My husband was out one night before Thanksgiving, and as I sat in a chair reading, I forgot that my oldest boy was still in the dining room. He was up way past his bedtime. He must have made a noise, because I was surprised and exclaimed, "Berto, what are you doing? Go to bed!"
He then slowly came over to me and said, "Mama, you won't believe this book I'm reading. This boy's mom is normal and then one day she changes for no reason and starts doing crazy stuff. She even stabs him!"
As a parent you don't look forward to your children saying such things about a book they've been reading - of which you had no knowledge.
"What? Let me see that."
He handed over the paperback. It was A Child Called It by David Pelzer.
I glanced at the pages where my boy was, examined the face of the little boy on the cover and asked, "Where did you get this, Berto?"
He told me a friend at school had been talking about it obsessively, how no one could believe what this boy's mother made him do. She piqued Berto's interest; he must have been listening and asking questions, because she offered to lend it to him.
As he was telling me this I was reading the words at the place he left off. He saw my face.
"You have to go back and read the beginning first," he insisted. "He gets rescued."
If I had known about its content, it was not a book I would have let him read at 12 years of age. I sent him to bed, and I was alone with this story of which I had never heard but knew with certainty had opened my son's eyes irreversibly to the bizarre, absolute evil in this world.
When my husband came home, I had read about half of it.
"We have to talk about this book our son is reading," I said. Then I, too, added, "You won't believe it."
My husband listened as I revealed the terrible details of this little boy's life, all the abhorrent, twisted punishments he suffered at his mother's hands, how his dad did nothing, and how his brothers ignored him or joined in tormenting him.
"It's awful. It's really bad. I can't believe Berto is reading this. Should we let him?"
"Well, it's too late now, isn't it?"
"Honey, it's really bad."
"It'll make him realize how lucky he is. We just have to make sure to talk to him about it."
I don't think lucky is the word, but I knew what he meant.
Sucked into David Pelzer's story by the need to speak with my son about the evil people do to one another, I was horrified and demoralized by what Pelzer endured as a child. The effect the book had on me was so apparent that my husband said, "No more for tonight. Let's go to bed. Come on."
I wept as I revealed more details to my husband. Then I tried to fall asleep. It was of no use. I couldn't stop thinking about Pelzer's excruciatingly long childhood nightmare. I crawled out of bed, grabbed the book and took it to our bathroom. Sitting on the hard floor, finishing that book, I sobbed as I dwelt on Pelzer's pain, mourned for every hurting child, and longed to wrap every abused kid in the world in my arms.
Such was the power of his story that I had many uncomfortable thoughts. I found myself regretting times when I lost my temper with my own kids, gave into anger and yelled so badly, I frightened them, and those thoughts caused me to regret any unpleasant memories I have given my children. I found myself regretting times when I noticed things that seemed off or suspicious in the life of another child and didn't say or do anything. At one point Pelzer reveals that his heart was flooded with hate for his mother, for his dad, for his brothers, and for every person who knew something of his situation and did nothing. And he said that he hated God most of all, because if anyone knew what he was going through, it was God, and I thought, I can't blame him for thinking that in his situation.
That was a very uncomfortable thought, for I love my Heavenly Father and know he is not indifferent, and I am not trying to be blasphemous, just honest about a reaction. I understood how a child could think that in Pelzer's chronically endangered situation. I know what Christians believe about free will, Original Sin, and Satan, the fallen angel whom Jesus described as a "murderer and liar from the beginning", but I also know that we address the problem of evil as "The Problem of evil" for a reason. We cannot fully explain it with our theology. There is no pat answer.
But I feel, too, that every person who was aware that something was terribly wrong in that young boy's life and did nothing failed as a child of God when they were so desperately needed. God uses us in community to help one another. We must be in tune to our heavenly Father's nudges. This is why I do not believe we should ignore the urge to do something or to speak to someone, even if we don't fully understand it.
I couldn't comprehend the horror to which Pelzer's spiritually and mentally ill mother subjected her son, but I did recognize in his story the truth of how evil breeds ever greater evil; it is never satisfied. We can't feed it by dismissing our vices or by giving power to an addiction that weakens us and alters us in increasingly terrible ways.
The only hope in the story is found when he writes of the courage and the wits he always kept about him to survive, the will and wits that bought him time when his mother attempted to burn him on a gas stove; when he sat in a cold, dirty bathroom and pushed all the puss from his stab wound while wiping off the infection with dirty rags; when he repeatedly scrounged for food while on the brink of starvation; and when he used his imagination to sustain hope as he sat on his hands for hours in some starkly inhospitable place, purposefully isolated from the other members of his family
How my heart ached and broke for this child! I can still see images from the book that distress me, such as the times when he lay submerged for hours in an ice-cold tub of water at his mother's command. Pelzer's mother attacked his dignity, his natural right to happiness, and his health in such vile ways that it seems miraculous he lived to write about it. His case apparently was the worst recorded case in California history, and one can easily believe it.
There is hardly any love mentioned, except his painful love for and misplaced trust in a very broken, cowardly father and his fascination with a baby brother with whom he was not allowed to interact. In the prologue he acknowledges that by the grace of God, he is able to know what love is through his relationship with his own son.
After his father left the family, abandoning his son to his evil mother, Pelzer wrote of desperately clinging to a package his dad had given him and, as his brothers ate their fast food in the car beside his starving frame, bowing his head and saying the Lord's Prayer. A couple of months later, he was finally rescued through the efforts of brave and compassionate teachers, a nurse, and administrators at his school.
A Child Called It haunted my Thanksgiving. Recalling vivid scenes of torment from its pages, I wept often that long weekend for David Pelzer and every child who has ever known anything like what he knew.
My husband and I both agreed that this book wasn't something we would have handed to our son, but we also believed that it would enkindle in him greater compassion for other children, that when he meets a kid who is dirty, smelly, wearing old or too-small clothes, or one who is being ostracized by other students because they're "weird" or "different" or just "not cool" he will remember David Pelzer's story and consider his actions more carefully, more fully respecting the dignity of everyone whom he encounters.
As for me, this is a book I could never forget, and I hope it will make many of us more aware, more courageous and more compassionate in confronting evil in our community and in protecting each child's rights to emotional, physical and spiritual health.