Did Dave Pelzer’s Mother from “A Child Called It” Have Borderline Personality Disorder?
During the entire time I was reading “A Child Called It’ , I couldn’t help but draw correlations between David Pelzer’s mother (Catherine Roerva Christen Pelzer) and Borderline Personality Disorder. After I was finished reading the book, I started my search to see what mental illness Catherine had suffered. All I have managed to find was that she was mentally ill and an alcoholic. No details have emerged of what type of mental illness she suffered. So, with the facts about Catherine from “A Child Called It” and professional resources about BPD, I will pose case that Catherine suffered from Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD).
Dave Pelzer paints the picture of a seemingly normal childhood until his mother’s behavior changed radically. He describes his mother as a “wicked witch” on (pg 30), which hit the nail on the head. She exhibits the behavior of the prototypical BPD Witch. “The darkness within the borderline Witch is annihilating rage. Her inner experience is the conviction of being evil, and her behavior evokes submission… She is filled with self-hatred and may single out one child as the target of her rage. The Witch’s message to her child is: Life is war” (pg 38) Lawson.
WOW. Catherine was most certainly filled with rage. Every page of that book, Catherine was filled with rage that she took out on her son day in and day out. Her inner experience is the conviction of being evil, where she even speaks of it on (pg 41) of Pelzer’s book, “Now it’s time I showed you what hell is like!” Throughout all of her abuse, her behavior was to evoke submission from David. She was constantly beating him down mentally, emotionally, and physically. He says that his soul was consumed in a black void from the intense abuse by his mother (pg 132). She certainly was filled with self hatred as indicated by her alcoholism, not taking care of herself (“Her once beautiful, shiny hair is now frazzled clumps. As usual, she wears no makeup. She is overweight, and she knows it. In all, this has become Mother’s typcial look” pg 5), and being so filled with annihilating rage. And, the fact that the BPD Witch singles out one child as a target of her rage is so revealing because Catherine singled out David. For years he was the only child abused. When David was put into foster care, the younger brother was then singled out as the target of her rage.
David was without a doubt the “no-good child”; however, remarkably he didn’t turn-out to be what Lawson identified as the lost child (pg 171). His mother, Catherine, called him a “bad boy”, and an entire chapter is devoted to the “bad boy” David.
- Catherine had David look in the mirror and recite, “I’m a bad boy” repeatedly (pg 31).
- Even though he was successful with school, his mother told him he was a “bad boy” and held him back in the 1st grade (pg 36).
- David was left out of Christmas due to Santa only bringing “good boys and girls” toys (pg 38).
- His mother accuses David of making her life a “living hell” (pg 41) and talks to the other siblings saying how she didn’t have to worry about them becoming like David, “a bad boy” (pg 43).
- Even when David was awarded the honor of naming the school newspaper, Catherine says, “There is nothing you can do to impress me! Do you understand me? You are a nobody! An IT! You are nonexistent! You are a bastard child! I hate you and I wish you were dead. Dead! Do you hear me? Dead!” (pg 140).
As mentioned above, the BPD Witch’s message to her child is that life is war. David recieved that message pretty early into the story as he states on (pg 43), “For the first time, I had won! Standing alone in that damp, dark garage, I knew, for the first time, that I could survive. I decided that I would use any tactic I could think of to defeat Mother or to delay her from her grizzly obsession.” Catherine put David in the middle of an all out war with her, even making him sit in the prisoner of war position (pg 50, 84, 111, 114, 123) by sitting on his hands with his head thrust backward. Lawson states (pg 125), “The Witch’s children feel like prisoners of a secret war.”
In Lawson (pg 137), rejection triggers the desperate fear of sinking into the cold, dark abyss of abandonment, a fate the BPD Witch feels worse than death. Catherine was an alcoholic who had been drinking from the age of 13. Brought up in the Mormon community of Salt Lake City, she would hide in the outhouse during Prohibition to wince down bootleg whiskey. Her parents were divorced, which made them outcasts in that religious community, and Catherine was frequently locked in a closet, denied food, and told how despicable she was. Catherine primarily appears as a Witch, which a BPD who primarily appear as a Witch is filled with self-hatred as a result of surviving a childhood that required complete submission to a hostile or sadistic caregiver (pg 131) Lawson.
The BPD Witch is sadistically controlling and punitive with her children where they fear their survival. The Witch’s children are forced to submit to her control and may be victims of sadistic emotional, physical, or sexual abuse. Lawson explains, “Therapists hear horrifying stores of child abuse that never make the headlines… Some children may not survive simply because they are too young to get away” (pg 122). David Pelzer is VERY fortunate that he survived his horrifying ordeal with his mother.
