The memoir begins in 1973, with Dave Pelzer, a fifth-grade student living in Daly City, California, doing his morning chores for his Mother, Catherine Roerve Pelzer. Mother hits Dave, and Dave thinks about all the abuse he’s experienced at her hands. At school, Dave is sent to the nurse’s office. The nurse notices the many bruises and scratches on his body, and alerts the principal, who calls the police. A police officer takes Dave away, and Dave initially thinks he’s being arrested. However, the officer informs Dave that he’s finally “free” from his Mother—he’ll never have to see her again.
Dave flashes back to the late 1960s, when he’s a young child growing up in California with his two brothers, Ronald Pelzer and Stan Pelzer. Dave loves his Mother and Father, who works long hours as a firefighter. Mother is a kind, loving woman, and treats him with great warmth. As time goes on, however, Mother begins drinking more. She also becomes more and more overtly abusive to Dave. One night, while Father is out of the house, Mother hits Dave, seriously hurting his arm. Mother takes Dave to the hospital, falsely claiming that Dave fell out of bed. She later makes Dave say, “I’m a bad boy” again and again, and forces Dave to repeat the first grade, even though Dave is a bright student.
Dave notices that Mother doesn’t treat him as badly when Father or his siblings are present. However, Father doesn’t actively protect Dave from Mother’s abuse. When Mother tells Dave that he won’t be receiving Christmas presents, Father gets Dave a few gifts, but Mother becomes so furious with Father for contradicting her authority that, Dave senses, Father won’t defend him again. Dave gradually learns that the only way to survive Mother’s abuse is to delay, in the hopes that Father, Stan, or Ron will come home.
Mother’s abuse becomes even harsher. While she takes good care of Ron and Stan (and gives birth to another child, Russell), she denies Dave food and regularly hits him. She also stops using Dave’s name. At school, the principal calls Mother in for a visit, to discuss why Dave always has bruises on his body. Mother carries Russell to school, building sympathy for herself, and tells the principal that Dave has an active imagination and hits himself to attract attention. Shortly afterwards, Mother forces Dave to eat the feces in Russell’s diapers. Dave refuses, but Mother smears feces all over his face, stopping only when Father, Ron, and Stan come home.
Mother continues denying Dave regular meals, and forces him to wear the same clothes to school every day, to the point where Dave begins to smell horrible, and decides that he needs to steal food to survive. He steals food from his peers, and later from a nearby grocery store. He also steals frozen lunches from the cafeteria, and fishes scraps of food from the trash can at home. However, Mother deliberately puts spoiled food in the trashcan, and later sprinkles ammonia in the trash to prevent Dave from eating any scraps. One day, after eating stolen frozen lunches, Dave comes home, and Mother forces Dave to vomit up his meal. She later shows the vomit to Father, who watches dispassionately as Mother forces Dave to eat his own vomit. Afterwards, Mother forces Dave to sleep under a table, and later in a garage. She also forces Dave to swallow ammonia, burning his tongue and causing him a night of intense pain.
One evening, Mother drinks heavily and brandishes a knife at Dave. Out of the corner of his eye, Dave sees Mother stumble toward him, and then feels an intense pain in his chest. He realizes that Mother has stabbed him. Mother treats the wound with gauze and then orders Dave to resume doing the dishes. In the following days, Dave refuses to beg Mother for mercy. He treats his own wound and feels a deep sense of satisfaction for remaining independent. Mother later starves Dave for ten days straight, and forces him to clean an unventilated bathroom with ammonia and Clorox, almost suffocating him. She also forces him to lie in freezing cold water for hours. During these ordeals, Dave’s brothers and Father do nothing to intervene. Dave no longer feels like a part of the family.
Dave enters the fourth grade, and Mother’s abuse continues, harsher than ever. She beats him with chains, hits him, and forces him to vomit and inhale ammonia. When teachers ask Dave about his appearance and bruises, Dave repeats what Mother has instructed him to say—he had an “accident.” He comes to despise his brothers, whom Mother continues to treat lovingly. Mother gives birth to another child, Kevin, whom Dave immediately loves.
One day, Mother abruptly tells Dave that she’s sorry for hurting him. She begins treating Dave kindly and feeding him well. Then, a few weeks later, an officer from social services shows up at the house and asks Dave if his mother ever hits him. Dave realizes that Mother has been treating him well so that he won’t tell the truth to the officer. Dave lies to the officer anyway, fearing that Mother will hurt him.
By the time Dave enters the fifth grade, he’s almost given up on life altogether. His classmates tease him and tell him to kill himself, and he’s come to doubt that there is a God—surely, no God would allow him to suffer so greatly. His brothers seem to think of him as the “family slave” and take turns hitting him. However, Dave’s teacher, Mr. Ziegler, treats him with kindness and respect. Dave continues to love Kevin, although he fears that one day Kevin will grow up to hate him, just like his other brothers do.
As Christmas approaches, Father and Mother begin to argue more and more often. Shortly after the holiday, Father packs his bags and leaves forever. He apologizes to Dave for not doing more to protect him, but tells him, “I can’t take it anymore.” After Father leaves, Mother sneers, “You are all mine now. Too bad your father’s not here to protect you.”
In the Epilogue, Dave, now an adult, drives along the beach and thinks about how lucky he’s been. Since being separated from Mother, he’s gotten an education, served in the military, and done a lot of wonderful work raising awareness of child abuse. He’s most proud of having a child of his own, Stephen, whom he treats with nothing but love, thereby breaking the vicious cycle of cruelty to children, of which he was a part.
In the final chapter, “Perspectives on Child Abuse,” several people from Dave’s life, including Mr. Ziegler and workers from Child Protective Services, comment on the prevalence of child abuse in American society. People need to be vigilant and look out for signs of abuse in children—otherwise, the horrific cycle of abuse will continue, year after year.