Chapter 3: Bad Boy
As a small child, Dave becomes mischievous, and his mother starts to punish him. He becomes afraid of her. Her behavior changes entirely. Sometimes she doesn’t bother to get dressed and lies on the couch all day watching television. The punishments become severe: she would smash his face against a mirror and verbally abuse him. His brothers do not receive the same severe treatment.
On one occasion Dave is sent by his mother to search for something. He forgets what he is supposed to be looking for and asks her. She responds by hitting him in the face, making his nose bleed. She often sends him on fruitless searches to find things, and she continues to verbally abuse him when he cannot find whatever it is that he is supposed to be looking for.
Mother is different when her husband is home. She behaves more normally, and Dave comes to see his father as his protector. Once when he is about to go to work, his father tells Dave to be a “good boy,” and Dave assumes that he is the opposite, a “bad boy.” But after that his mother calms down and for a while is not abusive. But a month or two later, the abuse starts again. Mother, her breath smelling of alcohol, beats Dave up, punching him many times in the face. She loses her balance and wrenches his arm and shoulder in the process. His left arm is injured and is painful. His mother does nothing to aid him until early the following morning, when she drives him to the hospital. She tells the doctor that Dave fell from a bunk bed, although Dave can tell the doctor does not believe her. At home, Mother lies about the incident when she tells her husband about it.
At that time, Dave is happy at school, because it gives him a chance to get away from his mother. But one day his mother tells him that he is going to be held back from the first grade “because I was a bad boy” (p. 36). She is angry. She bans him from watching television, makes him go without dinner, beats him, and sends him to the garage.
That summer he is sent to live with his Aunt Josie while the family goes on vacation at the campsite. He tries to run away, and when his mother later finds out, she kicks and punches him. Then she rams a bar of soap into his mouth.
Dave starts to enjoy school again the fall. He has his younger brother Stan with him in the first grade. Mother is again abusive, saying she has received a letter from Santa Claus saying that Dave was a bad boy and would get no gifts at Christmas. The only gifts he gets that year are two from relatives. He does also get two other gifts, it seems—paint-by-number pictures. But he finds out when he overhears an argument between his mother and his father that his father had bought him the gifts against his mother’s wishes. She insists that it is her job to discipline him.
One day he returns from school to change and go to a Cub Scout meeting. His mother is angry and smashes his face against the mirror. Then she drives him to the den mother’s house, but a tearful Dave tells the den mother that he cannot attend because he has been bad. When they get home, Mother makes him take off his clothes and stand by the stove. She tells him that he broke the rules by playing on the grass at school, which Dave denies. She turns on the gas burners and holds his arm to the flame. Then she tells him to climb onto the stove and lie on the flames. He refuses, but she tries to force him. He manages to hold out, knowing that soon his brother Ron will be home and that his mother never acts so badly when he is there. Mother keeps hitting Dave, but then Ron returns. Dave grabs his clothes and escapes to the garage. He realizes that he has won and his mother has lost. He resolves never to give in to her, no matter what she does to him.
The story is told from the point of view of the child. As Pelzer puts it in his “Author’s Notes,” “The tone and vocabulary reflect the age and wisdom of the child at that particular time.” What this means is that the reader is left somewhat in the dark about why Dave’s mother is so abusive to him. He never attempts any serious interpretation of the cause of her behavior. All we learn is that “As a small child, I probably had a voice that carried farther than others. I also had the unfortunate luck of getting caught at mischief, even though my brothers and I were often committing the same ‘crime’” (p. 29). From this and other hints all that can be gleaned is that Pelzer may have been what is sometimes called an “overactive” child. Such children may be loud and mischievous and hard to control. They can be frustrating for parents but they can of course be well raised if the parents pursue the right strategies in dealing with them. If Pelzer was an overactive child, it is clear that his mother had no idea of how to handle him and did everything wrong. Her discipline of him was cruel, stupid, and completely outrageous. The worst example in this chapter, when she deliberately burns him on the stove, is unfortunately not the worst incident Dave will relate during the course of this book. The reader may wonder, How can she possibly do this to her child? The clue Pelzer leaves is that Mother is often drunk. It appears that something happened in her life that caused her to sink into depression and alcoholism. This is suggested by Dave’s descriptions of how some days she would not dress and would lounge all day on the couch watching TV and drinking. Often when she abuses him, he smells alcohol on her breath. Perhaps it was her marriage that went sour—she and her husband are depicted having fierce arguments—but nothing can be known for sure about this mysterious, highly disturbed woman. However, it is well known that alcoholics can engage in seriously destructive, violent behaviors that can destroy a family.