January 7 2001
Millions have read David Pelzer's memoirs, a Child Called It and The Lost Boy, about child abuse in California. Now he has written the final volume, in which he confronts his violent mother
Hello mother, this is It...David Pelzer
The Sunday Times
My ears picked up the faint sound of a hacking cough. Without thinking, I marched into the hospital room. Before me, in a flimsy gown, was the skeleton-like figure of my father. His arms were twitching uncontrollably.
Growing out of the pain: David Pelzer as a child endured the worst case of sustained child abuse in the history of California. As an adult he went back to face his family demons
Photograph: Stuart Conway
His eyes were blank. They rolled to whatever caught his attention for a split second. I noticed a large white patch taped to his neck. "Dad," I whispered, "it's David."
No reaction. I lay down next to him, my face just above his. "Dad? Hey, Dad! It's me, David."
Minutes crawled by. I wanted to grab the sides of his face and squeeze out some type of reply.
I felt a hand on my shoulder, and discovered it belonged to a nurse called Steve. "What's wrong with him?" I demanded.
Leading me down the corridor, Steve said: "It was about four months ago when your father was admitted . . ."
"Four months?" I asked incoherently. "How long has he been . . . like he is now?"
"Well," Steve began, "his condition has rapidly deteriorated. The growth was primarily centered on the side of his neck, but has since spread to his throat."
"So . . . he'll never be able to say anything again? Ever?"
"Was he able to speak when he first came in?"
Steve barely nodded his head.
"So why didn't he call anyone?"
"He did," Steve frowned. "Your brother Ronald came over to visit. I guess he's in the military, too."
Ronald, the oldest of my four siblings, whom I hadn't seen since my rescue from Mother, had finally escaped her wrath by joining the army as soon as he turned 18.
"What about the others? Mother and my brothers?"
"He's been in seclusion for nearly the entire time. Your father doesn't show it, but he's scared. He knows he's not going to make it. Anything you can do would mean the world to him. He's all alone in there . . . just reminisce about all those good times you spent together."
Yeah, all those good times, I said to myself.
AS A four-year-old, I knew by the sound of Mother's voice what type of day was in store for me. When she was patient and kind, she was my "mommy". But mommy transformed into "the Mother", a cold, evil person. The more she drank, the more the Mother took over.
One Sunday afternoon before I was five, during one of her drunken attacks, she accidentally pulled my arm out of its socket. The next morning, she cried to the doctor that I had fallen out of my bunk bed - she had tried to catch me as I fell. The doctor didn't bat an eye. Back home, Father, a fireman with medical training, didn't question Mother's strange tale.
Afterwards, as Mother cuddled me, I knew never to expose the secret. Rocking in her arms, I thought the worst was over and that Mother would change.
The only thing that changed was the intensity of Mother's rage and the privacy of my secret relationship with her. By the time I was eight, my name was no longer spoken. She had replaced David with "the Boy". Soon the Boy seemed too personal, so she called me "It". I was banished to the garage. My function was to perform slave-like chores. If I did not finish in time I was beaten and starved. More than once Mother refused to feed me for over a week.
When she held my arm over a gas stove, she told horrified teachers that I had burnt myself. When she stabbed me in the chest, she told my frightened brothers that I had attacked her.
For years I did all that I could do to think ahead, to outwit her. Before Mother hit me, I would tighten up my body. If Mother didn't feed me, I would steal scraps. When she filled my mouth with pink dishwashing soap, I'd hold the liquid in my mouth until I could spit it out when she wasn't looking.
Like Superman, I believed I had two identities. My Clark Kent personality was the child called It, an outcast who ate out of rubbish bins, was ridiculed, and did not fit in. I came to believe that if Mother shot me, the bullets would bounce off. When I couldn't block out the pain or loneliness, all I had to do was close my eyes and fly away.
Just weeks after my 12th birthday, Mother and Father separated. Superman disappeared. With Father out of the way, nothing could stop the Mother.
I RELUCTANTLY returned to Father's hospital room. As I stared at him, I suddenly realised I knew nothing about him. As long as I could remember, my visits to Father had probably amounted to less than 20 hours together.
As a teenager in foster care, after I had been rescued by the school nurse, I couldn't wait to become an adult so Father and I could work through our past. Looking down at him, I felt that Mother had deliberately called me only after Father was unable to utter a syllable.
