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Sunday Morning News

Author Discusses How He Survived Child Abuse

Aired January 23, 2000 - 8:40 a.m. ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

KYRA PHILLIPS, CNN ANCHOR: Best selling author Dave Pelzer has done something few writers have managed. He has three books on the "New York Times" best seller list this week, all of the books "A Child Called It," "The Lost Boy" and "A Man Named Dave" deal with the abuse the author suffered as a child and how he survived.

Dave Pelzer joins us from San Francisco and it definitely is a story of survival, Dave.

DAVE PELZER, AUTHOR, "A CHILD CALLED IT": Good morning.

PHILLIPS: Good morning. Three books, all on the "New York Times" best seller list and we were talking about this, it's not about this downtrodden, depressing situation of child abuse but rather survival. Does this tell us there's a lot of people out there seeking stories on survival and surviving abuse?

PELZER: I, well, whether it's abuse -- I mean if you look at the dynamics, I mean people have problems, whether there's divorce in families or someone passes away with cancer and so forth and I think more than ever we need a story that resonates with people that yes, problems arise, but you deal with them, you let 'em go and you can live a happy life. And that was really the premise of the entire series for the books.

"A Child Called It" was originally written as a tribute to my teachers and I gave it to them on the 20th anniversary in which I was rescued because unfortunately for me in California, I was like one of the worst cases of child abuse in California's history, but what I did as a writer was just wrote a story about a kid and through the eyes of this kid what he had to do to survive that situation.

PHILLIPS: Well, I think that's what makes these books so powerful. It's a true story, it's about your life. Let's talk about what you did go through and your relationship with your mother. Let's begin with that.

PELZER: Well, very quickly I was raised in the '60s in California and on the outside I had the perfect Brady Bunch like family. But on the inside, behind closed doors, both parents were alcoholics and for one reason or another, my mom had selected me to isolate me from the family. I was stabbed a half inch below the heart, not fed for a couple weeks. Or she locked me in the bathroom with a deadly mix of ammonium Clorox. And I had to learn very quickly as a kid this situation is getting more so and I have to do something for myself.

So what I would do in turn is psychologically if my mom didn't feed me I would steal droplets of water. If my mom would attack me I would try to tighten up parts of my body. And I learned, you know, I'm going to have to do something for myself to survive and yet I was able to go from one level to another. If I survive this then I can survive something else.

And that's why, again, I see it as a story of like, you know, the indomitable human spirit.

PHILLIPS: Yeah, it's definitely a triumph of the human spirit. What would be your advice to children that are in the type of situation that you endured?

PELZER: Oh, goodness, if they think they're, if there's a problem, for goodness sakes, they need to tell someone about that problem, an adult figure, a counselor or a teacher, someone at school, a parent, a guardian. I mean if they feel strange about something, if they're fearful of something -- back in my day we didn't talk about family secrets. We didn't talk about cancer, we didn't talk about drugs or violence and so forth. It was very much in the closet. But because of cases like mine and other cases across the nation, we can now talk about it and make a difference.

PHILLIPS: Yeah, you're right. There weren't child abuse laws then, were there?

PELZER: No, ma'am, there were not.

PHILLIPS: So, has it gotten better?

PELZER: Oh, my goodness, yes. Most of us, including myself, required these Good Samaritan laws to help out, to report it and let the professionals take care of it. The problem is it's so overwhelming. We have millions of cases being reported and it's almost a triage situation. If there's an open chest wound with Michele but Johnny has a scratch, we're going to take care of Michele first. But those in the field in law enforcement and social services are really trying to do the best job they can.

And that was the premise of the second book, "The Lost Boy." It happened, the premise was what happened to me once I was in, out of harm's way and put in foster care. And if you look at the -- I didn't have really much of a chance at age 12 when I was rescued. I weighed 68 pounds and it was social services and foster care that really helped me along the way to make me the person I am today. And they're the ones that are like what I call the real heroes in society, those teachers, police officers and those trying to help families out in duress.

PHILLIPS: Well, Dave, your internal motivation made it all happen. They just came along and supported that.

PELZER: Well, that's kind to say but I was, I didn't speak very well for the first 12 years of my life and I was, you know, locked in the basement on and off for years. But these people had quite a challenge on their hands.

PHILLIPS: Well, Dave Pelzer, we thank you so much for being with us this morning. Three books on the "New York Times" best seller list and I hope everyone goes out and checks them out. Thanks for being with us.

PELZER: Thank you for having me.

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