A million-dollar industry called Dave

Dave Pelzer took his horrific childhood and turned memories into worldwide bestsellers. Controversy inevitably followed. But, says Boyd Tonkin, his story has tapped into a hunger for hurt
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The Independent Culture

Viewed from the future, the bestseller charts for the English-speaking world in the first years of the third millennium will present a strange, baffling picture. In fiction, millions of readers grew addicted to the adventures of a frail, lonely boy. Wounded, humiliated and isolated in an abusive home, he learns how to use his powers of perception and persuasion as a force for good. As for non-fiction: well, millions of readers grew addicted to the adventures of a frail, lonely boy. Wounded, humiliated and isolated in an abusive home... and ditto. Harry Potter? We all understand him by now. Dave Pelzer? Maybe not.

In aggregate, Pelzer's books have spent 11 years on the New York Times bestseller lists. Their UK editions have achieved sales of about 3.5 million. This week, the author is in Britain to promote his fifth work, The Privilege of Youth. Since the mid-1990s, this most visible survivor of childhood abuse - eclipsed, perhaps, only by Oprah Winfrey - has strapped himself into a punishing routine of writing, lectures and workshops. It keeps him on the road for 250 days a year, "working with teens and adults" (as he puts it), "to help them focus on harvesting their inner strength to overcome a horrendous past". Though he still visits children's institutions as a volunteer, a commercial Pelzer event can now cost $7,000 or more.

This widespread hunger for childhood horror has not come cost-free, either for Pelzer or the literary marketplace as a whole. Pelzer and his office have had to fend off accusations of embellishment or even outright invention, with his grandmother, two brothers and a former editor voicing their doubts about his tales of suburban torment. As for the rest of us, Pelzer's bestsellers stand atop an ever-growing heap of heavily-hyped grotesque confessions that vie with one another in gut-churning excess. The latest acclaimed entrant to this victim's parade is Julie Gregory's Sickened, now high in the British Top 10 with a cover design that mimics Pelzer's books. It's a tale of a trailer-trash Ohio upbringing, and an abused girl driven into illness and despair by her mother's transferred hypochondria: the rare condition called "Munchausen's syndrome by proxy". Nothing sells, publishers agree, like a sadistic parent.

Still, Pelzer the 43-year-old "author, Samaritan, activist" and US Air Force veteran continues to attract devoted fans. They know that his trilogy of memoirs recount the acts and aftermath of what Pelzer's former teacher, Steven Ziegler, described as "the third-worse case of child abuse on record in the entire state of California". Chronicled in the books (A Child Called 'It'; The Lost Boy; A Man Named Dave), his torments ranged from beatings and starvation to burnings and stabbings, the enforced eating of a baby brother's faeces from a soiled nappy, and the swallowing of cups of ammonia. Erratically applied, with interludes of affection and the odd happy holiday, the abuse unfolded between the ages of four and 12 at the hands of his alcoholic mother, Roerva, who died in 1992.

The Pelzers, who had five sons, lived in an ordinary blue-collar suburb, Daly City, not far from San Francisco. The books depict Dave as the ultimate family scapegoat, banished to a cot in the garage, ignored by most of his "so-called brothers", his plight passively observed by a sympathetic but defeated fireman father, also a hopeless drunk. But a couple of those "so-called brothers" - portrayed in A Child Called 'It' as gawping at Dave with their friends as he is forced to lie naked for hours in a cold bath - later took their revenge, as we shall see.

