A Child Called "It"

I read this book to my freshman reading classes, and they loved it. I chose it because it came so highly recommended, because I already had it on my bookshelf, and because it was short. My intention was to show my kids--who hate reading with every fiber of their beings--that reading can be fun and valuable and interesting. And sometimes, you don't even have to take a test.

I hated the book, hated reading it, hated that I'd tied myself into continuing it.

But my kids ... they LOVED it. For a month, all I'd have to do (most days) was say, "Oh, I guess we won't have time to re--" and they would close their mouths, sit up straight, and smile at me with that creepy Stepford gleam, trying to convince me for just one second that they were model students and they'd never done a single bad thing in all their lives, now COULD I PLEASE READ THE BOOK.

Every non-freshman person who saw this book on my desk would say, without fail, "Ms. Flower, THAT IS SUCH A GOOD BOOK!!!" and they would go into these rapturous summaries about how much they loved it and I would smile my own Stepford-smile and nod politely and grimace behind my eyes.

So here's the thing: I don't like abuse. I mean, that's a given, right? That most people don't like abuse. And I'm not trying to one-up anybody or imply that my emotions are somehow more deeply felt than anyone else's, but seriously ... I CANNOT TAKE IT.

I don't like graphic violence of any kind, and Dave Pelzer describes his abuse in explicit detail with lots of gross-making adjectives and word images that make my stomach hurt. And I had to read them aloud--TWICE--while I tried not to cry or throw up or have a nervous breakdown. Ultimately, I had to divorce myself from the text while reading, so I could just get through it, and then I had to make a conscious effort not to think about it when I finished.

Also--and this is the part that makes me a bad person, probably--I kind of ... it's not that I don't believe that Pelzer was abused, because I do, or that it was as bad as he describes, because it probably was, but the writing seems a little ... calculated. Like each phrase has been chosen specifically for its emotional heft, like he went through the thesaurus and was like, "Oooh! That'll make 'em cry!"

And, while reading aloud, I found myself skipping over a lot of passages, because they were out of place or went on too long. It wasn't even the parts with the descriptions of the abuse, but the parts where he was analyzing his feelings or looking at the sunset or something totally irrelevant to the story. Like all of a sudden he'd gotten a hankering to be "literary," so he stuck in a couple metaphors and big words to satisfy the cultural elite, or the Pulitzer committee.

Is that mean? It feels mean. I don't want to downplay the fact that I'm talking about a kid who had this really awful childhood. But on the other hand, I appreciate good writing and an author who allows me to come to my own conclusions and who doesn't try to manipulate my emotions. I'm sure I could have figured out that his mom was crazy and and his life was horrible without all the extra emotional manipulation. I mean, geez; I'm not stupid.

Regardless of my personal feelings, I'm really glad my students liked it. It's one of the few things they've shown any interest in all year, and if I have to read TEN books about abused kids, I'd do it, for them.

And then I'd come home and throw up.


Anonymous said...

It sounds like a gut-wrenching book to read (and teach). There's a lot of speculation, however, that the author made this stuff up. (See http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9404E4DE1538F93BA15754C0A9649C8B63, for example.) And no, I don't think your analysis of his writing sounds mean at all.

Anonymous said...

You should read "Running with Scissors." Similar, but written with a great sense of humor, and not so much physical, but emotional abuse. Great, great read!

Mei said...

Marsha - I read that article too, after I finished the book. I don't know what to think about memoirs/autobiographies anymore. Does everybody lie????????

Thanks for the affirmation on the writing. I just felt bad, like, "Well, he went through _____ and now I'm picking on his writing!" Guilt is weird.

Anonymous - I've heard that's a good book. But I think I need a break from the heavy subject matter for a while :)

Anonymous said...

If someone is making money off his or her writing, then that writing shouldn't be spared critical analysis simply because of the author's topic. In this case, there's an author, a publisher, editors (one hopes), marketing people, etc., involved with this book--and they're all making money off of it. So it's a writing endeavor that's put forth for public consumption--and therefore not exempt from scrutiny.

I don't think everyone lies in their memoirs. There are some amazingly good ones out there (I am particularly fond of Kay Redfield Jamison's Unquiet Mind, about her struggle with bipolar disorder; what makes is especially interesting is that she's one of the world's top experts on it professionally). But memoirs are "hot" these days, and publishers (and authors) looking to make a buck and hopefully land on Oprah's couch are often taking ethical shortcuts. Too bad.

I'm just waiting for a publisher or publicist to write a memoir called How I Was Duped by False Memoirs. Heh.

J said...

Ugh. I've heard that book was good (i've even seen a couple of my sixth-graders reading it!) but I have purposely never picked it up. Why in the world would I want to read something so god-awfully depressing?
Same with Running with Scissors--I got about a quarter of the way through it before finally giving up--I just couldn't stomach it. Gack. Sad does not equal funny!


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