A Child Called It

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Stephen Joseph Pelzer / Father Character Analysis

Dave Pelzer’s father, Stephen Joseph Pelzer, is a weak, frequently drunk father, who rarely stands up to Catherine Roerva Pelzer, his wife. Over the course of the book, Father represents a beacon of hope for the young, terrified Dave—he thinks of Father as his protector, even after it becomes increasingly clear that Father is turning a blind eye to his child’s suffering. As he grows older, Dave comes to hate Father for allowing Mother to hurt him. In the end, Father becomes so fed-up with Mother’s anger that he packs his bags and leaves the family for good. He’s a weak, selfish man who only cares about his own happiness, not the happiness and safety of his children. However, it’s worth noting that Dave names his beloved son after his father (at least in the memoir—Pelzer has said that he changed some of the characters’ names to protect them from the public). This might suggest that Pelzer still feels some love and respect for Father, since Father was the only person in the family who showed any consistent love for him. (It could also suggest that Dave wants to remind himself how not to raise his child.)

Stephen Joseph Pelzer / Father Quotes in A Child Called It

The A Child Called It quotes below are all either spoken by Stephen Joseph Pelzer / Father or refer to Stephen Joseph Pelzer / Father. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Child Abuse Theme Icon
). Note: all page and citation info for the quotes below refers to the Health Communications edition of A Child Called It published in 1995.
Chapter 3 Quotes

While I was cleaning the bathroom, I overheard an argument between Mother and Father. She was angry with him for "going behind her back" to buy me the paintings. Mother told Father that she was in charge of disciplining "the boy" and that he had undermined her authority by buying the gifts. The longer Father argued his case, the angrier she became. I could tell he had lost, and that I was becoming more and more isolated.

Related Characters: David Pelzer / Dave (speaker), Mother / Mom / Catherine Roerva Pelzer, Stephen Joseph Pelzer / Father
Page Number: 39
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, which takes place shortly after Christmas, Dave overhears his parents arguing about his Christmas presents. Mother, who’s begun to abuse Dave very harshly, has told Dave that he won’t be receiving any Christmas presents because he’s a bad boy. Father, on the other hand, has purchased a few gifts for Dave; however, after an argument with his wife, he seemingly agrees to submit to her authority and continue to treat Dave as a bad child.

Throughout the book, Father is the family member who Dave loves best. However, Dave also acknowledges that Father is a weak, spineless man, who declines to protect his own child from his wife’s beatings. As the book goes on, Father becomes less and less willing to stand up for Dave, and eventually surrenders him to Mother’s cruelty altogether.

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Chapter 4 Quotes

Sometimes at the grocery store, if I felt things weren't just right, I didn't steal anything. As always, I finally got caught. The manager called Mother. At the house, I was thrashed relentlessly. Mother knew why I stole food and so did Dad, but she still refused to feed me. The more I craved food, the more I tried to come up with a better plan to steal it.

Related Characters: David Pelzer / Dave (speaker), Mother / Mom / Catherine Roerva Pelzer, Stephen Joseph Pelzer / Father
Page Number: 62
Explanation and Analysis:

Because Mother refuses food to Dave on a regular basis (she feeds him sometimes, but not enough), Dave is forced to look for food in other place. He tries raiding the trashcans at home, stealing food from his peers, and, eventually, shoplifting from a local grocery store. On one occasion, the manager of the grocery store catches Dave in the act of stealing, and reports him to Mother, who beats Dave (even though the only reason he’s stealing food in the first place is that she’s denying him three meals a day).

The passage is another example of how negligent people could be regarding child abuse—the manager of the grocery store is just trying to do his job and protect his property—it never occurs to him that Dave is stealing because his parents are abusing him severely, not because he’s a bad kid. Furthermore, the passage shows how, as a result of Mother’s abusiveness, Dave is forced to rely on his own ingenuity and courage.

I knew no one could help me. Not my teachers, my so-called brothers or even Father. I was on my own, and every night I prayed to God that I could be strong both in body and soul. In the darkness of the garage, I laid on the wooden cot and shivered until I fell into a restless sleep.

Related Characters: David Pelzer / Dave (speaker), Mother / Mom / Catherine Roerva Pelzer, Stephen Joseph Pelzer / Father
Page Number: 68
Explanation and Analysis:

As Dave’s life goes on, he begins to give up on other people. His mother is abusive and cruel, his brothers treat him like a slave, and go along with Mother’s abuse, and even Father—seemingly the kindest person in his family—is a horrible, neglectful parent who allows Mother to hit and starve his own child. Dave teaches himself not to rely on other people; however, he also turns to God for help and comfort (A Child Called “It” is an explicitly Christian book at times, and Dave credits God with helping him survive his time with Mother and becoming a proud, responsible adult).

