A Child Called
David J. Pelzer's mother, Catherine Roerva, was, he writes in this ghastly,
fascinating memoir, a devoted den mother to the Cub Scouts in her care, and
somewhat nurturant to her children--but not to David, whom she referred to
as "an It." This book is a brief, horrifying account of the bizarre tortures she
inflicted on him, told from the point of view of the author as a young boy
being starved, stabbed, smashed face-first into mirrors, forced to eat the
contents of his sibling's diapers and a spoonful of ammonia, and burned
over a gas stove by a maniacal, alcoholic mom. Sometimes she claimed he
had violated some rule--no walking on the grass at school!--but mostly it
was pure sadism. Inexplicably, his father didn't protect him; only an alert
schoolteacher saved David.
This book is not for sale!!!
This book is dedicated to my son Stephen, who, by the grace
of God, has taught me the gift of love and joy through the eyes
of a child.
This book is also dedicated to the teachers and staff members
of Thomas Edison Elementary School to include:
Steven E. Ziegler
and the School Nurse
To all of you, for your courage and for putting your careers on
the line that fateful day, March 5, 1973.
You saved my life.
After years of intensive labor, sacrifice, frustration,
compromises and deception, this book is finally published and
available in bookstores everywhere. I wish to take a moment and
pay homage to those who truly believed in this crusade.
To Jack Canfield, coauthor of the phenomenal bestseller
Chicken Soup for the Soul, for his extreme kindness and opening
a big door. Jack is indeed a rare entity who, without reservation,
assists more individuals in a single day than many of us can help
in a lifetime. Bless you Sir.
To Nancy Mitchell and Kim Wiele at the Canfield Group for
their enormous enthusiasm and guidance. Thank you ladies.
To Peter Vegso at Health Communications, Inc., as well as
Christine Belleris, Matthew Diener, Kim Weiss and the entire
friendly staff at HCI for their honesty, professionalism and
everyday courtesy that make publishing a pleasure. Kudos
galore to Irene Xanthos and Lori Golden for their tenacious
drive and for picking up the slack. And a gargantuan thank you
to the Art Department for all your hard work and dedication.
A special thank you to Marsha Donohoe, editor
extraordinaire, for her hours of reediting and eradicating “the
Wahoo” out of the tome (that’s “book” for those of you who
reside in Yuba/Sutter Counties in Northern CA), so to provide
the reader with a clear, precise sense of this story through the
eyes of a child. For Marsha, it was a matter of “… Farmer’s
To Patti Breitman, of Breitman Publishing Projects, for her
initial work and for giving it a good run for the money.
To Cindy Adams for her unwavering faith when I needed it
A special thank you to Ric & Don at the Rio Villa Resort, my
then home away from home, for providing the perfect sanctuary
during the process of this project.
And lastly, to Phyllis Colleen. I wish you happiness. I wish
you peace. May God bless you.
Some of the names in this book have been changed in order to
maintain the dignity and privacy of others.
This book, the first part of the trilogy, depicts language that
was developed from a child’s viewpoint. The tone and
vocabulary reflect the age and wisdom of the child at that
This book is based on the child’s life from ages 4 to 12.
The second part of the trilogy, The Lost Boy, is based on his
life from ages 12 to 18.
1 – The Rescue .................................................................... 7
2 – Good Times................................................................. 15
3 – Bad Boy....................................................................... 21
4 – The Fight for Food ...................................................... 30
5 – The Accident ............................................................... 50
6 – While Father Is Away................................................. 60
7 – The Lord’s Prayer ....................................................... 77
Epilogue ............................................................................ 91
Afterword .......................................................................... 95
1 – The Rescue
March 5, 1973, Daly City, California – I’m late. I’ve got to
finish the dishes on time, otherwise no breakfast; and since I
didn’t have dinner last night, I have to make sure I get
something to eat. Mother’s running around yelling at my
brothers. I can hear her stomping down the hallway towards the
kitchen. I dip my hands back into the scalding rinse water. It’s
too late. She catches me with my hands out of the wat er.
SMACK! Mother hits me in the face, and I topple to the floor.
I know better than to stand there and take the hit. I learned the
hard way that she takes that as an act of defiance, which means
more hits, or worst of all, no food. I regain my posture and
dodge her looks, as she screams into my ears.
