Lost boy : Essay Q&A
1. To what literary genre does The Lost Boy belong?
The Lost Boy is a memoir, which is like an autobiography but does not attempt to cover the entire life of the author. In this case it covers the life of a boy between the ages of twelve and eighteen. The book might even be thought of as a kind of nonfiction bildungsroman. This is a German word that means literally “formation novel.” A bildungsroman traces the process of intellectual and emotional growth toward self-awareness in a young person as he or she moves from childhood to adulthood. Examples of bildungsroman include classics such as J. D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye (1951) to more recent books such as The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini (2003). A coming-of-age novel may cover similar themes as a bildungsroman, so The Lost Boy can also be thought of a nonfiction coming-of-age story.
Journalists have also recently popularized a new name for memoirs such as The Lost Boy, as well as Pelzer’s previous book, A Child Called It (1995). They refer to works such as these as “misery lit” or “misery memoir.” Pelzer’s A Child Called It is considered the first in this popularly named genre, setting the pattern for many other stories of horrific childhood endured. Book publishers have discovered that there is a huge market for autobiographical stories such as these, although they prefer to describe them as “inspirational memoirs” rather than “misery lit.”
These books follow a familiar pattern. The abuse is described in detail, but the overall theme is triumph over adversity, the “triumph of the human spirit over seemingly insurmountable odds,” as Pelzer puts it. The books are therefore meant to be inspirational, to encourage others to rise above their own misfortunes. However, it seems that many people read them for their shock value, fascinated by the horror of it all. These books are often written in very simple language (like Pelzer’s books) and are read, according to the conventional wisdom goes, by people who do not normally read or buy books.
A recent example of “misery lit” is the best-selling Breaking Night: The Astonishing True Story of Courage, Survival and Overcoming All the Odds (2010) by Liz Murray, a neglected daughter of drug addicts who ended up winning a scholarship to Harvard.
2. What are the facts about foster care in the United States?
About the time The Lost Boy was published in 1997, there were over half a million children in foster care in the United States. As of 2000, the official figure was 547,415. Most (60%) were placed in foster care because of neglect or abuse by parents or guardians. Others enter foster care because of delinquent behavior or running away from home or playing truant from school. According to statistics derived from the Pew Commission on Children in Foster Care, the average time in foster care in 2001 was 33 months, but more than 17 percent of foster children had been in foster care for more than five years. (Dave Pelzer was in foster care for six years.) One foster child in five will move at least three times during his or her stay in foster care—Dave Pelzer had a total of six different foster homes.
In his book, Pelzer lavishes praise on the foster care system. He states that had he not been removed from his home, he thinks he would have died. In his essay “Perspectives on Foster Care” he argues against what he sees as a negative view of the system held by many, who believe that social workers remove children from their parents with no good reason.
No one would argue with Pelzer’s comments as applied to himself, but statistics show that in adapting to foster care and emerging as a successful adult, Pelzer was the exception rather than the rule. Nearly half of all foster children in the United States become homeless when they reach eighteen and are no longer eligible for foster care. Children in foster care are more likely than others to drop out of high school (as Pelzer did, although he did get his GED not long after) and later have higher rates of depression and other negative mental conditions, ands higher incidences of living below the poverty line.
3. What part does alcoholism play in The Lost Boy?
The reasons why Dave’s mother abused him are not known. Pelzer never really explains why, and perhaps he does not know. Certainly Dave in the story does not know, but one factor was certainly alcoholism. Both of his parents are alcoholics. This is clear from what Dave says in chapter 1, when he is looking back at a particular moment in the long years of abuse. He hears his parents beginning to argue and comments, “since it’s after four in the afternoon, I know both of my parents are drunk” (p. 5). When Dave, now in foster care, encounters his younger brother Russell, Russell informs him that at home, “Things are bad. . . . All she does is rant and rave. She drinks more than ever” (p. 241).
