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Book Review

This autobiography by Dave Pelzer is the first in a series of books about his life and is published by Health Communications Inc.

A Child Called It is written for adults but is sometimes included in high school reading lists. The age range reflects readability and not necessarily content appropriateness.

Positive Elements

Spiritual Content

Sexual Content

Violent Content

Crude or Profane Language

Drug and Alcohol Content

Other Negative Elements


Pro-social Content

Objectionable Content

Summary Advisory

Plot Summary

Dave Pelzer has an idyllic childhood — initially. He enjoys daily life and family trips with his two older brothers and loving, affectionate parents. But something changes drastically for Dave in early elementary school. His parents begin drinking excessively, and his mother begins to exhibit irrational behavior toward him, even while sober. She begins administering severe, cruel punishments and playing horrific mind games. While the other brothers, and the children that come later, are loved and spoiled, Dave soon becomes the family servant. His mother beats and tortures him, refusing to let him participate in family activities, including meals. His father fails to stand up for Dave, even when he sees the physical and emotional anguish his son endures. Soon Dave no longer has a name; they simply call him The Boy.

Mother uses food as a weapon and regularly starves Dave. Once, she prevents him from eating for 10 days. At school, Dave repeatedly gets in trouble for stealing food or eating out of trash cans. Mother begins making him vomit at the end of each school day so she can see if he ate anything she didn't approve.

Mother forces Dave to wear the same smelly clothes day after day. Between that and his stealing of food, he quickly becomes an outcast student. Mother coaches him about what to say when teachers and administrators ask about the bruises on his body. A few times she injures him severely, including the time she stabs him in the stomach, but refuses to give him medical help. One day, Mother lovingly apologizes to him for all that's happened and asks if they can begin again. He's thrilled at the prospect of being welcomed back into the family. But after a few days of joy and acceptance, Dave's family is visited by a child protective services agent. Dave realizes his mother had only been trying to placate him so he wouldn't tell the truth about his abuse. Once the agent leaves, Dave's life returns to its abusive state.

Dave's brothers, both younger and older, begin to despise and terrorize Dave, as well. His father continues to be too intimidated by Mother to stand up for or rescue him. Mother no longer needs to make him repeat aloud, "I hate myself! I hate myself!" Dave already hates himself for his weakness, and he feels nothing but anger for everyone around him. Classmates beat him and torture him emotionally. They, and his Mother, tell him they wish he were dead. His father eventually leaves, allowing Dave to remain entirely unprotected from his mother. Through the years of torment, Dave develops strategies for staying alive and avoiding Mother's wrath.

One day when Dave is in fifth grade, the teachers, administrators and school nurse finally realize they can't let him suffer in silence any longer. They call the police, and Dave is removed from his mother's custody. He finally feels free.

In an epilogue, Dave visits his family's old vacation spot with his son. He makes sure to tell his son several times how much he loves him.

Christian Beliefs

Dave prays to God for strength of body and soul. He mentions praying for help a few times but only feels he's received it once on a day when Mother gets too sick to hurt him. He eventually stops praying, believing God must hate him. What other reason could there be for a life like his? As he enters fifth grade, he begins to believe there is no God at all. He says a just God wouldn't leave him alone this way. When his parents finally separate and Dad leaves the family, Dave hates God and curses His name for letting his life get this way. In the epilogue, Dave acknowledges that the Lord was always there giving him quiet strength and encouragement when he needed it most.

Other Belief Systems


Authority Roles

Dave's alcoholic mother is irrationally cruel and inhumane, torturing and emotionally terrorizing her son. Father sees the agony Dave undergoes but is too cowardly to rescue his son. Fights with Mother always ensue when he sneaks Dave food or urges Mother to ease up. Father hides behind long absences and alcohol so he won't have to deal with family problems. It takes teachers, school nurses and administrators a number of years to help Dave, even though the signs of his struggles (his stealing, injuries and tattered clothing) are evident much earlier.


The Lord's name is used in vain a few times. D--n, h---, sh--, a--, crap and bastard appear as well as the f-word. Dave begins referring to his mother (in his mind) as The B--ch.

Dave's mother makes a game out of her torture. She constantly looks for new ways to brutalize her son. The beatings come on a regular basis. She smashes his head against mirrors, kicks, punches, yells and orders him to admit he's a bad boy. Sometimes she wakes him for beatings in the middle of the night. Sometimes she'll beat him with dog chains or broom handles. She orders him to lie about his injuries to the school nurse or hospital workers when she has to take him in for a broken arm. She crams a bar of soap down his throat and orders him not to speak. She holds his hand over a lit stove burner and scorches his skin before demanding he climb up on the stove and lie on the hot burners. She smashes his brother's dirty diapers in his face and demands that he eat the feces. She starves him and goes to great lengths to keep him from eating from the trash. Once, she purposely puts rotten meat in the trash so he'll pick it out, eat it and learn a lesson by getting sick. She starts putting ammonia in the trash can so he won't get into it. She makes him vomit at the end of each school day so she can see if he's eaten anything without permission.

One day she saves the food he's vomited and makes him eat it again, chewing every bite. Mother makes Dave sleep in a cot on the garage under newspapers. She makes him drink spoonfuls of ammonia, which causes horrible and humiliating diarrhea. She threatens to kill him if he doesn't finish his chores on time, and once this leads to her accidentally stabbing him with a knife. She patches up his severely bleeding stomach, but will not take him to the hospital. He bleeds for days and painfully treats himself for an infection.

At other times, Mother locks Dave in the bathroom to do his cleaning with a mixture of ammonia and Clorox filling the air. He tries to find ways to suck air from the vent and avoid passing out. He coughs up blood afterward. Another of her favorite tortures is making Dave lie naked in a tub full of freezing water with his head beneath the water. She will often slam his head underwater. Sometimes she leaves him in the tub for hours. His brothers sometimes bring their friends over to gawk at their naked brother in the bathtub. Despite all the pain she inflicts and blood she draws, Dave's mother rarely shows the slightest sign of remorse.



Discussion Topics

If your children have read this book or someone has read it to them, consider these discussion topics:

  • What would make a mother behave like this toward her child?
  • How would you feel if your mom or dad suddenly started treating you this way?

  • How does Dave survive the years of torture and abuse?

  • What are his feelings about God at the time?
  • What does he ultimately discover about God's presence in his life?

  • Why does it take so long for anyone to help Dave escape his torture?

  • How can you help someone who may be suffering from physical or emotional abuse?
  • Why is it important to treat everyone with respect and dignity?

Additional Comments/Notes

Dave Pelzer is now a renowned speaker who has won awards including the Ten Outstanding Young Americans (1993) and The Outstanding Young Persons of the World (1994). Some claim he falsified his story and criticize him for capitalizing on his abuse story. One of Pelzer's brothers confirms his abuse while another denies it happened and says Dave was taken from the home for his own defiant behavior.

This review is brought to you by Focus on the Family, a donor-based ministry. Book reviews cover the content, themes and world-views of fiction books, not their literary merit, and equip parents to decide whether a book is appropriate for their children. A book's inclusion does not constitute an endorsement by Focus on the Family.

You can request a review of a title you can't find at reviewrequests@family.org.

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