Traumatic, Courageous, Inspiring

Before comparing the stories of David Small and Tillie Walden, along with Hilary Chute’s, “Women, Comics, and the Risks of Representation,” I would like to first mention the emotional attachment I discovered for each of these graphic memoirs. There were certain aspects of David and Tillie’s lives, stated in their perspective comics that I was able to personally connect with. Whether it was David’s struggle to relate to his peers or Tillie’s frustration with a sport she excels in, I felt my understanding for their memoirs came from a deeper, personal standpoint. As stated in the prompt, David and Tillie both dealt with situations of trauma, and experienced different paths to recovery. While David’s story exemplifies the struggle of health and family, Tillie’s story focuses on the struggle of dealing with the pressure to perform and being someone that she isn’t. However, both of these author’s share an obstacle and goal that I believe define both of their memoirs. This obstacle can be summarized by the phrase, ‘the struggle within oneself.’ Their goal is to discover freedom.

According to Hilary Chute, the authors of graphic narratives, “revisit their pasts, retrace events, and literally re-picture them.” The work of David Small and Tillie Walden exemplify this one of Chute’s statements. Stitches and Spinning both serve as memoirs regarding stories of trauma for their respective authors. Whether through illustration or dialogue, both Small and Walden have unique ways of highlighting significant events in their story. Hillary Chute’s essay “Women, Comics, and the Risks of Representation,” provides insight and analysis into the thought process and style of graphic memoir authors. However, I believe that Small and Walden did it somewhat differently than what Chute states.

Chute mentions that a, “graphic narrative presents a traumatic side of history, but all these authors refuse to show it through the lens of unspeakability or invisibility…” Small didn’t refuse. Small tells his story through the lens of unspeakability. However, one may argue that Small voiced his emotions through the text. I agree that the dialogue is his voice, but my perspective on the idea of unspeakability focuses on David Small’s family life. David Small comes from a very uncommunicative family, where each family member has a unique way of communicating with one another. Additionally, David suffers from parent neglect, as his parents do not even care to tell their own son that he has cancer. Dialogue from the text specifically states, “Whoever said you had cancer?” ‘Nobody, Mom. That’s the problem. Duh.’ “Well, the fact is, you did have cancer…but you didn’t need to know anything then…and you don’t need to know about it now. That’s FINAL!” David had to find out for himself, rather than be told. The unfortunate part is that he would never be able to express his frustration when his parents tell him. David becomes mute following the surgery. He did not only lose his voice that day. He lost his childhood. David is unable to speak, but even when he could speak, his family would never listen.

For David Small, the dialogue in Stitches relates to the literal implementation of unspeakability mentioned by Chute. For Tillie Walden, her story revolved around the idea of invisibility from a social and personal point of view. The following statement, “And I found out quickly that a fancier school did not mean fewer bullies,” from the text is all I need to explain how Walden’s traumatic experiences relate to the idea of invisibility. Walden was a victim of bullying. One may argue that the topic of bullying doesn’t relate to being invisible. However, from personal experience, I do know that the victims of bullying are visible to the eye of the bully, but invisible to the eye of the public. Tillie was invisible to the public and more importantly, she was invisible to her family. For ten long years of Tillie Walden’s life, figure skating was everything. From practices in the morning, afternoon, and evening, along with competitions over the weekend, Tillie Walden did not have the life of a normal student. At first, Tillie considered figure skating as her personal identity. It was her safe haven. But she grew to hate it. She grew to realize that it wasn’t as much as a safe haven as she thought of it to be. Yet, she didn’t feel comfortable to tell her mother. She was scared to speak to her mother and tell her the truth. Not only had Tillie Walden discovered a new passion that wasn’t skating, but she also falls in love with her first girlfriend in the story. Tillie Walden homosexuality is another situation that relates to the idea of invisibility. In today’s day and age, homosexuality has become a part of society, but back then, it was something people would hide. Tillie’s realization of her sexuality and newfound interests eventually make her question how she feels about figure skating and if it is really worth pursuing. Is she doing it for herself, or is she doing it for someone else? This is the question Tillie discovers the answer to as her story progresses, and her journey continues to find her own voice. Her path to recovery was finding her own voice and finding a place where she didn’t have to be invisible.

Although Small and Walden’s text go against Chute’s words that authors refuse to tell their traumatic memories through the “lens of unspeakability or invisibility,” both of their works do relate to an alternative statement she makes in regard to the framing of a graphic narrative. Chute says that “the graphic narratives I analyze are not only about events but also, explicitly, about how we frame them.” Personally, I feel like Chute has done a correct analysis because the framing of both Stitches and Spinning add to the overall dynamic and emotion of the story. When I think of framing, I think of the author’s use of illustration. More specifically, I think of how the author has framed their drawings in correlation to the text. Interestingly, for David Small’s, drawings were not only a part of his comic, but also an important part of his story. Drawing was how David would express himself in his uncommunicative family. Small discusses how important drawing was for him multiple times in the story. In the end, art is David’s way out of Detroit and his family. It was his path to freedom.

David Small image
One of my favorite illustrations portraying David’s love for drawing and foreshadowing his artistic future. One of the few scenes where you see David with a happy expression.

While the framing for Stitches was somewhat ironic, the framing and artwork in Spinning was very emotional. I felt that Tillie Walden wanted the reader to feel her struggle more than picture it. While the images provided a clear portrayal of each scene, it was the combination of the illustrations and the emphasized text that added to the meaning of the story. Because Walden focused more on the idea of her voice being heard and not being afraid to be herself, the illustrations were not as effective by themselves, unlike in Stitches. However, the dynamic of the illustrations and text created by Walden allowed the reader to put themselves in her shoes and experience the trauma that she had to experience at such a young age.

An unfortunate, but important portrayal of Tillie, once again, not fitting in. She feels somewhat comfortable expressing that she “knows a homo” through this game with her friends, but then is immediately shut down. The illustrations depict the game, and the text depicts the harsh responses. Together, they create an emotional situation.

I mentioned in the beginning of this essay that I made a personal connection with both of these graphic memoirs To elaborate, I truly felt that there were parts to these memoirs that I could personally relate to. I discovered that David Small and I share a love for drawing. Drawing is my safe-haven, as it is for David. I may not be a talented artist, but I understand the feeling of freedom and relaxation that David feels when he draws. As for Tillie, I emotionally connect and relate to her struggle with bullying. However, her work on Spinning proved to be more encouraging and inspiring to me, rather than traumatic. For the readers that do agree with me or don’t agree, I found inspiration from these stories rather than sorrow. Graphic narratives can be traumatic as per Chute, but they can also be uplifting.

Works Cited

“Graphic Women.” Columbia University Press,

Walden, Tillie. Spinning. First Second, 2017.

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

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