Stitches and Spinning are sad books. To be perfectly honest, reading them has been a challenge. Writing, to me, has always felt like an escape, a world full of possibilities, where you can become anyone, go anywhere, meet any person you like. The potential routes are literally endless, the limits are your imagination. If life was ever keeping me down, girls were being mean to me at school, or classes were just boring, then all I had to do was pull out my notebook and imagine a dragon flying over the mountains out the window, or go to a world where kids miss school all the time because they’re too busy having adventures. So to reach for a book, a comic that was beautifully drawn, with covers that popped, and see the authors confront their harsh realities instead of avoid them was incomprehensible to me. They could write about anything and they chose reality? Furthermore, I could be reading anything, and I chose these dismal stories? It made me reevaluate not only what could be done through comics, but the value of using this medium for traumatic personal narratives.
Hillary Chute offers some perspective on the topic in Women, Comics, and The Risks of Representation, where she claims that comics are uniquely suited to deal with trauma, in that they mimic how memory, especially traumatic memory, tends to be: spotty and subjective.
“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)
This is especially evident in the existence of gaps between frames, and the sporadic view of relevant moments, with most of the in-between cut out, either forgotten, implicit, or deemed irrelevant. David Small writes towards the end of Stitches:
“If this had been her [David’s mother’s] story, not mine, her secret life as a lesbian would certainly have been examined more closely.” (Small, p.327)
Through this, the author clearly points out that his narrative was from a very particular perspective: his own, and recognizes that there are other stories to be told. But as is the nature of memory, he can only tell what he remembers, and what he felt. Comics allow him to do so.
Moreover, comics help the author depict what they remember in a way that is true to both the event and their experience of the event, possibly exaggerating or shifting certain “facts” in favor of sincerely delivering the emotion they were experiencing.
Stitches and Spinning do this in very distinctive ways. David Small lets 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. He also shows us his repression through silence, but I’ll get more into that in a moment. 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 if Walden used tedium, or if Small tried to describe the man explicitly as a rabbit, in a purely alphabetical text. The combination of images and words provides an opportunity for the artists to faithfully represent their histories.
It should be said that the use of drawings and letters is a spectrum within which Spinning and Stitches
have distinctly different positions. Due to the fact that silence is an important part of David Small’s case, his book is full of striking images to help express his trauma, while Tillie Walden chooses to have a greater amount of text depicting daily life, thoughts, and lots of dialogue (though it’s worth noting that her book is not all the way towards the Letter part of the spectrum, as it has an abundance of images as well). These different styles are uniquely suited to the writer’s story and help show the flexibility of the medium they have both chosen.
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.
“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 crucial subject here: time. Hillary Chute refers to comics representing “time as space on the page” (Chute, p.7), and both there 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. Because looking back on the rest of this essay, it’s safe to say that comics as a good medium for depicting trauma is a solid notion, but it all comes back to the reluctance of picking up a book that deals with real-life pain so openly.
To answer this, I’ll turn to the reason I picked Sadness from the Disney movie Inside Out as my cover image. If there’s one thing that the movie teaches us, is that that sadness, as much as we may try to avoid it, is essential in life. Sometimes we have to let ourselves be sad. If we do, then often something good can come from it, be it a fresh perspective, a strengthened bond, or even the simple confrontation of issues that we had been avoiding, and confrontation, while scary, can lead to resolution. Also, if there’s one thing David Small taught us, it’s that repression of negative emotions, something present all 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 sadness doesn’t always lead to something good, and maybe it doesn’t have to, maybe we have to let ourselves feeland be honest with ourselves and see what happens next.
Facing this is scary, especially when alone. 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 are something that reader may be able to see, identify, and maybe drop their shoulders and think I’m not the only one.
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, comicsverse.com/tillie-walden-interview/.