I act timid, nodding to her threats. “Please,” I say to myself,
“just let me eat. Hit me again, but I have to have food.” Another
blow pushed my head against the tile counter top. I let the tears
of mock defeat stream down my face as she storms out of the
kitchen, seemingly satisfied with herself. After I count her steps,
making sure she’s gone, I breathe a sigh of relief. The act
worked. Mother can beat me all she wants, but I haven’t let her
take away my will to somehow survive.
I finish the dishes, then my other chores. For my reward I
receive breakfast – leftovers from one of my brothers’ cereal
bowls. Today it’s Lucky Charms. There are only a few bits of
cereal left in a half of a bowl of milk, but as quickly as I can, I
swallow it before Mother changes her mind. She has done that
before. Mother enjoys using food as her weapon. She knows
better than to throw leftovers in the garbage can. She knows I’ll
dig it out later. Mother knows most of my tricks.
Minutes later I’m in the old family station wagon. Because
I’m so late with my chores, I have to be driven to school.
Usually I run to school, arriving just as class begins, with no
time to steal any food from other kids’ lunch boxes.
Mother drops my oldest brother off, but keeps me for a lecture
about her plans for me tomorrow. She is going to take me to her
brother’s house. She says Uncle Dan will “take care of me.”
She makes it a threat. I give her a frightened look as if I am truly
afraid. But I know that even though my uncle is a hardnosed
man, he surely won’t treat me like Mother does.
Before the station wagon comes to a complete stop, I dash out
of the car. Mother yells for me to return. I have forgotten my
crumpled lunch bag, which has always had the same menu for
the last three years – two peanut butter sandwiches and a few
carrot sticks. Before I bolt out of the car again, she says, “Tell
’em … Tell ’em you ran into the door.” Then in a voice she
rarely uses with me, she states, “Have a nice day.” I look into
her swollen red eyes. She still has a hangover from last night’s
stupor. Her once beautiful, shiny black hair is now frazzled
clumps. As usual, she wears no makeup. She is overweight, and
she knows it. In all, this has become Mother’s typical look.
Because I am so late, I have to report to the administrative
office. The grayhaired secretary greets me with a smile.
Moments later, the school nurse comes out and leads me into
her office, where we go through the normal routine. First, she
examines my face and arms. “What’s that above your eye?” she
I nod sheepishly, “Oh, I ran into the hall door … by
Again she smiles and takes a clipboard from the top of a
cabinet. She flips through a page or two, then bends down to
show me. “Here,” she points to the paper, “You said that last
I quickly change my story, “I was playing baseball and got hit
by the bat. It was an accident.” Accident. I am always supposed
to say that. But the nurse knows better. She scolds me so I’ll tell
the truth. I always break down in the end and confess, even
though I feel I should protect my mother.
The nurse tells me that I’ll be fine and asks me to take off my
clothes. We have been doing this since last year, so I
immediately obey. My longsleeve shirt has more holes than
Swiss cheese. It’s the same shirt I’ve worn for about two years.
Mother has me wear it every day as her way to humiliate me.
My pants are just as bad, and my shoes have holes in the toes. I
can wiggle my big toe out of one of them. While I stand clothed
only in my underwear, the nurse records my various marks and
bruises on the clipboard. She counts the slashlike marks on my
face, looking for any she might have missed in the past. She is
very thorough. Next, the nurse opens my mouth to look at my
teeth that are chipped from having been slammed against the
kitchen tile counter top. She jots a few more notes on the paper.
As she continues to look me over, she stops at the old scar on my
stomach. “And that,” she says as she takes a deep swallow, “is
where she stabbed you?”
“Yes, ma’am,” I reply. “Oh no!” I tell myself, “I’ve done
something wrong … again.” The nurse must have seen the
concern in my eyes. She puts the clipboard down and hugs me.
“God,” I tell myself, “She is so warm.” I don’t want to let go. I
want to stay in her arms forever. I hold my eyes tightly shut, and
for a few moments nothing else exists. She pats my head. I flinch
from the swollen bruise Mother gave me this morning. The nurse
then breaks the embrace and leaves the room. I rush to put my
clothes back on. She doesn’t know it, but I do everything as fast
The nurse returns in a few minutes with Mr Hansen the
principal, and two of my teachers, Miss Woods and Mr Ziegler.
