I. The Priming

I deeply and completely accept myself.

I deeply and completely accept myself.

That’s right, Simon. Remember when you told me I have no friends? Remember, Harvard, when you waitlisted me? Remember, Ms. Donahue, when you gave me a B in second-grade Handwriting?

I deeply and completely accept myself.

Okay — deeply, maybe, but not completely: they still call me Mangina. But the elderly woman seated across from me in a rented West Haven chiropractor’s office (“What’s your pain?” asks a sign out front) tells me to relax. “Relax. Relax. Relax. Relax. Relax. Relax. Relax. Relax.” And even if I can’t recall whether her last name is “Carr,” “Car” or “Bar,” even if I met her less than 48 hours ago, even — “Relax” — if I found her name in the Yellow Pages, why not? Her Long Island accent is familiar, her r-less pronunciations endearing, her uplifting affirmations — “Overcome!” … ”Feeling wonderful!” … “You’re an A+ student!” — seductive.

So I nod when she instructs me to follow her lead. We both breathe deeply. I observe that her Shari Lewis-like locks blend well with the room’s off-white walls, which are completely bare except for the occasional poster: “SUCCESS,” boasts one; “ACHIEVE,” another. Then I notice a third — the reason I ventured to West Haven in the first place on this overcast Saturday morning: “HEALING THROUGH HYPNOSIS.”

Ruth’s index and middle fingers start tapping in unison: her eyebrow first, then her under-eye, then her upper lip, lower lip, bosom, armpit. I tap, too, beginning with the karate-chop point on my left hand. I deeply and completely accept myself throughout. “The Emotional Freedom Technique works whether or not you believe it will,” Ruth says. “It’s miraculous.”

And mysterious. I tap on my body’s meridians. I unleash the Chi within. I free blockages in my nervous-system passageways. I pray that all this self-love will get me through finals.

Ruth carries on in her unmistakable Long Island accent as my mind wanders, eventually cuing “Fiddler on the Roof.” “Of all God’s miracles large and small, the most miraculous one of all, is that out of a worthless lump of clay, God … has … made … a man … to … day! Wonder of wonder! Miracle of …”

“I …” Ruth interrupts my mental song and dance. I turn my attention to her purple jumpsuit. “I will be playing music in the background,” she says, pressing play on the old-fashioned tape recorder perched on the otherwise-bare desk. “I like music.” The serenade that begins to stream from the machine is spine-chilling yet soothing — something between the end credits from “The Exorcist” and Bach.

“Now,” the septuagenarian says, standing up to reveal her 5-foot-4-inch frame and indicate that the hypnosis session is beginning, “I will touch your right arm.”

My imagination now soaring, I try to ignore Ruth when she adds, “And that’s it.”

II. The Induction

But already, I find that nothing she tells me can be ignored — just the opposite, in fact.

“Stand up,” Ruth demands. I stand up. “Arms straight out ahead.” Okay. She approaches, stopping several inches from my body. “I’m going to tie a healing ribbon around your ring finger, and to it I am going to attach several balloons,” she says as she maneuvers her hand around mine — twisting, fastening, securing — in order to make me feel the helium.

It is there.

My arm floats higher, higher, higher, and Ruth proceeds to stack on my lonely left hand a full set of the Encyclopedia Britannica, beginning, like all invisible but heavy stacks of encyclopedias, with Volume A. “Your muscles can even feel the strain!” she says, and they do. My bicep snaps, my left shoulder stings, my hand sinks lower, lower, lower.

Soon, they are more than a vertical-foot apart, prompting Ruth to smile — menacingly or contentedly I cannot tell — and offer a too-good-to-be-safe assessment: “Great,” she says. “You’re going to be real easy to hypnotize.”

I consider my decision not to tell my mom in advance of this session — a decision that seems more sagacious every minute. “ANDREW,” she would have yelped. “BE CAREFUL. And call me every five minutes while you’re under this spell. Oh god, I can’t deal, can’t deal.” I consider a hypothetical: an instant public-opinion poll on the question of whether I should stay or leave. Leave, it would advise, leave, leave, leave, “deeper, deeper, deeper …” Hypnosis, after all, is feared in the United States, like the Soviets. Who wouldn’t be spooked by a craft that counts among its potential side effects past-life resurrection, out-of-body experiences and mind control?

In “Miss Branding,” hypnosis turns Nancy Perkins into a blood-sucking vampire mass murderer. In “Anguish,” hypnosis turns a deranged mother’s son into a harvester of eyes. In “Creature of Destruction,” hypnosis turns Dr. Basso’s assistant Doreena into the sorcerer of a mysterious seaside-resort monster.

