Sometimes the medium of a story is so much more important than how that story is told: Stitches, illustrator David Small’s memoir, is one such story.
Instead, Mom slams cabinets and weeps quietly behind closed doors. Dad batters a punching bag, and Ted, the brother, plays the drums. What does David do? He, too, is voiceless, and only warrants attention through his many childhood illnesses. Dad, the doctor, puts his young son through all sorts of experimental treatments – shots, enemas, neck cracking, and multiple x-rays, hoping to help his sinus problems.
David’s only escape from his passive-aggressive mother and radiology-happy father is coloring and drawing. His figures become friends, a way to escape. However, David’s escape is simply another form of silence, separating himself further from his family.
As a young man, a family friend notices a growth on David’s neck and advises his mother it be checked out. What follows is probably the absolute worst part of this graphic novel. His parents wait three-and-a-half years before doing anything about it. David is told he has a cyst; a simple operation will remove it. Two surgeries later, David is left with an incredibly-long scar down the left side of his neck and one vocal cord, rendering him silent, although, as he says, it is “no longer a matter of choice.” He learns to cope but tunnels deeper into his self because “when you have no voice, you don’t exist.” For ten years, he can speak in nothing above a whisper.
The novel is heartbreaking, and it angered me to see the willful neglect on behalf of David’s parents – no matter how troubled they were. How he manages to survive and thrive is a testament to the human spirit. This is one of many graphic novels I have read in the last few years, none of them happy. I’m not sure if the medium makes it easier to depict the anger, grief, frustration, and shame or if it is simply a means to an end. Regardless, Stitches is raw but effective, specifically in that there really aren’t many words, reinforcing the impotence David feels first, as a child and second, as a teen who cannot speak. Drawn frame-by-frame with an obvious nod to cinematography, the quiet isn’t pleasant but menacing, and the illustrations are incredibly successful in their execution. I recommend this book to those with an interest in graphic novels or a special interest in memoirs – just make sure you have something cheerful lines up right after it.