[Trigger warnings: abuse, suicide]
A bit of context to the following post. About a year ago I started writing a book on therapy abuse. The project foundered due to, well, my own laziness, quite frankly. However, before procrastination took hold I’d gathered a substantial quantity of research materials about a notorious therapist-turned-cult-leader by the name of Derek Gale. What follows was originally intended to be a chapter in the book. I recently dug it out and finished the chapter, so that an awful tale does not remain untold.
It was the Derek Gale case that first prompted my interest in therapy abuse. He was registered with the Health Professions Council (now the Health and Care Professions Council) as an arts therapist, pretty much the only branch of psychotherapy to be covered by a statutory regulator. He was also registered as a psychotherapist with the UK Association of Humanistic Psychology Practitioners, a member organisation of the UK Council for Psychotherapy. In 2009 the Health Professions Council took him to a fitness-to-practice hearing for multiple allegations of serious misconduct. The UKCP then followed suit and removed him from their own register.
The case provoked a great deal of debate, not only because of the lurid details that emerged. At the time the Labour government was proposing its now-shelved plans for counsellors and psychotherapists to join their arts therapist colleagues on the HPC register, and much of the discussions were framed in that context. It is a strange story, and one that ended in tragedy.
Google around for him, and you’ll find all sorts of eye-opening snippets about Derek Gale on the Internet. There’s his Twitter profile @Zabtrolian, in which he boasts that he, ‘Used to be a psychoterrorist until struck off by HPC. Now retired + wondering why I ever went to work. Oh yes also a writer of novels and travel.’ There’s a Daily Mail headline, ‘Exposed: The therapist using a legal loophole to sexually exploit his clients‘. A Channel 4 news piece on YouTube shows a baseball cap bearing the logo, ‘Gale Centre: pay up and f*ck off.’
At the end of 2014 I decided I wanted to understand the full story of Gale’s misconduct, so I sent a Freedom of Information Act request to the Health and Care Professions Council for the hearing transcripts. I got a polite reply back saying they would aim to deal with the request within 20 working days. It actually took them nearly 2 months before a large zip file appeared in my inbox, and when I opened the file, it became clear why it had taken so long. Inside were 15 transcript documents, many of them over 100 pages long, with various redactions for confidentiality. It seemed that my curiosity had caused some poor member of admin staff at the HCPC a lot of work.
What follows is mostly gleaned from those mammoth 15 days of hearings at the HPC.
Gale had first entered therapy towards his 17th birthday, to deal with “my own manifest and manifold problems as a teenager.” These early experiences of therapy were a mix of Jungian dream analysis, cognitive therapy and voicework. During the 1960s and 1970s he studied the work of Alfred Wolfsohn, a German singing teacher who applied singing and voicework to the practice of psychotherapy. Around 1980 he was working in a social services unit for teenagers. When the unit was closed down, he decided to enter the therapy business.
By the 2000s, he was running the Gale Centre from his home in Loughton, Essex, charging £65 an hour for drama therapy and voice coaching, both on an individual and group basis. He was also publishing psychotherapy books, some penned by other therapists, some by Gale himself. By coincidence, while I was doing some systemic/family therapy training I came across one of his books in the university library. The book was entitled What is Psychotherapy? A Personal and Practical Guide. I raised an eyebrow when I noticed that one of the chapters was called, ‘Charlatans, well-intentioned or otherwise.’
The chapter mostly referred to psychiatrists and other professionals who might claim to be “doing psychotherapy” despite not having undertaken the arduous training expected of psychotherapists. This is indeed a valid point, although one may question whether Gale was the person to make it. As for the kind of people one might normally associate with the word “charlatan”, he had this to say.
I do not intend to dwell on the proliferation of cranks and charlatans, some of whom are out to make a quick buck. Fortunately the public do not seem to be as gullible as it is sometimes assumed to be and these people do not stay in business long, unless they have some genuine service to offer.
Again, the point has a degree of validity. Psychotherapy is a crowded market, with an oversupply of people trying to work in the field. It’s by no means easy to build up a therapy practice. However, Mr Gale did stay in business for a long time, and we shall soon see whether he had a genuine service to offer.
Gale had developed a reputation for being unorthodox, and for being something of a “Marmite” therapist who people either loved or hated. Over the years, more and more people started raising concerns about the style of therapy he was offering. They claim that at first their complaints were met with indifference, particularly from the UKCP. One complainant, Howard Martin, later told the Guardian, “I was trying to tell them about Gale for three years. The UKCP did nothing.”1 Eventually, action was taken. In 2006 the UKCP suspended his membership. In 2007 the HPC did the same, and ordered a fitness-to-practise hearing.
The list of allegations brought by the HPC included breaches of just about any fundamental aspect of psychotherapy ethics you can think of. Confidentiality, professional boundaries, respect for the dignity of clients…all were alleged to have been flouted by Gale. He was even alleged to have smoked cannabis in front of his clients. Gale, for his part, denied all the allegations. He claimed to be the victim of a conspiracy by disgruntled former clients.
