David Small‘s new graphic novel Stitches is a must read. My mouth is still hanging open from the impact of this astounding work–a memoir in comic book format but definitely not funny. I can’t believe how deeply I connected with it and feel the author and I have lived parallel lives. Or perhaps this type of synchronicity is just what happens when two people share the experience of medical trauma as children.
Similar to Small, I had a surgery as a child though I was an infant and he was fourteen. (I did, however, get my tonsils out at age twelve—horrible! The eating as much ice cream as you like story is a lot of bunk.) In the memoir, his drawing of the stitches on his neck after the surgery is shocking and made me imagine what my incision must have looked like shortly after my operation, something I haven’t had the guts to think about before. He describes it as “a crusted black track of stitches; my smooth young throat slashed and laced back up like a bloody boot” (191). I felt sad and enraged at his situation, for before the surgery he had not been told that he’d had a cancerous tumor and was led to believe that a benign cyst was being removed.
A few years later, Small works with a therapist who changes his life. During this time, Small moves out of his family’s home into a room of his own to paint and sort things out. I too found such a therapist in my mid-twenties and lived by myself in a small room, reading, drawing, and writing in an attempt to express all that I’d kept inside for so many years.
Another connection between Small and me is the appearance of a strange creature. In a recent New York Times article, author Eric Konigsberg writes, “Mr. Small said his dreams — particularly one in which a giant, buglike monster appeared to be bursting through the walls of a house — played a big role in the decision to write ‘Stitches’. ‘It was a crab — cancer — but I couldn’t even tell what it was until I sketched it out the next day,’ he said, showing the ink drawing he had made while on vacation in Mexico four years ago. ‘It was still in me, or the trauma around it was.’” His memoir Stitches was his way of coming to terms with this scary inner material.
While his “monster” was insect-like, mine was a large fish with the mouth of a white shark. I discovered it writing the manuscript of my memoir The Autobiography of a Sea Creature and made a model of it out of red clay. Turns out that this creature symbolized my stomach, inflamed and ferocious—a beast bent on killing me. Unconsciously, I had been frightened of my stomach for half a century, decades after the life-threatening condition I had as a baby in the 1950s, pyloric stenosis (a thickening of a muscle resulting in a blockage between the stomach and small intestine), was resolved by an operation at twenty-six-days old.
This fear of a monster stomach came about when as a toddler, I overheard my pediatrician talking to my mother during one of my check-ups. “Could she ever have problems [with her stomach] again?” my mother asked. “Maybe when she’s fifty,” he replied. For decades, I lived with the irrational—but real—terror that my stomach could threaten my life again. Like a white shark, it wanted to eat me! At age fifty-five, I began to make friends with my stomach, an organ that had served me well since my early surgery.
Writing and drawing are ways to tap what cannot be voiced (Small lost a vocal cord as a result of his cancer surgery, and I was frightened into silence as an infant because cries could result in burst stitches.) In my manuscript, I include a series of drawings that illustrate the unresolved trauma, pictures I made in my twenties. Drawing and writing are powerful tools that enable exploration of traumatic issues about which one has not been able to talk. Writing and drawing saved my life. Thank you for your courage, David Small, in bringing a painful inner struggle to light. In reading about yours, we find validation for ours.