In Memoriam: Mariah Fenton Gladis (1948-2018)

Last week, in My Ode to August, I introduced you to Mariah Gladis, the woman behind the type of experiential therapy I once did and will do again, soon. And I promised you a fuller post that I hoped would honor her life and describe her unique style. Let’s begin with Mariah’s own words.

In terms of my work, people often ask me how I do it, listening to people’s problems all day long. I tell them that I don’t hear problems. I hear people wanting to change, wanting to be better human beings, wanting to create happier families.

I have been privileged to work with people from every continent and from all walks of life. Over and over again I hear people wanting to love and be loved more effectively. I hear people wanting to remove the barriers in their life and provide more for their loved ones on every level. I hear people looking for ways to contribute and improve their contact skills in the world.

This is a privileged position that I have, sharing so many heartwarming moments of laughter and tears with people working toward healing.

I’m out on a limb here, and open to criticism from the existential purists. I want to set a course that raises the bar high, modeling and insisting on ways of being with one another that are enriching and safe, while consciously stretching our self-imposed boundaries of restraint.

Mariah Fenton Gladis – Founder and Clinical Director, Pennsylvania Gestalt Center

Mariah Fenton Gladis


“What’s important to you,” she’d ask at the start of each piece of work in which I was privileged to participate. And through my three years of training (1996-1999) and nearly twenty years of additional weekend workshops (more pre-Peace Corps than post-Peace Corps) there were many.

That was where she’d begin — what was important, here, now, to you. And off the session would go. Fascinating.

Follow the client, is a classic Gestalt adage. And Mariah modeled it well.

She lived her life facing death squarely, daring it to step closer. And had done so since 1981 when she got her diagnosis: amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease. There is no known cure, still. Most people with the diagnosis die within two to four years.

I met her in 1996, at the start of my training at the Pennsylvania Gestalt Center, which she ran. By then she’d had her diagnosis for 15 years and I saw how frail she was each time she entered the room, a fragility I soon forgot as I watched her work.

Her will was iron, but it was balanced by her soft heart.  (Mariah would have me say, AND it was balanced by her soft heart. Yes; her “language of responsibility” lecture was one of the best I’d ever heard.  I must write of that someday.)

From Mariah, I learned the value of compassion, and more importantly, I learned how to be compassionate without losing myself.

Compassion for whomever she was engaged with in the moment, including herself, was a given.

In the dream work she taught us, I remember her telling us of a dream she’d had where she was once again skiing downhill. She described the freedom, the feeling of flying, of racing downhill that she remembered so well. “It’s how I can do it now,” she’d announced with gratitude and delight, “in my dreams.” Yes; gratitude mixed with delight. I knew she’d truly enjoyed that dream and was grateful for it. I never saw a trace of self-pity.

Acceptance of the reality of her condition was a given.

Mariah’s gift was in creating what she called “exact moments of healing.”  Here she is speaking to the Lutheran Metropolitan Washington, D.C. Synod in 2015. Her topic was Creating Moments That Matter, “moments that can transform, connect, elevate, and sometimes heal.”

Her husband Ron translates, for those not used to her “ALS accent” (as she called it). At the 20-minute point, Mariah creates just such a moment with her audience. Imagine yourself participating.


I found an excerpt from her 2008 book, Tales of a Wounded Healer (a part memoir and part Gestalt theory and therapy fundamentals paperback, now out as an eBook) on the Pennsylvania Gestalt Center’s website.  In it she talks about how her therapy style differs from the traditional Gestalt model. I’ve edited it for length only.

The clinical roots of my style of psychotherapy derive from Gestalt psychology and practice. Gestalt therapy, in its truest form, is a lively and holistic, experiential approach to healing and personal growth. It emphasizes the development of awareness—emotional, physical, intellectual and spiritual—and the capacity to make healthy contact with one’s self, others, and the environment.

