A Child Called It

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A Child Called It Chapter 4 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
After Mother burns Dave, school becomes his refuge. In September, he returns to school with new clothes; however, Mother makes him wear the same clothes again and again, until they become worn. Sometimes Mother refuses to feed Dave dinner, meaning that he has to steal food to survive. Dave’s classmates hate him and tell their teacher when he steals from them—his teacher then tells Mother, who punishes Dave by hitting him and denying him more food.
Mother’s cruelty toward Dave seems designed to keep him as weak, lonely, and frightened as possible—thus, she alienates him from his classmates, seemingly because she doesn’t him developing friends or allies (whose parents might question why Dave is always bruised). Dave is a thief, but only because his Mother starves him.
Themes
Child Abuse Theme Icon
At home, Dave is barely a part of the family anymore. Mother no longer uses his name, and Ron, Stan, and Father mostly ignore him. Sometimes, Father feeds Dave when Mother is especially drunk. Father and Mother fight over Dave, and Dave is grateful to Father for fighting for him.
As before, Father sticks up for Dave, but only in pathetically small ways. Instead of taking care of his child, Father generally goes along with Mother’s cruelty and abusiveness. However, because Father is the closest thing to a loving family member that Dave has, he continues to love Father.
Themes
Child Abuse Theme Icon
Neglect and the Normalization of Evil Theme Icon
The year Dave goes to the second grade, Mother becomes pregnant. Miss Moss, Dave’s teacher, asks Dave why he has so much trouble paying attention in class. Dave lies and says he’s been watching TV. Miss Moss asks Dave why he has bruises on his body, and why his clothes are so threadbare. Dave tells Moss the lies Mother has trained him to repeat. One day, Moss becomes so suspicious that she sends Dave to the principal, who calls Mother and asks about Dave’s condition. When Dave goes home that day, Mother is so angry that she knocks out one of Dave’s teeth. The next day, Mother goes to the principal, carrying her baby, Russell. She later explains that she’s told the principal that Dave has a wild imagination and hurts himself to get attention.
Through Dave’s child, a handful of teachers and parents wonder why his body is covered with bruises. However, Pelzer suggests that Mother is able to assure the authorities that she’s not abusing Dave by claiming that Dave hurts himself. The fact that a school principal would swallow an alibi that, from the reader’s perspective, probably seems like an obvious lie might suggest that, in the 1970s, public awareness of child abuse was low, and people were significantly more likely to overlook abuse than they would be in the 21st century.
Themes
Child Abuse Theme Icon
Neglect and the Normalization of Evil Theme Icon
Over the summer, Dave and the rest of the family drive out to Russian River to go camping. Dave gets along with Mother better than he has in a long time, but the “magical feeling” is gone. One day, Mother yells at Dave for making too much noise. While Dave’s Father and brothers are out of the house, Mother takes one of Russell’s diapers and smears it in Dave’s face. Then she tells Dave to eat it. Panicking, Dave tries to avoid looking Mother in the face. Then he “switches tactics” and begins to cry, thinking that he’ll be able to “slow her down.” Mother responds by hitting Dave again and again. Mother hears Russell crying and goes to take care of him. She comes back with another one of Russell’s soiled diapers, and again orders Dave to eat the feces. She slams Dave’s face in the diaper and rubs it around. Suddenly, Mother lets go of Dave—she gasps, “They’re back!” and orders Dave to clean himself immediately.
One of the most horrific things about Mother is her volatility. At times, she treats Dave kindly and even lovingly; however, by this point in his life, Dave is familiar enough with his mother’s cruelty to recognize that, soon enough, she’ll go back to abusing him. This is one of the most disgusting and traumatic passages in the entire book. As in the last chapters, Mother’s abuse seems both unfathomably cruel and cunningly calculated (she works hard to conceal the evidence of her cruelty from the rest of the family). Mother is a terrifying character because she’s a mess of contradictions: drunk and out of control, yet cunning; intermittently kind and abusive.
