58 pages 1 hour read

Dave Pelzer

A Child Called It: One Child’s Courage to Survive

Nonfiction | Autobiography / Memoir | Adult | Published in 1995

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Summary and Study Guide


A Child Called It: One Child’s Courage to Survive is a memoir detailing author Dave Pelzer’s struggles with his abusive mother until the fifth grade. Published in 1995 by Health Communications Inc., it is the first in a series of books that chronicle Pelzer’s fight to leave his dysfunctional household, move through the foster care system, and enter into a stable adulthood. The book was listed on The New York Times best-seller list for several years. Pelzer has made appearances on television programs such as The Oprah Winfrey Show and The Montel Williams Show. Though the book received mass public acclaim, it drew skepticism regarding the story’s authenticity, most notably voiced in a 2002 The New York Times article by Pat Jordan. Several of Pelzer’s family members have denied the account. However, Dave Pelzer’s brother Richard Pelzer wrote his own memoir in 2006, A Brother’s Journey: Surviving a Childhood of Abuse, that corroborates much of Dave Pelzer’s story.

Dave Pelzer begins his memoir with the story of his rescue. When the reader first meets young Dave, a fifth grader, he is emaciated, black and blue with injuries, and barely surviving. One morning, as soon as he enters the school building, he is summoned to meet with the school nurse and several other administrators who question him about his bruises. By the end of a lengthy interrogation with these well-meaning school guardians, Pelzer is handed over to law enforcement and then Child Protective Services.

In Chapter 2, “Good Times,” Pelzer looks back to his early childhood, when his mother Catherine was loving and creative, albeit controlling. Pelzer describes elaborate picnics at Golden Gate Park, trips to San Francisco Chinatown, and warm family Christmases. This chapter contextualizes the transition that Dave’s mother makes from kind parent to child abuser.

In Chapters 3 through 6 Pelzer outlines the cruel and bizarre methods that his mother uses to control and abuse him. In Chapter 3 Catherine justifies her abuse by claiming that Dave is a “bad boy” (33). One of Catherine’s methods of punishment is to force Dave to stand in front of a mirror and repeat to his reflection that he is bad. Later, in Chapter 6, Catherine expands these methods of cruelty by creating the “gas chamber treatment,” in which she locks Dave in the bathroom with a toxic bucket of ammonia (86). Throughout this section Pelzer outlines the manipulations and lies that Catherine uses to hide her abusive behavior. This includes insisting Dave tell the school administrators and teachers that he fell to account for his bruises, and claiming that Dave fell out of bed when Catherine injures his arm. For Dave, these instances of abuse and manipulation signal a point of no return in his relationship with his mother. Dave increasingly understands that his mother will not revert back to the sweet, kind parent of his childhood.

These chapters also reveal the delusional aspect of Catherine’s behavior, as she begins making up crimes to punish Dave for. As foreshadowed in the beginning of the book, Pelzer learns to reclaim part of his agency by finding tactics to blunt the force of his mother’s abuse, such as distracting her or obtaining food in creative ways when she attempts to starve him.

Chapter 5, “The Accident,” outlines Catherine’s accidental stabbing of Dave. Though this section reveals the lengths of Catherine’s rage, it also signifies the complacency of Dave’s father Stephen Joseph. Dave is shocked and angry to find that when he approaches his father, wounded and dripping with blood, Stephen refuses to look up from his newspaper. In Chapter 7, “The Lord’s Prayer,” Stephen leaves the family for good. During this time, Dave’s teachers become increasingly suspicious of Dave’s family life and, as illustrated in the first chapter, they turn him over to Child Protective Services.

In the Epilogue, “Sonoma County, California,” Pelzer reflects on the many challenges he overcame while visiting his childhood vacation cabin on the Russian River. The reader learns that Pelzer eventually joins the military, cultivates a deep love and respect for the United States, and starts a family of his own. Pelzer is accompanied by his son, Stephen, with whom he has a loving relationship. Stephen embraces his father and tells him that this spot on the Russian River is his favorite place in the world.

The book’s “Perspectives on Childhood Abuse” section outlines resources that those suffering from abuse can turn to, as well as several short narratives from experts in the field and minor characters in Pelzer’s memoir, including Pelzer’s former teacher at Thomas Edison Elementary School in San Francisco, Mr. Ziegler, and former executive director of the California Consortium for the Prevention of Child Abuse, Glenn A. Goldberg.