Expanding on the traditional experiential and creative approach of Gestalt, I have designed my own unique style of working. It is saturated with my bias that people heal in an environment of love, forgiveness and compassion. In this sense, I have deviated from the more harsh and confrontational, traditional style of Gestalt that was developed by Fritz Perls in the 1960s. Regardless of his personal and stylistic failings, the basic theory of Gestalt remains brilliant and efficacious, especially when it is heart and soul based.

So as they say, in taking the best and leaving the rest, my approach is experiential, and supports my belief that as people are damaged by experience, so are they healed by experience. To this end, all my clients participate physically, emotionally, intellectually and spiritually in their own healing process.

Words are not enough. Imagery is not enough. Human support is not enough. After more than thirty-five years of working with people, I know that when I was offering insight, it was not enough.

The organism of each client holds the secret to what it needs, and what is enough. People have to return to the source of the injuries to discover whatever it is that they needed back then; the missing piece.

If they need the experience of bonding with a loving mother figure, they will need that all the days of their lives until they get it. The quality of their lives and all their relationships will be adversely affected until they do. This work is powerful, dynamic and almost always profound.

Because we are all unique in our life experiences, and therefore our emotional injuries, the response to a client’s need is always specific and individualized. …

To this end, when developing an exact moment of healing, I must be willing and able to risk being creative and innovative. I must listen carefully, and help my client access inner wisdom, so that I may accurately assess the burning need. I may need to supply a person with a loving mother, resurrect a deceased spouse, create a judge and jury or create a live choir. Whatever it takes—whatever is needed—I must design it.

Let’s talk about compassion. When the word compassion is broken down, com-passion, it means to have passion with, or to feel sympathy with another. When you receive compassion, it moves you out of isolation and into a state of interrelatedness, where you are embraced in the arms of understanding and empathy.

Compassion opens you like a love letter; it gives you the safety to risk. Whether with groups or individuals, I work hard to model and establish an environment where people can trust they will be offered support, respect and love, and will be honored in their struggle to heal. Anything less is unacceptable.


One workshop had a number of participants who had been sexually abused, and so it was shocking and jarring to them when one man revealed he had sexually abused his sister. It was also confusing to many who had become close to him. He worked on his deep remorse, actively simulating a dialogue with his sister, in which he apologized with such gut-wrenching sincerity, that the truthfulness of his apology could not be in doubt. This was a sacred moment; unanticipated compassion poured forth from the group.

One man, who had been violently, and sadistically, sexually abused as a child, was so moved that he could barely speak the words, “I didn’t think I could ever sit in the same room with a perpetrator, much less have empathy and forgiveness in my heart. Thank you—I needed to hear those words of apology so much.”

Extraordinary transformational power resides in the heart of forgiveness. Mercy showers over the forgivers and the forgiven. In that moment, we all heal.

This insistence on loving compassion flies in the face of more traditional Gestalt models that leave space for whatever is to emerge, avoiding direct leadership from the therapist. They are more existential, less interactive, and have no expectations of high-level contact functioning. I don’t have the time or tolerance for less.

When people work with me, they know they will be expected to rise to their highest selves and give what they can to others. I’ve been criticized for controlling the group therapy environment by being an active leader, with clear biases. To that I say, yes, that’s exactly what I want.

I do use evocative music to set a tone. I do open every group by forming a circle with everyone holding hands. I do lead group exercises that build in and promote mutual support. I do interrupt and redirect destructive interactions in a group. I do lecture and teach about the power of love, gratitude and forgiveness. And within this structure, I still follow the organic unfolding of each person’s experience.

Her TEDx Talk

In May 2017, Mariah gave a TEDx talk in Asbury Park, New Jersey, entitled “Arrive Already Loved,” the title of one of her many annual weekend retreat workshops.

Once again, her husband Ron translates.



There is one more video I’d like you to watch which, I think, captures the essence of this woman I came to admire, love, and now, honor. Over the past few years, Mariah’s son, Coleman, a filmmaker in California, produced a full-length film on Mariah’s life and work. Called, simply, Mariah, it is now in the post-production phase. I’d like you to watch the trailer for this movie. It’s here at the website.

