An Exclusive Authorlink Interview With Richard B. Pelzer
On A Brother's Journey, Surviving a Childhood of Abuse
By Doris Booth
Richard Pelzer's elder brother, David Pelzer, shocked the world in 1995 with his memoir, A Child Called It. The book, which hit the New York Times Bestseller list and sold millions of copies, told the story of David's horrific abuse by not only his mother, but also by his brother, Richard. David's mother forced him to live in the basement, nearly starving and beating him to death.
Now, in this equally chilling memoir, A Brother's Journey, Richard reveals his own storyhow at age 7 he became an unwitting participant in his mother's cruelty to David, and how he, himself, became a target of his alcoholic mother's rage after Child Protective Services removed 12-year-old David from the home.
Richard reveals the graphic details of his struggle to survive bloody beatings, sleepless nights, near starvation, and an unrelenting fear of death at his mother's hands.
Miraculously, Richard finds a way to heal, somehow discovering his true spirit, as did his brother. A Brother's Journey is told in the hope of healing others who have suffered from childhood abuse.
Authorlink talked with Richard about how he found the courage and motivation to tell his devastating story.
"I felt embarrassment and shame because the world now knew what our family had tried to keep private for all those years."
AUTHORLINK: In A Child Called It your brother David tells not only of abuse by your mother, but of your own participation in the cruelty. How did you come to write your own story?
RICHARD: At first I was angry and upset when Dave's book came out. I didn't want people to know what we were hiding. The Pelzer name became well-known. People would ask if I were related. In the beginning I'd say yes, but later, after so many questions were asked, I just said "No, not related."
I felt embarrassment and shame because the world now knew what our family had tried to keep private for all those years. Throughout my childhood and teen years I had kept a journal. There I could put my thoughts and feelings on paper; I could say the things I would never have been allowed to say out loud as a child. Even as an adult, after eight years of marriage, I could not tell my wife about how I had grown up.
When I finally did reveal my story to her, she said There's a clear message here. You've gone through such horrendous things, but there were lessons learned. Had you learned them earlier you might have been better off.
As a young boy and a teenager I made a lot of mistakes. Had I had a little more courage and stamina things might have turned out differently. I felt I wanted to turn a horrible situation into an opportunity for kids and teens. I want them to take a hard look at a particular boy's life and see if they can learn the lessons I had to learnwithout having to experience the horror. I knew the only way I could get the message across was to try to write a book so compelling kids couldn't put it down. In sharing the most private parts of my life, I hope kids will get the message; that they will come away from reading the book encouraged and strengthened.
"I told David that I wanted
to write a memoir with the mission of helping other kids understand abusive family situations."
AUTHORLINK: What did David think about you writing your own Pelzer family memoir?
RICHARD: I told David that I wanted to write a memoir with the mission of helping other kids understand abusive family situations. In the early stages, he was happy to play the role of teacher, and taught me much about editors, agents, and the publishing process.
He spent years working at getting published and struggling to find the right agent and editor. I have obviously benefited from the fact that Dave's story has sold millions of copies and created tremendous international interest in the Pelzer family. He has not yet read my book, but I hope one day he will.
AUTHORLINK: A Brother's Journey reveals how an entire family can be infected by the cruelty of one member, particularly when that member is a parent.
RICHARD: Yes, my mother carefully orchestrated everything to create a life of fear and complete obedience for our whole family.
AUTHORLINK: Your mother gave birth to five boys. Why were you and David the main targets of her cruelty?
RICHARD: As a young woman, Mom loved parties and social events. After she married my dark and handsome father, Steve, the kids started coming along and her whole life was filled with diapers and household chores. She resented her new life and blamed her kids for it. Mom was in her physical prime and at the height of her alcohol problems when David and I were young. The other kids may have escaped some of the severity of abuse as Mom grew older. One was mentally retarded. But, my oldest brother was always in a plaster cast on one leg or the other and I could never understand why. I wondered if he joined the school football team to justify his injuries, since he had always hated football. I think the level of abuse each of us suffered was more of a matter of timingwhere Mom was in her own life.
AUTHORLINK: Your mother died in 1992. How did you feel?
RICHARD: There were five boys standing around her grave stone and I don't think any of us shed a single tear. Her death gave some of my brothers a sense of closure. I didn't feel closure though. It was as if it were only another chapter. I wish that I could have sat down with her and talked it out.
"Writing the book was a slow
and painful process that
took about 18 months."
AUTHORLINK: How long did it take you to write the book, and what were some of your struggles?
RICHARD: Writing the book was a slow and painful process that took about 18 months. My wife and I worked on it at night on a makeshift table we moved into our front room.
I cut and pasted notes from my childhood journals into the story, and my wife sometimes couldn't understand what I meant. So I would have to revise to help the story flow better. For example, my wife couldn't understand when Mom told me that David had gone to child prison. In reality Child Protective Services had removed him from our home.
The hardest part for me was working through all the emotions as I wrote and edited. I tried to select only the parts of my journal that would illustrate a lesson for other kids and teensmainly that they have to stand up for themselves.
AUTHORLINK: How did you find an agent?
RICHARD: At David's advice I sent out 52 solicitations to agents. Forty-eight responded positively. It took me three months to carefully get to know each agent and decide whether he or she understood my goal. I didn't just want someone who'd say, Because your name is Pelzer you're going to make a million! I wanted an agent who would help me get my own message out in the right way, and would see it as a continuation of the Pelzer family story that people know so well. I am not after the almighty dollar. I want to get the message out to kids who need it..
