[Image description: A book cover with a red background. Vertically and across it is entitled “Push” in bold, black type.]
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Relentless, remorseless, and inspirational, this “horrific, hope-filled story” (Newsday) is certain to haunt a generation of readers. Precious Jones, 16 years old and pregnant by her father with her second child, meets a determined and highly radical teacher who takes her on a journey of transformation and redemption.
[TW: Rape, incest, physical and verbal abuse]
What I’ve seen in most one-star reviews of Push is a visceral anger that the protagonist is raped. That she is beaten. That she acquires the AIDS virus. That her mother and father were the source of her abuse. That she becomes pregnant from incest, not once, but twice.
They become incensed that we are asked to be “raped” with Precious Jones. That we are forced to read her flash-backs. Experience her confused and damaged sexuality. That it is an enraging experience and how dare the author subject us to this.
And I think this reaction is based in the fact we are rarely asked to actually empathize with rape and abuse victims.
A few years ago I analyzed why I found Rosalie Cullen of Twilight’s rape history to be exploitative. It ultimately came down to the fact her revenge was more about society getting a warm fuzzy, not any sort of actual closure for Rosalie.
To summarize briefly, Rosalie is killed during a gang rape by her fiancée and his friends. It is in a somewhat contrived but not impossible circumstance. The manner and why are not the real problems of the portrayal. What is instead exploitive is that after Rosalie is transformed into a vampire she wrecks revenge on her killers in a theatrical manner.
A narrative where a rape victim takes revenge is not necessarily exploitive nor not empowering. Nevertheless when that narrative is more about society being reassured that rapists are just random bad men, divorced from any connection to social structures, than about the victim’s self-empowerment, that is an exploitive and damaging narrative.
In Meyer’s tale at no point is it considered that her rapists are just entitled young men; someone you meet everyday. Not at all about the society that created the expectation young women that are unchaperoned are fair targets. How Rosalie’s background played into her victimhood. In Meyer’s narrative once the evil young men are dispatched, all is right with the world. Society doesn’t have to examine its evils. We can pat ourselves on the back that while there are some bad apples the barrel has no control over their existence. That once the rapists are removed then the victim can fully move on with their life.
Push however presents a far more realistic narrative. Highlighted in Precious’ story is the failures of the public school system (that punished her for being a rape victim by no longer allowing her to attend while pregnant and that at sixteen years old she is in Middle School and with a 2ndgrade reading and writing level), that of social services (no one reported a twelve year old had been raped by her father at the hospital so that four years later Precious is in the same exactposition, that when she is kicked out by her mother she literally had nowhere to go) and society in general that Precious who is a dark skinned African American feels like she must be “white” on the inside for her life to have any value. These facts don’t give warm fuzzies.
Carl (her father and rapist) and her mother and both apparently never punished for their mutual sexual and physical abuse of Precious. Precious is not going to theatrically murder her parents to make society feel better about itself. Because that would make Precious, who is an unflinchingly normal person, a monster. In real life we are not allowed to become monsters, it is a pipe dream. We can only be humans.
Precious is confrontational, angry, and frustrated. Things black women are never allowed to be. (I noticed upon re-watching the movie based on Push, Precious, before writing this review that Precious’ confrontational behavior with white women is largely absent.) She thinks of how she ogasmed during sex with her father and in some way lusts for him still, with disgust and confusion. This is a common feeling in incest survivors, but many have taken it as false and even “exploitative”. As always if your narrative is not what society wants to hear, it is rejected.
In my eyes Push is a very necessary book. It is written in dialect so if you have reading comprehension difficulties you may have trouble with the text, though on the other hand given it is largely written phonetically you may also have more ease with it depending on your difficulty. If you can read it, I do urge you to.
This book consumed me. I am actually going to buy my own copy something I rarely do with fiction books just because I have very little spending money. That is how much of an impact the work made on me. The prose is lyrical and as time goes on we see Precious becoming the poet we could always see in her narrative style. There are many lines that are just like punches to the gut.
“How is something a memory if you never forgit?”
“Is life a hammer to beat me down?”
It is a narrative where the story is actually centered on the victim, not the reinforcement of what society wants from incest survivors. Precious is prejudiced against gays and has internalized many other harmful stereotypes not just about her people but others (though like any well-developed character we do also see her grow). She is not someone whom we are often expected to empathize with. This book is about Precious Jones, not us. And it’s not about what we want. It’s about Precious’ as a person, and an incest survivor. It’s not about us helping Precious, it is about Precious existing in spite of us.
And that may make your greatly uncomfortable, but now would be a good time to ask “why”?