Mother’s abusive behavior continues as another school year begins. She refuses to give Dave dinner and he only get leftover cereal portions for breakfast, if he is lucky. He goes to bed hungry and dreams of food. He starts to steal food from his classmates at school. The other children find out about his theft, and he is reported to the principal, who tells his mother. The result is more beatings and less food. On weekends, she refuses to feed him at all. He continues to steal at school, and is again caught.
A Child Called It: Novel Summary: Chapter 4: The Fight for Food
By now his mother refers to him only as the Boy. He is not allowed to eat with the family or play with his brothers. Instead, Mother has him continually performing chores. His father tries to intervene to get him food but is unsuccessful, apart from occasionally managing to bring Dave a piece of bread. He and his wife, both of whom drink too much, have loud arguments about the matter. Dave knows his father will lose the argument. It appears that in this house, Dave’s mother is in sole charge. The father starts to spend more time away from the house, and Dave gets more beatings from his mother, who blames him for the marital strife.
Dave enters second grade, and his teacher, Miss Moss, becomes concerned about why he is inattentive, sleepy, wears unwashed clothes, and has bruises. She reports her concerns to the principal, who calls Dave’s mother. When he returns home that day, his mother is furious and beats him again, bloodying his nose and knocking one of his teeth out.
The next day Mother, who has just given birth to her fourth child, goes to see the principal. She comes home satisfied with the interview. She told the principal that Dave had an “overactive imagination” and would often harm himself to get attention. She then told Dave that the school staff had been told not to take any notice of his wild stories of being beaten or not being fed. Dave now fears for his life.
That summer, the family goes on vacation to the Russian River. Dave and his mother get along better. But one day she scolds him for making too much noise playing with his brothers, and he is not allowed to go with them and their father on a new slide. His mother further punishes him by smearing his face with a dirty diaper and trying to get him to eat it. He refuses and she hits him. She stops to tend to her baby but then gets another dirty diaper, rubs Dave’s face in it and tells him to eat it. Just then the family returns and the abuse stops. She throws him a washcloth to clean himself up with and makes him spend the evening sitting in the corner.
In September Dave returns to school but is shunned by the other children because his clothes smell. They also call him a food thief. At home, he spends hours standing in the garage. He also comes up with a plan to steal food from a local grocery store at lunchtime. After wavering for some days, he finally plucks up the courage to do it. But in the store he is frightened, and all he manages to do is steal a box of crackers. He tries to hide it in the trash can in the boys’ restroom, but when he returns to eat the crackers he finds that the custodian has emptied the can. He steals from the same store again, and eventually he gets caught. The store manager calls Dave’s mother, and she beats Dave again, even though she knew why Dave stole food.
For a while he manages to pick food out of the garbage can in the garage, but Mother catches him. From then on he has to bring the garbage can so she could inspect. He outwits her by wrapping food in paper towels and hiding them in the bottom of the can. Mother still believes he is getting food from the garbage so she sprinkles it with ammonia to stop him.
Dave responds by stealing frozen lunches from the school cafeteria. In the evening his mother forces him to vomit into the toilet. Then she forces him to put the half-digested food in a bowl. When Dave’s father comes home, she shows him the bowl to prove that Dave is still stealing food. The two adults argue, with the father trying to act as conciliator. But once again his efforts prove futile, and Dave is forced to eat the regurgitated food in the bowl. He now hates not only his mother but his father too, because his father refuses to stop the abuse.
After this incident, Dave is made to sleep on newspaper under the breakfast table. Then he is banished to the garage, where he sleeps on an old army cot.
For a while he knocks on doors on his way to school, saying he has lost his lunch box and asking if one could be made for him. Mother finds out that he is begging for food. One night when she is drunk she makes him swallow a tablespoon of ammonia. He cannot breathe and is terrified. She slaps him on the back until he can breathe again.
The same thing happens the following evening, this time in the presence of Dave’s father. Mother says this will teach him not to steal food. The next morning his tongue is red and raw. On other occasions he mother makes him swallow Clorox and dishwashing soap. Once, when she told him to swallow some soap, he refused and spat the soap out when she was no longer around. He feels triumphant because this time he has beaten Mother.
The experience for the reader of this chapter is something akin to watching a horror film. Each little scene builds to a horrifying climax as Mother continues to invent new methods of abusing her son. The extent and nature of the abuse is both astonishing and disgusting. It is hard to believe that a mother would abuse her own child in this way, although there is no reason to doubt the truth of Dave’s story. The reasons for the abuse are not explored. Pelzer chose to present his story from the child’s point of view rather than that of an adult looking back, so he cannot within that narrative offer any insight or analysis that might shed light on the psychology of his mother. All that the reader learns is that Mother is an alcholic and is unhappy in her marriage. That alone does not provide an explanation for why she turns with such venom on her own son. It is likely that she suffered from some undiagnosed and untreated mental disorder.
What is noticeable in this chapter is that the abuse is reported to the school authorities by an alert teacher as early as Dave’s second grade. But it is not until fifth grade that any action is taken. It is not known whether the authorities really believed the mother’s story about him hurting himself to get attention, or if Dave, who is recalling this event that happened when he was about six, has remembered correctly what she told him. But certainly nothing was done for three more years. Since the signs of abuse were apparently so obvious it can only be wondered at why the situation was allowed to go on for so long.
A recurring theme in this chapter, and elsewhere, is the passivity of the father who is too weak to stand up to his wife, even though he does not approve of the treatment Dave receives. He comes across as a spineless figure, but as with the mother, the author presents no in-depth analysis of his character or why he allowed himself to become so dominated by his disturbed wife that he could not prevent the vicious abuse of his own son.