Mr Hansen knows me very well. I’ve been in his office more
than any other kid in school. He looks at the paper, as the nurse
reports her findings. He lifts my chin. I’m afraid to look into his
eyes, which is mostly a habit from trying to deal with my mother.
But it’s also because I don’t want to tell him anything. Once,
about a year ago, he called Mother to ask about my bruises. At
that time, he had no idea what was really going on. He just knew
I was a troubled kid who was stealing food. When I came to
school the next day, he saw the results of Mother’s beatings. He
never called her again.
Mr Hansen barks he’s had enough of this. I almost leap out of
my skin with fear. “He’s going to call Mother again!” my brain
screams. I break down and cry. My body shakes like jello and I
mumble like a baby, begging Mr Hansen not to phone Mother.
“Please!” I whine, “Not today! Don’t you understand, it’s
Mr Hansen assures me he’s not going to call Mother, and
sends me off to class. Since it’s too late for homeroom class, I
sprint directly to Mrs Woodworth’s English class. Today’s a
spelling test on all the states and their capitals. I’m not
prepared. Usually I’m a very good student, but for the past few
months I gave up on everything in my life, including escaping
my misery through my schoolwork.
Upon entering the room, all the students plug their noses and
hiss at me. The substitute teacher, a younger woman, waves her
hands in front of her face. She’s not used to my smell. At arms
length she hands my test to me, but before I can take my seat in
the back of the class by an open window, I’m summoned back to
the principal’s office. The entire room lets out a howl at me –
the reject of the fifth grade.
I run to the administration office, and I’m there in a flash. My
throat is raw and still burns from yesterday’s “game” Mother
played against me. The secretary leads me into the teachers’
lounge. After she opens the door, it takes a moment for my eyes
to adjust. In front of me, sitting around a table, are my
homeroom teacher Mr Ziegler, my math teacher Miss Woods,
the school nurse, Mr Hansen and a police officer. My feet
become frozen. I don’t know whether to run away or wait for the
roof to cave in. Mr Hansen waves me in, as the secretary closes
the door behind me. I take a seat at the head of the table,
explaining I didn’t steal anything … today. Smiles break
everyone’s depressed frowns. I have no idea that they are about
to risk their jobs to save me.
The police officer explains why Mr Hansen called him. I can
feel myself shrink into the chair. The officer asks that I tell him
about Mother. I shake my head no. Too many people already
know the secret, and I know she’ll find out. A soft voice calms
me. I think it’s Miss Woods. She tells me it’s all right. I take a
deep breath, wring my hands and reluctantly tell them about
Mother and I. Then the nurse has me stand up and show the
policeman the scar on my chest. Without hesitation, I tell them it
was an accident; which it was – Mother never meant to stab me.
I cry as I spill my guts, telling them Mother punishes me because
I am bad. I wish they would leave me alone. I feel so slimy
inside. I know after all these years there is nothing anyone can
A few minutes later, I am excused to sit in the outer office. As
I close the door, all the adults look at me and shake their heads
in an approving way. I fidget in my chair, watching the
secretary type papers. It seems forever before Mr Hansen calls
me back into the room. Miss Woods and Mr Ziegler leave the
lounge. They seem happy, but at the same time worried. Miss
Woods kneels down and wraps me in her arms. I don’t think I
will ever forget the smell of the perfume in her hair. She lets go,
turning away so I won’t see her cry. Now I am really worried.
Mr Hansen gives me a lunch tray from the cafeteria. “My God!
Is it lunch time already?” I ask myself.
I gobble down the food so fast I can hardly taste it. I finish the
tray in record time. Soon the principal returns with a box of
cookies, warning me not to eat so fast. I have no idea what’s
going on. One of my guesses is that my father, who is separated
from my mother, has come to get me. But I know it’s a fantasy.
The policeman asks for my address and telephone number.
“That’s it!” I tell myself. “It’s back to hell! I’m going to get it
from her again!”
The officer writes down more notes as Mr Hansen and the
school nurse look on. Soon he closes his note pad and tells Mr
Hansen that he has enough information. I look up at the
principal. His face is covered with sweat. I can feel my stomach
start to coil. I want to go to the bathroom and throw up.
