about anything. But I’m going to tell you the truth.”