Dave Pelzer, the most famous author you’ve never heard of, has three books on the New York Times nonfiction paperback best-seller list this week. Pelzer, whose most insistent piece of advice is “don’t dwell on the past,” dwells on it very profitably. At 39, he has already written a trilogy of memoirs. A Child Called “It”: One Child’s Courage To Survive chronicles how his mother tortured him from age 4 to 12. It has sold 1.6 million copies and spent two and a half years on the best-seller lists. Its sequel, The Lost Boy: A Foster Child’s Search for the Love of a Family rehashes the maternal abuse and documents his wild teen-age years. It has sold a million and had 18 months as a best seller. The final book of the trilogy, A Man Named Dave: A Story of Triumph and Forgiveness, recounts his mother’s cruelty again and tells how the adult Pelzer learned to cope with the memory of it. It’s been on the list much of this year. CBS, meanwhile, is making a Pelzer biopic that will air in May.
Pelzer’s books come programmed for big sales. They straddle all the trendy genres: confessional memoir, childhood trauma, triumph-over-adversity, and self-help. Pelzer also owes his success to tireless marketing. For years he has crisscrossed the country lecturing on child abuse and boosting A Child Called “It.” His indefatigable promotion eventually landed him on the Montel Williams Show, which rocketed A Child Called “It” to fame.
But there is a creepier reason for Pelzermania. He has turned child abuse into entertainment. Pelzer likes to be known as the guy who “makes child abuse fun.” He repeatedly refers to himself as “Robin Williams in glasses.” His public appearances are manic and joking, filled with imitations of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Bill Clinton. He craves a career in stand-up comedy. (If Schadenfreude is joy at others’ sorrow, what is joy at your own?)
Pelzer’s books aren’t funny, but they do entertain in a darker way. In Erotic Innocence: The Culture of Child Molesting, James Kincaid argues that child sexual abuse became a cultural obsession in the ‘80s in part because the stories of abuse were enthralling, at once erotic and grotesque. Pelzer’s memoirs lack sexual abuse—the only kind of savagery that’s missing—but they appeal to a similar sense of voyeurism and transgression. A Child Called “It” is the most sickeningly violent book I’ve ever read: It’s snuff literature.
As Pelzer tells in A Child Called “It”—then retells in the sequels—his sweetness-and-light California family disintegrated in the mid-’60s. His dipso mother—a Mengele of the burbs—inexplicably singled out the 4-year-old for an escalating campaign of torture. Even as she treated his brothers kindly, she ground Dave’s face into soiled diapers and made him eat dog shit. She starved him for weeks at a time and made him vomit after school to make sure he wasn’t sneaking food. When he tried stealing scraps from the garbage, she laced the trashcan with ammonia. She forced him to take long ice-cold baths and shoved spoonfuls of ammonia down his throat. Often she locked him in the bathroom with a bucket of ammonia and Clorox: The toxic fumes in the “gas chamber” burned his esophagus and nearly killed him. She beat him with a dog chain, a broom, her fists, burned him on the gas stove, stabbed him in the chest, then left him to clean up the wound. She referred to him as “The Boy” and “It.” His feckless, drunken father watched in silence, not daring to risk his wife’s wrath.
After eight years of this, Pelzer’s teachers rescued him and spirited him into foster care. Eventually he managed to join the Air Force, marry, earn a college degree, and straighten out. His mother escaped punishment because, he says, child-abuse laws were weak in the early ‘70s.
There are no people in Pelzer’s book, only demons (his mother and grandmother), angels (Pelzer and a few foster parents), and incompetents. Psychological motivation scarcely interests him. He makes only a halfhearted effort to explain his mother’s lunacy. The point is the suffering. As the trilogy progresses, Pelzer is forced to increase the dosage of wickedness to top what came before. (Iron law of sequels: They must be bloodier than the original.) His mother becomes more cartoonish, more Cruella De Vil. In the first book, she’s horrible but erratic. By the third she is the incarnation of pure, calculating evil, saying things like, “You gave me no pleasure, so you were disposed of.”
Pelzer’s dialogue, which is full of such over-the-top lines, is sometimes suspicious. Though it’s reconstructed 20 or 30 years after the fact, it is eerily precise. His stories often seem too elaborate, detailed, and graphic to be real. There’s no doubt he was horribly abused, and no one has disputed any of his tales, but they are mostly irrefutable. Everyone who could question them—his mother, father, and grandmother—has died.
Pelzer’s fame certainly can’t be explained by literary merit. Unlike Mary Karr and Frank McCourt, fellow serial memoirists of terrible childhoods, Pelzer lacks prose ambition. His writing plods. “A single tear” is always rolling down someone’s cheek, and he never tires of the “unconquerable human spirit.”
Still, Pelzer has other virtues. He really does inspire abuse victims. Online bulletin boards overflow with gratitude from fellow survivors: If he overcame a hellish beginning and made a normal, happy life for himself, then I can too. He relentlessly encourages other troubled kids to be resilient and stop wallowing. He deserves credit for publicizing physical abuse, the déclassé stepsister of sexual molestation. In all the uproar over child sexual abuse, few writers but Pelzer have focused on physical abuse, though it’s much more common and often more damaging. Most depictions of childhood trauma paint authority figures as bad-hearted and indifferent. Pelzer, who was rescued by teachers, cops, and social workers and lived with a series of benevolent foster families, honors them. Some teacher-training programs even use Pelzer’s book to hearten new teachers about the good they can do.
Pelzer is magnificently free of the New Age spirituality that clogs so much self-help literature. He’s Ayn Randian. He survived because of his own strength, not divine intervention. The only god he worships is the god of the self. Unfortunately, he worships it all too much. Pelzer is unspeakably self-congratulatory: “I’m the real deal.” He reminds readers of every award: “Here I was, an Outstanding Young Person of the World.” His other characters constantly tongue-bathe him: “You’re the most inspirational person I know.” His book “is one in a million.” Everyone else speaks in “ain’ts” and dialect, but Dave always sounds like a Rhodes scholar. He exaggerates his accomplishments. He refueled planes during the Panama invasion and the Gulf War: This he describes as “play[ing] a major role in operations Just Cause, Desert Shield, and Desert Storm.” He calls himself a “Pulitzer nominee,” though he wasn’t a Pulitzer winner or “nominated finalist.” Someone may have submitted his book for the award, but by that standard, if you mailed this article to the Pulitzer judges, I would be a “Pulitzer nominee” too.
Out of memoirs (at least for the moment—I’m waiting for A Geezer Called “It”), Pelzer is making a career switch. He doesn’t want to be a professional victim anymore. Now he is a guru. His fourth book, Help Yourself: Celebrating the Rewards of Resilience and Gratitude, comes out Monday, and as the title suggests, it’s pure self-help. Pelzer does mine the old maternal cruelties again: Every chapter begins with another remembrance of a childhood agony. But the bulk of the book is advice—mostly anodyne. (“You don’t need to be a victim”; “Get rid of the garbage in your life”; etc.)
The career switch does not bode well. Pelzer’s readers are greedy for horror, and for three books Pelzer has managed to satisfy them. But he is out of goodies. He’s rich. He’s happily married. He’s a loving father. He’s learned to deal with the memory of abuse. He’s a confessional author with nothing left to confess. He really is just A Man Named Dave, and—take it from another man named Dave—that’s rarely enough to sell a million copies of anything.