A Child Called "It" Summary
A Child Called “It” is a memoir by Dave Pelzer that describes the abuse he suffered at the hands of his alcoholic mother.
- David lives in Dale City, California, with his mother, father, and brothers. Though they are a happy family at first, his mother begins to abuse David in increasingly inventive and horrifying ways.
- David’s mother starves him and forces him to sleep in the garage. One day, she “accidentally” stabs him but doesn’t take him to a hospital.
- Finally, due to the kindness of several teachers, the police intervene, and David is taken away from his mother.
Last Updated on December 9, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3518
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.”
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A Child Called “It”
From his home in Daly City, California, David 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. David’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 David 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 David is too young to recognize them as anything more than moments of frenzy and franticness. In all these moments, David’s mother treats him with warmth and love. At some point, though, things change.
David 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. David 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, David 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 David 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 David knows he is safe if he stays near him. On days when his father is home, David’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; David 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, David’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. David 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 David 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, David 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 David 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. David is now forbidden to speak without permission.
In his second attempt at first grade, David and his brother Stan enjoy playing together at recess. At home, however, David 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 David 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. David 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. David’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 David’s; he does not tell them the truth. Her tenure as a den mother is short, and when the meetings move to another house David 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, David 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 David 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, David 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, David 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. David 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 David for these marital disputes. When his father leaves after such arguments, his mother beats him. David 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 evening, after a phone call home from the principal, David gets his nose bloodied twice and loses one tooth. Mother meets with the principal and puts on a show of motherly attention with her new baby, Russell. She is inordinately smug about her ability to fool the authorities, but The Boy only feels “total emptiness” and fear.
The next summer vacation is a little better for David, but when he makes his mother mad again he finds himself alone in the cabin with her and his young brother. She smears his face with a dirty diaper, and David thinks he may be okay as long as Russell stays awake. When the toddler nods off, David knows he is in trouble as his mother approaches him. She hisses at him to eat the diaper residue, but David refuses. He believes he can outmaneuver her by stalling until his father and brothers return, and he does manage survive the painful and humiliating ordeal without consuming any of the excrement.
The next school year begins, and David is still wearing the same offensive clothing. Because he is no longer part of the family, he is not allowed to ride to school in the family car. Instead, his mother forces him to run to school, with the added benefit to her that he no longer has time to steal from his classmates’ lunches. His two peanut-butter sandwiches and limp carrot sticks are never enough to fill the void, and he is now a social outcast at school. Everyone knows he steals food, and he is taunted about his stench as well. David’s thoughts are consumed with hunger and he is always plotting ways to get more food. He finally realizes he can run to the local store during recess and steal something to eat. It takes him a long time to gather the nerve, but his first frantic theft is a box of graham crackers. He places them in a bathroom trashcan to enjoy later; when he returns for them, the trash has been emptied and he has nothing to show for his efforts. Eventually he is transferred across the street to another school, which gives him new opportunities to steal from students’ lunches. He also continues random shoplifting from the local store—until he eventually gets caught and is “thrashed relentlessly” by his mother. His parents know why he is stealing, but they still do not feed him.
As he stands at attention in the basement, the family eats. He comes upstairs only when he must do the dishes. The smell of the leftovers that have been scraped into the garbage is enticing, and soon David is picking out the edible bits to assuage his hunger. When his mother discovers his actions, she puts some rancid meat in the trash to make him sick, which it does. She regularly inspects the can before he does the dishes, but when she sees The Boy is somehow still managing to eat a bit, she pours ammonia over the trash. David decides to steal food from the cafeteria and manages to stuff down some frozen hot dogs and tater tots in the bathroom. When he gets home his mother somehow knows what he has done and forces him to vomit into the toilet, then she puts the contents into a bowl to use as evidence to show her husband. When she does, Stephen expresses his disappointment but tells her it would not have happened if she would just feed him. The Boy is forced to eat the horrific regurgitated mass while his father watches passively. At that moment, David hates his father even more than his mother because he is actually sympathetic but unwilling to protect his son from his wife’s abuse.
David’s new bed is under the kitchen table with newspapers for a blanket; next he is relegated to sleeping in the garage. The nights are cold and lonely, and the young boy has never felt more alone:
Sometimes at night I would wake up and try to imagine I was a real person, sleeping under an electric blanket, knowing I was safe and that somebody loved me.
In the morning he knows it will never be. Each day the vomit check is performed after school, and soon the fear and intimidation intensify. Mother finally forces David to swallow a spoonful of ammonia, which not only burns the flesh from his tongue and mouth but nearly kills him. The second and last time she force-feeds him the ammonia, his father again passively watches. More often, Mother pours liquid detergent down The Boy’s throat. Occasionally David wins, but these are small victories in a violent war. To David they are monumental.
