this is so good. so so so good. i'm going to say, first of all, that the quality of the artwork is amazing. great drawing, sometimes really simple, so...morethis is so good. so so so good. i'm going to say, first of all, that the quality of the artwork is amazing. great drawing, sometimes really simple, sometimes really complex, with great utilization of über cool graphic devices (notably, a spiral notebook that seems like the real thing, ellen's real notebook, photographed, and may or may not be).
when i first got the book i quickly scanned it and saw that it dealt with bipolar disorder solely in medical terms, i.e. as something the only effective treatment of which would be the right medication cocktail. now, i don't like that. at all. i really believe that mood disorders are a very complex mixture of genes and environment -- i believe that in everything human you can never take the environment out of the equation -- so i was sorry to see that the book kind of sold medication as the only approach to ellen's terrible pain.
the book sat on my shelf for a while and then it sat in a friend's house for another while and now i read it, and it's really not like that. i mean, it is like that, but, also, it isn't. yes, ellen only sees a psychiatrist and the psychiatrist's only overt contribution to her well-being is finding the right meds (which she eventually does). but the book is also very complex about the relation between ellen and karen, the psychiatrist, in that they have regular sessions for 13 years (and counting, i suppose), and in these sessions ellen really finds an anchor, a warmth, a haven of acceptance, love, and help.
also, the whole role of medication is problematized, analyzed, discussed, investigated, studied. this is cool.
ellen definitely comes out in this extraordinary memoir as well-rounded, interesting, and intriguing. this is the perfect companion to Alison Bechdel's Are You My Mother?: bechdel approaches her pain through psychoanalysis, fornay through medication, but there is the same level of complexity, engagement with one's life, and intelligence. seriously, this is brilliant and captivating and it was hard to put it down.
it seems to me increasingly important, as i think about these issues, to understand that there are things that work for someone and things that work for someone else. there's a strong strain in the "survivor" community that is virulently anti-drugs. i think it hinges on some people's disastrous experience with drugs. drugs can have terrible consequences on some bodies, and positive consequences on some other bodies. when you are someone whose life has been ruined by psych drugs, you tend to totalize your experience and proclaim them the devil. but they are not the devil for everyone. there are people whose life has been saved by psych drugs.
the other thing is that ellen's experience of psychiatry is incredibly gentle. her psychiatrist seems absolutely fabulous. this is not a common experience. many psychiatrists (all too many) are dismissive, arrogant, and belittling of their patients. this happens all the time. so if you work on getting better with a psychiatrist who actually listens to what you say, takes in what you want, and honors your experience with respect to what does and does not work for you, medication might be a much better experience than if you deal with a psychiatrist who simple decides what you should take/do/feel/etc.
i had a student once whose psychiatrist regularly mocked her. whenever she had something to say for herself, he'd say that she was being manic and to calm down. this was a kid. a college kid. i told her, why don't you change psychiatrist? but when someone gets into your head and makes you feel that he is god and you are an ant, you keep going back.
anyway, great book. thank you ellen for writing it. i don't know how you guys (you, alison, etc.) do it. this stuff must be harder than hell to put down on paper. so, again, thank you. (less)
ETA i'm reading around in GR, checking other reviews of this book, and there are SO MANY that are SO GOOD and make points that are different from mine...moreETA i'm reading around in GR, checking other reviews of this book, and there are SO MANY that are SO GOOD and make points that are different from mine, or points that are similar to mine but say it better. great literature produces great responses!
this is the best memoir i have read. in fact, it is one of the best books i've ever read period. i tried to think of other books that would compare to it in beauty, creativity, intelligence, complexity, and depth, and i think i'm going to have to place Are You My Mother? among my top ten. if i spent the next 5 years re-reading it, over and over, daily, continuously, it would be satisfaction enough for my intellect and my soul. i am an awe of alison bechdel for having written and drawn this book. i can't imagine what it must have taken. but then i think i know what it took: a genius only some of us possess. genius in conception, preparation, working through, execution, and getting it done (so many of us out here with fabulous ideas, deep thoughts, complex plans, and not enough persistence or courage or solidity of self to bring it all to completion).
