This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "A Child Called 'It'" by Dave Pelzer. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.
Like this article? Sign up for a free trial here .
What happens in the A Child Called “It” book? How did the A Child Called “It” book cover the abuse of Dave Pelzer?
The A Child Called “It” book is about the abuse of Dave Pelzer at the hands of his mother. It went on for about 8 years until he was finally removed from his home.
Keep reading for more about the A Child Called “It” book.
A Child Called “It” Book Overview
From the ages of 4 to 12, Dave Pelzer suffered brutal physical and psychological abuse at his mother’s hands. When he was finally taken from her custody, Pelzer’s case was one of the worst cases of child abuse ever reported in California
The A Child Called “It” book is Pelzer’s autobiographical account of his experience, told through his childhood perspective; the book is a rare look at the epidemic issue of child abuse through a victim’s lens. This is the first in a trilogy chronicling Pelzer’s experiences—first as a child enduring abuse, then as a teen in foster care, and finally, as an adult rehabilitating from his traumatizing experiences. Throughout them all, Pelzer demonstrates resilience and determination in the face of horrific abuse and adversity.
Before the Abuse
David’s earliest childhood memories are happy ones. He looks up to his fireman father, and he loves his warm, caring mother who goes to great lengths to create memorable and magical experiences for David and his two brothers.
Those early years are filled with day trips to San Francisco, cherished family vacations, and memorable holiday traditions. But amidst it all, there are a few hints of Mother’s odd behaviors.
For example, one day Mother seems unlike herself and claims to be sick, but after dinner she manically paints the garage steps and tacks on rubber mats before the paint has dried, making a mess of the wet paint. When David asks her why she didn’t wait until the paint dried, Mother simply says that she wanted to surprise his father.
Since the book is written from David’s childhood perspective, he doesn’t question or analyze details like this with an adult’s insight. Rather, he accepts them as a child would.
For Dave Pelzer, A Child Called “It” is an opportunity to share what he went through after his mother changed. Around the time David’s in first grade, Mother’s behavior shifts dramatically.
Mother limits the severity of her abuse when Father is home, but he works 24-hour shifts at the fire station and is often out of the house. Mother singles out David among his brothers and subjects him to increasingly cruel punishments, including:
- Shoving David’s face into a mirror and then forcing him to stand in front of it, looking at his reflection and repeating, “I’m a bad boy!”
- Leaving David at his aunt’s house with no explanation while the rest of the family goes on their annual vacation, and then beating him when she finds out he tried to run away to join the family.
- Giving David no gifts for Christmas—while his brothers each get dozens—and berating Father for getting David two small gifts.
One day, the abuse reaches a turning point when Mother holds David’s arm over a flame on the stove and then tries forcing him to lie on top of the stove. That day David vows to take responsibility for his survival and outsmart Mother any way he can.
A Child Called “It” Book: Mother Weaponizes Food
Withholding food is Mother’s primary punishment for David; he seldom gets dinner or breakfast. Father tries to help David by sneaking food scraps to him, but when Mother catches him, it causes huge arguments that ultimately make things worse for David.
David resorts to several methods of stealing food at school:
- Taking food from other students’ lunches
- Sprinting to a nearby grocery store during lunch recess and stealing food
- Sneaking a frozen lunch from the school cafeteria
David always ends up getting caught, and eventually, Mother starts forcing him to vomit every day after school to ensure he hasn’t stolen any food during the day.
Mother Forces David to Eat the Inedible
For Dave Pelzer, A Child Called “It” showcases some of the horrifying things he was forced to eat—sometimes as punishment and sometimes out of desperation—including:
- Dishwashing soap
- A spoonful of ammonia
- Dinner scraps out of the trash can
- Feces from his baby brother’s dirty diaper (in this case, Mother shoves David’s face in the diaper but he manages to avoid eating any)
Mother Ostracizes David
Mother’s abuse is designed to isolate David from the rest of the family and force him into the role of “family slave.” She does this by:
- Forbidding David from looking at or talking to anyone
- Forcing David to stand in the garage each night while his family eats dinner
- Forbidding David from playing or watching TV with his brothers
- Never using David’s name, calling him only “the Boy” and “It”
- Banishing David to sleep on an old army cot in the cold garage
Mother Stabs David
As time goes on, the abuse intensifies.
One night when David is 10, Mother is giving David his list of chores for the evening, holding a knife and threatening to kill him if he doesn’t finish them within the time limits she gives. As usual, Mother is drunk. Mother begins to sway and loses her balance, and a moment later, the knife in her hand strikes David in the stomach.