Themes
Child Abuse Theme Icon
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In September, Dave returns to school, wearing the same clothes he wore last year. Instead of driving Dave to school, Mother forces Dave to run to school. At school, Dave’s old friends make fun of him for wearing the same clothes and stealing food. At home, Father tries to sneak scraps to Dave, but “with little success.” Dave is so desperate for food that he decides to run to the grocery store during recess and steal food. Dave takes weeks to plan his theft: he knows he has to run to make it back to school in time. One day, he finally works up the courage to steal from the store. After the bell rings, he sprints to the store. Inside, he senses that everyone is looking at him. Nevertheless, because he’s desperate for food, he steals some graham crackers.
Mother continues to isolate Dave from the rest of his family, not even allowing him to sit in the car with his siblings. In spite of his adverse conditions—or, in a way, because of them—Dave learns to use his ingenuity to fend for himself and steal enough food to survive. Although Pelzer isn’t condoning breaking the law, the young Dave’s attempts to find food reflect his defiance and his heroic attempts to resist his mother’s cruelty.
Themes
Child Abuse Theme Icon
Neglect and the Normalization of Evil Theme Icon
Dave runs back to school with the graham crackers and hides them in a garbage can. Then, later in the afternoon, he goes to the bathroom, eager to eat the crackers—but when he goes to the bathroom, he finds that the custodian has emptied the trash. Shortly afterwards, however, Dave is transferred to the school across the street. There, he begins stealing food from his classmates again, while also stealing from the store. One day, the manager catches him and calls Mother; Mother beats Dave.
Dave’s plan to steal food ultimately fails, thanks to the custodian. The sad irony of Dave’s situation is that Mother punishes him for stealing food when, in reality, he only has to steal food because Mother punishes him. Although Pelzer, writing as an adult, is well aware of this fact, Dave the young child seems to believe that he’s a fundamentally bad kid, just as Mother tells him.
Themes
Child Abuse Theme Icon
Resistance Theme Icon
After dinner, Mother scrapes leftovers into the garbage can and then makes Dave wash the dishes with scalding hot water. Desperate for food, Dave decides to eat from the trash. After Mother catches Dave eating trash, she lets him continue. But one evening, after Dave eats some scraps of pork, he gets diarrhea—he later learns that Mother has purposefully let the pork spoil before throwing it away. Afterwards, Mother sprinkles ammonia in the trashcan.
As the book goes on, Mother’s torture becomes increasingly elaborate and cruel. It’s clear, from the fact that she goes to the trouble of placing rotting pork in the trash, that Mother isn’t trying to teach Dave a lesson or prevent him from being a “bad boy,” as she claims—she’s just toying with him, trying to cause him as much suffering as possible.
Themes
Child Abuse Theme Icon
Dave’s next plan to get food is to steal frozen lunches from the cafeteria. In the morning, when delivery trucks drop off frozen lunches, Dave sneaks into the cafeteria and swallows pieces of frozen hot dogs. When he returns to the classroom, he’s proud that he’s fed himself. But when he comes home that day, Mother punches him in the stomach and forces him to stick his finger down his throat and vomit. Dave vomits up pieces of hot dog meat. Mother hisses, “I thought so,” and orders Dave to scoop the vomit into a small bowl. That evening, Mother shows Father the bowl and insists that Dave has been stealing food. Father, who looks very tired, points out that Mother should let Dave eat. Furious, Mother shouts, “He can eat this!” Father tries to argue, but Dave notices the saddened look on his face and realizes “immediately who won.” Dave proceeds to eat the vomit, while Father watches, drink in hand. At this time, Dave hates Father even more than he hates Mother.
This passage was one of the most frequently discussed—and hotly debated—in the entire book. Some praised Dave for his bravery in reliving what must have been a harrowing moment in his early life. Others questioned the veracity of the episode—particularly, the fact that Mother seems to know immediately that Dave’s eaten food, that she manages to force Dave to vomit, and that Father doesn’t react at all to the sight of his child eating his own vomit. Dave’s brother Stephen has claimed that the incident was completely made up. Setting aside the disputes over the passage’s accuracy, however, Pelzer conveys his boyhood self’s hatred for his Father, whose passivity could be said to symbolize the general passivity of 1970s American society, which, by and large, looks the other way at Dave’s abuse.