and this is such a unique book. in order to painstakingly write it, page after bloody page, and then put it out there for all to see, she must truly have believed -- in it, in herself, in the world.
i read the entire thing so fast. i need to re-read. it's not an easy book but it was an incredibly compelling book to me. i think i drank it. i dreamed it. i thought about it nonstop and still am. it changed my life.
i haven’t read many reviews of it but in one of them bechdel says that she wasn’t thinking of her mother when she first conceived of the book. she wanted to write a book about relationships. this makes sense to me. if you are drawn to write a book about relationships and all their immense complications and you are alison bechdel you will necessarily be drawn to this most central, first, primordial, paradigmatic relationship: the relationship with your mother.
but let me try to bring some order to this brilliantly interwoven work of art. there are many genres and many stories that intersect in Are You My Mother? one strand is a pretty scholarly (but of course bechdel endeavors to make it fully accessible to everyone) exposition of the thought of british psychoanalyst donald winnicott. winnicott is the guy who invented the transitional object and the good enough mother. more significantly, he developed and added his original insight to the idea that what happened between a mom (or a primary caretaker) and her baby in very early stages of childhood shapes the baby in a fundamental and lasting way. also famously, winnicott said that there is not such a thing as a baby, meaning we cannot conceive of a baby in isolation: the rapport with the mother is essential to the baby's existence.
i love psychoanalysis and winnicott is a particularly lovely representative of it. his work is key to a lot of contemporary psychoanalysis and a serious and compelling argument in favor of not judging psychoanalysis only based on the work of freud, as many still do. winnicott's psychoanalysis is sweet and passionate. he was a child psychologist and worked all of his life with kids, often very disturbed ones. bechdel is clealy in love with him too. beside discussing his ideas (and, charmingly, telling us the story of her engagement with his work and the evolution of this engagement, sticky points and all) she also talks about him, the man. since she's a comics artist, she can do that. sometimes (not sure if in relation to winnicott or at other points, but still) the text in the square boxes and what happens in the panels seem to go their separate ways, as if they were talking about entirely different things. the effect is stunning, like hearing a voice over in a movie during a sequences that doesn't quite illustrate what the voice over is saying.
this should give you a sense of the complexity of this text. as she talks about psychoanalysis, bechdel gives us a dense psychoanalytic text, in which free associations appear in the flow of the narrative, in the juxtaposition of stories, in the juxtaposition of drawings and words, and in just about everything. this is why i could spend the next five years reading it.
anyway, winnicott. being so in love with his work, bechdel falls a bit in love with his story. i love the passages dedicated to his personal story. this simple man, with his issues and his troubles, sitting on the floor talking to kids, healing kids, or lying on the couch talking to his own analyst -- so brilliant, so revolutionary, so human. beautiful.
the book, inevitably, becomes a self-analysis. in fact, it is a self-analysis from the very first panel, as it starts with a dream bechdel goes on to interpret. so this is another strand. but this strand is aided by the fact that, before she wrote the book and while writing the book, bechdel is herself in analysis. a lot of panels are about her sessions with her analysts (she saw two). these panels are strangely and compellingly dynamic, in spite of the fact that they portray two people sitting in a room, because bechdel draws the analyst as sitting very still while she manages to give a sense of her own inquisitiveness and restless curiosity. she is always drawn sitting with her elbows on her knees, leaning forward. she scratches her head. she looks intensely absorbed in the difficult process to understand.
to summarize, so far: we have bechdel's study of winnicott; we have bechdel's analytic sessions; we have bechdel's self analysis. the last is aided by the first two. the whole book is an intense, incredibly artful, incredibly and beautifully compressed yet absolutely absorbing effort on the part of bechdel to understand what went on between herself her mother.
which brings me to strand number four, which is all the time and physical space (literally! this is a comic book! the space is bidimensional!) bechdel devotes to her conversations with her mother. busy as she is working, studying, analyzing, and having a life, bechdel talks on the phone to her mom every day. as we saw in Fun Home and as we see here too, bechdel's mom was not exactly a fountain of warmth and tenderness. she was probably a good enough mom when alison was very little, but later her (frustrated?) artistic interests turned her into a rather cold and detached figure. when alison was 7 mom told her she was too old to be kissed goodnight. her younger brothers continued to receive their goodnight kisses.
