The Drawing Cure

Question: How did “Stitches” come about? 

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David Small: It started as an act of self-therapy, really. I found that I had reached over half a century of life, and that I was still, in spite of the fact that I have a perfect career doing something I really love to do, a wonderful home, a wonderful, wonderful marriage, friendship—and in spite of all of these things I was having dreams and sometimes anxieties and exhibiting a kind of erratic behavior that showed quite clearly that I was still on some level a troubled lad of 14, or even younger. And I had always wanted to write maybe stories or something relating to some things that had happened to me as a young man, but I never thought that there was a full memoir or even a possibility of a book in there. But I did have this need to go back and to see my youth again. What I really wanted was, I really wanted to go back into psychoanalysis. I'd had a wonderful analyst, who's in the book, for 12 years when I was a young man. But I wouldn't call it deep Freudian analysis because I was so young. My analysis really was going to an office, first five and then three times a week for many years, and sitting down with a man who actually was, for me, a perfect parent, somebody who just allowed me to be myself, who loved me for who I was, and just allowed me—and he really did love me; I think that's why it was so effective. He really cared for me. And because I had no voice, he had to speak for me.

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So the talking cure in my case got reversed. It was the analyst that did all the talking, telling me what was probably, he thought, going on in my mind. And as it turned out many years later, because of the similarities in our experience, he did understand me very, very well. But you know, being able to sit with somebody who was patient with me and sympathetic and empathetic, and who would allow me to act out my fears and so on, and who didn't despise me for it—you know, that's really what saved me as a young man. And I wanted that back; I wanted to do it again. You know, I was, I think 55, maybe 10 years ago, when I first started longing to go back. And I also—I wanted it back fully. I didn't want to just be going to see a therapist, and—you know, I wanted that kind of relationship. But the fact is, I live out on the edge of a prairie out in Michigan, in a very rural setting, hundreds and hundreds of miles from that kind of help. I'm not even sure I have health insurance that would cover it. So I finally realized, after yearning for it for so long, this impossible thing, that if I was going to have it, I was really going to have to give it to myself. And that's what I did: I started sitting down and, first in prose and then later on in pictures, tried to write out what had happened to me as a kid. And I tried to imitate what my old analyst had done for me. I was patient as I worked through all this mess of memories, which of course came back with no—you know, memories aren't chronological; they didn’t come back in any logical order. But I just let that happen; I let it flow. If I had dreams that I had—if I suffered from a dream that disturbed me at the time, I would write it down as I usually do and try to—and then to draw it out—when it started becoming a graphic thing. And so I was trying to be like my doctor; I was trying to be patient and sympathetic, and yet not totally tolerant, you know. There was always an expectation that I would get through this. And then later on, when I had a contract from a publisher, that was another spur to get through it, to get to the end. And that's the way it developed; that's the way it started. It didn't really start as a book; it started as therapy.

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Question: Did the book force you to confront painful buried memories?

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David Small: I think the worst thing, the worst part, was when I started drawing things out they really got real for me. As long as I was doing it in prose, there seemed to be kind of a scrim between me and the experiences that I was remembering, shadows moving behind an opaque screen. But when I began to draw especially my mother, when I saw her face on the page, and when I realized that I could draw her from any angle, and really brought her back with all of her—that aura that she had—it was as if she was with me again. It was as if I had really brought the ghosts back, and I began to get very, very anxious, because even after the age of 50 it was impossible for me to see my mother as a human being. I felt she was a monster, and she had subtly been influencing my behavior and my thoughts and my dreams for so long that she was kind of a monster; she was a demon. And when I brought her back to life, I could feel that malevolent presence around me again, that woman who was totally incapable of giving nurturing to anybody, and, you know, her selfishness and her withdrawn indifference to everything but her own needs. And I began feeling these feelings of anxiety that I used to have when she was alive, and especially when I was a teenager. And one night my wife and I were out at a restaurant, and I was leaning on my face like this, or on my neck, and I suddenly could feel this lump swelling up under my fingers. And I thought at first that it was just some sort of physical hallucination, until I looked at my wife, and she had just gone white. She reached across the table and took my wrist, and she said, darling, what's wrong? And I said, I don't know. And she thrust a glass of wine into my hands and said, drink this. And I drank it, and it calmed me down a little bit, but I could actually feel that this lump was there.