On 5 March 1973, his memoirs explain, police and social workers finally removed Dave from this domestic inferno. In one book, the sudden intervention follows the school nurse's routine tally of his suspicious cuts and bruises; in another, it comes after a dunking in a bucket of chemicals has stripped all the skin from his arms. Pelzer remained a ward of the state of California, in and out of various foster homes, until he reached 18. The Privilege of Youth - which is almost trauma-free - shows him knocking about the mid-Seventies Bay Area suburbs as a nearly-normal teen, now preoccupied with beat-up Chevvies, unattainable babes with Farah Fawcett hair-dos, and swanky boom-boxes for his Elton John tapes. Later, he served in the USAF for a dozen years, married, had a son (Stephen) and divorced his first wife, Patsy. A second marriage, to his editor and current "executive director" Marsha Donohoe, kick-started the writing and speaking career that accelerated into national celebrity after a TV appearance on the Montel Williams Show in 1997. Now he lives in a prosperous enclave near Palm Springs, where, he revealingly mentions, he and Marsha count as "the youngest residents by at least 25 years": still, as he always wished, the Good Kid on the block.

To his army of admirers, this chronology will sound as familiar and sacred as Harry Potter's progress from Privet Drive to Hogwarts Academy. Yet readers who have yet to enlist in the Pelzer ranks may scarcely have heard of him. In 2000, the publisher Trevor Dolby of the Orion Group brought the books across the Atlantic, shrewdly noting that "you know at the beginning that he's going to be rescued", and that these short, fast reads with a happy-ish ending completely lack "the American predilection for self-analysis". I discovered Pelzer at the time, but only because I found I had to type the same three titles into the top slots of The Independent's non-fiction book charts, week after week.

Otherwise, this trio of mega-selling volumes had flown in undetected by British cultural radar, rather like the Stealth fighters that Pelzer refuelled in mid-air as a technician during the first Gulf War. No one remotely bookish seemed to know, read or discuss them. In fact, a word-of-mouth British market for the US editions of his memoirs had already emerged. (Pelzer signed up first with a self-help publisher, Health Communications, but later split after a row over marketing and royalties.) Dolby re-packaged the books as discreet tasteful hardbacks. He made it plain to readers that the terrible cruelties detailed inside were of a physical, not sexual nature, and watched them take off as fast as Pelzer's beloved military aircraft.

Apart from anything else, these savage yet sentimental sagas of endurance show that (as one of the teenage Pelzer's guides says in The Privilege of Youth), "one doesn't have to go off to some foreign country armed with guns and grenades to fight and overcome one's war". Curiously, though, a large part of the Pelzer appeal stems from the knowledge that he did go off and fight for the American way. Patriotic, even martial, grace notes decorate the triumph-over-tragedy motif and help reframe the victim as a victor on every front.

Composed in a folksy and direct style, free of psychobabble, Pelzer's work can touch the sort of guy likely to run a mile from the girly intimacies of much "confessional" literature. His website and the books play up this "politically incorrect" side of Dave: the cigars, the jazz bars, the taste for mojitos and Merlot. The Privilege of Youth - much sunnier in tone, as it tells Huck Finn-ish stories of the tearaway teen after his rescue from "The Mother" - stars his Hunter S Thompson-style "mentor", Dave Marsh. All the titles come garnished with appendices by other characters involved, as tokens of their credibility. Marsh, a Vietnam vet, lives up to his billing with gleeful yarns of illegal firework parties and tirades against "the Health and Safety Fascists, the No Fun Allowed League, and Seriousness Police".

Pelzer's approach enchants another constituency, too: if you like, the "Seriousness Police" itself. In the US and Britain, his fame paradoxically coincided with a swift retreat from the media and professional focus on abuse inside the family that dominated the 1980s. Instead, the predatory paedophile stranger returned as the focus of our anxieties. Pelzer, however, writes of the peril and misery inflicted by one's nearest and dearest, even if his atypical abuser, the demonic "Mother" (aka "the Bitch"), gives these stories a man-bites-dog quality of eccentricity that adds to their allure. Above all, Pelzer pays endless glowing tributes to the teachers, police officers, foster carers and social workers who kept him out of Mother's grasp.

So the books honour and advocate interventionist child-protection policies. "As an adult survivor," Pelzer writes, "I am forever grateful to 'the system' that so many in society ridicule without mercy." "Mail a card to a teacher" to say thanks, he advises, "or give a small bunch of flowers to a social worker." When did you last read anything like that in a tabloid? In Pelzer's eyes, the media's own preferred public-sector scapegoats figure as shining saints. Naturally, they want to attend his lectures and buy his books.

