David Small Talks with The White Rabbit’s Grandniece

Posted by on October 6th, 2010 at 12:01 AM

Interview by Danica Davidson

This all started because my grandmother opened the graphic novel Stitches, pointed to an anthropomorphic rabbit, and said, “That’s Harold.” That surprised me because the last time I’d seen Harold Davidson — my grandfather’s older brother and hence my great-uncle — he’d looked a little more human.

My grandmother showed me the acknowledgments in the back of the book that ended with, “Lastly, my special thanks to Dr. Harold Davidson for pulling me to my feet and placing me on the road to the examined life.”

Of course, I’d known about Harold’s work in psychoanalysis, but having him as a character in a graphic novel about his psychoanalytical work was an entirely different story. In an article in the New York Times by Eric Konigsberg, it says, “If Stitches has a hero, it’s the psychoanalyst…” My grandmother explained that Stitches has an Alice in Wonderland theme and my relative had been portrayed as the White Rabbit.

Stitches has much more than that. It’s a searing visual memoir of David Small’s childhood, showing the constraining and abusive environment of his home life. His grandmother wasn’t quite right in the head (which is a folksy way of putting it), while his embittered mother attempted to be a closet lesbian in a repressive society, and his father, the doctor of the family, puffed away on his pipe. It was this father who, inadvertently, gave his son David throat cancer. This is a story about voicelessness, and learning to find and use that voice.

- Danica Davidson

DANICA DAVIDSON: How was it that you put Harold in the book?

DAVID SMALL: I knew that I had to put my psychoanalysis in the book in some form, because my analyst saved my life. That scene where he tells me that my mother doesn’t love me… and the tears and the rain… that was something I was compelled to recreate. It was a formative moment in my young life. Still, I hesitated for a long time because I didn’t know how to depict psychoanalysis in any way that was interesting. Two heads talking in a room, basically. What can you do with that? You can shoot it from the ceiling, shoot it from the floor up, in profile or full-face, but it’s nothing but two people talking. Also, my book was becoming more and more wordless at that time, and psychoanalysis is all about language. It’s called the “Talking Cure,” after all.

Then one day I got inspired and made my doctor into the White Rabbit. That character is the usher into the subconscious world. He takes Alice below ground and shows her metaphors for what goes on in the real world. Alice, being a good, clean-minded Victorian child, rejects it all as nonsense, of course, but in my book, that gets flipped around. In Stitches the nonsense world becomes the world of truth-telling. I hope the inclusion of the dream sequences might help readers understand the way dreams work. To me, the dream world and waking life are indivisible.

Harold introduced me to the interpretation of dreams, which can seem like flapdoodle until you learn to read them correctly. I say that he put me on the road to the examined life, and it’s true.

Somebody said that psychoanalysis, done properly, is like reliving your childhood, this time with a perfect parent. That’s what Harold was for me, a loving and responsible surrogate father. He was kind, he was patient, and he never lost his temper. I was welcome to speak about whatever I wished. Nothing shocked him. Of course, since I had just had the operation, speaking was very hard for me. In fact, it hurt. Also, since I had never been encouraged — never allowed — to say what was on my mind, I could hardly get the words out. So in my case, the Talking Cure got totally reversed and it was the doctor, not the patient, who did most of the talking! Do you know how rare this is in an analyst, to take that much trouble for a patient?

DAVIDSON: What do you think might have happened if you hadn’t met him?

SMALL: I might have killed myself with drugs or some other way. Or gone to jail. I was really a mess. It was Harold who pulled me to my feet, who got me to move out of my parents’ house at 16, it was he who got my father to take a stand against my mother for the first time, and persuaded my father to pay for my treatment. My mother was totally against it.

DAVIDSON: What importance do comics have as a silent, visual medium, given the fact you once lost your voice?

SMALL: It was the ideal form: panels and long sequences of images, often without words. This gave me the power to make the movie of my early life. It’s what everyone wants to do, yeah? We’re all making our life’s movie in our heads nowadays. I’m no filmmaker, but I’ve studied film as an art form since I was in college. When I found the graphic-novel form I realized that I had the means to make my own movie, in book form, which I also have been working at for more than 30 years.

Before I discovered graphic novels, I’d been working on the idea of doing something autobiographical for almost a decade. It had actually started as a short story. That scene in the hospital corridor — the sock-skating and seeing this series of jars with weird things in them — that was an image I couldn’t get rid of from my childhood. I wrote it as a story and Holly — my literary agent — said, “I think this is the novel you’ve been wanting to write. So get to it, boy.” Every once in a while she’d say, “How’s it going?” And I’d lie to her, because it wasn’t going anywhere. I didn’t want her to think I couldn’t do something I’d promised both of us I could do. And then I suddenly found the graphic novels and read a few of them that really meant something to me.

In Paris, I saw the French bande dessinées and also looked at some of the things being done in Italy. These were books dealing with serious themes in a serious way. Plus, there was a strong filmic quality to them. I recognized in many of these books the influence of filmmakers I admire. All of that attracted me to the medium.

So it was really that introduction to a new form, plus my interest in film, plus my ability to draw much more fluidly than I write, which led me to do Stitches this way. The more I got into it, the more I realized the book would be better with less language. The last couple of versions were a systematic paring down of things to the simple, the direct and the silent. That seemed not only comfortable to me, but it seemed very appropriate to the theme of the book, which is voicelessness. And people have responded to it much in the way I intended, which has been very gratifying.

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