Authors: Richard B. Pelzer
Names and identifying characteristics of some individuals in this book have been changed to protect their identities.
Copyright © 2006 by Richard B. Pelzer
All rights reserved.
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First eBook Edition: May 2006
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Also by Richard B. Pelzer
A Brother’s Journey
This book is dedicated to my children.
The teenage years are the hardest, but can also be the most rewarding. May you learn not only from what I have been through, but also from what no young adult
should ever have to go through.
I will always be there for each of you.
In order for you, the reader, to understand and appreciate what this book means to me, I must provide some insight as to what my life was like prior to my teen years.
We were to all appearances a normal middle-class family in a small city just outside San Francisco, California, called Daly City. With most families in the neighborhood, at least one of the parents worked a middle-class job. My father was no different.
He worked as a fireman in San Francisco. Mom stayed home and took care of the five boys. On the surface, there was nothing out of the ordinary about us. We were just like the rest—at least, up to the point where I became aware that what happened to us as boys at home was different than what other children experienced in the neighborhood—or the country, for that matter.
We lived like wolves, able to turn on one another at will, able to devour one another when need be. It was necessary. However perverted it may sound, it was nothing less than a matter of survival.
In the early days, I don’t think any of us kids felt that what was happening was “over the top.” It was all we knew. Perhaps my older brothers knew better, perhaps they experienced similar things before I came along. I don’t know. I can only speculate about what happened before I was born.
From my earliest memories, life was completely and utterly bizarre. Inside the house and with the protection of privacy, Mom’s ability to demonize and control her children knew no bounds. Eventually she mastered the ability to terrify a child beyond mortal horror. For many adults, it’s traumatic to have to come to terms with your own mortality. But when a child becomes conscious of walking a tightrope between life and death, the struggle to survive becomes personal, a matter of endurance; much like a pro athlete pushing himself beyond what he thinks he is capable of just so as to push himself even further. When a child has to constantly endure in order to survive, each accomplishment, each victory no matter how small, gives him the willpower to continue and endure even more.
For me, by the time I reached fifteen, I’d found other ways to endure: alcohol and drugs. It wasn’t as if I was the only teen who drank in my school—most of the kids I knew drank. Most of the kids I hung out with did an assortment of drugs: nothing outrageous—marijuana, speed, crystal methamphetamine, cocaine, or the occasional hallucinogenic.
Alcohol was different. At first it was a matter of desire: a desire to get drunk. Later it was more of a need to get completely bombed. As I look back now, I know the answer to the question most kids asked me: why I liked hard liquor when the rest preferred beer. It was just part of my personality. From drinking to drugs, everything I did had to be harder, bigger, more dangerous than what those around me were doing. As a teenager, I had an addictive and dangerous personality. It was much as I’d been as a child. In fact, it was a tribute to my childhood.
I started drinking at the age of fifteen. I never liked the taste of beer—it always filled me up and I found it difficult to drink fast. On the routine errands that Mom sent me on to the local liquor store, with a note to the store clerk giving me permission to buy a pack of cigarettes for her, I usually managed to leave with a pack or two of smokes and a bottle of bourbon or vodka for myself. And no, the note said nothing about permission to steal—I authorized that on my own. Self-sanctioned destruction. That’s what most of my young adult life was like.
As I turned sixteen, the realization that I was nearly six feet tall and weighed almost one hundred and eighty pounds spared me from any further physical abuse at the hands of my mother. But it meant an intensification of the mental and emotional abuse, which was actually more damaging to me than being beaten unconscious or deprived of sleep for days.
As a teenager, I often wished Mom would make me sit on the hardwood floor again with my hands folded together, knuckles down. The pain of my own weight crushing my hands as I sat on them for hours was not as bad as feeling the eyes of the neighbors on me as I walked past their houses, knowing that Mom had probably regaled each one of them many times with accounts of my faults as a teen. Usually she would get the name of the drug or the brand of booze wrong, as she magnified my misdemeanors to any neighbor or stranger who happened to pick up the phone when she called. I always felt as if every one of the neighbors and even people several streets over knew my every move. It was shameful to feel their piercing stares and their complete disgust as they looked at me. Mom made no secret of who she called and when she called them. The only thing she kept to herself was the neighbors’ eventual pleas for her to stop. Mom not only embarrassed me at my expense, she also embarrassed herself at my expense. There was no limit to what she would do to ensure I continued to feel less than human.
At first I always drank with at least one other teen, or a few friends. We hung out in the woods behind a small group of apartments just down the street. There we shared many “firsts”: a first kiss, a first smoke, a first hit off a joint, and even the first sexual experience. But with the move from my hometown in California to a new town, Sandy City, Utah, came my introduction to solitude. I knew no one, no one my age who drank or smoked or did drugs. Sandy City and most of Salt Lake City, most of the state for that matter, was very religious.
