David by Marie Rothenberg and Dr. Mel White is a non-fiction biography about an 8-year-old boy whose father attempted to murder him by burning him. The sordid ordeal is recounted by David’s mother, Marie, and begins with how Marie met David’s father, Charles. They met in New York at an event or restaurant and she remembers how attentive and charming he was. Marie and Charles both come from rough childhoods with very little love shown; so Charles easily won Marie over and they got married not too long after meeting. About two months after they got married, Marie finds out the man she married is on the FBI’s Most Wanted list. They go through a time when Charles is in jail for a crime he got caught doing and instead of leaving Charles at the time, like she wanted to, she stayed with him because her friends and family reminded her about how much he would need her support after being in prison.
No long after this time in their life, Marie gives birth to David and Charles becomes almost obsessive over his son. He thanked Marie numerous times throughout the pregnancy, labor and childbirth, she recalls. She writes about how Charles would buy David any toy he wanted and would not allow his son to cry so he always gave in to David’s demands. After Charles thoroughly spoiled David, it was difficult for Marie to get David to do anything he should do, but didn’t want to; one night, David didn’t want to go to bed and would not stop wailing. Since Marie didn’t know what else to do and didn’t want to give into his cries after trying to soothe him to sleep, she decided it would be good for David to cry it out and soothe himself to sleep. At some point during this process, Charles arrives home from work, comes flying into David’s room, where he’s crying in his crib with Marie close by, and is so angry with Marie for letting David cry that he grabs her by the neck and pins her against the wall reminding her to never let his son cry. Then he went over to the crib, picked David up and held in the rocking chair until he fell asleep.
Marie admits to being scared of Charles after that incident and files for a divorce. After the divorce was final, Charles remained close by so that he could see David whenever he wanted; although Marie had full custody of David, she never denied Charles the right or opportunity to spend time with his son when he asked. She never suspected Charles would ever hurt David – he continued to spoil David with attention and toys when they spent time together. One day, Charles tells Marie that he wants to take David for a week, Marie thought it was a little odd since Charles rarely watched David for so long, but never thought it would be terribly bad. She also mentions a few additional oddities about how Charles was acting before her and David’s nightmare begin:
- Charles requests two pairs of shoes be packed for David, but usually only packs one pair.
- She mentioned a particular article or set of clothing that David would need for school on Friday that Charles ignored and didn’t pack.
- David wanted to bring a game system that he usually played with his dad and usually took with him to Charles’ house, but Charles told David that he would not need it.
Next thing Marie knew, David (who adored his dad) and Charles were out the door. Charles was supposed to return David to Marie on Wednesday, but he did not. Marie called the home of one of David’s classmates to see if he was in school that day only to find out that he wasn’t and hadn’t been in school since the previous Friday. Marie panics and calls her fiance, who happened to be a cop, to tell him what she found out and to see if he can help in some way. She told him that she had a bad feeling and truly believed Charles had kidnapped their son and would refuse to return him to Marie. By Thursday she is hysterical because she still had not heard from Charles, doesn’t know where they went and he wouldn’t return her calls. Marie continued to go to work since there was nothing she could do; eventually, Charles called Marie to let her know that David had a little accident and was at the UCI Burn Center. The center is located in California so Marie’s boss helps pay for flights for Marie and her fiance, John.
When they get to the Burn Center, she asks about her son at the check-in desk and is met by doctors and police officers. Marie explains to readers how the police officer told her about the events of David’s attempted murder based on evidence they gathered at the scene and eyewitness accounts. She fills in the other details and speculates on what might have led Charles to do that based on what she knows about Charles and David. They were supposed to spend six days enjoying Disneyland and some other attractions – all outdoors.
Instead, it was six days of rain which made Disneyland and Charles’ other plans a no-go; any unspoiled child would have been, understandably, disappointed but would maybe find other ways to enjoy the trip and time with their dad. Marie speculated that David’s disappointment and supreme boredom likely means he was whining and/or throwing a tantrum. She also speculated that after a few days of Charles having to deal with David’s whining and tantrums – unable to please him, Charles decides to murder David and kill himself. He buys kerosene and over-the-counter medication that would make David sleepy. He administers the medicine to David and makes him lay down in the bed at the Travelodge motel they were staying at. While David’s half asleep, Charles pours kerosene around the motel room and sets it on fire (after loading up the car), jumps in the car and drives off.
