While I’ve never read The Color Purple by Alice Walker, I do believe reading PUSH by Sapphire is closet literary text to approach such an effort. I picked up a copy in the dollar section when my family went to the Half Price Book store in Dallas because I remembered the film Precious was based on it. I haven’t seen Precious for the same reason I haven’t re-watched Forrest Gump or Schindler’s List, I’m terrified of dehydrating myself with feelings and crap. In my defense, PUSH is enough to get to the experiences of a population of girls living in this country and the real shit they deal with.
Just one passage is enough catch the tone for the rest of the book:
I think my mind a TV set smell like between my muver’s legs. I’m stupid. I ain’ got no education even tho’ I not miss days of school. I talks funny. The air floats like water wif pictures around me sometime. Sometimes I can’t breathe. I’m a good girl. I don’t fucks boyz but I’m pregnant. My fahver fuck me. And she know it. She kick me in my head when I’m pregnant. She take my money. Money for little Mongo should be mine. (57).
The novel is a first person narration by Clarice “Precious” Jones of her life, and it’s a hell of a life at that. Precious describes every aspect of her life, from the sexual assaults she suffers from her father, to the physical and psychological abuse she receives from her mother, to her attempt to go to school and tend to her mentally retarded son, and finally he escape from the world she inhabits by attending a special needs educational facility.
I’m honestly not sure what the initial appeal of PUSH was for me. I suspect part of it was some sense of white guilt. As I’ve explained in numerous essays, being an English major at the university I attend typically means that I’m restricted to the highlights of the English and American literary canon which, unfortunately, means that I’m often reading the works of white male upper-class writers. While there’s nothing inherently wrong with this, I’ve read enough Cornel West and Harry Lewis Gates Jr to know there is a conflict with such rigors reinforcement of a biased canon. The narratives of women of color, not just in academia but in society at large are typically ignored or do not receive the press they do. The fact that PUSH was made into a film is nothing short of a miracle, until you realize that Oprah and Tyler Perry helped produce it in which case that makes WAY more sense. I’m not shitting on Tyler Perry when I say that, I’m addressing the fact that the he’s a black man who makes lots of money and holds connections in Hollywood, he can afford to help get the story out there, and Oprah is, well…Oprah.
I may be sounding too cynical here and putting the reader off to an important book. PUSH appealed because of my wife. You see I was originally hesitant to call myself a feminist, despite the fact that just about everything I believed about women fell in line to such a political movement. It was my wife that really began to educate me about rape culture, women’s reproductive rights, and the struggles that third wave feminists had to suffer through. She’s the one who taught me that it was the second wave feminist movement in the sixties that helped white women achieve many of the social benefits they hold, not just in terms of written legal systems but in the unspoken behavior of society. She also taught me that because many feminist movements typically avoided including women of color in their organizations black, latino, oriental, and native American women, to name a few, continued to struggle to this day.
If PUSH is about anything it’s overcoming sexual and psychological abuse. In one particularly harsh passage Precious is going into labor and her mother confronts her:
“Claireece Precious Jones I’m talkin to you!”
I still don’t answer her. I was standing at this stink the last time I was pregnant when them pains hit, wump! Ahh wump! I never felt no shit like that before. Sweat was breaking out on my forehead, pain like fire was eating me up. I just standing there ‘n pain hit me, then pain go sit down, then pain git up ‘n hit me harder! ‘N she standing there screaming at me, “Slut! Goddam slut! You fuckin’ cow! I don’t believe this, right under my nose. You been high tailing it round here.” Pain hit me again, the she hit me. I’m on the floor groaning, “Mommy please, Mommy please, please Mommy! Mommy! Mommy! MOMMY!” Then she KICK me side of my face! “Whore! Whore!” she screamin’. (9)
Believe it or not this is one of the easier passages. Later when Precious returns from the hospital her mother greets her:
About three months after baby born, I’m still twelve when all this happen, Mama slap me. HARD. Then she pick cast-iron skillet, thank god it was no hot grease in it, and she hit me so hard on back I fall on floor. Then she kick me in ribs. Then she say, “Thenk you Miz Claireece Precious Jones for fucking my husband you nasty little slut!” I feel like I’m gonna die, can’t breathe, from where I have baby start to hurt.
“Fat cunt bucket slut! Nigger pig bitch! He done quit me! He done left me ‘cause you. What you tell them mutherfuckers at the damn hospital? I should KILL you!” she screaming at me. (19).