the profound disconnect between alison and her mother continues in adulthood. alison is always the one who initiates the calls. their "conversations" consist of mom talking and alison listening. on the occasions when alison needs to make herself heard (like, say, to ask if it's okay that she's writing this book!), she needs to insist. conversations about alison seem to last only two or three exchanges. mom is none too happy that alison is writing about her family but then alison does it anyway and mom seems to take it in stride. mom is also unhappy that alison writes a (successful) comic strip about lesbians ("what am i going to tell the family?").
this detachment is obviously and glaringly in contrast with the fact that they talk every day. why does alison keep calling this woman who doesn't truly accept her and is not overly proud in her? the discrepancy is complicated by the fact that at some point (maybe in order to write this book) alison starts typing up the conversations she has with her mom while they are happening. so imagine panel after panel of alison wearing earbuds and typing away while mom is off screen (so to speak: there must be a way to say this for comic books but i don't know what it is) talking about art, literature, the theater, and her life.
bechdel is a compulsive record keeper, but this seems deeply meaningful beyond that. it's as if typing up what her mother says a) gave alison something to do while mom goes on about herself b) gave alison agency in this interaction (she, not mom, captures and will be the custodian of mom's words) and c) upset the balance of power and powerlessness between them (these words will end up in a book in which mom doesn't look too good and over which she has no control*).
finally, there is the strand of alison's relationships with her girlfriends, presumably the point from which everything started. this part goes by quickly so i don't remember it too well; or maybe i was more interested in other parts. it seems anyway secondary, as if the true, the important relating were happening in the analysts's offices, in alison's office at home while she talks to her mom, in alison's mother's house (where she seems so very young), in alison's head, in alison's fabulous real-time reflections on the book she's writing.
i have left out so much. there's a lot of virginia woolf here, especially her journals, and there's a very astute reading of To the Lighthouse; woolf is another woman whose mom never quite loved her right, and bechdel shows the immense therapeutic value woolf got out of writing To the Lighthouse, where she puts her feelings towards her parents to rest. and there's a lot about alice miller's psychoanalytic book The Drama of the Gifted Child, which bechdel discusses gorgeously and in which she finds endless comfort.
but i have to stop. i'm using too many words. i have so much more to say but my words seem already to be more than all the words of Are You My Mother?
i cannot say that this book is for everyone. some people are bound to find it difficult.** but if you had a complex relation with your mom, give it a try. and if you love literature, and words, and ideas, and the magic that books can spin, definitely pick it up and read it. go slowly. savor the panels, savor the words, try to understand. and if you are interested in psychoanalysis, about how healing through a deep relationship with another who sits with you and listens to your story happens, this book is totally for you.
i don't want to make this book sound forbidding, but Fun Home was a breeze and this isn't a breeze. it's a book in which so much is packed. it's a deep book about someone who is trying to find her roots, not only through emotions but also through a lot of thinking and looking at others who did the same. this is deeply moving but the thinking can get a bit hard to grasp fully. still, it is so worth it, so so worth it. this is destined to become a key text of the american literary canon.
* this is also complicated. alison mails to her mom drafts of both her books and waits very anxiously for a response.
** i'm not some kind of genius or anything, but i know a bit about psychoanalysis. (less)
this is just about as good a novel about being a sad kid in australia as i have read, and if you think i'm being facetious i'll tell you that i've rea...morethis is just about as good a novel about being a sad kid in australia as i have read, and if you think i'm being facetious i'll tell you that i've read another australian novel about a sad kid and it didn't even compare to this one, quality-wise (i didn't finish that one either). problem is, i don't like YA novels. i just don't. i want my writers to talk to me as an adult. i want difficult words that express difficult ideas in difficult turns of phrases. i want hard and edgy. i want complex in that adult way of being complex that involves jobs, getting older, and losses different from the (terrible) losses of kids.
