Dave Pelzer: Trilogy Of Survival Essay, Research Paper
Dave Pelzer’s Trilogy of Survival:
A Child Called “It”
The Lost Boy
A Man Named Dave
Deborah L. Kesling
Dave Pelzer was the target of one of the worst cases of child abuse in California history. This trio of books tells the story through his eyes.
I had originally decided to read and write about another book. In our classroom one day, I saw a copy of A Child Called “It” sitting on one of the desktops. I picked it up and thumbed through it, reading bits here and there. I was hooked. I obtained my own copy after class and began reading it that night. Contrary to its small dimensions (184 7.5″ by 5″ pages in large type), it is a very big book. For this report, I have read all three of Dave Pelzer’s books about his life: A Child Called “It”, The Lost Boy and A Man Named Dave.
A Child Called “It” chronicles Dave’s life as a child, and is told from that viewpoint. From his earliest recollections of a relatively happy life with “the Mommy” to his life and death struggle with “The Mother”, this book details the horror of Dave’s dehumanizing existence. Going far beyond “typical” physical, emotional and psychological abuses, Dave’s story tells of intentional starvation, forced coprophagia, poisoning and much more. This volume covers his life from his earliest memories at age 4 until his rescue at age 12.
The Lost Boy picks up the story where the first book leaves off, following Dave through the foster care system until the age of 18. Dave’s navigation through the foster care system is an arduous journey. His sense of survival is strong, but being a foster child is not easy.
A Man Named Dave is the final book in the trilogy, covering Dave’s life from his enlistment in the Air Force through the present day. From his resolve to be accepted by the Air Force to his almost desperate determination to be a good father to his son, Dave shares with the reader his difficulty adjusting to a “normal” life.
The Pelzer family was white and middle class. Dave’s father, Stephen, was a firefighter, and his mother, Catherine, was a homemaker. Both parents were alcoholics. They lived in a “good” neighborhood in a modest home. Until the abuse began, Dave’s life with his parents and brothers was good. In his words, “Our every whim was fulfilled with love and care” (Pelzer, 1995).
The two areas of diversity I recognized in these books are economic status and disability. Because of Dave’s ragged clothing, unkempt appearance and inadequate hygiene, he was an outcast at school. Though Dave’s parents were financially capable of providing for him, his mother withheld from him food, appropriate clothing and other basic material necessities of life. Dave took food from other children’s lunches at school in order to survive. His schoolmates were aware of this, and it served to set him further apart from them. The children called him names and he had no friends.
Two of the disabilities that were apparent to me while reading these books were the alcoholism of Dave’s parents and Dave’s developmental issues.
Application of Developmental Theories
Families are systems in which each individual has a unique relationship with the other individuals in the family. Dave’s place in his family was, indeed, unique. The subsystem consisting of Dave and his mother had a foundation in the boundaries set by the mother. Dave’s role in the family was, essentially, that he was not a part of the family. Not only that, Dave’s identity was stripped away by his mother. At the onset of the abuse, she began referring to him as “the boy.” As the situation worsened, she referred to him as “It”, hence the title of the first book in this series.
At the time of Dave’s rescue, he exhibited two of the four behavioral indicators of abuse that were established in 1979 by the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare. He exhibited “overly compliant, passive and undemanding behaviors aimed at maintaining a low profile, avoiding any possible confrontation with a parent which could lead to abuse” (U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare, 1979, pp. 25-27). An example of this would be his submissive, eyes-down stance when called to present to his mother. He was also behind developmentally, exhibiting poor social skills and stuttering, and was physically small for his age. Though the criteria for determining abuse changes continuously and this is an old citation, I feel it is still valid.
