Beaten but not defeated

6th February 2004 at 00:00
The Privilege of Youth. By Dave Pelzer. Penguin pound;14.99.

Happy families, as Tolstoy indelibly put it, are alike; unhappy families are unhappy in their own way. Abused children, of whom US author Dave Pelzer is one of the most famous, live each in their own special variety of hell, integral to which is the isolation from that golden realm in which other, blessedly happy, youngsters frolic heedlessly through their secure days. In his latest inspirational work, Pelzer shows how he was able to find his way out from under the burden of his terrible childhood, catalogued memorably in A Child Called "It", and go on to serve in the Marines, father a loved son and win renown for his public speaking, including sessions in schools, and work with vulnerable families. This simply written tale should be on the shelves of any institution that caters for children at risk.

Though his early childhood was happy, Pelzer soon became the scapegoat for tensions within a family in which mother drank, father was increasingly absent and brothers had to dodge parental anger. He would be locked in the garage or out on the streets overnight, forced to scavenge for scraps of food in the bins or have his mouth washed out with bleach, scarring his tongue. He was burned, beaten, whipped and reviled - always by his mother, never his father, and for nothing or, at worst, a minor piece of mischief.

Unsurprisingly, he became angry and could be destructive. Yet, heartbreakingly, he still wanted his mother to love him, and would mistake her temporary relentings for the dawn of a better life. He was so afraid that he scuppered attempts to save him, believing his evil mother was all-powerful. When he was 12, concerned school staff stage-managed his rescue by social services and thereafter he lived in foster care, as described in subsequent books.

This most recent account concentrates on those foster years, highlighting how much even a little recognition and encouragement can mean to a developing person. In a California suburb, Pelzer encountered his own version of the golden days of youth, larking about with two best buddies who lived on the same street, Paul Brazell and David Howard. Their parents - the Brazells stern, organised but with high expectations, particularly the father; the Howards warm and nurturing, particularly the mother - filled in parenting gaps, as did the several sets of foster parents between which Pelzer shuffled. Almost as important was the rhythm of the community itself, local characters and events, the familiar setting that welcomed him back from his escapades. For, like most refugees from hell, Pelzer did not find the way out easy and did not always behave well. Joy-riding, playing with fire and explosives, daredevil stunts, vandalism: he was no angel.

Duinsmoore, he says, "wasn't simply a block with rows of homes nudged next to each other, but a neighbourhood that became its own family. And family was the single thing I had craved... that was the gift that Duinsmoore gave me, that sense of belonging I so yearned for my whole life."

What made Duinsmoore so great was not bland acceptance. Dave was often in trouble; but there were people, particularly Mr Brazell, who cared enough to try to set him right. School was not a happy experience, particularly at first, for a child who had never learned personal hygiene or social graces, and Dave had to call on all the reserves of strength picked up in his grisly home to face out the bullies. Terrified that when he left care he would have no money, he worked a 40-hour week from the time he was 15, becoming a top-earning car salesman at 18, but then losing his job and crawling back to classes. Fitting in did not come naturally.

Yet with his two friends, he learned to make mistakes, be told off and yet survive; the necessary set of adolescent experiences. He says: "It was the constant exploration of an everyday world that I cherished in amazement.

Paul, David and I knew that at any moment of any day something wonderful, something magical could suddenly happen, and the three of us would take part in it. And, for the first time, I didn't overanalyse. I didn't hold back or instantly retreat deep within my inner shell."

As a literary experience, The Privilege of Youth holds few pleasures. The tale is baldly told, eager and rapid-fire in its delivery, rather like being forced into a corner by someone with a terrible story to tell. Yet its message shines through with unmistakable vigour and honour: even when children have been horribly damaged, others can make a real difference just by listening, believing and holding on.

Victoria Neumark

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