jo's Reviews > Dibs in Search of Self

Dibs in Search of Self by Virginia M. Axline
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May 15, 2011

it was amazing
bookshelves: kids, trauma, psychic-pain, blew-my-mind, not-fiction

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 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.
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Reading Progress

May 15, 2011 – Started Reading
May 15, 2011 – Shelved
May 15, 2011 – Shelved as: kids
May 15, 2011 – Shelved as: trauma
May 15, 2011 – Shelved as: psychic-pain
June 30, 2011 –
page 108
July 1, 2011 – Shelved as: blew-my-mind
July 1, 2011 – Finished Reading
July 5, 2011 – Shelved as: not-fiction

Comments (showing 1-24)

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message 24: by Simon (new)

Simon Wow. Great review. Thanks.

message 23: by Emilie (last edited Jul 05, 2011 09:58PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Emilie beautiful review, jo. this was one of my favorite books when i was a kid. reading your review makes me want to re-read it.

message 22: by jo (new) - rated it 5 stars

jo thank you emilie! how young were you when you read it? "kid" seems very young to me...

Emilie i think that i was about 8 years old when i read it (and carried it around with me, referring to the book as well as the boy as dibs). yeah, i was not exactly the intended audience! *smiles* i found it very comforting.

Emilie i thought he was really cute too!

message 19: by jo (new) - rated it 5 stars

jo i'm sure you did. i would have too.

message 18: by jo (new) - rated it 5 stars

jo haha. i meant to reply to your comment that carrying to book around was comforting, not that the boy was cute.

Astraea You know that is just about the nicest review of this book I've ever read. Thank you.


message 16: by jo (new) - rated it 5 stars

jo thank you, gabriel. very sweet.

message 15: by Hey (new)

Hey Your review is almost as beautiful as the book itself. So much understanding and feeling which you are expressing. Your words deepened my appreciation for Dibs' story. Thank you!!!!!!!

message 14: by jo (new) - rated it 5 stars

jo thank you, hey!

Emily Harrington This is one of the best reviews I've ever read. I think you're spot on, completely right in everything you said. Your last few lines about what therapists are really there for made tears come to my eyes. I've had a lot of therapists over the years, and heard a lot of definitions on what a therapist is supposed to be, but none so true as this. Thank you.

message 12: by jo (new) - rated it 5 stars

jo what a lovely comment, emily. thank you!

message 11: by Cyntia (new) - added it

Cyntia Suzy When I read it 30 years ago,it made a very strong impression on me.It was myl first "real"book.I felt very compassionate and never forgot what this book did to me.I had a son that's now 3 years old . I've been thinking about Dibs for a while and after I read what you wrote ,so beautifully,is when I decided to read it again...

message 10: by Cyntia (new) - added it

Cyntia Suzy I read it in Portuguese,it's being so fare,a very strong feeling,in English...

message 9: by jo (new) - rated it 5 stars

jo thank you cyntia. are you saying that reading it in english is giving you a more powerful feeling? i also think that it would be nice for parents with children to read this. there's a lot of wisdom packed in it.

message 8: by Cyntia (new) - added it

Cyntia Suzy I guess it's because I'm able to understand it better than when I was 12.I also lived in a hostile environment ,when I was growing up,and after I read Dibs ,it opened up new doors.
I started to enjoy reading,I felt compassionate,I felt hopeful.I remember that the picture of a boy,I believed was Dibs,looking at something, out of the corner of his eyes,was very powerful for me and when I saw my son at the age of 21 months,looking at a video like that,it reminded me about Dibs.My son was diagnosed in the spectrum at the age of 2...
It have been the biggest challenging in my lifetime and I'm learning so much,I don't feel alone like I use to,I have this gorgeous boy and I have read a few amazing books.

message 7: by jo (new) - rated it 5 stars

jo this is all fantastic, and your words sure hint at a lot of life... i wish you the very best, and congratulations on your gorgeous son!

message 6: by Cyntia (new) - added it

Cyntia Suzy we -gabriel and I -wish you the very best as well

Alminda Hepute Hei that was nice jo,tell me what was in place to determine dibs needs or how did axline and the school determine dibs needs? What is your view of the school standards in responding to dibs needs? Where there enough attempts and effords made by the teachers in attenting to dibs? Tell me what did you not helpfull,,

message 4: by Jen (new) - rated it 5 stars

Jen Neuwalder Thank you, Jo, for this fully-felt review. I'm just reading Dibs now for the first time and wondering why it has taken me so long to encounter it, as I am a child and adolescent psychiatrist, finished training nearly 4 years ago, and this book, published in 1964 demonstrates so beautifully, with such clarity, what has drawn me to this work, as well as how much more I have to and want to learn both from those who, like Axeline, have come before me, as well as my colleagues, and especially from my patients... And you describe in your review so many truths about therapy, about the importance of love and the capacity to tolerate loss, the loss of the therapeutic encounter at the end of each well as the excitement of anticipation of the next meeting...
Thank you!!

message 3: by jo (new) - rated it 5 stars

jo Jen wrote: "Thank you, Jo, for this fully-felt review. I'm just reading Dibs now for the first time and wondering why it has taken me so long to encounter it, as I am a child and adolescent psychiatrist, finis..."

thank you so much! good luck with your work. hope it gives you more and more joy (alongside the heartbreak!).

message 2: by Lara (new)

Lara Just happened to be thinking about Dibbs and wondering if he was a real person so I googled him and in the end turned to Goodreads as I often do for well written interesting and informative reviews..
In short thank you for this stunning review of a book I read so long ago and loved. And in the end it's about the process and the relationship and not about is Dibbs real.

message 1: by jo (new) - rated it 5 stars

jo Lara wrote: "Just happened to be thinking about Dibbs and wondering if he was a real person so I googled him and in the end turned to Goodreads as I often do for well written interesting and informative reviews..."

thank you so much. yes, it is about the process and the relationship isn't it? have you read A Shining Affliction: A Story of Harm and Healing in Psychotherapy? very similar in theme and approach.

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