Dave is about to enter fifth grade. It seems as if he has abandoned hope. He no longer believes in God. He is continually tired. When he is given food, he eats “like a homeless dog.” He even eats leftovers put in the dogs’ bowl. He hates everything, but Mother the most. He hopes she will die. He also hates his father, who promised many times to rescue him but never did. His brothers show him no sympathy; indeed, they amuse themselves by hitting him. He also hates himself, believing that what had happened to him was his own fault. His schoolwork suffers and he has fits of anger. Once he storms out of the classroom, screaming at everyone. The other children bully him, including a boy called Clifford. He is tormented by a girl named Aggie. When he is on a fifth-grade trip to one of San Francisco’s Clipper Ships, Aggie tells him to jump into the water, because “jumping is your only way out.”
At the beginning of his fifth-grade year, his teacher Mr. Ziegler has no idea why Dave is such a problem student. Mr. Ziegler goes out of his way to treat him well, and Dave is thrilled when he is put on a committee to find a name for the school newspaper, and his suggestion is adopted. Mr. Ziegler gives Dave a letter to take to his mother. The letter is full of praise for Dave, but after she reads it she responds only with verbal abuse. Then she tears the letter up.
Dave thinks it is only a matter of time before she kills him, and he gets more rebellious, hoping that she will do it and so end his misery. One day in a grocery store with his mother and brothers, he refuses to follow her commands, and when they get out of the store she beats him. When they get home she gives him another dose of the “bathroom treatment,” locking him in the bathroom with the poisonous fumes of ammonia and Clorox.
Dave develops affection for his new baby brother, Kevin, even though he is not allowed to even look at him when Mother is at home. But one day when Mother is out and Dave is alone with his father and Kevin, Dave plays with the baby, and this gives him temporary relief from his suffering.
In the fall of 1972, Mother seems to deteriorate further. She argues with her own family, especially her mother. After that, Dave’s grandmother rarely visits, but she and Mother continue to argue over the telephone. After the arguments, Mother would take out her anger on Dave.
Dave’s mother also yells frequently at her husband, who often comes home drunk. For a while she will not allow him in the house. But then for a short period her attitude to him changes. One day she spends hours preparing a dinner for him, and making sure she looks her best. Father returns home late, with a friend from work. Father is badly drunk and it soon becomes apparent that he has returned only so he can pack an overnight bag and escape.
Thanksgiving is little better. Dave is allowed to sit with the family to eat, but his mother and father argue. Father leaves and Mother takes to drink. A few days after Christmas, 1972, Dave’s parents separate for good. Dave hates his father for walking out on the family. As mother drives him and his brothers home he is scared because he knows he has no hope now his father has gone. He is filled with despair and even hates God. He believes that his mother will soon kill him. He silently recites the Lord’s Prayer and feels a sense of peace come over him.
This chapter records probably the lowest point in Dave’s childhood. The continual refrain is loss of hope, fear of death at his mother’s hands, and hatred not only of his mother but also of his father for leaving him alone and at the mercy of his mother. He feels completely alone. He also reveals, not for the first time, one of the classic signs of abused people, whether children or adults—the belief, inculcated in the abused by the abuser, that the abuse is their own fault. They do not deserve any better, or so they believe. As Dave puts it, “For years, Mother had brainwashed me by having me shout aloud, “I hate myself! I hate myself!” (p. 136).
At the beginning of the chapter Dave also reveals that he no longer believes in God, and it transpires that for years he prayed to God to make his mother ill so she would not beat him any more. In all that time, Mother became ill only once, so now he decides that he is not going to waste any time praying to a God in whom he no longer believes. However, this changes at the end of the chapter, when he once more prays, and this time the act of praying beings him peace. Since he titled the chapter “The Lord’s Prayer” this moment is undoubtedly meant to carry some significance, although it might not have been very long-lasting because Dave makes no reference to God or religious faith in the first chapter, “The Rescue,” which takes place just a couple of months after the incident in this chapter in which he once again prays.
Through Dave’s eyes in this chapter the reader gets a sense of the complete collapse of his mother’s life: her inability to get along with her own family, her separation from her husband, her continuing cruelty, her demotion of her own son to subhuman status: “You are a nobody! An It!” (p. 140), she screams at him. And so the tragedy nears its end: it appears that no one can help Dave, but no one can help his mother either. Then comes the rescue recounted in Chapter 1.
Epilogue: Sonoma County, California
The epilogue takes place many years later. Dave is now an adult and is married with a son. One late afternoon he stands on the coast looking out onto the Pacific Ocean. He feels lucky, knowing that his grim past is behind him. He also knows that he has transcend it. He has managed to shape a new life for himself. “I took positive control of my life,” he writes. He feels strong and motivated. He also has a continuing faith in God and is grateful that he has had a chance to meet so many people who have had a positive impact on him. He mentions that he served in the United States Air Force and this gave him much pride.
He drives home to collect his son Stephen, then goes on to Guernville and the Russian River near there, which was his favorite place during summer vacations as a child. Just as Dave did many years ago, young Stephen declares that this is his favorite place in the world. Dave replies that it is his, too. He is happy, knowing that he is free now.
Like the first chapter, the epilogue is set all in italics and is told in the present tense, which helps to set if off from the main narrative and to emphasize that Dave is living a completely new stage of his life, free from the shadows of the past.
Here the narrative rounds back on itself, not quite to the very beginning, but to Chapter 2, when Dave was very young and the abuse had not yet started. From the brief contentment of childhood, the narrative has traveled an arc through eight years of appalling abuse and neglect, to a newfound sense of joy, many years later, in adulthood. The love displayed between father and son here is a potent reminder of what Dave Pelzer did not receive from his mother. The way Dave reports on his life in this epilogue conveys the feeling that almost anything can be overcome in life, and he sounds justly proud of emerging intact from the dark years of abuse. He is obviously determined that his son’s early life should not resemble his own.