There’s a behavior called “wound-collecting” where a person takes every slight, insult, and injustice they’ve experienced and builds an identity out of 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 slumbering dragons atop a hoard of pain, admiring their scars, 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 serious 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. The attention feels nice. Sometimes better than the stubbed toe felt bad. More 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 cruelest and funniest reviews). Women are generally more prone to wound-collecting, but, as Frey proves, men can do it too. And children. And its.
Dave Pelzer was born to an insane alcoholic mother in 1960 and made a ward of the state in 1973. In the intervening twelve 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…” Also, he probably 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 kind of 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 quality to books like this that has always chafed at me; this sense they’re not as they appear. Pelzer (or his publisher) describes A Child Called ‘It’ as an “inspirational story”: I must have missed the inspiration, as the book’s a wrecking ball of nightmares almost from cover to cover. Between stories of being locked in a garage for ten days without food and suffocated with bleach and clorox, Pelzer throws in some 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 very well: far better than they know themselves.
I’ll just say what I think: books like A Child Called ‘It’ sell millions of copies because they’re a safe, socially-acceptable way to read about a child being tortured. There’s a society hypocrisy here that’s seldom talked about: if you enjoy fictional child-torture stories you’re a depraved sicko who belongs on every government watchlist at once, but when that same story is packaged as “motivational lit” or “true crime” or “the news”, you can pretend your interest in it is wholesome, even virtuous. You’re becoming an Informed Person(tm). You’re learning about The Way The World Really Works(c).
Is this surprising? 1980s Evangelicals protested against heavy metal and Dungeons and Dragons while themselves propping up a huge Satanic Panic media industry (Michelle Remembers, Satan Seller, Hell’s Bells) 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 gone from the airwaves. This is because Black Sabbath was entertainment, while the tales of Satanic witches were supposedly real, offering plausible deniability to their consumers – why wouldn’t a concerned citizen want to learn about the black masses and human sacrifice rituals happening in the nation’s schools? Prudes and moralists like porn, but more than that, they like excuses.
I use the word porn with care. I don’t mean people literally get a sexual thrill out of stories like Pelzer’s (though for certain 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 into which we can discharge our anguish, horror, and outrage – seething lizard-brain emotions we can barely understand or control. It’s a small but vital detail, for example, that Pelzer is a child, hitting the switch on the reader’s maternal/paternal instincts. Nobody would give a shit about a book titled The Senior Citizen Called ‘It’, despite elder abuse being a real thing that happens. 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 20 dollar bill. On Reddit and Goodreads there are people asking for other books like A Boy Called ‘It’. Horrible book! Traumatized me for years! 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 sublimated fantasies arranged in the shape of a book. It’s badly written: if Pelzer had tried to get famous off 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.” Grammatical 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 too long by 10 to 20 percent. Its 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?
This brings us to the elephant in the room, hinted at several times.
A problem with wound-collecting is the temptation to exaggerate or outright 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 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.