But there is light at the end of the trance tunnel of doom. The hypnosis victims of “Leprechaun in the Hood” are a trio of magic flute-playing beauties. Ken and Carol of “No Dessert Dad ’Til You Mow the Lawn” are parents who practice self-hypnosis in order to make themselves attend more diligently to their children. And although occupational hypnotherapist Dr. Swanson, of the Generation X favorite “Office Space,” suffers a heart attack while hypnotizing Peter for severe boredom, thus ceasing the session before the protagonist is raised out of his trance, the result is positive. Peter suddenly discovers an inner peace that leads him to challenge the system, quit his job and pursue his life dream: “doing nothing.”

Fortunately, Ruth, on her own morbid volition, has already promised me that if she were to have a heart attack in the next 20 minutes, I would not realize my inner degenerate.

“One hypnotist friend had [a heart attack] while a patient was under,” she says. “When he realized it was happening, he quickly counted her back up to consciousness” before collapsing. And if it strikes too quickly? Ruth insists I would awake anyway. Even the most extreme cases do, such as the patient who did not open his eyes even after hours of prodding. Ruth wasn’t worried, though: She turned on “Frasier” — her favorite television show — and she thoroughly enjoyed herself.

Plus, I trust Ruth. Her mesmerizing movements and magnetic voice aside, she has been good to me. While her practice, “Behavior Options,” promises, perhaps hyperbolically, to rid me of one or more ills — obesity, stress, fears, smoking, nail-biting, bad memory, low self-confidence, insomnia, pain, depression, alcoholism, poor coordination, lack of motivation in life, irritable bowel syndrome — Ruth enjoys a unique qualification: She is a registered nurse. She served in the navy in the early 1960s, where she met her husband, Dan, an ardent reader of non-fiction whom Ruth would ultimately infect with her passion for hypnosis. For the 45 years following, she was a nurse at the Veterans Administration Hospital in West Haven, where she has lived since. For 25 of those years, she was in charge.

Just as she is in charge of my body right now.

“Find a spot in the ceiling and take in a long deep breath. Just stare at the spot. Take another lo
ng deep breath, and let it out slowly. And one more deep breath. As you let this breath out, just allow your eyes to close down. Let go of the surface tension in your eyes. Let go of the tension in your body. Just let your body feel as relaxed as possible.”

So far, so good.

“Now, relax the muscles around your eyes to the point that they just won’t work.”

I do a half-hearted double take. “Won’t work?” This must be when the sea creatures and she-creatures come in. But, but … “When you’re sure they’re so relaxed that as long as you hold onto this relaxation, they just won’t work … test them to make sure.” I test. No luck. Shut tight. And not because I’m tired.

“Imagine …” I’m suddenly wrapped in a warm blanket of relaxation. “Now every muscle …” Forget eyes; nothing works anymore. “Wet dish cloth …” Ruth shuffles closer to me. I feel her soft hands on my sweating wrists. “If you followed my instructions up to this point, your hand will be so relaxed that it’ll be just loose and limp like a …” She drops my hand. It is a wet dishcloth. “All the way down deep, all the way down deep, feeling so relaxed, so good! Just like you were in your own bed, feeling safe and sound! You feel so good, so wonderful!”

III. The Reframing

And how can I not? There are no zombies, no murder sprees, no mid-life crises. There is only a midnight-blue sky twinkling above a vast field of brilliant-green grass, which is sandwiched between the ocean and — could it be? — a 70-room mansion of gold. The Breakers estate is mine!

“Beautiful summer night … so enjoyable that it doesn’t really matter what kind of sky you see … stars twinkling …”

I wander the property, past junipers and hemlock and yews. I trek down a pea-gravel driveway and pass through a 30-foot-high fence of iron. Space and time feel irrelevant as I ponder Richard Morris Hunt’s creation and step out onto the balcony, observing the dogwoods and rhododendron below. Then my body flies — or is thrown? — toward a dewy field. I gaze up and marvel at the sight of the mansion.

“Huge flying saucer … continue to watch … spiraling up … whatever it does in your mind, allow it to happen … ” I find that John Williams’ five-note riff from “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” — …G, A, F, F, C; G, A, F, F, C; G, A, F, F, C; G, A, F, F, C … — fits nicely with the repetitive tones still trickling out of Ruth’s tape player. I watch socially maladroit aliens — dressed as Hasidic Jews, chanting the backup part to the Five Satins’ “In the Still of the Night” — descend on Earth and then spin zanily upwards. I start counting down from 100 to 1 and keep watching, just as commanded.

