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A Child Called “It” Book Review and Analysis

Review

“Out of the corner of my eye I saw a blurred object fly from her hand [a knife]. A sharp pain erupted from just above my stomach. I tried to remain standing, but my legs gave out, and my world turned black” (Pelzer, 1993, p.87). This is the story of a young boy, David or “It”, and his tragic struggle through child abuse by an alcoholic mother. By shedding light on the appalling topic of child abuse that is still unfortunately happening today, hopefully the amount of children that are abused each year will decrease.

The book begins with David’s rescue from school by a police officer. He tells David that he’s free and will never be hurt again by his mother. At this point in David’s life he is in the fifth grade. The rest of the book is a flash back of his childhood from when he was 4 years old until 12. Much of that time he was physically and emotionally abused.

David was not always abused. His life was normal at one point and his family happy. This was when he was younger, prior to age 4. He got to pick out a name for one of the family pets, a tortoise named Thor. They had elaborate, cheerful Christmases. David was taken to aquariums and parks. They even went on many vacations together; one was to the Russian River, which was David’s favorite. According to Pelzer (1993), “That summer Mom taught me how to swim on my back. She seemed so proud when I was finally able to do it” (p. 26). He felt safe and warm here with his family. Life was happy and normal for David. However, this happy part of his childhood was unfortunately short lived and changed when he was 4 years old.

David and his mother’s relationship changed drastically, from discipline to out of control punishment. The punishments were because he was a “Bad boy” even though he did the same things that his brothers and all normal little boys do. The punishments started out as being put in the corner for small things that both he and his brothers both did, yet David would get punished. Eventually the punishments progressed to the “Mirror treatment” where David was to stand with his face against the mirror saying “I’m a bad boy! I’m a bad boy! I’m a bad boy!” (Pelzer, 1993, p.30). At this point his mother would lie on the couch all day in a bathrobe, drinking. However, when his father would come home she would change back into her normal self again and be happier. For a while, David was safe when his father was home.

Soon David’s mother started physically hurting him. The punishments progressed to abuse. She made something pop in his arm from jerking him violently around. David said, “I cradled my arm as it began to throb with pain” (Pelzer, 1993, p.35). He was not allowed to go on family vacations; he was left with a relative. When he was allowed to go on one of the vacations, his mother tortured him whenever she got the chance. “As soon as they left, she brought out one of Russell’s soiled diapers. She smeared the diaper on my face” (Pelzer, 1993, p.55). She even yelled at him to eat it. Once she even had him lie on the stove to burn. When David cleaned the bathroom, on many occasions she would have him stay trapped in there with ammonia and bleach to breath in, which create poisonous gas. Something changed in his mother, she had severe psychology problems.

David was even denied food. This was one of his mother’s favorite games. She would not let him eat. He could not even sneak food from the trash can to eat, she would poison it. “Mother sensed I was getting food some way, so she began sprinkling ammonia in the trash can” (Pelzer, 1993, p.63). Or she would have David throw up to see if he had snuck any food throughout the day at school. David eventually had to resort to stealing from other children’s lunch boxes and the grocery store in order to feed himself. His mother “Fed” him his own vomit, soiled diapers, ammonia, Clorox, and dishwashing soap, among other things that normal human beings should never have to eat. She was starving and torturing her own son.

One night at home there was an accident. David was stabbed by his mother. “Out of the corner of my eye I saw a blurred object fly from her hand. A sharp pain erupted from just above my stomach. I tried to remain standing, but my legs gave out, and my world turned black” (Pelzer, 1993, p.87). When he awoke his mother was surprisingly bandaging his wounds. She was so horrible to him for so long; it is shocking that she would actually bandage David up and not just let him die. Even more surprising was the fact that she actually acted like his mother the day following the incident and showed him love like how she treated his brothers. “As the minutes passed, Mother became more compassionate towards me” (Pelzer, 1993, p.94). She even gave David a sparkler to play with and checked on him and his fever throughout the night. However, this good treatment was short lived. The next day, “In a cold voice, Mother told me to clean myself up and begin my chores” (Pelzer, 1993, p.96). Life went back to “Normal” for David once she knew he was not going to die.

