Category Archives: non fiction

Guest Review by Rudy Benavides– A Child Called It – Dave Pelzer

When I was in school, Rudy was my special buddy in Spanish class. I liked him despite the fact that he repeatedly made me look bad by being smarter than me. Clearly, things haven’t changed much. His review has citations! All you high school kids looking to crib info from the internet instead of reading the assigned books (yes, I do look at the analytics for this site) just hit the jackpot.

Rudy sent me this review with the disclaimer that he had taken forever to finish A Child Called It because it made him so mad. Our initial conversation is below:

Elana : That book looks like some heavy reading. Did it piss you off because of the lack of authority intervention and the idea of shitty evil parents, or did the writing of the book itself make you angry?

Rudy : The story/writing is from the perspective of a young boy, so the writing isn’t supposed to be deep; however, it is detailed and graphic. No, what pissed me off was that the mother was never brought to justice, and she never repented. I read that many years later at her son’s graduation from the airforce, she slapped him. Because the story takes place in the 1960’s and 70’s, I understand that police, social workers, and teachers weren’t trained to look for abuse and deal with it. The sentiment of the time was privacy of the family.

A Child Called “It” is the survival story of David Pelzer in where he chronicles his years as a victim of various forms of abuse at the hands of his sadistic, alcoholic mother. David endures neglect as well as physical, emotional, verbal, and psychological abuse through a number of humiliating and degrading punishments for the amusement of his mother. Highly troubling is the fact that, throughout the story, David encounters several adults who could have rescued him from his plight, but for one reason or another, were unable or unwilling to intervene until much later when, after years of teacher and nurse reports, and several trips to the principal’s office, law enforcement was finally involved.

David’s ordeal takes place in the mid 1960’s through the early1970’s when things like traditional family roles were the norm and when institutions such as schools and its teachers typically had no business in the lives of students outside of the classroom. This helps explain why David’s abuse was allowed to go on for so long and why, even after David’s rescue, his mother was never held accountable for her actions.
The period before and during David’s abuse was marked by major social events such as the Women’s movement, the Civil Right’s movement, and several smaller yet significant events, which brought new awareness to victims and child abuse. According to Pecora, Whittaker, Maluccio, Barth and Plotnick, 1992:
In 1961, with documentation from 71 hospitals, a University of Colorado team headed by pediatrician C. Henry Kempe found 302 battered-child cases in a single year; 33 of the children died, and 85 suffered permanent brain damage. That same year, professional and media interest in child maltreatment was sparked by the publication of C. Henry Kempe and associates’ “The battered child syndrome” in the Journal of the American Medical Association (p. 126-7).
Kempe coined the term battered-child syndrome, which he and his colleagues defined as “a clinical condition in young children who have received severe physical abuse, generally from a parent or foster parent (Crosson-Tower, 2008). By the mid-1960s, in response to public concern that resulted from this article, 49 U.S. states passed child-abuse reporting laws (Pecora et al., 1992, p.126-7). Further, the first child abuse reporting statute was explored in 1962 at a conference held by the Department of Health, the Federal Department Education, and the Children’s Welfare Bureau (, 2002).
Although child abuse victim advocacy was beginning to gain momentum among researchers and the medical community during this period, it is obvious that there was much work to be done. By the time David was in grade school, mandated reporting by all school staff should have been protocol, especially in severe and chronic cases as David’s. While teachers and nurses did document David’s injuries and pattern of stealing food, an attempt to understand why these things were happening to David was likely never followed through. Additionally, the social worker who visited David’s home should have never asked David if he was safe in front of his mother.

As Hilary Clinton wrote in 1973, “children’s rights” is a “slogan in need of a definition” (, 2010).
Had the school staff been properly trained to look for signs of abuse, examine and understand David’s injuries, and notify the proper authorities sooner, David would not have had to endure for so long. Fortunately, battered child syndrome has become better known among today’s human services professionals and is even defined by the U.S. Department of Justice. If David’s story took place today, (I am sure it does all the time) I would like to think it would not go unreported. Education about child abuse is widespread among our society and people seem more vigilant and ready to take action than in the past. Intervention would occur and the children would likely be temporarily placed with family while the parent(s) get help. Reunification would be ideal, because children will always love their parents and want to be with them, but the safety of the children comes first.
Unfortunately, the book does not give the reader further insight into David’s mother’s actions or motives except for her alcoholism, which likely played a major role in her abuse of David; however, certain theories may explain why David’s mother was violent towards him. For instance, the Social Learning Theory assumes that the type of behavior most frequently reinforced by others is the one most often exhibited by the individual (Wallace, 2008, p. 10). In other words, David’s mother was probably violent toward David because that is how she was probably raised. However, this theory does not apply to everyone as one can make the decision not to perpetuate the cycle of violence. On the other hand, someone who was never abused as a child might become a violent person simply because he or she chooses to be.
Another possible explanation is the Frustration-Aggression Theory, which is based on the premise that human beings display aggression toward objects that impede their achievement of certain goals (Wallace, 2008, p. 11). In the book, it was stated that David’s mother intended to be a nurse before she met her spouse. Perhaps, David did not fit into his mother’s picture of an ideal family, so he consequently became a scapegoat. Then again, there is the issue of alcoholism, which can cause individuals to behave madly. It is probable that David’s mother suffered from a combination of issues, which no one around her, including herself, understood.
A Child Called It makes anyone familiar with the plight of victims and child welfare reflect on how much progress has been made in the past 35 years. However, we should not and cannot conform to our past accomplishments, because the world is continually changing, and our future, in my opinion, does not look bright. If we insist on bringing new life into this world the way we have been for the past 40 years, then we must take better care of our children. Otherwise, life will always just be a violent and vicious cycle.


