A Child Called It | Study Guide

Dave Pelzer

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Course Hero. "A Child Called It Study Guide." Course Hero. 7 Feb. 2019. Web. 8 Aug. 2022. <https://www.coursehero.com/lit/A-Child-Called-It/>.

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Course Hero. (2019, February 7). A Child Called It Study Guide. In Course Hero. Retrieved August 8, 2022, from https://www.coursehero.com/lit/A-Child-Called-It/

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Course Hero. "A Child Called It Study Guide." February 7, 2019. Accessed August 8, 2022. https://www.coursehero.com/lit/A-Child-Called-It/.


Course Hero, "A Child Called It Study Guide," February 7, 2019, accessed August 8, 2022, https://www.coursehero.com/lit/A-Child-Called-It/.

A Child Called It | Summary

See Plot Diagram


A Not-So-Typical Day in the Life of Dave Pelzer

The book opens on March 5, 1973, in Daly City, California. It is a typical morning for fifth-grader Dave Pelzer, who rushes to complete his chores quickly enough to gain the "reward" of eating his brothers' leftover cereal and milk. However, his mother catches him pulling his hands out of the scalding dishwater, and he gets smacked. He suffers through blows that make his head hit the tile countertop before he finally gets to eat his brothers' leftovers. Because he is behind schedule, his mother drives him to school late. A visit to the school office includes an examination for bruises by the school nurse. This is another routine occurrence.

However, that's where the ordinariness of the day ends. The principal finally responds to the concerns of Dave's teachers and calls the police. An officer arrives and questions Dave about his life at home. He takes the boy to the police station and notifies Dave's mother that Dave will not be coming home. The officer then drives Dave away. The officer tells Dave he is finally free from his abusive mother.

The "Normal" Years

The story then flashes back to Dave Pelzer's early childhood. He recalls magical days with his loving parents and two older brothers. His father, Stephen, is a firefighter by vocation and a superhero to his son. He works a lot but loves his wife and boys. Dave's mother, Catherine Roerva, serves elaborate dinners and keeps an immaculate home. The family enjoys camping together, and they do so often at Dave's favorite place, the Russian River. Dave's mother teaches him to swim and is clearly proud of his accomplishment. The family goes on picnics and educational outings. Huge Christmas trees and pumpkin carving make holidays fun and memorable. Dave feels safe and loved until things begin to change.

The Cost of "Misbehaving"

As Dave gets older, his mother becomes erratic and abusive. She changes from the loving woman he knows as Mom to a frightening person he calls Mother. Dave is put in a corner as a form of punishment, and this happens to him more often than any of his brothers. The "corner treatment" evolves into the "mirror treatment," during which his mother smashes Dave's face against the mirror and makes him repeat, "I'm a bad boy!" The abuse escalates as Dave receives frequent blows and slaps. When Mother seriously injures Dave's arm, she fails to offer sympathy or care. Instead, she creates a story about him falling out of the bed's top bunk before she takes him to the hospital.

Dave's parents argue a great deal, and Dave's "punishments" are often at the heart of their growing conflict. Dave's father seems to want to protect his son, but he gives in to his wife time after time. Dave's father uses alcohol in an effort to get his wife drunk and dissuade her from further mistreatment of Dave. However, his efforts prove futile, and he regularly backs down from his wife.

One day, Dave's mother accuses him of breaking one of her rules by playing on the grass at school. As punishment, she turns on the stove burners and holds Dave's arm in the flame. She tries to get his whole body on the stove, but Dave holds her off by whining. He learns to buy time as he is being abused, stalling until someone else comes home and she stops. This sometimes keeps him from getting the worst of her intended treatment.

Starving for Food and Love

So frequent is the abuse that Dave's mother doesn't even try to hide the visible effects, and Dave is often bruised and marked from it. She often "forgets" to feed him, and the completion of chores earns Dave the "reward" of food, which is his brothers' leftover cereal. Dave becomes so desperate and hungry he devises a plan to steal food from his classmates. However, the plan distances him from his classmates and gets him in frequent trouble with the principal.

Dave's parents' fights grow more frequent, and his father, his protector, leaves home more often. Miss Moss, Dave's second grade teacher, takes an interest in Dave and becomes suspicious about his bruises and lack of focus. She reports the concerns to the principal who calls Dave's mother. This action does not help though and, instead, results in further abuse.