Throughout the book, David speaks of being able to survive his mother’s abuse. He made a promise to himself when the discipline drastically turned to punishment out of control, “I knew, for the first time, that I could survive. I decided that I would use any tactic I could think of to defeat Mother… I knew if I wanted to live, I would have to think ahead… I could never give in to her. That day I vowed to myself that I would never, ever again give that bitch the satisfaction of hearing me beg her to stop beating me” (pg 43). He later refers back to that promise when he was stabbed by his mother, “I wanted to lie down and quit, but the promise I made years ago kept me going. I wanted to show The Bitch that she could beat me only if I died, and I was determined not to give in, even to death” (pg 91). He was a survivor from the start through his determination of thought. References of survival also include:
- He also talks about that “water was my only means of survival” (pg 104) as his mother starved him for ten consecutive days.
- Later, when his mother used chlorine gas while locking him in the bathroom, David relates that “to survive her new game, I had to use my head” (pg 108).
- He started to lose his instinct for survival when his mother had him sit in POW style on a 1 inch diameter of rocks, stating “all my efforts for mere survival seemed futile. My attempts to stay one step ahead of Mother were useless. A black shadow was always over me” (pg 111).
Because the Witch emerges when the mother and child are alone, no witnesses can verify the child’s experience (pg 125) Lawson. Catherine typically abused David when no one else was around, making sure to cover up the abuse if and when family members returned to the house. David says on pg 42, “I knew Mother never acted his bizarre when anyone else was in the house.”
- When Ron came home, Catherine ceased to attempt to burn David further on the stove (pg 42).
- When Catherine tried to have David eat the dirty Diapers, the abuse stopped when Ron, Stan, and David’s father returned to the vacation cabin (pg 57).
- David always noted that he appreciated when his father was home, calling him his protector, as the abuse was not as prevalent. (pg 101).
- When he would come home from school and his brothers weren’t home, David knew that his mother’s “game” would be full force.
- After Ron and Stan went go to bed, Catherine ordered David upstairs to feed him ammonia (pg 73).
- David even devotes an entire chapter to “When Father is Away”, starting the chapter with, “When he was home, Mother only did about half the things that she did when he was gone” (pg 101).
The BPD Witch can be cruel to the target of her rage; however other children may not perceive her as a Witch if they do not possess qualities that trigger her rage. With the information contained in Pelzer’s book, Catherine did not treat the older two or younger baby abusively. They were immune to her physical abuse. Being cruel, the BPD Witch may make a statement such as “I’m going to make your life a living Hell” or “I’m going to kill you” (pg 137) states Lawson. Catherine said both of these statements to David: (pg 41) “Now it’s time I showed you what hell is like!” and (pg 85) “If you don’t finish on time, I’m going to kill you.” David continues by saying that she said that same statement over and over for almost a week (pg 86).
The need for power and control over others is important to the BPD Witch as well as the need to elicit a response of fear and shock. Catherine certainly illustrated how she needed each of these. She exerted power over David, reducing him to a “slave” (pg 50, 84, 126), an “it” (pg 140), and “the boy” (pg 50). She controlled every part of his life down to what he ate (or rather, what he didn’t eat). He was controlled through having to “work” constantly around the house with only being allowed to attend school. Her pathological “needs” resulted in David viewing his home as a “madhouse” (pg 104) and “hell house ” (pg 137), as well as his existance as a “morbid life” (pg 116). He felt as if his soul was consumed in a “black void” (pg 132).
She used fear and shock throughout her abuse. He was relegated to the basement on a cot, not knowing when he would be fed, allowed to see sunlight, or beat (ten rounders (pg 111), whipped with dog chains (pg 116), broom handle blows to the backs of legs (pg 117)). He was often intense with fear: shaking, unable to concentrate, heart skipping beats, and startled. He was put though tremendous shocking situations such as being fed ammonia, subjected to chlorine gas, submerged under cold water for long lengths of time, burned on a gas stove, arm dislocated, stabbed in the abdomen, smashed into the counters breaking his teeth, forced to eat dirty diapers & rancid food, and so much more.
Children who resist the control face worse punishment. David did not resist her control. He knew the rules & punishments to his mother’s “game”: (1) if he took too long to do his chores, his mother would withhold food (2) if he looked at one of his siblings without permission, he was slapped (3) if he was caught taking food, he was subjected to hideous punishment (pg 83).
