David Pelzer’s autobiographical tale of his childhood, A Child Called It, has become iconic in the ‘misery memoir’ genre. His detailed and graphic retelling of the physical and mental abuse he suffered at the hands of his alcoholic mother has become an international record-breaker since its release in 1995.
Pelzer’s book has created a sensation in more than one way. On the one hand, A Child Called It has been lauded as a brutally honest tale which has inspired, encouraged and supported other victims. The book celebrates perseverance and the strength of the human spirit in the face of relentless abuse, and for that reason deserves its position as a landmark in its genre.
On the other hand, ugly criticisms have wormed their way out of the woodwork since its original publication in 1995. His story has been classified by many as exaggerated and even false, and he himself has been accused by some (including his own brother, Richard Selzer) as being a ‘child abuse entrepreneur’. These accusations, while shockingly cynical, do raise some interesting questions. Pelzer now makes his fortune selling his books at self-help conferences and there is, after all, next to nobody left to prove whether these accusations are true.
There is certainly some doubt about the reliability of childhood memories in general. Having said this, traumatic memories do seem to stay with us the longest, and so it is not so unreasonable that he is able to recall these tragic events in such detail. However, there is another fault of Pelzer’s story-telling which bothered me while reading A Child Called It, which is that of understanding why the abuse ever happened. Even though Pelzer could never possibly have really understood when he was a child, he wrote the book as an adult. Still, he chose to spend far more time recounting grisly details of abuse rather than exploring why his mother became so abusive. While he as a child was undoubtedly a victim, he seems reluctant to define himself in any other terms, which makes the book deeply disappointing.
Books about abuse need to offer so much more than a simple retelling of mistreatment, or they risk earning a reputation for being gratuitously violent. While A Child Called It has clearly helped huge numbers of victims of abuse to come to terms with their experiences and hope for something better, I believe that beyond this the book’s merits are limited. Pelzer’s failure (or refusal) to explore why the abuse happened, why his entire family failed to do anything concrete to stop it, or to present his mother in anything more than a one-dimensional way is simply frustrating.
More than anything, Pelzer’s book raises serious questions on where the line lies between autobiography and fiction. Namely, if this book has been proven to truly help vulnerable people, how much does the real truth matter?