The memoir begins with Dave Pelzer at twelve years old, getting an examination from his school nurse. He lied to her about the bruises all over his body, but she knew that they were from his mother, who beat him. She left the room and returned with the school’s principal, who said he’d had enough of this. He escorted Dave to a meeting with a police officer and the police officer took him away, telling him that he would never have to go back to his mother again—he was free.
Next, the memoir rewinds to Dave's early childhood years, when his mother was kind and he lived happily and without worries. He lived with his parents and his two brothers in Daly City, California, near San Francisco. His father worked most days, but his mother took the boys on day trips around the city, always teaching them whatever lessons she could. They would go on family vacations to the Russian River, a place that made Dave happier than anything else.
But Dave's relationship with his mother began to change as she started disciplining him more and more, and this turned into full-scale abuse that spiraled out of control. The abuse was not as bad when his father was around, so Dave latched on to him—but his father did not dare to defy his mother, and warned Dave to be a "good boy" around her. He and Dave's mother would have afternoon happy hours, when they would drink a lot in the kitchen, and his mother always beat him worse when he was drunk.
School was a haven for Dave, since it was the only place he could get away from his mother. But things at home get worse, as she forced a bar of soap down Dave's throat, left him home during a family vacation, and even made him hold his arms over a burning stove. Soon, she began to starve him, and he spent all his time trying to figure out ways to get food. He stole it from kids at school, from the grocery store, and from the frozen-lunch trucks, but his mother started making him vomit after coming home from school to make sure he had not eaten anything.
The worst came one day when she was waving a knife at him as a threat. It slipped from her hands and stabbed him in the stomach, and he was seriously injured. She immediately began to dress the wound, but not because she was concerned for Dave's health—instead, it was because she knew she would be in serious trouble if anyone found out she had stabbed her son. Dave told his father that she had stabbed him, but he did not do anything about it. This was when Dave stopped thinking of his father as his superhero. Soon he got a terrible fever and his wound became infected, but he fought through it and recovered, and then he decided that he was his own Superman.
His father began spending much less time at home, and his mother continued to starve him, once for ten days in a row. A new punishment arose, in which she would lock Dave in the bathroom with a bucket of Clorox and ammonia and make him breathe in the fumes. His mother had another baby, and while she was in the hospital the boys lived with the neighbor, Shirley, who later became a close friend of their mother's. One day, Dave's mother started to inexplicably treat Dave better, and for him, it was too good to be true—then he realized it was because a social worker was coming to his house to speak to him. He lied to her and said that everything was fine.
As the years went by and nothing changed, Dave started to lose hope completely and wish that he were dead. He did not even feel safe at school anymore, where the kids were bullying him. His mother started to alienate everyone in the family–not just Dave–and one day, they got in the car and drove Dave's father to a motel. His parents separated, because his father could not take it anymore. The memoir ends with Dave in the back of the car driving away, praying.
The epilogue flashes forward to Dave's adulthood, where he stands on the edge of the ocean with his young son, Stephen. He thinks back on his life, and how he has become stronger as a result of the abuse he endured. He takes his son to the Russian River, and they agree that it is their favorite place in the world.