Dave’s relationship with Mom changes very quickly, however, to the point where things get so bad he has “no strength to crawl away—even if it meant saving my life.” Mom begins spending all her time drinking and eating. She yells at her children more often, to the point where Dave begins to fear her.
It’s never fully explained why Mother begins abusing Dave; all Pelzer writes is that she begins drinking more heavily (however, there are millions of alcoholic parents who don’t abuse their children). Mother’s cruelty is impossible to understand, which it makes at all the more frightening.
Mother begins to punish Dave more and more harshly. At first, she punishes him for being loud by making him stand in the corner; later on, however, she simply hits Dave in the face or smashes his face into the mirror. Then, she forces him to repeat, “I’m a bad boy.” When Mother punishes Dave, his brothers shrug and keep playing without him. At first Dave is hurt that they don’t try to defend him, but later he realizes that they’re protecting themselves.
“Mom” has become “Mother,” perhaps symbolizing her increasingly cold, distant relationship with Dave. Also notice that, from the very beginning, she forces Dave to say that he’s bad, implying that he deserves his punishment (and slowly conditioning him to believe that he really is “bad”). Again, it’s never explained why Mother abuses Dave but not his brothers. Pelzer suggests that life for him and his siblings was “every man for himself”—his brothers didn’t protect him because they were frightened of getting hurt themselves.
Father works long hours—sometimes twenty-four hours at a time. In times like this, Mother punishes her children especially harshly. She forces them to search the entire house for something she claims to have lost, and, when they can’t find it, she hits them. Once, Dave forgets what he’s supposed to be looking for, and when he asks Mother what it is, she hits him in the face. Dave slowly realizes that when Father is home, Mother doesn’t beat him. Once, Father says goodbye to Dave for the day by telling him to be a “good boy.” As he hears this, Dave thinks about Mother telling him that he’s a “bad boy.” He wants to hug Father; however, Father gets up to go before Dave can do anything. Sometimes, Father and Mother begin drinking around 3 PM and don’t stop until they go to bed.
Mother is cruel, and yet she’s perceptive enough to change her behavior when Father is around the house. The passage shows how Mother’s abuse slowly trains Dave to think of himself as bad, even when his Father tells him to be good. Dave’s Father isn’t a particularly good man, but he’s somewhat kinder than Mother. Therefore, Dave naturally gravitates toward him in times of need—nobody else can protect him from Mother. Dave’s love for his Father is heartbreaking, since Father presumably knows that Mother hits Dave (he can see that his son is bruised, after all).
One day, while Father is at work, Mother yells for her children. While Dave’s brothers run away, Mother—whose eyes are bloodshot—hits Dave again and again. Suddenly, Dave hears a “pop” in his arm. At dinner, Dave can’t move his arm at all. That night, Mother wakes up Dave and takes him to the hospital. There, she tells the doctor that Dave fell from his bunk bed; however, Dave can tell from the doctor’s look that he knows the injury was “no accident.” When Dave gets home from the hospital, Mother tells Father that Dave fell from the top bunk, and that she tried to catch him. Dave senses that Mother is “sick.”
Mother is forced to lie to other people about how her son gets his injuries; as time goes on, she forces Dave to lie about his injuries, too. The fact that the doctor seems to know that Mother is lying, and yet does nothing to stop her cruelty, speaks volumes about society’s tendency to turn a blind eye to abuse: Dave’s years of abuse are only possible because his friends, peers, teachers, and neighbors look the other way.
Dave loves school because it’s an escape from Mother. He makes friends and gets good grades. One day, however, Mother yells that Dave will be held back in school because he’s a “bad boy.” She also tells Dave that he’s forbidden from watching TV or eating dinner. That summer, Mother sends Dave to spend time with his Aunt Josie while she takes his brothers camping—Dave can’t understand why. He tries to run away from Aunt Josie’s house; later, Josie tells Mother about his attempts to escape, and Mother punches Dave. She also shoves a bar of soap in his mouth when he tries to speak. Afterwards, Dave isn’t allowed to speak unless spoken to.
In addition to punishing Dave physically, Mother devises more abstract forms of punishment, humiliating him into repeating the first grade, even though, it’s implied, he’s more than clever enough to advance to second grade. (However, it’s never explained how Mother convinces Dave’s teachers to hold him back a year). Mother’s punishments seem to be designed to inhibit Dave’s mental growth (silencing him at an age when he should be learning new words, preventing him from learning new information, etc.), perhaps in order to make him even more dependent on her.
After the summer, Dave repeats the first grade. He’s the most knowledgeable kid in class, since he already knows the material. Dave is in the same class as his younger brother, Stan. In class, Dave and Stan are friendly, but at home Stan ignores Dave. One day, when Dave does well on an assignment, he shows the assignment to Mother; Mother responds by telling Dave that he won’t be receiving anything for Christmas. On Christmas, Dave receives few gifts, and Mother tells Dave and his brothers that Santa only brings presents for good boys and girls. Later, Dave hears Mother arguing with Father, who’s bought Dave a few gifts. After the argument, Dave senses that Father will no longer defend him.
At this point in his life, Dave is still close with his siblings; however, Mother’s new cruelty splits apart the family and alienates Dave from his brothers. As before, Father is the only person in the family who defends Dave, but he only defends his son in the most pathetically simple ways. Instead of standing up to his wife for abusing their son, Father goes along with his wife’s sadism without much protest.
In the spring, Mother becomes “den mother” for the local Cub Scouts team. She invites children to the house and treats them kindly; some of them tell Dave they wish their mothers were as kind as his. One Wednesday, when Dave is preparing to go to practice, Mother smashes Dave’s face into the mirror and then forces him to tell the other den mother that he can no longer go to practice because he’s been a “bad boy.” Afterwards, Mother forces Dave to undress and explains that he’s being punished for playing on the grass. When Dave insists that he’s never done so, Mother punches him. Then she holds his arm over the hot stove and yells for him to climb up on the stove and sit on the flames. Terrified, Dave tries to stall—if he can wait for Ron to come home, perhaps Mother will stop trying to hurt him. Suddenly, Ron walks through the door. Mother freezes, and Dave grabs his clothes and run away.
Mother’s cruelty toward Dave is especially sickening because she can turn on the charm at any moment—thus, other children wish that she was their mother. She continues forcing Dave to repeat that he’s a bad boy, brainwashing him into submitting to her authority. However, instead of giving into Mother’s authority, Dave learns how to resist his Mother by stalling for time. Mother is cruel to Dave, but also cunning—she tortures her son, but only when they’re alone together (perhaps because she thinks that Dave’s Father or brothers would rush to his defense).
Alone in the garage, Dave realizes that he’s used his brains to survive. From then on, he decides that he’ll try as hard as he can to delay or defeat Mother—he’ll never, ever give in to her or give her the pleasure of begging her to stop hurting him. Even though Dave’s arm is burned, he tells himself not to cry. He can hear Mother telling Ron that she’s happy she doesn’t have to worry about Ron becoming like Dave—a bad boy.
In spite of the grimness of his life, Dave finds little ways to fight back against Mother. Even though he’s too young to defeat Mother, he quickly learns the importance of preserving his own dignity—therefore, he vows never to beg for mercy. Meanwhile, Mother tries to alienate Dave from the rest of the family by brainwashing Ron into believing that Dave’s bad.