Erik Erikson’s psychosocial development theory consists of eight stages of development (Erikson, 1950). Each stage is characterized by a different conflict that must be resolved by the individual. When the environment makes new demands on an individual, a conflict arises. “The person is faced with a choice between two ways of coping with each crisis, an adaptive, or maladaptive way. Only when each crisis is resolved, which involves a change in the personality, does the person have sufficient strength to deal with the next stages of development” (Schultz & Schultz, 1987). In other words, if a person is unable to resolve a conflict at a particular stage, they will confront and struggle with it later in life. According to our text, a person’s ability to resolve crises in later life hinges on the degree of success he or she has dealing with crises earlier in life (Zastrow, 1997, p. 276).
The first of Erikson’s eight stages of development is “Basic Trust versus Basic Mistrust” (birth to 18 months). Development of trust, the conflict of this stage, requires the comprehension that some people and things can be depended upon. Consistent, loving care sets the stage for coping with this crisis. From Dave’s perspective, his early years provided an appropriate environment for the achievement of this stage. His happy memories, early on, of loving parents and the feelings of trust and safety that he recalls fit appropriately with what Erikson’s theory implies. I believe the impact of abuse later in his life caused Dave to return to this first stage, creating a new struggle for him regarding trust. A Man Named Dave brings to light his inability to truly trust anyone, especially women.
Erikson’s second stage, “Autonomy versus Shame and Doubt” (18 months to three years), posits that the accomplishment of tasks imbues children with confidence and self-esteem. The conflict or crisis of this stage is the struggle to do for oneself. I believe it was during this stage of life that the cycle of abuse began for Dave Pelzer. Throughout all three books in this series, his lack of faith in his own abilities is a continuous thread that ties it all together. This belies the fact that he had, indeed, been able to outsmart his mother at her own games on many occasions. If not for the brilliant coping strategies he constructed as a child, he would not have survived.
Stage three is labeled “Initiative versus Guilt.” Between the ages of three to six years, children are naturally inclined to explore, initiate relationships and experience the world around them. Pursuing these things requires initiative, and serves as the conflict resolution for this stage. In Dave’s situation, he was consistently punished and terrorized for showing initiative. The end result of this treatment, according to Erikson, should be feelings of guilt for even wanting to do so many things. As a response to this guilt, the child may become very passive, opting to be a follower, not a leader. I’m not sure Dave’s response is a good fit with what this stage of the theory suggests. Yes, he remains burdened with guilt to this day. But I would not call Dave a follower. When the Air Force turned him down, he showed the initiative to do what was necessary to be accepted, even though it took years.
Erikson’s fourth stage is “Industry versus Inferiority.” This stage encompasses the timeframe of the most severe period of abuse in Dave’s life: six to twelve years of age. The importance of play, academic achievement and productivity in this stage can not be over emphasized. The mastery of these activities requires industry, thus resolving the conflict of this stage. For Dave, play time was not an option. He had problems in school, both academically and socially. During this time, according to our text, “Comparison with peers becomes exceptionally important” (Zastrow, 1997, p. 277). For Dave, this comparison was about as bleak as one could imagine. He had to steal food to survive, and these food thefts were known to his peers. His clothing, lack of good hygiene and stuttering also set him apart. Any one of these “failures” can prevent a resolution of the crisis of this stage. Dave was a “failure” at all of these things, resulting in a very strong sense of inferiority. Even one of the “games” his mother concocted was designed to cause him to fail: She would force him to search the house for things that didn’t exist, then torture him when he couldn’t locate the object in question. The concept of this stage is a perfect fit with the realities of Dave’s life.
The crisis of the fifth stage is “Identity versus Role Confusion.” During adolescence, the period of life this stage addresses, Dave was moving through the foster care system. Role confusion occurs when a person cannot integrate the various roles they play into a perception of self. Based on what we learned about adolescence in our Human Behavior class, this stage is difficult in the best of situations. For Dave, it must have been impossible. Traditional roles found in a typical adolescent’s life (sibling, child, friend, etc.) are skewed or absent altogether in Dave’s life. He was not a son or even a boy to his mother: he was an “It”. At their mother’s insistence, his brothers did not treat him as a sibling. Dave had, essentially, no place or role in the family at all except as a target for his mother’s warped games and tortures.