also, the whole love thing, i don't know, maybe it didn't work that way for me, but i just can't feel it. boys looking at you sideways; boys walking you to class; boys giving you rides home... i didn't do any of that. i didn't even do it with girls, if you see what i mean. that whole game happened while i was thinking about other things. what other things was i thinking about? i studied like a dog, i fought with my sisters, i fought with my parents, i fought with my relatives, i fought with my teachers, i fought with just about everyone. i rode my bicycle fast through one of the most beautiful cities in the world. i worried about grades. sometimes i met with my classmates and studied. sometimes i went to parties with my classmates but i found them boring and felt like i didn't belong so i left. i hung out with the kids in the parish. i fought with the priests and the counselors and every adult in sight. i wish there were a book about me, but not a YA book. when you think about these things from the future of adulthood, they feel different, you know? the sense of loss is both magnified and diminished. kids are capable of tremendous despair, but adults, well, we're a bit more jaded, and we're afraid of death, and we are really afraid of injuries we didn't even know existed when we were kids, and all of this tinges our memories in a special and unique way. there's all this history that took place, and even though in some ways our adolescence feels to us as intact as it was then, it isn't. it's different, and i wish i could think of a writer who captures its misery through the eyes of adulthood. maybe sylvia plath in The Bell Jar?
but then the true crazy thing is that YA writers are adults, and this messes me up entirely. in fact, most YA readers are adults. what gives? what gives? if you have made it this far, please explain it to me.
this book is perfect. i hadn't read a perfect book in quite some time and now i have. no, wait. Lord of Misrule is perfect too (though it's easier for...morethis book is perfect. i hadn't read a perfect book in quite some time and now i have. no, wait. Lord of Misrule is perfect too (though it's easier for shorter books to be perfect, isn't it?), so now i've read TWO PERFECT books back to back. this is life smiling at me with a big fat grin.
as with Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, of which this book reminded me, and as with The History of Love, of which also i was reminded (i just read it), and maybe most of all like An Invisible Sign of My Own, this book depicts horrible pain -- the pain of kids and old people, no less -- with unbelievable charm. these kids are fighters of the first order and you can't but love the heck out of them. and the old man, well, maybe the fight has gone out of him a little, but it's okay, things turn out kinda well for him, and in fact, in a book in which people eat each other, go around with their heads under their arms, and are subjected to terrible losses, things turn out okay for just about everyone, not because they are really okay, but because this is fiction and the power of fiction to bring whimsy and joy and irrepressible awe to the reader is endless. so this morning, when i woke up, i grabbed this little book from near my bed and held it for some twenty minutes, because it's going back to the library and we had to say goodbye proper-like. (less)
this book is a broken elegy to the north of england and a world of small shops, small communities, and simple habits that no longer exists. it's also...morethis book is a broken elegy to the north of england and a world of small shops, small communities, and simple habits that no longer exists. it's also a tribute to a hardy working class people who knows resilience, pluckiness, no-nonsensicality, and making a life out of what you are given. surprisingly, it's a vindication of the values of faith, which keep people under the direst circumstances out of the clutches of despair and of the feeling of being trapped. these are winterson's words. this truly abused kid never felt despair or a sense of being trapped while she grew up. there was faith for that. no one else felt it either.
have i read too little winterson to know that she writes like this? i remember her prose as lyrical and full of surprises. this is simple, direct, often hysterical in spite of all the horrors (i laughed out loud a lot), and wry. maybe all of her books are written like this and i don't remember. maybe this is written like this because there are only so many ways in which you can describe mayhem.
jeanette winterson was given up for adoption six weeks after she was born. in those six weeks she was breastfed and loved. the family who adopted her consisted of a factory worker and a homesteader. mrs. winterson was a true force of nature, not necessarily in a good way. she was definitely a withering and wintering force of nature for poor jeanette, who disappointed her mom (the book shows it could not have been otherwise) by being a girl (turns out the wintersons had settled on a little boy), by being herself a little concentrated force of nature, and by being the devil's spawn. it is not entirely clear what terrible things jeanette did, but she was often punished in unbelievably cruel ways, and she was never loved.
