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“A Child Called ‘It'” the Book by Pelzer

Brief Summary

Pelzer (1994) in his book A Child Called “It”: One Child’s Courage to Survive has related his story of the sustained horror of maternal child abuse that he underwent. Narrated in first person account, Dave Pelzer has told his story of how his alcoholic mother singled him out for extreme torture and perversion all through his childhood till he reached the age of 12 when he was removed to a foster home.

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When the book was first published, a stunned world read with horror the constant and escalating abuse that the innocent boy suffered from at the hands of his mother and the uncaring attitude of the father who chose to remain mute and did not protest against the abuse. As per the narration of Plezer, his mother gradually turned increasingly abusive and subjected the child to gruesome torture such as burning, stabbing, making him ingest ammonia till he threw up, confining the child to a basement where he was given scraps that even the dogs refused to eat.

The child was under observation by the school authorities that initially did not know the extent of the abuse and had to accept the false reasons that Pelzer gave to the nurse to explain the severe bruises and wounds. Things finally came to a head when the school nurse reported the smashed head injuries to the school principal who in turn informed the police and called the juvenile department to take the child under their charge.

There were some controversies as some people felt that there was no sufficient corroboration to support Plezers claims but they have been set aside by the testimony of the schoolteacher and Dave’s brothers. The book brings to light the dark side of human nature and the viciousness it can display for no apparent reason. To reiterate, Dave was not a prisoner of war caught in Vietnam or Iraq by the enemy and tortured. He was a child that was severely abused and ill-treated by his own mother and this is most shocking. The book shows how a spirit and life can survive even when the odds are very heavy.

Predominant Paradigms Reflected in the Book

Kuhn (1962) first used the term Paradigm Shift to denote “a change in basic assumptions within the ruling theory of science, which is a revolutionary science or implication of technology” and a paradigm as “the entire constellation of beliefs, values, techniques, and so on shared by the members of a given community”. In terms of psychology, it refers to a phenomenon where societies and people undergo a cataclysmic change in social and interpersonal interactions that may go beyond cognitive behaviour. The book by Pelzer brings about a few paradigms and these are briefly discussed.

Card (2005) speaks of the Atrocity Paradigm and the author has questioned the essence of evil and if they are inevitable and how would normal people respond to incidents of evilness. The author has suggested that evil gives rise to the atrocity paradigm and there are two components. The first one is causing harm and which makes living impossible and the other component id the culpable harm. It is this kind of evil that gives rise to the atrocity paradigm and would include varying incidents of rape, slavery genocide, severe child abuse and other such behaviour.

Speaking of the book by Pelzer, the author points out that the atrocity evil paradigm begins to live on its helpless and traumatic victims and the more that a helpless victim that cannot fight back suffers, the more the evil thrives and grows till it would kill either the victim or the perpetrator. The author reports that after detailed research, about 46 percent of the women are the main perpetrator of child abuse while 56 percent are the fathers.

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The book reveals the transformation of the kind and loving mother into one who feels increasingly frustrated with her life and the presumed drudgery that she has to bear and this is a paradigm shift of the behaviour transformation. The father of the children was a fireman and presumably of not very high social standing. The family initially was very happy and went out on camping trips and excursions and had very nice time and the mother was full of a love that a mother would show to Dave. The transformation paradigm slowly began when the mother grew increasingly frustrated and had to find a means to vent her anger.

The one best source was Dave who was the most boisterous of the lot and she picked on him to vent her ire. Then she took to drink and the transformation paradigm took control over her completely and to her, Dave represented all her hurts and frustrations and the cruel world that denied her a chance to come up in life. So to get back at the world, she started abusing Dave to such an extent that she almost killed him on many occasions.

Another paradigm is the paradigm of innocence and vulnerability against the paradigm of the domineering force. The child Dave was too feeble and dependant on his family and mother and in spite of the torture being meted out to him, the child resolutely bore the torture, thinking it would go away and one day he would be back to normal. The evil paradigm fed on the helplessness of the child and persisted in its torture and hurting, knowing full well that the victim was too fearful and in its control to rebel.

