A Child Called “It”: One Child’s Courage to Survive by Dave Pelzer.
Health Communications, Inc. Deerfield Beach, Florida, 1993.
Adult memoir, 184 pages.
Lexile: 850L .
AR Level: 5.8 (worth 5.0 points) .
NOTE: Despite the reading level, these are books written for adults, not MG readers.
The early childhood of a severely abused boy.
This is the first, and most well-known, book in an autobiographical trilogy. Dave Pelzer was one of the most severely abused children in California. His father kept his mother from murdering him, but otherwise he was routinely tortured, starved, beaten, and otherwise maltreated.
The entire book should probably not be read by anyone who might find these events triggering. His parents also rely heavily on alcohol and his mother occasionally turns her rage from him to his father or others. It’s interesting that few reviews remark on this being an example of domestic abuse from a woman to a man. Male perpetrators are certainly more common, but it’s important to recognize that women can be abusers as well and to validate and hold a mirror up for male victims of abuse.
While the book is intense, it’s not overly emotional (although it can feel overwrought at times). Pelzer narrates with a steady, precise flow, documenting what it felt like for him to be a child in the total control of a sociopathic parent. I remember crying and crying on my first read through. However, after hearing or reading the stories of other children, this book is not so affecting on the second readthrough.
Chapter one is called The Rescue, and it moves forward in time to March 5th, 1973. The book starts by telling us that Pelzer made it out, but it doesn’t really lessen any of the tension because he barely survived. Chapter two feels a bit incongruous as Pelzer waxes poetic about the early years of his life, before the abuse started. There are definitely early signs of mental illness and family discord. Chapter three takes a dark turn as Pelzer is singled out for persecution in the family. By the fourth chapter she is starving him, and school is his only lifeline. Before second grade she had stopped using his name and begun dehumanizing him.
Chapter five focuses mainly on the time his mother, after threats to murder him are no longer effective, actually stabs him. Throughout the book, Pelzer’s father is slowly becoming more and more distant and giving in to his mother more and more. Eventually chapter six is about the ways in which the abuse escalates, starting when his father is not around, and eventually even when his father is there. Pelzer is forced to drink bleach, eat feces, and breathe a toxic mixture. He’s drowned, choked, and starved for days. He’s not allowed a change of clothes and rarely gets to bathe.
By fifth grade Pelzer is not only a school pariah, but he’s so deeply traumatized that he’s starting to loose himself. But there are also signs that others are finally starting to recognize what’s happening to him and the authorities will eventually intervene.
After the rather quick six chapters comes an overly flowery epilogue about how good his life is. However, the idea expressed that he was able to change the cycle by becoming a good parent to his son is indeed very meaningful. After the epilogue my edition has 4 short essays on the topic of child abuse, a poem, and information on national reporting hotlines.
Peltzer does well narrating difficult topics here, but his writing style won’t be right for everybody. He tends to keep the writing style terse and unemotional, which isn’t very immersive and doesn’t work so well in later books, although it’s a suitable tactic here. This might be a bestseller, but it’s not likely to win any literary awards for the beauty of his prose.
As one could gather just from the description, this is a book meant for adults, not children or even most teens. Besides the various incidents mentioned above, Pelzer occasionally uses strong language (never gratuitously).
I’m not really sure if I can recommend this one or not. It is certainly vivid and memorable, and child welfare professionals and foster or adoptive parents would probably benefit from reading it. However, this is not a typical case and I’m not entirely sure what the benefit to regular people would be at this time. I am going to keep reading the series though and perhaps will have further thoughts about the potential readership after finishing the second book.