Dave Pelzer

A Child Called “It”

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A Child Called “It” Summary

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This sensational, detailed autobiography, A Child Called “It:” One Child’s Courage to Survive by David Pelzer, recounts the hideous child abuse Pelzer suffered at the hands of his own mother. From ages 4 to 12, his mother singled Pelzer out for the most horrific abuses, including starvation, beatings, poisoning, a spectacular stabbing, and other more “routine” abuses, including timed chores that he had to complete to earn any food, and laying in a bathtub full of cold water for hours. This true story comprises what has been termed one of the worst cases of child abuse ever discovered in California’s history.

Born in 1960, David Pelzer, then called Dave, was the second eldest of four boys, and his apparently idyllic childhood was suddenly interrupted as his mother fell into mental illness and alcoholism. All of her anger and rage turned upon Dave. His father, who knew what was going on, spent less and less time at home as Dave’s mother grew more and more erratic and unstable. Rather than rescuing Dave, or his other children, he eventually abandons the family, powerless to confront his cruel, mentally ill wife.

Throughout the memoir, Dave idolizes his father and dreams that one day his father will rescue him and his brothers, though his brothers are not abused in the same fashion. His brothers were also too afraid of their mother to intervene in any way, even to sneak Dave food. In fact, dreams were Dave’s only escape from the abuse. Even in school, Dave was branded a problem child and received only sporadic encouragement from his teachers. However, one caring and observant teacher’s intervention when Dave was 12 years old freed him from his mother’s abusive home, and Dave was placed in foster care.

The autobiography caused a sensation when it was published in 1995, spending years on the New York Times Bestseller List. Critics have pointed out the improbability of the story, which contains extremely disturbing and nearly unbelievable incidents of abuse. Both of Dave’s parents were dead by the time the book was published, and his brothers were divided in their support of Dave’s story. One brother, who recounts that he became the next victim of their mother’s abuse when Dave was removed from the home, supported Dave’s tale, while another brother, whom Dave reported as his mother’s “favorite,” refuted that any abuse took place at all. The boys’ grandmother also claimed that the abuse was never as severe as Dave portrayed it. However, this harrowing account stands on its own merits as a first-person, sociological and psychological study, providing much-needed awareness of the hidden, secret, and horrific world of familial child abuse.

Dave’s mother’s abuse began with isolating him from his brothers. He was forced to sleep in the basement on a cot and received punishments for made-up, nonsensical crimes such as being late home from school. These punishments included no food, and isolation in the basement, or outside during the winter. The punishments escalated, with extreme “timed” chores that Dave had to complete to receive any food at all. These mind “games,” as Dave refers to them, expanded over time, to include life-threatening levels of starvation and a particularly hideous game Dave called “gas chamber.”

In this “game,” Dave’s mother adds chlorine bleach and ammonia together in a bucket and shuts Dave in the bathroom with orders to clean it. The chlorine bleach and ammonia create a chemical reaction, forming a deadly gas. Dave barely survives by breathing through the heating vent and covering his mouth and nose with the cleaning rag. He coughs up blood afterward and believes that he nearly died.

Other typical, insidious games included placing a plate of food in front of him with a two-minute time limit for him to eat the food, then yanking the plate away before Dave has a chance to eat any of it because he was too slow. Like a modern-day, gruesome Cinderella, Dave was also forced to do the family’s laundry and housecleaning, when he was not shoved out of the house into the winter cold without a coat. In fact, Dave referred to his clothing as “Swiss cheese” clothes, because they were so full of holes.

Eventually, his mother stopped calling him by his name, referring to him first as “The Boy” and finally as “It,” robbing him of his humanity. Dave’s tale contains little reflection or insight; it is a plain tale that chronicles events from the author’s point of view as if he is still a child. The memoir ends abruptly with Dave’s removal from his childhood home. Overall, the story is poorly written, with no attempts to use literary devices, such as metaphor or theme. The narrative, containing the escalation of abusive incidents along with the recounting of Dave’s temporary feelings of worthlessness and despair, are the sole plot device.

In the end, the power of the story derives from the fact of Dave’s survival and his optimistic perspective throughout the story that things will get better someday, if he can only survive today. A Child Called “It” offers an important glimpse into the workings of a deeply dysfunctional familial system, and the extreme denial that frequently accompanies society’s response to such cases of familial abuse.