Chapter 4 Summary

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 988

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School continued to be David’s escape. In September, he had new clothes, but by October they were torn and smelly from weekly wear. His stomach growled nightly from hunger as he fell asleep thinking about food. He dreamed about eating a hamburger, but he couldn’t taste it:

I could not satisfy my hunger; not even in my dreams.

David began to steal food from his classmates, who learned to hate him, and from the first graders. The principal called Mother, who punished David by starving him on weekends. He became her slave and was confined to the basement without any family interaction.

Stephen tried to sneak food to David and to convince Catherine to feed him. He tried to make deals with her by first getting her drunk, but even then, she would not relent. David shivered in fear when his parents fought, knowing that his mother would treat him even worse afterwards. Eventually, Stephen made a habit of leaving in the middle of the night, prompting Catherine to drag David out of bed to hit him and blame him for the fights. David would become so exhausted that he would stare at the floor until his mother stopped yelling.

David was in second grade when his parents had their fourth son, Russell. David’s teacher did not believe the usual excuses about his appearance, his sleepiness, and the bruises on his body, so she reported her suspicions to the principal, who called home. David compared his mother’s reaction to “an atomic bomb.” Mother charmed the principal, lying that he made up stories and hit himself for attention because he was jealous of Russell. David was devastated:

I wished I could dissolve and be gone forever. I wished I would never have to face another human being again.

That summer, the family returned to the Russian River, but it was no longer a magical place. One day, Mother complained that David was too noisy; as punishment, she smeared a dirty diaper on his face. She sneered at him: “Eat it.” He tried to stall by avoiding looking at her and crying, but these tactics only made her smack him repeatedly until she heard Russell crying. She stopped to soothe the baby, but any hope David had was soon dashed when Russell fell asleep and Mother returned to torture him. She grabbed him by the neck and forced his face into the diaper, slamming his nose on the counter. He was only saved when the rest of the family returned, and his mother ordered him to clean his face.

David began the new school year with the same clothes as the previous year. He ran to school each day: he was not allowed in the car, because he “was no longer a member of the family.” The only food he had every day was two peanut butter sandwiches and carrot sticks at lunch. The other children stayed away from David, mocking him as “Food Thief” and “Pelzer-Smellzer.”

David knew he had only himself to rely on for survival, and he continued to dream up ways to obtain food when all avenues had been blocked. He constantly fantasized about food and wished to be the prince from The Prince and the Pauper so he could stop being a servant whenever he chose. David devised a plan to leave school during recess and run to the store to steal food. As he walked through the store, he felt people’s eyes on him and realized that he stood out as “the smelly, ragged child.” Seizing a box of graham crackers, he ran back to school and threw it into the trash can to retrieve later; when he returned to get it, he discovered that the custodian had emptied the can.

David was transferred to another school with new opportunities to steal food. He took food from his new classmates and regularly stole from a nearby store until the manager told his mother. Then David began to eat the family’s leftover food from the garbage can, but Catherine sabotaged him by leaving spoiled pork or ammonia in the trash can and checking the garbage to make sure he hadn’t taken food. One day, David stole hot dogs from the cafeteria, but Catherine put her finger into his mouth to force him to vomit. She was angry when she saw that he had eaten, and later, after fighting with Stephen, she forced David to eat the vomit. Stephen asked Catherine to allow David to eat, but he lost the battle, as always. Catherine mandated that David’s new bed would be on the floor under the table. David already hated his mother, but he also began to hate his father, who did nothing to help his son.

Eventually, David was relegated to sleeping in the garage with only a gas heater for warmth. In despair that no one could help him, he prayed for strength. His new plan was to beg for food at people’s houses until Catherine found out. Her solution was to force him to drink ammonia. Unable to breathe, David felt he was going to die. The next night, Catherine again forced him to drink ammonia—this time in front of his father, who again did nothing to help. David’s tongue and mouth were burned, but he was thankful he was alive.

Catherine’s new punishment was to force David to drink dishwashing detergent, which gave him terrible diarrhea. He noticed his father “looking on dispassionately” and he lost all self-respect:

I felt so degraded; I cried like a baby.

After that, David learned to hold the soap in his mouth until he could spit it out later, an act that made him feel proud for defeating his mother.

David learned new courage in his confinement to the garage. He began to steal food from the freezer and imagined himself as a king.

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