For this week’s assignment I planned on reading Missing Out: In Praise of the Unlived Life by the psychoanalytic writer and former child psychologist Adam Phillips. I knew the book would have smarty-pants discourse on King Lear and John Ashbery, but I was secretly looking for a little self-help. The first sentence of the prologue seemed promising:
The unexamined life is surely worth living, but is the unlived life worth examining? It seems a strange question until one realizes how much of our so-called mental life is about the lives we are not living, the lives we are missing out on, the lives we could be leading but for some reason are not.
But then came King Lear and John Ashbery. After reading Ali Smith’s hypnotic mix of mix of fiction and comparative literature last week, Phillips’ rambling was just too much dry work. But since I’d paid $25 for the hardcover, I decided to skim the book. One of the things I came across was this quote by Graham Greene:
Writing is a form of therapy; sometimes I wonder how all those who do not write, compose or paint can manage to escape the madness, the melancholia, the panic fear which is inherent in the human condition. Auden noted: ‘Man needs escape as he needs food and deep sleep.’
With those words in mind, I picked up the graphic novel, Stitches by David Small. The book had been on my shelf since visiting Small, a friend of Brad Zellar’s, while Brad and I were making Michigan last fall. I’d thus far avoided reading Stitches because I knew the book was an exceedingly painful childhood memoir. What made this avoidance peculiar is that I’d met the kind, generous and successful author and his wife and thus knew the memoir would have a more-or-less happy ending.
Boy, am I glad I finally read the book. While there is nothing more painful to read than cruelty inflicted on children, the book offers soaring moments of hope and redemption.
As with Greene, the hope comes with art:
But the true therapy comes, somewhat surprisingly, from therapy. Midway through the book a teenaged Small visits a psychologist and finally gets a rational perspective on his situation:
A boy who has had cancer…A boy whose parents and doctors did not tell him he had cancer…a boy who had to find out the truth on his own…Is this crazy?…You’ve been living in a world full of nonsense, David. No one had been telling you the truth about anything. But I’m going to tell you the truth. Are you ready? Your mother doesn’t love you. I’m sorry, David. It’s true. She doesn’t love you.
A few weeks ago my therapist told me she was retiring. In some ways, Stitches was just the self-help book I was looking for. Perhaps, like Small, I’ll someday be able to thank her in my work. In the acknowledgments to Stitches, Small writes: “Lastly, my special thanks to Dr. Harold Davidson for pulling me to my feet and placing me on the road to the examined life.”