Aggie is the leader of a clique of girls at Dave’s elementary school. She torments Dave often, especially in fourth and fifth grade, telling him he should “drop dead.”
Mr. Hansen is the principal at the school Dave attends. He is aware of the fact that Dave is a problem student and steals food. Some time in 1972 he calls Dave’s mother to ask about the bruises Dave has, and she goes to see him the next day. But Mr. Hansen takes no action. Dave’s own words do not place the principal in a good light: “When I came to school the next day, he saw the results of Mother’s beatings. He never called her again” (p. 8).
Miss Moss is Dave’s math teacher. When Dave is in second grade she is concerned about why he is sleepy, unkempt, and bruised. She reports her concerns to the principal. She attends the meeting at which Dave is told he is being taken away from his mother.
The nurse is the school nurse who examines Dave on many occasions for signs of abuse. She does not believe his story that all his injuries are the result of accidents in the home. She is kind to Dave, hugging him and patting him on the head.
Catherine Roerva Pelzer
Catherine Roerva Pelzer is Dave’s mother. She has five sons, of whom Dave is the second. She appears to be happily married at first, and until Dave is about four, she provides her husband and sons with a good family life. After that something goes wrong. She slides into alcoholism and depression and becomes abusive toward Dave. She does not, however, abuse the two other boys, Ron and Stan. The worst abuse takes place when he is alone in the house with her, or just with the other boys. She vents her pent-up anger (which is of unknown cause) on him, devising extreme and sadistic punishments for him.
Catherine is a strong-minded woman who comes to dominate her husband completely. She is also very changeable. She can be charming and pleasant when she wants to be and vicious at other times. She also has the ability to appear normal when relatives or friends are visiting the house. As a den mother for the Cub Scouts, she treats the other kids “like kings” (p. 39), and they tell Dave that they wish their mothers were like her. As an intelligent woman she well knows how to manipulate others. On one occasion she appears to have convinced the school principal that no abuse of Dave was taking place.
Dave Pelzer is the author and main subject of the memoir. Until he is four, his life is a fairly normal one. He is one of three brothers and has loving parents. But then for some unaccountable reason his mother starts to abuse him in the most cruel and outrageous ways. He is starved, beaten, and otherwise tortured for a period of about eight years, until he is twelve. Sometimes he has to steal food in order to survive. He is despised and scorned by his classmates at school. Eventually his plight is recognized by the school authorities, and he is taken from his mother and placed in the custody of the San Mateo Juvenile Department. Throughout his long ordeal, Dave survives because of his determination not to let his mother win. He writes of finding the strength within himself to continue, however hopeless his situation appears.
Ron Pelzer is Dave’s older brother. He plays little part in the story, and is not much individualized. His mother does not abuse him. In fact, at one point, having beaten Dave, she tells Ron that she is proud of him and knows that he will not become a bad boy like David.
Russell Pelzer is the fourth child in the family, born when the abuse of Dave is at its height. Although called Russell in the book, his real name is Richard. As a toddler he observes his mother’s treatment of Dave and learns to despise Dave. He even makes up stories for his mother about Dave so he can enjoy watching Dave’s punishment. He becomes “Mother’s ‘Little Nazi,’ watching my every move, making sure I didn’t steal any food” (p. 85). Dave realizes that this is not Russell’s fault.
Stan Pelzer is Dave’s brother, a year younger than Dave. When Dave is held back in first grade they are in first grade together. Ron and his brother Stan learn from their mother to despise Dave. By 1972, when Dave is about nine or ten, “they took turns hitting me and appeared to enjoy throwing their weight around” (p. 135).
Stephen Pelzer is Dave’s young son who appears briefly in the epilogue.
Stephen Joseph Pelzer
Stephen Joseph Pelzer is Dave’s father. He works as a fireman in San Francisco and is often away from home on long shifts. He is kind to Dave, whom he nicknames “Tiger,” buying him Christmas gifts against his wife’s will. Dave looks to him for protection but unfortunately does not receive it. Stephen Pelzer seems as helpless against his own wife’s bullying as Dave is. Even when Dave is forced to swallow ammonia, his father watches passively, making no attempt to intervene. Like his wife, he drinks a lot, and the two of them argue frequently. He starts to spend less time at the house, and sometimes he tells Dave that they will one day escape together. But when the couple finally does separate, the father does not take Dave with him. Dave is deeply disappointed in him and his natural love for his father eventually turns into hatred because of the betrayal.
Shirley is a neighbor of the Pelzers. For a brief time she and Dave’s mother become close friends but then Mother breaks the friendship. After that she will not allow Shirley’s son to play with her boys.
Officer Smith is the police officer who informs Dave that he is being taken from his mother and need never fear her again.
Miss Woods is one of Dave’s teachers. She is present at the meeting when Dave is told he is being taken away from his mother. She is kind to him, hugging him, and crying.
Mr. Ziegler is Dave’s teacher in fifth grade. Knowing that Dave suffers abuse at home, he tries to encourage him, praising him for coming up with the best name for the school newspaper. He even writes a letter to Dave’s mother saying that she should be proud of him. On the day Dave is taken out of school in March 1973, Mr. Ziegler promises Dave he will tell his classmates the truth about his departure.