A hero to military jocks and liberal carers alike, a helper and motivator "beyond hatred and resentment", a champion of "the indomitable human spirit", an "Outstanding Young American" and torch-bearer at the Atlanta Olympic Games: in some lights, the Pelzer pilgrimage looks too good to be true. Hardly surprising, perhaps, that a few journalists have tried to prove it is exactly that. For Marsha Pelzer, "there is a minority that wants to believe Dave's past and all that he accomplished is nothing short of fiction".

In 2001, the Mail on Sunday asked "Did He Make 'It' All Up?". Its reporter found Pelzer's 92-year-old grandmother, Ruth Cole, in Salt Lake City: she appears in the books as a tetchy, tough veteran of the Depression years, torn between loyalty to her daughter and genuine concern for Dave. Now, Cole decided her grandson's books "should be in the fiction section". One of his brothers remembered a gory stabbing in the stomach as a slight kitchen accident caused by Dave pestering his mother. Another brother (a baby at the time of Dave's story) recalled only one slap from his mother in his life and thinks that his celebrated sibling "strayed when he saw the dollar signs".

And yet... the investigation found another brother who believes he suffered abuse much worse than Dave recorded, and threatens a no-hells-barred book of his own. Even the most hostile sibling sought to exonerate his mother by saying her harsh discipline meant merely that "we had to drop our underwear and be spanked in front of the other brothers". And that's the case for the defence. "Did He Make 'It' All Up?": not remotely, on this evidence. Besides, the books portray a textbook process of separation that, consciously or not, would help to hide the outcast child and his special pain.

At their California HQ, the Pelzer camp fretted far more about a brutal New York Times Magazine hatchet-job in July 2002, entitled "Dysfunction For Dollars". For them this was "the biggest blow yet". The reporter, Pat Jordan, a sportswriter and crime novelist with scant sympathy for the culture of therapy and recovery, located the brothers and grandmother once again. He compared Pelzer, "the Elmer Gantry of the 21st century", to the charlatan travelling preachers of American legend.

Most damagingly, perhaps, Jordan made the hotly disputed claim that Pelzer's bulk-discount purchases of his own titles (for re-sale at lectures) were "single-handedly keeping his books on the bestseller list". The response of Marsha Pelzer and her team is that "Every single word of the text was filled with malice," and that Jordan "deliber- ately went out of his way to lead the readers to the assumption that Dave is a liar".

I see no strong reason to consider Pelzer as anything other than a survivor of prolonged abuse whose elaborate scapegoating may have disguised much suffering from other family members. However, it's easy to grasp why Jordan and other sceptics err on the side of disbelief. The books' dialogue sounds stagey and stilted: it forces you to think of these passages as reconstruction rather than recollection, as in many esteemed autobiographies. Even Pelzer's publishers tend to describe the memoirs as clunky, clumsy screeds, artless but affecting, devoid of merit. That strikes me as entirely wrong.

Weird, naive and oddly flat they undoubtedly are. Yet the fairy-tale intensity of the torture scenes, the claustral gloom of the household, the Mother's sudden switches between love and loathing, the disorienting lack of any context or sequence: all this plunges the reader into a Gothic realm of nightmare that grips tight and won't readily let go. In other words, the memoirs employ, perhaps inadvertently, many of the devices of forshortening and compression, ellipsis and dramatisation, that win prizes for high-status family memoirs from "proper" writers. The author may not have invented any of his grisly story. He does tell it with an artifice that the judicial or the journalistic mind might easily mistake for fabrication.

I'm convinced that Dave Pelzer's three-volume Chamber of Secrets holds authentic terrors and ordeals. But it succeeds as a narrative of fragments and flashbacks, not as a coherent witness statement. No wonder, then, that the tales that give an entrance to this scarred and gory childhood world can sometimes feel as fantastical as anything JK Rowling could devise.