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Family feud

Tensions surround brothers' competing memoirs of abuse

PLYMOUTH -- Richard Pelzer's basement office in a professional building on a busy street is painted brick red, and there are four plaques on a wall: ''Serenity," ''Tranquility," ''Harmony," and ''Peace." Nearby hangs a black-and-white wedding photo of his parents. They're young and happy. There is no hint of the horror that would follow, of the household that would be anything but serene, tranquil, harmonic, and peaceful.

''To look at this photograph and to think of the person my mother became is unimaginable," says the writer, who lives in Plymouth.

What she became, according to Pelzer and his older brother David, is a monster who tortured them with unspeakable acts of violence and degradation. David Pelzer's books -- including his first and most popular, ''A Child Called 'It' " -- spent years on the New York Times bestseller list. That book detailed the horrific childhood he endured in Daly City, Calif., at the hands of his alcoholic mother, Roerva. He says he was beaten, choked, kicked, stabbed, and half-starved, had to sleep on a cot in the cellar, and was forced to swallow ammonia, vomit, and feces. Richard says that when the state of California removed David from the home in 1973, he, who had sided with his mother against David, became her next victim.

Why she did these terrible things, and why she initially singled out David among her five sons, was never clear. Roerva Pelzer died in 1992. Her husband, Stephen, a firefighter who also drank and failed to protect the boys, left the family when they were young; he died in 1980. Today the book-writing brothers have a sibling rivalry over their tales of abuse. The year after their mother died, David's first book was published. Richard's first book, ''A Brother's Journey," appeared last year; his second is due out next month. Ironically, it is Richard's words that most strongly validate David's version of events, which have been questioned not only by some members of his family, including other brothers, but also by some journalists. Still, the air between David, 45, and Richard, 40, is frosty. They have seen each other only once, briefly, since their mother's funeral.

Catharsis
In his first book, Richard admitted that he had purposely gotten David in trouble by tattling on him and making up stories. He also wrote that he, too, was later beaten and kicked by his mother, that she poured Tabasco down his throat, left him home alone with little food when she took the other boys on trips, and gave him comic books one Christmas while showering the others with lavish gifts.

''At the age of 9, I had gone from predator to prey," Richard wrote in ''A Brother's Journey." The sequel, ''A Teenager's Journey," recounts Richard's descent into drugs and alcohol after the family moved to Salt Lake City in his early teens. There Roerva Pelzer began drinking five to seven gallons of cheap vodka a week.

Some family members are unhappy with Richard's books. Some think he is exploiting his brother's success. Others say they don't believe his tales of abuse, just as some have questioned the veracity of David's appalling accounts.

Richard began to write after being laid off as a tax manager two years ago. He says that after years of his hiding these childhood horrors, even from his wife, Joanne, his writing has provided a catharsis. Today he speaks to students and social workers about child abuse. He and Joanne and their children moved to Plymouth seven years ago to be near her family and hometown of Norwell.

The five Pelzer brothers, who are scattered throughout the country, have not kept in close touch over the years. Richard was shocked when he first saw ''A Child Called 'It' " in the stores in 1993. He read the book in one sitting and was devastated by the memories it provoked. ''It started to open up the floodgates that I had closed. I knew what was on the next page."

But when others asked him if he was related to Dave Pelzer, he denied it. ''I was embarrassed," he says of his portrayal as the ''Little Nazi" who aided and abetted his abusive mother. ''It was true. I couldn't deny it. [As a child] I had to find a way to protect myself, and it was to be on her side and not in her path."

He was also angry that his brother had opened the family closet and exposed the ghastly skeletons. '' 'It' sold 3 million copies and was translated into 33 languages," says Richard. ''The world was finding out what all the boys were hiding." In their books, both Pelzers use pseudonyms for their brothers.

David lives in Rancho Mirage, Calif. The oldest brother lives in Indianapolis. The other two are in Salt Lake City. Their mother's funeral marked the first time they had all been together since David was removed from the home nearly 20 years earlier. They have not been together since.

Within a week, they had buried their mother and sold and emptied her house. She had specified that her estate was to be split among four boys, leaving David out. After the bills were paid, there was little money left, but the brothers decided to split things five ways. They also donated her body to science. Her liver, says Richard, is at the University of Utah's medical center, where it serves as an example of a grossly diseased organ.

'A very sad family'
Why was Roerva Pelzer so abusive?