David did not resist control. He would do everything in his power to get his work done under her strict time restraints. He says (pg 50) during the time when he had to stand until summoned to perform chores, “It was made very clear that getting caught sitting or lying down in the basement would bring dire consequences. I had become my Mother’s slave.” Without putting up a fight, he took his “punishments”: remaining in the chlorine gas filled bathroom, submerged under cold water & then forced to sit outside on rocks 1 inch in diameter (Bathtub and Backyard Treatment pg 114), and skating in icy cold weather without appropriate clothing (pg 120). Additionally, he would sit for extraordinary lengths of time on the bottom step standing and in POW position as she instructed. Once when he decided to not “take anybody’s crap anymore” (pg 142), the results were a stomping from his brothers and Mother, a special batch of chlorine gas in the bathroom, and a choking.
Destroying valued objects and being intentionally withholding, the BPD Witch may intentionally withhold what their children need. David’s mother withheld food from David, severely starving him. He only had his brother’s left-overs from breakfast on occasion, a P&J sandwich with a few carrot sticks for lunch, and rarely any dinner. Due to the obsession to find food, David resorted to taking other kid’s lunches, (pg 48), food from the grocery store (pg 59), frozen cafeteria food (pg 63), begging for food (pg 69), and frozen from from his basement (pg 79). He also would eat scraps from his garbage can after his family ate (pg 62) until his mother started to add ammonia to the waste or planting rotten food so that he would get sick (pg 63). She also would tease the starving boy by putting food in front of him then taking it away (Two Minute Game pg 105 -107). When she found out about his eating of frozen cafeteria food, she forced him to vomit it up by forcing her finger down his throat, scooping the vomit out of the toilet, and then eating the vomit later that evening (pg 66 – 68).
Along with withholding food, Catherine also intentionally withheld proper hygiene and clothes for David. Kids made fun of him for how he smelled calling him David Pelzer-Smellzer, and teachers not used to his smell wave their hands in front of their face. He was consistently in tattered and worn clothes, even if new clothes existed in the home for him.
- David says, “Because my Mother had me wear the same clothes week after week, by October my clothes had become weathered, torn, and smelly” (pg 47).
- He continues further in the chapter, “In September, I returned to school with last year’s clothes” (pg 57).
- He indicates that his mother had newer clothes for him but withheld them: “One Sunday during the last month of summer … Mom let me put on new clothes that I had received last Christmas” (pg 123).
- By the time he was rescued, “My long sleeve shirt has more holes than Swiss cheese. It’s the same shirt I’ve worn for about two years. Mother has me wear it every day as her way to humiliate me. My pants are just as bad, and my shoes have holes in the toes. I can wiggle my big toe out of one of them” (pg 6).
The BPD Witch organizes a “campaign of denigration”, enlisting others as allies against the target of her rage. “She may seek out friends, family members (including siblings and children), and co-workers of her victim in whom to confide fabricated stories designed to discredit her enemy” (pg 141) says Lawson. David’s mother, Catherine, denigrated David by turning family against David including his father and other siblings. She also had the school turned against him, pegging him as a thief and “bad boy”. She told neighbors negative things about David, further denigrating him. Many believe the allegations because of the intensity of emotion. When the ability to enlist allies disrupts and divides groups, such as neighbors and the school system, that could actually help him.
The Witch does not recognize boundaries and exploit the child’s trust by denying right to privacy and humiliating & degrading the child.
- Catherine stripped off David’s clothes having him stand naked, where he “shook from a combination of fear and embarrassment” (pg 40).
- For months, David was forced to sleep under the breakfast table next to a cat litter box with newspapers as his covers (pg 68).
- After his mother made David drink dish-washing soap, David needed to use the bathroom and begged his mother to use the bathroom, and she refused. David “stood downstairs, afraid to move, as clumps of the watery matter fell through my underwear and down my pant legs, onto the floor. I felt so degraded; I cried like a baby. I had no self respect of any kind… I felt lower than a dog” (pg 77).
- While lying naked in the tub submerged as his mother instructed, his brothers would come into the bathroom, glare at him, shake their heads, and turn away (pg 113).
- After all the humiliation he endured, he talks about how he ate like a homeless dog, grunted to communicate, didn’t care if he was made fun of, and nothing was below him (pg 132).
- At one point, his morale became so low that he hoped to be killed (pg 141).
