Dave Pelzer endured unimaginable abuse as a child, which he chronicled in the 1995 book, “A Child Called ‘It.’” When he was finally removed from his abusive home at age 12, he weighed 64 pounds and he couldn’t speak because his esophagus had been burned by the ammonia he was forced to swallow.
But that was then. How is Dave doing now? Would it surprise you to know that he considers himself to be the most blessed person he knows? Join us as Dave explains how he survived, thrived, and shares his daily philosophy.
“I am definitely not saying that child abuse is a good thing, but I’m looking at a bigger picture here. I try to tell people [that] whether it’s a divorce or cancer or child abuse, whatever the challenge was, you survived for a reason and hopefully, you survived to be happy. So it’s that kaleidoscope of looking through things through a different lens.” ~Dave Pelzer
Dave Pelzer is the author of nine inspirational books. Dave’s first book, A Child Called “It” was on the New York Times Best Sellers List for a record-setting six years. His other books were also on the New York Times Best Sellers List for over twelve years. Dave was the first author to have four #1 international bestsellers and to have four books simultaneously on the New York Times Best Sellers List.
In 1993, Dave was honored as one of the Ten Outstanding Young Americans, joining a distinguished group including John F. Kennedy and Walt Disney. In 2005, Dave was the recipient of the National Jefferson Award, which is considered the Pulitzer Prize of public service. As a member of the armed forces, Dave was hand-picked to midair refuel the then highly secretive SR-71 Blackbird and the F-117 Stealth Fighter. Dave has served as a Volunteer Fire Captain at the Northern Sonoma Coast and the Russian River, California.
Our host, Gabe Howard, is an award-winning writer and speaker who lives with bipolar disorder. He is the author of the popular book, “Mental Illness is an Asshole and other Observations,” available from Amazon; signed copies are also available directly from the author.
Gabe makes his home in the suburbs of Columbus, Ohio. He lives with his supportive wife, Kendall, and a Miniature Schnauzer dog that he never wanted, but now can’t imagine life without.
To book Gabe for your next event or learn more about him, please visit gabehoward.com.
Producer’s Note: Please be mindful that this transcript has been computer generated and therefore may contain inaccuracies and grammar errors. Thank you.
Announcer: You’re listening to Inside Mental Health: A Psych Central Podcast where experts share experiences and the latest thinking on mental health and psychology. Here’s your host, Gabe Howard.
Gabe Howard: Welcome to the show, everyone. I’m your host, Gabe Howard and calling in today we have Dave Pelzer. Dave’s book, “A Child Called It,” was on the New York Times best seller list for a record setting six years, and he’s the first author to have four books simultaneously on the New York Times Best sellers list. Dave, welcome to the podcast.
Dave Pelzer: Gabe, thank you for having me, good sir, I appreciate it.
Gabe Howard: Well, I appreciate you being here. And I want to say, you know, your book opened the floodgates for discussions on childhood trauma, but it really seems like the conversation has hit a watershed moment in the past couple of years. Despite your book coming out, I believe almost 30 years if my math holds up correctly. Why do you think it took so long for society to acknowledge that children are suffering?
Dave Pelzer: Well, I think part of it was particularly when I was a kid being raised in the 1960s in the San Francisco Bay area. It was a very closed society. I remember as a very young child we didn’t talk about medical situations, finances, religion, sex, drugs, anything in the past. You keep, you keep it in a locked box. It didn’t happen. Swallow, get married, have kids and move on with that Donna Reed, you know, father knows best type lifestyle. In my case, when I was rescued at age 12. In 1973. Everybody knew about my situation as before kindergarten. I stuttered, I was hunched over, I’m stealing food. I smell bad hygiene, anger, outbursts. The teachers all knew. The neighbors knew my uncle and aunt. My grandmother knew. But I think part of it. It’s like a cancer. You’re in denial. And this thing just really, really just took off to the point that supposedly, my case was one of the worst cases of child abuse in California’s history.
Gabe Howard: The story of your abuse is absolutely horrific, Dave. It’s appalling. And you share that story in your book, “A Boy Called It.” But for our listeners who may not be familiar, your book chronicles the abuse you suffered as a child, having been brutally beaten and starved by your, quote, emotionally unstable, alcoholic mother, a mother who played torturous, unpredictable games, games that left you nearly dead, unquote. When you were going through that abuse, how did you even begin to survive? How were you able to keep going day after day after day?
