Like many contemporary memoirists, David Small had a lousy childhood. He was a sickly kid (illness, he explains, was “a way of expressing myself wordlessly”); his mom was cold and distant, and he once walked in on her canoodling with a local hipster lady; his dad was taciturn and mean; his grandmother was physically abusive. There was a lot of hostile silence in his house, and Small ended up contributing to it inadvertently: When he was fourteen, an operation for a cancer his parents refused to tell him about left him with only one vocal cord and no voice. (He later regained the ability to speak.) His father, a radiologist, eventually confessed to having unintentionally caused the illness by using X-rays to treat his son’s breathing difficulties.
Art is, unsurprisingly, young David’s outlet of choice in his narrative of escaping childhood—he is a sensitive artist, and the cruel world is in formation against him. Small actually did grow up to be an exquisitely sensitive artist: The author and illustrator of seven children’s books, he won the Caldecott Medal in 2001 for his work on So You Want to Be President?, and although he hasn’t published any comics before this volume, his expressive, impressionistic brushstrokes and ink-wash shading are well suited to the subtleties of observation and emotion in Stitches. The book is full of silent passages, images of wordless reactions, significant landscapes, remembered fragments of dreams—it’s much less about what happened to Small than about how it made him feel.
In fact, the difference between Stitches and, say, Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home is that Bechdel’s graphic memoir concerns her gradual understanding of the parts of her childhood that were mysterious and painful at the time, while Small concentrates on conveying the immediacy of the mystery and pain he experienced as a child. When we see adults, especially in the book’s early scenes, we’re almost always looking up from below; many of them wear glasses, which gives Small an opportunity to conceal their eyes. (His own, of course, are limpid and full of sadness.) A sequence in which his newly well-to-do parents buy a Ford is seen as a child would see it: grown-ups excitedly inspecting the parts of something new, shiny, and too big to be apprehended in its entirety.
The fact that Small did eventually grow into his own power occasionally makes the way he relates his memories seem disconcertingly passive-aggressive. After his surgery, he notes, his father was “never there except occasionally for one of mother’s dry, burned little meals.” The book pivots from torment toward redemption with the introduction of a therapist—drawn as the White Rabbit from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderlandwho begins his relationship with fifteen-year-old David by informing him that his mother doesn’t love him. Both the teenage boy and the adult artist take this as a statement of a terrible truth, rather than wondering whether, perhaps, it might be a cheap trick to gain a vulnerable patient’s trust. David cries so hard that it rains for the next eight pages.
But when you’re fifteen, it seems like the rain will never stop. Small’s depiction of the high drama of youth and adolescence is the most affecting aspect of Stitches. The less young David understands his experience, the more abstractly his adult self renders it: His mother’s rage is a brush-mashing spiral of ink, a group of taunting children an amalgamation of splotches and slashes, a couple kissing at a party a grotesque silhouetted caricature. By the time we see David looking down into a hospital bed instead of up from one, near the end of the book, he’s taken control of his world with his artwork—a more useful way of expressing himself wordlessly. He’s lost one voice and found another.