David’s father was somewhat of a protection at first; his mother would not treat David as poorly when his father was around. But soon his father came around less and less, to the point of leaving and his parents getting a divorce. His father had no backbone to stand up to the mother. Any good father would never let his son be so mistreated. He was a subpar father. It is surprising that David’s father did not realize that something was wrong with his wife, she needed to get help. The woman changed from the person he married.

The condition that David was suffering from was child abuse. The problem of child abuse is that a young child is mistreated in a very poor manner, one that no human should ever have to endure. David was treated worse than an animal; he was not even treated with the dignity of a human. He was abused, tortured, and degraded. This was all done by a mother with severe psychological problems, much due to alcoholism. David was not able to get treatment, only monitoring by the school nurse until they finally took him away from his mother. After being taken away, hopefully David received psychological counseling to work through his problematic childhood. One way he escaped his world of torment was through school. He used homework and school as an escape from the world he was living in when he could. He also liked to daydream to escape. She could not hurt him in his imagination.

No good can come from alcoholism. David’s parents were alcoholics. His mother would drink all day and then both parents would drink together in the evening. Drinking excessively has no positive consequences, only negative. David’s mother drank to the point of excess. She was not only harming herself but also her son due to the alcohol. David’s life could have been much different if his parents got help for their substance abuse problem. It is so sad to see something tear people apart that could be helped. Drugs ruin lives, not only the life of the user but their family’s as well.

David’s personality and coping strategies helped him to survive, along with his determination. David is stronger today for what he had to endure so many years ago. At times he thought that life would never change, he became hopeless. “I came to believe that for me, there was no God” (Pelzer, 1993, p.131). But he was smart and adapted in order to survive. He came up with new ways to outsmart his mother to obtain food and play her torturous games. He knew that many times if he could only stall a little longer his father or brothers would return home and she would stop. “Switching tactics, I began to cry. ‘Slow her down,’ I thought to myself…Time was my only ally” (Pelzer, 1993, p.55). The longer David could slow down the torture the better off he was because eventually she had to stop, especially when people came around. David was a very lucky boy to survive that horrible ordeal, on many occasions he could have easily died.

I thought that people are abusive parents or they are not. I did not think that a seemingly perfect and happy family could turn into one of torture. It appeared that David’s mother was a great example of what a mother should be like when he was younger, before the abuse started. She was warm, loving, and caring. The family took vacations and enjoyed each other’s company. “In the years before I was abused, my family was the “Brady Bunch” of the 1960s. My two brothers and I were blessed with the perfect parents. Our every whim was fulfilled with love and care” (Pelzer, 1993, p.17). Then it seemed that out of nowhere she gradually became more and more abusive, to the point that she was going to kill her son. It is unthinkable that someone would treat any other human, especially their own child, how David’s mother treated him. What was the cause of such a drastic personality change? There was a substance abuse problem of alcohol for the parents, especially his mother. Or was there also a genetic trait that clicked into action all of a sudden? The chemicals in the mother’s brain changed in a very bad way. I do not understand why the father did not realize that something in his beloved wife changed and that she needed help. If only someone would have gotten her help then David would not have had to suffer for as long as he did.

I love how David turned tragedy into triumph. He changed his life for the better. I really admire David for being able to come from such horrific beginnings of life and blossom into a bestselling author. This shows that he is a very strong person. I have a high regard for his ability to change his life in such a profound way. Many people would stay beaten down and feel hopeless. He learned from the situation and became a better person and loving parent because of it. David stated, “I’m so blessed. The challenges of my past have made me immensely strong inside. I adapted quickly, learning how to survive from a bad situation” (Pelzer, 1993, p.157). David really took something from that situation to make himself a better man because of it. Many people turn into their parents. Many children that are abused grow up to be abusers themselves. It is wonderful that David did the opposite of that and became a loving father who is probably wonderful to his son. David took a hold of his life and made it great.

