Inside Trauma

Drawing (by Sabrina Parra) of Sadness, a character from the Disney movie Inside Out.

The concept of writing sad realities instead of cheerful lies was a new and incomprehensible notion presented to me through both David Small’s Stitchesand Tillie Walden’s Spinning, two graphic memoirs of the difficulties each of these authors faced throughout their lives. Not only did these two individuals choose to write about their trauma but illustrate dozens of wrenching moments that would be forever immortalized on paper, sitting on a shelf hauntingly.

It quickly became evident, however, that the decision was not only thought-out, but incredibly effective in terms of storytelling. Hillary Chute helps provide some perspective as to why authors might pick comics as their chosen medium to divulge their traumatic stories in Women, Comics, and the Risks of Representation. It seems that the nature of comics mimics that of memory, spotty and subjective, description that is especially applicable to traumatic memory. It’s possible that the similarity in nature helps provide the reader with an experience closer to what the author experienced, than they could if they attempted to read only through written text.

“Images in comics appear in fragments, just as they do in actual recollection; this fragmentation, in particular, is a prominent feature of traumatic memory.’, The art of crafting words and pictures together into a narrative punctuated by pause or absence, as in comics, also mimics the procedure of memory. These connections establish the groundwork for childhood, then, as well as the specificity of childhood trauma, to assume a primary place in graphic narrative.” (Chute, p.4)

The aforementioned place of trauma within comics is especially evident in the existence of gaps between frames, as well as the sporadic view of relevant moments. Due to the fact that it is impossible for a comic artist to capture every second of their story, they must pick their moments wisely. The same could be said for any kind of writing, especially storytelling, but in comics, we visually see a set of frames, literal moments that have been carved out, while everything in between, the gutter, is up for the reader to fill in. As often can be the case with memory, the mind may vividly remember one moment, one image, one phrase, and not be entirely sure about what lays in between these moments. We can clearly see images mimicking memory in Spinning, with the repeated image of the SAT tutor holding the pencil out for Tillie to grab, something that is clearly branded into her mind, and appears frequently, which she replicates in her book. David Small also demonstrates the echo of memory in his images when he focuses on the image of the fetus he encounters one day, which also pops up over and over again, showing how he had difficulty ever forgetting this. The details of everything else about the encounter are much less vivid.

Something I found particularly interesting in this pursuit was the fact that both Tillie Walden and David Small show themselves using drawing as an escape from their current situations; Tillie Walden with her art classes and David Small quite strikingly letting his childhood imagination leak into his version of events, for example, showing his therapist as a white rabbit, giving us an unspoken indication of his escapism. We literally see him diving into his drawings to escape. What is most interesting and thought-provoking is that despite these tendencies they both show towards escaping through art, they use their very same art to confront the hand they’ve been dealt. Is this a form of escape? Are they falling back on an activity they know they can trust and wielding it like a weapon against what has harmed them?

Whatever their motivations, as Hillary Chute claimed and I must agree, comics are definitely well suited for these kinds of narratives that deal with trauma. We can see how the artists weave trauma into their books wordlessly. David Small shows us his repression through silence. Tillie Walden represents her depression by giving her book a repetitive and monotonous feeling, having even big or important events be swallowed by the reliable patterns that show her continuously moving despite her internal turmoil. There wouldn’t be nearly the same effect in a purely alphabetical text. The combination of images and words provides an opportunity for the artists to faithfully represent their histories.

Tillie Walden has some interesting thoughts on her preference for the medium, which she expressed during an interview with Molly Barnewitz, a writer for Comicsverse, unwittingly providing one of the most crucial reasons that comics work as well as they do.

“As far as how the medium expresses these themes, I think comics are really interesting in how they allow a story to be told. It’s all about combining single moments. Like in a movie, we don’t get to linger on our favorite frames. But in comics, we’re allowed to. So I’m always drawn to picking moments that deal with space and atmosphere and memory, I suppose, because I feel like those are interesting moments to linger on.” (qtd. in Barnewitz)

Walden touches on a fundamental subject here: time. Hillary Chute refers to comics representing “time as space on the page” (Chute, p.7), and both the authors are referring to the fact that in comics, the past, present, and future are available to the reader at the same time, and, as Walden suggests, this allows the reader to linger in the moments as long as they deem necessary, helping transform these personal narratives into something the reader too is involved in. It rapidly becomes a relationship with the reader. The comic comes to life only in that combination of the writer and reader’s efforts, almost like a conversation. The artists can lay out whatever they deem important, and the reader will experience these events in a different way each time. Unlike a movie where images flash by and you’re forced to go at a specific speed, the story will not continue in a comic until the reader turns the page, or even moves their eyes.

Whether we like it or not, sadness, sorrow and trauma are a part of life that we often attempt to neglect, ignore, or shun. As much as we may try to avoid it, these are essential to life and growth. At times, letting sadness wash over us can lead to something good, be it a fresh perspective, a strengthened bond, or even the simple confrontation of issues that that had been previously dodged, and confrontation, while frightening, can lead to resolution. If there’s one thing David Small taught us, it’s that repression of negative emotions, a common theme throughout his family, can have disastrous consequences. Tillie Walden shows us how exasperatingly simple it was to end skating, something that she’d refused to confront that she hated, and that made her miserable. It’s also true that just being sad doesn’t always lead to some magic solution, and maybe it doesn’t have to, maybe we have to let ourselves feel and be honest with ourselves and see what happens next.

Frame taken from Spinning, page 200, where Tillie Walden is referring to feelings of fear, something that a lot of people can relate to.

Facing trauma is scary, especially when alone. Nevertheless, just like having princesses who aren’t always fair-skinned and blonde haired so that kids can feel represented, seeing characters in beautifully created books who experience very human emotions such as grief, anxiety, depression, hopelessness, even if they’re in specific situations not everyone can relate to (i.e. figure skating or loss of vocal cords), the essence and emotion of the texts may be something that readers may be able to see, identify, and maybe drop their shoulders and think I’m not the only one.

Works Cited:

Walden, Tillie. Spinning. First Second, 2017.

Small, David. Stitches: A Memoir. Reservoir Books, 2010.

Chute, Hillary L. Graphic Women: Life Narrative and Contemporary Comics. Columbia University Press, 2010.

Barnewitz, Molly. “Interview With Eisner-Winning Creator Tillie Walden.” ComicsVerse, 15 Sept. 2018,