1. Is Dave Pelzer’s Story True?
From time to time people have questioned whether Pelzer’s story is true. Some began to have doubts in the wake of the publication in recent years of several striking memoirs that later turned out to be fake. A Million Little Pieces (2003), for example, by James Frey, in which Frey told a story of his drug addiction and recovery, was later shown to be false in many respects. Similarly, Margaret B. Jones’s memoir Love and Consequences (2008), about a girl growing up in Los Angeles amidst drug dealers and gangs, was later shown to be a complete fabrication. Critics of Pelzer point to statements made by Pelzer’s brother Stephen (who is called Stan in the memoir) that Dave was never abused. In “Dysfunction for Dollars,” a New York Times article by Pat Jordan, Stephen denies for example that Dave was ever stabbed by his mother: “’Please!’ he says. ‘That never happened.’ As a witness to the stabbing incident, Stephen says: ‘I saw mom cutting food when David grabbed her arm and got a small cut from the knife. There wasnt even any blood, yet he screamed, Mommy stabbed me!’
However, this article was written in 2002, before the publication of a memoir called A Brother’s Journey: Surviving a Childhood of Abuse, by Richard B. Pelzer, Dave’s younger brother (Russell in A Child Called “It”) in 2005. Richard Pelzer confirms that Dave was abused. He also writes that after Dave was taken away, his mother started to take out her anger on him, and he became the abused one, suffering for years, just as Dave had done.
There really is no reason at all to doubt Dave’s story. As Stephen E. Ziegler, Dave’s former teacher, writes in a note appended to A Child Called “It,” that the case of Dave was “the third-worst case of child abuse on record in the entire state of California.”
2. What Is “Misery Lit”?
“Misery lit” is the popular name given to a subgenre of the memoir that emerged following Pelzer’s A Child Called It (1995). Some also trace the origin of “misery lit” to Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes (1996), a memoir of his deprived childhood in Ireland (1996).
As a result of the success of these memoirs, book publishers discovered that there was a huge market for autobiographical stories in which people told of the horrible abuse they suffered in childhood and adolescence. Publishers prefer to describe these books as “inspirational memoirs” rather than “misery lit.”
These books tend to follow a familiar pattern. The abuse is described in sickening detail, but the overall theme, as in all of Pelzer’s books, is triumph over adversity, the “triumph of the human spirit over seemingly insurmountable odds,” as Pelzer puts it. The books are therefore meant to be inspirational, to encourage others to rise above their own misfortunes. However, it seems that many people read them for their shock value, fascinated by the horror of it all. It is not uncommon, for example, for these books to include graphic accounts of childhood sexual abuse (which is the one form of abuse that Dave Pelzer was not forced to suffer).
These books are often written in very simple language (like A Child Called “It”) and are read, so the conventional wisdom goes, by people who do not normally read or buy books. They do sell in phenomenally large numbers. A Child Called “It” and its two sequels spent a total of 448 weeks on the New York Times best-seller list. Most reader are thought to be female.
“Misery lit” has become popular in Britain as well as the United States. Writing in the Guardian, Esther Addley noted that in Britain, the misery lit genre can be recognized by its cover: “the volumes invariably carry a washed-out close-up of a particularly pretty childs face on a pale background, with the title of the book in handwritten script.” The first part of this description applies very exactly to Pelzer’s The Lost Boy, the first sequel to A Child Called “It.”
3. How Extensive Is Child Abuse Today?
Although Pelzer’s case may be extreme, it is by no means unique. According to statistics cited on the Web site Childhelp, there are three million reports of child abuse made every year in the United States. This is up from 2.5 million in 1990. Neglect (failure to meet a child’s basic needs) by parents or guardians amount to over half of all cases of child abuse. Many parents who neglect their children may have inadequate knowledge of how to raise a child, or they may have been abused themselves as children.
In 2007, there were nearly five child deaths per day due to abuse and neglect. Most of these deaths were of children under the age of four. Over two-thirds of abused children are abused by members of their own family. As Pelzer puts it in his 1995 essay, “Perspectives on Child Abuse” (appended to A Child Called “It”) “Today there are millions [of children] in our country in desperate need of help” (p. 166).
Abused children face greater hurdles in life than others. The abuse has consequences, such as higher rates of teen pregnancy and alcohol and drug abuse. An estimated 14 percent of men in prison in the United States were abused as children. For women, the figure is 36 percent.
There has been progress in the reporting of child abuse since the 1960s and 1970s, when Dave Pelzer was abused. In 2005, Richard B. Pelzer, Dave’s brother stated in A Brother’s Journey, his own memoir of the abuse he endured after Dave was taken away, “In today’s environment, this kind of abuse could rarely go on for as long as it did. Given the amount of awareness now present in our schools, we as a community would not allow it to happen” (p. 261). However, as the statistics show, there is still a very long way to go.
4. What Are the Causes of Child Abuse?
What causes a parent to abuse his or her child is a complex issue. However, it is known that substance abuse can be a major factor. A study by J. Michael Murphy and associates, published in the journal Child Abuse and Neglect in 1991, found that in a sample of 206 cases of serious child abuse or neglect brought before a juvenile court, in nearly 50 percent of the cases, at least one of the parents had a problem with either alcohol or drugs such as cocaine and heroin. In another 1991 study, “Parental Substance Abuse and the Nature of Child Maltreatment,” published in the same journal by Richard Famularo, Roberrt Kinscherff, and Terence Fenton, the researchers found that in 190 randomly selected cases in which the state took custody of the children because of child maltreatment, 67 percent of these cases involved parents who were substance abusers. The study revealed a clear association between alcohol abuse and physical maltreatment.
These findings shed some light on the causes of the abuse of Dave Pelzer. His mother certainly, and possibly his father, too, were alcoholics. When Pelzer recounts the onset of the abuse from his mother, he writes that she would not get dressed and would lie all day on the couch watching TV, leaving only to “get another drink or heat leftover food” (p. 30). She and her husband, even in happier times, would often drink “from mid-afternoon, until my brothers and I climbed into bed” (p. 34). In an early incident of abuse, “Mother’s eyes were glazed and red, and her breath smelled of booze” (p. 34). Of his father, Pelzer notes that when the atmosphere in the house got too much for him, he would go away to be on his own, presumably (Pelzer says) to a bar somewhere. When husband and wife argue at night it is clear to Dave that “they were both drunk” (p. 51).
This is not to say that had Dave’s parents not drunk so much, there would have been no abuse, but the alcoholism was beyond doubt a contributing factor.
5. What Are the Literary Merits of A Child Called “It”?
A Child Called “It” was a huge best-seller but this was more because of its shocking contents than its literary style. Although Pelzer claims on his Web site that two of his books have been nominated for the Pulitzer Prize, this is not in fact the case. It is true that his publisher did submit his books to the Pulitzer committee but that in itself does not constitute a nomination, since anyone can submit a book in this way. The term “Pulitzer-nominated” is reserved for the few books that appear on the judges’ short-list.
Whatever its shock value, or its effectiveness in creating more awareness of the problem of child abuse, A Child Called “It” is unlikely to find a place on the literary fiction shelves. Its melodramatic, saccharine style has more in common with the Chicken Soup for the Soul series than with any works of high literary merit. Pelzer recounts one ugly incident after another with little reflection or analysis beyond what he reconstructs, more than twenty years after the fact, of what the child was feeling as the abuse went on. After the horror story is over, many readers will feel that an opportunity to probe more deeply into the situation in the Pelzer home has been missed.