"When I was at the house, I remember all those times you'd come home from the fire station for just a few minutes to check in on me. Mother didn't know it, but I made sure I was washing the dishes so I could actually see you. I'd wash the dishes over and over until I heard you open the front door."
I paused to stare directly into Father's eyes. "You saved me. Even though it was only for a few seconds alone in the kitchen, it made all the difference."
For the first time in my life I was actually opening up to my father.
"Dad, do you still have your badge? Your fireman's badge?"
I pictured the time he had blushed with pride as he displayed his silver badge.
His head continued to twitch, but now more to the right. "The closet!" I exclaimed. "You want me to look in the closet?"
My hands patted down his jacket. Part of me felt jittery for invading his privacy. I found a set of papers that I stuffed into my back pocket without thinking. I could read them later. The only thing that mattered was Father's badge. After two attempts, I felt a small bulge. I yanked out a small, black-leather casing.
I opened it inches in front of Father's twitching face. Immediately his breathing eased. Father shut his eyes as if in concentration. I then noticed his lips quivering. When his eyes blinked open they again locked onto mine.
Out of fright I shook my head. "I don't know, I don't know what you're trying to . . ." Glancing down, I saw Father's bony crimson fingers wrapped around my hand clutching his badge. As my hand began shaking from Father's trembling, he sealed my fingers around the black leather case.
I WALKED hesitantly up the red steps that led to Mother's house. In seven years nothing had changed. An overpowering stench of urine, from what I assumed was Mother's small herd of dogs and cats, nearly made my eyes water. My brothers Kevin - a baby the last time I saw him - and Russell were there.
When I saw Mother's silhouette, my entire body locked up. A split second passed before I regained my senses. But it was too late. Mother had just witnessed my automatic response.
I asked: "You haven't seen Dad, have you?"
Mother slapped her hands on her hips and took three steps toward me. Surprisingly, I didn't back away.
"You of all people, you have no right. No right to judge me."
"Come on," I softly pleaded, "let's all go see Dad. Come on." I smiled as I extended my hand.
"Oh, David," Mother cried as she stretched out her trembling arm. Without hesitation I took her hand.
As I looked at Mother's face, her colour seemed to change. A reddened look began to take over. Before she opened her eyes, I knew what was coming. The Mother had returned with a vengeance.
"How could you march into my house, as if you owned the place, and tell me what I should or shouldn't do? How could you, after all I've done for you?"
"Done for me?"
"I didn't have to release you. No! I let you go. You gave me no pleasure, so you were disposed of. You were trash, and like trash I simply tossed you away."
Then, barely audible, she whispered: "You don't know how fortunate you were. I could have ended it all. Just . . . like . . . that."
THE priest unfolded a paper and read: "The church wishes to recognize the passing of Stephen Pelzer, who now rests in the hands of our heavenly father. A retired fireman of San Francisco, Stephen is survived by . . ."
How empty, I thought, his entire life spoken in a blink of an eye.
Outside the church, I shivered in the fog. I led Mother to the side of the building. When we were alone, she grabbed my shoulder and spun me around. "Don't you have something for me? Didn't he give you anything before he passed away?"
I uncoiled my fingers on my right hand and ran them across my back pocket. I became less tense when I felt the outline of Father's prized badge. "No," I said. "Father did not give me a thing."
"You're lying!" Mother shrieked. I felt the sting of her hand slapping my face. I let the blood trickle to the pavement.
"I called the hospital . . . they said he had the papers when he checked in."
Papers? My face must have given me away. "Yeah," I hesitated, "I have 'em. I didn't mean to . . ."
"Shut up and give me the f****** papers!"
I could only guess that the papers were some gigantic insurance policy. Part of me wanted to whip them out and watch Mother grovel as I ripped them to shreds.
"Here," I said.
Mother snatched them. Her eyes sparkled and she sighed with relief. "And now, young man, I indeed have everything I will ever need."
"You lose," I smiled.
"All those years you tried your best to break me, and I'm still here . . . You may have your papers, your money, whatever. You can hate everybody and everything on this planet, but you lose! May God be with you, Mrs Pelzer, for nobody else will be."
© Dave Pelzer 2000
Extracted from A Man Named Dave by Dave Pelzer published by Orion at £12.99.
Copyright 2001, Times Newspapers Ltd.