Pelzer several times refers to this theme. Pelzer’s life story is itself an example of the difficult life led by foster children, and his touching portrait of Chris, the seventeen-year-old boy with cerebral palsy who has lived in more than a dozen foster homes, is another example of the challenges faced by such children. Dave faces real prejudice when he moves with the Marshes to a more affluent area. When he tries to befriend a local girl, her mother stops him, calling him “that little F-child” (p. 271) and a “filthy little hooligan.” Like others, she seems to blame the boy himself for his status: “I don’t know what you children do to become . . . fostered children.” Some people in the neighborhood fear that the presence of a family with foster children will lower the price of houses there.
It is clear that placing a foster child is not easy. Gordon Hutchenson, Dave’s probation officer, exclaims in frustration when he is trying to place Dave, “There are never enough homes!” (p. 223). Some of the kids end up in juvenile hall simply because there are no homes to place them in.
Lilian Catanze tells Dave about the prejudice people have against foster children. She tells him that as a foster child, he has to be very careful because he already has two strikes against him. Later, when Dave is in juvenile detention, she explains that people have a difficult time acknowledging the need for foster homes because if they did so they would also have to acknowledge the presence of child abuse in society, which some people are unwilling to do. It means admitting to problems such as “alcoholism, child abuse, children who run away or get into drugs.” Some people prefer to keep such things to themselves, just as Dave was told to preserve the family secret of his abuse.
The memoir is really a coming-of-age narrative, following the life of an adolescent from the age of twelve to the age of eighteen. This is the period when people develop from children into adults, discover who they are, and form their own values. At the beginning of the narrative, Dave is a confused, frightened twelve-year-old who has just been taken from his mother’s home to prevent further abuse. He has to learn how to fit in with society’s rules and expectations and how to live as part of a normal family unit. Never having had proper guidance in his early years, it is not surprising that Dave makes some serious missteps; he steals from grocery stores and keeps the wrong company at school. But he is redeemed by his intelligence and persistence. He starts to read serious books, shows that he can hold down a job and show a good work ethic, and finally, with the advice of adults he trusts, he makes a good career choice by joining the U.S. Air Force. In six eventful years, full of change and disruption but also growth and learning, Dave has developed from a badly damaged child into a young man who is ready to take his place as a productive member of the adult world.
Finding Love and Acceptance
Dave has spent his childhood having to deal with complete rejection by his mother and isolation in his family, not to mention the physical abuse he has suffered. He therefore views the world as a hostile and frightening place. This can be seen in his manner when he stays with Aunt Mary, his first foster parent. He is frightened, fearing punishment for any misdeed, and scared that he will be returned to his mother. At nights, instead of sleeping, he sits up holding his knees, rocking back and forth and humming to himself—clearly the actions of a boy who is dealing with severe recent trauma. It is hard for Dave to realize that others may mean him well, and it will be a long journey before he can learn to trust. But he eventually does so because quite a number of adults go out of their way to help him. He develops affection for Ms. Gold, the social worker, and for Lilian Catanze, the woman with whom he spends the longest time as a foster child. These and others show Dave what it is like to be loved and accepted rather than despised and rejected. Ultimately, it is when he is with his final foster parents, Harold and Alice Turnbough, that he learns to love and accept love unconditionally as part of a loving family. By the end of the book he can call Alice mother and Harold father without feeling awkward about it. His emotional journey has found its fulfillment; he has traveled from a dysfunctional family in which he was seriously abused to one in which he feels valued and cherished, and he is able to return those positive feelings.
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