There’s a behavior pattern called “wound-collecting” where a person takes every slight, insult, and injustice they’ve ever experienced and builds an identity around it. “Look at how much I’ve suffered. Look at how much worse I’ve had it than you.” Their victim status becomes their defining attribute, the thing that makes them special. They can’t let their hurt go: they become huge dragons atop a hoard of pain, admiring their scars, and wishing they had more.
I remember reading a feminist’s blog post, titled (and capitalized) something like “why i hate men”. It was a long list of every bad thing a man had every done to her, ranging from sexual assault to a stranger calling her a rude word on The Bird Site, written with pornographic detail and (to me) barely-disguised relish. I felt bad for her; are wounds all you have?
Wound-collecting probably starts in pre-adolescence – infants learn that if they stub a toe, adults will crowd around them, fussing and cooing. They don’t understand what “operant conditioning” is, but they know that the attention feels nice; sometimes better than the stubbed toe felt bad. Enterprising infants learn that if they scream and cry very loudly, they don’t need to stub their toe at all.
One of the great wound-collectors of our time is James Frey, whose tearjerking, heart-rending, and fake account of drug addiction got him on Oprah (here’s John Dolan taking a bolt-gun to A Million Little Pieces in one of his meanest and funniest reviews). Women are generally more prone to wound-collecting, but, as Frey proves, men can do it too. And so can children.
Dave Pelzer was born to an insane alcoholic mother in 1960 and made a ward of the state in 1973. In the intervening twelve-plus years, he experienced what fifth-grade teacher Steven E. Ziegler describes as “the third worse (sic) case of child abuse on record in the entire state of California.” …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…” I bet he also got the middle seat in the family sedan and was never allowed to choose the pizza toppings.
In adulthood, Pelzer made a career as a rah-rah-you-can-do-it motivational speaker, anchored by the experiences in A Child Called ‘It’. I don’t know to what extent he fits the wound-collector profile. Perhaps he doesn’t at all. But at the very least he’s a wound-displayer, performing fetishistic accounts of child abuse for money.
There’s a deceptive aspect to books like this. Pelzer (or his publisher) describes A Child Called ‘It’ as an “inspirational story”. I wasn’t inspired. Between stories of being locked in a garage for ten days without food and suffocated with bleach and clorox, Pelzer throws in generic gloop (“I’m so blessed. The challenges of my past have made me immensely strong inside. […] Instead of dwelling on the past, I maintained the same focus that I had taught myself years ago in the garage, knowing the good Lord was always over my shoulder, giving me quiet encouragement and strength when I needed it most.”) that sounds as schmaltzy and fake as a Thomas Kinkade painting. The book – the real book – is marketed with the precision of a laser-guided bomb. It knows its audience of atrocity seekers well, better than they know themselves.
I’ll just say what I think: lots of people get thrills out of reading about child torture, and books like A Child Called ‘It’ are popular because they provide a socially accepted way of getting those thrills.
If you read fictional child-torture stories, you’re a depraved sicko who belongs on every government watchlist at once. But when that same story is repackaged as “motivational lit” or “true crime” or “the daily news”, you can pretend your interest is wholesome (or even virtuous). You’re not scratching a pornographic itch. You’re becoming an Informed Person(tm). You’re learning about The Way The World Really Works(c).
We see this hypocrisy everywhere. In the 1980s Evangelical Christians protested against heavy metal and Dungeons and Dragons while themselves propping up a huge media industry (Michelle Remembers, Satan Seller, Hell’s Bells, Jack Chick) that was a code-shifted version of the same thing. Michael Warnke sold millions of books with passages like “[the Satanists] took this little girl and they killed her by cutting her sexual organs out while she was still alive, and after she was dead they cut her chest open, took out her heart and cut it up in little pieces and took communion on it,” and Jack Chick distributed hundreds of millions of tracts like “Lisa”, often to the same people who wanted Black Sabbath banned from the airwaves.
Why? Because Black Sabbath lyrics were fiction, while Warnke’s Satanism stories were (supposedly) real, offering the reader deniability. Why wouldn’t a concerned citizen want to know about human sacrifice happening in the schools of their children? Prudes and moralists need porn, but more than that, they need excuses.