“As you are counting back … and focusing on the flying saucer in the sky … your conscious mind will concentrate on that, and the unconscious part of your mind will be completely free to receive the suggestions I tell you, and you’ll continue moving to a deeper state of hypnosis. You feel like you are having a dream …”

91 … To her credit, there have been no surprises yet from Ruth — no commands to strip, tap dance, extract money from my checking account, date her granddaughter. That, though, is exactly the point. “Hypnosis,” she and her husband have said more than once, “is still very much misunderstood.”

Just 10 years ago, even Ruth misunderstood it. She considered the practice silly — not much more than a gimmick — until her friend lost 100 pounds under hypnotic treatment when nothing else had worked. Ruth needed no further proof: She was hooked. She bought books, signed up for training conferences and practiced on her husband, Dan.

Dan wanted something more. He wanted to know how hypnosis worked if indeed it did. So soon there were more books ordered, more conferences frequented, more hypnotizing in wedlock. Their youngest kin even began to find themselves in grandparent-induced trances at family gatherings. 80 … 79 …

Hypnosis sounds mysterious — even dirty, illicit or evil — but the great irony is that it represents a state in which we find ourselves almost daily. We read a page of a book without remembering that we are reading, we drive without realizing we are driving, we watch a movie and think, if for a moment, that we are part of the action.

As measured by electroencephalograph readings, hypnosis is that moment between sleep and consciousness when our low-frequency brain waves dominate and the higher ones fade; hypnosis is that 4 a.m. creative spike when our right hemisphere ignites with activity at the direction of the cerebral cortex as our left, more logical, hemisphere stays mum; hypnosis is a state of enhanced learning and self-suggestion — an all-too-rare opportunity to converse with our unconscious mind. … 70 … 69 …

It wasn’t always seen that way.

Take, for example, Benjamin Franklin — the fervent self-improver who nonetheless considered hypnosis to be hogwash. The Founding Father set the prevailing modern attitude toward the practice in the United States when, as the leader of a prestigious scientific-research commission, he rejected 18th-century scientist Franz Mesmer’s attempt to prove that the practice — then focused on passing magnets over particular segments of the body — was more than mere child’s play.

But Mesmer’s spirit prevailed— at the very least, in the word mesmerize.

“You’re becoming drowsier. More peaceful and at ease. Any sound you hear will bring you deeper. Feeling wonderful …” … 50 … 49 … 48 …

He had drawn on mysterious practices common to ancient civilizations — mass chanting atop a steady drumbeat — and the 16th- and 17th-century European practice of hypnotizing pets. Chickens, for example, tended to fall into a state of deep relaxation when their heads were fastened to the ground. Ferenc Andras Völgyesi once put every animal at the Budapest zoo into a trance. Jean de La Fontaine hypnotized a lion … 33 … 32 … 31 …

… 30 … The Scottish surgeon James Braid, intrigued by one such performance, began to study the practice, ultimately publishing his findings under the title “hypnosis,” derived from the Greek word “to sleep.” Therein, though, lay the craft’s first, but not last, disconnect between perception and reality: He quickly regretted the word choice since trances generally do not mean sleep. Nonetheless, Sigmund Freud and his disciples, like Dr. Joseph Brier, soon adopted the craft. … 15 … 14 … 13 …

Meanwhile, governments, particularly the Entente Powers in the Great War and the Allies in World War II, relied on hypnosis techniques to energize soldiers and ease the emotional burden of battle. 3. Hypnosis achieved popularity, but not necessarily respectability, when it cured a 15-year-old with ichthyosis, or fish-skin disease, 2, in 1951, after years of failed medication. But then the horror films spread. And the television shows. 1. And the fear.


IV. The Reprogramming

“Scientists tell us we have 30 to 40 more times more mental ability than we normally use … you are capable of being 20 times more successful than you have been in the past … your talents and your skills turn into action … like building a brick house … add another brick to the house … move closer to achieving your goal …”

The instructions are flying now. Tomorrow I will remember only a fraction of the words, but in my mind, an unforgettable orgy of oddballs is taking sh
ape: Barack Obama, Millard Fillmore, Grover Cleveland, Bar Mitzvah motivators, Rabbi Silverstein from Congregation Agudath Israel. He is at the bima, telling me in a thick Lower East Side accent that “no one can keep you from being the successful person you are capable of being.”

I start to consider the endearing voice. Besides the obvious clues from her home — pious figurines, souvenirs from Sedona, a telling license plate (HYPNO-1) — Ruth, I realize, remains mysterious, even if she has managed to heal me. Can anyone, I wonder, keep her from being the successful person she is capable of being? Does she hypnotize herself? What, if so, does she say?

