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 (namely Lawon's Understanding the Borderline Mother ) about BPD, I will pose case that Catherine suffered from Borderline Personality Disorder ( BPD ).
David 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.
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:
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."
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.
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.
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):
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.
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).
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:
Catherine fully qualifies for each of these points. Further and more specifically, as the Witch BPD mother, she sent the following messages to David:
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.