The link between alcoholism on the part of parents and the physical abuse of a child has been well established by scientific studies. In a 1991 study, “Parental Substance Abuse and the Nature of Child Maltreatment,” published in the journal Child Abuse and Neglect by Richard Famularo, Robert Kinscherff, and Terence Fenton, the researchers found that in 190 randomly selected cases in which the state took custody of children because of child maltreatment, 67 percent of these cases involved parents who were substance abusers, including alcohol.
The consequences of his father’s alcoholism are readily apparent. He loses his job and ends up in a hopelessly sad position with nothing to live for or care about. “Dave,” Uncle Lee, his father’s friend tells him, “it’s the booze. It’s killing him” (p. 287). When Dave seeks out his father in San Francisco, he finds him slumped over a table in a bar. Although Pelzer makes no preachy remarks to his reader about the dangers of alcohol, he does not need to—the results of such an addiction are there for all to see.
4. What are the literary merits of The Lost Boy and other books by Pelzer?
The Lost Boy, like A Child Called It, spent many weeks on the New York Times best-seller list, but this alone is not a mark of literary quality. Pelzer claims on his Web site (davepelzer.com) that at least one of his books have been nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, which is one of the most prestigious literary prizes in the United States. However, as Pat Jordan noted in “Dysfunction for Dollars,” her article on Pelzer in the New York Times Magazine on July 28, 2002, none of Pelzer’s books have been so nominated: “It is true that Dutton submitted two of Pelzer's books to the Pulitzer committee, though that doesn't qualify it as a Pulitzer ‘nominee.' The committee receives 800 unsolicited books a year and accepts them all without critical comment. Theoretically, the committee would accept Pelzer's grocery list as long as he filled out the proper forms and paid a $50 fee. These books are called ‘entries or submissions.’ Only the final three, short-listed books can truly be called ‘Pulitzer Prize nominees,’ and Pelzer's books have never made that list.” The point is worth making because Pelzer’s books, including The Lost Boy, do not meet the standards of literary excellence. The correct analog is not to the excellence associated with the Pulitzer Prize but more to the popular inspirational and self-help series, Chicken Soup for the Soul. The Lost Boy is really an extended Chicken Soup story, full of dramatic moments of realization, unconvincing dialogue that purports to be the actual words spoken in conversations occurring twenty years previously, sentimentality, simple language, and shallow characterization. In The Lost Boy, characters are painted in black and white. They are either saintly, like Ms. Gold or Lilian Catanze, or villainous, like Dave’s mother. There are few in-betweens. All in all, The Lost Boy may be for some an entertaining read but should not be thought of as a work of high literary quality.
5. How have policies regarding child abuse and foster care changed from the 1970s?
In The Lost Boy, Dave briefly mentions his English teacher in high school, Mr. Tapley, whom he used to visit after class and ask lots of questions about his future. That teacher, Dennis Tapley, contributed an essay published in the “Perspectives on Foster Care” section of The Lost Boy. He confirms Pelzer’s statements about the low esteem in which the foster care system was held in the 1970s: “Individuals involved in foster care—both parents and children—both parents and children—were seen as second class” (p. 320). Since that time, Tapley notes, there has been a growth of awareness of the kinds of problems that children whose parents neglect them are likely to have, and teachers have been trained to evaluate and intervene more effectively. Had a more sophisticated system been in place in the 1970s, the abuse of Dave Pelzer might have been caught sooner and he would have been removed from his home more quickly. During the 1970s there was a rapid increase in the number of children placed in foster care, but the system was widely criticized for keeping children in foster care for too long and moving them too frequently. Federal reimbursement policies at the time also made it advantageous for state agencies to put children in foster care rather than working with the existing family. The Adoption Assistance and Child Welfare Act of 1980 worked to address these problems and prevent the unnecessary removal of kids from their homes. Since then the trend has been for children whose parents are unable to care for them effectively to be placed in “kinship foster care,” which means they live with other relatives, so the family connection is preserved. This trend has been due to a recognition of the benefits of family care and a shortage of foster homes. Efforts are then focused on helping the family to reunite.