Dave Pelzer: It’s about, you know, you got to do something. You know, when my mother didn’t feed me, I would steal food. I just did what I had to do. And I really and everything that happened to me, Gabe, like at age four, the maternal years with a child bonding and trust. That’s where my mom, by accident, pulled my arm out of its socket, but yet refused to take me to the hospital until 24 hours later, hence keeping the secret. Hence, as a child, I didn’t have that maternal trust. At age eight, as you know, through the book, “A Child Called It,” my arm was burned on a gas stove and I had to learn how to think quickly on my feet and knowingly say to myself, I can’t change this external environment of my mom’s craziness, but on the inside, where no one can see, I’m just going to have to think this out. So, I just had to learn, you know, to be resilient at a very early age. But I always made it work for me. And everything in my life, Gabe, was perfect timing. When I was rescued, I was hours away from practically being killed. So, everything is about luck, timing and again, that resilience of doing something. And I really think in the long run, my military career, publishing career was a former fire captain until like a year or so ago. Everything I’ve done, the base, that resilience, that pyramid base of doing something has really catapulted me.
Gabe Howard: I’m sure that people say this to you all the time, Dave, but your survival is amazing. To me, it’s just it’s literally amazing.
Dave Pelzer: To me, I’ve always been amazed that people are amazed. I just did what I had to do. I was very fortunate to be rescued, placed in the loving graces of social services and because of them, my grandson is three and a half years of age. To me, it’s that linear. It’s that simple. I remember coming across a lady, female African-American in Oakland, California. She raised five kids. Single mom raised five children. They all went to college and graduated college. And being a little snarky here, we know how easy it is to be a single parent, African-American female in Oakland. And I asked her one time, I said, My God, Mrs. Smith, one, I love you. I love you. Two, how did you do it? And she just kind of pushed me aside, laughed and said, I just did what I had to do. Now get out of my way. And I look at someone like her and going, gosh, man, you’re just amazing. And she’s like, meh, this is what I got to do. And it sounds linear, but you have to adapt something. You have to do something. I think Winston Churchill once said, when you’re going through hell, you just keep going.
Gabe Howard: It’s so easy to say though, right? I mean, it just I, I
Dave Pelzer: Well, it wasn’t easy.
Gabe Howard: But it’s, I, just, I, I just I that’s where I’m hung up, Dave on one hand I love it like I want to stand up and cheer. But on the other hand, I just if somebody came to me and said, I’ve gone through the things that you went through, and I was like, hey, you’re going through hell. Just keep going. You can
Dave Pelzer: Yeah,
Gabe Howard: Do it. You’re going to
Dave Pelzer: Yeah.
Gabe Howard: Come through on the other side. It’s not good advice, but it like you said, it does read well, but it’s it just seems disingenuous. Where’s the connection there because.
Dave Pelzer: No, Gabe. Gabe. It is. It is the opposite of that. It is the opposite of that. Everything. I mean, think about it. It might look easy, you know, reading the bio and stuff like that. If I’ve achieved anything once, I failed at a thousand times. But I will say this. And I know your audience knows this. Certain times in your life when you think you’re all alone, when there’s nothing out there, you know and you’re thinking, that’s it, I can’t, I can’t do it, I can’t do it. And it’s enough to take one step that might lead to another. I’ve done this with firefighters. They have a hard time, they have a bad shift. And I’ll tell them, son, you’re doing a good job. Take a step back. You know you’re going to be fine. We’re here for you. And they’ve told me years later. Gosh, cap. Thank you, I needed that. So, I’m not trying to be disingenuous. Not at all. But if I can, you know, because that’s the thing. No one has the cure. It’s about being human. It’s about being humble. It’s about being appreciative. None of us are perfect. And again, it sounds simple. You do what you have to do. It’s not that simple. But you just do what you have to do and you keep on going. Why survive something to live a miserable life? You know, just be happy for the moments that you have now.
Gabe Howard: Your book came out years after the abuse. You were well into adulthood. So, I imagine that when the book did finally come out, there were people in your life, people around you, people at work, people in your social circles who were finding out for the first time about the abuse that you suffered as a child. What was that like for you? What were the feelings?