Child abuse is a very unsettling and saddening topic. It happens far more often than many people realize. Children do not speak up because they love their parents and do not know that their life is abnormal. However, by shedding light onto child abuse and learning how some children’s lives actually are, progress can be made. This book, along with many more people’s personal accounts, helps to shed light on child abuse. With child abuse greater understood the more cases that can be prevented each year along with children saved from abusive situations. Children need to be made aware of what abuse is and when to report it to school officials. Presentations need to be made in schools for children. No child should ever have to go through a childhood filled with abuse.

References

Pelzer, D. (1993). A Child Called “It”. Deerfield Beach, Florida: Health Communications, Inc.

Analysis

“Almost five children die every day as a result of child abuse” (O'Meara & Fedderson, 2007). The book A Child Called “It” has a few major themes that were based off of the life of David, a child that was abused by his mother. A few of the themes are: child abuse, children growing up and turning into their parents, alcoholism, borderline personality disorder, and coping strategies in difficult situations. A deeper investigation of three of the above themes will help us to understand child abuse better and hopefully put an end to it one day.

Child abuse is a terrible act that is still happening today. “A report of child abuse is made every ten seconds” (O'Meara & Fedderson, 2007). There are “Negative consequences for one’s overall health and self-concept” for children who are abused (Sachs-Ericsson, N., Medley, A. N., Kendall–Tackett, K., & Taylor, J., 2011, p. 1). David was abused as a child from the tender age of 4 until 12 by his own mother. There may be some lingering effects of his traumatic childhood later in life. A study entitled: Childhood Abuse and Current Health Problems Among Older Adults: The Mediating Role of Self-Efficacy takes a look at the effects child abuse has on adults later in life. The hypothesis of this study is that abuse is related to disability. The sample was made up of 1,986 interviews, of which 1,086 had no physical disability while 900 did. “Those individuals who were screened as not having a physical disability were matched on race/ethnicity, gender, and age with those individuals screened as having a disability” (Sachs-Ericsson, et al., 2011, p. 5). This study had a subsample of 1,396 participant adults age 50 and older in south Florida. The breakdown of ethnicity is the following: non-Hispanic white (23.6%), Cuban (26.8%), other Hispanic (13.1%), and African American (36.5%) (Sachs-Ericsson, et al., 2011). They were obtained from a previous study, The Physical Health and Disability Study. The participants selected were oversampled for physical disabilities and paired with participants without physical disabilities. The method of this study was interviews with participants, primarily in the participants’ own homes. Participants answered yes or no to various questions. The questions that were included had the following themes: physically disabled, specific health problems, health problem count, childhood abuse items, sexual abuse, physical abuse, emotional abuse, abuse scale, self-efficacy, family history of substance abuse, and parental unemployment. The tests run were: a logistic regression analysis and a hierarchical linear regression. Overall, “There was a significant correlation between number of abuse symptoms and number of health problems, r (1396) = .062, p = .02” (Sachs-Ericsson, et al., 2011, p. 7). Abuse was found to be significantly related to disability. The significant health problems that appeared in abused participants were diabetes and bladder problems, while migraines or bad headaches approached significance (Sachs-Ericsson, et al., 2011). Another finding reported from the study was that “Childhood abuse was found to be associated with lower levels of self-efficacy” (Sachs-Ericsson, et al., 2011, p. 9). A limitation of the study was that “The abused participants were substantially younger than the nonabused participants which may have artifactually lowered rates of medical problems among the abused participants making direct comparisons less reliable” (Sachs-Ericsson, et al., 2011, p. 8). There could be a third variable that is affecting the results, such as those people who are abused as children may engage in riskier behavior than children who are not abused and thus develop more health problems later in life due to those risky behaviors (Sachs-Ericsson, et al., 2011). Another factor could be that people who are abused as children may be at a greater risk to health problems due to a change in their neurobiology (Sachs-Ericsson, et al., 2011). Overall, experiencing abuse as a child affects many adults later in life, especially giving them a greater risk of developing health problems. Later on in life David, and other abused children, may be at a greater risk for developing health problems such as diabetes and bladder problems. Depending on the type of abuse, there could be lingering effects from the abuse that develop into health problems. Such as when David was put in the bathroom with bleach and ammonia for hours, that could develop into a lung problem later in life due to the type of abuse he endured. With proper treatment there could be a decreased risk for developing serious health problems later in life. With greater understanding of the effects of childhood abuse later in life, more people can be helped. Hopefully David will be one of the lucky ones that will not develop health problems due to the abuse.