It took me several weeks to find the few fellow students who lived as I did: a life of drinking and drug abuse, secretive and out of control. By that time I preferred to drink alone, anyhow. I enjoyed the local park after dark, long after closing. I spent more time alone, after midnight, drinking myself into the Stone Age at Mesa Park than I spent sitting in class at Hillcrest High School.
The world was changing all around me, but everything I did and everyone I came across seemed meaningless and impersonal: everyone except Darlene. At that point, Darlene was the only one who could reach me. She was the only one that even tried. She introduced me to her husband, her family, and a few select neighbors, including Judy Prince—people who weren’t tainted by Mom’s negative influence—not yet, anyway.
Looking back, I know that her kindness, her love, and her unsolicited recognition saved me. What Darlene gave me at that time was more than I had ever expected from anyone. What she gave I treasured above everything.
She gave me respect, and the opportunity to speak.
She gave me friendship.
She gave me hope.
From the day I met Darlene my life changed—for the better, but also for the worse.
Now I was exposed to what a real family had to do to function. I was totally confused: my need and my overpowering desire to destroy myself conflicted with the love and respect I was being so freely given.
As a teenager, I made a lot of mistakes and some very poor choices that could have affected me for the rest of my life. Luckily, only a few of those mistakes have dogged my adult life. I could have been so much worse off than I am. I also know that there are teens today who are worse off than I ever was: more self-destructive, more ashamed, more hurtful, and more dangerous.
I also know why.
There are events in life that we have to experience for ourselves: our first love, the birth of a first child, the loss of a loved one. There are other lessons that we can learn through other people’s experiences. Those lessons spare us the cost and pain of personal experience. They also provide us with insight.
That’s the reason this book has been published: to give all of us an understanding of just what a teenager, pushed to extremes, will do and how desperate he or she can become in the search for love and
I survived one of the most horrific and abusive childhoods imaginable. Those few people who knew what was happening did nothing to help. They were afraid to.
I was confused and I was damaged. My entire teenage life I continued the self-destruction. It became part of me. It constituted who I was and what I thought about myself.
This experience has helped me in ways that few people will ever understand. Until now.
This work would not have been possible without the tenderness and patience of my wife Joanne. Special thanks to Mr. and Mrs. Digby Diehl, my editor Barbara Daniel, my agent Jim Schiavone, Ron Goodson, Chris and Geoffrey Tubbs, and Judy Prince-Hansen. And of course the Nichols family, thank you all.
I had been part of what can only have been one of the worst instances of child abuse in America of the 1970s. But the preteen that once held me captive was gone—I was a teenager, and I was different now. I was determined to either stand up for myself or give up.
Unfortunately I chose to give up. I wanted, needed, to take my own life.
ORNING CAME, AND
I leapt out of bed and got dressed before anyone was up. For the first time in years, I was happy. The rest of the household were going to be away for two weeks. I was finally going to be alone.
A few nights before, I had been in the basement, reflecting on my life—on the child I had been and the events that had shaped who I had become. The basement had always been a place I wished I could forget. Its concrete walls held all the emotions, fears, and tears of the little boys—me and my brother David—captured and forced down there and abused. Those concrete walls held the secrets that only a few knew about. It was as if the emotions that had been absorbed in the concrete were what held the foundations together.
The memories of the things that had happened in the basement terrified me. They were telling me something, and I couldn’t make sense of what I thought I remembered. I recalled myself as a little boy hiding in the basement from Mom, like an animal. Months before, the hamster that lived in my room had escaped and found his way down to the basement. I found him hiding and shaking with fear under the steps. The same hiding place I knew so well. The memory of Mom laughing as she left me cowering under the metal shelves that had fallen on top of me once she’d shoved me into them—the debris crushing me and her laughter as she walked away hurt me more deeply than I can put words to.
That’s what most of my late childhood and young teenage life was like. I struggled to find words that described how I felt. I had outgrown my stuttering. I was older now. Instead of words getting tangled in my throat I found it hard to find words that expressed the hurt, the anger, and the shame.
When I recalled that same little boy slumped on the bottom step, staring at a pool of my own blood after Mom had thrown me to the concrete floor, smashing my head, I saw my face reflected: meeker than meek and utterly humiliated. I was so ashamed of what I was as a child. The ghost of my past, the memories of the child who had been so abused, haunted me. Often those apparitions would reappear in my dreams, but that one night, a few nights before, the ghosts were telling me to accept the fact that I was no longer that scared little boy.
As I got older, and felt I understood something about what had been happening to me, to an extent I was able to let go of it. But those experiences had not disappeared. Much like many apparitions will do, they reappeared when I least expected it.
Now I was a teenager, and one thing I did know: I’d seen more misery than any child should have to, and I wanted it all to end. I wanted the shame to go away, the fear to evaporate, and mostly, I wanted the ghosts of my past to just leave me alone. I wanted, needed, to end my life.