The Privilege of Youth
is a 2004 nonfiction memoir by Dave Pelzer. It is a continuation of Pelzer’s other memoirs and covers several of Pelzer’s “lost years” in his adolescence, skipped over in his earlier books. Pelzer is the author of 1995 bestseller A Child Called It
, describing his abusive mother and the torments he suffered under her care until he was placed in the foster system at age 12. Pelzer’s other memoirs include The Lost Boy
and A Man Named Dave
The book opens with Pelzer as an adult. Already a bestselling author, he is in the midst of traveling across the country, delivering lectures and motivational speeches to children like he once was. Pelzer hopes to give them the help he never received from adults when he was a child. Pelzer is sitting in a hotel room when he receives a call from his fiancée. She tells him one of his former friends, Dan Brazell, has died. Dave is stunned: this was a man whom he thought of as a father figure, a man who cared for him far more and far better than his biological father ever did.
Pelzer is too far away to make it back for Dan’s funeral. But the mention of his name, and the news of his death, brings back memories of Pelzer’s early adolescence. He realizes he needs to write about this period in his life—a time his memoir of the years in the foster system, The Lost Boy
, did not fully cover. He wants to pay tribute to Dan’s mentorship and the difference Dan made in his life.
When Pelzer tries to sleep that night, he flashes back to those years. He successfully escaped his mother’s abuse, but the foster care system presented its own challenges. Pelzer was bullied and made to feel like an outcast for being an “f-child,” a foster child. His early attempts at dating are unsuccessful: the stigma against being a foster child is so strong, none of the girls his age will date him. Already fragile and struggling with feelings of worthlessness, he could not find a place where he belonged.
What made a difference for Pelzer was making his first friends: Mike Marsh and Paul Brazell. With them, he was able to enjoy himself. Pelzer describes afternoons spent exploring the neighborhood of his new foster home, riding their bikes and getting up to teenage antics. Through Paul, he also meets Paul’s father Dan. Dan is the closest thing Pelzer has ever had to a father. He nurtures the teenaged Pelzer, helping him out and offering advice.
At the same time, Pelzer feared leaving the foster system. When he turned 18, he would be on his own, with nothing and no one to fall back on. He also struggled with the knowledge that he never really had a childhood and had never enjoyed carefree early years like his peers. He was worried about what would happen when he was on his own again. He worked full-time jobs in addition to school to build savings for himself, so he wouldn’t be destitute.
Then, Pelzer made a bad decision: he dropped out of high school to accommodate his jobs. At the time, he didn’t see the point. He had focused a long time simply on surviving; he had trouble looking ahead to the future or establishing goals for his life and career after graduation. Instead he devoted himself to work, trying to get by. He had spent his early years hungry; his mother often deprived him of food. That experience stays with him, so he values working over his education. All he wants is to make sure he has enough that he won’t go hungry again. He didn’t understand that dropping out wasn’t a good long-term decision for his future, that he wouldn’t ever be able to move up in the world without a diploma.
Not until his friends intervened. Through their encouragement and advice, they told him he had potential. Through his friends and their help, Pelzer started to pull his life together and think about goals and potential careers. Dan, a mechanic, discouraged Pelzer from following in his footsteps: he said Pelzer could do better.
With the encouragement of Dan and his friends, Pelzer does complete high school. More than that, his friend Mike, a former Army Ranger, inspired Pelzer to join the Air Force. Pelzer enjoys a successful career there, later serving in the Gulf War. Through it all, he remains grateful to the friends and mentors who helped him to trust in himself and find success.
Pelzer’s series of memoirs as a whole has been well-received as a personal story of “courage and triumph.” The author continues to tour the country, delivering inspirational lectures and speeches on overcoming abuse. He has written several other books since The Privilege of Youth
, including Help Yourself for Teens
and Moving Forward: Taking the Lead in Your Life