I despise the word “slut.” I spoke to a friend who regularly discusses politics, sexuality, movies, video games, capitalism, drugs, etc, and when he mentioned that he felt that women today dress like sluts I began by reminding him that there were people saying the same thing about young women in the 1960s, the 1920s, the late 1800s, the mid 1800s, the early 1800s, the late 1700s, in fact, I illustrated to him, that any student of history will demonstrate that the older generation always believes the younger bunch to be foolhardy and promiscuous. He ceded the point. But I wouldn’t let it go because I despise the word slut. You have the opening “s” which create the “hiss” of dismissal, followed “l” which turns the hiss into a repugnant slug/slur/slow noise which is complimented by the soft “u,” and finally the cutting “t” ends the awful word. This examination is not meant only as a tangent, but merely a bridge. The word “slut” is a weapon along the lines of “bitch” in that it’s often used to attack women who either possess strength and therefore need to be attacked using their sexuality, or else women who possess no power in which case the word is designed to only further their societal degradation.
There’s a feeling reading Precious Jones’s story, and listening to her describe the pain. I won’t retype any of the sexual abuse she receives from her father out of general principle. Just let the reader be warned, Sapphire holds nothing back. The rape Precious experiences is not violent, or at least not the “scream rape” that many people may see on Game of Thrones or American Horror Story, but it’s unwanted and the fact that she’s only twelve when it happens, and that it’s her father who perpetrates the act, makes it clear there is no grey area.
By the sounds of it the book I’m describing is unreadable, my contester says. I generally try to enjoy life, and when I read I don’t want to read about rape and violence and heartache, what’s the point?
The point dear reader is that I also try to enjoy life, most people do, but the fact of the matter is ignoring problems in our society isn’t a healthy lifestyle, it’s solipsism. PUSH may be a fictional narrative, but for many women her story is all too real. That’s where the conclusion of the novel comes into play.
Precious begins going to a special needs school where she is given access to information that helps her escape her mother’s apartment and take care of her children. Near the end of the text she attends a meeting for survivors of sexual assault. She describes it:
Listen to girl rape by brother, listen to old woman rape by her father; don’t remember till he die when she is 65 years old. Girls, old women, white women, lotta white women. Girl’s younger sister murdered by the cult? Jewish girl, we had money on Long island (like Westchester), my father was a prominent child psychiatrist. It started when I was about nine years old. Girls like Jermaine is, I am a proud lesbian. But it’s the only thing I’m proud of; I was confine to a mental institution for fourteen years, diagnosed as a schizophrenia—
What am I hearing!
One hour and a half women talk. Can this be done happen to so many people? I know I am not lying! But is they? I thought cult was in movie. What kinda world this babies raped. A father break a girl’s arm. Sweet talk you suck his dick. All kinda women here. Princess girls, some fat girls, old women, young women. One thing we got in common, no the thing, is we was rape” (130).
The conflict with rape culture is that it perpetuates the false notion that it doesn’t exist. That only sluts and loose women get raped and that’s because they were asking for it, either because of the way they dressed or else they weren’t clear about saying no. The conflict with this notion is that it’s bullshit, and novels like PUSH cut through it.
I get it on some level. Recognizing that a brother could rape his sister is horrifying and repugnant, especially because I am a brother. The thought that a father would rape his daughter and feel nothing, or else blame her saying she seduced him. The idea of raping babies is a concept so vile many people would rather shut down than even begin talking about it. It violates every level of social contract and ethical principal that governs our society…but it happens nonetheless.
PUSH doesn’t ask the reader to accept it, it asks the reader to acknowledge it. And typing that out I know how fucking difficult that can be.
PUSH is a novel about redemption, and while that is a word that’s thrown around too often, especially around Oscar season when Daniel Day Lewis is playing whatever brilliant fucking part he’s playing right now, in the case of rape victims it’s essential. If PUSH were just about a bunch of awful shit that happened to Precious, THE END, there’d be no point to reading the book except to lament that life happens and it isn’t always fair. But that’s not the whole story. While some women break under the abuse, the ones that survive find strength in telling their survivor stories to other women, in building themselves up through their confession.
Afterwards we go out for coffee. I have never been “out for coffee” before. Rita put her arm around my shoulder, I order hot chocolate ‘cause that’s what I like. Blond girl who is airline stewardess say, “Precious! That’s a beautiful name!”
I’m alive inside. A bird is my heart. Mama and Daddy is not win. I’m winning. I’m drinking hot chocolate in the village wif girls—all kind who love me. How that is so I don’t know. How Momma and Daddy know me sixteen years and hate me, how a stranger meet me and love me. Must be what they already had in my pocket. (130-1).
PUSH is a hard read, but it isn’t a depressing read. A depressing read reminds you that life is terrible, bad things happen for no good reason, and in the end we’re all going to die and it didn’t mean a thing. PUSH doesn’t give that to the reader. There are passages that will shock, offend, and revolt the reader as long as they possess some moral conscience, but if they are able to PUSH through it then they’ll get to the character of Precious Jones who just wants to learn math and be a good mother to her child. Stories like hers are vital and need to be read more than ever, for as long as we continue to perpetuate the myth of the slut, as long as we continue to blame victims and silence them before they can tell their stories, then as a society we’ve let down our daughters and mothers, sisters, and even our brothers and sons.
Reading a book like PUSH won’t end sexual assault, but it should make the reader less eager to blame the victims.