I say porn with caution: I don’t mean people literally get a sexual thrill from stories like Pelzer’s (though for some readers, who knows?). But there’s an pornlike element to Pelzer all the same. He’s pure object: an archetype, a totem, a lightning rod for our anguish, horror, and outrage – seething lizard-brain emotions we can barely understand or control.
It’s a small but critical detail, for example, that Pelzer is a child, because this hits the switch on the reader’s maternal/paternal instincts. Nobody would give a shit about a book titled The Senior Citizen Called ‘It’, even though elder abuse happens all the time. People are far more excited when the victim is an adorable little boy.
And the excitement around this book was real and terrifying to witness. In the late 90s people around me were moved to ecstasy by it. “Oh my god, this is awful! That poor boy!”, always spoken in the tones of a junkie sky-high on a twenty dollar bill. On Reddit and Goodreads there are people asking for other books like A Boy Called ‘It’. Horrible book! Traumatized me for years! Now please give me more!!! The demand for child abuse lit is insatiable, and although the books are presented as tales of salvation and hope this is a formality, like how porn films wrap up the high-definition sex inside a dumb story about Mia Malkova’s car breaking down. The real point is the suffering. The pain. People want to see it. All of it. And when it’s over, they want more. And worse. It’s a hole through the Earth that leads, not to China, but directly out into blackest space.
I haven’t talked about the book at all.
First, it’s not a book, it’s a book-shaped object. It’s poorly written: if Pelzer had relied on prose instead of child abuse he would currently be An AutoZone Manager Called ‘It’. “For awhile Mother banned Father from the house, and the only time we saw him was when we drove to San Francisco to pick up his paycheck. One time, on our way to get the check, we drove through Golden Gate Park. Even though my anger was ever present, I flashed back to the good times when the park meant so much to the whole family. My brothers were also silent that day as we drove through the park. Everybody seemed to sense that somehow the park had lost its glamour, and that things would never be the same again. I think that perhaps my brothers felt the good times were over for them too.” Grammartical issues aside (“awhile” instead of “a while”, singular “time” applied to a recurring event, etc), why is there so much repetition of detail? We’re told he goes to San Francisco to pick up a check, then we’re told again. We’re told he’s at the Golden Gate Park, then we’re told again. Every paragraph in the book is puffed out and long. The narrative is structured oddly, beginning where it should have ended (with Pelzer’s rescue by Mr Ziegler). A Child Called ‘It’ would otherwise have had a thrilling “how will he get out of this?” compulsion, but instead we already know how he got out, because he told us. Pelzer’s imagery is corny and seems right out of a 70s romance novel: rivers of tears go pouring and/or streaming down young Pelzer’s face so often that it could almost become a drinking game. His writing sucks all the air out of the room…but could that be an intended effect? To make the book seem rougher, realer, and more believable?
I’ve hinted at the elephant in the room several times. A problem with wound-collecting is that a temptation exists to exaggerate or invent wounds; to feather your nest with shards of broken blue glass and call them sapphires. As I read Pelzer’s sad tale a certain feeling came over me – the feeling you get when you’re in a foreign country and your taxi driver says he’s taking you along the scenic route.
Pelzer’s stories individually edge against the line of believability and cumulatively cross over: I don’t believe that his mother held him beneath freezing water for “hours” (hypothermia would have killed a starving ten year old in minutes). I’m curious about whether his lacerations and stabbings left him with scars, and if these have photographed to corroborate his tale. I impaled my finger on a thorn when I was ten and the mark is still there. I’m also curious as to whether his mother actually said things like this, which sounds like dialog from a very bad movie.
“Well, Mr Ziegler says I should be so proud of you for naming the school newspaper. He also claims that you are one of the top pupils in his class. Well, aren’t you special?” Suddenly, her voice turned ice cold and she jabbed her finger at my face and hissed, “Get one thing straight, you little son of a bitch! There is nothing you can do to impress me! Do you understand me? You are a nobody! An It! You are nonexistent! You are a bastard child! I hate you and I wish you were dead! Dead! Do you hear me? Dead!”
I can tolerate dull writing and exploitative subject matter, but I don’t like being conned or taken for a ride. When I learned from Wikipedia that three of Pelzer’s brothers (and his grandmother) have cast doubt on his story, I was unsurprised but still disappointed.