While the author's surgery for throat cancer when he was 14 years old, and its aftermath are the central events in this graphic memoir, Stitches is more essentially the story of a dysfunctional family. The memoir begins when David Small is six, growing up in Detroit, drawing, and observing the body language of his often silent parents and brother. Tension fills the house. David's mother's face is in an almost permanent scowl and the "mere moving of her fork a half inch to the right spelled dread at the dinner table" (16).  She slams pots and kitchen cabinet doors while David's radiologist father lets loose on a punching bag in the basement and his brother beats drums. David is in a constant struggle to avoid his mother's fury, which author/artist David depicts as a tidal wave. His father is remote, puffing silently on his pipe.
When David is 11 a female friend of the family, the wife of a surgeon, draws attention to a growth on David's neck, which his parents have either failed to notice or knowingly ignored. In due time the neck is x-rayed. The surgeon-friend diagnoses a sebaceous cyst and recommends an operation. With the mother's frequent protests about lack of money--in spite of an extended shopping spree the parents undertake-- it is three and a half more years before the surgery takes place. David undergoes the procedure with relative equanimity, the hospital and medical staff being familiar -- people he "thought of as my extended family, my protectors" (160). When he wakes up from the surgery, his father assures him that nothing is wrong but that he will need a second operation by a specialist. Uncharacteristically, his mother asks if there is anything she can get for him.

Waking up from the second surgery, David has no voice -- one vocal cord and his thyroid gland have been removed. "The fact that you now have no voice will define you from here on in" (186). Later, when changing his bandage by himself, he discovers a long, ugly array of stitches on the side of his neck. He has nightmares, and on one sleepless night as he wanders the house, discovers a letter written by one of his parents to "mama" which says, "of course the boy does not know it was cancer" (204). The accumulated silences and parental betrayal trigger David's delinquent behavior and  time in a boarding school, from which he runs away three times; ultimately he is expelled with a recommendation to get psychiatric help. Reluctantly, his mother drives him to a psychoanalyst -- "it's like throwing money down a hole, if you ask me" (247) -- but this intervention turns David's life around. The analyst, depicted by the author as a tall, fully clothed white rabbit, explains to David, "your mother doesn't love you" (255).  "It was such a relief to hear" said Small in an interview. Another truth is eventually revealed by David's father, who takes David out to dinner to tell him, after a lengthy silence, that the numerous x-ray treatments for sinus infections he had given the young David must have caused the throat cancer: "two-to-four hundred rads. I GAVE YOU CANCER" (286-287).



Stitches is an eloquent graphic memoir of neglect and abuse within a repressive and repressed family. What makes the memoir so effective are the drawings, which often are sequences without any text. More descriptive than most narratives convey in words, the recurrent images of scowling mother, distancing pipe-smoking father, and David himself - lonely, suspicious, angry - tell us all we need to know about the protagonists. There are powerful depictions of David's recurrent nightmares, his weak voice, his rage, his overwhelmed reaction to the psychoanalyst's truth telling; and of the mother's difficult history with her own mother, who is borderline-and-finally-overtly psychotic. Similarly effective drawings reveal how David stumbles on his mother's furtive lesbianism and the silent, poignant interaction between him and his mother as she dies in hospital.

This graphic memoir is a rich exploration of family dynamics and physical and emotional trauma. It also raises questions about whether physicians should treat their own family members. Medical students respond to the book with interest and lively discussion.


Stitches was a National Book Award Finalist in Young People's Literature.


W. W. Norton

Place Published

New York



Page Count