In a way, Dave is wrong to believe that he’s alone in the world; indeed, the only reason he’s freed from Mother’s abuse is that his teachers work together to help him. However, Dave can hardly be blamed for feeling that he’s alone: he has no friends or loving family members, and so he learns to rely on himself.

Chapter 5 Quotes

I stuttered, "Father . . . Mo . . . Mo . . . Mother stabbed me."
He didn't even raise an eyebrow, "Why?" he asked.
"She told me if I didn't do the dishes on time, she...she'd kill me."
Time stood still. From behind the paper I could hear Father's labored breathing. He cleared his throat before saying, "Well . . . you ah . . . you better go back in there and do the dishes."

Related Characters: David Pelzer / Dave (speaker), Stephen Joseph Pelzer / Father (speaker), Mother / Mom / Catherine Roerva Pelzer
Page Number: 89-90
Explanation and Analysis:

In Chapter Five, one of the most famous (and notorious) parts of the book, Mother stabs Dave with a kitchen knife while Dave is doing the dishes. Mother has been drinking heavily, and she staggers toward Dave, driving the knife into his chest. Both in the book and in interviews, Pelzer has insisted that the stabbing was, technically, an accident—Mother was very drunk and, in spite of her record of abusiveness, wasn’t trying to cut her son with the knife.

In this passage, however, Dave tells Father that Mother has stabbed him. Outrageously, Father seems unfazed by this news. Instead of doing anything to help his suffering son, he tells Dave to continue following Mother’s directions and do the dishes. It’s clear in this passage that Father is a weak, cowardly man who has no business being a parent. Father may be the gentlest and kindest person in Dave’s family, but he’s about a million miles from being a good father.

Chapter 7 Quotes

As I sat alone in the garage, or read to myself in the near darkness of my parents' bedroom, I came to realize that I would live like this for the remainder of my life. No just God would leave me like this. I believed that I was alone in my struggle and that my battle was one of survival.

Related Characters: David Pelzer / Dave (speaker), Mother / Mom / Catherine Roerva Pelzer, Stephen Joseph Pelzer / Father
Page Number: 131
Explanation and Analysis:

Chapter Seven starts on an especially miserable note. Dave has been the victim of child abuse for many years now; after so many years, he’s beginning to give up all hope that his life will get better. Dave has come to accept that beatings and starvation are regular parts of his life; furthermore, he’s largely given up praying to God for salvation, or even hoping that his life might improve someday. Surely, he reasons, no God would allow him to treated so horribly.

Although Chapter Seven begins with utter misery, it ends more optimistically. Dave regains his optimism (indeed, the last sentences of Chapter Seven are the lines from the Lord’s prayer about being delivered from evil). Furthermore, Dave comes to understand, that he can depend on other people in his struggle; for example, his teachers risk their lives to help him reach safety. So although this passage dramatizes a crisis of faith in Dave’s life, the crisis doesn’t last forever. Dave learns to fend for himself, but he also comes to believe that God does answer people’s prayers, and that it’s okay for him to depend on other people—his commanders in the U.S. Air Force (in which he serves during the Gulf War), his priests, and his wife and child.

Father shook his head and said in a sad voice, “I can’t take it anymore. The whole thing. Your mother, this house, you. I just can't take it anymore.” Before he closed the bedroom door I could barely hear him mutter, "I . . . I'm . . . I'm sorry.”

Related Characters: David Pelzer / Dave (speaker), Stephen Joseph Pelzer / Father (speaker), Mother / Mom / Catherine Roerva Pelzer
Page Number: 149
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Father announces that he’ll be moving out of the house. He and Mother have been fighting for a long time now, and now he’ll be living somewhere else (shortly afterwards, Dave learns that his parents are separating permanently). The news that Father is leaving is especially tough for Dave because, in addition to the usual anxieties that accompany a parent’s departure, Dave is frightened that, without Father around to protect him, Mother will begin abusing him even more severely.

The passage is also the defining example of Father’s weakness. He understands that Mother is abusing Dave and, on some level, he recognizes that this abuse is fundamentally wrong. But even so, Father doesn’t have the courage or the willpower to fight on behalf of his son; indeed, he seems to regard Dave as a burden, which he’s eager to escape forever (notice that Father includes Dave—“you”—on the same list as Mother and the house). It’s no wonder that Dave grows up believing that he can’t rely on anyone but himself—his only protector in the house is a pathetic coward.

As Mother drove out of the McDonald's parking lot, she glanced back at me and sneered, "You are all mine now. Too bad your father's not here to protect you."