Dave Pelzer: I got to say this without thinking. I think the word would be terror. I’m in the Air Force. And you have to understand, when you have, like, a top-secret security clearance, you better look both ways before you cross the street, okay? You don’t spit on the sidewalk. You better be going to church 20 times a day. Everything has to be, you know, perfect in that little glass bubble. And I’ll never forget I had a young copilot. And she read a little article on me on a local magazine, and she just came up and gave me the nicest hug and says, you know what? Good on you. Good on you. And then years later, I was pulling alert for Strategic Air Command. They lock you in these little rooms or cells for seven days and seven nights, and you just live in this cell in case the big one goes off. And my commanding officer found out, oh, my God, oh my gosh. He calls me in his office. Were you abused as a kid? Yes, sir. That should be in my security briefing because they have a lot of security clearances and investigations. It says, okay, you’re suspended. You cannot pull alert. I’m going. Well, I just got off, so thank you for that. But they are terrified in the Air Force, you know, like, oh, my God, are you flipping out or what? I’m going sir, this happened a long time ago. I’m okay with it.
Gabe Howard: I have to ask, why could you not do a job because of a history of child abuse? That that doesn’t seem. I don’t know anything about the military, but that that seems very discriminatory to me. And as you pointed out, you had already been doing the job. What about your past made you deserving of that treatment? It, it seems very, very stigmatizing to me.
Dave Pelzer: Well, it looking at it now. Yes, I’m sure it was. But I look at it from their point of view. You know, we have an air combat aircrew member for Strategic Air Command. Back in the days of the Cuban Missile Crisis, this was a huge thing. You know, I might, per se, have access to thermonuclear weapons through thermonuclear codes. So, let’s say we have a traumatized person with all that access. Oh, my God, what if he or she flips out? So, it is a liability for them. The colonel was just doing his job, and I understood that the way he did it. Maybe I don’t agree with it, but again, those were different ages back then. I mean, some people have prejudice, some people have hang ups, and my job is just to do my job is to run my program. My job is to run as best as I can. My job is to do three nice things a day, make people laugh three times a day, and my job is to sit down and relax and just, just, just bathe in the blessing of God’s greatness. That’s my job.
Gabe Howard: And in fact, you do refer to it as your daily job. You’ve designed a lifestyle around it. I believe you what’s called the Dave Pelzer program. Can you elaborate for our listeners on what exactly the Dave Pelzer program is?
Dave Pelzer: It’s just what I said I will do. Three nice things today for complete strangers. I will, I will. I mean, I’ve took over for Robin Williams, basically. You know, I do zany little things. Hey, how are you doing? I do impersonations, you know. You know, and I, I think part of it is when you get at a certain age and people younger than you pass away or you get at a certain age, you go to more funerals than you do weddings, you know how dang lucky you are. And I will say this slowly so there’s no confusion. I believe I am the most blessed person I know. I know I should be dead or in prison. I will never forget at age 14, in foster care, the child psychologist of the county announced that by the time, there is no chance in heck for me because the abuse, because of the length of the abuse, you know, because I couldn’t adjust with a normal confines of society, he said. Death or prison by age 20. You know, I just know I’m blessed and I’m lucky. And I just, just want to be happy. And if I can make other people happy, I think that’s a good blessing. Because, again, I know what it’s like to be less than zero.
Gabe Howard: And we’re back with New York Times best-selling author, Dave Pelzer. I think I see what you mean there, and I try to do that too. Just little small nice things for people, like hold open doors, let someone merge in traffic, just little things like that. And it gives me this kind of warm and fuzzy feeling. And I have to be honest, the people around me, they say things to me like, oh, dude, you’re so nice. And look, I’m really glad that they think so. But it’s really kind of a selfish thing if I’m being honest. I’m not really doing it for those folks. I’m. I’m doing it for myself because of how it makes me feel. I’m doing it in no small part because I’m getting joy from doing it. Joy that makes me feel better.
