Pelzer was born in San Francisco, California, and was the second of five boys. He grew up in the city of Daly City, California. He is the son of Stephen Joseph Pelzer (1923–1980), a San Francisco fireman, and Catherine Roerva Christen Pelzer (1929–1992). As a small child Pelzer faced abuse for several years which Pelzer wrote about in his books. He said that as a child, he was continually abused, mistreated, and beaten by his mother, who thought of it as a game. His teachers stepped in on March 5, 1973, wherein 12-year-old Pelzer was placed in foster care. At age 18 he joined the U.S. Air Force in 1979 and served in the Gulf War. Pelzer married in the 1980s to his first wife, Patsy (a pseudonym), with whom he had a son. In 1996, he carried a torch in the 1996 Summer Olympics torch relay. Pelzer and Patsy divorced and many years later he married his second wife, Marsha, who was his editor.
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