It’s been a privilege for me to look back over Mariah’s life and write about it for you today. And I’m grateful you have stayed with it to the end. I hope, in some small way, you too have been touched by her life.

How about you? I hope in your life there has been someone as inspiring, challenging, and unconditionally accepting as Mariah was for me. 

August 15: Arnold Beisser’s Paradoxical Theory of Change.
August 22: Gestalt’s Cycle of Experience
August 29: Moving Forward, A Look At Seventy

20 Responses

  1. Marian Beaman
    | Reply

    I like the slice of your life you’re exploring here and Mariah’s lessons. The title “Arrive Already Loved” intrigues me. I must come back to hear her TEDx talk.
    Marian Beaman recently posted…Wordless WednesdayMy Profile

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Good choice, Marian. Mariah did a full weekend workshop in the Philly area each year on the theme, “arrive already loved.” And I think that was the one she also did at Esalen in California. Her “intimate relationships” weekend was my favorite. Woody and I went each January for many years; we looked at it as a tune-up, for ourselves as well as our relationship. Her “creating moments that matter” video is also powerful. Heck, they’re all good. That’s why I used them. Thanks for starting us off today.
      Janet Givens recently posted…Mariah Fenton Gladis (1948-2018)My Profile

  2. Susan Jackso
    | Reply

    Wow, her husband loved her so much, what a wonderful feeling and she was so brave.

  3. Ally Bean
    | Reply

    I know nothing about Gestalt therapy. I’m glad that you found it and that you found someone whose ideas resonated with you so that you could feel the compassion that you needed. I haven’t heard anyone say “take the best and leave the rest” in a long time. Good to remember that idea in light of today’s socially-mediated world.
    Ally Bean recently posted…August Makes Me Itchy & Cranky, So I’m Doing ThisMy Profile

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Hi Ally. It’s funny, but what most appealed to me about Gestalt when I first was introduced was how much it seemed to parallel other influences in my life at the time. What’s that saying, “when the student is ready, the teacher appears,”?That seems to have been what happened. Most of my fellow classmates weren’t therapists, nor was I at the time. We had a radiologist and a construction worker, for example. I was a fund raiser for Penn. I saw it as a revolution in how we communicate with each other. And, everyone sees it in their own way. I hope by the end of the month you’ll have a little clearer image of what it is. Thank you for stopping.
      Janet Givens recently posted…Mariah Fenton Gladis (1948-2018)My Profile

  4. Laurie Buchanan
    | Reply

    Janet — I watched the TED talk video and the preview for the film, Mariah. I am touched to the core. Not only by Mariah and her contributions to the world, but by Ron, her husband’s, love for her. I can hardly wait for Coleman’s full-length film of his mother’s life. Thank you so much for sharing this post and your tribute to Mariah Fenton Gladis.

  5. Merril Smith
    | Reply

    I fine tribute to your mentor. Thank you for sharing. I watched the trailer for the movie, and I agree with Laurie about how touching it is.
    Merril Smith recently posted…Blue Pony DreamsMy Profile

  6. hannah tighe
    | Reply

    Hi Janet,
    I am Merril’s niece. She had sent this to me because she knows I am in Gestalt training. What she didn’t know is that I am in my 3rd year now of Mariah’s training here at the PA Gestalt Center. We are all reeling from her loss, and it was so beautiful to see your tribute here. I smiled when you mentioned substituting “And ” in accepting the language of responsibility. I have been profoundly changed by all that she imparted to me while she was my teacher, and perhaps, even more so in reflecting on her legacy. She was absolutely extraordinary in so many ways.. her wisdom, her compassion, and her grace. I remember hearing of her passing and I thought, “Oh, in this dark world, there is even more darkness now that her light is no longer leading the way.” A good friend, and fellow Gestalt training member said, “Actually, the light is just as bright, if not brighter, because she has ignited a light in each of us that we are now tasked to shine into the world.” I am so deeply humbled to have known her and I know it is my calling to use Gestalt and her work somehow in the world to make it brighter for others. Thank you for sharing this lovely tribute, and also the miracle of Mariah’s work and legacy.

