After Dave’s stabbing, Father spends less and less time at home. He makes excuses, but Dave doesn’t believe them. When Father is home, Mother doesn’t hurt Dave as often. One evening, Father helps Dave do the dishes, and tells him, “Some day, you and I will both get out of this madhouse.” This makes Dave feel a little better. Later, however, Mother stops Father from helping Dave. Afterwards, Dave senses, Mother has “complete control over everybody in the household.” One day, Father tells Dave that he’s sorry for everything, and Dave notices that Father has dark circles under his eyes and lots of gray hairs.
Pelzer implies that, although Father doesn’t want oppose Mother by defending Dave, he feels guilty and uncomfortable being around the house, and therefore makes himself scarce. Although Dave has said that he hates Father for his negligence, he sometimes expresses sympathy for Father’s—here, for example, Dave notes the physical toll that Mother’s cruelty has taken on Father. (It’s also worth keeping in mind that Dave names his child after his father, again suggesting that Dave maintains some sympathy for him.)
During one period when Father is gone for work, Mother starves Dave for ten days. She makes sure that Dave eats no food, locking the freezer and throwing all the food down the garbage disposal. Dave survives by drinking water. By the sixth day, Dave is so weak that he can barely move. When Dave begs for food, Mother laughs and sarcastically calls him a “poor baby.” After ten days, however, she gives him a plate of cold leftovers and tells him he has two minutes to eat. Dave has no idea why Mother treats him so horribly. As his brothers eat their dinners and watch television, he silently curses them.
Because Father spends less time around the house, Mother becomes even bolder in her abuse—not only does she starve him for more than a week; she mocks him. This passage is notable for being one of the only points in the book during which Dave poses the question of why Mother tortures him. Because Pelzer never fully answers this question, readers cannot understand Mother’s behavior, and therefore have no choice but to experience it from Dave’s childhood point of view, in its full, unfathomable horror.
When Father is away, Mother forces Dave to clean the bathroom with ammonia and Clorox. She locks him inside, so that the air becomes misty, and Dave’s eyes began to burn. Even though he can barely breathe, Dave cleans the bathroom quickly, for fear of angering Mother. He places the ammonia and Clorox as close to the door as possible, both to protect himself from the fumes and so that Mother will inhale some of the fumes when she opens the door. Later that night, Dave coughs up blood.
During the summer, Mother makes Dave mow lawns and give her the money he earns. The previous Easter vacation Mother also made Dave mow lawns, and set a high quota for Dave. Frightened that he wouldn’t meet his quota, Dave stole nine dollars from a little girl. When the girl’s father told Mother about Dave’s theft, Mother beat Dave. That summer, Dave continues mowing lawns, and some of his customers take pity on him and feed him. Once, Dave brings his lunch into the car when Mother picks him up; furious, mother throws away the food before Dave can eat it. That summer, Dave begins to give up on God. He decides that God must hate him for letting him live in such miserable conditions.
As before, Mother “punishes” Dave for committing crimes that were only necessary in the first place because of her abuse. At this point in the story, Dave’s faith in God begins to waver. His life is so uniformly miserable that he has no good reason to believe that a just God exists—surely no God would allow a small boy to suffer the way Dave has suffered.
One day, Mother summons Dave to the bathroom, where he finds her filling the tub with cold water. Mother forces Dave to push his head underwater. At first, she won’t let him up for air until he thrashes and digs his fingernails into her shoulder. Then, Mother tells Dave to lie in the water, his nostrils “barely above the surface of the water.” The water is extremely cold, but Dave is too frightened of Mother to protest. Hours pass, and Dave’s brothers walk in and out of the bathroom; instead of being friendly, they glare at Dave and ignore him. Around dinnertime, Mother yells for Dave to get out of the tub; she doesn’t let him dry himself before putting on his clothes. Mother forces Dave to sit in the shadiest corner of the backyard, out of the sun, while she serves food to her children and husband inside.
The fact that Dave’s brothers ignore his torture suggests how thoroughly Mother has brainwashed her family into accepting her cruelty. From Stan, Ron, and Russell’s perspective, Dave is a “bad boy” who deserves the grotesque punishments Mother doles out to him. Mother’s cruelty has become such a normal part of their lives that they don’t think twice about it—even when their own brother is sitting right next to them, freezing in the bath.
In the coming weeks, Mother begins to use the “bathtub and backyard treatment” on Dave more and more often. Dave’s brothers bring their friends into the bathroom to look at Dave; when they ask Dave’s brothers what Dave did to deserve this, they just shrug and say they don’t know.
Perhaps even more horrifying than their tacit acceptance of Dave’s punishment is the fact that Dave’s brothers exhibit Dave to their friends. Evidently, they’ve ceased to think of Dave as a brother, or perhaps even a human being—as far as they’re concerned, he’s become a curiosity to be laugh and gawked at.
Fall arrives, and Dave begins the fourth grade. For the first two weeks, the class has a substitute teacher, who gives the good students ice cream and plays pop records. Dave earns ice cream in his second week. That Friday, Dave tells the substitute that he doesn’t want to go home for the weekend and begs to stay a little longer. The substitute lets Dave stay longer and listen to another record. Then Dave runs home, where he begins his chores, and afterwards, Mother forces him to sit in the backyard in the cold. Dave begins to cry—the substitute teacher has been so kind to him that he’s developed a crush on her.
Although Dave endures some horrific torture, his life isn’t completely tragic. There are some people who treat him kindly, such as the substitute teacher. It’s never explained why the substitute lets Dave stay after school, but it’s loosely suggested that, on some level, she can tell that he’s frightened of his family. It’s natural for Dave to develop a crush on this teacher—she’s seemingly the only person in his life who treats him with warmth and kindness.
