Withholding Food as Punishment: Dave Pelzer

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "A Child Called 'It'" by Dave Pelzer. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Is withholding food from a child as punishment ethical? How did Dave Pelzer’s mother use withholding food as punishment?

For Dave Pelzer, withholding food as punishment became a regular part of his treatment at home. His mother weaponized food as part of her abuse.

Read more about withholding food as punishment in A Child Called “It”.

Mother Is Withholding Food as Punishment

Withholding food as punishment is Mother’s primary means of abusing David. She seldom feeds David dinner or breakfast—at most, if he finishes his morning chores in time, he gets his brothers’ cereal leftovers. 

Father tries to help David, but he doesn’t dare cross Mother to do so. Sometimes Father sneaks food scraps to David or gets Mother drunk in hopes that it will help, but alcohol only makes her crueler. And worse, Father’s efforts cause fights between him and Mother, which Mother blames and takes out on David. 

Additionally, Mother ostracizes David and essentially forces him into the role of “family slave.” She:

  • Forbids David looking at or talking to anyone
  • Forces David to stand in the garage each night while his family eats dinner
  • Forbids David from playing or watching TV with his brothers
  • Stops using David’s name altogether, simply calling him “the Boy”
  • Forces David to sleep under the breakfast table with only newspapers for warmth; eventually she banishes him to sleep on an old army cot in the cold garage 

Stealing Food at School

David gets so desperate for food that he resorts to stealing food from his classmates’ lunches when he’s in first grade. His classmates soon catch on and tell the teacher, who reports it to the principal, who calls David’s mother. It becomes a vicious cycle: David steals food, gets in trouble, is punished by getting less food at home, and becomes even more desperate to find something to eat. Withholding food as punishment leads to actions that result in more punishment of this type.

Mother Forces David to Eat the Inedible

In addition to withholding food as punishment, David is also forced to eat disgusting and harmful things—sometimes as a form of Mother’s punishment, and sometimes out of desperate hunger. 

Dirty Diaper

The summer after David’s second-grade year, he and his family take their annual vacation to the Russian River. It turns out to be their last. 

One day during the vacation, Mother berates David for being too loud as he’s playing with his brothers. As a consequence, she tells David that he can’t go on an outing that day with his father and brothers. 

When everyone leaves and David is left alone with Mother and his baby brother, Mother pulls out one of the baby’s dirty diapers and wipes it across David’s face. Then she yells at David to eat it. 

David tries to remain stoic, but this only angers Mother, and she starts hitting him. David tries to be strategic and decides he needs to stall—the way he did in the incident with the stove. He begins crying as she continues to beat him. 

When the baby begins crying it buys him a few minutes, but then Mother returns with a second dirty diaper and lays it on the kitchen counter. Mother shoves David’s face into the diaper so hard that his nose starts bleeding, though he’s able to keep his eyes and mouth shut tight. 

Soon they hear David’s father and brothers get home and Mother rushes to clean up the evidence of what happened. She banishes David to the corner, and although he still has some excrement in his nose, he considers it a small victory that he resisted eating it. 

Trash Can Scraps

Back at home, David’s hunger leads him to desperation. Each night after dinner he’s allowed back upstairs from the garage—where he’s banished for hours each day—so he can wash dishes from the meal everyone but him has just eaten. That’s where withholding food as punishment makes David resort to drastic measures.

David starts to eye the food scraps that have been scraped into the kitchen trash. Eventually, David starts picking through the trash can and eating bits of food that hasn’t been contaminated by cigarette butts and other trash. 

Mother catches David soon enough, and the next time he eats from the trash he becomes sick from food that she had purposely let spoil and then planted there, knowing he would eat it. 

David continues to snack on scraps when he can, but that comes to an end when Mother starts pouring ammonia into the trash can to poison everything. 


Beyond the question of whether withholding food from a child as punishment is okay, Mother makes David eat the inedible. After Mother catches David the day he steals frozen food, she subjects him to daily vomit tests after school. David determines that if he can find food earlier in the day, he’ll have time to digest it before he’s forced to vomit for Mother. 

David begins to knock on random doors on his way to school, telling the people who answer the door that he’s lost his lunch and asking if they can spare any food. But one day, he knocks on the door of a woman who knows Mother. 

David dreads Mother’s punishment. When he arrives home from school, Mother simply watches him perform his chores and says that his survival will depend on his speed. David doesn’t understand what she means, and the anticipation builds to become unbearable and exhausting. 

After David’s brothers go to bed, Mother finally brings David into the kitchen. Mother pulls out a tablespoon, fills it with ammonia, and pours it down David’s throat. Instantly he can’t breathe and collapses to the ground. David is sure he’s about to die, until Mother slaps him on the back and he’s able to breathe once again. 

Mother does it again the following night in front of Father. This time David tries to resist and manages to slosh most of the ammonia onto the floor. Still, Mother gets enough of it into David’s mouth to torture him, as Father looks on.  

Dishwashing Soap

Mother feeds David ammonia only on those two occasions, and she does the same with Clorox on a few others. More often, she pours dishwashing soap down his throat. 

The first time, David drinks water and is quickly overtaken with diarrhea. Mother refuses to allow him out of the garage to use the bathroom, so he’s forced to soil his pants until eventually he squats over a five-gallon bucket. 

However, in another instance, David manages to refrain from swallowing until he finishes his chores and can secretly spit the soap out in the garage. He feels accomplished and proud of himself for circumventing Mother’s scheme. 

By now David has developed a survival mentality in response to the use of withholding food from a child as punishment. David feels he can rely only on himself, and every time he endures or even outsmarts Mother’s abuse he swells with pride and resilience.

Withholding Food as Punishment: Dave Pelzer

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Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best book summary and analysis of Dave Pelzer's "A Child Called 'It'" at Shortform .

Here's what you'll find in our full A Child Called 'It' summary :

  • How David Pelzer survived horrific abuse at the hands of his mother
  • How victims and survivors of abuse can find support and overcome their painful past
  • Why child abuse may go unnoticed by other adults

Rina Shah

An avid reader for as long as she can remember, Rina’s love for books began with The Boxcar Children. Her penchant for always having a book nearby has never faded, though her reading tastes have since evolved. Rina reads around 100 books every year, with a fairly even split between fiction and non-fiction. Her favorite genres are memoirs, public health, and locked room mysteries. As an attorney, Rina can’t help analyzing and deconstructing arguments in any book she reads.

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