“A Child Called It: One Child’s Courage to Survive” Review

“A Child Called It: One Child’s Courage to Survive” Review

The purpose  of this review is to provide a review of a book entitled, A Child Called It:  One Child’s Courage to Survive.  A Child Called It is a memoir written by Dave Peltzer in 1995.  A Child Called It is a heartbreaking true story that chronicles the Dave Peltzer suffered at the hands of his alcoholic mother.  This book is a horrifying account of the torture that she inflicted on him.  Oddly enough the book describes Catherine Roerva as a devoted den mother to the Cub Scouts and somewhat nurturant to her children but, not to Dave, whom she referred to as “an It.” Although there were times in Dave’s life where life seemed ‘normal’.  Dave lives in California with his mother, father and two brothers.  His father is a fireman, and his mother stays home to take care of their children.  By the author’s accounts, at least in Dave’s younger years, the mother was a good mother.  Dave recalls the good memories with his family where they went on day trips and visited the aquarium.

The mother starts to struggle with depression and ultimately turns to alcohol to cope and this is where Dave’s life take a tragic and horrific turn.  This is a difficult book to read.   The book is told from the point of view of the author as a young boy who was starved, stabbed, smashed fist first into mirrors, forced to eat the contents of his sibling’s diapers and a spoonful of ammonia, burned over a stove, forced to lie in freezing water, and more.  Dave suffered tremendous emotional and physical abuse at the hands of his abusive mother while his father and siblings did nothing to help poor Dave as he was left to fend for himself.  He provides a detailed account of the abuse, neglect, pain, emotional abuse, his struggle to cope and survive, his loss of hope and faith in God, but, his eventually freedom from his mother’s abuse.

 

The story begins with Dave being dropped off at school by his mother because he had to complete his chores before going to school.  Because he was so late, he had to report to the administrative office.  The school nurse comes and leads Dave to her office where he undergoes what he refers to as his “normal” routine.  The nurse begins to examine Dave and note all of the bruises (old and new) that were on his body.  The nurse knows that Dave is being abused despite all of his attempts to persuade her otherwise.  She ultimately goes and gets the principal and this one act will prove to be the moment that changes Dave life and ultimately saves him from his abusive mother.  The principal notifies the Daly City Police Department who takes Dave to the San Mateo Juvenile Department.

Dave Pelzer was part of one of the worst cases of child abuse in California history.  From his early recollections, he describes a relatively happy life.  The author chronicles a tale of happiness as he discusses that early in life prior to the abuse, “my family was the Brady Bunch of the 1960s.  My two brothers and I were blessed with the perfect parents.  Our every whim was fulfilled with love and care.”  (Pelzer, 1995).  From a reader’s perspective, times seemed good and one has to ask the question, what happened?  When the father was at work, the mother would take the children on day trips to places like Golden Gate Park, where they would visit the Aquarium.  She was a good housekeeper and she appeared to take her job as housekeeping very seriously and by Dave’s account, she was a good cook.  Their house was full of pets, and Dave particularly remembers a tortoise that he named “Thor.”  His mother would teach them lessons about the animals, including a dramatic lesson on the process of birth when the family cat had kittens.  They celebrated holidays as a family beginning with Halloween.  His mother always decorated the house for Christmas.  The mother appeared to take great effort into making the Christmas holiday special for her children filled with gifts and love.  One day Dave saw his mother crying and asked her what was wrong.  She replied that she was crying because she was “so happy to have a real family.”   Dave recalls his most memorable trip to the river happened when he was in Kindergarten and his mother checked him out early from school.  They would climb trees and swim in the river.  His mother taught him how to swim on his back.  And, she even seemed proud that he was able to do it.  It’s almost heartbreaking to read the author states that “everyday seemed sprinkled with magic” to know of the tragic and abusive days ahead for Dave.  The title of this chapter Good Times is an indication that Bad Days were to come.  That place on the Russian River where Dave felt safe would become a memory in time past.  This place will become a place that haunts him after things change in his family and the abuse begins.

