'Help Yourself' author Dave Pelzer
Dave Pelzer is an author, educator and consultant. At age 12, he was rescued from an abusive home, and identified as one of the most severely abused children in California's history. Two of his books, "A Child Called It," and his most recent work, "Help Yourself," have been nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. He joined the CNN.com chat room from California.
CNN: Thank you for joining us today, Dave Pelzer, and welcome.
PELZER: It's a pleasure and honor for me to be here!
CNN: Why do people hold onto "destructive baggage?"
PELZER: I have no idea! I think part of it is that they're so much into that, it's a learned behavior. It could be self esteem, not feeling worthy enough to step out of the zone or seek something better. It's a learned behavior. It doesn't have to be from a tumultuous childhood. It's like that lady from 'Fried Green Tomatoes,' just needing to stand up for herself, to say, "you can't treat me this way."
CHAT PARTICIPANT: Dave, how can one overcome bad marriages or relationships? Can one heart's really go on?
PELZER: I went through a marriage, and got involved for a lot of reasons. Part of it was that I knew it wasn't going to work out, but I tried hard. It takes two to make it or break it. One can't do it. One's heart can go on. It takes time and maturity. I still love my former wife, I won't call her my ex-wife. She's the mother of my son. We were just two people, and whatever we went through together, we just couldn't make it work. You can't move on, unless you get over the past. You have to look at it for what it was, and just slowly let it go. There's no need to hate that person, wish them ill, it'll only suck you down as well.
CHAT PARTICIPANT: Mr. Pelzer, how can one get over the stigma of being an abused child?
PELZER: I think one can get over that. As a child, you're subjected to a situation you can't control, but as we grow into teens or adults, we have more control. Adults in their 20's or 30's can make your own choices. Maybe this thing happened in your past, and if you still feel a victim of abuse, you'll always have the stigma. In my case, I lived through a difficult situation for 8 years, from age 4 to age 12, but then, the more I fought with it every day, and tried to get over it, then I knew I could have more choice as an adult.
What distresses me at times is that I meet a lot of people in their 40's, 50's, 60's, who still say they're a victim of child abuse. I say, no you're not. You're an adult. If you still think you're a victim after all that time, you'll always be a victim of circumstance. That's a tragedy. What worries me, or weighs heavy on my heart, is someone who's still a victim of their past.
Look at it from a numbers perspective. If it's a 30 year old person with five years of abuse, that's 25 years they've wasted every day in stress, turmoil and fear. That time is wasted. I look at it that the 8 years were horrible, but I'm on the back end of 40, and it's over. I laugh a lot as an adult, but didn't as a kid. I know I'm on borrowed time, because of that negative past.
CHAT PARTICIPANT: David, how do your past experiences still color your present life?
PELZER: It's part of my life, it's part of my makeup. But the truth is that everybody has situations. Parents divorce. Loved ones pass away. Everybody has a tragedy or two in their lives. How does it color their lives? The truth is, it's just a part of their lives. Because of my past, I'm just appreciative of the life I have now. I really believe I'm no different from anyone else. I just had a few challenges I had to learn from at a very early age. However, it did make me a much stronger person, gave me incredible will power.
Everyone goes through something, and faces issues. I knew as a child if I survived all I did without a college degree, without someone like Phil Jackson, the coach of the LA Lakers in my corner, telling me what to do, if I can do all that, what can possibly stop me? I've found that folks from whatever age or situation, when they really knuckle down and have a lot of determination to fight for a situation, they find out that they're stronger at the other side of it. Look at Marie Osmond, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Oprah Winfrey, Colin Powell. All incredible stories, with pasts that weren't pretty, but a lot of guts and determination.
CHAT PARTICIPANT: Mr Pelzer, do you pray ? Any comments on prayer ?
PELZER: Oh, yes. I believe in a higher power, I believe in God, and I believe in a master plan. In my former situation, that definitely helped get me through. Some people, if they can't taste, touch or smell, they believe it's not there. As I grow older, I just believe that what happened to me happened to make me a better human being, a little more humble and kind, and definitely a better father. It gave me a voice, a reason to help others in need, as best I can. I only pray that when my time comes, and if I'm allowed to go to heaven, that St. Peter says, "Dave, you were supposed to sell shoes!" :)
CHAT PARTICIPANT: I wonder if people who hang on to the baggage or victim label aren't getting some kind of payoff, albeit a negative one. Can you comment?
