Reviewing the edits in the Glasser biography this past week, I was reminded of story that took place on Glasser’s first day of his first job. His non-traditional views may have bothered some at UCLA’s School of Psychiatry and at the last second an offer for him to become one of the teaching faculty was rescinded. With a young family to support he needed a job and followed up on an opening at a prison school for girls in Ojai, California, 65 miles one way from where he lived. The Ventura School for Girls needed a psychiatrist and, although not a prestigious position, Glasser jumped at the chance to work there.
William Glasser, shortly before he began at the Ventura School in 1956.
Some might think that the famous William Glasser went in there and turned that school around, but that was not necessarily the case. For one thing, he wasn’t famous yet. For another, his beliefs and ideas were just forming. As it turned out, the Ventura School for Girls would have an incredible impact on the formation of the principles of reality therapy, which I shared in the last blog, and in preparing him to see the importance of the principles of control theory. He did help the school, a lot, but he is quick to point out just how much the school helped him. He didn’t start working there with a full understanding of the need for a warm, caring relationship between the staff and the girls, nor had he embraced the idea of punishment being counterproductive, but he witnessed first hand how these elements worked and how much they mattered. This brief excerpt from the book gives us an inkling as to how the school could have been such an important part of his life.
On his very first day at the Ventura School, Glasser was a part of a significant incident that revealed the impact the school was going to have on him. He had arrived a little late, but Mrs. Perry encouraged him to go down to one of the cottages and meet the housemother and the girls. Since he had gotten there late, it was the afternoon and the girls were either already in their cottage or were drifting back from classes. One of Miss Perry’s assistants took Glasser to one of the cottages and introduced him to Mama G. The housemother titles often started with the word Mama and then the first letter of their last name. The assistant headed back to the office, and shortly thereafter a new girl was brought to the cottage. She had just arrived from Norwalk, California. Glasser remembered it like this:
“She came in and Mama G said hello to her. Mama G sat in the day room with the other girls, except she had a little table, about 24” by 24”, which she sat behind so she could write notes on it and things like that. They had certain paperwork they had to do. And, the girl, a big girl, I mean, 5’8”, like not an ounce of fat on her, must have weighed about 150 or 160 pounds, I mean she was a tough looking girl, and she was angry.
I’ve never seen anyone as angry as her. I’d never seen anyone like any of these girls before. I mean, they were all full of tattoos, which I’d never seen before, self-tattooed with India ink. But anyway, this girl, I don’t remember if she had any tattoos on her, but she just started to curse Mama G and threaten her, and I, you know, I knew there was nothing I could do, but I was still nervous. Cuz this woman, I don’t think Mama G weighed more than, you know, 80 or 90 pounds, 4’10” maybe, and 75 years old. I mean, she was a frail old lady, and this girl is cursin’ her. And as I say, the other girls—‘cuz by that time I was one of the girls—the other girls were watchin’ and I was watchin’, too. They seemed interested, but no one seemed nervous or upset, you know, as if this is not such a big deal. And so she must have cursed the woman—Mama G, I mean—she must have let her have it for 30 or 40 seconds, which is an eternity.
And then Mama G got up from her little table, ‘cuz the girl was kind of leaning on her little table and cursing her right in the face, you know, threatening her, and Mama G got up and walked around the table, around the big girl that was standing there leaning on it, put her arm around the girl’s waist, which was pretty tall for her, you know, and gave the girl a hug and in a very sweet voice said, “Honey, is something bothering you?”
And, then, the girl, dealt with such kindness and total lack of, you know, being angry or punishment, you know, as we would say now, no external control at all, she just started to cry. She cried and cried, and the tears ran down her face, and Mama G had to take a box of Kleenex and kind of settle her down, and the other girls, including me, wanted to help her, and Mama G dragged her over and said, ‘Now here are the girls you’re going to be with. It’s a nice cottage. These are nice girls. They knew you were coming, and they’re looking forward to meeting you, and this is Dr. Glasser, our new psychiatrist.’ And, I did talk to her a little bit. She wanted to talk to me, and I talked to all the girls, and then I had to leave.”
One of the keys to Glasser’s counseling approach is recognizing the need for the therapist to establish a relationship with the client, to become involved in an understanding of the client’s life and challenges. On his first day at the Ventura School, Glasser witnessed how powerful it can be when the relationship is focused on first.
Mama G sounds like a very special lady to me. So much confidence combined with so much tenderness. She knew that things were going to work out and that love was going to help them work out sooner than any of the other options available. Mama G and God have a lot in common. It is powerful when relationships are valued in the way Mama G valued them. Glasser learned something that day he never forgot. He then passed it on to you and me. And now we can pass it on to others.