Wednesday, March 10, 2010


Stitches: A Memoir by David Small. W.W. Norton & Co. 2009.

About: David Small's childhood. As a young boy, he senses the unhappiness and secrets around him. At fourteen, he has an operation to remove a cyst. The aftermath involves scars and loss of voice. And loss of innocence, what is left, when he later discovers that the repeat X-rays given him by his radiologist father to cure various ailments caused the cancer.

The Good: In an interview with David Small at Smith, Small says "Ours may be the last generation to carry on the traditions of selfish, silent, confused and confusing behavior in our family."

The reader is introduced to the secrets of the Small family as six year old David visits his Grandmother. First we hear of her tough life; we meet her and find out she's not a sweet Grandma. Why are such secrets kept? Such silent pacts maintained? Fear? Shame? Or is it a twisted selfishness, because it seems easier to keep those secrets?

The ultimate combination of secrets and silence is the surgery on Small, for cancer, though its a year before he's told this. Literally silenced by the surgery (and accordingly silenced by his father, as it's the radiation treatments from the father that causes the cancer), Small has no avenue for his anger. Anger at his surgery and physical limitations, and anger at a mother who takes her unhappiness out in silence and slammed doors, and anger at a father who disappears into work and office. Scarred by their inactions and words, literally carrying the scar on his body.

Small is sent to boarding school and runs away; psychiatric help is advised, and, reluctantly and angrily his parents send him. It turns out to be the single best thing they ever done for their son, because it saves him.

At the end, even though Small has survived, and found art, and made a life for himself, there is a profound sense of sadness. Sadness for the child and teen David, who was failed by his family. Sadness for his mother, whose own mother was clearly mentally ill, who had ongoing physical problems from a birth defect (her heart was literally in the wrong place), who is a closeted lesbian. Sadness for his father, who did not mean to harm his child, yet almost caused his death; stuck in a marriage that will never bring happiness. As for Small's brother, he is practically a ghost in this book, not really present. Perhaps that is how Small felt as a child; or perhaps it is because this is a memoir, not an autobiography, and Small feels it's not his place to tell his brother's story.

While there is sadness for his parents... never does my pity trump the simple fact that both these adults failed their child. Failed in the lies they kept, and the silences, which in turn created a life and home with no emotional safety. Others can go into the art of this book better than I; but for me, part of the reason this story is so devastating and intimate is that it is told with pictures more than words.

What else? I love the idea of young David putting a yellow towel on his head and pretending to be Alice in Wonderland. Forget bibliotherapy where a book about an unhappy child is given to an unhappy child; the real escape for unhappy children is books like Alice in Wonderland. Books of fancy, adventure, fantasy, empowerment, escape.

This is a book for adults; older teens will also get a lot out of it. Because (to me) the heart of this story is about the parent/child relationship, I'm not sure how much younger or immature teens will get out of this. Too young, and all they will have is anger at the parents. Too young, and they may not understand that there are really people who live this way.

Stitches video:

As you recall, it was this video that made me want to read this book.

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© Elizabeth Burns of A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy

1 comment:

BookChook said...

I am not sure I am tough enough to read it. But I concur absolutely that some children need the escape a book can bring. A reader of my blog wrote to me to say that "Are You My Mother" gave her the hope that her own mother would return just the way the bird's did.