We see early in the abuse that Dave has a difficult time blaming his mother for being physically abusive towards him. His relationship with his mother drastically changed after what Dave explain as “discipline to punishment that grew out of control.” (Pelzer, 1995).  In young Dave’s mind, he was somehow to blame for being a child in this abusive home.  Yes, me may have talked louder than some children, been somewhat mischievous, or even defiant but, he was in no way the blame for his mother’s actions.  In the Chapter, Bad Boy, the name itself signifies that Dave somehow felt responsible for his mother’s abuse towards him.  We see that during the time of his mother’s abuse towards him she is exhibiting some depressive behaviors.  At times when the father was at work, she would spend the entire day lying on the couch in her bathrobe watching television.  She would only get up to get another drink and eat some food.  Dave began to fear his mother even stating that his mother’s voice would send tremors down his spine.  He could tell whether he would have a good day or bad day by the way his mother would be dressed.   He would breath a sigh of relief if his mother would come out of her room in a nice dress and make up accompanied by a smile.  The punishment turn abuse increased over time.  She started with the “corner treatment” then graduated to the “minor treatment” into outright abuse.  He tells of a time when his mother grabbed him and smashed his face onto a mirror and then ordered him to say over and over again, “I’m a bad boy!” The mother acted differently when the father was home from work.  He states that he loved when his father was home because it meant no abuse from the mother.  For Dave, school was safe haven for him.  One day he is punished by his mother because he was held back in first grade because he was a “bad boy” and had shamed the family.  The abuse became worse than ever.  He was banned from watching television, forever. He was not given dinner and was given whatever chores she could come up with.  He wasn’t even allowed to go on family vacations.   Holidays were canceled for Dave.  Where he had in times past received gifts from his parents, but now he only received a few gifts from family members outside his immediate family.  The mother comes up with any excuse to abuse Dave even to the point of lying about receiving a letter from the North Pole about Dave being a bad boy.    Things for Dave only go from bad to worse.  His mother would buy him clothes for the first day of school but, would make him wear the same clothes every day.  He is dirty, smelly and hungry.  His mother does not always remember to feed him for dimmer, and he gets very little breakfast of whatever his brothers leave behind and that’s only if he finishes his chores in the morning. He always goes to bed hungry.  Dave begins stealing food from other student’ lunches; when he is caught, the principal calls his mother.  This, of course, leads to him being more deprived of food and more abuse.  His father was his only hope but, his attempts to help Dave has caused problems in their marriage.  As problems increased in their marriage, so did the abuse by the mother.  After the father would leave for work, she would yank Dave out of bed and beat him.  She even told him that he was the reason the she and his father were having problems.  The abuse continued.  One day she smeared the baby’s soiled diaper on his face and attempted to make him eat the defecation.  Dave was a total outcast as school.  The children referred to him as “David the Food Thief” and “Peltzer Smeltzer.” He had no one to talk to or play with.  At home, his mother was making him eat food scraps from the garbage can.  And, now he didn’t have his father to help him.  Dave’s new bed is under the kitchen table with newspaper for a blanket; next he is forced to sleep in the garage.  His mother forces him to swallow a spoonful of ammonia to teach him from stealing food, which burns the flesh from his tongue.  One thing that the author said that was painful to read, after an incident where he had defecated on himself after his mother forced dishwashing liquid down his throat.  He father came into the garage and saw him in this state and the Dave remarked, “I felt lower than a dog.”

The mother abuse because so violent that she nearly killed Dave.  One night while waving a knife around, she lost her balance and fell.  The knife flew and stabbed Dave in his lower chest.  She didn’t take him to the hospital but nursed the wounds herself.  When she finally was able to stop the bleeding and wrap the wound, she showed no remorse.  She just stood up and washed her hands and told Dave that he had thirty minutes to finish the dishes.  Dave talks about the time that he started to believe that there wasn’t a God.  He said that he stopped dreaming and he wouldn’t allow his imagination to work during the day.  He would just accept his fate.  His soul became so cold that he hated everything.  He began to hate his mother and wished that she was dead. As the years passed, he tried to calculate when she would die.  Sadly, he began to hate his father.  His father knew what Dave was experiencing but, lacked the courage to do anything about it.  The brothers even began to take part in his abuse.  School was no longer a place of refuge.  The place the was once his safe haven was now was a place of bullying and shame.  Clifford, a school yard bully, would occasionally beat him up.  His mother apologizes to Dave and begins to treat him as she does her other sons.  He is given food and allowed to put on clothes that he had received from the previous Christmas.  He is allowed to play with his brothers.  Then the next day, a social worker comes to their house and ask Dave some questions.  Of course, he answers yes but, it’s now clear to him why his mother had been so nice.  As soon as the social worker leaves, the beating and starving starts again.  At this point in his life, Dave is convince that there isn’t a God.  He has given up on the possibility that life will get better for him.  He almost seems to resolve himself to the abuse. Dave comes to a point of total hopelessness.   Dave finds some solace in his teacher, Mr. Ziegler.  Mr. Ziegler makes an effort to treat Dave like a normal child.  When Dave wins a contest to name the school newspaper, he sends a letter home by Dave to mother from the school and his mother tears up the letter.  Dave knows that his mother hates him.  He does find some hope as the story continues, we see Dave praying the Lord’s Prayer.  His prayers are answered when his teachers frees him from her tyranny and he is placed in foster care.

