Dave Pelzer’s memoir A Child Called “It” is a harrowing meditation on child abuse, embodied in Dave’s mother, Catherine Roerva (usually referred to either as Mother or “the bitch”). For many years, Mother abuses Dave verbally, physically, and psychologically, until, thanks to the intervention of Dave’s teachers, the police finally free him from Mother’s home. Child abuse is by far the most important theme in the memoir—indeed, the other themes we’ll discuss are particularly important aspects of the overall theme of abuse.
Above all, Pelzer’s memoir discusses the substance of child abuse; in other words, the specific actions that Mother perpetrates on Dave, and the physical and psychological effects that her actions have on Dave. Some of Mother’s abuse is purely physical: she beats Dave, whips him with chains, forces him to eat feces and vomit, and commits countless other atrocities. But as horrific as Mother’s physical abuse is, however, it’s arguably milder than the verbal and psychological abuse to which she subjects Dave. Whenever Mother hurts Dave, she forces him to repeat, “I’m a bad boy,” essentially brainwashing him into believing that he deserves his hideous abuse. Over the course of many years, this form of psychological abuse takes its toll on Dave’s self-respect—even when he knows that Mother is an evil, abusive parent, he can’t help but think that, on some level, he’s “bad” and deserves his abuse (See “Trauma” theme.) Mother also goes to great lengths to isolate Dave from his classmates and family. She forbids Dave from eating or playing with his brothers, and forces him to wear the same smelly clothing to school every day, until his classmates grow to dislike him. By isolating Dave from other people, Mother makes Dave weaker and more dependent on her, while also limiting the possibility that a friend’s parents might notice that Dave is being abused. In all, Mother’s abuse is reckless and yet eerily cunning. She subjects her son to tortures so horrifying that they seem to be the product of pure, unthinking rage, but she also seems to plan his abuse very carefully, in order to maximize his suffering.
Although Pelzer discusses his abuse in chilling detail, he says little about why Mother behaves the way she does—put another way, A Child Called “It” says a lot about the “what” of child abuse, but almost nothing about the “why.” For many years, Dave acknowledges, Mother is a model parent, who loves entertaining and cooking for her family, and who treats Dave with love and warmth. Then, very abruptly, she becomes abusive. Even more bizarrely, Mother abuses Dave but still seems to treat her other children, Dave’s brothers, kindly. Pelzer cannot explain why his Mother became so cruel. He mentions that Mother begins drinking heavily around the time that she becomes abusive, and seems to take out her anger with Dave’s Father on Dave. But of course, there are millions of heavy-drinking parents who don’t abuse their children (nor would alcoholism explain why Mother hits Dave but not Dave’s brothers).
Pelzer is well within his rights to depict the “what” of child abuse without delving into the “why”; he shouldn’t necessarily be expected to explain why Mother abuses him. Nevertheless, the absence of any “why” arguably limits the book’s insight into child abuse. A Child Called “It” portrays Mother—and child abuse itself—as a force of pure, incomprehensible evil, so that, in effect, readers see Mother through the eyes of the young Dave Pelzer himself. Some critics (including writers for Slate and The New York Times) have used the word “pornographic” to describe Pelzer’s depiction of child abuse, implying that Pelzer is trying to “arouse a quick, intense emotional reaction,” rather than help his readers understand the psychology of abusive parents, recognize abusive parents, or do anything else to prevent actually child abuse. In short, some critics have suggested, by concentrating on the “what” instead of the “why,” Pelzer is trying to shock, thrill, and even entertain his readers, instead of educating or empowering them.
However one feels about Pelzer’s depiction of child abuse, one cannot deny that he provides a sobering account of a little-discussed side of life. Furthermore, by writing and lecturing across the country, Pelzer has increased awareness of child abuse and inspired people to speak out against abusive parents and come to terms with their own histories of abuse.
Child Abuse ThemeTracker
Child Abuse Quotes in A Child Called It
After I count her steps, making sure she’s gone, I breathe a sigh of relief. The act worked. Mother can beat me all she wants, but I haven’t let her take away my will to somehow survive.
The police officer and I walk outside, past the cafeteria. I can see some of the kids from my class playing dodge ball. A few of them stop playing. They yell, "David's busted! David's busted!"
From above, I felt someone hug my shoulders, I thought it was my father. I turned and became flushed with pride to find Mom holding me tightly. I could feel her heart beat. I never felt as safe and as warm as that moment in time, at the Russian River.
Mother would simply grab me and smash my face against the mirror, smearing my tear-streaked face on the slick, reflective glass. Then she would order me to say over and over again, "I'm a bad boy! I'm a bad boy! I'm a bad boy!"
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.
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.
The more I tried to focus on my options of what she might do to me, the more my inner strength drained away. Then an idea flashed in my brain: I knew why Mother had followed every step I took. She wanted to maintain a constant pressure on me, by leaving me unsure of when or where she would strike.
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."
To survive her new game I had to use my head. Lying on the tiled floor I stretched my body and, using my foot, I slid the bucket to the door. I did this for two reasons: I wanted the bucket as far away from me as possible, and in case Mother opened the door I wanted her to 1et a snoot full of her own medicine.
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."
Mother's hand on my shoulder brought me back to reality. "'Well, tell her, sweetheart," Mother said, smiling again. "Tell her that I starve you and beat you like a dog," Mother snickered, trying to get the lady to laugh, too.
I looked at the lady, My face felt flushed, and I could feel the beads of sweat forming on my forehead. I didn't have the guts to tell the lady the truth. "No, it's not like that at all," I said. "Mom treats me pretty good."
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.
"Get one thing straight, you little son of a bitch! There is nothing you can do to impress me! Do you understand me? You are a nobody! An It! You are nonexistent! You are a bastard child! I hate you and I wish you were dead? Dead! Do you hear me? Dead!"
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."
I marvel at the wood how it reminds me of my former life. My beginning was extremely turbulent, being pushed and pulled in every direction. The more grisly my situation became, the more I felt as if some immense power were sucking me into some giant undertow. I fought as hard as I could, but the cycle never seemed to end. Until suddenly, without warning, I broke free.
I'm so lucky. My dark past is behind me now.
Even now, as salty tears run down my face, Stephen smiles, letting me maintain my dignity. But be knows why I'm crying. Stephen knows my tears are tears of joy. "Love you, Dad."
"Love you, too, son."
Once exposed, the causes of child abuse can be understood and support can truly begin. Childhood should be carefree, playing in the sun; not living a nightmare in the darkness of the soul.
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.