Another theme of A Child Called “It” is the possibility of abused children growing up to become abusive parents. Some children grow up and turn into abusive parents due to being abused as a child. A sad statistic is that “About 30% of abused and neglected children will later abuse their own children, continuing the horrible cycle of abuse” (O'Meara & Fedderson, 2007). David broke that cycle in the book A Child Called “It” and was a loving father to his son. Preventing parents from becoming abusers would help to stop this vicious cycle. The study A Cognitive Approach to Child Abuse Prevention examines the effectiveness of the enhanced home visitation approach to ending child abuse. The hypothesis was the following: “We predicted that parents who participated in home visitation that included a cognitive appraisal component (enhanced home visitation) would show lower levels of harsh parenting and physical abuse than would parents who participated in the Healthy Start program (unenhanced home visitation) or who did not receive home visitation (control condition)” (Bugental et al., 2010, p. 4). The participants were mothers who were at a moderate risk for maltreatment of their children, were about to give birth or had just recently done so, 97% were Latino, 48% were single mothers, and 50% of the mothers had been physically abused in their childhood (Bugental et al., 2010). The completed sample was of 73 families with a mean age of the mothers being 25.5 years old (Bugental et al., 2010). Participants were randomly assigned to one of three conditions: control condition, unenhanced home visitation condition, and enhanced home visitation condition. All participants received visits from one of six home visitors. The home visitation groups received an average of 17 visits within a year to their home. The participants in the control condition “Received no direct services but were provided information regarding existing services available in the community” (Bugental et al., 2010, p. 6). The “Parents in the unenhanced home visitation condition received home visitation consistent with the Healthy Start program, supplemented with information regarding existing services available in the community” (Bugental et al., 2010, p. 6) And the “Families in the enhanced home visitation condition received information about existing community services, combined with methods used in the Healthy Start program and a brief attributionally based problem solving discussion at the start of each visit (causal appraisal followed by problem-focused appraisal)” (Bugental et al., 2010, p. 6). The results are as follows for the prevalence of abuse on the newly born child: control condition=26%, unenhanced home visitation condition=23%, and enhanced home visitation condition=4% (Bugental et al., 2010). It was found that the “Benefits were greatest in families that included a medically at-risk child” (Bugental et al., 2010, p. 1). The addition of a causal and problem solving appraisal significantly reduced the amount of abuse. There were some limitations to the study. It was a small sample size, a larger sample size would have been better. A combination of primary and secondary appraisal processes were used rather than individual and combined. The majority of participants were Latino immigrants so it would have been better to have a more ethnically diverse sample. The study ended when the child reached the age of 1; following up with the same family later would give better measurements. There is a lack of observational data, it is mostly self report. There could also be a bias of the home visitors for one condition (enhanced) compared to another (not enhanced). And the last limitation was the lack of fathers in the study, with more fathers in the study the effects of their involvement could be studied as well (Bugental et al., 2010). By understanding what significantly improves the rate of child abuse in mothers who are at risk to becoming abusive to their children, the amount of children who are abused can be decreased significantly. Clearly the enhanced home condition was successful. If David’s mother would have been informed of this he may have not been abused. Also, with further research that tracks the participants later in life more information can be learned to decrease child abuse rates.