The story ends with Dave driving away in a car praying and heading to a safe place after being taken away from his mother for abusing him.  The memoir flashes to present times with Dave standing on the Russian River where he recalls at one point in his life never feeling so safe as he had that moment when he was there with his mother and father prior to the horrific abuse he begun to suffer at the hands of his mother. This time he’s standing with his son thinking back on his life and how he’s become stronger as the result of the abuse.

Concrete Responses

This story is heartbreaking.  Sadly, this story is a representation of the epidemic that is plaquing our country.  According to the National Statistics on Child Abuse based on numbers from 2015, an estimated 1,670 children died from abuse and neglect in the United States.  An estimated 683,000 children were victims of abuse and neglect.  That is a startling statistic when we look at nearly 700,000 children are being abused and neglected in our own country.  This story is a sad reminder that our country is failing our children by not protecting them from people whom we expect to keep them safe, their own parents.  This story is also a reminder of a particular incident that still haunts me.  There was a neighbor who lived on the same street as my family and not too far from us.  Her daughter and I were friends.  Years past and I joined the military and they remained in the same home near my mother.  After separating from the military, I came back home and was seeking employment.  There was a position listed in the newspaper for a position with the abused women shelter.  I applied for the position and was hired for the position.  Working at the shelter was very normal until the day that the sheriff department called me and said that they had a client who needed to come to the shelter.  I began to prepare to intake the individual per normal protocol.  As with other cases of abuse, the sheriff department will bring the individuals to the shelter that was in a confidential location to, of course, protect not only the clients from their abusers but, to also protect the staff members from some craze individual who may have the propensity to do something terrible and deadly.  The sheriff department arrived at the location and rang the doorbell.  Upon opening the door, to my surprise was my friend’s mother.  She had been abused by her husband.  And, it would soon become apparent that this was not the first time that he had abused her but, this was the time that she had the courage to leave.  Most of us are oblivious to how much comfort we take from our belief that the world is a predictable place, until it demonstrates its random cruelty in come dramatic way.  We build our lives upon a world of assumptions.  We assume that people who aren’t bleeding aren’t hurt.  We assume that people who are smiling are happy.  These assumptions, although aren’t necessarily harmful until we apply this to the context of abuse.  This story of my friend’s mother speaks to all of the assumptions that we had about our neighbors.  They were a church-going family.  There weren’t any outward scars, but that night the doorbell rang, in that moment, told me that somethings are always what they seem.

As a matter of fact, the abuse had been occurring since my friend was a child.  She had been experiencing this traumatic series of events and hiding from the outside world.  Witnessing violence in the home is traumatic for a child and may pose a risk factor for later physical and mental health problems in adulthood.  Children who witness domestic violence in their homes can be affected by this violence for the rest of their lives.  Truthfully, this incident changed the way that I viewed the world.  For me, asking a person, how they are doing and they answer with the typical, “I’m fine” lacked credence.  My friend would be locked away inside herself and was only vulnerable to the place that she wanted to be vulnerable.  We now know that domestic violence is not a private matter or a family matter, it is abuse and it’s a crime.  But, growing up most children were taught that what went on in their homes was a family matter and it’s best not be shared outside of the family or there would definitely be repercussions.  Experts say that the effects of witnessing an event is the same as experiencing it.  The traumatic effect of witnessing domestic violence can be devastating.  I asked my friend after she came finally came to me because according to our policy, I wasn’t allowed to tell her that her mother was there, why she hadn’t told me about what was going on in her home.  She explained that she was scared and just was too embarrassed to talk about it.  My friend represents so many more children who are witnessing the same or even different type of abuse in their home but, who are just too frightened or embarrassed to talk about it.  Children may feel unable to express themselves, ashamed and confuse by their home’s life, and terrified into keeping their “family secret”.   Because of this incident, my goal to be more vigilant in helping people and not just taking their answer for how they are doing.

