The theme of survival is revealed early, and is a main focus throughout the book: “Mother can beat me all she wants, but I haven’t let her take away my will to somehow survive” (p. 4). Throughout the narrative, Dave focuses on surviving, despite knowing what it is to be desperate and hopeless. He even learns to treat his own wounds after being stabbed; his will to live is apparent during the whole story.
To his mother, Dave is less than human. He is treated as an object and an animal during most of the book. His mother does not even call him by his name; he is called "the boy" or "it." Her use of impersonal pronouns could be a strategy to avoid being troubled by her conscience.
The theme of courage is found as early as the book's subtitle: "One Child's Courage to Survive." It is paralleled with Dave's will to survive, and is shown throughout the book when he refuses to lose hope or faith. It would be easy for Dave to give up, but he has the courage to keep himself strong in the face of his abuse, showing that, no matter what she does, his mother cannot truly beat him.
There are numerous adults in this memoir who know what Dave is going through, and yet do nothing to stop it. Dave's father looks on as his wife abuses his son, too weak to intervene. Dave's schoolteachers see his bruises and his malnourishment, but it takes them years to call the police. Over and over again, the adults in Dave's life refuse to do anything to help him, which is the primary reason Dave's abuse lasted so long.
Dave constantly thinks back to what it was like to have a real family, and in his darkest times he misses the love that he felt when he was younger. Having the support of a family is an essential part of childhood, and it is something Dave lacked until he reached adulthood and started his own family, determined to show his son all the familial love on which he himself missed out.
The most obvious way that Dave's mother abuses him is physically, the way she hits him, starves him, and even forces him to vomit. But even worse is her verbal abuse, which shows how strongly language and words can affect children. Dave internalizes her constant yelling that he is inferior, inhuman, and worthless: at times, he believes these things of himself.
Throughout his abuse, Dave constantly searches for an explanation for why his mother treats him the way she does. He begins to blame himself, first for the way he may have acted as a child to provoke it and next because he has done nothing to make it stop. When something terrible like this happens, it is natural to search for somewhere to place the blame—however, it is a sign of how much his mother has tormented him that Dave starts to blame himself for something he has no control over.
A Child Called “It” Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for A Child Called “It” is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.