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Into the Wild – Jon Krakauer

Natures is not a loving mother. Nature wants to eat you. Eat you or lay eggs in you, or lay eggs in you and then let the eggs hatch and eat you. Nature is powerful and overwhelming, and at the very least, Nature should be thought of like Lenny from Mice and Men; liable to kill you accidentally and not even notice.

People are always wandering off in to Nature and coming to grief, and at first glance, that is the case of Chris McCandless in Into the Wild. Actually, at second glance too, that’s pretty much what happened, but the story surrounding Chris’ misadventure is more interesting than simply “Doofus Dies through own Foolishness” (the preferred title of my own biography; take note, friends. Clearly, one of you will be responsible for writing it).

Chris himself is not terrible fascinating (except to the author, who seems fairly smitten). He’s got unfair and impossible ideas about how other people should live their lives, and like many people who claim a strong moral path, he leaves a trail of broken hearts and worry behind him. What is fascinating is how the story brings up ideas of personal freedom, “healthy” social interaction and the human relationship to wilderness (Is it there to be conquered? To teach us humility? Does it exist just so bears stay out of  our swimming pools?)

Chris McCandless doesn’t have a unique story and Krakauer discusses the history of men being eaten by Nature.  Everett Ruess, who regularly ventured off in to untamed wild to escape the corruption and overwhelming civilization of city life also disappeared and was never seen again. What’s startling about this particular narrative is that Ruess was trying to escape the overly structured life of society of the West in the 1930’s! What would he have thought of today with our traffic cameras and state-fair-no-lard regulations?

Krakauer wrote Into the Wild as a follow-up to a magazine article published after McCandless’ death. He shares some of the  letters he received from magazine readers expressing surprising hatred towards Chris and others like him. Why do we as a people get so enraged by other people’s tragic mistakes? Is it jealousy of those who follow a dream? Fear of them that seem to have no need for the society which both binds and supports the majority of us? Perhaps it’s resentment of someone who willingly endangers their life, when we have all  had to say goodbye to someone beloved who left this world unwilling.

I apologize for a review made mostly of questions, but in the end, Into the Wild leaves more unanswered than solved. What drives us to try to live as cavemen, or to climb mountains made of pointy ice? Perhaps more importantly,  do bears write books detailing the tragic stories of cubs who simply couldn’t resist the call of human trash cans and picnic baskets?

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Memory – Elizabeth Loftus

According to Loftus’ research, people remember past events, and especially their own actions as more positive/generous/clever/attractive/successful than they actually were. Since I remember every humiliating thing I’ve ever done back to 4-year old tears due to a failed chocolate pudding painting, the idea that reality was actually WORSE than I remember is downright horrifying.

If you need me, I’ll be finishing this review from my closet, beneath a giant pile of shame.

Memory is a surprisingly easy read, and does bring up the interesting idea that better memory is partially a matter of simply being more observant in the first place.  We remember, says Loftus, the minimum information needed. As an example, she shares an experiment where subjects are asked first to draw a penny from memory, and then to pick an accurate drawing of a penny from a chart. People remember that a penny has some words, and President Lincoln, but which way does Lincoln face? What do the words say? Where are they on the coin? Almost no one knows, and it’s because it simply doesn’t matter. We only need to remember enough about a penny to distinguish it from other coins.

In other chapters Loftus discusses eye-witnesses, false memories, advertising’s effect on memory and cases of memory-savants. A useful chapter touches on ways of remembering more, or more accurately.

Loftus’ writing style is breezy and chatty, occasionally to the point of seeming flippant, and like all the psychiatric studies I’ve read, she seems to take a mild delight in fucking with people, but maybe I’m remembering it wrong.

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We were the Ramchargers – Dave Rockwell

The Ramchargers were a group of wild, rebellious automotive engineers at Chrysler back in the days of corporate stick-in-the-mudom, before companies like Google and Red Bull started having offices with air-hockey tables and company “bring your beer to work day”.

