Decoding Gloria: an application of Langs’ Communicative Approach (Part 1).
Dr Debbie Daniels
A fresh look at three approaches to psychotherapy demonstrated in the ‘Gloria films’.
In 1965 Everett Shostrom, the pioneer of self-actualising therapy, embarked on the unique task of filming three live psychotherapy sessions. Shostrom recruited three eminent psychotherapists, Carl Rogers, Fritz Perls and Albert Ellis, founders of Person Centred, Gestalt and Rational Emotive Therapy respectively, to conduct the sessions. The client selected to work with them was a thirty-year-old, chain smoking, loquacious, divorcee named Gloria. There can be few counsellors and psychotherapists over subsequent decades who have not at some point in their training viewed ‘Three Approaches to Psychotherapy’ [TAP] or what became better known as the ‘Gloria films’. The films have provided students with verbatim audio and visual recordings, offering an opportunity to explore in close detail how the client’s personal story unfolds in a therapy session and how the therapist applies specific skills to the therapy situation.
Langs and the Communicative Perspective
My special interest is in Gloria’s unconscious, encoded narrative stories within the sessions analysed from a Communicative perspective. The Communicative approach, [also known as the adaptive approach] was devised in the 1980s by the New York psychiatrist and psychoanalyst Robert Langs. Those familiar with Langs’ work will know of his Ground Rules and advocacy in working within a firm, ethical and boundaried therapeutic framework. According to Langs’ theory, anything unusual or untoward in the therapist’s behaviour or interventions, which Langs refers to as frame modifying and frame violating, will induce anxiety in the patient. The patient’s anxiety will be reported back to the therapist through either conscious, manifest comments or unconscious encoded stories.
Decoding the encoded
In this first article I will attempt to decode Gloria’s unconscious encoded responses in relation to the triggering events that occurred in the filming of her sessions with Rogers. In a second article, I will examine their continuing personal contact post-filming. I hope to demonstrate that Gloria’s wise unconscious perceived many of the incidents and interventions pertaining to the filming as damaging, and that she encoded these events into her narrative. Closer observation, through an analysis of deep unconscious narrative, may reveal that the presenting stories are actually about frame violating events.
From an adaptive perspective I propose that Gloria is constantly distracted by what is happening in the context of the setting and the session and from recent frame violating events. I will explore whether it is actually these events and the therapist’s frame violating interventions, which are responsible for Gloria’s encoded narrative stories throughout the session. I will attempt to evidence this by looking for bridging imagery in Gloria’s narrative and encoded models of rectification. The latter in a sense is where the patient supervises the therapist, instructing the therapist to better manage the frame.
Gloria and Rogers – transgressing the ground rules
The first trigger that may influence Gloria’s responses is the frame deviant setting, as the session is conducted in the presence of a camera crew. This is not a minor frame modification but rather a significant frame violation, which transgresses the ground rules of total privacy and total confidentiality. Gloria has been informed by the producer, Everett Shostrom, that the films from all three sessions will be used as a training aid for students of psychology and counselling. Thus, the second trigger to occur is the frame-violating contract, which again transgresses the ground rules of privacy and confidentiality. It might be predicted that under these frame-violating circumstances these events will be encoded, so it will be interesting to hear Gloria’s first encoded narrative and what it will reveal.
Gloria’s presenting story is about being newly divorced; she says she had gone into therapy before and left. She is concerned about adjusting to her single life, bringing men to the house and how it will affect the children, especially her nine-year-old daughter who had emotional problems. Her daughter asked if she had ever ‘made to love to a man.’ Gloria does not want to lie, it makes her feel guilty. She wants her daughter to accept her, but she is afraid she will think she is a real devil. She wants an answer from Rogers.
Triggering the narrative
The question is what has occurred to trigger this narrative story? Why does Gloria present a story about adjusting to her single life and new sexual relationships with men, and the harm caused to her daughter and her feelings of guilt?
The trigger for this presenting story was somewhat perplexing and in first reading this material I could not begin to understand what was being encoded. However, the answer was revealed in the literature by Gloria’s daughter, Pamela Burry, the daughter referred to in the session with Rogers, who provided an account in her 2008 book of events preceding the filming. Burry revealed that before the filming Gloria had been in therapy with Shostrom. Rosenthal (2005:60-66) states that it was confirmed many years later, by Albert Ellis, that Gloria was in fact in therapy with Shostrom for a period of four years. In addition, Burry, as a nine year old, had reluctantly been in therapy with Shostrom’s wife, Miriam who had wanted to put Pammy on medication.
