While Father Is Away
After the knife incident, Father spent less and less time at home and
more at work. He made excuses to the family, but I didn't believe him. I
often shivered with fear as I sat in the garage, hoping for some reason
he might not leave. In spite of all that had happened, I still felt
Father was my protector. When he was home, Mother only did about half
the things to me that she did when he was gone.
When Father was home, it became his habit to help me with the evening
dishes. Father washed and I dried. While we worked, we talked softly so
neither Mother nor the other boys could hear us. Sometimes, several
minutes would pass without us talking. We wanted to make sure the coast
Father always broke the ice. "How ya doing, Tiger?" he would say.
Hearing the old name that Father used when I was a little boy always
brought a smile to my face. "I'm OK," I would answer. "Did you have
anything to eat today?" he often asked. I usually shook my head in a
negative gesture. "Don't worry," he'd say. "Some day you and I will both
get out of this madhouse."
I knew father hated living at home and I felt that it was all my fault.
I told him that I would be good and that I wouldn't steal food anymore.
I told Father I would try harder and do a better job on my chores. When
I said these things, he always smiled and assured me that it wasn't my
Sometimes as I dried the dishes, I felt a new ray of hope. I knew Father
probably wouldn't do anything against Mother, but when I stood beside
him I felt safe.
Like all good things that happened to me, Mother put an end to Father
helping me with the dishes. She insisted that The Boy needed no help.
She said that Father paid too much attention to me and not enough to
others in the family. Without a fight, Father gave up. Mother now had
complete control over everybody in the household.
After awhile, Father didn't even stay home on his days off. He would
come in for only a few minutes. After seeing my brothers, he would find
me wherever I was doing my chores and say a few sentences, then leave.
It took Father no more than 10 minutes to get in and out of the house,
and be on his way back to his solitude, which he usually found in a bar.
When Father talked to me, he'd tell me that he was making plans for the
two of us to leave. This always made me smile, but deep inside I knew it
was a fantasy.
One day, he knelt down to tell me how sorry he was. I looked into his
face. The change in Father frightened me. He had dark black circles
around his eyes, and his face and neck were beet-red. Father's once
rigid shoulders were now slumped over. Gray had begun to take over his
jet-black hair. Before he left that day, I threw my arms around his
waist. I didn't know when I would see him again.
After finishing my chores that day, I rushed downstairs. I had been
ordered to wash my ragged clothes and another heap of smelly rags. But
that day, Father's leaving had left me so sad that I buried myself in
the pile of rags and cried. I cried for him to come back and take me
away. After a few minutes of self-comfort, I settled down and began
scrubbing my "Swiss cheese" clothes. I scrubbed until my knuckles bled.
I no longer cared about my existence. Mother's house had become
unbearable. I wished I could somehow manage to escape the place I now
called the "Madhouse."
During one period of time when Father was away, Mother starved me for
about ten consecutive days. No matter how hard I tried to meet her time
limits, I couldn't make it. And the consequence was no food. Mother was
completely thorough in making sure I was unable to steal any food. She
cleared the dinner table herself, putting the food down the garbage
disposal. She rummaged through the garbage can every day before I
emptied it downstairs. She locked the freezer in the garage with her key
and kept it. I was used to going without food for periods up to three
days, but this extended time was unbearable. Water was my only means of
survival. When I filled the metal ice cube tray from the refrigerator, I
would tip the corner of the tray to my mouth. Downstairs I would creep
to the wash basin and crack the faucet tap open. Praying that the pipe
would not vibrate and alert Mother, I would carefully suck on the cold
metal until my stomach was so full I thought it would burst.
By the sixth day I was so weak when I woke up on my army cot, I could
hardly get up. I worked on my chores at a snail's pace. I felt so numb.
My thought responses became unclear. It seemed to take minutes for me to
understand each sentence Mother yelled to me. As I slowly strained my
head up to look at Mother, I could tell that to her it was a game -- a
game which she thoroughly enjoyed.
"Oh, poor little baby," Mother sarcastically cooed. Then she asked me
how I felt, and laughed when I begged for food. At the end of the sixth
day, and those that followed, I hoped with all my heart that Mother
would feed me something, anything. I was at a point that I didn't care
what it was.
One evening, towards the end of her "game," after I had finished my
chores, Mother slammed a plate of food in front of me. The cold
leftovers were a feast to my eyes. But I was wary; it seemed too good to
be true. "Two minutes!" Mother barked. "You have two minutes to eat.
That's all." Like lightening I picked up the fork, but the moment before
the food touched my mouth, Mother snatched the plate away from me and
emptied the food down the garbage disposal. "Too late!" she sneered. I
stood before her dumbstruck. I didn't know what to do or say. All I
could think of was "Why?" I couldn't understand why she treated me the
way she did. I was so close that I could smell every morsel. I knew she
wanted me to cave in, but I stood fast and held back the tears.
Mother had another favorite game for me while Father was away. She sent
me to clean the bathroom with her usual time limits. But this time, she
put a bucket, filled with a mixture of ammonia and Clorox, in the room
with me and closed the door. The first time she did this, Mother
informed me she had read about it in a newspaper and wanted to try it.