PELZER: Some people that I've met or known like to stay in that protective womb of negativity, for whatever the reason. These are some of the same people that blame their woes on a troubled childhood, bad parents, the current occupant of the White House, high tide, or even a solar eclipse. I can understand why some people are very afraid. I've found that people who stay in that protective womb are afraid, or have low self esteem, or find it easier to stay in the shell than step out and make a journey of recovery, and therefore to happiness.
CHAT PARTICIPANT: Dave, are there some simple exercises one can do during the course of a day to maintain some equilibrium?
PELZER: I really believe that you just don't let things get to you. Don't let everything get to you. How do you keep your balance? You keep your balance. You do the best you can on everything you do, but don't get too down in the mouth when things don't go right, or as you predicted. On the other side, don't get too inflated with your ego when things are going right, you're hitting your stride. I laugh, I cry, I go to the bathroom, I kiss my son, I adore my wife, every single day. With everything, I just keep focus on the big picture, family, health, being a good Samaritan. Every day, we do those things, and then there's Haagen Daaz and mix in a little Slim Fast. That will balance out life.
CNN: Are people usually aware of the issues they carry with them?
PELZER: Sometimes yes, sometimes no. But when people are aware of their situations, that's half the battle. But they have to have the determination to make things better. Every one of us can get the best advice, walk on coals, or be anointed by the guru of the day. However, at the end of that, it's up to us to put on our pants, our makeup, get the kids off to school, and follow the road to make ourselves better, every single day. That takes a courageous person to do so, and that person I would have the utmost respect for.
If people think life is too arduous for them, with all due respect, I say talk to these single parents raising three children, working two full time jobs, and maintaining a household. They all do what they feel they have to do for their babies. Another lesson in history, for folks too scared to make that journey to better themselves, I recommend that they watch the first 20 minutes of the film "Saving Private Ryan." Sometimes life isn't fair, and it can be overwhelming, but you have to take your Normandy Beach, sometimes one inch at a time, to do right for the right reasons, to better yourself.
CHAT PARTICIPANT: I saw Anne Heche talk about being absolutely over her sexual abuse caused by her father, Can you really wake up one day and it will all be gone? I have trouble believing her
PELZER: From the bottom of my heart, I can only tell you what I know. While some people may say, "yes, yes, we can wave a magic wand, and the atrocity will all evaporate," I believe the truth of the matter is, it's part of your life, and it's what you do with it. You can let it eat a black hole that will spread, like a cancer, forever and ever and ever, or you can say, "something bad happened to me, I'm aware of it now, and I won't let it go any further." Look at someone like Oprah Winfrey, or Marie Osmond. Tragedy in both lives, but they're better women because of it, and they help other women in duress. It's a part of your life, but as much as you make it.
CNN: You've overcome a lot and have had as many as four books on the New York Times bestseller list at once. Has this changed you? How?
PELZER: It's hard to go to the bathroom with privacy now. :) Truth is, I'm a regular, ordinary guy, in an at times extraordinary world. I feel like Forrest Gump. I'm not all that bright, but there are situations around me that do need attention. I'm in awe of the commercial success and luck, and I do mean luck, of the books. The first book, "A Child Called 'It'" was basically a gift for my teachers on the 20th anniversary of my rescue. I never wrote the books with commercial intent, and I never thought they'd do as well as they've done. But now, because of my message, I just want to be the best person to deliver it, and don't want to abuse it in any way. I just want to do a good job with what I've been blessed with.
CHAT PARTICIPANT: What is your opinion of 12-step programs?
PELZER: Fantastic! You have a support center, with people in similar situations, and people who can care about you and protect you. The most incredible thing is that they're not judgmental, and when we slide, and when we fall, and we all do, there's someone there to help us up.
CNN: Do you have any final thoughts to share with us?
PELZER: First, I want to thank all of you for visiting us at CNN.com. Thank you for looking at the books, and taking them into your heart. It's not about a book sale. I truly believe that all of us go through things, all of us get hurt, but it's what we do with ourselves that makes things better. It's because of the success of the books and a lot of other things, that I'm just trying to be a good Samaritan. I want people who have had tough situations to do one thing... be happy. Be happy with who you are and what you have. God bless you all.
CNN: Thank you for joining us today
PELZER: Thank you!
Dave Pelzer joined the CNN.com chat room by telephone and CNN provided a typist. This is an edited transcript of the interview which took place on Thursday, September 6, 2001.
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