A Child Called It

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Neglect and the Normalization of Evil Theme Analysis

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Child Abuse Theme Icon
Psychological Trauma Theme Icon
Resistance Theme Icon
Neglect and the Normalization of Evil Theme Icon
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Neglect and the Normalization of Evil Theme Icon

One of the most startling things about A Child Called “It” is that for many years, and in spite of the obvious signs that Dave’s parents are abusing him, nobody alerts the authorities. Although Dave’s teachers, along with the principal and the school nurse, make the decision to call Child Protective Services when Dave is in fifth grade, Pelzer makes it clear that there had been signs of abuse years before: Dave regularly showed up to school with bruises and scratches. Why, then, did it take Dave’s teachers so long to do the right thing? And why hadn’t someone else—a concerned parent or neighbor, or even one of Dave’s own family members—made a call years before?

In part, Pelzer suggests, it takes a long time for someone to call the police because in the 1970s public awareness of child abuse was very low. As Pelzer explains in the afterword, public awareness of abuse has come a long way in his lifetime, and, in the 1990s, it would be significantly harder for Mother to abuse Dave as openly as she did in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Mr. Ziegler, one of the teachers who finally makes the decision to alert the authorities, reinforces Pelzer’s point by noting that, in the 1970s, he was significantly more naïve about child abuse than he is now. Because they’re largely ignorant of child abuse, many of Dave’s teachers turn a blind eye to his appearance, and allow their preconceptions about Dave being a “bad kid” to cloud their judgment. Mother also makes a point of telling Dave’s teachers that Dave injures himself to gain attention. While this excuse doesn’t seem particularly believable in hindsight, it’s enough to convince most of Dave’s teachers not to pay too much attention to his bruises. Additionally, Dave’s teachers hesitate to treat Dave sympathetically because he steals food from the other children—they regard him as a devious, untrustworthy child (even though Dave only steals food because Mother refuses to feed him enough). It’s telling that the first teacher who notices Dave’s bruises and cuts is a substitute—in other words, someone who doesn’t have strong preconceptions about Dave being a bad kid. The substitute is no more of an expert on child abuse than any of Dave’s other teachers, but because she’s an outsider at Dave’s school, she has an easier time seeing the obvious truth: somebody is hitting Dave.

Even if ignorance of child abuse can explain some of the neglectful behavior in A Child Called “It”, it can’t explain why Dave’s own Father and brothers allow Mother to continue hurting him, year after year. Dave’s family’s behavior suggests a disturbing possibility: over time, many people can grow accustomed to cruelty, even if it’s inflicted on their own family members. Over the course of the book, Mother gradually becomes less secretive in her abuse. At first, she only hurts Dave when Father and her other children are out of the house. But gradually, she begins hurting Dave in full view of the rest of the family. Because she hurts Dave every day, Mother’s abuse eventually becomes normalized in her family’s eyes. By the end of the book, Dave’s own brothers don’t bat an eye at the sight of Dave sitting in a freezing-cold tub or vomiting up his food on command; his brothers even invite other children to come stare at Dave. Even Dave’s Father, who seems somewhat sympathetic to Dave at first, quickly gives up defending Dave from Mother.

In all, A Child Called “It” paints a disturbing picture of human nature. Mother is a cruel, evil woman, but her evil would be impossible without the neglect and tacit support of her family and her entire community. Few people would openly condone child abuse, but by ignoring the blatant truth (in the case of Dave’s teachers) or by growing accustomed to evil (in the case of Dave’s family), they enable it. By writing A Child Called “It”, perhaps, Pelzer doesn’t just want readers to relive his suffering—he wants to encourage people to speak out against the cruelty they witness in their own lives, rather than remaining silent and allowing cruelty to continue.

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Neglect and the Normalization of Evil ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Neglect and the Normalization of Evil appears in each Chapter of A Child Called It. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Neglect and the Normalization of Evil Quotes in A Child Called It

Below you will find the important quotes in A Child Called It related to the theme of Neglect and the Normalization of Evil.
Chapter 4 Quotes

When I returned from school the next afternoon, Mother smiled as if she had won a million-dollar sweepstakes. She told me how she had dressed up to see the principal, with her infant son Russell in her arms. Mother told me how she had explained to the principal how David had an overactive imagination. Mother told him how David had often struck and scratched himself to get attention, since the recent birth of his new brother, Russell. I could imagine her turning on her snake-like charm as she cuddled Russell for the benefit of the principal.

Related Characters: David Pelzer / Dave (speaker), Mother / Mom / Catherine Roerva Pelzer, Russell Pelzer
Page Number: 53
Explanation and Analysis:

In Chapter Four, Dave’s teachers begin to notice that he shows signs of serious abuse—his clothes are always torn, and he’s covered in bruises and scratches. However, as Pelzer explains it, Mother is able to alleviate Dave’s teachers’ concerns by lying and claiming that Dave hurts himself to get attention, and that he’s jealous of the new baby, Russell. After this chapter, Dave’s teachers don’t raise any serious concerns about his condition until 1973, when they finally call the police and ensure that Dave won’t live with Mother anymore.

