Chapter 8: Estranged
Dave feels uncomfortable back with Linda and Rudy because the other kids there are suspicious of him. After some days, Gordon tells him he must move out. He has done nothing wrong, but another child has been assigned to live there. Dave is upset at having to leave, as is Linda. He has been there for a year, and Gordon tells him that is much longer than usual to stay in one foster home.
Gordon has to find another family to take Dave in, and this proves no easy task. He takes him to foster parents Harold and Alice Turnbough, who at first say they have no room for him, but they agree to take him for a few days. Dave spends four nights sleeping on the living-room couch.
Next Gordon takes him to Joanne Nulls, an enthusiastic, doting kind of woman who takes him into her custody. Dave is thirteen now and does not like the way Joanne treats him like a child. Dave does not feel at home there and he overhears an argument between Joanne and her husband Michael. Michael does not really want Dave there but he agreed because his wife was lonely and was unable to have a child of her own.
At school Dave is beaten up by a boy for insulting the boy’s sister. Dave had been tricked by another boy into calling a girl a “whore,” although he thought he was saying “horror” and had no idea he was insulting her. He had been told that that was the thing to say to a girl he liked.
Dave only stays a few weeks at the home of the Nulls. Joanne and Michael are getting a divorce, and Dave must move out. Next Dave is placed in the home of an African American family, headed by Vera and Jody Jones. The home is within a mile of Dave’s mother’s house. He shares a bedroom with the Jones’s son, while seven foster children sleep in a makeshift room in the garage. Gordon tells him he must stay well away from his mother.
At school Dave makes friends with a shy Hispanic boy named Carlos. One day he and Carlos bump into Dave’s youngest brother, Russell, at the new building of the Thomas Edison Elementary school that Dave used to attend. Both boys are surprised to see each other, and Dave does not know what to expect. Dave notices that his brother has bruises on his arms and realizes that he is now the one in the Pelzer home who is being abused. He feels sorry for Russell, who tells him that their mother’s behavior has become even worse. They part on friendly terms.
That night Dave has a nightmare about being attacked by his mother, and the next day he is determined to see Russell again. He and Carlos go to the school, and Dave spots Russell, but then Carlos tells him to run because his mother is approaching with Russell. When his mother gets close, Dave flees as fast as he can. He runs into the path of a moving car and ends up on the hood but escapes apparently uninjured. He can no longer see Mother but Carlos shows him that she is approaching in her station wagon. Dave and Carlos run to Carlos’s home. They peek out of the window and watch as Mother’s car slowly passes. Mother looks into all the windows, trying to spot Dave.
When Dave returns home he finds Vera and Jody arguing. He thinks the argument must be about him but this turns out not to be the case. It transpires that Jody has been accused of statutory rape (sex with a minor) of a girl they had taken in as a foster child. Dave and all the other foster children must leave immediately. Dave finds himself back with Alice and Harold Turnbough.
This is another restless period in Dave’s life and shows the reality of being a foster child, being moved from home to home quite frequently when what he most needs is stability and continuity. A recurring theme is Dave’s naivety and the way other boys pick on him, posing as friends but harboring malicious intent. This is shown in this chapter in the incident where he is tricked into insulting the girl at school. It is a relief to find that he finally finds a real friend, the Hispanic boy Carlos.
His mother’s reappearance in this chapter is almost like that of a cartoon villain, brought back into the picture just as a reminder of what Dave is fleeing from. The terms in which his mother is described present her as more monster than human, a creature of nightmare. When he sees her approaching she has “ice-cold, evil eyes” (p. 245) and kids scatter in her wake. When she gets even closer he catches “a whiff of her putrid body odor.”
There is also a glimpse of a second tragedy in this story, not one that affects Dave but which involves his younger brother Russell. Russell has taken Dave’s place as the butt of his mother’s anger, something Dave had feared would happen. Russell in the story is actually Richard B. Pelzer, who like Dave went on to write his own memoir about the abuse he suffered after Dave left the family home. Titled, A Brother’s Journey, it was published in 2004 and reached the New York Times best-seller list.
Chapter 9: Coming Around
Dave has no idea how long he will be staying at the Turnbough home, and he feels unsettled. But then Alice tells him that she and Harold want him to stay. Dave is particularly pleased that Harold, who does not say much to him, wants him there.
Alice tells him he will be going to see a psychiatrist. Dave is not pleased, but he finds that he gets along with the new doctor, Dr. Robinson, much better than he did with the first psychiatrist he saw. He is able to talk about his past, and he also discovers an intellectual curiosity. The doctor recommends some books for him to read, some of them about self-esteem. Dave follows up and reads a number of them.
Dave also gets along with Alice. Every week they go to the mall and watch a movie, and they talk about all kinds of things. She buys him gifts, and he learns how to accept presents, which he has never had before.
Dave is now fifteen years old but he gets nervous whenever he contemplates the future. He does not know what he wants to do with his life. He decides to earn some money so he gets a job shining shoes and then another job at a watch repair shop.
He also has a sudden desire to learn how to cook, and Alice teaches him how to make pancakes. He starts to see life as an adventure.
But things change in July 1976. Two older boys move in as foster children, and he does not get along with them. He resents the fact that he goes off to work but they just hang out at the mall. When he finds that some of his things are missing, including money, he tells Alice that either those boys go or he does. She does not give in to his pressure, so Dave is on the move once again.
He is placed with John and Linda Walsh, a couple in their twenties who have three children. Dave likes them both and they allow him to do pretty much what he wants. Dave acquires a minibike and a BB gun.
