At one time, the inner sanctum of the psychologist’s office was among the most hallowed of spaces. It was never pierced by outsiders and certainly not by cameras. But, over the past decade, client-therapist confidentiality has often been waived as these one-on-one sessions have become fodder for everything from daily TV talk shows to installments of “reality TV.”
Such new openness, of course, has its drawbacks. But might it also have its pluses?
At one time, the exceeding mystery of modern-day therapy—of what actually happens behind that closed door–could, no doubt, have dissuaded many from pursuing helpful one-on-one counseling. Did the process deserve–even demand–to be demystified?
Colloquially, they are known as “The Gloria Films” (or even “The Gloria Tapes”). But its real title is actually “Three Approaches to Psychotherapy.” And it is actually one film although it is are usually separated into three different, distinct parts.
“Three Approaches” was produced in 1964 by the California-based therapist Dr. Everett L. Shostrom. Along with pulling back the curtain on then modern-day “talk therapy,” Dr. Shostrom used this film, as the title conveys, to explore three different theories/methodologies of therapeutic practices. They were: 1) client-centered therapy; 2) gestalt, and 3) rational emotive therapy. In the film, each approach would be administered by a different psychologist practicing in that approach. A single patient, who speaks to each of the three counselors, would be the “control” group and, at the end of the three sessions, she would then reflect on all three meetings, and then, on film, choose the approach she found most beneficial.
In the film, this common patient was a 31 year-old woman with the real name of Gloria. Gloria was a divorcee, having ended her marriage three years prior. As a single parent, she was raising a young daughter. Her most pressing concerns (or at least as depicted in these sessions) were her worry over explaining the birds and the bees to her daughter; how she, herself, should resume dating and, perhaps, even intimacy; and how she should explain those issues to her daughter going forward. Gloria had been recruited for the film by her very own therapist—Dr. Shostrom. It was the intent that the resulting film would be used as an educational tool at college and universities.
But, since then, the film has been far more widely viewed.
For viewers being given their first exposure to the psychiatric process, Gloria’s soft-spoken-ness, her conservative attire and careful coiffure, was probably in and of itself, a surprise. This was not a “Snake Pit”-like scenario, there was nothing overtly sad, desperate or stereotypically “crazy” about this modern woman. Her eloquence and composure throughout the three segments is also eye-opening. Equally illuminating were these three very different methods. Did non-students of the science even know that there was more than one “kind” of therapy?
In the film (shot in a studio not an office, though the film would like you to believe the latter), Gloria’s first session is with the fatherly, and somewhat non-committal, Carl Rogers, practicing “client-centered therapy.” After their session and Dr. Rogers’s post-discussion recap, Gloria meets with the stern, heavily accented, Freudian-looking Frederick (Fritz) Perls, practitioner of the Gestalt approach. With Dr. Perls, Gloria’s session is immediately somewhat combative, and if she were a less secure and mature individual than she was, the session would probably have devolved into a shouting match. Though clearly aggravated by her therapist (Perls goes so far to call her a “phoney,” among other things during their time together), Gloria nevertheless continues with the session.
Finally, the bespectacled Dr. Albert Ellis sits down with Gloria and in their meeting, he seems to do as much talking as she does.
In the film’s closing minutes, Gloria assesses her trifecta of therapy sessions (all conducted in one day) to state which she found to be most effective. Possibly to the surprise of many viewers, Gloria states that she found the session with the confrontational Dr. Perls, the Gestalt advocate, to be the most effective and she would like to continue her treatment with him.
End of film.
In fact, later, with the cameras off, Gloria did pursue additional therapy with Dr. Perls but, according to various sources, it continued only for a brief time before it was terminated by Gloria.
As for Gloria herself, despite her being so incredibly open in the film, she remained something of an enigma for many years and, in the absence of accurate information, rumors took root. Some of them: that she was really an actress; that she was coerced into making the film; that she ended up marrying one of the therapists; that she ended up committing suicide, etc. None were true.
In truth, Gloria’s full name, at that time, was Gloria Szymanski. In the years after the film was made, she would marry, and divorce again, and, occasionally, appear at psychiatry conferences, alongside the film and even speak after its screening.
But, with time, her support for the film waned, especially by the mid-1970s when the film, beyond its original intent, began to be shown in theatrical movie houses. For example, it was exhibited in Boston in 1976; its title was listed on the same newspaper page as movie listings for films ranging from “Lucky Lady” to “Beyond the Valley of the Dolls.” In May of 1977, Szymanski—by then known as Gloria Eccher—filed a $275,000 lawsuit against Shostrom and Psychological Films, Inc. to prevent future use of the film and to obtain any already-realized profits from its previous showings. The lawsuit failed, however, due to the expansive release that Gloria signed when the film was made. Afterward, the film continued to be shown; it even aired on broadcast television in Florida and in Washington state in 1979.
Szymanski died in her mid-40s in 1979 from leukemia. In 2013, Gloria’s daughter, Pamela J. Burry, authored a thoughtful, well-written book, “Living with the ‘Gloria Films’: A daughter’s memory,” completing her mother’s life story and debunking many of the myths that arose around her.
Within psychiatric, and now cultural, circles—and even 50 some years since its production—the “Gloria films” still loom. In 2019, an Edinburgh-based theatre company staged a play based on the film, titled “The Patient Gloria.” The film is still used at the university level for education.
And, for better or worse, the “Three Approaches” film is now even available via easily-accessible streaming services and websites. (A copy also resides at the Library of Congress.) Had she known that the film would eventually transmute from the classroom to the movie theater to the worldwide web, might Gloria have never taken part? Or, perhaps, in the end, would she have come to see the long-term good that a film of this nature might provide?
In any event, her participation has resulted in an enduring and fascinating film document.