Decoding Gloria’s story
The knowledge of events prior to the filming can now be utilised to decode Gloria’s unconscious narrative in view of their triggering events. The first clue appears very soon in Gloria’s narrative when, apropos of nothing, and keen to tell the story about her sex life and her daughter, Gloria says, she had been in therapy before and left. Such stand-alone statements are always interesting in psychotherapy, but can be overlooked as trivial information, not worthy of consideration. The question is why did Gloria decide to tell Rogers that she has been in therapy before, then not complete the story? The essential part of this story is obliterated; that she was in therapy with the present producer, Shostrom. I would like to suggest that the separation from her therapist, Shostrom, is unconsciously encoded through the story of her being newly divorced, and adjusting to new male relationships.
The story is a bridging theme; Gloria is encoding that she is newly divorced from Shostrom and is adjusting to her new relationships with three male therapists. In the manifest content these are sexual relationships, and I suggest that in Gloria’s deep unconscious she feels she has been seduced. Worse still, as Shostrom’s use of Gloria is self-serving, to promote his films, Gloria is in effect being prostituted out to the three therapists; they also will use her in a way which is self-serving to each of them. Gloria’s wise unconscious is no doubt aware that losing a therapist, to engage in three, short, frame-deviant therapy sessions, will be of no benefit to her. There are themes in Gloria’s narrative of deception and lies and I sense her unconscious perception is that Shostrom is not to be trusted.
Gloria’s manifest story of harm caused to Pammy then surfaces and continues for a good deal of the session, but what is being encoded? Again, from Burry’s account it is revealed that prior to the filming, nine-year-old Pammy had been in therapy with Shostrom’s wife, which transgressed the ground rule of therapist anonymity. If Shostrom made the referral, then this would be a transgression of the ground rule of therapist neutrality and no doubt self-serving. What is known from Burry’s account is that this frame-violating situation, of having therapists who were connected by marriage, evoked a perception in Pamela and Gloria, that the couple probably discussed mother and daughter with each other. (2010: 53).
I suggest that in her presenting story Gloria’s unconscious is encoding these triggering events; that Shostrom has not only caused her damage in the recent past, and is causing her damage in the present, but that he may have caused damage to her daughter, through his frame-violating actions. If Shostrom did instigate Pamela’s therapy with his wife, then the current frame violation is very accurately replicating the past frame violation; Shostrom has seduced Gloria into being handed over to three therapists, just as he seduced her into handing over her daughter to his wife. The frame-deviant setup evolved somehow and Shostrom, it would seem, either created it or did not prevent it, and it is known that Shostrom has a tendency towards frame violations. Perhaps Gloria’s conscious would like to think of Shostrom as good and sweet, but her encoded narrative could be telling Rogers that she thinks of him as being a ‘real devil’.
On another level of unconscious perception, Gloria may well be alluding to the here-and-now situation with Rogers. Gloria, it would seem, would also like to think of Rogers as good and sweet. Indeed, in her introduction she says to him:
“Well, right now I’m nervous but I feel more comfortable the way you are talking in a low voice and I don’t feel like you’ll be so harsh on me.”
I suggest that this is an attempt by Gloria’s conscious mind to deny her anxiety, to hope for the best, but in her unconscious, she is aware that Rogers’ main aim is not to provide secure-frame therapy, but rather to promote his person-centred approach. Gloria, it would seem, perceives Rogers unconsciously as part of the seduction, deception and lies; is she encoding that she senses that he too is a real devil?
On a manifest level, Gloria talks of her guilt in having relationships with men as this may have a bad effect on her daughter. However, this story presents a connecting theme to the story of harm that she feels she has unwittingly caused to Pammy in complying with Shostrom’s suggestion, in sending her daughter to therapy. Gloria continues to allude to her guilt several times, in relation to her daughter, with manifest statements such as:
“I don’t want her to turn away from me. I don’t even know how I feel about it because there are times when I feel so guilty.”
Process in the ‘here and now’
Having encoded past events, Gloria’s unconscious attention is now drawn to the here-and-now situation, and this produces a significant alteration in the narrative theme. As anticipated, Gloria’s narrative now encodes her response to the deviant setting, in which there is no privacy or confidentiality. She makes statements such as:
“I feel like I have to be on my guard”
“I have a feeling that you are just going to sit there and let me stew in it and I want more.”
Perhaps Gloria realises that in this frame-deviant setting she cannot be open but has to be on her guard; she asks Rogers whether he is able to do anything more than just sit there in this situation and says she wants more. The ‘wanting more’ could be a request for therapy in a secure setting, or for Rogers to at least acknowledge why she has to be on her guard, but it would seem that Rogers is just going to let her stew in it.