David's and Richard's explanations range from their mother's claim that she was abused by her own mother -- a charge denied by their grandmother -- to the possibility that she was mentally ill or overwhelmed by raising five boys alone. Her alcoholism doubtless exacerbated whatever mental health issues she had.

''She was a mess, a total recluse," says a cousin of Roerva Pelzer, who asked not to be identified. ''They're a very sad family."

Today, Richard says it is his dream for all five brothers and their families to assemble at Christmas, which was always a special time in the Pelzer household -- usually a day his mother decorated, cooked, and celebrated. But the tension between the two writing brothers is palpable.

''I don't know him," Richard says of David. ''Honestly, at this point, he's a person who just shares the same last name as me."

David says, ''I will never say anything negative about my brother Richard." He says he never saw Richard being abused but adds, ''I don't know what happened after I was gone."

But Richard says David has expressed anger to him about Richard's publishing success. ''His words are that I do not deserve to be an author, because I did not work hard enough. He feels he owns the [family] name. But my writing is good, the subject matter is intriguing, and, because of that, people buy it."

Says David: ''I pray for Richard every day. I pray for all my brothers, but I have a special prayer for Richard."

When David was in Boston to give a lecture last year, he and Richard met and talked for a few hours at the Ritz-Carlton Boston Common, where David was staying.

About what? ''In one word, behavior," says David. ''Richard and I are two very different people." Of Richard's childhood role as the ''Little Nazi," he says he bears no resentment. ''I think Richard was just so terrified. The worst thing Richard ever saw was Mom stabbing me, and I'm sure that must have really scared the crap out of him."

Here's how Richard recalls the Ritz meeting: ''We were both a little standoffish. We talked about our books. I think he was pretty surprised that my book had success out of the gate, and I know it's attributable to the last name and the work he's done."

Someday, says Richard, he hopes to apologize to his brother for his childhood complicity. But to do that, he feels he must get to know him. ''I can say the words, but honestly it would be the same as bumping into someone on the subway and saying 'I'm sorry.' I want to find a way to say the words so they have meaning. I want to learn how to love him."

Relatives weigh in
Then there is Ruth Cole, ''Gram," who is 96 and lives in Salt Lake City. Family members say the relationship between her and her daughter, Roerva, was hostile at best. ''I was never permitted to see the boys much [when they lived in California]," Cole says in a telephone interview, ''because my daughter told me I was not a member of the family. Alcoholism does strange things to people."

Cole believes David was abused but says his accounts are exaggerated. She does not believe Richard was abused, though she did not live in the same state as the family until he was in high school. ''When Richard was in school, I picked him up every Friday, and never once did he tell me of any abuse," she says. ''As far as I'm concerned, it's a damn lie. I think with Richard it is all about the almighty dollar."

She says the other brothers do not approve of the books that either has written. The youngest brother, Kenneth, 36, says he loves his brothers and does not want to ''get caught up in a book battle between Richard and Dave." Kenneth agrees that Richard was ''mentally abused" by their mother but takes issue with some of his descriptions. ''He's got an entirely different memory than mine," says Kenneth, who is a warehouse supervisor in Salt Lake City.

But he does remember an incident in California when Richard was 13. Their second-oldest brother, who was 17 and the mother's favorite, was on a ladder hanging light fixtures in the basement. For some reason, he hit Richard squarely in the mouth with a wrench, splitting his lip and nose. ''My mom grabbed Richard by the cuff of the shirt and the ear and screamed that he shouldn't have been messing around [with the older brother] when he was working," recalls Kenneth.

Referring to Richard's drug addiction, Kenneth says, ''Richard wants to just blame it all on Mom, when a lot of what happened to Richard was self-induced." He sighs. ''It's getting to the point where the whole damn story is getting stale. I love Richard to death, but you know what . . . just deal with it, move on, and get over it."

All the Pelzer brothers have children of their own now. Richard's four range in age from 6 to 11. It is this family that has made him whole again, he says, though it was a tough decision to have kids. ''I had to ask, is this [abusiveness] something that is in my blood? Is it something you can't control? If so, I'd rather not bring a child into this world."

He describes himself as a good parent, and he says it's therapeutic to watch his children create close bonds with one another. His middle two have cystic fibrosis and are in and out of the hospital. He and his wife also open their home to troubled teens who are ''aging out" of the social service system, Richard says.

At the end of his new book, he includes a poem he wrote to his mother after she died. ''Mom -- I love you. And more than that, I forgive you. . . . Now, like you, please, please let the monsters under the bed be put to rest."

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