The passage paints a disturbing picture of life in the 1970s, a decade during which it was, apparently, all-too easy for abusive parents to get away with their crimes. From a contemporary perspective, Mother’s excuses for Dave’s appearance are utterly unbelievable—what child would hit himself every day for months out of jealousy? But perhaps because Dave’s teachers don’t have much experience with child abuse, or much training for how to deal with it, they accept Mother’s excuses and effectively give her permission to continue abusing her child.

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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.

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 6 Quotes

At times when I laid in the tub, my brothers brought their friends to the bathroom to look at their naked brother. Their friends often scoffed at me. "'What did he do this time?" they'd ask. Most of the time my brothers just shook their heads, saying, "I don't know."

Related Characters: David Pelzer / Dave (speaker), Ronald Pelzer, Stan Pelzer, Russell Pelzer
Page Number: 114
Explanation and Analysis:

By this point in the book, Mother has become much more overt in her abusiveness. At first, she made a point of punishing Dave only when Father and Dave’s brothers were out of the house. Now, after years of abuse, she punishes Dave when he’s surrounded by family. Furthermore, Dave’s siblings are so used to seeing their brother’s suffering that they don’t bat an eye at the sight of Dave sitting naked in a cold bathtub for hours. Even more disturbingly, Dave’s siblings ask their friends to come to the house to look at Dave being punished—the neighborhood children seem to accept Dave’s punishments as an acceptable, normal part of life.

Arguably the most horrifying aspect of A Child Called “It” is that, up until 1973, the adults in Dave’s world are no more responsible than the children Dave describes in the passage: they gawk and sneer at Dave, with his threadbare clothing and scruffy appearance, and never make a serious effort to help him. As a result, the passage is a powerful example of how easy it is for people to accept cruelty and outright evil in their lives, as long as it’s not directed at them personally. The unspoken moral of this passage, which Pelzer reiterates later in the book, is that people need to be vigilant and do a better job of looking out for injustice in their communities.

Chapter 7 Quotes

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.

Perspectives on Child Abuse Quotes

My mind returned to the Thomas Edison School in Daly City, California, September, 1972. Enter little David Pelzer as one of my fifth-grade students. I was naive back then, but I was blessed with a sensitivity that told me there was something terribly wrong in David's life. Food missing from other students' lunches was traced to this thin, sad boy. Questionable bruises appeared on exposed parts of his body. Everything began to point to one thing: this kid was being beaten and punished in ways far beyond normal parental practice.

Related Characters: Steven E. Ziegler / Mr. Ziegler (speaker), David Pelzer / Dave
Page Number: 168
Explanation and Analysis:

In this section, Steven E. Zeigler, the teacher who, in 1973, helped free Dave Pelzer from his mother’s abusive household, offers his own unique perspective on child abuse. At the time of this writing, Ziegler has been teaching for more than twenty years, and he’s gained a lot of important knowledge about child abuse—both how to recognize it and how to respond to it. In a way, Ziegler’s experience with child abuse parallels the changes surrounding child abuse in America between the 1970s and 1990s: just as Ziegler became less naïve and more informed on the matter, so, too, did American society in general (however, this shouldn’t suggest that all Americans are now well-informed about abuse—on the contrary, a lot more work needs to be done to keep children safe).

Ziegler also emphasizes the importance of staying vigilant and observant when it comes to child abuse. By using their common sense, teachers—and adults in general—can recognize abuse and alert the proper authorities as soon as possible, thereby protecting children from further harm.

But now I know that I can help;
I can make a difference, too.
I'll stand with you; I'll shout with you,
And the rest can't say, "I never knew."

Related Characters: Cindy M. Adams (speaker)
Page Number: 175
Explanation and Analysis:

In the final portion of the “Perspectives on Child Abuse” chapter, a woman named Cindy M. Adams contributes a poem on society’s neglect of child abuse victims. As Adams writes, ordinary people can “make a difference” simply by speaking out against the cruelties they witness in the course of their daily lives. Throughout A Child Called “It”, adults witness Mother abusing Dave, and say nothing about it. Therefore, by speaking out against abuse, and refusing to remain silent, Adams strongly implies, people can prevent further cases of abuse like Dave’s. Since it was published in the 1990s, Pelzer’s book has been credited with raising awareness for abuse victims and catalyzing a broad movement to protect children from abusive parents. In a way, Cindy is the ideal reader of A Child Called “It”—a concerned, sensible person who takes Pelzer’s lessons to heart and learns to speak out against injustice.