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It was hard and it was big and growing. And it was exactly like this lump that I had had in my neck when I was 14 that had taken years and years to get to the size of like an eggplant. But here it had come back in a matter of minutes. And I stumbled into the men's room, which, thank God, was empty, and I had to see it in the mirror, because I had to see what was happening to me. And there indeed again was this lump that I had had, which was of course cancerous when I was 14. And I realized at that moment that my body was expressing all of my repressed feelings and all of my anger and anxiety. Since I wasn't letting it out, since I wasn't able to speak about it, my body was speaking for me. And I understood in that moment, in that place, that awful little room, that I could die from it if I didn’t do something about it, that it was going to kill me. And it could have happened right there. And so I just took some deep breaths, and I said, this is not where I'm going to die, and this is not the end. And I'm going to do something about this. And it was that moment when I resolved to seriously get to work on this book. And the lump, of course, turned out to be a swollen gland. It went right down that same hour; it just went away. It just disappeared.

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Question: Did drawing your parents humanize them for you?

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David Small: Absolutely, yeah. No doubt about it. And that—you know, that humanization and that coming to understand somebody as a human being is about as good a kind of forgiveness as you can get, I think. I don't like my parents; I never will. I didn't cry at either of their funerals. I haven't missed them for five seconds. I didn't—you know, our characters were so at odds with one another right from the beginning. But I do understand them now as human beings, with the understanding of an adult. As a man, I can now—having seen them again and brought them back; having, you know, furnished the rooms and let the ghosts come in and act their little plays again—I've been able to see them and understand their impulses, their fears—their fears of having no money in the case of my mother. You know, that's an adult thing. Or hidden sexuality, sexual impulses that you don't want to bring out—that's an adult thing. Children don't understand this. You know, as a six-year-old—and my brother, we just—the two of us could not understand what was going on in our household. And I don't think any kid really can until they're adults. There are just certain things you can't talk about with kids. I just totally do not believe in this sort of Bart Simpson character who infects so much of our literature and film and TV stuff nowadays, these know-it-all kids who seem to understand the hypocrisy of the adult world so thoroughly and can talk about it with such articulateness. That's bunk. Kids are kids; they're innocents, they really are. For a long time, no matter what they see, no matter what they're exposed to, they can't get it until they have developed enough.

Recorded on November 18, 2009
Interviewed by Austin Allen

How David Small’s experience with therapy in adolescence inspired the cathartic self-analysis of his memoir, "Stitches."

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Politics & Current Affairs

Political division is nothing new. Throughout American history there have been numerous flare ups in which the political arena was more than just tense but incideniary. In a letter addressed to William Hamilton in 1800, Thomas Jefferson once lamented about how an emotional fervor had swept over the populace in regards to a certain political issue at the time. It disturbed him greatly to see how these political issues seemed to seep into every area of life and even affect people's interpersonal relationships. At one point in the letter he states:

"I never considered a difference of opinion in politics, in religion, in philosophy, as cause for withdrawing from a friend."

Today, we Americans find ourselves in a similar situation, with our political environment even more splintered due to a number of factors. The advent of mass digital media, siloed identity-driven political groups, and a societal lack of understanding of basic discursive fundamentals all contribute to the problem.

Civil discourse has fallen to an all time low.

The question that the American populace needs to ask itself now is: how do we fix it?


Discursive fundamentals need to be taught to preserve free expression

In a 2017 Free Speech and Tolerance Survey by Cato, it was found that 71% of Americans believe that political correctness had silenced important discussions necessary to our society. Many have pointed to draconian university policies regarding political correctness as a contributing factor to this phenomenon.

It's a great irony that, colleges, once true bastions of free-speech, counterculture and progressiveness, have now devolved into reactionary tribal politics.

Many years ago, one could count on the fact that universities would be the first places where you could espouse and debate any controversial idea without consequence. The decline of staple subjects that deal with the wisdom of the ancients, historical reference points, and civic discourse could be to blame for this exaggerated partisanship boiling on campuses.

Young people seeking an education are given a disservice when fed biased ideology, even if such ideology is presented with the best of intentions. Politics are but one small sliver for society and the human condition at large. Universities would do well to instead teach the principles of healthy discourse and engagement across the ideological spectrum.

The fundamentals of logic, debate and the rich artistic heritage of western civilization need to be the central focus of an education. They help to create a well-rounded citizen that can deal with controversial political issues.

It has been found that in the abstract, college students generally support and endorse the first amendment, but there's a catch when it comes to actually practicing it. This was explored in a Gallup survey titled: Free Expression on Campus: What college students think about First amendment issues.

In their findings the authors state:

"The vast majority say free speech is important to democracy and favor an open learning environment that promotes the airing of a wide variety of ideas. However, the actions of some students in recent years — from milder actions such as claiming to be threatened by messages written in chalk promoting Trump's candidacy to the most extreme acts of engaging in violence to stop attempted speeches — raise issues of just how committed college students are to
upholding First Amendment ideals.