The last theme that will be discussed is the effect that alcohol plays in cases of child abuse. David’s mother was an alcoholic, a vicious one at that. Perhaps if she did not have a substance abuse problem David’s life would have been different. The study Childhood Maltreatment, Parental Alcohol/Drug-Related Problems, and Global Parental Dysfunction examines the role alcohol plays in child maltreatment. “Findings suggest that childhood maltreatment and parental drug problems are two distinct conditions that co-occur about 30% of the time; they are not completely independent, nor are they always related to each other. When they co-occur, greater problems characterized by global parental dysfunction are suggested” (Locke, T. F., & Newcomb, M. D., 2003, p. 1). The purpose of this study was “To determine how different types of child maltreatment co-occur with parental alcohol and drug-related problems and to test how these relationships differ by gender” (Locke, T. F., & Newcomb, M. D., 2003, p. 2). The sample was made up of participants from a previous study back in 1976 of 7th through 9th grade students from 11 different Los Angeles, California schools. Samples taken from that study were 346 females and 131 males, the mean age was 35 years old (in 1996), most were married with children, graduated high school, had 2 years of college or more, were employed full time, and had the following ethnic composition: 65% Caucasian, 10% Latino, 15% African American, and 4% Asian/Pacific Islander (Locke, T. F., & Newcomb, M. D., 2003). Participants were assessed on childhood maltreatment based on the Childhood Trauma Questionnaire, which consists of a “25-item self-report inventory with five subscales assessing different types of maltreatment (emotional abuse, physical abuse, emotional neglect, physical neglect, and sexual abuse.) Each of the five subscales has five items, with responses ranging from 1 (not true) to 5 (very often true)” (Locke, T. F., & Newcomb, M. D., 2003, p. 2). To test the participants on parental alcohol/drug-related problems, they were given a modified version of the Children of Alcoholics Screening Test. Structural equation modeling techniques were used. Findings from the study suggest that “Childhood maltreatment and parental alcohol and drug-related problems are two distinct but interrelated conditions” which occur together about one third of the time with no differences between genders (Locke, T. F., & Newcomb, M. D., 2003, p. 3). It is important to note that “These conditions don’t exist in isolation. Rather, they are distinct but moderately related. When they co-occur, it suggests a broader problematic environment characterized by global parental dysfunction” (Locke, T. F., & Newcomb, M. D., 2003, p. 3). This is a significant finding because it shows that these two conditions are related in some way. If a parent were found out to have a substance abuse problem further investigation should be done to determine if there is abuse of any children in the home as well. David’s parents, especially his mother, needed help with their substance abuse problems.

Child abuse is a tragic thing that is still happening today. David did not deserve the torture he endured, nor do any other children. Child abuse even affects people when they are older adults. Sadly, if a child was abused there is a good chance they will grow up to abuse their own children. And finally, substance abuse problems are connected to child maltreatment. With further research into child abuse more can be understood. Hopefully one day no child will be abused.

References

Bugental, D. B., Ellerson, P. C., Lin, E. K., Rainey, B., Kokotovic, A., & O'Hara, N. (2010). A cognitive approach to child abuse prevention. Psychology of Violence, 1(S), 84-106.

Locke, T. F., & Newcomb, M. D. (2003). Childhood maltreatment, parental alcohol/drug-related problems, and global parental dysfunction. Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, 34(1), 73-79.

O'Meara, S., & Fedderson, Y. (2007). Childhelp. Retrieved from http://www.childhelp.org/pages/statistics

Pelzer, D. (1993). A Child Called “It”. Deerfield Beach, Florida: Health Communications, Inc.

Sachs-Ericsson, N., Medley, A. N., Kendall–Tackett, K., & Taylor, J. (2011). Childhood abuse and current health problems among older adults: The mediating role of self-efficacy. Psychology of Violence, 1(2), 106–120.


Psychology | Book Review


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