A Child Called "It"

A Child Called "It" Summary and Analysis of Chapter 6: While Father is Away


Following the stabbing, Dave's father spent much less time at home and much more at work. When he was home, he would help Dave with the dishes, asking him how he was doing and if he had had anything to eat that day. He told Dave that someday they would both get out of that house. But as usual, his mother put an end to his father helping him with the dishes, and his father gave in and stopped. Still, he repeatedly told Dave how sorry he was.

At one point when his father was away for an extended period of time, his mother starved him for ten consecutive days. At long last, she placed a plate of leftovers in front of him and told him he had two minutes to eat—but as soon as he started eating it, she pulled it away from him and threw it out. He ran to the garage and listened as his brothers ate their dessert, jealous that his mother never treated them the way she treated him. Finally, he was able to eat.

Also while his father was away, his mother played another cruel game with him. She put a bucket of ammonia and Clorox in the bathroom with him and shut the door. The air began to change, and the mist from the mixture made him sick. He wet a rag and covered his face with it, sucking air from the air vent. While this helped, he ended up coughing up blood downstairs in the garage once she let him out.

His mother made him take a job mowing lawns, which was not successful; instead, he ended up punished because one client felt bad for him and gave him a bag of lunch. His mother made him sit on rocks in the backyard while she took "her sons" to the zoo (pg. 65), and then had him lie in a freezing cold bathtub with his face submerged in the water so he could not breathe. He then had to put his clothes on and sit in the backyard, wet and cold, listening while the rest of his family laughed and ate inside.

When he started fourth grade in the fall, he had a nice substitute teacher who gave the children ice cream as a reward for good behavior. He loved her because she treated him like a real person—later, he realized that he had a crush on her. The punishments continued, and his mother even began to whip him with the dog's chain. He still never ate. He realized that his father's plan to take him away was a hoax, and that his mother had forbidden his father to see him.

At school one morning, he had to report to the school nurse. It was difficult at first, but he eventually started telling her about his mother. On Halloween, his mother made him do the bathtub routine while the rest of the family carved pumpkins. Listening to his mother talk nicely to his brothers reminded him of the mother she had been years ago. After, she told him to go sleep in his father's bed in the master bedroom, while she slept upstairs with his brothers. This continued, even when his father was home.

He received roller skates for Christmas, but this was so that his mother could force him to skate outside in the cold while the other children were inside. At the end of March that year, his mother had another baby, and things were better while she was in the hospital. When his father went to visit her at the hospital, the boys would stay with a neighbor named Shirley, who was kind to them and reminded Dave of his mother before the abuse started. Finally, his mother came home with a new baby brother named Kevin.

Shirley and Dave's mother became close friends. Shirley asked his mother why Dave was not allowed to play with the other kids, and she made up excuses. One day, his mother inexplicably broke all ties with Shirley. Then one Sunday, his mother came into the room, hugged him, and told him it was all over and that she was sorry–that she would try to be a good mother. Dave could not believe it, but for two days, Dave was treated like his other brothers, wearing nice clothes and eating good food.

It was too good to be true, though, because the next day a social services woman came and asked Dave questions about his life, whether he was happy, and whether his mother beat him. Because nothing bad was happening then, he answered that he was happy, as his mother encouraged him. He said that she only beat him when he was a bad boy, which he knew was the wrong thing to say. Everything went back to normal after that, because she had only been treating him nicely because of the social worker.


Each of the chapter titles tells readers what the focus of the chapter will be. This time, Dave's focus is on his father's absence: the way his father’s constantly being away has affected how his mother treats him. In the last chapter, Dave acknowledged that he must be his own Superman, but he is still only a child—part of him still seeks to depend on his father. His father, however, continues to flee because he is too weak and passive to face up to what is happening and stop it. Every person has a fight-or-flight response to trouble, and Dave's father's response is flight.

Many of the supporting characters in this book, including Dave's father, his schoolteachers, and the neighbor Shirley, are guilty of being bystanders in Dave's situation. They can see the clues as to what is going on—in some cases, they know for sure what is happening—but they choose not to intervene. This bystander effect is an unfortunately common occurrence in society, and this memoir is an important examination of how, in situations like Dave's, an observer's refusal to intervene can be just as terrible as the abuse itself.

By this chapter, the abuse has been going on for five years, and during this time Dave’s mother has still treated Dave’s brothers kindly. It takes until this point, however, for Dave to truly express jealousy and wish that his brothers could bear some of the brunt of her ire. Both readers and Dave are left with the unanswerable question: why was Dave singled out among his brothers? Why was he the one she decided to mistreat, while she still called the others "my sons"? Memoirs differ from other kinds of books in that readers only get one side of the story: try as we might to understand her motivation, we can never truly know what made Dave's mother single him out.

The punishments Dave's mother inflicts on him say more about the kind of person she is than about Dave himself. Her bathroom punishment, in which Dave is forced to sit in the bathroom with a bucket of noxious chemicals and breathe them in, is particularly cruel. Dave's mother is a sadist, or someone who enjoys inflicting pain on others, and this is exemplified by the fact that she never shows remorse for anything she does to him.

Dave knows how cruel his mother is, but this does not stop him from believing that she may have actually come around when she begins to treat him kindly. Even though he knows better, his childlike instinct to latch on to his mother to receive love and care is still there, because he wants very much to believe that his mother really is good. This hope is shattered, though, with the appearance of the social worker, which reveals that she had only been treating him kindly for her own benefit. Even so, though, he still chooses to lie and protect her, a display of how far her fear politics have gone.