Stitches by David Small

This isn't a book about rising from the ashes, it's the story of recognizing that rising is possible, but more likely a dream, and that walking on the ashes is far more likely.


Publisher: W.W. Norton
Length: 329 pages
Author: David Small
Price: $24.95
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2010-09

Stitches by David Small is an illustrated memoir of incredible power. As a child he received the gags that narcissistic and bitter parents apply. More interested in their own lives, their own attempts to escape themselves and each other, his parents treated Small and his brother as less than afterthoughts, more than annoyances.

Treated as a baby by his father, a radiologist, with X-rays for a breathing difficulty, Small later developed cancer in his throat when a teenager. The tumor, ignored to the point that he lost half his vocal cords and therefore his voice, was finally removed. The surgery gave him a line of stitches from his ear to the top of his sternum, and left him as silent as his parents had always wished him.

Through this experience he developed a love of art, literature, and escape. He withdrew into his drawings and fantasies, acted out at schools until expelled, and finally found his way into the chair of a therapist with the honesty and heart to tell him his mother didn't love him.

Stitches has been reviewed and talked about extensively. It was reported on in The New York Times and USA Today. Publishers WeeklyStitches. WW Norton rightfully provided heavy promotion, and people noticed and talked about it. A book doesn't become a National Book Award finalist if its not being talked about.

Much of the discussion centered on who the audience was; there was debate on whether it should have been nominated as an adult non-fiction book rather than in the young people's literature category. What is its place? Who is reading it? Small's own hope for the book seemed to center on helping adults see their own childhoods with objectivity, to parent without repeating the mistakes made upon them.

Through all of this discussion ran the question of whether the graphic nature of the story was too strong for young readers. There are the elements of his treatment, his mother's sexuality (she was a lesbian; something Small discovered when he walked in on her and another woman one afternoon), and the scarring psychological impact of his treatment that concerned some. Response to these concerns included the argument that young people are exposed to some horrible conditions. Thankfully, few children undergo the levels of parental torture and neglect that he experienced. Painfully, too many children will suffer comparable fates.

Missed in both these views is a recognition of how Stitches presents itself. Is it a story of overcoming odds? In one sense, yes, of course. Small overcame his horrible childhood and the mutilation of his self-expression by finding other means of expressing himself. He is an artist of incredible talent, and his career as a childrens' book illustrator and author was impressive before Stitches arrived. To hold the book in your hands is to hold proof that he survived, thrived, achieved levels of talent and expertise few people can or will. Yet, it is worth asking this question: is that what the book is about? Is it about a rise from the ashes?

Stitches (I mean here the physical sutures themselves, not the book) are a prelude to healing. They are also a prelude to scarring. To have stitches is not to undo hurt, but to build upon and past it, to incorporate it into you in a way that cannot be removed. The injury is hidden, perhaps, but not undone. The ending of Small's beautifully illustrated memoir, while magnificent, does not vanquish the pain of what came before any more than reading it vanquishes the uneasy connection we make to the extreme suffering he endured. The connection we make to him, the place we find for ourselves on the scale of suffering, captivates us in our reading.

In the Publishers Weekly pictorial essay, Small tells why he wrote the book. The drive to tell the story was turning him into a monster, but early work on it, particularly about his mother, released a rage he couldn't face. So he didn't. He turned inward.

He depicts himself as a Frankenstein creation. He terrorized his wife and self-medicated with alcohol. One evening he rushed into a restaurant bathroom and realized his neck was swelling in the same place that the tumor had been, that his corked rage was turning on him, that it would kill him, as the cancer would have if it hadn't been taken out. Stitches is the result. He had to release the rage.

The book does not exemplify rising above, it exemplifies the continuing, life-long struggle to release the toxic histories we drag around with us. His survival is unquestionable, and so too his ascent out of self-pity or denial, but to claim the book illustrates his flight away from pain is to misunderstand its content. Small did not illustrate his successes, here, he illustrated his bruises. This isn't a book about rising from the ashes, it's the story of recognizing that rising is possible, but more likely a dream, and that walking on the ashes is far more likely.