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Hello Hannah. I am thrilled, truly, to have you stop by. Mariah’s training classes have been on my mind, wondering how they would fare. I can’t imagine a better place to be, however, as you move through the grief, than with your class. Weren’t we privileged to have known her so well? I’ll get your email from Merril. There is so much more to say.
      Janet Givens recently posted…Mariah Fenton Gladis (1948-2018)My Profile

  7. Brenda
    | Reply

    Thank you. Everything made so much sense when reading the post about healing. It must have been incredible to take this therapy. What an exceptional woman.

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      I’m so glad you saw her exceptionalism. She was a truly gifted therapist and, after taking many other trainings since, I realize just how fortunate I was to be trained by her. I’m very grateful she was in my life. Thanks so much for stopping by, Brenda.

  8. susan scott
    | Reply

    Well, I’m moved to the core of my being Janet. I watched both talks and the movie clip. I wasn’t going to because of time restraints, but I’m glad I did and found the moments to do so. I found the time to receive this gift you’ve posted. I love the quotes that you’ve chosen and will read them again because every word is one of love and compassion and truth to self and others.

    What a wonderful woman, may her dear soul rest in peace and may she be forever remembered. And to her husband Ron for his unwavering love and her sons, my deepest respect.

    Thank you. Susan
    susan scott recently posted…International Nelson Mandela DayMy Profile

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      I’m so glad you did too, Susan. Thank you. That honors her. Whenever I was with Mariah I was reminded of how much I took for granted. And she would tell me that the work she did is what helped keep her alive. It’s life affirming work, this is; and such a privilege to be able to do it once again.
      Janet Givens recently posted…The Paradoxical Theory of Change: a ReprintMy Profile

  9. […] ends our August series. With the exception of the one on Mariah, these  were posts I was able to put together earlier in the summer, giving me an opportunity to […]

  10. Jodi Santangelo
    | Reply

    Hi Janet,
    I just came across this beautiful writing about such an extrodnaire person. I met mariah at a gestalt demonstration with my gestalt, and graduated of the program, come four years ago in September. I didnt quite know exactly what i was getting myself into but i knew I wanted change. I came nervously didn’t really know what to expect and here comes Mariah rolling in. She literally took my breath away. She came rolling up to me, a strange at the time, and said welcome to me and smiled. I knew than i was seen, and noticed by someone special. Fast forward two more additional demonstrations I attended and each time she said nice to see you again, and always welcomed me. I attended my first workshop the beginning of January, come four years this January. It profoundly changed my life, forever. I continued to attend workshops for three and half years and this year, 2019, I decided it was time to do the three year gestalt program. Being one of three people in my class of nine that has ever worked with mariah is an honor and privilege. I just finished my first year of the program and i look forward to what the second year may bring. I feel very lucky to have the gestalt community behind me, and to have them as some of my closest friends.

    I spoke in the audience at her celebration of life ceremony. That was such as an honor and privilege too. I will continue to spread her message/s and her work. It’s continued to change my life.

    Thank you for this beautiful sentiment to such an inspiration person in my life.

    Jodi Santangelo

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Hello Jodi. And welcome. I’m so glad you hound this post and thank you for your lively comment. How fortunate we both are to have met Mariah and to see her work. My best wishes to you as you continue your training at the center. Please give Marc and Dori my best (they too are gifted)
      Janet Givens recently posted…Summer BreakMy Profile

      • Jodi santangelo
        | Reply

        Hi Janet,
        First and foremost thank you. Thank you for your message and I’m return I’m receiving this deeply. Secondly I definitely will tell Marc & Dori you said hello. Yes they are definitely are both amazing individuals who carry Mariah’s work effortlessly. Hopefully you’ll be able to attend another workshop in the future. I wish you nothing but all the best and take good care.

        Jodi Santangelo

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