Book Review: A Child Called It by Dave Pelzer
I have taught in several different schools spanning different socioeconomic communities. In every school, I have had at least one student, usually a reluctant reader, tell me how much they loved this book. For his ability to grab the attention of the finicky young reader, I will give Dave Pelzer three stars.
His story of child abuse is incredible, but it's also come under a great deal of criticism. The veracity of his account has been called into question. The book's status as a New York Times Bestseller may be a manipulation of Pelzer's sales machine. The graphic descriptions of the abuse have been compared to pornography.
David Plotz covered Pelzer in his article "The child-abuse entrepreneur" for Slate in 2000. Geraldine Bedell wrote about Pelzer in her article "Child abuse as entertainment" for The Guardian in 2001. Pat Jordan analyzed the empire of Pelzer's books in his article "Dysfunction for Dollars" for the New York Times Magazine in 2002.
All three articles are good reads.
In contrast, reading this book was a sickening experience for me.
To begin, Pelzer's writing is infantile. While he may be channeling his younger self to portray details of his abuse, I found this device annoyingly simplistic.
His figurative language is cliched throughout the book.
- "I felt like an alligator in a swamp."
- "It was as though I was in a refrigerator."
- "When Kevin lifted his head and smiled at me, my heart melted."
- "I looked out the open car window at the sky. A dull gray blanket covered everything..."
- "I felt as if I were a man on death row, not knowing when my time would come."
- "I quickly wiped my tears and returned to the inner safety of my hardened shell."
Everything about his story is presented in black and white.
He's regularly abused by his mother and his brothers never seem to witness any of it. While Pelzer has little contact with his brothers, when the boys are allowed to play together, they get along well. His father is a victim of the mother's abuse as well. When the father tries to help "the Boy" he's portrayed as a good guy. When the father increasingly shrinks away, complicit in the abuse, Pelzer paints him as the bad guy, a betrayer worse than the abusive alcoholic mother.
I could see why children gravitate to this book. A true story about the worst case of child abuse in California's history told by the victim is the perfect voyeuristic invitation to read.
And Pelzer writes so simply. He's a master of dragging out the details and keeping the reader wondering about what might happen next. Younger readers naturally react to this style. They may be shocked or they may be empathetic. They may be thankful for their family and all the love they do have.
On the one hand, this engagement with younger readers does certainly give them the chance to better understand the plight of abused children. If the reader suffers from abuse, there's hope within these pages and a feeling of being less alone. If the reader's home life is more loving, then this book does open their eyes to the evils that do exist in this world.
My biggest objections to this book, though, are the fear mongering and romanticization of abuse that occur within the various epilogues and concluding sections on child abuse.
Pelzer references examples of child abuse in the most general terms. His generalizations about these other cases of abuse are never cited. He provides no sources. But he seems to suggest that any parent may become an abuser.
This section reminds me of fairy tales meant to strike fear into children. His conclusions almost sound like a sick warning to children to be good or you might be the victim of child abuse. I'm not disagreeing that any child may be victimized. I'm objecting to Pelzer's peddling the fear that your loving mother or father might turn into a monster. Why create a culture of fear of all adults in our children?
And then there's his conclusion about his life: "Without abuse I might not be what I am today."
Yeah, no kidding. You might be an even better version of yourself who was nurtured and loved. Why is his romanticizing his abuse? Why is he glorifying such a hideous struggle?
The last section of this book needs serious revision. Pelzer should consider how much of his own personal therapy he should be sharing with his reader.
If he needs to contribute his success as an author to his triumph over abuse, that's fine and true. He's made quite the living selling his story. But his sweeping generalization that somehow his abuse has made him a better person seems psychologically twisted. He doesn't need to imply that to be a good person you must suffer. He doesn't need to create a suffering scale where those who take on more pain are more worthy of reward.
Normally, I would not have picked up this book to read. Recently, I've changed positions at my school. As the new library specialist, I decided to branch out and read a book that engages so many reluctant readers. I'll be going back to my science-fiction and fantasy now!