Dave Pelzer: I think, Gabe, the joy is the after effect, the benefit. It’s kind of like, you know, you pick up a grandchild, you pick up a child and they giggle and you giggle. That’s just a benefit. You help out people that are less fortunate than you. The look in their eyes. Makes me feel better. It makes me want to do more. I’m very fortunate with the blessings God has given me. You know, you just do what you have to do. You’re helping others and, and it makes you feel better. And it actually advances the quality of life. Why shouldn’t I? I’ll never forget one time my teacher, Mr. Zeigler, my fifth-grade teacher who was involved with my rescue, he’s like six foot 18 inches. He’s the first male teacher I’ve ever seen. And he had that Clint Eastwood persona. You know, that grumbly hardcore persona. One time he put his hand on my shoulder. You’re doing a good job, son. You keep up with that. Good work now. And again, when you’re less than zero, you soak it up like a sponge.
Dave Pelzer: We met 20 years, just under 20 years after my rescue and I told him, sir, one time you said, do what you’re doing a good job. I don’t remember that. I said, sir, I do. You know, gestures of kindness are just there, they’re genuine because you’re not really thinking. The bonus is know you do something for someone. You got a smile out of them, or you let them know, hey, hey, hey, you’re not alone. You know, we all felt isolated. We all felt alone, and we all felt disempowered. All of us. But again, we all go through something. It’s just what you do with it. I’m not proud. I’d rather just kind of move forward because I’m at age 62 and this is an important lesson for your listeners. How many? How many more summers you have left? At my age, it’s about time and energy. You know, Gabe, I got to tell you, I’m at the point, you know, I know who I am, and I know my heart is what is true. And again, this is just my pathway. Because again, I know what it’s like to have nothing and be nothing. So, the least I can do is try to be a good humanitarian.
Gabe Howard: You have come such a long way, Dave. But I do have to ask, what is your life like now overall? Are people supportive of you and your story?
Dave Pelzer: They have been since the book came out. Even before that, when I was traveling the state and doing a lot of volunteer work, because I started out when everybody hated social services. They hated foster parents. I’m going, well, let me tell you my story and how they treated me. And because of their dedication and love, here’s the result. My son’s okay. I’m okay. Am I perfect? Absolutely not. I screw up more than anybody as a fire. As a firefighter, in the beginning, I was just overwhelmed. And I would actually be the first guy to raise my hand on a debrief saying, hey, listen, I screwed up. Don’t try this, don’t try that. And then when I got promoted to the rank of fire captain, which is pretty, pretty, pretty good, I would tell the young folks again, hey, I did this wrong a long time ago. Don’t do this, but try this instead. You know, and that’s the thing you got to give yourself permission to kind of fail. Big deal.
Gabe Howard: A lot of people don’t give themselves permission to fail, though. In fact, being a failure is one of the things we’re told from the time that we are little that we can’t be. How did you get
Dave Pelzer: Mhm.
Gabe Howard: Over that thinking, and how
Dave Pelzer: Well.
Gabe Howard: Can our listeners get over that thinking?
Dave Pelzer: Well, one of the best golf lessons I got was keep your butt up, keep your chin down, back straight and keep swinging. Keep swinging, keep swinging, and you’ll find your rhythm. Because I think a lot of people are looking for three easy payments of $19.95. They want to lose 400 pounds in five hours or less. They’ve been Tinder-ing, date site-ing for five seconds and they haven’t found the right one. I’m going, you know what? That’s not really going to work. Try something different, and I try to tap into that psychological core of sink or swim. Because a lot of people, again, you’re like, I’m drowning, I’m drowning. Help me. And as a fire captain, I’m going to do everything I can to rescue you. And that’s my obligation. That’s my job, for goodness sakes. But some people one maybe they don’t want to be saved or two, they don’t give themselves the permission to go through the process. It might be too hurtful for them. I don’t know the answers, but I can only tell you what works for me or that I’ve studied has worked for others.
Gabe Howard: Dave, obviously you and I can agree that not everyone can handle their trauma by writing a book and then being of service to others. Some people will struggle to recover and many people struggle for their entire lives. I’m just curious, do you have any thoughts on how those folks who may feel stuck can move forward?
