David Small
W. W. Norton & Company, 2009
Review by Jeremy Benson

As a genre, graphic memoir is a bizarre paradox of design and intent. It can be argued that the goal of memoir is to explore and work through a bit of personal history, and arrive at some sort of truth, whether factual truth made up of objective data, or a perceived Zen-like truth that may or may not exist outside of the author’s telling. Yet the presentation of such truths is obviously exaggerated in illustrated memoirs, from Lynda Barry’s playful and busy personal demons to Harvey Pekar’s adult themes and dramatic caricatures.

But perhaps occasionally the exaggeration and stylization of a graphic memoir are just what happens to best fit the arrival of truth. Children’s book author and illustrator David Small presents his memoir, Stitches, in a strict black-and-white motif, as if his entire youth were lived in shadow. We get the feeling that it probably was.

The book centers on the events surrounding a pair of surgeries Small underwent at age 14 to remove what he had been told was an abnormally large cyst. The surgeries left him with half a voice box—and no voice—and a gnarly scar running the length of his neck.

Small's loss of voice causes his friends to unintentionally ignore him, and soon he drops out of school all together. At night he is haunted by nightmares in which he is getting smaller and smaller, as if he were gradually disappearing. But Small's personal voicelessness is only one exploration of many varieties of voicelessness found in the book.

Although Small's father, brother, grandmother, and grandfather each have their own version of silence, most notable is that of Small's mother. He introduces her immediately in the first pages of the book, explaining how her disdainful nonverbal cues filled Small's childhood home with fear and hesitation, and she remains a constant figure of disapproval, disdain, and lovelessness.

As the book continues, however, it is revealed that all her nastiness is most likely due to her own secrets—though self-prescribed, she resents her husband and children for her loss of voice. They, in turn, resent her.

Unlike most prose memoirists, who would use their final pages to sort out the emotional conflicts and arrive at some kind of closure, Small's illustrations skip over this phase, and any closure is left for the reader to extrapolate and grab after reading the epilogue.

They too are responsible for finding their own moralistic interpretation. The book begs many questions about voice and silence and identity. For the most part Small avoids discussion, which is refreshing on the one hand to not be force-fed a take-away moral. But on the other hand, some kind of conclusive feeling might be nice: As terrible as Small shows his mother being, for instance, the lack of clear and outward forgiveness is stunning.

Perhaps we're supposed to see the book itself as a form of closure in which David re-found his voice afterall.

© Jeremy Benson 2010