Review: Stitches: A Memoir by David Small

Stitches: A Memoir is my second ever experience with a graphic novel. My first, a flu-induced bedridden weekend and a copy of The Complete Sandman by Neil Gaiman. And let me tell you, if you’ve never read The Sandman graphic novels, that is some dark business. Dark, and wonderful. However, even though I enjoyed The Sandman, I just never really thought graphic novels were my thing. Probably because anime and manga also came to mind, and having read those, I KNOW those aren’t my thing. But, tonight I was culling my TBR pile, as I’m not going to be able to get to the library tomorrow, and I came across this book, which I bought when it was assigned for a contemporary literature class. And, I decided, why not. I’d probably be able to get through it quickly enough.

I got through it. Oh yes, I got through it. I practically inhaled it. It was less than an hour, start to finish, I would say. And it was a whirlwind of an hour. I’ve seen this book described as a “tragicomedy” by a number of reviews (yes, I’m a little late to this bandwagon. Par for the course, I’d say). But I didn’t see it. All I saw was tragedy. And a pitiable circumstance. But also a brave boy to have survived through something like this. At it’s heart, this is a story about a broken family, in an oppressed time and culture, who didn’t know how to love their son; and, of course, it’s about their son, who learned to love regardless. It’s a memoir, which is the first time I’ve ever read a non-fiction genre of graphic novel (considering it’s only my second, that shouldn’t be surprising. 😀 ), and I loved it. Which is to say, I loved David Small. Not only was his story heartbreaking and scary (how could a parent do that to their child? How can we not pity them?), but his ability to illustrate it with such beautiful, sparse artwork only echoes the feelings of sparsity and claustrophobic stoicism that runs throughout the novel.

Stitches tells the story of David Small’s life, growing up in a midwestern town of industry, with a father who is a doctor and a mother who stays at home with the children. But this is far from the happy family unit that it might appear to be on the outside. This is a family where the mother spends her entire life enraged and bitter, lashing out at her family **SPOILER** because she’s a closeted lesbian who can have affairs (with the nextdoor neighbor), but never a full life of love. ** END SPOILERS**. This is a family where the father, believing the medical science at the time, repeatedly exposes his son to X-rays in an attempt to help cure him of some sinus problems. This, while sad, could be understandable, given that the father was just following what he knew to be appropriate medical procedure at the time (this story begins in the early 1960s). However, the incredibly outrageous part (by which I mean I was outraged) **SPOILER** was that David then ended up developing cancer in his neck/throat and has to have part of his vocal cords removed, which leaves an incredible scar and permanently alters David’s life. And the even more ridiculous part? THEY DON’T TELL HIM. They tell him the mass on his neck is just a ‘growth’ that needs two surgeries to remove. I find this, I have to say, unforgivable. **END SPOILERS**

I wish I could throw this book at every person I pass. I handed it to FBM literally minutes after finishing it and, half an hour later, he was done. That’s how absorbed he was. In all fairness, it took me about an hour, but FBM is just a freakishly fast reader! If you’ve read this book, PLEASE let me know, because I’m dying to talk about it, and I have to say that it was a totally successful first attempt at graphic novel reading. Not only was the artwork beautiful and fitting, but the frequent interludes of only illustrated narration really helped me figure out my own way of ‘reading’ graphic interpretations of narrative structures. I’m hoping this will come in really handy because I just picked up The Adventures of the Princess and Mr. Whiffle by Patrick Rothfuss from the library, and I’ve heard such great things about it that I can’t wait to get started.

Speaking of the library, I just got back with a HUGE haul so you can be (finally!) expecting my second Library Loot vlog sometime within the next few days. I picked up close to 30 titles on this last trip, so I’m going to do my best to keep it short, but I got such a good mix of old and new, adult and YA, fiction and non-fiction, that I may just have to spend a little bit of time ranting about just how beautiful they all are! I’m still plugging away at the R.I.P. Challenge, adding more and more novels where I can, as my short story reading actually seems to be outpacing my novels, for once! I’ve also taken up  The Island of Dr. Moreau by H.G. Wells for the Dueling Monsters challenge, and as I’ve already got Cthulhu under my belt, you can expect reactions on both of those before too long! And that, my fair friends, has been an update on things going on in my reading life. Hopefully, whatever you’ve got going on, it’s happy reading times for all!


Review: Carolyn Jessop’s Escape

Coming up with something to say about Carolyn Jessop’s Escape is harder to do than I imagined. And it’s not because the book isn’t good. It’s well-written, the kind of memoir I like, focusing on the perception of events and making clear what was later retold or what gaps were filled in. Jessop’s style is easy to digest and it was a quick read – I found myself reading it while walking from class to class, from work to home, from the gym to the car…it was literally like I couldn’t put it down. What makes it hard to talk about is just how outrageous and horrifying the experience of this woman truly was.

