The novel, A Child Called It by Dave Peltzer both shocked and endeared readers when it was first published in 1995. Its recounting of an abused childhood and the child who fought to survive was both upsetting to read whilst also inspiring too. Obviously, many people were aware of the existence of abstract concepts such as child abuse but in truth, held very little concern or thought for them as they had not experienced them first (or even, second) hand – it is something that happens to other people. However, for the first time, Dave Peltzer brought the gritty reality into the lives of millions of people whose comfortable, happy lives were emphasised as they sat down to read about this little boy’s struggle. However, what many didn’t realise is that the childhood being described in the book belongs to the author himself: these were his experiences and they are his memories. The book presents a particularly interesting point of view from a sociological standing because Peltzer uniformly denies basic theories of socialisation to defy his abuser and grow up to become a successful man – frequently, in tales of abuse such as this, the child will suffer a lack of self-esteem and grow up unable to confidently make a mark on the world (Barnett et al. 371). This essay will explore some of the novel’s central ideas and concepts with regards to a sociological viewpoint as well as detailing how the characters fit into this as a whole.
The books main concepts are those of child abuse and the human survival instinct. Peltzer’s abuse at the hands of his mother began when he was four years old and continued on until the age of twelve when his school fought and intervened to protect him. Latterly, this is also a central concept and tells a small part of the tale of how schools became so heavily involved in child protection matters – stories like Peltzer’s helped to forge a path for future generations of abused children. The child’s survival instinct is thrust into the foreground from the novel’s opening pages: “I let the tears of mock defeat stream down my face as she storms out of the kitchen, seemingly satisfied with herself… The act worked. Mother can beat me all she wants, but I haven’t let her take away my will to somehow survive” (Peltzer 4). And so, immediately, the reader is presented with a very young man who has quickly learned methods of satisfying his mother’s angry bloodlust whilst still aiming to survive. In a way, this is a perverse form of respect for his mother: he allows her to think that she’s getting the best of him when actually he’s playing along in order to survive. This is, arguably, unusual in a child as although many children who suffer abuse may learn to survive under difficult circumstances, it frequently leads to an increased likelihood that they themselves will suffer a mental illness (Barnett et al. 227) whereas Peltzer, seems to have found a way to thrive on it and become stronger with each passing incidence of abuse – he is struggling but he is surviving and learning to manipulate the situation to his benefit wherever possible.
And this is the basis of the book: initially, Peltzer is too young to understand the abusive situation and so he submits and allows her to impact upon his happiness: “Mother would simply grab me and smash my face against the mirror… Then she would order me to say over and over again, ‘I’m a bad boy! I’m a bad boy! I’m a bad boy!’ I was then forced to stand, staring into the mirror. I would stand there with my hands locked to my sides, weaving back and forth, dreading the moment when the second set of commercials aired” (Peltzer 31). This is clearly the reaction of a small boy who is unable to understand why his mother is doing this to him – he clearly fails to see how the punishment fits the ‘crime’ (to use his word) and simply conforms to her expectations. However, as the book develops and Peltzer begins to grow up, we see a change take place in him wherein he begins to fight back internally – playing along with her evil behaviour in order to make things easier on himself in the long run: by the time he was in fifth grade, he says, “Whenever Mother struck me, it was as if she was taking her aggressions out on a rag doll. Inside, my emotions swirled back and forth between fear and intense anger. But outside, I was a robot, rarely revealing my emotions; only when I thought it would please The Bitch and work to my advantage” (Peltzer 132). In short, the book chronicles Peltzer’s escalated advancement into adulthood. The latter of these two areas was particularly challenging to read because it is clear that Peltzer had completely lost his childhood by this point and it struck me that regardless of his determination to survive, his mother will have won in some respects due to her removing his childhood naivety and innocence – something which every child should have.
It is interesting that Peltzer suffered abuse at his mother’s hands as traditionally, abuse of any kind is more commonly associated with masculine perpetrators. Systems theory focuses on the idea that family/domestic abuse happens because an individual has allowed him or herself to be abused: “there cannot be a victimiser unless someone allows herself or himself to be a victim” (Barnett et al 54). Many other theories criticise systems theory because it places equal blame on both the abuser and the victim but in Peltzer’s case, it is clear that he was well aware of what was happening to him and that it was entirely wrong but he continued to ‘play along’ in order to keep himself out of trouble. Systems theory would argue that Peltzer should have defended himself or attempted to tell someone about it. In school, it was clear that his teachers were aware of his abuse since he had regular trips to the school nurse and they did, eventually, intervene. However, Peltzer could have used that as a first line of defence: systems theory would suggest that he could have asked for help, in school, at a much younger age but didn’t. That said, the book does clearly plot his development from scared child to abuse-savvy adolescent and his eventual removal from the family home is, arguably, when he fights back. Either way, this is a novel which clearly indicates that child abuse does not need to be the absolute end of that child’s world – Dave Peltzer is living proof that there is life after child abuse.
Barnett, Ola W. et al. Family Violence Across the Lifespan: An Introduction 2nd Ed. London: SAGE Publications, 2010. Print.
Peltzer, Dave. A Child Called It. Florida: Health Communications Inc, 1995. Print.