David blacks out. When he comes to, Mother is dressing his wound. Neither she nor Father takes David to the hospital, and Father’s failure to act devastates David.
Mother still makes David wash the dishes, though she shows some warmth and caretaking as the night goes on: She allows David to play outside with his brothers, calls him by his name, and checks on him through the night.
However, when David wakes up the next morning, it’s business as usual. Within a few days, the wound becomes infected and David must resort to using a dirty rag and a few drops of water to clean it himself. David renews the vow he made to himself the night Mother burned him, to survive through self-reliance and strength of spirit.
Father Doesn’t Protect David From the Abuse
For a while, David considers Father his protector because Mother limits her abuse when Father is home. But as time goes on, Father spends more time at work or at bars to avoid being home, and eventually, his presence no longer deters Mother’s abuse.
Around the time David enters fourth grade, Mother’s abuse includes:
- Starving David for 10 days
- Locking David in the bathroom with a bucket full of a noxious mixture of ammonia and Clorox (David calls this the gas chamber)
- Forcing David to offer to mow neighbors’ lawns for a fee—which she’ll pocket—setting an unrealistically high earnings quota, and beating David when he can’t reach it
- Forcing him to lie for hours in a cold bath with his head under water, leaving only his nostrils above water to breathe
At one point, Mother forbids Father from seeing David, and David loses all hope of a better life. He stops praying to God and stops fantasizing that some superhero will rescue him.
David Hits Rock Bottom in the A Child Called “It” Book
One day, out of the blue, Mother apologizes to David and tries to make amends. He spends two blissful days believing her charade, but it comes to a crashing halt when a social worker visits the house to ask David about his relationship with Mother; David immediately realizes Mother’s gestures were hollow, and the abuse continues. He’s crushed, but, at the very least, he’s grateful to have had two good days.
After the social worker’s visit, David loses faith in God and resigns himself to simply surviving each day. He stops finding escape through his imagination, and he comes to hate everyone around him because no one has stepped in to save him.
David hates his Father and brothers for going along with Mother’s abuse, but most of all he hates himself because he feels responsible for allowing the abuse to continue for so long. David is convinced that he’s weak and that he deserves his mistreatment.
David sinks so low that he wishes he were dead. He assumes Mother’s torture will ultimately kill him, so he decides to provoke her. For a short period, David rebels—doing his chores sloppily and disobeying Mother in every way he can—until she locks him in the gas chamber longer than ever before and tries to dunk his face into the bucket of chemicals. After that, David returns to submission.
Around this time, Mother and Father’s marriage reaches a breaking point. Their relationship has been disintegrating for years, and Father finally moves out a few days after Christmas. David is resentful, jealous, and, most of all, scared of what Mother will do to him now that Father’s gone. David is sure Mother will kill him soon, and he merely hopes she’ll do it quickly.
It’s March 1973 and David is a fifth-grader in Daly City, California, just outside San Francisco. When he arrives at school, the nurse does her regular inventory of David’s new bruises and scars. David attempts to give one of the explanations Mother told him—that he ran into a door—but the nurse knows better and eventually David admits that the marks are from Mother.
Shortly after, David’s called into the office to meet with the nurse, two of his teachers, the principal, and a police officer. The nurse asks David to show the scar on his stomach from when his mother stabbed him.
The officer takes David to the police station, where he calls David’s mother to tell her that David is now in the custody of the San Mateo Juvenile Department. David is terrified, but the officer reassures David that he’s finally free.
As an adult, David attributes his survival to the fact that he took control of himself and his circumstances any way he could. He also credits his horrific experiences for his strength, adaptability, intrinsic motivation, and unique perspective on life. This is a key message in the A Child Called “It” book.
After he escapes, David vows to make the most of his life by creating success and pushing himself to be the best person he can be. He finds community and a sense of purpose as a member of the United States Air Force, and he builds a loving relationship with his own son. For Dave Pelzer, A Child Called “It” is the background to show what he has overcome.
(Shortform note: David’s parents faced no charges after he was removed from their custody. His father died in 1980 and his mother in 1992.)
———End of Preview———
Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best book summary and analysis of Dave Pelzer's "A Child Called 'It'" at Shortform .
Here's what you'll find in our full A Child Called 'It' summary :
- How David Pelzer survived horrific abuse at the hands of his mother
- How victims and survivors of abuse can find support and overcome their painful past
- Why child abuse may go unnoticed by other adults