Then there is the paradigm of the oversight in the form of the father who was a mute spectator to the torture being meted out to the son. Initially the mother did not abuse Dave when the father was around but later the evil became so strong that even with the father around, she continued the torture that included burning, beating, starving, making the child inhale ammonia and many other devious and cruel forms of torture. However, the father kept quite and instead of admonishing his wife or even reporting to the authorities, he chose instead to stay away from home. So the paradigm of silence made a tacit understanding with the paradigm of atrocity.

My Paradigms Compared With the Ones From the Book

My paradigms were not as severe as the ones represented in the book. Theere were paradigms of the fear of the unknown and these were overcome. When I first arrived to Hawaii and started my first job at The Association for Retarded Citizens in Hawaii (The Arc). The Arc was on the cusp of a paradigm shift, attempting to close the institution for individuals with developmental disabilities (DD) and/or mental retardation (MR).

Changing the beliefs of a society who felt such individuals could not and should not live in homes within their communities. I felt if we were able to prove the most severe could successfully be placed in the community, then anybody currently in the institution could, and the institution would be closed for good. However, the community members felt the institution was needed based upon their own beliefs that individuals with DD/MR were a danger and only the institution would be able to meet their special needs. The first part of my job was to meet with my neighbours and educate them on the facts of individuals with mental retardation, how this is not a mental illness.

How these individuals have had years of institutional life and have not learned the social norms of society, but would, given time and support. The second part of my job was to prove to the workers of the institution that I knew what I was talking about even though my techniques were the complete opposite of the way things were done for the past 60 years. The authorities were not ready to accept that the residents would be allowed to stay in the community and further stated that there would be objections. Even after I went around to meet the neighbours and spoke to them, they were not willing to accept the residents. It was only after a house warming ceremony was conducted when the neighbours were invited and when they met the residents was the paradigm of uncertainty removed.

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A huge paradigm shift to person centred planning/self determination came out in the late 1990’s (this will be discussed further in my next paper), putting words to feelings I already had. From the late 1980’s I went against the grain of how things were done, because I felt it was the right thing to do. It was a time when we as a Nation were going through a paradigm shift, changing our views of how persons with a developmental disability were treated.

No longer were we seeing people as broken needing to be fixed, but persons with capabilities who could excel given the proper supports. I had decided to adopt a 55 year old patient who was diagnosed as a mentally retarded person with many syndromes and problems. I had to argue and plead in the court before I was allowed to adopt her and we have been housemates since then. This was a personal paradigm for me and the In 1998, Act 133 revised Hawaii Revised Statute 333F to make Hawaii the first state in the nation to have self-determination for individuals with developmental disabilities/mental retardation (DD/MR) mandated in statute.

A huge paradigm shift in the way society viewed individuals with mental retardation was on its way. No longer, where individuals with DD/MR to be viewed as people who needed to be fixed but as people who could become contributing members of society.

Overall Response to Reading

The overall response to the book is that it has taken a severe child abuse case to make the modern society realise that such things are happening even in this age. For every one Dave Pelzer who managed to tell his tale of suffering, there are a thousand more who will never tell their story and many more who would die in a cold basement, lonely and crying. We are speaking a collective morality and a collective conscience and it is not just the social worker who should look out for such aberrations.

The abuse could have ended far more earlier if the father had reported the incidents to the authorities and got help for his wife. The child care workers who visited the home to ask about child abuse could have been a bit more observant and seen the look of terror on the Child’s face or read his body language to realise that something was amiss when the child said it was not abused, under the glare of its mother. The school principal, the nurse and the teacher should have sounded the alarm by seeing the signs of abuse, rather than waiting for the child’s head to be bashed in before reporting to the case.

Or maybe, the staff were so inured to seeing abused children that they woke up only when the evidence of abuse could not be ignored any more. There is a tacit understanding between the paradigm of atrocity and the paradigm of oversight and this is truly appalling in this age. We are not living in the world of Dickens but in this information age and the book shows that current social work needs to look much beyond the obvious to the latent problems of the weak, the oppressed and the helpless that cannot cry out against the paradigm of atrocity.


Card Claudia. 2005. The Atrocity Paradigm: A Theory of Evil. Oxford University Press, USA.

Kuhn Thomas. 1962. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. University of Chicago Press, Chicago.

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Pelzer David. 1995. A Child Called “It”: One Child’s Courage to Survive. Health Communications, Inc. USA.

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