You’re familiar, of course, with the sad tale of America’s Unknown Child, aka The Boy in the Box. His body was found in an illegal dumpsite on Susquehanna Road, Philedalphia, inside a J C Penney cardboard box that once held a baby’s bassinet. The child had been beaten and tortured to death. So damaged was his face with scars and bruises that in order to publish it on a poster, seeking knowledge as to his identity, a professional photographer had to retouch the picture to make the child recognizable. And to avoid offending the public. I’ve blogged about this case. The enclosed picture is the actual appearance of the little boy, although it is difficult to see all of the bruises to his face due to the poor quality of the photograph.
This boy, David Pelzer, lived not literally in a box, but figuratively. He was one of five sons born to Stephen Joseph Pelzer and Catherine Roerva Christen Pelzer. Pelzer grew up in Daly, California. he was the only boy abused in the family. For reasons known only to her sick self, Catherine targeted poor David and made his life unbearable. The “box”, my expression for his mother’s prison, was the basement of what he referred to as The House. The House belonged to The Mother, the demon who tortured and humiliated him for eight years, from the age of four until he was twelve, until he told a teacher about the abuse. Stephen was the enabler, a passive, failure of a man who looked the other way whenever Catherine abused the child.
No one in the house was allowed to call David by his name. Catherine insisted he be called It. Stephen, refusing to call him It, instead referred to him as The Boy. Now and then Stephen attempted to intervene in the ritual abuse his son received. He would tell Catherine that she was “too hard on The Boy.” This always resulted in more punishment for David. To give you an idea of what Pelzer’s life was like, Catherine forced him to eat dog feces, his infant brother’s (Russell) bowel movements while were still inside his diaper, and on one occasion a concoction so disgusting that even the family dog wouldn’t eat it. If he was lucky, he was given a “morsel of food” after he had done all of the household chores. Russell eventually became Catherine’s “little Nazi“, inventing stories about Pelzer to further his abuse. Pelzer was malnourished, starved and barely sustained an immune system. To keep himself fed, he stole pieces of food from his classmate’s lunches. Whenever school was out, he had few opportunities to eat and went hungry for days. I was surprised when I saw the picture (enclosed) of Pelzer’s mother. I hadn’t expected her to be a beautiful woman. Her character was so vicious and malignant, I couldn’t place a pretty face to it. Certainly appearances in this family were deceiving.
At night he was forced to sit on the basement steps on his hands. He was not permitted to sleep, have a blanket for warmth, or to lie down. On occasion, Pelzer worked up the nerve to slide his hands out from beneath him and to nod off intermittently throughout the night. During the second commercial of every program Catherine watched when David had gone to the stairs for the evening, she entered the basement and abused him, usually beating him. At one point, she held his arm against a gas oven until the skin blistered. She forced him to drink ammonia, stabbed him in the stomach, and forced him to eat his own vomit. Strangely, much of the worst torture was done only when Pelzer’s brothers and father weren’t home. As soon as they returned, Catherine continued her “usual” abuse but didn’t attempt further torment, such as the burning of his arm on the stove.
Toward the end of each school day, Pelzer feared returning to The House. Even though he was an outsider at school and frequently bullied, returning to The House terrified Pelzer when the last bell rang. Finally he ran away one evening but a police officer contacted his father to bring him home. Too scared to tell the officer what was happening to him, Pelzer remained silent while Stephen ordered him into the car. For once, Stephen refused to appear as if he cared about his son. He scolded Pelzer for “worrying” his mother and ordered him never to run away again. He was almost as angry with Pelzer as Catherine had been. But it was Catherine’s shadow that haunted Pelzer throughout his childhood and his teens, even after he was removed from the Pelzer home and placed into foster care. Unlike many children, Pelzer was fortunate enough to be placed into a decent home on two occasions. Even a number of his foster siblings were kind to him.
Although his situation had greatly improved in his first foster home, Pelzer, of course, became rebellious and angry. He stole, ran away, and mocked household rules. He got into physical fights with “Larry Jr.”, a troubled foster boy who also lived in the home. In spite of his efforts to behave and live a better life, Pelzer’s past abuse made it impossible: he had no self-esteem and believed himself to be unworthy of happiness. Catherine’s words would echo in his mind forever, being everything that had happened to him was his fault, and he somehow deserved it. Such thinking is typical of abused children.
