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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 abuse did David Pelzer suffer? What did his mother do to him?

For David Pelzer, abuse was a large part of his childhood. He was punished cruelly by his mother and singled out from his brothers.

Keep reading for more about David Pelzer, abuse, and his role in the family.

David Pelzer: Abuse Separated Him From His Brothers

Mother singles out David among his brothers for increasingly cruel punishments. The only explanation David can come up with is that his voice probably carries more than his brothers’ and that he often has the bad luck of being the only one to get caught when they all get into mischief. 

At first, Mother punishes David with time out in a corner of his bedroom. After a while, she ups the punishment: Mother shoves David’s face into a mirror and then forces him to stand in front of it, looking at his reflection and repeating, “I’m a bad boy!”

At one point, Mother starts sending David and his brothers on endless searches through the house for some item she’s lost. The searches last for months and are never fruitful. Eventually, David is the only one she forces to search, and he dreams of finding the item and getting his mother’s praise and affection in return. 

The Stove Incident

One day, the abuse reaches a turning point. 

Mother has David stand in the kitchen and remove his clothes. She tells him that she drove by his school during recess and saw him playing on the grass, which she forbade. David assures her that he hadn’t, but she responds by punching him in the face and turning on the gas burners. 

Mother grabs David’s arm and holds it over the flame. David realizes that his only hope is to stall until his brother gets home, because Mother won’t be so extreme in front of anyone else. He asks questions to delay, and although his questions make Mother angrier and she starts hitting him, he knows that keeping himself off the stove is a victory. 

The Role of “Family Slave”

For David Pelzer, abuse often comes in the form of withholding food. She seldom feeds David dinner or breakfast—at most, if he finishes his morning chores in time, he gets his brothers’ cereal leftovers. In addition to withholding food, David is also forced to eat disgusting and harmful things—sometimes as a form of Mother’s punishment, and sometimes out of desperate hunger. 

Additionally, Mother ostracizes David and essentially forces him into the role of “family slave.” She:

  • Forbids David looking at or talking to anyone
  • Forces David to stand in the garage each night while his family eats dinner
  • Forbids David from playing or watching TV with his brothers
  • Stops using David’s name altogether, simply calling him “the Boy”
  • Forces David to sleep under the breakfast table with only newspapers for warmth; eventually she banishes him to sleep on an old army cot in the cold garage 
David Pelzer: Abuse From His Mother Lasts for Years

———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

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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