The family vacations at the Russian River, a place of fond memories for Dave. However, the abuse continues there. Some time later, his mother smears feces from Dave's baby brother's diaper onto his face and tries to make him eat it. He, again, is saved from this when people return to the house and she stops.

School begins again. The place that used to be his haven is now another place of torment as his classmates ridicule and ostracize him. When stealing food from classmates becomes more challenging, he devises a plan to steal from a nearby grocery store. Then he realizes he can steal food from the cafeteria freezer. He swallows it in large frozen chunks. His mother becomes suspicious that he is finding food somewhere and one day implements the "vomit test." He is then made to eat his own vomit. His father sits nearby, failing to intervene. In addition, Dave is made to swallow ammonia, bleach, and dishwashing soap as punishments for stealing food. The soap causes diarrhea so severe that Dave soils himself and feels completely stripped of his dignity.

The "Accident"

Being punched, kicked, and starved has become normal in Dave's life. However, one day, things take an even worse turn, which, according to Dave, "set the tone for the remainder of the time" with Mother. Though Dave's mother often threatens to kill him, this particular time, as she is threatening him and waving a carving knife in his direction, she loses her balance and stabs him in the stomach. The injury is serious. Dave's mother provides some physical care but does so without expressing any remorse. She also fails to take him to a hospital and, instead, tells him to finish doing the dishes. Dave looks to his father, expecting him to intervene, but he does not. That night, his mother allows him to be with the family, and she sleeps near him as he heals. Strangely, Dave feels comforted by her presence. The next day, though, she is back to her usual self and stops taking care of him. When the wound becomes infected, Dave determines he will care for it himself, willing himself to survive.

Dave's Superhero Chooses Escape

After the "accident," Dave's father spends even less time at home. Despite repeated failures to protect Dave, Dave still counts on his father as his only possible protector. In his father's absence, Dave is given the "gas chamber" treatment, exposure to a mixture of ammonia and bleach that produces noxious fumes, and the "bathtub treatment," in which he lies nearly submerged for hours in cold water and is then made to sit outside in wet clothing. His brothers alternately ignore him, glare at him, and bring their friends to see Dave in the bathtub, as if he is an exhibit.

As fourth grade begins, Dave has a new substitute teacher who takes an interest in him and treats him well. Though he cherishes her kindness, he has given up hope that others will save him, including his dad. He has even given up on God.

When a social worker visits, Dave tries to cover for his mother but acknowledges he gets punished when he's "a bad boy." His mother beats him afterward for the "slip." The social worker fails to act on her suspicions.

Loss of Hope and Faith

By fifth grade, Dave decides there is no God. He views himself as alone and without hope or help aside from his own efforts to save himself. He no longer dreams or imagines. He is filled with rage toward others and himself. Dave is the outcast of the school, taunted by his classmates, one of whom encourages him to jump off a bridge to his death.

Dave's fifth-grade teacher, Mr. Ziegler, takes an interest in Dave and encourages him to enter a contest, which Dave wins. Dave rushes home to show his mother his congratulatory letter. However, she rips it up and tells him he can never make her proud. She calls him an "It" and says she wishes he were dead. This is the final blow. Dave says, "She had stripped me of my very existence."

Though Dave's baby brother Kevin brings him a bit of joy, Dave believes himself undeserving of love. His parents eventually separate. Dave turns his hatred toward God, whom he blames for taking away his hope. Dave believes his mother will succeed in killing him and wishes it to happen quickly.

Years Later

As an adult, Dave returns to the sites where he made some of his favorite memories, although the places remind him of some very painful memories as well. He shares his favorite childhood vacation spot at the Russian River with his young son, Stephen. Father and son clearly share a warm and loving relationship, indicating that the cycle of abuse has been broken.

A Child Called It Plot Diagram

ClimaxFalling ActionRising ActionIntroductionResolution2134675


1 Dave enjoys good times with his family.

Rising Action

2 Dave's punishments become more intense.

3 Mother causes Dave serious injuries and fails to care for him.

4 Dave steals food to survive.


5 Mother stabs Dave, nearly killing him.

Falling Action

6 Dave wins a contest.


7 Dave is removed from the home.

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