Other guests staying at the motel either heard a “BOOM” sound, heard David screaming or saw smoke and some moved into action. One guest called 911 to report the fire and badly burned child, another went into the motel room and pulled David out from where he was on the carpet and a third guest guided emergency services personnel and police officers to the scene. Marie found out about David’s condition at admission and an update; she explained that about 90% of David’s body suffered 3rd degree burns meaning the skin was entirely burned off. He had the toxins from the carpet of the motel room burned onto him, he had breathed the same toxins and fire into his lungs severely damaging them and his throat. Doctors had to insert tubes into his lungs to help him breathe. Most of David’s muscle and tissue were exposed. Marie talked about how doctors didn’t think David’s chances of survival would be good given the severity of his wounds, but David slowly began to improve.
Charles chickened out of the suicide portion of his plan and went on the run for a while before law enforcement were able to apprehend him. Marie talked about how David’s story and case became national news; she described the many friends they made, how she was a basketcase sometimes under all the stress of the situation and how many people from all over sent cards, letters of support, and donations to help her with medical bills. Reggie Jackson, who David was a fan of, was so moved by David’s story that he decided to visit him at the Burn Center. David loved baseball and was very excited by his visit; Reggie continued to visit David when his schedule would permit and always lifted David’s spirits when he did.
Marie recounted David’s long recovery at the Burn Center, about the moment David asks if his father did this to him, when he realized that his father did do this to him and how he handled that information for a child his age. How she yelled at, argued with and incessantly communicated that doctors be upfront with her as best they’re able, to always keep her in the loop regarding her son’s care, recovery, etc. and that she will always let them know when she thinks there is something wrong with her son. She learned a lot about standing up for someone’s care and voicing their concern over a loved one’s condition even when symptoms aren’t always clear or apparent. One day doctors inform Marie that David’s condition had improved greatly and that his condition would allow them to transfer his care to a Burn Center in the northeast which would allow them to head back to New York. Marie wrote of their voyage back to New York – about their challenges when they returned home and many of David’s accomplishments. Marie ends the book with where she and David were at the time she wrote it, what they wanted to do (move to California) and how the future was uncertain for them.
She sounded hopeful though and seemed at peace to me; although this book is an old story, I had never read very much about it and only vaguely remember hearing about it. I decided that I couldn’t do any better than a first-hand account of events when I stumbled on this book at a used bookstore. I think Marie does a good job putting events on a timeline, summarizing how she and Charles met, and the early years of their married life. She did a good job building up the events (or scene) leading up to Charles’ horrendous decision to murder his son and walking readers through her and David’s numerous struggles during treatment(s) and recovery. She comes across as genuine and often described how she felt, what she thought and how she could not have gotten through the ordeal without the support of God, the church, her friends, many strangers, police officers, UCI Burn Center staff, her fiance and coworkers.
I thought the book was good and it didn’t take long to get to the events of the accident and doesn’t continue on for too long afterward either giving the book a nice balance and length. I would recommend this book to readers who are interested in this story or for readers who enjoy nonfiction books and, like me, want to learn more about this kid who overcame many challenges to live despite the odds. The subject matter can be kind of graphic so people should decide in advance if this is something they can handle reading about. There were moments when I had to put the book down to take a small break, but definitely couldn’t put it down for long. If you’re interested in purchasing a copy of this book, Barnes and Noble (B&N) has it available for $ ($ for Members who also enjoy free shipping!). You can check your local library catalog for a copy (or call your library) if you would rather not buy the book. Lastly, it may not hurt to check a used bookstore if your other choice fails.
Thanks for stopping by my blog! My apologies for the delay, but with recent events causing most to lose jobs or work from home, there has been some changes. Anyway, I appreciate those who continue to come back and hope you’ll be back next week for another book review. Here are previous book reviews to read if you’re interested!