Dave Pelzer: Family Dynamics Before Abuse

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.

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What is Dave Pelzer’s family like? How did the family of Dave Pelzer abuse him?

For Dave Pelzer, family life wasn’t always bad. Things changed when his mother became abusive and other family members joined in as well.

Read on for more about Dave Pelzer, his family, and the abusive relationships.

Dave Pelzer: Family Life Before the Abuse

For Dave Pelzer, family life before the abuse began was idyllic. His father is a San Francisco fireman and his mother stays home to care for David and his two brothers. She’s a caring mother who goes to great lengths to create memorable and magical experiences for her children. 

Once, Mother takes David and his brothers to San Francisco’s Chinatown, describing Chinese culture and history along the way. When they get back home, she plays Chinese music and decorates the dining room with Chinese lanterns. She wears a kimono while serving the dinner she’s prepared, and gives the children each a fortune cookie for dessert; David later finds this fortune cookie and reads, “Love and honor thy mother, for she is the fruit that gives thou life.”

Mother also orchestrates cherished family vacations, the most notable of which is a trip to the Russian River at the end of David’s kindergarten year. David and his brothers spend each day exploring and Mother teaches David to swim. One night, the family watches the sunset over the river, and as they watch, David’s mother hugs him, making him feel both proud and protected. 

In addition, Mother creates enchanting holiday traditions. For example, she adorns every room in the house with Christmas decorations, makes a family event of hanging ornaments on the tree, and then tells the children stories as they all sit around the fireplace drinking eggnog. In stark contrast to the abuser she later becomes, during these happy holidays Mother sometimes cradles him to sleep.

(Shortform note: In contrast to the author’s detailed description of his father, he only vaguely describes his mother as “average size and appearance” and says he can never recall her eye or hair color. This lapse in his memory, contrasted with his vivid details of abuse, has fueled questions about the book’s veracity. However, our summary of The Body Keeps the Score explains that varying degrees of memory loss is common in trauma survivors.)

A Few Odd Behaviors Hid Amongst the Happy Memories

For Dave Pelzer, family memories from happy early ears also included hints of his mother’s unusual behaviors. 

In one instance, when David is about five years old, he notices that Mother seems unlike herself. She claims to be sick, but after dinner hurriedly paints the garage steps and then covers them with rubber mats before the paint has dried, making a mess of the wet paint in the process. 

Afterward, as she lies exhausted on the couch, David asks her why she didn’t wait until the paint dried to attach the mats. She simply replies that she’d wanted to surprise David’s father. Dave Pelzer and his family were used to this kind of thing.

In another instance, Mother stands crying as David and his brothers revel in their gifts on Christmas morning. When David asks why she’s crying, Mother says they’re tears of joy for having a “real family.” This is a brief detail, but it begs a question about whether her own family background offers any clues for the abusive behavior that later surfaces. 

(Shortform note: As adults, David and his brother Richard—who’s given the pseudonym Russell in the book—have attributed Mother’s abuse to a possible mental illness, being overwhelmed by raising five children with little help, her own experiences of child abuse, and her alcoholism. Richard and Dave Pelzer see family abuse through this lens.)

Dave Pelzer: Family Dynamics Before Abuse

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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

Rina Shah

An avid reader for as long as she can remember, Rina’s love for books began with The Boxcar Children. Her penchant for always having a book nearby has never faded, though her reading tastes have since evolved. Rina reads around 100 books every year, with a fairly even split between fiction and non-fiction. Her favorite genres are memoirs, public health, and locked room mysteries. As an attorney, Rina can’t help analyzing and deconstructing arguments in any book she reads.

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