By October, Dave’s life has gotten even worse. Bullies tease him, and he has a hard time finding food. After school, Mother makes him vomit to prove that he hasn’t eaten anything that day. She whips him with a chain, forces him to sit in cold water for hours, beats him, and forces him to mow lawns to earn money for her. Dave stops praying to God, and concentrates on surviving, one day at a time.
As the year goes on, Dave falls into a horrific routine of beatings and forced vomiting. Confronted with so much pain and suffering, Dave seems to give up on God altogether—thus, his priority is surviving, not dreaming of future salvation.
One morning, Dave is sent to the school nurse. At first, Dave tells the nurse the lies Mother has instructed him to repeat. But gradually he begins to trust the nurse, and tells her the truth about Mother. The nurse takes notes, and tells her to come visit anytime he wants. Later on, Dave learns that the nurse became interested in seeing him because of reports from the kind substitute teacher who gave him ice cream early in the year.
It’s interesting that, after many years of gong through the school system, Dave is only referred to the nurse because of one substitute teacher’s actions. This might suggest that an outsider—a substitute who isn’t completely familiar with Dave’s school or who the school’s “bad kids” are supposed to be—has an easier time recognizing the blatant truth: somebody’s been beating Dave regularly.
In late October, Dave’s brothers carve pumpkins for Halloween while Dave sits alone in the cold bathtub. Dave can hear Mother telling her other children ghost stories and treating them with love and warmth—he’s so furious that he wants to scream. Later, Mother goes into the bathroom and orders Dave to go sleep in Father’s bed. Lately, Dave notes, Mother has been sleeping in the same bedroom as her sons, while Dave sleeps in Father’s bed. That night, Father comes home late, and goes to sleep next to Dave without saying a word.
Pelzer hints at the widening rift between Mother and Father—they’re no longer sleeping in the same bed. (Pelzer does not pursue the possibility, subtly hinted at in this passage, of Mother sexually abusing of her other children.) The passage might also suggest that Mother associates Father with Dave, and vice versa, which would further suggest that she takes out her anger at Father on Dave.
Christmas is a rough time of year for Dave, because he doesn’t get to go to school. For Christmas, he receives a pair of roller skates, which he later learns are another instrument of torture: Mother forces Dave to skate outside without a jacket in the cold while the other children stay warm inside.
As the book goes on, Mother’s abuse becomes increasingly public. Before, she was careful to hide her abuse from her husband and children; now, she parades her abuse before the entire neighborhood.
In March, Mother goes into labor, and Father takes her to the hospital. Dave is very relieved to have Mother out of the house, even for a few days. While Mother is in the hospital, Father lets Dave play with his brothers, and serves everyone sandwiches. The brothers play at their neighbor Shirley’s house. Shirley is kind, and reminds Dave of Mother in the “days before she started beating me.” A few days later, Mother comes back from the hospital with a new baby named Kevin. Within weeks, everything is back to normal: Mother is cruel to Dave, and Father stays out of the way. However, Mother becomes close friend with Shirley. When Shirley is around, Mother pretend to be a loving parent. When Shirley asks Mother why Dave isn’t allowed to play with his brothers, Mother makes up various excuses. Then one day, without warning, Mother severs all ties with Shirley, and goes around the house calling her a “bitch.”
Whenever something important happens to Mother, such as having a baby, Dave hopes that she’ll become a kinder parent—but she never does. The entire time, Mother remains a cunning manipulator; Dave gives us the impression that she can “turn on the charm” at any time, fooling other people into believing that she’s the best of mothers. However, Pelzer also implies that Mother severs ties with Shirley at least partly because Shirley is concerned that Mother isn’t treating Dave well.
One Sunday, Mother tells Dave that she’s sorry, and that she wants to “make up for all the lost time.” She holds Dave tightly, and they both start to cry. Dave asks mother, “Is it really over?” Mother replies, “It’s over, sweetheart.” She gives Dave a warm bath and dresses him in the new clothes he got for Christmas, which he hasn’t been allowed to wear all year. Dave begins eating meals with the rest of the family, and Mother allows him to watch television with the rest of the family.
Suddenly, Mother seems to have turned a new leaf: she treats Dave kindly, and doesn’t hit him anymore. Dave has been beaten and abused for so many years that he’s desperate to believe that Mother is sincere in her desire to be kind to him.
Shortly afterwards, a woman from social services arrives and asks to speak with Dave. The woman asks Dave if he’s happy; Dave says that he is. When the woman asks if Mother ever hits him, Davis hesitates. He realizes that Mother has been spoiling him recently so that he’ll lie to the woman from social services. Feeling like a fool, Dave tells the woman that he’s only punished when he’s a bad boy. The woman nods and leaves. Afterwards, Mother screams at Dave and hits him several times in the face. Afterwards, Dave thinks that, at the very least, he got “two good days” with Mother, even if Mother was only pretending to love him.
In the end, it becomes clear that Mother wasn’t treating Dave well because she loved him; she was just trying to avoid attracting the attention of Child Protective Services. (It’s possible that Shirley called CPS, considering that she and Mother had a falling out shortly before the social services officer shows up). It might seem odd that Dave wouldn’t tell the truth about his mother when he has the chance; however, many abused children are so brainwashed, or so frightened of their abusers, that they don’t seize the opportunity to speak out when they have the chance.
Early in the mornings, Father wakes up in the same bed as Dave and kisses him goodbye, whispering, “Try to make her happy and stay out of her way.” Although Father doesn’t know it, Dave cries every morning when Father leaves—Dave loves Father and always feels that he’s never going to see him again.
To state the obvious, Father is an awful parent: he sits back and drinks when he should be protecting his child from his wife’s abuse. However, from Dave’s perspective, Father is the one thing standing between him and Mother’s cruelty—he gravitates toward Father because he doesn’t have anyone else.