By the time he is eleven, David’s life has fallen into a routine. He knows what is expected of him and what further abuses will be delivered if he falls short or is too slow. His younger brother, Russell, is now four or five. He has been trained (brainwashed) into being a guard, and he faithfully reports any infractions to his mother. It is summer, and David eats only once every three days or so.
One day he is given twenty minutes to finish the dishes; Mother picks up a kitchen knife and threatens to kill him if he takes one second longer than his allotted time. In the middle of her tirade she begins to weave and then falls. The next thing David knows his mother is trying to staunch the blood flowing from his chest. He struggles to breathe but continues his chores. He hopes his father will understand the gravity of his situation, but he simply tells him to get back to work, and promises not to tell Mother he tried to cause some trouble. His parents’ philosophy is clear: if a problem is not admitted, it does not exist. All hope for Father to be his savior is gone, and David recalls the promise he has made to himself to keep his mother from winning. Only if he dies will she win, so he is determined to live. Blood is still seeping from the cut, and his mother does exchange his blood-soaked T-shirt for another old shirt. Over the next night and day, Mother nurses him as she would an animal, but it is more than he expects and he basks in his few moments of relative normalcy. Three days after the incident, David is still feverish. He lifts his shirt to inspect his wound and realizes he has an infection. David cleans his wound, which is excruciating but effective.
Since the knife incident, Father is rarely ever home. Even on his days off he goes to the bar for solace and to escape what David refers to as the “Madhouse.” Mother’s new torture is what David calls the “gas chamber.” After ordering him to clean the bathroom, Mother places a bucket containing a bleach and ammonia mixture in the room with him. The noxious fumes nearly kill The Boy. He survives these episodes by his quick-thinking resourcefulness, but he coughs up blood for hours after each gas chamber punishment. She starves him for ten days that summer, but worse is to come.
When David is sent to earn money by mowing lawns and does not bring home the assigned quota, he is subjected to a new punishment. He is forced to lay naked in a bathtub of cold water for hours, head submerged. David feels like an alligator, keeping only his nostrils above water. His brothers come in to use the bathroom and just shake their heads at him; they even bring their friends in to gawk and laugh at the spectacle. After an interminable time, The Boy is instructed to put on his clothes (without drying off first) and go sit in the “prisoner of war” position (hands under his rear end, head tilting back) in the shady part of the backyard. The inevitable shivering does little to take his mind off his rumbling stomach.
The new school year begins well for David, and a substitute teacher shows him some unexpected kindness. By October, though, things are back to normal—bullying and abuse at school and regular beatings, abuses, and starvation at home. He is called to the nurse’s office and questioned about his bruises, among other things. David starts to visit the nurse regularly and tells her more about his home life and his mother. When Mother is at the hospital giving birth to her fifth son, Kevin, David is suddenly free to be a “real” boy with his brothers. They play and enjoy themselves for those few glorious days. Once Mother comes home, father is always gone again and things return to normal in the Madhouse.
Suddenly, Mother apologizes to David and begins to treat him as she does her other sons: he is fed and clothed and treated just like his brothers. David is naturally wary but revels in the experience. The next day a social services worker visits the house and asks him all kinds of questions, wondering if he is happy. Of course he answers yes, but he realizes what his mother has done. He denies that she beats or starves him, but as soon as the woman is gone the beatings and starvation begin again.
About a month before I entered the fifth grade, I came to believe that for me, there was no God.
David cannot believe that a just God would allow such things to happen to one of His children. He has desensitized himself to the physical pain and abuse, but inside his emotions are roiling. Outside he is robotic and goes through the motions of his pitiful life; inside his soul is shriveling and his spirit is dying. He hates everyone in his family and begins calculating how soon it might be before his mother dies. His mother uses him in arguments with Father, his father escapes without attempting to help him, and his brothers now add their abuse to their mother’s. Most of all, David hates himself for being too weak and for letting this happen without stopping it. School is now only an extension of the abuse, as classmates regularly punish him with both words and blows.
When David wins a contest to name the school newspaper and brings home a glowing letter of praise from his teacher, his mother says he is nothing but an “It” and nothing he can do will ever impress her. David is stunned, for now he is an “it,” a nonentity. He loses his desire to live and becomes more openly rebellious. He says, “I knew I was never meant to be loved,” and he has nothing left to lose. Mother provokes contention with everyone now, including her husband. One day when he comes home he is staggeringly drunk. He goes to the closet and David knows he is leaving for good. David wonders where his hero is. Without his father as a potential buffer, David loses all hope and prays his mother will just end his misery quickly.
Years later, David stands at the edge of the Russian River and absorbs the grandeur of the scene in front him. He inhales the fresh air and savors the moment before he kneels down and gives his son, Stephen, a hug. With tears in his eyes, David is remembering this place as his favorite family vacation site and celebrating his blessings. He is alive and he has not allowed bitterness and anger to shape or color his life. He tells his son he loves him, and Stephen says he loves him, too. David is free.
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