D. Pelzer. (1997). The Lost Boy. Deerfield Beach, FL: Health Communications, Inc.
After writing about his life in an abusive home in his book, A Child Called “IT”, author David Pelzer took on the task of writing about his adolescence in The Lost Boy. Remarkably remembering a vivid array of details, Pelzer explains his journey through adolescence in the California foster care system. Pelzer’s story is a remarkable one and a strong testament to the resiliency of the human soul.
The book, written long after the events occurred, traces his life from the end of his childhood-under the care of his abusive mother-to his late teens as a self-sufficient adult. By letting readers hear his story he allows us to understand some of what life is like for adolescent foster children.
Two main themes permeate the book: the influence of parents on the lives of children and adolescents, and the importance of adult role models and caregivers. Pelzer never deviated from his quest and desire to know and feel the love of his mother-the very woman who insulted, beat, burned and starved her own children. Even to the very end when he realized his father was on the brink of death, he yearned to see him as the hero fireman he always thought him to be. Were it not for the intervention of loving, caring and dedicated people who were willing to risk their own jobs and marriages, Pelzer makes the point clear that he would have never survived.
His mother was a drunk and, by all accounts, crazy; his father could do nothing to prevent what she would do to the child she referred to as “It” and he called, “The Boy.” When he was 12 years old, his teachers recognized the symptoms of what was going on in his home and they called the police. The first to intervene, they understood “why (he) was so different from other children; why (he) smelled and dressed in rags; why (he) climbed into garbage cans to hunt for a morsel of food” (p. 35). Under temporary custody of the state, he met Ms. Gold, his first social worker. She was with him when he was permanently remanded to the state and helped him get settled into two foster homes. When he was taken to San Mateo Juvenile Hall, he met Gordon Hutchenson, who tried to help him reenter life outside of the detention center.
Still not feeling like he had a home, he was moved from foster home to foster home as trouble would ignite either for him or the family he was living with. One family who took him in on three separate occasions are the people he calls his parents to this day. While he doesn’t describe them much, it is apparent that these parents provided for him a home with discipline and an understanding of responsibility. They treated him like a young adult, taught him how to cook and encouraged him to find a part-time job. Pelzer left their house after discovering that some of his money and personal possessions were missing. He himself recognized the time had come for him to move on or trouble would catch up with him again. He moved back in with them after a stay with a young family that had little experience in raising an adolescent. During that time he came into his own, making friends he could call his own and developing his greater sense of self-worth.
His final years with his “parents” that ended with him joining the Air Force. Pelzer then contacted his biological father, taking a big step in reconciling his past. Finding his father face down at a bar, he recalled the following scene:
I gently shook my childhood superhero from his slumber. Father’s coughing seemed to awaken him. His stench was so bad that I held my breath until I could help him stumble from the bar. The outside air seemed to clear his head. In the sunlight Father looked worse than I ever imagined. I deliberately did not look at his face. I wanted to remember my father for the man he once was-the tall, rugged, strong firefighter with gleaming white teeth, who placed himself in danger to help a fellow fireman or rescue a child from a burning building (pp. 288-289).
He couldn’t stop loving the father who never seemed to love him. It wasn’t long after this scene that Pelzer realized his father was no more.
I sucked in a deep breath before I opened my eyes. ‘I’m sorry. It’s just that you’re my dad…and I love you.’
Father wheezed as he turned away. I know he had heard me but he couldn’t bring himself to reply. The river of alcohol and the destroyed family life had stripped him of his innermost feelings. I realized that inside, my father was truly dead (p. 290).
Pelzer recalls on the way home that he felt a “mountain of guilt” (p. 292) for his father’s life. Even to the end, it seems he held himself responsible for telling people about the abuse he had undergone that eventually caused the break-up of his family.
Pelzer now has his own son and has broken the circle of abuse and neglect. He remarks that he has learned from his mother the reasons for her abuse. Speaking all over the country to foster children and foster parents, he has overcome his past and is using it to help others.
Questions for Reflection and Discussion
- Throughout the book, many remarks are made about prejudice towards foster children. Where does this come from in our society? How can “outsiders” help to stop it?
- Though not discussed above, other adolescents contributed negatively to Pelzer’s troubles. How could teenagers his own age have reached out to him?
- How could a teacher or youth worker help someone like Pelzer? If you work with foster children, what are their specific needs? How can these needs be met?
- How would Pelzer’s life compare with the lives of many kids who we consider “at-risk” today?
- Foster care children live in a world of ambiguity, not knowing who to call “mom” or when to bother remembering the home phone number. Foster care adolescents face these same problems compounded with the difficulties that come with their age. More can be done for these kids who are easily some of America’s most at-risk kids.
- Youth pastors and teachers alike can be more sensitive to the issues that foster children face-especially in recognizing their heightened needs for love and acceptance.
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