A Child Called "It" book cover

A Child Called "It"

by Dave Pelzer

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A Child Called "It" Themes

The main themes in A Child Called “It” are child abuse, identity, and family.

  • Child abuse: David’s story demonstrates how easy it is for others to overlook abuse of even the most vulnerable.
  • Identity: In addition to physically abusing her son, David’s mother stripped him of his identity, ultimately coming to call him “It.” David struggled to hold on to his worth as a human being deserving of love and affection.
  • Family: David’s family members did little to help him while he was being abused, which shows the pain of someone’s family enabling and normalizing their abuse.

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Child Abuse

Child abuse is the central theme of Dave Pelzer's memoir A Child Called "It." In 1973, when David was removed from his mother's care, his was considered the worst case of child abuse ever reported in California. What shocked readers was not the fact of the child abuse but the sheer ingenuity of it. David's mother did not merely beat him; she starved him, burned him, stabbed him, ordered him to eat his own vomit, and smeared feces on his face. Her erratic behavior made it impossible for David to predict what she would do next and whether he would survive it. He realized that the only way to "win" was to live. He never let her see him cry and frequently stole food in order to supplement the meager diet of scraps she fed him. He suffered not only at home but at school, where he was called a thief, ridiculed for his clothes and his smell, and held back a grade because he couldn't do any of his schoolwork at home. It's amazing how long it took people to realize what was going on. David wore the same clothes to school every day for over two years before his teachers finally called the police. David's memoir demonstrates how shockingly easy it is to normalize abuse.


One of the most horrific elements of the abuse was the way David's mother gradually stripped him of his identity. In the beginning, she smashed his face into the mirror and forced him to repeat that he was a "bad boy"—but, even then, his name was still David. Only later did she begin referring to him as "The Boy," depriving him of his individuality and making him sound like an inconvenience. The abuse also had the effect of isolating him from his brothers, his friends, and the other children at school, making it impossible for him to form relationships or express himself. In her eyes, David became a non-entity, an "it" undeserving of humane treatment. Her attempts to strip David of his humanity failed, however, as David clung to life and sanity long enough to be rescued.


A Child Called "It" describes the toxic nature of a family that enabled child abuse. Stephen Pelzer's inability to stand up to his wife Roerva resulted in a horrific family dynamic wherein the family just stood by passively while David was abused. Her acts of physical abuse were focused on David, but she terrorized the rest of the family by verbally abusing her husband, forcing David's older brothers to ignore him, and training his younger brother to watch him and report back to her. This created an atmosphere that not only condoned but supported the abuse, normalizing it to the point where David and his family accepted it as part of their day to day life. Eventually, Stephen Pelzer walked out and abandoned his children, leaving David in his mother's care, without anyone to protect him. In 1973, David was finally removed from his home and placed into foster care, where he slowly healed from the abuse. He later married and started a family of his own.

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