Most college students do not condone more aggressive actions to squelch speech, like violence and shouting down speakers, although there are some who do. However, students do support many policies or actions that place limits on speech, including free speech zones, speech codes and campus prohibitions on hate speech, suggesting that their commitment to free speech has limits. As one example, barely a majority think handing out literature on controversial issues is "always acceptable."

With this in mind, the problems seen on college campuses are also being seen on a whole through other pockets of society and regular everyday civic discourse. Look no further than the dreaded and cliche prospect of political discussion at Thanksgiving dinner.

Talking politics at Thanksgiving dinner

As a result of this increased tribalization of views, it's becoming increasingly more difficult to engage in polite conversation with people possessing opposing viewpoints. The authors of a recent Hidden Tribes study broke down the political "tribes" in which many find themselves in:

  • Progressive Activists: younger, highly engaged, secular, cosmopolitan, angry.
  • Traditional Liberals: older, retired, open to compromise, rational, cautious.
  • Passive Liberals: unhappy, insecure, distrustful, disillusioned.
  • Politically Disengaged: young, low income, distrustful, detached, patriotic, conspiratorial
  • Moderates: engaged, civic-minded, middle-of-the-road, pessimistic, Protestant.
  • Traditional Conservatives: religious, middle class, patriotic, moralistic.
  • Devoted Conservatives: white, retired, highly engaged, uncompromising,
    Patriotic.

Understanding these different viewpoints and the hidden tribes we may belong to will be essential in having conversations with those we disagree with. This might just come to a head when it's Thanksgiving and you have a mix of many different personalities, ages, and viewpoints.

It's interesting to note the authors found that:

"Tribe membership shows strong reliability in predicting views across different political topics."

You'll find that depending on what group you identify with, that nearly 100 percent of the time you'll believe in the same way the rest of your group constituents do.

Here are some statistics on differing viewpoints according to political party:

  • 51% of staunch liberals say it's "morally acceptable" to punch Nazis.
  • 53% of Republicans favor stripping U.S. citizenship from people who burn the American flag.
  • 51% of Democrats support a law that requires Americans use transgender people's preferred gender pronouns.
  • 65% of Republicans say NFL players should be fired if they refuse to stand for the anthem.
  • 58% of Democrats say employers should punish employees for offensive Facebook posts.
  • 47% of Republicans favor bans on building new mosques.

Understanding the fact that tribal membership indicates what you believe, can help you return to the fundamentals for proper political engagement

Here are some guidelines for civic discourse that might come in handy:

  • Avoid logical fallacies. Essentially at the core, a logical fallacy is anything that detracts from the debate and seeks to attack the person rather than the idea and stray from the topic at hand.
  • Practice inclusion and listen to who you're speaking to.
  • Have the idea that there is nothing out of bounds for inquiry or conversation once you get down to an even stronger or new perspective of whatever you were discussing.
  • Keep in mind the maxim of : Do not listen with the intent to reply. But with the intent to understand.
  • We're not trying to proselytize nor shout others down with our rhetoric, but come to understand one another again.
  • If we're tied too closely to some in-group we no longer become an individual but a clone of someone else's ideology.

Civic discourse in the divisive age

Debate and civic discourse is inherently messy. Add into the mix an ignorance of history, rabid politicization and debased political discourse, you can see that it will be very difficult in mending this discursive staple of a functional civilization.

There is still hope that this great divide can be mended, because it has to be. The Hidden Tribes authors at one point state:

"In the era of social media and partisan news outlets, America's differences have become
dangerously tribal, fueled by a culture of outrage and taking offense. For the combatants,
the other side can no longer be tolerated, and no price is too high to defeat them.
These tensions are poisoning personal relationships, consuming our politics and
putting our democracy in peril.


Once a country has become tribalized, debates about contested issues from
immigration and trade to economic management, climate change and national security,
become shaped by larger tribal identities. Policy debate gives way to tribal conflicts.
Polarization and tribalism are self-reinforcing and will likely continue to accelerate.
The work of rebuilding our fragmented society needs to start now. It extends from
re-connecting people across the lines of division in local communities all the way to
building a renewed sense of national identity: a bigger story of us."

We need to start teaching people how to approach subjects from less of an emotional or baseless educational bias or identity, especially in the event that the subject matter could be construed to be controversial or uncomfortable.

This will be the beginning of a new era of understanding, inclusion and the defeat of regressive philosophies that threaten the core of our nation and civilization.