Chapter 1: The Runaway
The Lost Boy begins in the winter of 1970, in Daly City, California. Dave Pelzer is nine years old and suffering from his mother’s abuse. He is hungry and cold as he sits at the bottom of the stairs in the garage. He feels like he is a prisoner of his mother, and the abuse has been going on for some time. He never gets enough food to eat and has to steal food at school. When he returns home his mother forces him to vomit in the toilet bowl to prove he did not steal any food. He is routinely beaten. He always sleeps on a cot in the garage.
At weekends he gets no food at all. He is an outcast in his family, with his mother targeting him for abuse but not his brothers. He feels he does not deserve any long and thinks of himself as “a child called ‘It’.”
At four o’clock in the afternoon, Dave listens to his drunken parents arguing about him upstairs. His father thinks Dave’s mother is too harsh on him, that no child deserves to be treated like that. He often tries to stand up to his wife but she takes no notice of him. She will not allow anyone else to tell her what to do.
She tells Dave to come upstairs. She makes him stand in front of her and tells him not to speak or move. He is familiar with this “game.” She grabs his ear, and then slaps his face because he moved. With his father standing by but not interfering, she asks Dave whether he agrees with his father that she treats Dave badly. He does not know whether he is allowed to respond. His father says that is no way to treat him, but his mother will not let go of his ear. She refers to Dave as “It” and tells him to get out of the house. His parents start to argue, with his father trying to defend him and tell his wife that she is wrong.
She opens the front door and tells Dave he can leave if he thinks she treats him badly. He sees this as a chance to escape and he steps out of the door. His mother sneers that he will be back.
He runs down halfway down the street, all the while thinking that his mother will come after him in the station wagon. But she does not, and he feels happy and free for the first time. He decides he wants to go to the Russian River in Guernville, where the family would go for vacation before the abuse started. He has happy memories of those times. He does not know exactly where Guernville is and thinks it will take a few days for him to get there.
After a while he starts to feel cold and the thrill of his escape starts to wear off. He stops and considers whether to turn back. He tells himself that maybe his mother was right and that he does deserve punishment. He hears a car coming and is convinced that Mother has come get him, but the car passes by. It is not her.
He decides he is never going back, and he again starts walking, heading for the Golden Gate Bridge, which he knows is on the way to Guernville. He is desperately hungry. It is Saturday night and he has not eaten since Friday morning. After briefly going into a church he enters a pizza bar. He makes his way to the pool table and steals a quarter that is lying on it.
The pizza cook sees what he does and forces him to give back the quarter. The man’s name is Mark, and he asks Dave why he stole the quarter and what he is doing in the bar.
Dave begins to make excuses and then says he wanted to buy some pizza with it. Mark gets him a Coke and asks if he is all right. Dave is unable to reply, and Mark asks him more questions. When Dave remains silent, Mark senses something is wrong and makes a phone call. When he returns he tries again to talk to Dave, who tells him that his mother told him to leave. Mark says she will be worried about him and offers to call her. He says he is making Dave a pizza for free.
A policeman enters, and he and Mark talk for a few moments. The police officer approaches Dave and says he must go with him. He tells Dave he will be all right. Mark give him a pizza in a box, and Dave goes with the officer and sits in his patrol car. The officer finds out Dave’s name and age, and Dave feels that the man likes him. He is taken to an empty room in the police station. He is about to start to eat the pizza, but he does not want to respond to the officer’s question about where he lives. But the officer reassures him that he is there to help, and Dave supplies his address and telephone number.
His father arrives, and he and the policeman go into a separate office. After a few minutes the two men emerge from the office, and the officer tells Dave that everything is all right. It was just a misunderstanding. His father has explained that Dave ran away when his mother told him he could not ride his bike. The officer tells Dave sternly that he hopes the boy will never put his parents through anything like that again. His mother is worried sick about him, the officer says.
Dave stands there is disbelief. He does not even own a bike. Dave goes home in his father’s car, while his father reproaches him. He wants Dave to stay out of trouble because his mother has been making life difficult for his father. He tells Dave to just do whatever his mother tells him. Dave nods. He feels like a trapped animal. They get home, but Dave believes that he has no home.
This entire opening chapter of The Lost Boy, occupying about thirty pages, is printed in italics. This serves to set if off from the main narrative, which begins in the following chapter. This chapter is essentially a flashback to the time when Dave was being abused by his mother and was driven to desperate measures just to survive, including, as this account reveals, stealing food. This chapter provides only a passing glimpse of the horror that Dave endured for many years at the hands of his abusive, alcoholic mother. His father, as this chapter clearly shows, was an unwilling accessory to Dave’s abuse. He knew that his wife was ill-treating the boy and he disapproved of it, but dominated by his aggressive wife, he was too weak to intervene firmly on Dave’s behalf. As this chapter also reveals, Dave’s father also would blame Dave for his own abuse.
The full story of these years of torment for Dave, which lasted from when he was four to when he was twelve, is contained in Pelzer’s earlier memoir, A Child Called “It”: One Child’s Courage to Survive, which should be read first by anyone who wants a full understanding of The Lost Boy. Since this first chapter of The Lost Boy takes place when Dave is nine, when he reluctantly returns home at the end of the chapter he has another three years of this hellish life to endure before the local authorities remove him from his family home and place him in foster care. It is the story of his life in foster care that forms the substance of The Lost Boy, and this is the narrative that begins in the next chapter.