It is March 5, 1973, and David is in the school nurse’s office. He is answering questions about his mother again, and soon the principal enters the room. The young boy is afraid because he knows when his mother hears of this meeting his life will be even more miserable. Then a police officer arrives, and David is even more afraid. Information is shared, questions are asked, and the kind officer takes David to the police station. The boy is relieved because if he is in jail his mother cannot punish him for what he has told them. When the officer dials David’s home phone number, David is paralyzed by fear, but the officer reassures him it will be okay. “David Pelzer,” he says, “you’re free.”
A Child Called “It”
From his home in Daly City, California, Dave can see the Golden Gate Bridge and the San Francisco skyline. He, his two brothers, and his parents are living as a perfect, television-worthy family. Dave’s father is Stephen Joseph, a strong and rather playful fireman; his mother is Catherine Roerva, an average-looking woman who “glowed with love for her children.” During the good years, the family does things together and mother happily prepares special meals, outings, and surprises for her sons. Holidays, from Halloween through Christmas, are the most special times for Dave and his family. Mother takes her children on special outings when Father is working, and the family goes on vacations, which are fun and memorable. Their trips to a cabin on the Russian River are the very best of family life for David. There are occasional signs of some manic behavior in his mother, but Dave is too young to recognize them as anything more than moments of frenzy and franticness. In all these moments, Dave’s mother treats him with warmth and love. At some point, though, things change.
Dave is perpetually being punished. His voice is a little louder than his brothers’ voices, and he is almost always the brother who gets caught in mischief. Dave is relegated to a corner of his mother’s bedroom and knows better than to ask to be released. His mother’s behavior grows erratic. She often sleeps through her days, getting up only to prepare minimal meals or to get herself another drink. On the days when Mother gets up and dressed and even wears makeup, David knows his life will be easier. On the other days, though, the young boy tries to avoid getting noticed. At some point, Dave graduates from banishment to the corner of the bedroom to standing for hours in front of a mirror. His mother smashes his tearful face against the glass and forces him to repeat, “I am a bad boy!” like a mantra, over and over. His brothers, Ron and Stan, simply ignore him. Mother begins to make her boys search for things in the house; these are often all-day, futile endeavors. Soon only Dave is sent on these fruitless searches. One day when he forgets what he is looking for, his mother smashes him in the face, causing a bloody nose. She does it without ever taking her eyes off the television. David never finds anything she sends him to look for—ever. When Father is home things are different, and Dave knows he is safe if he stays near him. On days when his father is home, Dave’s parents drink together for hours, often until the boys’ bedtime. One day several months later, things get worse.
When his mother goes on a rampage, Ron and Stan scurry for cover; Dave sits in a chair and prepares to take the abuse he knows will follow whether he runs or not. His mother rains blows on her youngest son and grabs him by the arm; when she loses her balance and falls several steps back, she wrests his arm out of its socket and walks casually away from her injured son. At dinner, she ignores his pleading looks and useless left arm. When she sends him to bed, Mother tells him to sleep in the top bunk, which is not his usual place. Shortly after he finally falls asleep, Dave’s mother awakens him and tells him he fell off the top bunk. She is overly solicitous as she takes him to the hospital and explains the injury. Though the doctor is not fooled, he says nothing. Dave says nothing, either, knowing that if he does the next “accident” will be even worse. He keeps the secret but now knows his mother is sick.
At school Dave is energetic and always looking for new things to do because he feels so free there compared to how he feels at home. One day he is scolded by his mother again as a bad boy who has shamed the family by being held back a year in school, and he is now relegated to the garage, out of everyone’s sight. That summer when it is time for the family’s vacation, Dave is deposited at his Aunt Josie’s house with no explanation. He tries to escape and find his family without success. When his aunt tells what he did, his mother brutally beats and kicks him. When Dave tries to explain that he was only trying to join his family and be with her, his mother stuffs a bar of soap in his mouth. Dave is now forbidden to speak without permission.
In his second attempt at first grade, Dave and his brother Stan enjoy playing together at recess. At home, however, Dave is still anathema. Before Christmas, his mother tells him Santa will not be bringing him any gifts this year because he has been a bad boy. Several gifts addressed to Dave come from relatives, but on Christmas day he only receives one gift: two paint-by-number pictures. Even Stan knows Mother is out of control. Dave overhears an argument between his parents and discovers it was his father who bought him the gifts. His mother berates his father because she claims she is in charge of disciplining the children and he is spoiling The Boy. Dave’s heart sinks because he knows his father is now helpless to intervene on his behalf. His mother becomes a Cub Scout den mother, and the other boys all wish their mothers were like Dave’s; he does not tell them the truth. Her tenure as a den mother is short, and when the meetings move to another house Dave is temporarily thrilled at the prospect of getting out of his house for even a few hours. While driving him to a meeting, his mother spews her usual abuse, telling David what she is going to do to him when he gets home. He never goes to a Cub Scout meeting again.
At home, Dave is forced to strip and stand near the stove. His mother wants him to lie on the lit gas stove and burn, but she is only able to accomplish small burns on one of his arms. David knows he must distract her until his older brother gets home because she does not act so bizarrely when others are around. He falls to the ground and whines as his mother once again rains blows on her son until Ron walks through the door. As Dave scurries to the garage, he realizes he won. He is alive and his injuries are minimal, something Mother sees as a failure. Never again will he let her see him cry; he wants to survive, and to do so he knows he must never give in to her.
Though he begins the school year with new clothes and shoes, Dave must wear the same clothes every day and is soon dirty and smelly—and hungry. His mother does not always remember to feed him at dinner, and he gets a minimal breakfast only if he finishes his chores in the morning and scrounges his brothers’ leftovers. He always goes to bed hungry, and even in his dreams his stomach always feels hollow. At school, Dave begins stealing food from other students’ lunches; when he is caught, the principal calls his mother. This, of course, leads to even more deprivation and more violence at home. Dave is now referred to only as “The Boy.” He says, “I existed, but there was little or no recognition.” His life at home is spent standing in the basement (any posture but standing gets him in more trouble) until he is required to do chores for the others upstairs. He is now his mother’s slave. Although his father tries to sneak him some food and plead his son’s case to his wife, the consequences are horrific: fights and drunkenness and, finally, departures from the house. Mother blames Dave for these marital disputes. When his father leaves after such arguments, his mother beats him. Dave now attempts to lay prostrate on the floor to escape the blows, but this strategy does not work.
When David is in second grade, Mother is pregnant and David’s teacher, Miss Moss, starts asking questions. She asks about his unclean clothes, his consistent bruises, and his lack of attentiveness to his schoolwork. The young boy mechanically repeats the lies his mother has trained him to give, but Miss Moss eventually reports her suspicions to the principal. That...
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