Dave Pelzer: I think the answer is basically, go through those steps of denial. Anger. Bargaining. Depression and acceptance. I was eight years old. My mom had burned my arm on a gas stove. I was living in the basement after she burned me on a gas stove, she threw me down the stairs, I got dressed, I licked my arm. Ouch. That hurts. You can’t do that anymore. Okay, that’s their lesson. That’s a good life lesson. And I remember just bubbling on the inside. And I was so mad, so mad, so mad. And I was crying So I just yelled and cried and cried I purged. Psychologically, I purged. And that’s so important because we hold on to things like you said, and they bubble inside. One of my turning points was when I was burned on that gas stove. I raised my arm and it hurt. It was on fire from the palm of my hand just below my bicep, blisters on top of blisters.
Dave Pelzer: I raised my hand like Scarlett O’Hara and you know. And I said, As God is my witness, I basically said, I’m not going to quit and I’m going to give this my best shot. You have to take a stand for something. And some people love the misery. Some people don’t have the courage or whatever lacking to take that bold step. But for every one person that is miserable, that’s their choice. I hate to say at the end of the day, here’s the thing I’m going to make some people upset. Okay, here we go. If you can get out of bed in the morning and go to the bathroom and shower and shave, and I want this blouse, this sweater, this pair of slacks. Ooh, there’s a song on the radio I want to listen to. Oh, my God, there’s a thousand channels on TV. I want that movie. If we can make those decisions, we can make decisions more importantly about how we live the remainder of our days. And again, it’s not simple. If it was simple, Gabe, everybody would be doing it. I was the exception in some weird case, because I just I just wanted a better life. That’s all it was. It was desperation and fear.
Gabe Howard: I want to say I don’t personally believe that people love the misery. Dave, I just I think that desperation and fear are often all-encompassing emotions, but it sounds like you’ve been able to let them go. How did you accomplish that?
Dave Pelzer: Oh, I mean, yeah, I mean, that’s the problem a lot of people have is, is the one they don’t go through the five stages. It’s called the five stages. Dr. Abraham Maslow. There’s five tiers to the pyramid. And the first tier is survival. You just do what you can to survive. You have food, you have shelter, you have water. So, I just worked my little program and did what I had to do. And sometimes fear is okay. Okay. When I worked with young firefighters in like 6 to 8 months in the program, they go, Cap, I got to talk to you. What’s going on, son? Well, I’m afraid of screwing this up. Da da da da da da. I said, you know, you’re going to be a good firefighter because you’re thinking ahead. Parents are afraid. Oh, my God, we’re praying. What do we do? Oh, my God, he’s six months old. What do we do? Okay, calm down, calm down. But you know, you’re thinking ahead of the game. Some people just la di da da da. And they keep falling through wells and getting themselves in trouble. Or the drama, drama, drama. Really? I’d rather live a life that’s full and fall down a lot. And then to live a life of doing nothing for nobody. And again, it’s just a choice. But we choose, we choose. And again, no one has made more mistakes in the history on this planet than myself. But at least I own them and I try to be a better person. That’s all I can do, sir.
Gabe Howard: Dave, thank you so much for sharing your story and your words of wisdom and for being here. Where can folks find you and your books online?
Dave Pelzer: Um, Amazon or any bookstore in the world. And return to the river. Book nine just came out. My website is DavePelzer.com. P E L Z E R dot com. And we’re kind of working with the website now because we have River just came out. And there’s a possibility we might be making the first book, “A Child Called It” into a movie. So, we’re going to revamp the website in the next month or so. And I got to tell you, man, it’s good to be busy and I greatly appreciate you allowing me to talk on the show a little bit. And I greatly hope that this episode, along with your other episodes, really makes a difference in getting people back on par.
Gabe Howard: I hope that too. Dave, thank you so much again for being here. And I want to give a big thank you to all of our listeners.
Gabe Howard: Dave, thank you so much for being here. And thank you to all of our listeners as well.
Gabe Howard: Oh, you’re very welcome, Dave. And I want to give a big thank you to all of our listeners as well. My name is Gabe Howard, and I am an award-winning public speaker who could be available for your next event. I’m also the author of “Mental Illness Is an Asshole and Other Observations,” which you can get on Amazon, but you can grab a signed copy with free show swag or learn more about me over on my website, gabehoward.com. Wherever you downloaded this episode, please follow or subscribe to the show. It is absolutely free. And hey, can you do me a favor? Share the show. Whether it’s on social media in a support group, send an email, help send a text. Sharing the show is how we grow. I will see everybody next Thursday on Inside Mental Health.
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