this book is in many ways mrs. winterson's story. she deserves a story and she is lucky her daughter is a fabulous writer. this terrible woman who loved all that is death-like in christianity and lived under the sign of the apocalypse, renunciation of all worldly pleasure, and doom, is described with great compassion. jeanette must have loved her very much. she must have wanted her very much. she must also have been furiously angry at her, but this book is about forgiveness, not anger.
when young willful jeanette falls in love with a girl mrs. winterson basically say it's either the girl or you and jeanette spends the following couple of years sleeping in a borrowed car while going to school full time and having a part-time job. she is sixteen.
then, because she is jeanette winterson and nothing but nothing will ever stop her from getting what she wants, she gets herself into oxford. if you read the first part of the book without knowing who jeanette winterson is, the fact that she got herself into oxford will make your jaw drop. how on earth could this working class girl who had lived in a place stuck several decades behind real time get into one of the most exclusive universities in the world?
well, she did.
in the second part of the book jeanette moves to the very near present and talks about a terrible breakdown she suffered when she was in her late 40s. i won't say what brought it on but it doesn't really matter. in passing she also tells us that she had two more breakdowns and one psychotic crisis. also, she seems to be one of those people who hear voices without having other psychotic symptoms. apparently she heard voices all through her life. in Agnes's Jacket psychology professor gail hornstein debunks the myth that people who hear voices are invariably schizophrenic or bipolar and need to be medicated to kingdom come (i'm sure she's not the first to say so, but her book is the first where i read it). there are indeed people who hear voices but lead an otherwise normal life.
why JW had breakdowns; why she always had a terrible time sustaining loving relationships; why she was troubled all her life is not something that is very difficult to understand. she spent the first 16 years of her life not getting any love. this tends not to do wonders for one's psychological health.
this book is also an ode to books and words. books and words saved young jeanette, plain and simple. books and words have saved many unloved kids and will continue to do so as long as humankind exists, because there will always be unloved kids and works of literature. her love for and gratitude to literature could not be bigger. it's time for me to read all of her books. (less)
this is a self-consciously 20-something book in which life is lived mostly at night -- people work during the day but their workdays...more (ETA par. at end)
this is a self-consciously 20-something book in which life is lived mostly at night -- people work during the day but their workdays seem unimportant -- in a drifty sort of way, fueled by extravagant quantities of alcohol, constant personal interaction (conducted in person or through text messages) and very little sleep. the 20-somethingness is conveyed, i take, by the choppiness of the narrative, the characters' restless sexual lives, their promiscuity, their great reliance on cell phones and most notably (as far as i am concerned) the bloody lack of sleep. when i was in my 20s i didn't do any of the things these people do except not sleep. if we had had cell phones then i would probably have died of sleeplessness and starvation.
all the characters are queer and while the book is obviously centered around this the characters hardly ever discuss it. when a girl starts dating a guy and a friend asks her if she's gone straight, the girl balks. you don't go straight or queer: you go where your heart and your lust take you.
what gives this novel its particular high-anxiety, strung-out atmosphere is, ostensibly, the fact that one of the protagonist, a transsexual called josh, works as a paramedic. the whole book feels lived out in a state of emergency, partly because it is (josh's work-life is discussed a lot) and partly because these old-young people's lives are a permanent state of emergency. billy, a 25-year-old ex-music-star (yes, in the second millennium people are exes at 25), is awfully agoraphobic, obsessive, and anxious. her whole existence is an extended attempt at keeping her devouring anxiety under control and under wraps.
these are not kids. these are people with a lot of life under their belts. they have seen death, illness, misery, their own fall from grace, and the sprouting and withering of lifelong relationships. they do not turn to their parents. they turn to each other, offering each other whatever faulty, cracked, weak solace they can.
since the book is set in toronto there is a pleasant sense of a lived-in city, of which one becomes aware every time bicycles are mentioned (a lot). the city, if nothing else, contains and sustains these aged kids, holds them steady, gives them a community.