Mr Hansen opens the door, and I can see all the teachers on
their lunch break staring at me. I’m so ashamed. “They know,”
I tell myself. “They know the truth about my mother; the real
truth.” It is so important for them to know that I’m not a bad
boy. I want so much to be liked, to be loved. I turn down the
hall. Mr Ziegler is holding Miss Woods. She is crying. I can
hear her sniffle. She gives me another hug and quickly turns
away. Mr Ziegler shakes my hand. “Be a good boy,” he says.
“Yes, sir. I’ll try,” is all I can say.
The school nurse stands in silence beside Mr Hansen. They all
tell me goodbye. Now I know I am going to jail. “Good,” I tell
myself. “At least she won’t be able to beat me if I’m in jail.”
The police officer and I walk outside, past the cafeteria. I can
see some of the kids from my class playing dodge ball. A few of
them stop playing. They yell, “David’s busted! David’s busted!”
The policeman touches my shoulder, telling me everything is
okay. As he drives me up the street, away from Thomas Edison
Elementary School, I see some kids who seem to be fazed by my
departure. Before I left, Mr Ziegler told me he would tell the
other kids the truth – the real truth. I would give anything to
have been there in class when they found out I’m not so bad.
In a few minutes, we arrive at the Daly City Police Station. I
sort of expect Mother to be there. I don’t want to get out of the
car. The officer opens the door and gently takes me by the
elbow, into a big office. No other person is in the room. The
policeman sits in a chair, in the corner, where he types several
sheets of paper. I watch the officer closely as I slowly eat my
cookies. I savor them as long as I can. I don’t know when I will
be eating again.
It’s past 1:00 p.in. when the policeman finishes his
paperwork. He asks for my telephone number again.
“Why?” I whine.
“I have to call her, David,” he says gently.
“No!” I command. “Send me back to school. Don’t you get
it? She mustn’t find out I told!”
He calms me down with another cookie, as he slowly dials 75-6-2-4-6-0. I watch the black dial turn as I get up and walk
towards him, straining my whole body while trying to hear the
phone ringing on the other end. Mother answers. Her voice
scares me. The policeman waves me away, and takes a deep
breath before saying, “Mrs Pelzer, this is Officer Smith from the
Daly City Police Department. Your son David will not be
coming home today. He will be in the custody of the San Mateo
Juvenile Department. If you have any questions, you can call
them.” He hangs up the phone and smiles. “Now that wasn’t so
hard, was it?” he asks me. But the look on his face tells me he is
assuring himself, more than he is me.
A few miles later, we are on highway 280, heading towards
the outskirts of Daly City. I look to my right and see a sign that
reads, “THE MOST BEAUTIFUL HIGHWAY IN THE
WORLD.” The officer smiles with relief, as we leave the city
limits. “David Pelzer,” he says, “you’re free.”
“What?” I ask, clutching my only source of food. “I don’t
understand. Aren’t you taking me to some kind of jail?”
Again he smiles, and gently squeezes my shoulder. “No,
David. You have nothing to worry about, honest. Your mother is
never going to hurt you again.”
I lean back against the seat. A reflection from the sun hits my
eyes. I turn away from the rays as a single tear runs down my
2 – Good Times
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
We lived in a modest twobedroom house, in what was
considered a “good” neighborhood in Daly City. I can remember
looking out of our living room bay window on a clear day, to
gaze at the bright orange towers of the Golden Gate Bridge and
the beautiful skyline of San Francisco.
My father, Stephen Joseph, supported his family as a fireman,
working in the heart of San Francisco. He stood about five feet
ten inches tall, and he weighed about 190 pounds. He had broad
shoulders and forearms that would make any muscle man proud.
His thick black eyebrows matched his hair. I felt special when
he winked at me and called me “Tiger”.
My mother, Catherine Roerva, was a woman of average size
and appearance. I never could remember the color of her hair or
eyes, but Mom was a woman who glowed with love for her
children. Her greatest asset was her determination. Mom always
had ideas, and she always took command of all family matters.
Once, when I was four or five years old, Mom said she was sick,
and I remember feeling that she did not seem to be herself at all.
It was a day when Father was working at the fire station. After
serving dinner, Mom rushed from the table and began painting
the steps that led to the garage. She coughed as she frantically
brushed the red paint onto every step. The paint had not fully
dried, when Mom bega ...
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