Carolyn Jessop was born in to a polygamist family as part of the FLDS (Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints), a fundamentalist splinter group of the mainstream Mormon church. While Jessop spends the first few chapters of her book explaining the history of Mormonism, polygamy, and the break-away of the FLDS from the Mormon church, what was far more interesting in her novel was her description of modern life in an FLDS community (note: the book was originally published in 2007, updated with an epilogue in 2008, and includes the verdict after the YFZ compound raid in Texas).

Carolyn’s father has two wives, and she’s raised in a home where her mother’s fragile mental status and her father’s tyrannical emphasis on obedience shaped the lives of her and her two sisters, one of whom fled the compound at 18. Carolyn has dreams of going to college, becoming a doctor, and helping the fellow women in her community. Instead, at the age of 18 she is married off to Marril Jessop (at the time, he was 50 years old) and becomes his 4th wife in a very unstable home.

What Jessop makes clear from the beginning just how pervasive and deep the mental control of the FLDS leaders truly went. Women were taught that their husband – called their priesthood head – had the power to dictate whether or not they would gain entrance in to the celestial kingdom, and whether or not they would be made exalted goddesses or lowly slaves to their husbands and sister-wives for all eternity in the afterlife. The way to ensure a positive experience in the afterlife was to give your husband absolute obedience, never questioning either him or the prophet of the community (believed to be in complete communication with God). Husbands were encouraged to take multiple wives and have as many children as possible, as children were signs of God’s pleasure with you and the larger your Earth family, the larger your celestial kingdom would be in the afterlife. As wives knew that the best way to please a husband was to have his children, there was often fierce competition between sister-wives. This system of ideologies, although not always abused (Carolyn makes clear that there were many FLDS men who sought to live in harmony with their wives, to not abuse them, treat them as equal, and to follow the teachings of the doctrine as rightly as possible), was the ideal situation for people like Merril Jessop to use and abuse their children to solidify their power.

Carolyn’s relationships with her sister-wives is rife from the beginning. The first wife, Faunita, has been desparaged and berated so severely by Merril that she sleeps all day and only comes out at night to watch televison. Rosie, the second wife, has been mentally and physically abused to the point of suffering a number of nervous breakdowns. Third wife Barbara, Merril’s favorite, ran the house with an iron fist, running to Merril at the first sight of problems and using her powers of manipulation to abuse the rest of the sister-wives. Carolyn is never happy, but feels more devoted to her sense of duty and her belief in her salvation in the afterlife. After Carolyn begins having children with Merril, she is able to bring a sense of centrality and order to her life, waking up more and more to the horrors of her life. Because the sister-wives were seen as sharing the responsibility of properly raising the children, when Carolyn began to be more vocal about the abuse and unfairness of her current situation it meant that the abuse and violence was turned to her children. After 13 years of  marriage, two more cruel and mentally broken sister wives, and eight children (one of which is severely disabled due to a severe cancer case as an infant), Carolyn escaped the compound, made a life for her children in Salt Lake, fell in love again, and won the first every custody case against the FLDS. Her story, one of such horror, ends in happiness and hope.

Wow! Talk about nothing to say. I guess it’s more a matter of just getting started! It’s almost impossible to fathom the horrible things Carolyn Jessop had to experience. She was told, constantly, that she deserved the abuse and it was a punishment from God for not complying with her husband’s wishes. Her children are beaten to the point of passing out, without Carolyn’s knowledge. The older ones are told to pray for her death to mend her rebellious ways. She witnesses women being beaten to the point of miscarry, witnesses an epistiotomy done with scissors and sewn up with dental floss. The FLDS has been placed on lists of hate groups along with the Ku Klux Klan and Aryan Nation. And the saddest part of all is that the women either aren’t able to get help (most local police are also FLDS and won’t provide any help to a woman without her husband’s awareness and permission) or don’t think they need to, believing in the teachings of absolute obedience.

I more than anyone understand the importance and need for religious freedom, but as with all things, there becomes a point where fanatical religious beliefs cross over in to human rights dangers for a larger portion of the citizens involved. And that’s the thing. They are American citizens and deserve the same rights and protections as any other. But with the FLDS’s deep pockets and the fear of the American legal system to take on the biggest cult in America, it’s not exactly a hopeful picture. But I urge you to read this book. It’s a story of a strong woman, a strong mother, and what happens when one person takes on the entire system. It’s wonderful, and horrifying, and touching and uplifting all at the same time.