A Certain Ratio Return with a Message of Hope on 'ACR Loco'

Inspired by 2019's career-spanning box set, legendary Manchester post-punkers A Certain Ratio return with their first new album in 12 years, ACR Loco.


Oscar Hijuelos' 'Mambo Kings Play the Songs of Love' Dances On

Oscar Hijuelos' dizzyingly ambitious foot-tapping family epic, Mambo Kings Play the Songs of Love, opened the door for Latinx writers to tell their stories in all their richness.


PM Picks Playlist 2: Bamboo Smoke, LIA ICES, SOUNDQ

PopMatters Picks Playlist features the electropop of Bamboo Smoke, LIA ICES' stunning dream folk, Polish producer SOUNDQ, the indie pop of Pylon Heights, a timely message from Exit Kid, and Natalie McCool's latest alt-pop banger.


'Lost Girls and Love Hotels' and Finding Comfort in Sadness

William Olsson's Lost Girls and Love Hotels finds optimism in its message that life tears us apart and puts us back together again differently.


Bright Eyes' 'Down in the Weeds' Is a Return to Form and a Statement of Hope

Bright Eyes may not technically be emo, but they are transcendently expressive, beatifically melancholic. Down in the Weeds is just the statement of grounding that we need as a respite from the churning chaos around us.


Audrey Hepburn + Rome = Grace, Class, and Beauty

William Wyler's Roman Holiday crosses the postcard genre with a hardy trope: Old World royalty seeks escape from stuffy, ritual-bound, lives for a fling with the modern world, especially with Americans.


Colombia's Simón Mejía Plugs Into the Natural World on 'Mirla'

Bomba Estéreo founder Simón Mejía electrifies nature for a different kind of jungle music on his debut solo album, Mirla.


The Flaming Lips Reimagine Tom Petty's Life in Oklahoma on 'American Head'

The Flaming Lips' American Head is a trip, a journey to the past that one doesn't want to return to but never wants to forget.


Tim Bowness of No-Man Discusses Thematic Ambition Amongst Social Division

With the release of his seventh solo album, Late Night Laments, Tim Bowness explores global tensions and considers how musicians can best foster mutual understanding in times of social unrest.


Angel Olsen Creates a 'Whole New Mess'

No one would call Angel Olsen's Whole New Mess a pretty album. It's much too stark. But there's something riveting about the way Olsen coos to herself that's soft and comforting.


What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .


Masma Dream World Go Global and Trippy on "Sundown Forest" (premiere)

Dancer, healer, musician Devi Mambouka shares the trippy "Sundown Forest", which takes listeners deep into the subconscious and onto a healing path.


Alright Alright's "Don't Worry" Is an Ode for Unity in Troubling Times (premiere)

Alright Alright's "Don't Worry" is a gentle, prayerful tune that depicts the heart of their upcoming album, Crucible.


'What a Fantastic Death Abyss': David Bowie's 'Outside' at 25

David Bowie's Outside signaled the end of him as a slick pop star and his reintroduction as a ragged-edged arty agitator.


Dream Folk's Wolf & Moon Awaken the Senses with "Eyes Closed" (premiere)

Berlin's Wolf & Moon are an indie folk duo with a dream pop streak. "Eyes Closed" highlights this aspect as the act create a deep sense of atmosphere and mood with the most minimal of tools.


Ranking the Seasons of 'The Wire'

Years after its conclusion, The Wire continues to top best-of-TV lists. With each season's unique story arc, each viewer is likely to have favorites.


Paul Reni's Silent Film 'The Man Who Laughs' Is Serious Cinema

There's so much tragedy present, so many skullduggeries afoot, and so many cruel and vindictive characters in attendance that a sad and heartbreaking ending seems to be an obvious given in Paul Reni's silent film, The Man Who Laughs.


The Grahams Tell Their Daughter "Don't Give Your Heart Away" (premiere)

The Grahams' sweet-sounding "Don't Give Your Heart Away" is rooted in struggle, inspired by the couples' complicated journey leading up to their daughter's birth.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.