The memoir begins when Dave Pelzer is twelve years old, living in Daly City, California. He is late, and thinks about how he needs to finish the dishes on time or else not get breakfast, which is important because he had not gotten dinner the night before. But he does not finish in time, and his mother comes charging into the kitchen and smacks him, screaming. Eventually he finishes his chores and he is given breakfast: leftovers from his brothers' cereal bowls. He eats this quickly before his mother can change her mind.
He usually runs to school, but today his mother drops him off because he had been late with his chores. She tells him to tell the people at school that he ran into a door. He takes note of how frazzled his mother looks: hung-over, overweight, and hair in clumps. She was once beautiful, but she has become like this.
Immediately as he arrives in school, the school nurse examines Dave and asks what happened to his eye. He tells her he ran into a door, but she reminds him that he used that excuse last Monday. He changes his story to say a baseball bat accidentally hit him, but the nurse knows better and as usual gets him to confess. She examines him thoroughly and points out an old scar on his stomach, asking if this was where his mother stabbed him. Dave says yes, and then feels like he has done something wrong.
The nurse leaves the room and returns with the principal, Mr. Hansen, as well as two of Dave's teachers, Miss Woods and Mr. Zeigler. Mr. Hansen knows Dave well. After looking at Dave, Mr. Hansen says that he has had enough of this, but Dave begs him not to call his mother. Mr. Hansen says that he will not, and sends Dave to his English class. The students in his class plug their noses immediately, because Dave is unwashed and he smells. He is not even able to sit down, however, before he is called back down to the principal's office.
He walks in to see Mr. Ziegler, Miss Woods, the school nurse, and Mr. Hansen sitting around a table; there is also a police officer seated next to them. The policeman asks him about his mother, and Dave is afraid because now too many people know and he is afraid that his mother will find out he told. They ask him some questions and them give him some lunch from the cafeteria, which he gobbles down. The policeman takes down his address and phone number.
Dave thinks he is going to jail as the police officer escorts him out of school to the police station. When he gets there, the policeman says he needs to call Dave's mother—Dave protests but the officer calls Mrs. Pelzer anyway, telling her that Dave is in their custody and he will not be coming home. Then he and Dave get back in the police car and drive to the outskirts of the city. He tells Dave that his mother will never be able to hurt him again: he is free.
A typical memoir would narrate the events in a life in the order they happened, so that readers move chronologically through memories the way the person would live them. Instead, this book starts at the end of Dave's abuse. This increases the shock factor: readers open the book and immediately read about how terrible Dave's mother is to him, and are moved to continue reading the story in their disbelief. In a way, it is also moralizing—readers know that, eventually, Dave does get out, escaping the pain he has been put through.
This technique also makes it so that readers are left in the dark. At this point, we know nothing about Dave's past, how long this abuse has been going on for, or how terrible it really is. We are in the same position as the teachers at school and the police officer that comes to take him away, knowing only that this boy is in a terrible position and that something must be done about it. It is only later that the narrative backs up and readers get the full story.
These first few pages dehumanize twelve-year-old Dave Pelzer right from the start. He is treated like an animal, first in the way he is beaten and next in the way he is poked, prodded, and gawked at by school officials, and then how his classmates hold their noses when they are around him. Others' treatment of him makes him seem less than human, and many of his teachers appear to have the gentle sympathy for him that they would have for an abused animal. It is important for us as readers to constantly force ourselves to remember Dave's humanity throughout the book in order to truly feel for him and get the full effect of his story.
Dave's experiences present adults in two contrasting lights. On one hand, there are horrible, abusive adults like his mother, which is especially difficult to stomach since adults are supposed to be there for children. On the other hand, there are adults like his teachers in school—they do care about him and feel sympathy, but this first chapter makes it clear that the abuse has been ongoing and they have not done something about it until now. In both cases, these adults are not people Dave can fully trust.
At the very end of this first chapter, the police officer tells Dave that he is free. This does not have the same effect on readers as it does on Dave himself, because we do not yet know exactly what Dave is free from. We know his mother has abused him, but we do not yet know how badly. The word "freedom" will come back into readers' minds as they finish the story and understand the true extent to which Dave has suffered, and how important it is that he is finally free.