It is March 5, 1973 in Daly City, California, and an unnamed narrator thinks, “I’m late.” Recognizing that he needs to finish doing his chores or risk going hungry again, he frantically tries to rinse the dishes in scalding hot water. Suddenly, “Mother” hits the narrator in the face, and he falls to the floor. He begs, “Please, just let me eat.” Instead, Mother hits him again and walks away. The narrator thinks, “I haven’t let her take away my will to survive.” He finishes the dishes and eats some of his brother’s cereal “before Mother changes her mind.” He thinks about how Mother never throws leftovers in the garbage, since she knows the narrator will dig them out later.
The memoir begins en medias res—in the middle of the action. Right away, one gets the sense that the narrator is subservient to an abusive, angry “Mother,” who works him like a horse and denies him food. However, even if he can’t fight back, the narrator resists Mother’s abuse by preserving his dignity and his will to survive. As of yet, the narrator of the memoir is unnamed, perhaps reflecting the dehumanizing conditions in which he lives.
Later that morning, Mother drives the narrator and his brother to school. She tells the narrator that, tomorrow, she’s going to take him to Uncle Dan’s house. The narrator pretends to be afraid, but secretly he knows that Uncle Dan will be kinder than Mother. Mother tells the narrator, “Tell ‘em you ran into a door,” and then lets him out of the car. The narrator thinks about how Mother used to have beautiful hair—now she’s overweight, and she drinks constantly.
There are a few things to notice here. First, the narrator has become adept at hiding his thoughts and feelings from Mother. Second, Mother has trained the narrator to lie about his bruises, presumably so that his teachers won’t accuse her of abuse. Finally, the passage suggests that Mother’s abusiveness is at least partly a result of alcoholism.
Since he’s late for school, the narrator reports to the secretary. The secretary, noticing the narrator’s bruises, sends him to the nurse, who asks him what’s happened. The narrator repeats, “I ran into a door.” When the nurse is skeptical, the narrator says, “I got hit by a bat. It was an accident.” The nurse asks him to undress, and then makes notes of the bruises and cuts on his body. She notices that his teeth are chipped, and, upon noticing a scar on the narrator’s stomach, asks, “And that is where she stabbed you?” Reluctantly, the narrator says, “Yes.” The nurse hugs him warmly and leaves the room. A moment later, she returns with the principal, Mr. Hansen, and two of the narrator’s teachers, Miss Woods and Mr. Ziegler. Mr. Hansen says that he’s had “enough of this.” Frightened, the narrator begs Mr. Hansen not to call Mother again, but Hansen promises he won’t.
The narrator has been trained to lie to adults about how he got his bruises and scars, but the nurse is perceptive enough to realize that he’s concealing the truth. Instead of playing along with his lies, the nurse asks the narrator, point-blank, if “she” (meaning Mother) stabbed him. There are also a few subtle hints that the nurse, along with the narrator’s teachers, have been aware of his bruises for a while now (hence Hansen saying he’s had enough). Like so many abused children, the narrator is terrified that if he tells the truth about Mother’s cruelty, Mother will hurt him even more harshly.
The narrator returns to his fifth grade class. He’s usually a good student, but lately he hasn’t had any time to study, and has, in fact, given up on “everything in my life.” The students make fun of him for his old clothes and bad smell. Before long, the narrator is called to the principal’s office. There, he finds Mr. Hansen, Mr. Ziegler, Miss Moss, the nurse, and a police officer. He has no idea that these adults are risking their jobs to save him.
The narrator is an outcast even among his peers, due largely to the results of his Mother’s abuse. It’s a sign of the general ignorance of child abuse in the 1970s that the narrator’s teachers would be risking their jobs just to investigate a transparently obvious case of child abuse.
The police officer asks the narrator to tell him about Mother, but the narrator refuses, afraid that Mother will find out. When Miss Moss assures the narrator that everything is going to be okay, he begins to cry. He shouts that getting stabbed was “an accident,” and that Mother punishes him because he’s bad. Miss Woods embraces the narrator, and then begins to cry. Mr. Hansen gives the narrator food, and the narrator eats it hurriedly. The police officer asks the narrator for more information, and the narrator wonders if he’s going to jail. He feels relieved, since at least Mother won’t be able to hit him there. The police officer walks the narrator outside. As they walk past the narrator’s classmates, they cry, “Dave’s busted!”
The Narrator is terrified of Mother and seems to despise her, yet she has conditioned him to repeat and even believe the horrifying lie that he deserves his punishment. Notice also that readers learn Dave’s name for the first time in this passage; it’s appropriate that, at the moment when Dave is freed from his Mother and begins a new phase in his life, he finally acquires a name and an identity in readers’ eyes.
The police officer drives Dave to a police station. After completing some paperwork, he asks Dave for his Mother’s phone number. Dave is initially reluctant to give him the number, since he’s afraid that Mother will be angry with him for talking to the police. However, he gives the officer the number; the officer calls Mother and tells her that Dave is now in the custody of the San Mateo Juvenile Department. The officer smiles and says, “David Pelzer, you’re free.” The officer explains that Mother will never hurt him again. Dave begins to cry.
As this passage makes clear, A Child Called “It” begins at the end of the story: with Dave’s liberation from Mother’s abuse—a moment that is triumphant, but also emotionally overwhelming for Dave, since he’s never experienced any life at all beyond Mother’s control.