David Pelzer's A Child Called "It", the first in his trilogy (followed by The Lost Boy and A Man Called Dave) tells the story of his first 12 years of life, most of which was lived at the abusive hand of his mother in "one of the most severe child abuse cases in California history." The back cover tells us A Child Called "It" is "the story of Dave Pelzer, who was brutally beaten and starved by his emotionally unstable, alcoholic mother: a mother who played torturous games--games that left him nearly dead. He had to learn how to play his mother's games in order to survive because she no longer considered him a son, but a slave; and no longer a boy, but an 'it.'
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"Dave's bed was an old army cot in the basement, and his clothes were torn and raunchy. When his mother allowed him the luxury of food, it was nothing more than spoiled scraps that even the dogs refused to eat."
Marketed as "An inspirational story", this New York Times and USA Today bestseller is a brutal, horrible story, one you won't easily forget. Unfortunately, you'll also have a difficult time taking it at its word.
Now, I don't mean to downplay or disregard what Pelzer went through. I wasn't there, for all I know every word in the book is the absolute truth. But just read it for yourself and see if you don't find yourself wondering if maybe a paragraph here and there might be exaggerated.
Dave Pelzer and his two older brothers started life with what Dave himself calls "the 'Brady Bunch' of the 1960s." His father was a firefighter in San Fransisco while his mother took care of their home in Daly City just a few miles away. While their father was at work, their mother took them on day trips and seemed to spoil the children. But over time, David found his punishments were not only becoming more extreme, but more and more frequent, eventually leading to his mother flying off the handle if he did nothing more than look at her or one of his brothers.
There are horrific stories in A Child Called "It" about Dave's constant struggles for food. Often his breakfast consisted of whatever one of his brothers didn't eat. His lunch was 2 peanut butter sandwiches. And more often than not, he wasn't allowed dinner. He was made to wear the same clothes every week throughout the school year. He slept in the basement, which was really a garage under the house. Some of his mother's favorite punishments included forcing young David to lie for hours in a tub full of cold water, allowing only his nose above the water so the boy could breathe. Or she would close him up in the bathroom with a bucket of amonia and Clorox until the room filled with noxious gas, burning his lungs and melting away some of the skin on David's tongue. She beat him, starved him, ridiculed him, even to the point of his younger brothers (she had 2 more children after her abuse of David was under way) growing up with an ingrained hatred of him.
This went on for years, from about the time David was in the first grade until he was 12 years old, until FINALLY a teacher stepped in. David's case was reported to the police and he was rescued. "I'm free?" he recalls thinking as he's being driven away in a police car.
For starters, I want to say that if David's story is the real deal, he has my undying sympathy. I have a son who'll be in first grade next year and he's about the most precious thing ever. I could never even imagine treating him like David was treated. Hell, even if only part of the story is true, it's more than I could ever do to my children.
But that's where the hard part comes in; taking this story at face value. Some things just don't add up for me.
For one, David tells how his father tries to sneak food to him and whispers once in a while that he's trying to plan an escape for the two of them. Finally David's father decides he can't handle David's mother or the situation with David and he moves out on his own. What? What father in the world, even the biggest scumbag father, would knowingly abandon a child to this treatment? Better yet, what kind of father would allow it in the first place? The first time I came home to find my son was sleeping in the garage on a cot would be the biggest fight my wife and I ever had. But it would quickly be topped when my son came to me to whisper that his mother had stabbed him. All David's father says, however, is, "does Mother know you're in here talking to me? You better go back in there and do the dishes. Damn it boy, we don't need to do anything that might make her more upset! I don't need to go through that tonight..."
I also find it hard to believe his mother shoved his face into a soiled baby diaper and told him to eat the contents. Or that she forced him to throw up the food he'd stolen at school that afternoon, then forced him to eat it again when his father came home that night.
We don't call that abuse in my house, we call it divorce and grounds for custody.
David's story is a tragic one and I certainly hope to God it's not true, but, like I said earlier, I wasn't there. I have to take his word for it that what he wrote is what happened, although, seriously, it WAS 30 years ago. Events could have been blown out of proportion in that time. For all I know, A Child Called "It" is another in a line of spectacular "true account" stories like Communion or Lorenzo Carcaterra's Sleepers that is so incredible in its accounts that we don't know whether to believe it or blow it off as an attempt to make more out of something than it deserves.
I've no doubt David Pelzer was abused as a child. Court records alone should be able to prove that. Surely witnesses could be found to attest to his bruises and behavior, enough to correlate with the events in the book. And maybe the next 2 books in the trilogy provide the answers I'm looking for, but on it's own A Child Called "It" is nothing more than the hook for the rest of the series. It's a terrible story, but on its own, the facts aren't there to back it up. We don't know, from the first book alone, what happened to his mother--I would hope a very LONG prison term--or his four brothers. We don't know if he ever reconnected with his father. And probably most important, we don't know WHY his mother did this, and why her torments were saved for David alone, leaving the other four children alone. We don't know anything other than the extent of his abuse. I'm sure that was the intent with the first book, but for me, I need a little more.
However, whether you believe his story or not, A Child Called "It" will do one thing for you--give you a whole new level of appreciation for your own children. When my wife saw I was reading it, she said it would make me sad and make me want to hug the kids. Well, it didn't make me sad, but it did make me want to make sure the kids know I love them.
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