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.
Neglect and the Normalization of Evil ThemeTracker
Neglect and the Normalization of Evil Quotes in A Child Called It
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.
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.
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."
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."
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.”
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.
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."