After attending the Tell Me A Story Symposium last week that highlighted the powerful place of illustrations in storytelling, I was able to take a step back and approach David Small’s graphic novel Stitches with a more open mind. In this memoir, Small takes the reader leaping from memory to memory. He introduces his nuclear family, which consists of an overbearing to the point of violent father, a stern but silent mother, and a drumming brother. From the story’s beginning at six years of age, there is something off about Small, and his father aims to rectify his son’s character. Small recalls spending time with his abusive grandmother and the traumatizing experiences he endured both physically and mentally. Flash forward: eleven years of age. Small’s growth is discovered, but the family responds in denial and neglect. His mother initially fears the doctor’s bills more than the growth itself, and the doctor’s reassurance that it is no cause for alarm allows it to fall lower and lower on the family’s priorities. Finally, Small has not one but two surgeries; while he entered the hospital with a additional growth on his neck, he emerges with a vacancy of vocal cords replaced by nothing but stitches. Confused, Small eventually discovers that his condition had a name: cancer. His parents had chosen to keep the identity of his illness confidential from him.
Although Small’s stitches may remain in tact, his wounds reside much deeper than the surface of the skin. His life begins to unravel until a therapist, the white rabbit, opens up a space for communication that provides him with relief and allows him to address the inherent tensions with his family. As Small improves mentally, these tensions begin to take their toll on the family as his grandmother is sent to an asylum and he encounters his mother engaging in a lesbian act. His father pulls him aside, finally admitting that Small’s cancer was a result of his own father’s radiation experimentation in his childhood. At sixteen Small is out making a name for himself as an artist, when a call informs him that his mother is dying. He visits her on her death bed, powerfully resting his hand on hers as a sign of peace.
As the first illness narrative that I have encountered in the form of a graphic novel, I found the illustrations to be particularly gripping. Not only did they really bring to life Small’s tale, especially since he hints at his artistic aspirations in the story, but also because images hold a different kind of power than words. Small’s depiction of his voiceless life was intriguing. I was also fascinated by the intertextuality of the Alice in Wonderland story and the White Rabbit’s guest appearance as a therapist. By coupling powerful language with jarring imagery, Small achieves an evocative graphic novel memoir that moves readers beyond typical limits.
- What did the genre of graphic novel bring to this illness narrative?
- How might the genre of graphic novel affect the audience of this tale? Under what circumstances might this be a more effective medium than other genres?
- What were some moments when images resonated and were more powerful than their linguistic counterparts may have been?