Living with ‘The Gloria Films’ by Pamela J Burry

You only have to say ‘Pammy’ to a counsellor and they will know exactly who you are talking about. It’s why I pounced on  Living with ‘The Gloria Films’ by Pamela J Burry.

At some point in every counsellor’s training, they will be shown ‘The Gloria Films’. In the films, newly-divorced mother, Gloria, has three psychotherapy sessions with celebrated therapists – Carl Rogers, Albert Ellis and Fritz Perls – and each gives their response to what was most troubling Gloria at that time – dating and fielding questions about her sex life from her then nine-year-old daughter, Pammy.

I have watched the films a dozen times (particularly the Carl Rogers section, because he is considered the founder of person-centred therapy) and spent a fair amount of academic time analysing the therapists’ micro-skills. But in doing so, I always wondered what the experience was like for the subject, Gloria (pause and consider the irony given we’re talking person-centred therapy). Because the enduring quality of the films has less to do with the therapists and more to do with Gloria, who reveals her vulnerabilities, insecurities and anger in a way that is striking.

Burry acknowledges that her audience for the book is a ‘select and meagre group’, likely made up of clinicians, Gestaltists, Rogerians, and ‘…slightly voyeuristic, ageing therapists who saw the films in training and wouldn’t mind a bit more of the story…’. Burry delivers. There are anecdotes about each therapist (notably Perls using Gloria’s cupped hands as an ashtray!); excerpts from correspondence between Rogers and Gloria (their friendship extended until Gloria’s death from cancer, aged 46); insights into Gloria as a person – warm, generous of spirit and with her time, good fun, determined; and glimpses of the early days of the Esalen Institute.

You know when you watch reality TV and think ‘what kind of person volunteers for this?’. Could the same be said for The Gloria Films? No. They were intended to be used for training only, and then suddenly were being shown in cinemas (because people were curious about therapy). Burry notes that Gloria had gained something by participating in the films but also endured a lot, including criticism of her parenting, attacks on her character, and loss of privacy.

Burry herself is no stranger to the intricacies of therapy and therefore understands the delicacy of the relationship –

What would have happened if Carl Rogers had received Gloria’s affectionate attention in the negative: if he had overlooked her entreaties, or shamed her, or reduced her feelings to the need to enlighten her to an understanding of her ‘neurosis’? At the least, she and Rogers would not have had an extended relationship. At the extreme, Gloria may have curtailed, or postponed, her personal development. Such development for my mother, I believe, began at the filming: under the hot lights, facing three psychologists..

As Burry said, the readership here is narrow but if you have seen any of The Gloria Films, find a copy of this book, not because it’s the ultimate ‘Where are they now?’ follow-up piece, but because Burry fleshes out this woman who was trying with all her might, was loving, suffered great losses, and never stopped striving for happiness.

…Gloria alternated between a desire to change and a desire to simply accept and understand who she was…

3.5/5 Some fascinating insights.

Pammy eats handfuls of granola. I am obsessed with this granola recipe (minus the dried fruit).

8 responses

  1. I watched all three films, and they are fascinating, especially the middle one which would have demolished me. I’d never have gone back!
    Can I ask, as a counsellor do you learn all three approaches and use different ones to suit different patients, or do you usen the one that you are most comfortable with?

    • Good question. There are techniques used in different kinds of therapies that overlap but you generally start with one approach/mode and then add to suit your practice. So I trained as a person-centred therapist (that’s Carl Rogers in the film). Since then I have done further training in an approach called schema therapy, which overlaps with techniques from Gestalt therapy (that was Fritz Perls in the film). There are bits of the various approaches that you can use but to advertise yourself as eg a Gestalt therapist, you have to have done a significant amount of training. It would be unethical for me to call myself eg a Gestalt therapist (I can/do say I am person-centred therapist with a focus on schema therapy, grief and loss because that’s where I’ve done my professional development).

      I work in a team with three other therapists and we all have slightly different approaches (one is into mindfulness, one into cognitive behaviour therapy – that’s sort of the Albert Ellis part of the film and not my style at all! – and another uses a motivational / strengths-based approach. An interesting part of my work is peer review of cases, where we discuss a case and the techniques we used and then other therapists talk about what they would do using their approaches. Incredibly helpful to look through a different lens (and for this reason I have clinical supervisors who practice different modes – one is a Gestalt and one is a narrative & family systems therapist – so that I can get fresh perspectives.

  2. Interesting, you know, in teaching there is very little opportunity for teachers to get together to review their lessons and the strategies they used. My class was visited once by a bunch a Japanese researchers and we felt mutual amazement: that peer review was built into their teaching day, and it was left to chance in ours.

    • It really is one of the most valuable parts of my work. I guess there is the potential for people to feel threatened/uncomfortable by the scrutiny but when it is part of your regular practice it’s fine (I was terrified when I presented my first case to my team which consisted of some senior, highly experienced therapists but obviously they were kind and I learnt so much).

      I read a book recently, Think Again by Adam Grant and he was all for peer review, saying it was really important to create an environment where people are able to have robust conversations without it feeling automatically threatening.

      It is applicable to most industries but I imagine (for teaching especially) that there’s ‘not enough time’ – I reckon the benefits far outweigh the costs.

      • Ah, I should clarify… there is something similar in the Reading Recovery program, which builds (and funds) ongoing professional development into the Reading Recovery teacher’s work. And there are some efforts at including it in induction programs for beginning teachers. But while the newbie teacher gets extra time release, the mentor doesn’t and since she’s an experienced teacher she also has multiple other responsibilities, and the mentoring is a huge addition to her workload. So you can guess what happens…

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.