Themes
Child Abuse Theme Icon
Resistance Theme Icon
After Dave eats his vomit, Mother throws some old newspapers at him and informs him that, from now on, he’ll be sleeping under a table, with the papers as his blanket. In the coming months, Dave learns how to keep warm. Then Mother forces him to sleep in the garage. As he falls asleep every night, Dave fantasizes about being a “real person,” with a warm blanket and loving parents. Sometimes, Dave prays to God to make him strong “both in body and soul.”
Throughout his abuse, Dave maintains an active fantasy life—he remains hopeful that, someday, life will get better for him. Pelzer is a pious Christian, and when discussing his childhood, he frames his optimism in explicitly Christian terms.
Themes
Child Abuse Theme Icon
Resistance Theme Icon
Dave begins begging for food on his way to school. He stops at various houses and asks mothers to make him an extra lunch; many of them take pity on him and do so. However, one day, Dave asks a woman who knows Mother, and he’s terrified that the woman will call Mother. All day long, Dave tries not to think about the beating he’ll receive that night. After coming home from school he begins washing dishes, and listens to the sounds of children playing outside. Suddenly, he turns—Mother is standing behind him. She sneers, “You find time to beg for food.” Dave tenses, expecting Mother to beat him. Instead, she goes to watch TV. Dave proceeds with his chores—scouring the bathroom and the other rooms of the house. Mother sees how terrified Dave is, and smiles. By dinnertime, Davis is “exhausted with fear.” Then he realizes that Mother is trying to “maintain a constant pressure” over him.
Mother seems to be well aware that Dave asked one of her friends for some food; however, instead of beating Dave, as she usually does, she prefers to toy with him, manipulating his natural fear of a beating. Instead of being confused and overwhelmed with his mother’s cruelty, however, Dave perceptively realizes what Mother is trying to do, suggesting that he’s smarter and more insightful than Mother realizes. Even if he’s too small to fight back against Mother, Dave doesn’t sacrifice his dignity or self-respect; he’s frightened of Mother, but he’s composed enough to understand that she’s trying to frighten him.
Themes
Child Abuse Theme Icon
Psychological Trauma Theme Icon
Suddenly Mother calls Dave upstairs. She tells him, “I have a cure for your hunger,” and orders him to wait for everyone else to go to bed. Dave is frightened, and wishes he could fly away forever. As night falls and everyone else goes to bed, Mother calls Dave to the table. She pours ammonia into a spoon and orders him to swallow it. Frightened and exhausted, Dave does so. Right away, he feels a horrible pain, and senses that he’s going to die. As Dave writhes in agony, Mother drinks a “glass of booze” and sends him to bed. The next evening, Mother makes Dave swallow more ammonia, this time in front of Father, who watches, “lifeless.” This time, Dave tries to fight back; however, he still swallows some ammonia, and spends the night in agony. The next day, Dave looks in the mirror and sees that some flesh has peeled off his tongue. Mother never makes him drink ammonia again, but she does make him swallow Clorox and soap, giving him diarrhea.
This passage, like the vomit-eating passage, has been disputed since A Child Called “It” was published in 1995. More than a few people have argued that, had Dave, a small, weak child, actually been fed ammonia twice in twenty-four hours, he either would have died or would have needed to go to the hospital immediately. (As with the vomit-eating incident, Dave’s sibling has denied this ever happened.) In many ways, there is nothing to say about Dave’s torture as it’s described in this passage: it’s so brutal (and readers are told so little about why Mother tortures her son) that readers have no choice but to read Pelzer’s memoir in a state of total shock.
Themes
Child Abuse Theme Icon
One day, Mother squeezes soap into Dave’s mouth and makes him swallow. Secretly, Dave doesn’t—he just keeps the soap in his mouth, and spits it out when Mother isn’t looking. Dave is proud of himself for “beating Mother at her own game.” He also steals frozen food from the freezer in the garage. He likes to imagine that he’s a king, eating lavish meals.
In spite of the horrifying torture that Dave experiences in this chapter, he finds little ways of rebelling and resisting Mother’s authority. He can’t fight her, but he can disobey her from time to time. Perhaps most importantly, Dave “escapes” from Mother in his dreams and fantasies.
Themes
Child Abuse Theme Icon
Resistance Theme Icon