Even though I acted as if I were frightened, I really wasn"t. I was
ignorant about what was going to happen. Only when Mother closed the
door and ordered me not to open it, did I begin to worry. With the room
sealed, the air began to quickly change. In the corner of the bathroom I
dropped to my hands and knees and stared at the bucket. A fine gray mist
swirled towards the ceiling. As I breathed in the fumes, I collapsed and
began spitting up. My throat felt like it was on fire. Within minutes it
was raw. The gas from the reaction of the ammonia and Clorox mixture
made my eyes water. I was frantic about not being able to meet Mother"s
time limits for cleaning the bathroom.
After a few more minutes, I thought I would cough up my insides. I knew
that Mother wasn't going to give in and open the door. To survive her
new game, I had to use my head. Laying on the tiled floor I stretched my
body, and using my foot, I slide the bucket to the door. I did this for
two reasons: I wanted the bucket as far away from me as possible, and in
case Mother opened the door, I wanted her to get a snoot full of her own
medicine. I curled up in the opposite corner of the bathroom, with my
cleaning rag over my mouth, nose and eyes. Before covering my face, I
wet the rag in the toilet. I didn't dare turn on the water in the sink
for fear of Mother hearing it. Breathing through the cloth, I watched
the mist inch its way closer and closer to the floor. I felt as if I
were locked in a gas chamber. Then I thought about the small heating
vent on the floor by my feet. I knew it turned on and off every few
minutes. I put my face next to the vent and sucked in all the air my
lungs would hold. In about half an hour, Mother opened the door and told
me to empty the bucket into the drain in the garage before I smelled up
her house. Downstairs I coughed up blood for over an hour. Of all
Mother's punishments, I hated the gas chamber game the most.
I wondered what Mother had planned for me next. I prayed it was not
another gas chamber session. She yelled from the garage for me to follow
her upstairs. She led me to the bathroom. My heart sank. I felt doomed.
I began taking huge breaths of fresh air, knowing that soon I would need
To my surprise there wasn't any bucket or bottles in the bathroom. "Am I
off the hook?" I asked myself. This looked too easy. I timidly watched
Mother as she turned the cold water tap in the bathtub fully open. I
thought it was odd that she forgot to turn on the hot water as well. As
the tub began to fill with cold water, Mother tore off my clothes and
ordered me to get into the tub. I got into the tub and laid down. A cold
fear raced throughout my body. "Lower!" Mother yelled. "Put your face in
the water like this!" She then bent over, grabbed my neck with both
hands and shoved my head under the water. Instinctively, I thrashed and
kicked, trying desperately to force my head above the water so I could
breathe. Her grip was too strong. Under the water I opened my eyes. I
could see bubbles escape from my mouth and float to the surface as I
tried to shout. I tried to thrust my head from side to side as I saw the
bubbles becoming smaller and smaller. I began to feel weak. In a frantic
effort I reached up and grabbed her shoulders. My fingers must have dug
into her because Mother let go. She looked down on me, trying to get her
breath. "Now keep your head below the water, or next time it will be
I submerged my head, keeping my nostrils barely above the surface of the
water. I felt like an alligator in a swamp. When Mother left the
bathroom, her plan became more clear to me. As I laid stretched out in
the tub, the water became unbearably cold. It was as though I was in a
refrigerator. I was too frightened of Mother to move, so I kept my head
under the surface as ordered. Hours passed and my skin began to wrinkle.
I didn't dare touch any part of my body to try to warm it. I did raise
my head out of the water, far enough to hear better. Whenever I heard
somebody walk down the hall outside the bathroom, I quietly slid my head
back into the coldness.
With the start of school in the fall, came the hope of a temporary
escape from my dreary life. Our fourth-grade homeroom class had a
substitute teacher for the first two weeks. They told us that our
regular teacher was ill. The substitute teacher was younger than most of
the other staff, and she seemed more lenient. At the end of the first
week, she passed out ice cream to those students whose behavior had been
good. I didn't get any the first week, but I tried harder and received
my reward at the end of the second week. The new teacher played "pop
hits" on 45-rpm records, and sang to the class. We really liked her.
When Friday afternoon came, I didn't want to leave. After all the other
students had gone, she bent close to me and told me I would have to go
home. She knew I was a problem child. I told her that I wanted to stay
with her. She held me for a moment then got up and played the song I
liked best. After that I left. Since I was late, I ran to the house as
fast as I could and raced through my chores. When I was finished, Mother
sent me to the backyard to sit on the cold cement deck.
That Friday, I looked up at the thick blanket of fog covering the sun,
and cried inside. The substitute teacher had been so nice to me. She
treated me like a real person, not like some piece of filth lying in the
gutter. As I sat outside feeling sorry for myself, I wondered where she
was and what she was doing. I didn't understand it at the time, but I
had a crush on her. I knew that I wasn't going to be fed that night, or
the next. Since Father wasn't home, I would have a bad weekend. Sitting
in the cool air in the backyard, on the steps, I could hear the sounds
of Mother feeding my brothers. I didn't care. Closing my eyes, I could
see the smiling face of my new teacher. That night as I sat outside
shivering, her beauty and kindness kept me warm...
Reprinted with permission of Health Communications, Inc., from A
Child Called "It", Copyright 1995 Dave Pelzer.
Excerpted from "A Child Called It: One Child's Courage to Survive" by Dave Pelzer. Copyright © 1995 by Dave Pelzer. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.