i suspect this novel is successful in what it seeks to achieve, but i felt anxious the whole time i read it. it's hard to imagine a future for these queer kids and they themselves seem not to think in terms of a future. they are very much rooted in the present: the couches on which they are crashing, the jobs to which they need to show up, their love obsessions. they are also tortured by worry, jealousy, indecision. there is little redemption, no real trajectory. i wish at least one of them had felt some hope, a sense of direction; i wish there had been one genuine moment of simple, complete contentment, some happiness. but nope, it's sorrow and the burden of life from beginning to end, and while i'm sure there are young people who feel like this, i hope they are not too many.
the reason why the book ultimately didn't work for me, even though i gobbled it up and felt drawn to it, is that zoe whittall never quite tells us what is wrong. she intentionally stays out of the psychology of these characters, their histories, their inner conflicts. some lines here and there seem to suggest that psychological tensions are not something whittall believes in a whole lot: maybe it's all bio-chemistry, maybe it's simply the terrible anxiety of the times. but if you put a bunch of queer people in the narrow space of a novel, i want to see this queerness play a role in the happiness/unhappiness of the characters. we are not and i think we will never be in a "post" enough queer time that being queer plays no role in the tensions and stresses of young people. (less)
at first i thought, shucks, i should have read Saving Francesca, i don't understand a thing. but the fact is that i had read Saving Francesca, well, a...moreat first i thought, shucks, i should have read Saving Francesca, i don't understand a thing. but the fact is that i had read Saving Francesca, well, a third of it at least, and i had had to stop because the puppy love was really boring me to pieces. and then someone in the RA group suggested that i might like this, and i said, no no no, i had to stop reading Saving Francesca because of the puppy love, and they said, yes, that was a problem for me too, but this book is different. and maybe now i should backtrack and say that when i asked for advice in the Readers Advisory group i had just read, or was in the middle of reading, the masterful Code Name Verity, and that the suffering contained in that book, along with the author's conveyance that this suffering had meaning and was in fact redeemed by great love, had much lifted my spirits and filled my heart. and when i said this, someone in RA recommended this book, and that's why i was reading it, even though i kept thinking that, not having finished Saving Francesca, i couldn't possibly understand anything.
but i forged on. and then i realized that what marchetta does is give you the story a little bit at a time, so that you have all of its pieces only at the end. it's really great writing, simple unassuming writing with a genius organization underneath, so that you get to know all these people slowly and confusingly, the way you'd know people in real life if they showed up all at once, ten or so of them, barely remembering who's brother or nephew or uncle of whom, but slowly getting it, because marchetta knows what she's doing and how to bring you to the core of things. and the core of things, which slowly unfolds in all this confusion of kinship and inner pain, is that there is a family that was struck by a tragedy so profound that, two years later, everyone is still reeling -- reeling so badly that they are abandoning each other and betraying each other when they were each other's lifelines. and the worst thing of all is that they are abandoning tom, an unmoored teenager and arguably the book's protagonist (hence the YA designation, which, once again, seems to me entirely perplexing), who, as a consequence of the tragedy and the abandonments, got himself into a heap of trouble and is now hanging doubled up on the ropes of his life, totally out of juice, nothing left to him, a disaster in human shape.
the sydney of marchetta is a nice little city, with communities, local hang outs, and people who know about each other and care about each other beyond text messages and facebook status updates. they have been in each other's lives for generations (well, as many generations as being white in australia allows), have spent countless christmases together, have seen each other's children grow up, and don't understand not spending time together.
the book is a slow rebuilding of the community in the aftermath of trauma, which is also a slow building of the novel, the narrative, the threads that keep the story together. and while at first you wonder what the hell is wrong with these people, with their touchiness and immense capacity for taking things the wrong way, at the end you realize that marchetta has brought you through a journey in which people have hesitantly but tenderly started to heal each other, and in the process have healed you a bit too. (less)
this book seems to cause strong reactions, so let me first say what i think it is not:
* it is not a book that predicts how a generic child will impro...morethis book seems to cause strong reactions, so let me first say what i think it is not:
* it is not a book that predicts how a generic child will improve when treated the way virginia axline treats dibs (how does she treat dibs? she mostly describes dibs’ behavior, not hers).