Gale called his clients, especially those who formed something of an inner circle, his “family”. Within this family, he viewed himself as the father figure, even sending people greetings cards signed “Daddy”. The family didn’t just meet up within the boundaried confines of therapy sessions. They held social gatherings, and even went on motorcycling holidays together across Spain and Italy. If Gale was Daddy, of course that meant the clients were his children. This was not lost on the complainants, who said that the effect of this was to infantilise them.
The family had a pecking order among the siblings, with the children vying for the approval of the father. One client once cut his hair free of charge, because that gave her extra status in the family. Others renovated the Gale Centre, which just so happened to be Gale’s home, free of charge. One client testified at the hearings that he found this “exploitative.” Gale, for his part, did nothing to discourage the pecking order. He even handed out t-shirts bearing his photo and the words, “I’m his favourite.”
If there were favourites in the group, there were also prodigal children. At one residential setting, one client was alleged to have been sent to his room for a week as punishment for storming out of a session. While he stewed in his bedroom, Gale told the assembled group that they would be meeting the next day, “To find out why he is being such a cunt.” The atmosphere was described as feeling like a “lynch mob”. One witness to the incident felt that when the client had stormed out it had been an attempt to regain some sense of agency, and that, “In my view, Derek broke [the client] that day.”
If calling a client a “cunt” sounds like a deeply un-therapeutic word to use, it was by no means the only example of what Gale referred to at the hearings as “industrial language.” His vocabulary also included such choice phrases as “daft bitch” and “fucked up”. One complainant recalled an altercation between Gale and a woman in the group.
“I think it must have been one of the workshops, about how, when we all went away to Southend as a group for her husband’s birthday, she accused Mr Gale of having said to her, “That’s a really nice dress. It shows off your saggy tits.” She, kind of understandably I think, got quite upset about that. In this session, Mr Gale said, “No, I did not say ‘saggy tits’, I said ‘receding bustline.'” At the time I thought he’s never going to have said ‘receding bustline’. ‘Saggy tits’ is exactly what he’d have said if he made that kind of comment at all.”
One witness at the hearing claimed that Gale told him, “If I were you I would take advantage of the unlimited sex here.” When asked what he meant by that, Gale allegedly replied, “Well, I meant hugs, but you can have unlimited fucks if you want.” It is not clear whether there really was “unlimited sex” at the Gale Centre, but apparently two group members did start an affair with each other. At the hearing, Gale was accused of breaching confidentiality by telling the entire group about the affair.
This was not the only alleged breach of confidentiality in the group. On another occasion, Gale demanded that a woman remove a pullover that was covering her arms. When she did so, revealing to those present that her arms were bandaged, he demanded to know, “Why have you been slashing your arm?”
The group sessions seem to have got pretty wild at times. There are references in the hearings to people being kicked, bitten and spat at, with clients ending the sessions with bruises and scratches. On one occasion a client fell and hit her head, causing her to become concussed. Gale made no attempt to seek medical attention or record the incident. The HPC counsel asked one complainant whether Gale ever intervened when matters were getting out of hand. She replied, “He did once say, “Careful, you might kill her”, when they were all sitting on top of me.”
Gale showed the same disregard for clients’ dignity in individual therapy as in groups. Clients report that during sessions he would sometimes type text messages on his phone, or even fall asleep. During one session, the client admitted having sexual feelings towards him. The following week Gale turned up at the appointment wearing a t-shirt from the musical Tommy. The slogan on the shirt was, “See me, feel me.” Gale denied any ulterior motives behind the shirt slogan. Another client alleged that during sessions he had twirled her hair and pinged her bra strap. Yet another accused Gale of disclosing his sexual fantasies during individual therapy.
“He said he had his fantasy in which he would pretend to his wife that he was willing to have sex. He told me in quite some detail at the time. And at the very last minute, with his trousers down, he would pull them back up and say, “Surely you didn’t think I was going to have sex with you?””
During the hearings, questions were asked about a photo of Gale, allegedly smoking a marijuana joint. According to those who were present, there had been some discussion about marijuana in the group, which led to Gale making a comment along the lines of, “How do you know if you haven’t tried it?” This then led to a social occasion where he was alleged to have rolled the joint and smoked it, attaching a pin to it at one point in order to smoke it to the end.
At the hearing, Gale denied being a smoker of either marijuana or tobacco. He suggested that the photo must either have been Photoshopped, or was an image of him rolling a cigarette for somebody else. He claimed that most of his knowledge of drugs came from a brief period where he was involved in the 1999 comedy film Human Traffic. The movie was set on the Cardiff nightclub scene, and gave early roles to John Simm and Danny Dyer. When asked about his role in this movie, Gale explained as follows,
I was invited to go to Cannes, the film festival. It sounded like a great idea. When I got there I discovered that a lot of people involved in the film took a lot of drugs, and I made my position fairly clear, and I was asked to do things because I was known not to take drugs where other people were a little bit out of their heads. So the main role I had was handling the press and PA on Monday, but I really just went on a visit, but I did see a lot of drugs being used while I was there…And in fact, some of the people said to me, “could you help us get off”, and other people said to me, “It’s a great idea being on drugs, why don’t you take some?” And I said, “I think in my opinion it’s not a great idea.”