The BPD Witch seeks and marries a “Fisherman”, someone she can dominate and control, which is EXACTLY who Catherine married. Stephen Pelzer was completely dominated and controlled by Catherine. He was a subservient partner who relinquished his will at her command (pg 179), as Lawson describes the Fisherman. Further, this type of husband has little or no self-esteem and see himself as a loser. He also fails to protect his children from abuse. All of these characteristics fit Stephen who does not step in to stop the abuse (pg 50, 58):
- When David was first deprived of food, Stephen gives David scraps of food and tries to get Catherine to change her mind about feeding David.
- Catherine and Stephen begin to fight, and as the arguments between them became more frequent, the Stephen began to change– he is not around for David.
- When David was forced to eat his own vomited hot dog, his father “stood like a statue”and watched him eat something “a dog wouldn’t touch” after unsuccessfully “trying to talk Mother out of her demand” (pg 66 -67)
- David’s father stood by as David’s mother refused to let David use the bathroom but instead had to use a five-gallon bucket to relieve his diarrhea (pg 77).
- David’s father started to help David with the dishes. Catherine stopped this, as well as she said that Stephen gave David too much attention. After that, David notes that his father “gave up” (pg 101 -102).
- When David was stabbed by his mother, David’s father didn’t even look at David when David reported the incident.
David said, “I knew that Mother controlled him like she controlled everything that happened in her house… All my respect for my Father was gone” (pg 90 – 91). Stephen gave up on David without a fight and started not even staying at home on his days off. One day he told David that he was sorry (pg 103) and eventually left the family all together (pg151), leaving David at the hands of his terribly abusive mother, Catherine. David said that he was fully aware of his father’s lack of courage to rescue him, and he hated him for it (pg 134).
Marsha Linehan, in her book Cognitive Behavioral Treatment of the Borderline Patient, describes the normalcy that BPD’s present to others. When people around the BPD mother hear her complaining about her child, the assumption is that the child is troubled rather than the mother. Further in social settings, the BPD mother may be engaging, gracious, and endearing.
- David talks about how when his mother was a den mother for the Cub Scouts, the kids commented how they wished their mother was like Catherine (pg 39).
- She snowed the school administration by showing up with her infant son in her arms and agreeing to cooperate with the school regarding David (pg 53).
- Additionally, he notes that in the presence of neighbors, his mother “played the role of the loving, caring parent– just as she had when she was a Cub Scout den mother” (pg 122).
- Catherine also painted a different picture of their home life when David’s Grandmother came for the holidays (pg 126).
Lawson points out that “children have faith in their parents and believe in their greater wisdom. No child wants to believe that his mother is capable of brutality” (pg 273).
- After stabbing David, he accepted his mother’s increased compassion towards him. He hoped that she was trying to make up to him and hoping that he was back into the “family fold” (pg 94).
- Later that night, when he goes to bed with the large laceration, he goes so far to say “I felt safe knowing she was nearby to watch over me” (pg 95).
- Before a visit from Social Services, Catherine manipulates David into thinking that his ordeal was over and that she will “try to be a good mother” (pg 123). He even starts calling her “Mom” at this point.
- Near the end of the book, David is called an “It” by his mother, and he reveals, “I gave all that I could to accomplish anything possible for her recognition. But again, I failed. Mother’s words were no longer coming from the booze; they were coming from her heart” (pg 141).
So, even through the devastating and intense abuse, David still held onto the hope that his mother loved him and that she would return to being a nurturing and caring parent.
Through and through, I believe that Catherine suffered from Borderline Personality Disorder. She illustrates the maternal functioning of a Borderline Mother, including:
- Confusing her child
- Not apologizing for or remember inappropriate behavior
- Expects to be taken care of
- Punishes or discourages independence
- Envies, ignores, or demeans her children’s accomplishments
- Destroys, denigrates, or undermines self-esteem
- Expects children to respond to her needs
- Frightens and upsets children
- Disciplines inconsistently or punitively
- Feels left out, jealous, or resentful if child is loved by someone else
- Uses threats or abandonment (or actual abandonment) to punish the child
- Does not believe in her children’s basic goodness
- Does not trust her children
Catherine fully qualifies for each of these points. Further and more specifically, as the Witch BPD mother, she sent the following messages to David:
- I could kill you
- You will be sorry
- You won’t get away with this
- You deserve to suffer
- I’d be better off without you
- You’ll never escape my control
- It’s my right as your parent to control you
- I’m going to make you pay
The Witch’s child is raised in a hopeless situation– and David made it out with his resolve, smart thinking, and strong will. The Witch’s words can be vile, her heart cold as stone– thankfully David survived the vile words and the heartless mother to become a highly successful man and an inspiration for all.
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