“Intimacy versus Isolation” is the sixth stage of Erikson’s theory and is the conflict of young adulthood. An intimate relationship requires the ability to share ideas and feelings with another without fearing the loss of one’s own identity. Keeping in mind that, to some degree, each of these stages builds on the successful resolution of the crises of the prior stages, it’s logical that Dave exhibited difficulty entering and maintaining intimate relationships. As stated in our text, “Some people are so busy seeking or maintaining their identity that they cannot share and express themselves in an intimate relationship” (Zastrow, 1997, p. 310). Considering the likelihood of role confusion and “perception of self” issues in Dave’s life left over from adolescence, it’s no surprise that his first marriage was a disaster. I find it fascinating that he has such a seemingly solid relationship with his (second) wife and son.
Erikson’s seventh stage of psychosocial development addresses the conflict of “Generativity versus Stagnation” in mature adulthood. (The eighth stage, “Ego Integrity versus Despair”, is not covered in this paper because it addresses old age.) The achievement of generativity implies an unselfish attitude that looks beyond oneself and toward an enhancement of society. From volunteerism to church activities to contributions of global significance, generativity is crucial to the growth and survival of society. Dave’s behavior is most certainly different than this stage of Erikson’s theory predicts. Dave’s life as a mature adult is committed to the betterment of society. He travels throughout the country as an inspirational and motivational speaker. Though our text for this course explicitly states that becoming a parent does not guarantee generativity, Dave’s son seems to be the focus of this passion to make the world a better place. He is also very determined to not repeat the mistakes of his own parents.
By all accounts, Dave Pelzer should not have achieved generativity. His continued lack of self-esteem combined with the other issues addressed in this paper would indicate a predisposition to depression, pessimism and an unwillingness to invest in the future of others. This is akin to achieving self-actualization (Maslow, 1954) without first satisfying the first four levels of needs.
I cannot say that I enjoyed these books. They were a powerful read, but not something I could recommend to someone for a relaxing weekend of reading. The first book is the most compelling, followed by the second. I found it very difficult to wade through the third book, though I cannot figure out why.
Although I find it disturbing that Dave’s mother was never convicted of any crimes, I understand that the structure of society was different back then. Dave is a little younger than I am, and I know from personal experience that teachers, counselors, neighbors and law enforcement officials of the day looked the other way regarding issues of child abuse. At that time, things such as child abuse and other forms of domestic violence were considered to be “personal troubles”, not “public issues”.
It seems amazing to me that Dave emerged from his embattled childhood with such a positive attitude. How could he be as emotionally healthy as the books lead the reader to believe? My own experience as a victim of child abuse was a far cry from what Dave endured, yet it has been difficult for me to develop and maintain self-esteem, confidence and a sense of wholeness. Considering what Dave went through, it seems odd that he is so sound. I also find Dave’s apparent generativity to be a contradiction. Am I missing something? What caused Dave’s mother to single him out as the target of her attacks? Is it even possible that Dave’s early recollection of a perfect family life is a false memory created as a defense mechanism?
After considering these questions, I did some more research. I discovered that Dave spoke in Toledo last year. I managed to find a handful of people who heard him speak. I was somewhat surprised that the reaction to his speaking engagements was so lukewarm. As one respondent put it, “He would be better off staying at home writing. Until I heard him speak, I was in awe of him. Now I see him as just anouther [sic] victim, telling us with his words that he doesn’t want our pity, yet begging for it on another level. Methinks he doth protest too much” (Anonymous respondent, personal communication, March 31, 2000). The general consensus seemed to be that Dave’s brash humor and spontaneous impersonations hide a psyche that is still terribly damaged. I submit that, perhaps, what appears to be generativity is simply Dave’s ongoing effort to do “the right thing” in an effort to attain the unattainable: his mother’s love.
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