An unvarnished view of the therapeutic process

Judith Johnson watches 'The Patient Gloria' at the Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh.

Gloria Szymanski was a 31-year old, divorced and single mother when she allowed herself to be filmed in therapy with Carl Rogers, Fritz Perls and Albert Ellis in 1964. She had been recruited by her own therapist, Everett Shostrum, and told that the videos would be seen by students for educational purposes only. The story which follows is shocking. The videos were turned into a motion picture (‘The Three Approaches to Psychotherapy’) which were known widely as ‘The Gloria Films’. Szymanski (played by Liv O’Donoghue) took legal action but lost, and the videos are still available on YouTube today.

This is the premise on which The Patient Gloria is based. The show is a feminist interpretation of the films and the events surrounding them, which casts a sceptical eye over the therapeutic process. 'Rogers is paternal, Perls is aggressive and Ellis is predatory', Gina Moxley writes, in an information sheet given out at the start of the show. Moxley is the energetic, uncompromising narrator of the show; she also plays each of the three male therapists ('because I can', as she explains on stage). 

The Patient Gloria is a juxtaposition of adroit observation and crude symbolism. From the start, it seeks to impart information about Syzmanski and her experiences; at the end, a flying penis (attached to a small drone) sits on the stage. It’s explicit, punctured with sexual references throughout, and not for the faint of heart.

The narrative of the play centres on gender issues. We watch as Rogers patronises Syzmanski, and we are told that he only asks her three questions through the entire session. Perls, by contrast, is aggressive. At one point, he leaps on to the sofa, pummelling his fists in the air. We are told that in the real event, he bumped into Syzmanski outside after filming and took the opportunity to flick his cigarette ash into her cupped hands. Interestingly, the New York Institute for Gestalt Therapy has subsequently sought to distance themselves from the videos. The scene with Ellis is the most brief; he is portrayed as being sexually suggestive and predatory throughout. Moxley uses these interactions as a series of case studies for wider gender issues, weaving in her own experiences of being patronised, ignored and harassed by men as the play progresses.

As a psychologist, I found The Patient Gloria deeply provocative. Its unvarnished view of the therapeutic process highlighted the power differential inherent to all forms of psychological therapy, showing that the line between collaborative warmth and paternalism can be fine. It also highlighted the gender dynamics within the profession: despite around 90 per cent of Clinical Psychologists being female, the key approaches which have influenced the development of the discipline have been popularised by men. I left the Traverse Theatre wondering, would therapy be the same if women had instigated it first? 

The Patient Gloria is showing until 25th August 2019 at the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh.

Judith Johnson, PhD, ClinPsyD, is a Lecturer in Psychology in the School of Psychology, University of Leeds

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