A Child Called It is the semi-fictionalized autobiography of Dave Pelzer, who suffered terrible abuse at the hands of his mentally unstable mother. He details these abuses, showing how his mother slowly deteriorated beneath the weight of untreated mental illness and self-medication through alcohol, and how this mental deterioration caused her to focus on him as an outlet for her rage. Dave's life was normal at first, and although his adult self can identify the ways in which his mother started to change, his child self is oblivious. Slowly, Dave's mother starts to abuse him, first denying him food and then forcing him to live without bathing or washing his clothing. She sends him to school without food, eventually refusing to drive him or let him take the bus.
As the abuse becomes physically violent, Dave's mother forces him to lie for her, covering up the abuse with stories of falling out of bed (after she dislocates his shoulder) and even briefly treating him normally to fool a visit from protective services. David's father is cowed by her behavior, retreating into drink to avoid dealing with the issue; he is scared of her, and ashamed of his cowardice.
I knew father hated living at home, and I felt that it was all my fault. I told him that I would be good... when I said these things, he always smiled and assured me that it wasn't my fault.
I no longer cared about my existence... during one period of time when Father was away, Mother starved me for about ten consecutive days.
(Pelzer, A Child Called It, Google Books)
Like many abused children, Dave comes to believe that he is somehow responsible for his mother's attitude; he does not understand mental illness and at that age cannot express his feelings. Finally, after years of abuse, during which Dave's mother stabs him for not doing the dishes fast enough and his father leaves, Dave is rescued by school officials and police, who discover his home life and remove him from his mother's reach. Years later, Dave stands with his son and realizes that his own achievements have healed his wounds, although he will never forget his story.
Dave later explained in an interview:
"My mummy was raised in the era that ladies didn't have rights. My mum drank to escape. When she drank, she became another persona. What I am saying in the most humble and respectful sense is that my mummy never had a chance. You kick a dog long enough, that dog is going to bite you or die."
(Pelzer, Kellaway, "No Pain, No Gain," theguardian.com)
In his adulthood, Dave is able to understand that while his mother was mentally ill and chose to harm him as an outlet, she was also, in some ways, further damaged by the societal norms and expectations of the time. Instead of trying to improve herself, she took revenge for perceived slights on Dave, who could not defend himself. Dave, as an adult, can finally reconcile his terrible childhood with the very real emotions of love and respect that exist for a parent, no matter what the circumstance.