As a child, Dave Pelzer’s mentally-ill, alcoholic mother inflicted such severe emotional and physical torture upon her son that his story of survival remains an example of one of the most graphic and gruesome documented child abuse cases in California history.
She beat him literally black and blue. She held him over open flames, She broke bones. She punched, kicked, slapped and strangled him. She slammed him into things and threw him down stairs. She forced him to sit in freezing water. She shoved his face in his baby brother’s soiled diaper and made him eat it. She crammed dog shit into his mouth. She shoved a bar of soap down his throat.
She starved him, and when he tried to forage in the family’s trash for leftovers, she poured ammonia over the garbage so he wouldn’t eat it. He wasn’t allowed to join his brothers to sleep indoors, bathe, or enjoy meals eaten at the family table, but slept in the basement or garage on a cot without blankets. She ordered him to “clean” bathrooms, which she prepared by pouring a toxic mix of bleach and ammonia on the floor and then shutting him inside the room with just rags and his bare hands as cleaning tools. She force-fed him spoonfuls of ammonia and bleach.
Somehow, even during some of the horrific abuse, such as when Dave’s mother held his arm over a flame, he was able to talk to himself in ways that helped him cope, and helped him cling to hope.
“I remember I made a decision at 8 years old, here I am held over a gas stove, and suddenly I felt excited to realize that if I could feel this, it meant I was still alive,” Pelzer said during a recent telephone interview. “I told myself, ‘I can do this.’ ”
He developed tricks to deal with the pain. Count backward from 60, or tell himself things like, “Well, the last 5 minutes sucked, so the next three minutes can’t be as bad.”
And when the abuse left external marks, as they often did, Dave’s mother prepared lists of “explanations” for him to pass on to “nosy” people who wondered about everything from an abdominal knife wound to a crushed trachea. He recited his script: He was “clumsy” and he “tripped” and he “fell” and he wasn’t looking where he was going.
Most of all, as his mother told Dave constantly, he was an extremely “bad boy” who deserved to be punished. In fact, he was so “bad” that beginning around the age of 5, he wasn’t allowed to be part of the family. Technically, he lived in the house, but he wasn’t part of it. He was a slave. He was an “it” who wasn’t worthy of being called by name.
“I believed that I was a bad, bad, bad boy,” Pelzer said. “I thought I was the baddest kid on the planet.”
What made things complicated was Dave’s mother could appear “normal” to the outside world. She was a Cub Scout leader and a PTA member.
Finally, at the age of 12, Dave was rescued by police after teachers reported the abuse. After that he spent the remainder of his childhood in a series of foster homes.
When you talk with Dave, as I did during a telephone interview, you’ll learn that he doesn’t judge the foster system, or the education system under which he lived as a child. He will tell you that times were different then in the late ’60s and early ’70s, that this was before mandated reporting laws. And he will tell you that as sometimes imperfect as some of his foster homes may have been, nothing was as bad as the abuse inflicted upon him by his own mother.
You’ll also learn that he has little patience for people who allow themselves to live a lifetime of adult emotional paralysis steeped in victimhood because of childhood abuse.
Consequently, one of his biggest messages is about thriving, not just surviving. He’ll share that messsage and others Friday in Redding at “The Real Heros, An Evening With Dave Pelzer,” at The McLaughlin Auditorium in Redding (details below).
During his talk he’ll focus on his belief that life’s biggest accomplishment is not what someone endures, but how one moves beyond the challenges to make the best life possible with existing resources.
Pelzer’s “The Real Heros” talk is so weighty that attendees must be older than 18. In order for him to get to the inspirational part of his story, he needs to explain what got him to where he is today.
Even as a little boy undergoing an abusive encounter, such as when his mother held his arm over an open gas flame and charred him like a piece of meat, Dave tapped into an internal place where he told himself that if he could just survive this, he could survive anything. He told himself that his goal was to make it through the next 5 seconds, or 5 minutes, or 5 hours, or 5 days, or 5 months, or 5 years.
As a child, he learned to watch for patterns – the ebb and flow of his mother’s abuse. He learned to be a problem-solver. When she starved him, he stole food from kids’ lunches and grocery stores. When she beat him, he tightened that part of his body to lessen the pain.
Today, when he talks about his life, and his past – often in the third person – he has a simple way to describe how he sees himself, and what he’s been through:
“I am blessed.”
And he means it. Every chance he gets, he shares that belief, and his philosophy for living, which includes his mantra that it’s not what we’ve experienced that counts, but what we choose to do with our experiences that make us succeed. Bacially, in the end, he can sum up his advice in two words: Be happy.
Today, Dave Pelzer is famous for having written a slew of international best-selling books. Now in his early 50s, he’s received a lifetime of such awards as personal commendations from presidents Reagan, Bush, Clinton and George W. Bush. He was recognized as one of Ten Outstanding Young Americans, joining such notables as John F. Kennedy, Anne Bancroft and Christopher Reeves. In 1994, Dave was the only American to be honored as The Outstanding Young Person of the World. In 1996, he carried the coveted Centennial flame for the Olympic Games. In 2005 he was honored with the National Jefferson Award, whose other alumni include Colin Powell, Sandra Day O’Connor and Bob Hope. He’s been interviewed by Oprah Winfrey and Larry King.
His fame isn’t because of how much he suffered. Rather, he’s a sought-after speaker, role model and author because he uses his story to inspire others to live their lives to the fullest. No excuses. No blaming. No dragging around a lifetime of regret or finger-pointing.
And when he speaks, as he will Friday evening, his message will not be a shock-and-awe, gutter-to-glory story, but one of joy and resiliency. And he’ll deliver that message with humor, with a goal of instilling a sense of pride and positive expectations in those who’ve suffered, while encouaging people to cease using bad experiencs as excuses to subsist in despair, negativity and helplessness.
Two of his book titles sum up his life trajectory: He went from “A Boy Called It” to “A Man Named Dave” – and although Pelzer would probably never say these words, the truth is, that if Dave Pelzer could manage to turn his life into something joyous, purposeful and productive after all he’s been through, then just maybe there’s hope for everyone else.
What: Real Heroes, An Evening With Dave Pelzer – A Week of the Young Child Event
When: Friday, April 27, 7 – 8:30 p.m. (Doors open at 6:30 p.m.)
Where: The McLaughlin Auditorium, Sequoia Middle School, Redding
Cost: $10 per person (must be older than 18 to attend) (SOLD OUT ) How to buy tickets: w w w . f i r s t 5 s h a s t a . o r g
Where to buy Pelzer’s books: Barnes & Noble in Redding. Books are also available at Friday’s event.
Independent online journalist Doni Chamberlain founded what’s now known as anewscafe.com in 2007 with her son, Joe Domke of the Czech Republic. Prior to 2007 Chamberlain was an award-winning newspaper opinion columnist, feature and food writer recognized by the Associated Press, the California Newspaper Publishers Association and E.W. Scripps. She lives in Redding, CA.