The Ramchargers wore suits and ties, but beneath those half windsor knots, they seethed with rage at the slow and uninteresting automobiles coming out of the Mopar factories. Working after hours and using their own money, the Ramchargers invented technology that would later become standard equipment on almost all production automobiles and at the same time, campaigned one of the most successful drag racing teams ever. Also, they had an awesome paint scheme. Rockwell was one of these angry engineers, and in We were the Ramchargers, he brings together stories and photos from more than 40 other men and women who made up the changing Ramcharger team from the 50s through the 70s.

In Go Like Hell (reviewed earlier),  A.J. Baime wrote of the men and personalities involved in the Ford/Ferrari rivalry. The closest Rockwell gets to an in-depth exploration of personality is when he describes Tom Hoover’s daily driver with its custom built 392 Hemi intake system, which would ice up after the first three miles of driving. Hoover would simply stop for coffee on his way to work, let the engine heat soak the block, and be back on the road. No big deal. That’s engineer-speak for “Hoover was a total bad-ass.”

To save you time, I say this:

Car person? Read this, it’s incredible, and incredibly technical.

Non-car person? My recommendation depends on how much you enjoy feeling ignorant.

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Infidel – Ayaan Hirsi Ali

I’m concerned that I might not be smart enough to review this book. Whether you agree with Ali’s ideas regarding Islam and Dutch politics or not, she’s clearly an extremely intelligent and dedicated woman.

I on the other hand, am dedicated to few things that don’t have frosting and spend most of my time giggling about words that might be euphemisms for feces.

Still, I will drag myself away from camping aisle in Target (where they have a display of “Fire Logs”) and instead encourage you to read this book.

It’s thrilling. There’s pretty much non-stop action, so it won’t even occur to you that there are controversial opinions regarding cultural freedom and political correctness being presented. Ali is an astute observer of behavior. From the villages of Somalia to the Dutch Parliment, each character is carefully attended and expressed. You will find yourself with lots of interesting facts to bring up at parties, at least, you will if you go to the kind of party where people discuss the ethical ramifications of banning female circumcision. (for the record, I say ban that shit and never, ever google it).

This book was recommended to me by my Pa, who thinks Ali is brilliant and an excellent role model for politicians. In a family discussion, my Mom said that she felt Ali used the people around her, and was insensitive to them. If you read Infidel, you can let me know which of my parents you agree with.

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Filed under biography, non fiction, recommended to me by someone

Adventures among the Ants – Mark Moffett

Hey, remember when you told me that you’d buy me an ice cream if I’d just freaking shut up about ants for a second? Well, I’ll buy my own dang ice cream. Here’s another ant related review.

You know how Buster Keaton somehow highlights the creature that is man through physical comedy? Well, if Keaton was a scientist, and instead of having houses fall around him, he was always being bitten by ants, he’d be Mark Moffett.

Moffett is a former student of the brilliant E.O Wilson and he clearly shares Wilson’s passion and keen eye for nature study. Unlike Wilson however, who seems always to be quietly whispering his observations to you (so tender), Moffett is a confident, funny man grown up in the hilarious-nature-host era of television. He’s bold and goofy and clumsy. He’s constantly disrupting weddings, falling from trees and of course, being bitten, stung and sprayed with toxic chemicals by all manner of amazing insects.

Adventures among the Ants is a great travelogue, biography, philosophical study and informative nature tome. You will want to immediately grab your macro lens and head out in search of exploding soldier ants and swimming pitcher plant guards.  You might also reconsider your ideas of individuality and devotion to fellow man. If you don’t like jungles you’ll get the mad heebie jeebies. Sissy.

Did you know…

that the bigger an ant colony is the more specialized its members can be?

that large colonies move quicker than small colonies, something also seen in humans?

that ants choose new homes by voting?

that the biggest ant war in the world is currently occurring in San Diego?

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The Three Christs of Ypsilanti – Milton Rokeach

I fear that this review might make it sound as if I am deep. I’m not really, it’s just gas.

In an earlier review, I mentioned the dangers of having a medical doctor as a parent. Three Christs made me realize the even more scarring possibilities of having a psychiatrist as a parent. They might mess with the very core of who you believe yourself to be!

Rokeach was a visiting doctor at Ypsilanti State Mental Hospital in the 60’s. When he wasn’t traumatizing his young daughters by calling each by the other’s name, he was studying the interactions of three patients each of whom believed himself to be Jesus.  Apparently, one’s belief in one’s own persona is very important, and being confronted with more than one person all claiming or being named as the persona you believe is your own can be very disturbing. ( I let you all know now, you’re welcome to my persona, I’ve already ruined it by admitting to gassiness.)

The doctors really do sort of fuck with the patients, but I don’t think they intend to be cruel. Still, it’s occasionally difficult to read through the sympathetic spasming of curled toes and winces.

Empathy aside, I was fascinated by how the patients tried to avoid conflict while still maintaining the construction of their identities. There is some amazing conversational gymnastics, and lessons could be learned by those planning a career in law, politics or business.

Highly recommend this one. I’m still thinking about it.

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