A Child Called "It"

A Child Called "It" Summary and Analysis of Chapter 4: The Fight for Food


Summer went badly for Dave, as he constantly ran to the garage or the basement to escape his mother. Things were better when school started again, and he continued to make excuses for his bruises and his unwashed clothes. His mother started "forgetting" to feed him, so he began to steal food from school. His classmates began to hate him as they realized he was stealing their lunches, and his teachers reported it to his mother, who beat him for it.

Dave was effectively no longer a member of the family, with his mother calling him only "The Boy.” He was not allowed to do anything with his brothers, and spent all his time either doing chores or in the basement, waiting until he was summoned. His father tried to sneak him food, but this stressed his and Dave's mother's relationship. Eventually, as these arguments continued, his father started taking off, leaving his mother to beat him and remind him that he was the reason she and his father were having problems.

His mother had another child, Russell, when Dave was in second grade. Dave’s second grade teacher, Miss Moss, took special interest in him, noticing his clothes and bruises and refusing to believe the lies he made up about them. She reported her concerns to the school principal, and he called Dave’s mother, who then became harsher than ever to Dave. She went to the principal, dressed well, and explained that her son had an overactive imagination and had actually beaten himself up in order to attract attention.

The following summer, they vacationed at the Russian River and Dave was allowed to go, but the feeling of magic around the place had disappeared. When his brothers and father went to the super slide, however, his mother called him inside and smeared one of his infant brother Russell's soiled diapers all over his face, for allegedly making too much noise outside. She insisted that he eat it, but he used one of his tactics, slowing her down until Russell starts to cry and the rest of the family coming back distracted her. She instructed him to clean it off of his face, and the family never returned to Russian River again.

When school started again, no one talked to Dave, and he had to run to school rather than get driven. He was still not being fed at home, so he came up with a plan to steal things from the local grocery store. He successfully stole a box of graham crackers and stored it in the garbage can in the boy's restroom for the school day, but when he came back to find it the can was empty. He kept trying, though, and began a pattern of successfully stealing things from the grocery store.

This was not enough, though, and he needed more food. He scraped leftover food from the garbage can for a while, but eventually his mother caught him. He started stealing frozen lunches from the cafeteria, but after the first time he did this, his mother forced him to vomit up the frozen lunch he had eaten. She then made him eat his vomit. His father tried to get her to stop, but it did not work.

She eventually banished Dave downstairs to sleep in the freezing garage on a cot. He began to lose hope, praying to God that his life would be different. He came up with an idea of begging for food on the way to school, which worked until he knocked on the door of the house of some lady who knew his mother and called her about it. Dave waited in horror all day for his punishment, and eventually she made him swallow ammonia. He was unable to breathe for a long time, and the next night she made him repeat it in front of his father. She did not let him upstairs from the garage to use the bathroom, so he had to relieve himself in a bucket.

But Dave makes it clear that his mother did not always win. He came up with little tricks to make her punishments easier to bear, feeling like he had beaten her at her own game. She could not catch him every time he tried to feed himself, so he began to steal bits of frozen food from the garage freezer. The chapter ends with his recollection of pretending he was a king eating the finest food around.


The title of this chapter clues readers into Dave's current situation: in this part of his life, finding food became the most important thing for him. All of the decisions he made were made with food in mind, whether he was actively seeking out food or trying not to upset his mother so that she would feed him. Once again, Dave had become a dehumanized animal, fighting only for basic survival needs the way an animal would.

While the physical abuse Catherine Roerva unleaded on her son in the last chapter was terrible, the punishments she uses in this chapter are absolutely horrifying. Things like smearing fecal matter all over his face, forcing him to eat his vomit, and making him swallow ammonia take her abuse to the next level, and these punishments make it clear that there is something wrong in his mother's mind to make her treat her son this way. Pelzer goes into great detail when discussing these incidents, which serves two purposes. First, it proves that these punishments have made a lasting mark on him, since he remembers them so vividly, and second, it allows readers to picture the full horror of these experiences so that they sympathize with him and understand the things that his mother was capable of.

In Chapter 2, Pelzer set up the Russian River as a place of happiness and safety in order to contrast it with the Russian River in this chapter, a place where he feels unsafe and the torment of his mother still reaches him. Dave has been forced to grow up far too fast, and like all things in his life, the Russian River has undergone a transformation and become something different from what it once was. The old Russian River represents his innocent childhood; this new Russian River represents the way his mother has managed to corrupt everything in his life.

In this chapter, Dave has seemingly become the "Bad Boy" his father warned him not to be: he has begun to steal, something that is typically considered morally wrong. This brings up an interesting moral dilemma: is Dave justified in stealing, since he has no food, or is stealing still wrong regardless of circumstances? Is he truly a "bad boy" for doing what he does, or does his condition excuse it?

Though Dave’s father does make attempts to protect him, they are halfhearted, and he has no power to stand up to his wife. By the end of the chapter, the father has slipped out of his role as protector, and Dave truly has no one. His mother does not hesitate to blame Dave for the problems she and his father has, as she blames him for everything else that goes wrong in their family. Dave has internalized these accusations, and he has begun to blame himself as well–something that has lasted into his adulthood, based on the way that Pelzer writes his memoir.

This chapter is difficult for readers to get through, but it ends on an optimistic note as Dave once again realizes that he has the power to beat his mother at her own game. He also finds solace in his imagination, pretending that he has more than he really does and keeping himself sane while he suffers so much. This kind of strength is what got him through his abuse and, eventually, gave adult Dave Pelzer the courage to write it all down in this way.