A Child Called It: Novel Summary: Chapter 6: While Father Is Away
Dave’s father starts to spend less time at home. When he is home, he is sympathetic to Dave as they wash the dishes together. Dave feels safe with him, but soon his mother intervenes and says that The Boy (as she refers to him) should not be helped with his chores. Father now is rarely to be seen, and Dave is upset at his departure.
Mother starves Dave for ten days, making sure that he cannot find any scraps or steal any food. He lives on water. By the sixth day he is so weak he can hardly get out of his cot. One evening she gives him a plate of cold leftovers and tells him he has two minutes to eat it all. But before he can start to eat, she snatches the food away and puts it in the garbage disposal. On the tenth day, she again gives him some food and tells him he has two minutes to eat it, and this time he manages to do so.
Mother sends Dave to clean the bathroom. She puts a bucket of Clorox and ammonia in the room and closes the door. The fumes soon give Dave an adverse reaction; his throat gets raw and he coughs violently. He pushes the bucket as far away as he can and covers his face with a wet rag, then sucks in air from a heating vent. After half an hour his mother opens the door. Dave coughs up blood for more than an hour.
Mother sends Dave out to mow lawns. One woman gives him a lunch bag, but his mother is convinced he stole the food and beats him up. Then she makes him sit on rocks in the backyard while she takes her other sons to the zoo. Dave is almost in despair.
When Mother returns she forces Dave to take a cold bath and forces his head under water. Then she leaves him in the cold water for hours. When she returns she orders him to put his clothes on without first drying himself. Dave is forced to sit in the backyard shivering in his wet clothes. This treatment becomes routine.
Dave begins fourth grade and has a substitute teacher. He likes her and she is kind to him, which gives him some kind of comfort as his ill-treatment at the hands of his mother continues. He is beaten with a dog’s chain and a broom handle and is forbidden to even see his father.
Dave is told to see the school nurse, who documents all the bruises on his arms.
At Halloween that year, his mother gives him the usual bathroom treatment, making him lie in cold water. His situation is getting worse and worse, since now even his brothers ignore him completely. At Christmas he receives a pair of roller skates, which is not as good it sounds because Mother forces him to skate outside for hours in chilly weather without a jacket.
In March, Mother goes to the hospital to give birth to another baby. While she is gone, Dave’s father allows him to play with his brothers and feeds him properly. Mother returns with a baby boy, Kevin.
Mother befriends a neighbor called Shirley and in her presence acts as a loving mother. She makes up a variety of excuses as to why Dave is not allowed to play with the other boys. Mother and Shirley fall out after a few months.
One Sunday Mother tells Dave she is sorry and that he is to forget all the bad things that have happened. They will make a new start together. She lets him take a warm bath and put on new clothes. He is allowed to eat with the rest of the family for the first time in years.
The next day a woman from the social services department comes to the house. She and Mother talk for an hour, and then Dave is called in. The social worker asks if he is happy and he says he is. She asks whether his mother ever beats him. He replies no, except when he is a bad boy and needs to be punished. He realizes now why Mother suddenly started being nice to him.
After the social worker leaves, Mother is angry because he gave the wrong answers. She hits him several times and sends him to the garage. Dave realizes that he is back in his old position of being an outcast in his own family, and he begins to accept it. He feels very alone when his father goes out to work each morning. Dave does not want him to leave. In spite of his father’s failure to protect him, Dave still loves him.
In this chapter the catalogue of almost unimaginable abuses continues and reaches levels of sadism that are hard to comprehend. It is noticeable how Dave clings to the hope that his father can save him, even though the man is too weak to intervene. However, at least when his father is around the abuse from his mother is not as bad. The fact that she can modify her behavior when others are present is a clear sign that she is aware that her behavior is morally unacceptable. But this does not stop her. She shows an ability to manipulate others as when she changes her behavior when she hears that a social worker is coming. Her attempt to pull the wool over the eyes of the social worker is similar to the way she talked herself out of a difficult situation on her visit to the principal in an earlier chapter.
Throughout it all, Dave, tortured and humiliated and starved, somehow manages to survive. The attentions of the school nurse and the visit of the social worker suggest that the net is closing in on the mother, but it will be some months before Dave is rescued.