David Small, Stitches: A Memoir (Norton, 2009). $24.95, hardcover.
By Jared Gardner
It is too early to make such pronouncements, of course, as the year is far from complete (and I am far from caught up on my year's reading). But I am fairly confident that even at year's end Stitches will remain the best graphic autobiography I have read in 2009, and one of the best books in any category. David Small is likely not familiar to most comics readers, doing most of his work in children's book illustration, where he has won pretty much all the honors in the field. That Stitches, despite being his first graphic narrative, is such a breathtaking masterpiece, however, reflects not only his remarkable skills as an artist but also, and perhaps even more importantly, how long he has been working on telling and retelling this story even before he first put pen to paper to begin to share it with others. Stitches is a story about the 1950s, about illness, about repression, about radiation, and arrogance—and about how those forces conspired to take away the voice of a child. But it is also the story of how art (and a very gifted therapist) collaborated to give him another voice by which to express himself, and know himself.
The "stiches" of the title refers most immediately to the stiches in David's throat after his radiologist father gave him cancer by exposing him to powerful x-rays in a series of experiments designed to cure his son's chronic respiratory illnesses. But "stitches" also refers to the other scars: in addition to the loss of his vocal chords at the hands of his father, David suffered from a loss still harder to pin down from the emotional absence of his mother, a repressed lesbian and herself the victim of psychological abuse at the hands of her mentally-ill mother. But "stiches" also references the act of piecing together pieces of memory, especially traumatic memory--the painful and always-present fractures between the fragments of our memory that graphic autobiography represents so powerfully. It refers to the dashed lines that forever circle David's dialogue balloons as he talks with his therapist, represented as the White Rabbit from Alice, finding a new voice as he begins what he describes in the acknowledgements as the never-ending "road to the examined life."
It also describes the strange after-effects of this beautiful book, which haunted me as few books do. Little in Small's childhood experience resembles my own, and yet more than most childhood memoirs I have read I found strange web-like connections forming between his idioscyncratic story and my mundane own, connections—or stitches—that brought me back to the book a second time for a reading that was if anything more appreciative than the first. This is a book that belongs alonside Fun Home, One Hundred Demons, and Epileptic as a true masterpiece in graphic autobiography—and a reminder that the renaissance of graphic storytelling is still very much ongoing.