in si­lence

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - LEISURE -

chords. When he awoke from the op­er­a­tion, he re­alised what it was like to be truly mute.

How does a child sur­vive such blows to his life, one af­ter an­other? Small’s phys­i­cal con­di­tion, his in­abil­ity to fit in at school, the fam­ily skele­tons that keep spilling out of the closet, and un­der­neath it all, the knowl­edge that his mother did not love him, could all have led him in a down­ward spi­ral to­wards mad­ness.

In a way, per­haps Small did ex­pe­ri­ence a lit­tle in­san­ity, or, at least, in­dulged him­self in a fan­tasy of what it was like to be in­sane. In his mute­ness, he imag­ines liv­ing in his own mouth, where his in­ter­nal voice screams and re­ver­ber­ates in­side the cav­ern of his mouth. He has a re­cur­ring dream in which he trav­els through rooms and pas­sage­ways that grad­u­ally di­min­ish in Alice In Won­der­land-style, un­til he reaches the in­te­rior of a de­stroyed tem­ple.

The dreams and fan­tasies can be seen as metaphors for his own life, where he feels that his voice­less­ness has ren­dered him in­vis­i­ble in plain sight, be­cause “when you have no voice, you don’t ex­ist.” He shrinks from the world, re­treat­ing lit­er­ally into the slums of Detroit to nurse his emo­tional wounds amidst other mis­fits like him.

A mem­oir of such word­less pain could not have been told through the prose of an or­di­nary novel. Small’s draw­ings of mono­chrome grey, with pan­els that al­ter­nately switched be­tween ex­treme close-ups of the face, and wide pan­ning views, de­scribed his lone­li­ness, fear and gloom bet­ter than words ever could.

In one part, when he con­fronts his par­ents about his can­cer, his in­ner rage is deaf­en­ing and ex­plo­sive, al­though it was only man­i­fested in a bro­ken whis­per. He draws such empa- thy from the reader that one feels like reach­ing into the pan­els, rip­ping the spec­ta­cles of his mother’s an­gry face and forc­ing her to look into her son’s eyes.

Stitches, nom­i­nated for an Eis­ner award this year, takes us back to a time when X-rays were largely mis­un­der­stood, and hence, overused. From the 1920s to the 1950s, huge amounts of ra­dium was ad­min­is­tered to pa­tients to treat all sorts of con­di­tions, in­clud­ing skin dis­eases (e.g. pso­ri­a­sis and eczema), en­larged thy­roid glands, in­flam­ma­tion of ton­sils, asthma, ring­worm and whoop­ing cough.

To­day, the med­i­cal fra­ter­nity un­der­stands that the use of X-rays in med­i­cal imag­ing and ther­apy has to be ad­min­is­tered with great cau­tion. Ra­di­ol­o­gists and ra­di­a­tion on­col­o­gists have to be trained and li­censed to ad­min­is­ter X-rays, in as low as rea­son­ably achiev­able doses.

It would most cer­tainly be con­sid­ered mal­prac­tice for Small’s fa­ther to ad­min­is­ter such lethal lev­els of ra­di­a­tion ther­apy in mod­ern-day medicine. Yet Small is ex­tremely for­giv­ing to­wards his fa­ther and mother – he has been able to look past their self­ish mis­takes and ne­glect of his needs, and see their pain as well.

At the end of the book, he de­scribes an­other dream of his mother and grand­mother, in which he al­ludes to his brief flir­ta­tion with de­pres­sion and mad­ness.

For­tu­nately, he chose a dif­fer­ent path, and, in find­ing com­pas­sion for his mother, he found his own san­ity. n David Small’s graphic novel Stitches is avail­able at Ki­noku­niya, KLCC.

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