As an adult, Pelzer has written a trilogy of books about his life with Stephen and Catherine Pelzer. His first book A Child called “It” describes his viewpoint about the severe abuse. His second book, The Lost Boy, continues the journey into adolescence. His third book, A Man Named Dave: A Story of Triumph and Forgiveness, begins in his teenage years and adulthood. Pelzer was later invited to television shows such as Larry King, Montel Williams and The Oprah Winfrey Show to give interviews after the book was published. Readers responded in their own ways. Orion UK Publishing’s Trevor Dolby said, “We get 10 letters a day from people saying the first book mirrors their own childhood, which is very depressing.” Here is a free, legal PDF download of A Child Called It.
In a 2002 New York Times article by Pat Jordan the author questioned the reliability of Pelzer’s recollections. He said that “Pelzer has an exquisite recall of his abuse, but almost no recall of anything that would authenticate that abuse,” such as any details about his mother. I would suggest that speaking to Pelzer’s former foster parents, the school nurse and principal, and the social worker who was first assigned to his case, would resolve any concern about that issue. Jordan clearly disapproved of Pelzer’s book his marketing efforts, and Pelzer himself, coining the
title Dysfunction for Dollars for the article and writing: In Pelzer’s case, how much he is healing or how much he is swindling is unclear and depends in large part on whether or not you believe the horrific story he has so profitably told and retold and continues, day after day, to tell….Pelzer calls himself ”a storyteller,” and it is hard not to read or listen to his stories and think that this description may be a little too on target, that his m.o. is to tell a story, gauge the response to it and then embellish until that story reaches the limits of believability.” Tell us how you really feel, Jordan.
Of course, the Pelzer family rallied around Catherine Pelzer and denied that Pelzer’s childhood abuse actually took place. This is typical of families where gross abuse has been directed at a sole member of a family and no other family members. Two members of his family, his maternal grandmother (naturally) and brother, have disputed his book. In an article with The Boston Globe, Pelzer’s grandmother said she believed her grandson had been abused but not to the severity he claimed. She didn’t believe his brother Richard was abused either. She feels Richard, like Dave, has exaggerated the abuse. She stated,“[David’s] books should be in the fiction section.” However, Pelzer claims that Catherine told him her own parents abused her but “they didn’t break me. They didn’t win.” Clearly that wasn’t the case. In his third book Pelzer states that there was “nothing” he would change about his early life; it had made him the man he is today.
“One of his younger brothers, Stephen, denies that any abuse took place, and says Pelzer was placed in foster care because “he started a fire and was caught shoplifting.” There is no evidence that Pelzer ever started a fire in the family home. Another brother, Richard Pelzer, verified Pelzer’s account in his autobiography A Brother’s Journey. However, a rift occurred between the two brothers after David questioned Richard’s abuse by Catherine Pelzer. Richard, (picture enclosed), admits that he did indeed join in the abuse against David (the others deny their own involvement) but he insists that after David was removed from the home and placed in foster care, he became his mother’s substitute “punching bag.” He emphasizes his own collaboration with The Mother: “I was very much turned against Dave, and I would lie about him and make stuff up just to get him in trouble.” Richard admitted he “enjoyed watching the degradation of his older brother.” Not surprisingly, when Catherine Pelzer died, only her five sons and her mother attended the funeral. No one wept. A woman with such a capacity for hatred left others feeling the way she’d made them feel: alone, immobile and emotionless.
David Pelzer Today
Today Pelzer is a motivational speaker. He has written books for adult survivors of child abuse, and for teens who are being abused. In an incredibly irony, Pelzer has received the J C Penney Golden Rule Award. Penney is another manner in which Pelzer and The Boy in the Box are strangely connected. One gets the feeling that Pelzer is speaking for The Boy (another expression used about Pelzer and the dead child). We can envision the poor child’s life being as horrific as Pelzer’s. It is probably one of the worst cases of child abuse in Philadelphia’s history, except without verification, no one will ever know. Perhaps this is fitting: America’s Unknown Child is an icon for every child who is abused in the country, and especially those who are not saved. Happily for Pelzer, unlike the little lost boy, Pelzer somehow climbed out of his box and lived to tell the tale.