I must be somehow fascinated by people who have become ill. I’ve read quite a few books dealing with sickness in some fashion. I’ve even read another graphic novel about a case of cancer, Mom’s Cancer. But Stitches is more than just being about David Small’s childhood disease. In fact, I would argue that his cancer is one of many events he uses to highlight a seriously dysfunctional family and its impact on him. This makes Stitches compelling in a way that a straight story about his health never could have been.
Small’s drawings make up no small part of setting the mood and tone of the book, which is why I love that he chose to draw his memoir. The people are almost uniformly drawn tight, with knit brows, frowns, and generally hostile body language. No one is portrayed as friendly toward Small until we meet his psychologist toward the end, and he’s drawn as a rabbit — I believe he was the March Hare, mainly because Small had a fascination with Alice in Wonderland as a child.
Small also has an incredible sense of when pictures can convey more than words ever could. The horror of the research floor of the hospital, for example, is much more effective because Small shows us the jars of fetuses, then his face, in alternate cells. It makes way more of an impact than writing something on how he saw the jars and imagined that one got out and started chasing him.
Now, down to the actual memoir. Small’s family is dysfunctional in the extreme. His father is mostly absent, home only occasionally from his job as a radiologist at a Detroit hospital. When he is home, he alternates between lecturing his son and giving him x-rays to look at his sinuses, which most likely caused his subsequent cancer. His maternal grandmother is a nutcase, treating Small in a horrible fashion when they visit her in southern Indiana.
But it is his mother who is truly the worst person in Small’s life. She is cold, almost always angry. She blames Small when he develops the lump on his neck that requires surgery, telling him “doctors cost money and money is something that is in short supply in this house!” After an original misdiagnosis of the lump as a cebaceous cyst, they wait three and a half years before allowing a surgeon operate on his neck. During the gap, his parents bought a new car and new furniture. After the removal of his lump, along with one of his vocal cords, his mother didn’t tell him the lump was cancer. She showed no sympathy for her son, who suffered from recurring nightmares and would frequently turn on all the lights in the house. Her concern was with the electric bill.
Her miserable and, at times, tyrannical, behavior could possibly be explained by her sexual orientation and the influence of her mother. She may have felt trapped in her marriage by society and her children. It is almost inconceivable, though, that someone would have the capacity to so hate their own child, a being dependent upon her to do what is best for him. Being frustrated with how her life turned out cannot excuse her callousness for a boy who was sick and needed her help.
The only good thing they appear to have done for him is put him in therapy. His therapist was able to clarify many things for him, and I believe that therapist made it possible for Small to have a relatively normal post-childhood life. Really, the therapist showed him how a caring relationship should work, and quite probably saved Small from following in his mother’s and grandmother’s footsteps.
This book is phenomenal in its exploration of what it’s like growing up in a hostile environment. As someone who has two caring and supportive parents, Small provided me with insight into how one’s environment can shape you. One can end up like his mother — twisted, bitter, and cruel — or you can end up like him, a survivor who came through his ordeals, both regarding his health and his home, and became a successful man who becomes the maverick of his family by being normal. Stitches is a superior memoir that packs a lot of emotional punch.