Reflection

Dave in the book, A Child Called It, has all of the symptoms that my friend exhibited and that was discussed in the previous paragraphs. He had a sense of guilt, shame, resentment, fear and self-hatred or what we refer to as trauma or the effects of trauma.  Through the eyes of this child, the readers can come to understand the traumatizing psychological effects of abuse on young children and how children can disassociate themselves from the abuse.  As we see through Dave’s lenses, the greatest harm of child abuse is often psychological not physical.  We saw where Dave began to see the abuse as a game to outwit his mother.  The mother’s abuse leaves Dave with a sense of hatred for his mother and the rest of his family.

What I like about the book is the fact that it shows more than just simply listing the evil of child abuse; it shows how Dave was resilient in escaping the terror and abuse by his mother.  Dave is one of the “lucky” one and that term is used loosely because no child is lucky to have experienced child abuse but, Dave is lucky in the sense that he survived the abuse and learns ways to gain some control over his trauma.  The fact that the Officer Smith even says in the book, “You’re free” is symbolic of his freedom from the abuse.  Writing about his own abuse took great courage.  The book doesn’t mention the fate of his mother, what eventually happened to his brothers, and father.  This was a sad book and it takes you through the abuse as if you are really there.  The story is quite depressing but, the details of his abuse is chronicled in the book in a way that you feel the same reactions today as you would have felt during that time.  The pain that was shown when the teachers cried when they heard about his abuse and how they celebrated his final escape from the abuse.  But, to me, the part that was most disturbing was the fact that no one did anything to help this child.  He even said that when he was in the nurse’s office they went through the “normal” routine.  This meant to me that the nurse may have eventually been the “hero” but, she had numerous opportunities to help this child.  Therefore, truthfully, they shouldn’t be celebrated.  They all failed this child.  How can a child go to school dirty, with the same clothes on day and day out with bruises, broken bones, burns, abrasions, scars, cuts and clearly underweight and so on, and no one helps the child?  The substitute teacher smelled him to the point where she waved her hand in front of her face.  The teachers mocked him and treated him like a trouble maker.  The story just broke my heart and almost brought me to tears.  The only hero in this story is Dave, however, there should be some consideration of the fact that little was known about child abuse in the 1970s.  Zeigler, had the sense to finally recognize that Dave was being abused and starved and eventually notified the proper authorities.

In my readings, I learned that there are additional books about Dave that are sequels to this book.  However, I would have like to have learned from this book what happened after he left his mother’s home.  The story just abruptly ends and picks up years later with Dave standing on the river bank with his own son.  The readers are given the indication that Dave is truly free from his past but, there is no indication of what happen between the time of leaving his mother’s house and his true freedom.   As a reader, I would have like to know how David began to love himself again.  As is true with victims of child abuse often wind up taking out their anger on themselves.  Just as Dave began to hate himself by being too frightened at times to fight back.

Application

This book has confirmed that I’ve made the right decision in both my career choice and this particular educational path.  Dave showed incredible strength during this difficult time in his life.  In my current position working with sexual assault survivors, I’m familiar with the terms often associated with therapists who work over long periods of time with trauma victims such as compassion fatigue, vicarious traumatization and secondary trauma.  These terms refer to “changes in one’s world view, inner experience, sense of safety, attitude toward work life, and possibly behavior.”  Working with trauma patients requires me to immerse myself empathically with the experiences of my client.  While people who aren’t close to the situation can remove themselves from the trauma experienced by the person but, this is not true for people who works directly with clients who have experienced such victimization.  However, reading this book about the resiliency of this little boy who overcame such horrifying challenges and survived against all odds have given me more of a determination to complete this program so, that I can be better equip to help others.  Trauma of any kind can greatly impact every aspect of a person’s life.  By providing therapeutic services and to be qualified in trauma therapy can be life changing in helping a person readjust and be able to live life in the way that they want.  We oftentimes refer to this as getting back to a sense of normalcy.  Dave is the epitome of a success story of how a person who has been victimized overcame his challenges to help others to overcome their challenges.  Reading the story that Dave presented to us gives me a greater understanding of the call that God has placed on my life.

In conclusion, as a result of reading this book, I will be more diligent in identifying child abuse and ensure that I take the appropriate steps to help keep a child safe from abuse and to protect a child if there is suspected child abuse.  As we know by reading Dave’s story, some abuse is not visible so, more attention should be given to children who exhibit silent signs of abuse such as developmentally delayed, have speech problems or learning disabilities, or health and weight issues in addition to having emotional extremes and exhibiting anti-social behaviors.  The protection of any child is in the hands of the adults who are supposed to be protecting them.  We have to remain vigilant and know that what we do or don’t do can either help or harm the child.

 

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