Dave Pelzer: Parents Abused and Neglected Him

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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Who were the parents of Dave Pelzer? What was the dynamic between Dave Pelzer’s parents like?

The parents of Dave Pelzer were Stephen and Catherine Pelzer. Catherine was the primary abuser, but Stephen allowed it to happen.

Keep reading for more about the parents of Dave Pelzer.

Dave Pelzer: Parents After the Abuse Worsened

By the summer before David’s 11th birthday, the abuse has worsened. 

David is accustomed to his role as the family slave by now. David’s not allowed to look at Mother or his brothers without permission, and while the family’s eating dinner, David now must sit on his hands with his head tilted back like a prisoner of war, as Mother says. 

David seldom gets breakfast, even when he finishes his morning chores. While school’s out for summer break, he never gets lunch. Typically, David gets dinner once every three days, but even that is contingent on him completing his chores within the time limits Mother dictates.

The Accidental Stabbing

One night after dinner, Mother is giving David his list of chores and time limits. As usual, she’s drunk. Mother holds a knife in her hand as she barks at David, threatening to kill him if he doesn’t finish his work on time. 

She begins to sway. Mother struggles to regain her balance and in a moment the knife in her hand strikes David’s stomach. (Shortform note: There’s little detail about whether she falls and how exactly this occurs. The author says he’s focused on looking into her eyes, sees the knife out of the corner of his eye, and then feels the stab.)

David blacks out. When he comes to, Mother is dressing the wound. Despite all the abuse he’s endured, David acknowledges that this was an accident and wants to tell Mother that he forgives her—but he soon blacks out again. 

David’s Brief Hopes Are Dashed

When David wakes up again, Mother’s still working on his wound. He thinks that this must be the end of his abuse; there’d be no way Mother could cover this up to the doctors. He’s relieved and heartened by the prospect. For Dave Pelzer, his parents couldn’t get away with it anymore.

But nobody takes him to the hospital. Mother simply finishes wrapping his wound and tells him he has 30 minutes to wash the dishes (she’s granted an extra 10 minutes given the circumstances). She’s acting as if nothing has happened, just like she did after dislocating his arm years ago. 

David is gobsmacked. He finds Father and tells him what happened, certain that Father will take care of him. David still considers Father his hero, despite years of passively allowing his abuse.

But Father merely asks why Mother stabbed David and urges him to get back to his chores before Mother finds him and gets angry. As a supposed consolation, Father promises not to tell Mother that David has told him about the stabbing. David’s faith and respect for his father shatter. Neither of the parents of Dave Pelzer is innocent in this.

One Night of Caretaking From the Parents of Dave Pelzer

David manages to do the dishes, finding ways to maneuver that minimize the shooting pain he feels. At first, Mother shows less hostility than usual but stops short of compassion as she nurses David. For example: 

  • Mother gingerly removes his blood-stained shirt and puts him in a fresh one. She doesn’t lash out when David leans against her in physical weakness, but she also offers no comfort. 
  • Mother gives David a glass of water, but says she can’t feed him for another few hours. Again, her tone is matter-of-fact and she gives David no sympathy or embrace. 

But then Mother surprises David by telling him he can play outside with his brothers. Mother even calls David by his name and holds his shoulders somewhat affectionately as he watches his brothers play. David wonders if this might signal the end of his torment. 

David’s brothers don’t react to his wound when he joins them, but they don’t reject him either. He feels a connection to his brothers that he hasn’t felt in years, and which he never expected to feel again. 

That night, Mother gives David a small amount of food and checks on him throughout the night, bringing a cool washcloth when he runs a fever from the wound. For Dave Pelzer, his parents had not done this before and it was a reprieve from the abuse.

Dave Pelzer: Parents Abused and Neglected Him

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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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