I chose Jim Schiavone as my agent. He had been a professor in the literary department at the University of New York. He has less than a half dozen clients. I am small in the world of authors, but to Jim, I am a big client.
AUTHORLINK: So, how did you find the right publisher?
RICHARD: We could have submitted to a lot of publishers, but we wanted to find a house that could really run with the book on its own, not merely riding on Dave's (published by Health Communications) coattails. We chose Warner Books/Time Warner Book Group over two other houses. It wasn't the smallest deal or the largest one, but we selected them because they understood the fact that we needed to get Richard's message out without trying to encroach on Dave's story.
AUTHORLINK: Who is your editor at Warner Books/Time Warner?
RICHARD: Senior Editor John Aherne edited the book. He was very patient, understanding, and emotionalthe perfect person for this book. He made very few revisions, mostly helping me stay in first character and to make sense of passages that had been taken directly from my childhood journals. Les Pockell (associate publisher at Time Warner) is now my editor.
AUTHORLINK: How is the book selling in the first few weeks after its January 2005 release?
Sales for A Brother's Journey are picking up in the U.S. and foreign markets mainly due to word of mouth. In situations where the same publisher has bought both Dave's and my books, I have had some advertising restrictions on the Pelzer name since Dave's books were there first.
AUTHORLINK: What are you doing to promote the book?
RICHARD: USA Today and People magazine have both scheduled reviews of the book, and I'm doing a 25-market radio tour. I also have a web site, RichardPelzer.com.
" . . . I know in my heart that
it wasn't Richard who
Dave to suffer."
AUTHORLINK: In some ways, your story seems an apology to Dave for the severe abuse he suffered at the hands of your mother, and of your own role as a 7-year-old in that abuse.
RICHARD: I had a tremendous amount of remorse and guilt as both a child and teenager. I feel bad today for what happened, but I know in my heart that it wasn't Richard who deliberately caused Dave to suffer. It was the only way I, myself, could survive under the constant fear of death from my mother.
AUTHORLINK: Do you see Dave often?
RICHARD: I saw him once at school after he was removed from our home, and again at Mom's funeral in 1992. I feared for many years that if he ever saw me he'd come after me. It's very odd, but I don't know him as my brother.
AUTHORLINK: Do you have children of your own?
RICHARD: I have four children. The oldest daughter is ten, and since Dave's book, A Child Called It, is required reading at school, my daughter is just starting to learn the Pelzer story. We're trying to take her along at her own speed.
AUTHORLINK: Are you now writing as a full-time career?
RICHARD: I want to make it my career. I have four more stories I want to get out there, two nonfiction and two fiction. I have learned I do love to write. It's a great way of using the mind, and it's rewarding. Before taking on this project, I worked in the financial field in Boston, processing federal tax returns for investors on the New York Stock Exchange. Now, I'm a starving artist.
AUTHORLINK: After such an abusive life, how did you ever gain the courage and motivation to build your own life?
RICHARD: I tried to commit suicide twice as a teenager. On my second failed attempt when I had reached rock bottom, a woman named Darlene Nichols, who was married and had six children, took me into her home. I watched TV with the family, ate with them, helped the kids with their homework. I began to realize that I was smart, fairly good looking, and that I had value. That family gave me what I needed and I could put the past behind me. Without that one event, I would have ended my life. I hated everything and everybody. I was hooked on heroine and drinking heavily. I was trying to destroy myself. Yet the kindness of this one person turned me around. I learned that one small kindness can save a life. If A Brother's Journey can do that, then I will have repaid my debt.
AUTHORLINK: What other manuscripts are you working on now?
RICHARD: I have finished a sequel to A Brother's Journey, which I hope Warner Books will publish. I have also completed two fictional works that I'd like to publish: Karen's Garden, a love story, and Apparition, a ghost story.
" I see that despite all the pain my brothers and I endured growing up, something good can
come out of it. "
AUTHORLINK: What is the most wonderful thing that has happened to you as a result of writing this book?
RICHARD: I am able to talk about my story without becoming a wet ragnot only with my wife, but with kids and teenagers everywhere. I see that despite all the pain my brothers and I endured growing up, something good can come out of it.
AUTHORLINK: What do you most want people to know from this experience?
RICHARD: I want them to know the magnitude of the problem.
The National Incident Study for Child Abuse reports that there are 2.8 million American kids living in abusive situations, and 570,000 have died as a result. The US Department of Social Services reports about 1.8 million cases, and has recorded 3 million children as abused. Eighty percent of the cases never get recorded. For every 1,000 children in the US, 13.4 have been abused.
I want people to know that they can walk into any high school in America and 10 percent of those kids will be living in abusive situations. Walk into any grocery store, pick five kids and one will be abused. It is difficult for us to discuss these situations as a community, because abuse happens in our private lives, in our homes. Today, help is available to these kids. They can turn to policemen, firemen, or counselors in their schools. But they have to have the courage to speak out. Kids, like me, have got to do something. They have to help themselves.
"I'd love to sit down with my brother, and for each of us
to learn about the other."
AUTHORLINK: What would you most like to do now that your book has been released?
RICHARD: I'd love to sit down with my brother, and for each of us to learn about the other. I'd like to talk to him and get to know who Dave is.