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In the summer of 1971, Dave is ten years old. He’s come to learn what punishments to expect from Mother—above all, beatings. He’s also learned to reflexively tense his body whenever Mother is nearby. He’s given little food—on average, one evening meal every three days.
By 1971, Dave has become so used to his abuse—something no human should ever have to experience, let alone grow accustomed to—that he’s not surprised when Mother beats him. He’s still frightened of Mother, yet he’s coming to accept cruelty as a basic part of his life.
One evening in July, Dave sits by the stairs while the rest of the family eats dinner—Dave isn’t allowed to eat with the rest of his family. Suddenly, Mother shouts for Dave to come into the kitchen and clear the dishes. As he clears the dishes, Dave notices his little brother Russell, who’s now old enough to tattle to Mother when Dave steals food. Russell has become Mother’s loyal helper, and sometimes he invents stories of Dave’s wrongdoings so that he can watch Dave be punished. Dave hates Russell, even though he understands that he’s been “brainwashed.”
Mother turns her children against Dave—especially Russell, who, Dave suggests, she brainwashes to despise Dave almost as soon as he’s born. Dave is conflicted: on one hand, he’s smart enough to realize that it’s not Russell’s fault that he’s been brainwashed; on the other, Dave hates that his brother is cooperating with a cruel torturer like Mother.
As Dave clears the dishes, Mother continues to yell, brandishing a big knife at him and threatening to kill him if he doesn’t do the dishes quickly. Dave is so used to Mother’s threats that he’s not particularly afraid. Suddenly, Mother begins to stumble and sway, as if she’s very dizzy. Out of the corner of his eye, Dave sees Mother’s hand waving an object, and then he feels a sharp pain in his stomach, so intense that he passes out. When he comes to, Dave sees Mother applying gauze to his bleeding stomach. Dave senses that Mother has stabbed him accidentally. He tries to forgive her, but he’s too weak to speak.
In this passage, it’s not entirely clear if Mother intends to stab Dave or not. She’s very drunk, and seems to stumble toward Dave (suggesting that she wasn’t intended to hurt him); on the other hand, she’s just waved a knife at him and threatened to kill him. Dave believes that the stabbing was an accident (and, as an adult, has continued to claim that it was an accident)—but of course, whether or not Mother “meant” to stab her son, she should never have been waving a knife at him in the first place, let alone threatening to kill him. (It’s worth noting that Pelzer’s brother has disputed that their mother stabbed Pelzer.)
When Dave wakes up again, Mother is wrapping a cloth around his chest. Mother often said that she’d intended to be a nurse before meeting Father, and Dave trusts her nursing abilities completely. Dave feels a strange sense of relief—he senses that “it was over. This whole charade of living like a slave had come to an end.” After half an hour, Mother stands up and tells Dave, in her normal tone, that he has half an hour to finish the dishes. Bewildered, Dave stands up and proceeds to wash the dishes, in spite of the massive pain in his abdomen.
It’s tragic that Dave continues to trust and depend on Mother, even after she stabs him. Dave has never known any life other than life under Mother’s control, perhaps explaining why he trusts her. The passage suggests that, on some level, Dave wishes for death; his life is so miserable that death would be a relief. Perhaps the most horrifying thing in this passage is that Mother still expects Dave to do the dishes after being wounded, suggesting that she has no sympathy for Dave and, perhaps, that she thinks of wounding him as a regular part of her life.
Father walks into the house. Dave gasps, “Mother stabbed me.” Without raising an eyebrow, Father asks, “Why?” Dave explains that he’d been doing the dishes, and Father replies, “You better go back in there and do the dishes.” He promises Dave that he won’t tell Mother that Dave told him about being stabbed—“It’ll be our little secret,” he claims. Dave is shocked, and whatever respect he had for Father is gone. He turns, bleeding underneath the gauze, and resumes doing the dishes. He wants to curl up in misery, but he remembers the promise he made himself—he’ll never show Mother—“The Bitch”—that she’s beaten him.
Father continues to comply with Mother’s wishes, even when it means ignoring his own child’s obvious need for a doctor. Tragically, being stabbed is an important “coming of age” moment for Dave: he begins to see that Father isn’t his protector at all; he’s just Mother’s pawn. Even in the depths of despair, Dave tries to stay strong and defy Mother.
As Dave is finishing the dishes, he succumbs to the pain and collapses. He feels Father helping him to his feet. Father tells Dave to change his shirt, and Dave looks down and sees that his shirt is covered in blood. Dave goes upstairs, where Mother removes his shirt and dresses him in an oversized T-shirt. Mother allows Dave to rest for a few moments, and then gives him a glass of water. Monotonously, she tells Dave that she’ll feed him in a few hours when he feels better. Dave limps outside to Ron and Stan, who ignore him. It’s the Fourth of July, and Ron and Stan wave sparklers. Mother offers Dave a sparkler, and he accepts. For a few precious seconds, he wonders if Mother is going to be nicer to him from now on. Then, his sparkler fizzles out.
Mother cares for Dave by giving him a glass of water and a T-shirt, but she shows him no real compassion. The scene ends with the almost surreal revelation that today is the Fourth of July (usually, a fun, family holiday), emphasizing the “gap” between Dave’s life and the lives of other American children (including his own brothers). Dave’s sparkler could be said to symbolize his vain hopes that Mother will return to being nice—just as the sparkler fizzles out, his hopes “fizzle,” and he realizes that Mother will never change.
Before going to bed, Mother feeds Dave some food. He sleeps in the garage, trying not to think of the pain. Eventually he falls asleep from exhaustion. He wakes up in the middle of the night to find Mother applying a cold washcloth to his forehead. Dave feels safer knowing that Mother is nearby. The next morning, however, Dave wakes up to find that his shirt is covered in dried blood. Speaking in her normal voice, Mother orders Dave to proceed with his chores.
As before, Dave hates and fears his mother, but he has no choice but to rely on her for help and protection. Dave’s life is so miserable that Mother— here, his main source of comfort—is also his main source of misery.
Three days after the “accident,” Dave feels awful, but Mother is back to her old ways. Dave doesn’t ask Mother for any help. In private, he treats his injury by running cold water over it. The pain is almost unbearable, and a disgusting yellowish substance oozes from the wound. Dave is about to call for Mother—but then thinks, “I don’t need that bitch’s help.” He forces himself to take care of his wound—he uses a rag to clean the pus, fighting back tears. That night, Dave’s wound doesn’t bleed as much as it has been. In his dream that night, Dave wears a red cape—he’s Superman.
Throughout his ordeal, Dave remains brave and strong. Instead of begging Mother for help, he summons the courage and self-reliance to take care of himself. Dave’s dream, in which he becomes Superman, flying through the sky, symbolizes Dave’s ability to find small ways of escaping his misery, and, furthermore, his ability to retreat from the misery of his waking life with the help of fantasy, faith, and optimism.