David Small grew up in a household where, as he initially thinks, everyone has their own language. His mother sighs and slams cupboards. His older brother pounds a drum. And his father uses a punching bag.
That violence is indicative of a horrid series of abuse inflicted on David from a young age. Told in almost unbearable detail in STITCHES, the terror he faces on an almost daily basis grows year to year. Even his grandmother wastes no love on the boy. She’s a sad figure who mixes religion and faith with a harshness that frightens young David, and, in turn, frightens us. That people this cruel exist is hardly a surprise. That they have such a profound and lingering effect on their victims is a matter of course. But seeing it, experiencing it vicariously, and witnessing its lingering remnants is brutal.
What Small accomplishes in STITCHES is riveting. In a field dominated by memoirs of growing up, it stands out. And with a back story as gory and unflinching as his, it still manages to be hopeful and understated. If anyone has earned the right to be sentimental and self-indulgent, it would be Small. He isn’t.
What Small went through as a child included not only typical physical abuse. His father, a radiologist, performed radiation experiments on him to try to cure his mysterious illnesses. And at the age of 14, thinking he was merely about to have a cyst removed from his neck, he awoke to find a gigantic gash that revealed the terrible operation he had really undergone. His father’s radiation experiments had given him cancer, and this operation the ultimate result, a devastating blow that removed his voice and left him scarred.
Small takes a minimalist approach to the book, often leaving several wordless pages to guide you through his life story. Even his narration doesn’t place blame (much), mostly leaving readers to react on their own, without comment from the man who lived through it. That’s modesty from Small, and it seems truly genuine --- one more thing that makes STITCHES so remarkably compelling. You know there’s so much more, and in so many ways, you’re grateful that you only have to read this relatively small portion of it. What Small went through is difficult enough to read about. Read it and weep, and see how a true artist turns his suffering into the ultimate revenge: art.
Reviewed by John Hogan on January 23, 2011