“Precious” – One Therapist’s Perspective About  Sexual Abuse and Resilience

By Marcia Robbins, Psy.D., MFT


The important film,” Precious,” based on the novel, Push, by Sapphire has many levels to interpret.  Set in 1987, the film portrays the welfare and educational system at that time that intervened on Precious’s behalf.   The attention this film has received from the media illuminates  the depth of harm sexual abuse inflicts upon the victim as well as the resilience that allows the victim to become a survivor. 


The universality of the issues in this film may touch people in ways they never imagined.  And it may bring increased attention to providing parenting education for creating boundaries to protect the innocence of children.  Parents, especially if they have been abused, may need to learn how to protect their children from abuse by not allowing other adults to take showers or hot tubs with them, etc.  It will help the child to know that their private parts are private and know the words to use to set limits. The parent needs to have age appropriate open dialog about sexuality with their child in order to protect him.  Dr Laura Berman has a new book out about how to talk about sexuality with your child, Talking to Your Kids About Sex. Often, children are exposed to sexual abuse by other children who have been abused, so it’s important for the child to know it’s OK to tell.  As in the case of Precious, children are told they are worthless and they close up.

As a therapist I’ve worked with many adults and children, both male and female, as young as three years who have been silenced by the words, “Don’t tell or no one will ever love you.” Children need to know that they will always be loved, no matter what. Precious didn’t think anyone loved her. 


When there’s a change in behavior by the child in school or at home it’s important to assess what is going on in the child’s life. In the film Precious was referred to an alternative school and she was provided therapy by a county welfare social worker.  Today, teachers can refer a troubled child for counseling.  When I was an intern at Pine Hollow Intermediate School, the English teacher would refer children to me based on the essay they wrote entitled, “I’m a lovable and capable person.” I would obtain parental consent and provide individual and family therapy.

Post traumatic Stress Disorder

With the aid of special effects in this film, the viewer is able to see what Precious sees in her flashbacks of the abuse she endured which vividly illustrates post traumatic stress disorder or as Judith Herman, MD has termed trauma disorder.  Some of these flashbacks occur while Precious is expected to understand what is going on in her classroom.  Her focus is continually interrupted.  A reviewer of the film, Aubrey Ward  III of Firefox News, noted that Precious was reading and writing at the level of a three year old. This insight matches Precious’s first experience of sexual abuse at age three. The developmental level of many victims may be temporarily arrested and later restored as in the case of Precious, who learns to read and write and looks forward to college. 

Learned Helplessness and Anger

Another issue in this film is provided by the mother, who does not speak up for herself or her child when Precious is age three because she herself feels worthless and unloved.  Learned helplessness is a concept Psychologist Martin Seligman, Ph.D., developed many years ago.  The mother is unable to protect Precious out of fear that her boyfriend will leave the  relationship, and she becomes angry at Precious because her boyfriend who is the child’s father would rather be sexual with their daughter. The mother rationalizes her physical and emotional abuse of Precious believing that Precious took her boyfriend from her.


Another issue in this film is provided by the grandmother, who means well by taking care of Precious’ baby, but she stands back and does not protect her granddaughter.  How many of us stand back and don’t get involved? Fortunately for Precious, the educational and welfare system intervene. 


The amazing thing about Precious is that she has resilience, and instead of allowing herself to remain a victim she learns to become a survivor from her teacher and the social worker.  Even during the abuse, Precious dissociates and visualizes herself in another place having a wonderful time.  Resilience, noted by psychologist Martin Seligman, Ph.D, is an attribute that comes from an innate belief that we can survive no matter what happens to us.  Dr. Seligman has done research with children who have survived incredible life situations to go on to college and lead successful lives where others gave up, ended up selling drugs and were incarcerated. Dr. Seligman’s work with resiliency then led to his theory of positive psychology which facilitates the development of optimism and resilience.   

Body Dysmorphic Disorder

Another issue revealed in this film relates to body dysmorphic disorder which was illustrated in another film, “What the Bleep?” with Marley Matlin.  The woman stands in front of a mirror and sees a grotesque body instead of her own well proportioned body.  In this film, Precious, who is an obese 16 year old girl of color, looks in the mirror and sees a slender blue-eyed blonde.  Precious sees herself as she wants to be, rather than the negative view.  Resilience! I would hope that she could begin to visualize herself as a beautiful woman of color with dark hair and eyes, but that will come later.   How many women, and men, look in the mirror and see the negative.  We can learn from Precious.

The Path Forward Toward Recovery from Sexual Abuse

Just as Precious was moving forward toward recovery in the film, each person who is involved in abuse has a path to take towards recovery which begins with the courage to take a stand to stop it.  The victim needs the courage to tell someone in order to get help.  The offender  needs to take responsibility for the abuse.  Other family members need to believe the victim and provide support to him or her. The goal is to stop the harm and end the pain in order to prevent it from occurring in the next generation.   A positive change in a person’s life can be made regardless of the fear.  The family can get help to guide them forward to do the right thing.  Once the abuse has ended, the recovery begins, no matter how much time has passed.  Adults may begin their recovery years after the abuse has ended.  A spouse may also need to seek out therapy to cope with this information and to believe and support their partner through his or her recovery. 


Although this film focuses on a child of color who lives in poverty with a single mother on welfare, victims of sexual abuse are of every socioeconomic group, race, religion or culture.  By utilizing sand tray and art therapy, cognitive behavioral therapy, hypnotherapy, eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMD/R) and dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), victims do become survivors.

Copyright © Marcia Robbins

Marcia Robbins, Psy.D., MFT has been in private practice over 25 years, specializing in the treatment of individuals, couples and families in the areas of addiction, sexual issues, trauma, domestic violence and anger management. Her office is located in Orinda, CA, in the East Bay area of San Francisco.

You can email her at DrMarciaMFT@AOL.com or call (925) 708-7748 or (925) 254-7649.