* it is not a book about diagnostics (dibs is given exactly zero labels).
* it is not a book about technique; it is not a manual even in the broadest sense of the word.
* finally, it is not a book about etiology or the genesis of children's pain, not even this particular child's, even though the author does give some sense of what happened to dibs prior to their encounter.
what i think this book is, is the story of a very unique encounter between two unique individuals who found each other, clicked in a tremendously effective way, and led each other to change and growth. for all of axline's emphasis on the self (the finding of the self, the building up of the self, the solidifying of the self, etc.), DSS is about relationship and love -- the specific relationship axline built with this specific child and the love story they created.
what struck me most about the book, what i keep thinking about, is that healing love, in whatever context you find it, has one defining feature: it makes room for the other. axline's behavior toward dibs may seem at a superficial level pretty empty. she echoes his words and provides affirmation for pretty much all of his wishes, desires, and behaviors. since she doesn't describe herself, we don't know anything about her body language and her own behavior, but after a bit i got the impression that she was warm and smiling, that she didn't move much (except when dibs asked her to), and that she kept her attention riveted on dibs.
as dibs himself observes (he is such an fabulous patient; he notices everything and gives constant feedback and, i am pretty sure, gratification), there is nothing he cannot do in the playroom. this is fantastic for him and seems to be exactly what he needs. the only thing he cannot do is stay past his time, and this is something axline and dibs return to over and over. it's hard for dibs to leave, especially at first, when his situation at home is still extremely tense and hostile. but it's hard for him later, too. this specific therapeutic moment, the time when the session is over, is an extremely important one, crucial really, and i think that in a good therapeutic couple the loss is felt by both therapist and patient.
one thing dibs learns from axline is that losses are not permanent. he also learns that losses are harbingers of new gains and joys, often in pretty short order and in great abundance. it's a bit like waiting until dinner when you want a snack half an hour before the food is ready. by the end of the treatment, dibs adores the thought of thursday.
the way in which axline makes room for dibs is truly wonderful and the most shining lesson of this small book. i have thought about this and i believe the heart of this "making room" is total emptiness and total fullness, combined. the therapist empties herself of expectations, demands, or judgments (except for the very broad judgment that the patient is immensely interesting and lovable). in this process of self-emptying, though, the therapist becomes an extremely strong presence. it is (one of) the greatest miracles of humanness -- the more room we make for others, the more we empty ourselves of our own needs with respect to others, the more we grow in presence and impact. we become as insubstantial and irresistible as pure light.
now, this self-emptying can take place in all sorts of ways and contexts and with all sorts of gradations. the therapeutic setting is one in which this happens very intensely and to a very high degree (this is one of the reasons why therapeutic sessions typically last 50 minutes). there are other settings that are similar -- healing settings in which the "therapist" is not someone with a degree and a job. the idea is the same.
i think that what dibs feels, what blows him away, what makes him giddy with joy, is the loving space, the bright presence, the full emptiness he experiences with his miss A. he has never had that. experiencing it for the first time is dizzying to him. you can see the life being poured into him, and him drinking at it till he's sated. it's wonderful.
so, ultimately, this seems a book about how two people can meet and fall in love, and then, because one of these two people is a sad and hurt little boy, how one of them pours everything she ‘s got into healing him. there is, by the way, as far as i can see, no judgment from axline about the parents. the mother's visit with axline is wonderful. axline treats the mother the same way she treats dibs: she listens, takes her in, gives her space, passes no judgment at all, honors her pain and confusion, gives no advice.
in a really lovely passage little five-year-old dibs goes up to miss A and asks her: what are you? you are not a mom because i have my mom; you are not a teacher because i have my teachers. what are you?
axline echoes dibs' puzzlement rather than providing an answer (what would that answer be anyway?) and dibs happily moves on. i think this book is an answer to this question. what is a therapist? a therapist, a good therapist, is someone who delves into the dark with you, comes with you wherever you take her, sticks with you, and loves you madly. and she does this while being and staying herself, and human, and normal. (less)