A filmography on the New York Times website confirms that Gale is credited as “special thanks” for Human Traffic. I have not been able to find out any other details about his involvement in the film.
Whatever Gale’s stance on drugs, it appears that he had a change of heart. Shortly after the incident with the joint, he announced that marijuana was now banned from the centre. Posters went up in the building warning of the mental health dangers of marijuana.
Gale, for his part, strongly denied all the allegations. At times he presented his own defence, and used this to harangue witnesses and accuse them of nefarious motives. The following exchange is entirely typical of Gale’s stance during the hearings. It took place between Gale, who was cross-examining, and a witness who was also suing Gale.
Gale: Isn’t it true that your witness statement is an attempt to support this legal claim?
Witness: No, because the witness statement and all of this was initiated long before I was anything to do with any kind of monetary claim through the civil courts.
Gale: That remains to be tested in the courts. It is not my understanding. Will it help your claim if I’m censured or struck off as a result of this hearing?
Witness: I guess it would.
Gale: Don’t you hope to get me struck off to support your claim?
Witness: No, I hope to get you struck off so that you can no longer act unethically, in my view, to other people and put people through the same kind of process I went through.
Gale: So you have said before that you’re not an expert on ethics.
Gale: But you have said several times that I act unethically.
Witness: I have tried to say it, “act unethically, in my view”.
Gale: In your view.
Witness: Specifically for that reason.
Gale: If you want to have me regulated or if you want to have me struck off so that I can’t act, in your view, unethically, why are you making a legal claim?
Witness: Because the HPC are very limited in their powers as to what they can stop you doing.
Gale: But you are not making a legal claim against me, as it were, to impose a red traffic light, are you?
Gale: You are making a legal claim against me, aren’t you, to get tens of thousands of pounds out of me?
Witness: Actually that’s not entirely true. What I’ve done is I’ve submitted a legal claim, attached to which is the monies and so on that I have spent with you/on you over the last 20 years. My intention is to actually donate at least the majority, if not all, of that money to the cult exit charities that helped me when I left you.
Note the reference to cult exit charities. Gale’s use of “industrial language” did not produce the only four-letter word beginning with c that featured in the hearings. Again and again the word “cult” appears in witness testimony, for that is what they felt the Gale Centre had become. One witness described the atmosphere in the centre.
I saw this group of people hanging on Derek’s every word and thinking that the sun shone out of his behind. I thought to myself I’m never going to be like that. I became exactly like that. You just get sucked in…It was a bit like you walk into a cliquey group of people and, you know, there’s a whole set of language going on that’s sort of bespoke to that crowd of people. I very much got the sense that, you know, Derek was the, I suppose, centre of this group and that everything sort of gravitated out from him. I think the thing that sort of shocked me the most was how much people waited for his opinion rather than pre-offering their own. So there was a sense that, you know, the sort of group hung on his every word. So it was almost like things didn’t happen until he said what was going to happen.
In other words, an atmosphere that sounds exactly like a cult.
At the end of the 15 days, by no means all of the allegations were found proved. The panel did not find sufficient proof that he confined a client to his room, that he allowed people to become injured in the group, or that he disclosed details of the affair between two clients to the group. However, those allegations that were found proved were damning enough. The panel agreed that he smoked cannabis in front of clients, that he breached the confidentiality of the client who had been cutting her arms, that he blurred boundaries by taking clients on holiday, that he called a client a “cunt”, that he kept inadequate notes, that he talked about his sexual fantasies in front of clients. This was sufficent to merit only one possible outcome. Gale was struck off by the HPC. Subsequently, he was also struck off by the UKCP.
In the striking-off order, the HPC gave their impressions of what sort of “therapist” Gale was, based on their 15 days of intense scrutiny.
Having had an opportunity to observe Mr Gale over a long period of time, both as a witness and as person conducting his case in this hearing, the Panel has come to a firm view that he has a cavalier attitude towards the needs of his clients and the requirements to follow clear guidelines. This is demonstrated by numerous instances, including his evidence in cross-examination that he had never read the HPC’s Standards of Conduct Performance and Ethics, the fact that he had failed to heed the warning and advice given to him to exercise caution over socialising with clients and the fact that in stating he had now modified his practice to accord with restrictive rules he was only doing so because of the rule and without embracing the rationale behind the rule.
The story has a tragic end. One of Gale’s clients was a talented singer-songwriter called Gena Dry, who was among those testifying at the hearing. Following her “therapy” with Gale, she had been plagued by suicidal thoughts, which she had recorded in her diary. On 9th February 2010 she turned up unannounced at her mother’s house in Chippenham. Her mother later told the Daily Mail, “When she arrived Gena looked to be in a terrible state. She was tearful, her face was swollen and she was unsteady on her feet. I asked her what the matter was. She was not coherent.”
The following morning her mother dropped her off at the train station so she could get back to London. She boarded the train, but never arrived. Her body was found by the railway line.
If you have been affected by any of the above issues, you may wish to contact the Samaritans on 08457 909090 or firstname.lastname@example.org
If you have been affected by issues involving professional misconduct, you may wish to contact the Clinic for Boundaries Studies on 0203 468 4194 or email@example.com