Dave Pelzer is the author of several autobiographical and self-help books but he is best known for his 1995 memoir of child abuse, A Child Called “it”. It was the #1 New York Times Bestseller for over 6 years, as well as a #1 International bestseller. It is currently translated in nearly forty languages and has been read by millions throughout the world.
Dave Pelzer is the survivor of the third worst case of child-abuse in California’s history at the hands of an alcoholic and mentally unstable mother. He agreed to sit with me and give me an interview.
Patricia: I don’t know where to begin and all I can say is it is a miracle you are still here. There are so many questions I would like to ask but foremost, is there anything you would rather not talk about?
Dave: No, talking about it still helps me and if I can help one person from this interview then I will be happy.
Patricia: How did you come to name the book a child called “it”
Dave: That’s what my mother called me. She never called me by my name. She called me “it” or “boy”.
Patricia: At what age do you remember the abuse starting?
Dave: It was around the time I turned 4.
Patricia: Why then, did something happen that triggered something or set her off?
Dave: I really don’t know. I know she was drinking then and having babies close together. I was the second to the oldest and we were 5 boys!
Patricia: What kind of things did your mother do?
Dave: Well, for one thing I wasn’t allowed to look at any of my brothers or anyone for that matter in the eyes. I had to walk with my head down, I was forced to sit in a room and breathe in ammonia and Clorox, if I didn’t finish my chores she would make me swallow ammonia, she burned my arm on a stove, forced me to eat my own vomit, I slept on an army cot in the basement and the list goes on.
Patricia: Didn’t your brothers try to do anything?
Dave: No, you have to understand we were all pretty young and they were afraid of her doing it to them so they pretended nothing was wrong
Patricia: What about your father? Where was he when this was going on?
Dave: My father was a very passive man. He also was an alcoholic. He was a fire fighter # 1522-A.He was always working. I loved my father. I would tell him what she was doing and he would say it would get better or that he would do something about it but he never did. He ended up leaving our home because my mother was always berating him.
Patricia: What was the most trying moment for you?
Dave: It was after my mother beat me for not doing the dishes, I went to my father and he told me I should get back in and finish the dishes. That was the loneliest moment of my life.
Patricia: What about your friends?
Dave: I didn’t have any friends. I wasn’t allowed to. I also didn’t feel good about myself to even try to make friends. I smelled, my clothes were dirty and I was always hungry. My mother didn’t take care of me like most mothers do.
Patricia: What about your teachers? Surely someone must have noticed something.
Dave: Yes, her name was Ms. Moss. She told the principal and my mother went to the school all indignant and raised a stink. She got herself dressed up, and she was on the PTA so back then the schools backed down. They didn’t want to start with the parents. They ended up removing Ms. Moss from the school.
Patricia: It seems so sad that all this could have stopped years before it actually did.
Dave: I know but back then there were no child abuse laws and people rarely got involved in other people’s business.
Patricia: Did she ever pick on your brothers or abuse them?
Dave: No, it was called Target child selection. This is where a parent singles out one child for abuse.
Patricia: So what finally happened? How were you eventually
Dave: In 1973 my teachers stepped in again and thankfully I was removed from my home and placed in foster care. I still remember to thank those teachers each year except I can’t find the school nurse. I remember them like it was yesterday- Mr. Ziegler my 5th grade homeroom teacher, Mr. Hanson- my principle, Ms. Howell, the school librarian and the school nurse.
Patricia: How were your foster parents?
Dave: I really liked my foster family but I was in and out of like 8 of them. I used to stutter but they taught me how to stop. I really liked this one family.
Patricia: Did you ever use drugs or alcohol to help self-medicate or to forget what happened to you?
Dave: No, on the contrary. I worked twice as hard as the next person to accomplish whatever it was that I wanted to do. If I took algebra I would take every algebra class
available. I am not afraid of making a mistake. I learn from them. I wanted to join the air force but failed the test. I took that test over and over until I finally passed. I served in the Gulf War. I am very focused
Patricia: How did you move forward and don’t the
scars of the abuse you suffered haunt you to this day?
Dave: yes, the scars are always there but everyone has some sort of scar. I don’t let it disenable me. I keep my humor, that’s what got me through the Gulf war. The thing is when I start to think about it, I recognize it and I work on it. When I see something I don’t like, I set limitations and work on it. I believe life is a blessing and we need to be resilient. I exercise and this helps me keep my mind clear.
Patricia: I understand you received personal recommendations from 4 presidents, was honored as 1 of the 10 outstanding young Americans and later was the only American to be honored as the outstanding young person in the world. That’s quite an accomplishment. Anything else I’m missing?
Dave: I also received the National Jefferson award which is considered the Pulitzer Prize for public service AND I got to meet Roger Moore while in Japan.
Patricia: wow that must have been exciting
Dave: It was. I also met Ronald Reagan.
Patricia: You have come a long way from that boy named “it”. Do you have any children?
Dave: I do, a son. He is a parole office. I was the second person to hold him. I learned from him. We played ball together, we both are James Bond fans, and we both like the Giants. With him, I feel like I was given a second for my lost youth. Through him, I learned what it was like to be young.
Patricia: Have you ever received therapy and what have you learned about yourself? Dave: Yes, there were 2.One I liked and the other I didn’t. I have learned that your experiences- good, bad or ugly are what make you. No person is without conflict, but how you deal with those conflicts is what determines who you are.
Patricia: What is your advice for children living with someone abusing drugs or alcohol, or living with someone who is abusing them?
Dave: You have to give yourself permission to be strong and get the help you need. That is no way for anyone to live, and hopefully with help, the family will get well too.
Patricia: Is there anything you would like to share with my readers?
Dave: Yes, before I do anything, I shower, shave, do my hair and get on my knees sand pray the Lord’s Prayer toward the light- I say “god give me strength, use me as a vessel and please don’t let me screw up and if I do don’t let anyone notice.
Patricia: Sounds a little like the serenity prayer –lol
Dave: a little modified –lol
Patricia: Do you ever see your father or talk to him?
Dave: I did. I learned to forgive him years ago. My dad was homeless. The one thing I really wanted to do for him was buy him a house. Unfortunately, my father died in 1980 of cancer so I never was able to do that. He died a broken man. He was very disheveled. I didn’t wish bad for my mother either .She also died. I have learned to forgive. I have even gone to Firefighting school to become a fireman. I now wear the same badge as my father from the same fire department # 1522-A.
Patricia: What message are you trying to spread?
Dave: I want to be known as the guy with the resiliency, not the guy that was abused. It was Nietzsche who said” that which doesn’t kill you makes you stronger”. I believe this article is a good thing because if it helps to help the next child who is experiencing living with an alcoholic/drug addict parent then I have accomplished my goal. I will continue telling my story over and over because sadly enough there are thousands of “it’s” in this country.
Patricia: I understand you have another book out. Please tell us what that book is about.
Dave: The name of it is “Too Close to Me”. It provides an honest and courageous look at the difficulties inherent in marriage, parenthood, work, and life from the perspective of someone who survived horrific physical and emotional terrors as a child—and who seeks to meet the responsibilities and complications of adult life with love, strength, and an open heart.
Patricia: Sounds like another bestseller! Thank you so much for allowing me to interview you. It was really a pleasure speaking with you.