Award-winning children’s author David Small takes readers on an unforgettable journey into the dark.
ANGST always makes for a bestseller, especially in a memoir, and David Small’s Stitches seems to have cornered the market for it.
Small’s graphic memoir of his childhood, however, isn’t the usual coming-of-age yarn, characterised by teenage depression over unfulfilled sexual fantasies.
It is, instead, a voyeuristic glimpse into his very personal physical and emotional pain as he struggled to find his voice, literally and metaphorically.
Growing up in the industrial city of Detroit in the 1950s, Small’s life was shadowed by silence. His family was not one to share feelings or niceties, preferring to let their unhappiness seethe and bubble below the surface.
The smallest sounds spoke volumes of unspoken emotions: “Mama’s little cough” and her slamming of the kitchen cupboard doors, Dad’s thumping of his punching bag and Ted’s beating of his drumset.
Amidst this thick cloud of silence, Small, an award-winning illustrator of children’s books (Caldecott-Medal, etc) expressed himself by falling ill often. His father, a doctor, self-prescribed treatments for his son’s conditions. For his son’s digestive problems, he gave enemas, medicines and shots. For his sinus problems, Small was subjected to numerous X-rays at extremely high doses of 200-400 rads.
(“Rad” is the traditional unit of measurement for radiation. 200 rads is equivalent to 20,000 times the dosage of a typical chest X-ray today; however, it should be acknowledged that there may have been a degree of creative license in Small’s recollection of his radiation therapy.)
The effects of the radiation was to surface later in his teenage years, in a nightmarish twist that led to him developing cancer (although it was kept secret from him) and an operation that removed one of his vocal chords. When he awoke from the operation, he realised what it was like to be truly mute.
How does a child survive such blows to his life, one after another? Small’s physical condition, his inability to fit in at school, the family skeletons that keep spilling out of the closet, and underneath it all, the knowledge that his mother did not love him, could all have led him in a downward spiral towards madness.
In a way, perhaps Small did experience a little insanity, or, at least, indulged himself in a fantasy of what it was like to be insane. In his muteness, he imagines living in his own mouth, where his internal voice screams and reverberates inside the cavern of his mouth. He has a recurring dream in which he travels through rooms and passageways that gradually diminish in Alice In Wonderland-style, until he reaches the interior of a destroyed temple.
The dreams and fantasies can be seen as metaphors for his own life, where he feels that his voicelessness has rendered him invisible in plain sight, because “when you have no voice, you don’t exist.” He shrinks from the world, retreating literally into the slums of Detroit to nurse his emotional wounds amidst other misfits like him.
A memoir of such wordless pain could not have been told through the prose of an ordinary novel. Small’s drawings of monochrome grey, with panels that alternately switched between extreme close-ups of the face, and wide panning views, described his loneliness, fear and gloom better than words ever could.
In one part, when he confronts his parents about his cancer, his inner rage is deafening and explosive, although it was only manifested in a broken whisper. He draws such empathy from the reader that one feels like reaching into the panels, ripping the spectacles of his mother’s angry face and forcing her to look into her son’s eyes.
Stitches, nominated for an Eisner award this year, takes us back to a time when X-rays were largely misunderstood, and hence, overused. From the 1920s to the 1950s, huge amounts of radium was administered to patients to treat all sorts of conditions, including skin diseases (e.g. psoriasis and eczema), enlarged thyroid glands, inflammation of tonsils, asthma, ringworm and whooping cough.
Today, the medical fraternity understands that the use of X-rays in medical imaging and therapy has to be administered with great caution. Radiologists and radiation oncologists have to be trained and licensed to administer X-rays, in as low as reasonably achievable doses.
It would most certainly be considered malpractice for Small’s father to administer such lethal levels of radiation therapy in modern-day medicine. Yet Small is extremely forgiving towards his father and mother – he has been able to look past their selfish mistakes and neglect of his needs, and see their pain as well.
At the end of the book, he describes another dream of his mother and grandmother, in which he alludes to his brief flirtation with depression and madness.
Fortunately, he chose a different path, and, in finding compassion for his mother, he found his own sanity.
> David Small’s graphic novel Stitches is available at Kinokuniya, KLCC.