Pelzer emphasizes early on the theme of survival: . “Mother can beat me all she wants, but I haven’t let her take away my will to somehow survive” (p. 4). This is his thought in March 1973, when his ordeal is about to end, although he does not yet know it. The instinct to survive is apparent many times in the narrative. Dave is a helpless child, and many times he knows what it means to be in despair and to feel hopeless. But in spite of this he never ceases to do what he can to preserve his own life and sanity. Even when he is being starved he works out ingenious ways of acquiring bits of food. He even learns how to tend his own wounds after the stabbing incident. In spite of being beaten, his will to go on is never quite defeated.
Dave is depersonalized by his mother and treated as less than human. She no longer calls him by his name but refers to him only as “The Boy.” It is this that enables her to ill-treat him and not be troubled by her conscience. She goes even further when she uses the impersonal pronoun that give the book its title: “You are a nobody! An It! You are nonexistent! You are a bastard child! I hate you and I wish you were dead!” With this attempt to delegitimize Dave’s entire existence, she is denying him even the right to live. It is as if he is an enemy in wartime who has been declared subhuman, thus making it easy to inflict inhuman punishment on him.
The subtitle of the book (“One Child’s Courage to Survive”) is indicative of one aspect of Dave’s story. Beaten and despised, taunted at school and without a friend or protector anywhere, the child Dave has to draw on his inner resources in order to survive. As Valerie Bivens, a social worker, puts it in her note that appears after Dave’s narrative, Dave was in effect a “’prisoner of war’” in his own home and he proves himself not only as a survivor but as “a man of extreme courage and fortitude.”
It is not surprising that for much of the time of his abuse Dave loses his belief in God. However, the title of the last chapter, “The Lord’s Prayer,” strongly suggests that a recovered religious faith plays a part in his resilience. At the very end of the narrative, as his mother once more has him at her mercy, he whispers the Lord’s prayer to himself. It seems that this nascent faith grew in him in the years that followed, since he states in the epilogue, “Instead of dwelling on the past, I maintained the same focus that I had taught myself years ago in the garage, knowing the good Lord was always over my shoulder, giving me quiet encouragement and strength when I need it most” (p. 157).
Celebration and Victory
In “Perspectives on Child Abuse,” a short essay that follows the main narrative, Pelzer writes: “This is more than a story of survival. It is a story of victory and celebration. Even in its darkest passages, the heart is unconquerable.” (p. 164). Dave’s capacity to survive eight long years of abuse and come out of it intact as a human being is testimony to this aspect of his story.