When Dave has just started his freshman year in high school, the Walshes move, taking him with them, to a more expensive neighborhood, where the houses are big and all the cars in the driveways look they have just been waxed.
Dave quickly makes friends with two neighborhood boys, Paul Brazell and Dave Howard. They were soon staging drag races in the middle of the street. They even try their hand at making a movie.
Paul encourages Dave to meet a pretty girl in the neighborhood. Dave does not know any girls, so he is excited and nervous when he knocks on her door. However, just after the girl comes to the door and they begin to talk, her mother appears in the doorway. She is hostile to him, calling him an “F-child” (meaning foster child), and saying she does not want his sort in the neighborhood. She tells him never to approach her daughter again. She slams the door in his face.
The next day he meets one of his adult neighbors who is kinder to him. This is Michael Marsh, an eccentric character who befriends Dave, inviting him into his house. Marsh is married with two children, and Dave spends many hours at their house, much of the time reading books about airplanes. He also gets to know Dan Brazell, Paul’s father.
This is an enjoyable time in Dave’s life but his home life is not so good. John and Linda Walsh have constant arguments, and eventually Dave asks his probation officer (no longer Gordon but a woman named Mrs. O’Ryan) to move him. Eventually he is returned to the Turnboughs, and he is happy to return to a place he calls home.
This and the next chapter read like a coming-of-age story. At nearly sixteen, Dave may not know what he wants to do in life but he is energetic and industrious. The fact that he his able to hold down a job shows that he can apply himself when necessary. He may not be interested in his schoolwork, but his new psychiatrist manages to arouse his intellectual curiosity, and he reads many books, including some that discuss theories of psychology.
During this period his contacts widen. He is beginning to interact more with the adult world, and in men such as Michael Marsh and Dan Brazell he finds people who are willing to befriend him and teach him in ways that he can relate to. He also, finally, finds two friends of his own age with whom he can have some of the usual harmless teenage escapades. He also encounters prejudice very directly, when one of the women in the neighborhood dismisses him rudely simply because he is a foster child. This incident dramatizes one recurring theme of the book: the misunderstandings that people have about foster children—they tend to think it is the child’s fault—and the fact that they do not want to examine the existence of child abuse in society.
All in all, although Dave’s life still involved moving from home to home, he is acquiring the social skills and the experience that will stand him in good stead as he approaches adulthood.
Chapter 10: Break Away
During his sophomore year in high school, Dave is bored and does not apply himself to his schoolwork. He doesn’t think that anything he learns in high school will be of any use to him in the “real world.” He is seventeen now, and prefers to spend his time working at his various jobs at a fast-food restaurant and a plastics factory.
One weekend he decides to see if he can find his father, who he has not seen for years. A comment by a firefighter he calls makes him think his father might be in difficulties. Dave rides his motorcycle to San Francisco and goes to the fire station that his father has always been assigned to. He meets an old friend of his dad’s whom he calls Uncle Lee, who tells him his dad no longer works there. He was asked to retire early. He has not worked in a year and just moves around from place to place. His problem is that he drinks too much.
Two weekends later, Dave takes a Greyhound bus to the Mission area in San Francisco and finds his father in a rundown bar. He looks terrible. They go outside for a walk. His father is a broken man, destroyed by his failed marriage and alcohol. Dave worries about him. His father shows him his firefighter’s badge, which he is proud of. It is all he has left in life and the only thing he didn’t make a mess of, he tells Dave. He puts Dave on the bus home and tells him not to end up the way he has done. On the bus home Dave cries because he thinks his father is dying and he may never see him again.
In the summer of 1978, Dave gets a job selling cars. He visits his old friends Paul Brazell and Dave Howard, as well as the Marshes. Paul’s father tries to talk him out of his desire to become a Hollywood stuntman, while Michael Marsh thinks he should join the armed services.
When he is almost eighteen he decides to drop out of high school, to Alice’s consternation. He is doing well as a salesman, but that ends when there is an economic recession.
One Sunday he drives out to the Russian River, where he used to spend happy times with his family before the abuse began. His goal is to live in that area.
A few months later, having obtained his high school G.E.D., he joins the U.S. Air Force. His mother finds out and calls him. They talk for almost an hour, and she says she always wanted the best for him. When he says goodbye to Alice and Harold, he realizes that they are his real mother and father and that he finally got to belong to a loving family.
Dave’s search for his father reveals that the boy is not the only casualty in the Pelzer family. His father simply could not cope with the situation he found himself in and was unable to rise above his difficulties—unlike his son, who shows every sign of recovering from his abuse and taking his place as a responsible adult in society.
In Pelzer’s first book, A Child Called It, the Russian River serves as a kind of symbol of the good, happy life, a serene existence to which Dave aspires, and it serves the same function here. Dave is drawn there by instinct—he does not know exactly how to get there—that goes back to his childhood when being at the Russian River was a happy time for all the family.
In December 1993 Dave sits alone on the beach in Sonoma County, California. He is no longer afraid of being alone. As he looks back at his years in foster care, he realizes that the key to his survival was the knowledge that he had to find his own path in life. He achieved great satisfaction as a result of joining the U.S. Air Force, which allowed him to fulfill his lifelong dream of flying.
He drives back to what he calls his second home—the Rio Villa in Monte Rio. Ric and Don, the owners, have always made him and his seven-year-old son Stephen feel like they are part of the family. After playing some games with Stephen, he and his son go down to the deck by the Russian River. He is happy because he has a good life and the love of his son.
Appropriately enough, the story ends at the Russian River, symbol of happiness. It appears that Dave has overcome more obstacles in his early years than many people face in a lifetime, and he has come through it all with his humanity and his ability to love and to be loved intact.