By the middle of the session Gloria expresses:
“I have a hopeless feeling, I mean, these are all the things that I sort of feel myself, and I feel, OK. Now what?”
Gloria’s narrative conveys that she feels quite hopeless but one wonders what she is processing. Does she feel hopeless about trying to attempt real therapy in this frame-deviant setting? Or is she feeling hopeless about Rogers not hearing her encoded narrative about prior and current frame-deviant events? She appeals to Rogers to help her out and asks, ‘OK, now what?’
The encoded narrative so far has conveyed that Gloria feels that Rogers has been party to seduction, deceit and lies, and she has no respect for those who lie. She feels Rogers has just sat there, letting her stew, and has not helped her to deal with the frame-deviant, hopeless, situation. Manifestly describing her father, but encoding her response to Rogers, Gloria says that he won’t be open and honest about what is taking place and because of this they cannot have a more meaningful relationship.
Gloria continues to tell Rogers how her father behaves; I would suggest that what follows is an encoded commentary of how Gloria has experienced the session with Rogers.
“He won’t. He doesn’t hear.” (Voice is sad and resigned). “I went back home to him about two years ago, really wanting to let him know I loved him although I have been afraid of him. And he doesn’t hear me. He just keeps saying things like, “Honey, you know I love you. You know I have always loved you.” He doesn’t hear.” (Eyes moisten).
“I don’t know what it is. You know when I talk about it, it feels more flip; if I just sit still a minute, it feels like a great big hurt down there. Instead, I feel cheated.”
“And again, that’s a hopeless situation. I tried working on it, and I feel it’s something I have to accept. My father just isn’t the type of man I’d dearly like. I’d like somebody more understanding and caring. He cares, but not in the way that we can co-operate – or communicate.”
Rogers reflects here (“You feel that ‘I am permanently cheated’”), but Gloria feels that Rogers hasn’t heard the true story of how she really needs a truly loving, secured-frame, therapeutic encounter, but how she has felt afraid and not heard. Instead of hearing, Rogers ‘just keeps saying things’. Here, Gloria could be referring to Rogers’ numerous interventions that leave her feeling that the encoded narrative has not been heard. This is a big hurt; the session, and no doubt the entire filming has left her feeling cheated. It has been a hopeless situation, which she has tried working on, but now she will have to accept it. She acknowledges that Rogers cares, but not in a way that they can really co-operate or communicate. The entire narrative appears to serve as a further model of rectification; Rogers really should listen. Gloria continues:
“That is why I like substitutes. Like I like talking to you and I like men that I can respect, Doctors, and I keep sort of underneath a feeling like we are real close, you know, sort of like a substitute father.”
The father theme
The father theme has surfaced again and it is worth considering whether Gloria’s unconscious perception is still trying to process some unconscious need in Rogers. Previously, in response to her saying that she would like Rogers for her father, Rogers says, ‘you look to me like a pretty nice daughter’. In the narrative that follows, Gloria seems to pull back from Rogers; her previous positive statements are followed by negative narrative, rejecting in tone.
Rogers: “I don’t feel that’s pretending.”
Gloria: “Well, you are not really my father.”
Rogers: “No I mean about the real close business.”
Gloria: “I sort of feel that’s pretending too because I can’t expect you to feel very close to me. You don’t know me that well.”
Gloria’s encoded narrative might also be a commentary on how she has experienced the entire encounter – that it has all been pretend. It seems she can’t expect Rogers to be close because, not having heard her encoded narrative, he doesn’t know her that well.
Gloria/Rogers: unconscious perception
Whatever unconscious process Rogers is enacting with Gloria, it seems that Gloria feels that he is becoming too close, too seductive, perhaps too much in need of having her as a daughter. In the next article I will discuss how Gloria’s unconscious perception of Rogers is verified in post-filming events and how the sessions with Perls and Ellis and post-filming events with Perls and Shostrom unfolded.
Debbie Daniels is a Doctor of Psychotherapy and is the Director of Canterbury Counselling & Psychotherapy Centre. She has worked with Dr Robert Langs on her research into Communicative Psychotherapy for the past ten years. She is the co-author with Peter Jenkins of the book Therapy with Children: Children’s Rights, Confidentiality and the Law [2nd Edition Sage 2010].
Burry, P. (2010). Living with ‘The Gloria films’: A daughter’s memory, [2nd ed).Ross on Wye: PCCS Books.
Rosenthal, H. (2005). ‘Lessons from the Legend of Gloria – Were we duped by the world’s most influential counselling session? Counselor: The Magazine for Addiction Professionals, 6(6), p.p. 60-66.