Related Characters: David Pelzer / Dave (speaker), Mother / Mom / Catherine Roerva Pelzer (speaker), Stephen Joseph Pelzer / Father
Page Number: 152
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, immediately after Dave says goodbye to Father for the last time, Mother confirms Dave’s worst fears. Just as he’s suspected, Mother is going to abuse him even more harshly than she did before. Gleefully, Mother tells Dave that he’s at her mercy from now on—nobody’s going to protect him from her wrath anymore. (However, in the previous chapters, it had seemed that Mother was abusing Dave more overtly and that she was no longer concerned with hiding her behavior from Father—suggesting that Father wasn’t really “protecting” Dave in the first place. However, Pelzer doesn’t really address this ambiguity in the book.) The passage confirms that Mother is a sadist of the first degree: she seems to take great pleasure in causing Dave the maximum amount of fear and anxiety, not just physical pain.

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Stephen Joseph Pelzer / Father Character Timeline in A Child Called It

The timeline below shows where the character Stephen Joseph Pelzer / Father appears in A Child Called It. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Chapter 2: Good Times
Child Abuse Theme Icon
...in a nice house with a beautiful view of the Golden Gate Bridge. Dave’s father, Stephen Joseph , is a fireman, and his mom, Catherine Roerva, is a determined, loving homemaker. She’s... (full context)
Chapter 3: Bad Boy
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Father works long hours—sometimes twenty-four hours at a time. In times like this, Mother punishes her... (full context)
Child Abuse Theme Icon
Neglect and the Normalization of Evil Theme Icon
One day, while Father is at work, Mother yells for her children. While Dave’s brothers run away, Mother—whose eyes... (full context)
Child Abuse Theme Icon
Psychological Trauma Theme Icon
Neglect and the Normalization of Evil Theme Icon
...Santa only brings presents for good boys and girls. Later, Dave hears Mother arguing with Father, who’s bought Dave a few gifts. After the argument, Dave senses that Father will no... (full context)
Chapter 4: The Fight for Food
Child Abuse Theme Icon
Neglect and the Normalization of Evil Theme Icon
...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... (full context)
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...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... (full context)
Child Abuse Theme Icon
Neglect and the Normalization of Evil Theme Icon
...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... (full context)
Child Abuse Theme Icon
Resistance Theme Icon
...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,... (full context)
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...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... (full context)
Chapter 5: The Accident
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Psychological Trauma Theme Icon
...around his chest. Mother often said that she’d intended to be a nurse before meeting Father, and Dave trusts her nursing abilities completely. Dave feels a strange sense of relief—he senses... (full context)
Child Abuse Theme Icon
Psychological Trauma Theme Icon
Neglect and the Normalization of Evil Theme Icon
Father walks into the house. Dave gasps, “Mother stabbed me.” Without raising an eyebrow, Father asks,... (full context)
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As Dave is finishing the dishes, he succumbs to the pain and collapses. He feels Father helping him to his feet. Father tells Dave to change his shirt, and Dave looks... (full context)
Chapter 6: While Father Is Away
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Resistance Theme Icon
After Dave’s stabbing, Father spends less and less time at home. He makes excuses, but Dave doesn’t believe them.... (full context)
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Neglect and the Normalization of Evil Theme Icon
During one period when Father is gone for work, Mother starves Dave for ten days. She makes sure that Dave... (full context)
Child Abuse Theme Icon
Psychological Trauma Theme Icon
Resistance Theme Icon
When Father is away, Mother forces Dave to clean the bathroom with ammonia and Clorox. She locks... (full context)
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...to scream. Later, Mother goes into the bathroom and orders Dave to go sleep in Father’s bed. Lately, Dave notes, Mother has been sleeping in the same bedroom as her sons,... (full context)
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In March, Mother goes into labor, and Father takes her to the hospital. Dave is very relieved to have Mother out of the... (full context)
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Neglect and the Normalization of Evil Theme Icon
Early in the mornings, Father wakes up in the same bed as Dave and kisses him goodbye, whispering, “Try to... (full context)
Chapter 7: The Lord’s Prayer
Child Abuse Theme Icon
Psychological Trauma Theme Icon
...thinks about killing Mother, and making her feel his pain and loneliness. He also despises Father for being a coward and failing to protect him from Mother. Sometimes, when Mother argues... (full context)
Child Abuse Theme Icon
Neglect and the Normalization of Evil Theme Icon
...on the phone, and then takes out her anger on Dave. She also yells at Father, calling him a “drunken loser,” and even bans him from the house for a few... (full context)
Child Abuse Theme Icon
Psychological Trauma Theme Icon
Resistance Theme Icon
Neglect and the Normalization of Evil Theme Icon
That year, for Thanksgiving, Father comes to the house and Mother allows Dave to eat with the rest of the... (full context)