Two days ago, I visited Ruth at her home for answers, but I left unfulfilled. I may have heard, for example, about her most unusual clients — the man who could fly on airplanes for the first time after one session; the woman who feared water for decades but jumped into the stuff following several hours with Ruth; the drug addicts, the food addicts, the sex addicts — but I did not know why she appeared so uneasy, even pained, during our time together. I may have learned that she and her husband have not been as active of late in the tranceroom, but what about in the bedroom? I may have discovered that she employs the Emotional Freedom Technique daily — tapping herself at home, in restaurants and during movies — but which emotion is she so eagerly trying to tap away?

Ruth wouldn’t say.

As if to ask her again, my finger suddenly shoots up. “Your finger,” she commands, “will remain up there.” Then she begins to rearrange my amygdala: “From now on, you will have your work so excellently organized that it will be easy for you to get it done. You will look forward to your work. You will enjoy having the opportunity to show that you can achieve any job you are required to do. Your new motto is, ‘Do it now. Get it done.’ ”

I try to resist. It occurs to me that Obama message man David Axelrod could have devised something sharper: “Timeliness We Can Believe In,” perhaps, or “A New Kind of Punctuality.” But I let it go — and I let myself go deeper. My finger droops, then drops. My irises acquire superpowers. “You’re going to find over the next days that the color RED — R E D — will seem brighter, sharper, more noticeable,” Ruth commands and I oblige. “The color red — RED … RED — will seem sharper, more noticeable than ever before. Each time your mind encounters the color RED, you will find that your work gets easier to accomplish.”

And just like that — just after my first encounter with Ruth coercing my mind into new brainwave patterns — my question is answered as I reflect on her guarded words from the other day: “He was one of the best around … We didn’t know … No one did …”

Michael Johnstone — career pervert, hypnotist — was Ruth Carr’s mentor, and, perhaps, an explanation for her enigmatic demeanor.

In addition to impelling clients to engage in positive thinking, Johnstone, a Brit who had moved to Connecticut to establish a hypnotherapy practice, allegedly coerced several women into sexual submission — and videotaped them — while they were under a trance. After they discovered one another — he was recovering from a heart attack in the hospital, and several happened to visit at the same time — Johnstone was arrested and deported.

Before long, the Connecticut State Legislature — responding to constituents fearful of a Nutmeg State populated by rogue hypnotists and all the species-ambiguous monsters, Manchurian citizens and adolescent decadents they might create — passed a bill mandating the obtainment of a license in order to practice. In doing so, Connecticut joined Colorado, Indiana and Washington to become one of only four states in the union to provide concrete safeguards against hypnotists and their clients from growing too close.

I think of Red Delicious apples, of Red China flags, of my red hair — and I fall deeper.

V. The Rebirth

“You’ve done very well, Andrew,” Ruth tells me, and I believe her, which is to say that I believe she has done very well as she begins to count upward, from zero to five.

A car honks, and I curse the hastening arrival of reality at the doorstep of the Pappas Chiropractic Center.

“Three — from head to toe you’re feeling perfect in every way. Physically perfect, mentally alert and emotionally serene …”

I am not feeling physically perfect, but I act as if.

“Four — your eyes begin to feel sparkling clear, just as though they were bathed in fresh spring water.”

Sparkling — yes!

“And five — your eyelids open now. You’re fully aware now. Take a deep breath, fill up your lungs, stretch and feel wonderful.”

I am feeling wonderful. I am overcoming vice. I am going to be an A+ student! But it dawns on me that I am not yet perfect. Ruth asks me how I feel. “Yeah. Very. Yeah. Um. I, I, I …” As I stutter something incoherent, I begin to craft a mental checklist of vices to hypnotize away next time: mumbling, social awkwardness, paleness. Ruth only smiles, happy she could help.

Then she offers me a ride home — “I made a vow long ago to give anyone in need a ride home” — and soon I find myself inside HYPNO-1. On the way back to Yale, we chat about her children. I ask her if she gets a thrill out of the power she can have over people. She says no. I ask her if she was a bossy mother.

“Oh yes! Oh, yes, yes, yes.”


I am still imperfect. I procrastinate. I forget my One A Day vitamin, fail daily to execute the Andrew’s Healthy Lifestyle Plan, wear all black too often, clog up my voicemail, neglect my arm-flexibility workouts, don’t sleep.

But as often as I am kvetching about New Haven power brokers or kibitzing with peers about the future of the free world recently, I am kvelling about a genius I met in West Haven. When a super-senior stopped me in front of Starbucks to ask if I knew of any anti-procrastination techniques, I led him on the spot in a street-corner tapping. When an acquaintance begged me for a healthy alternative to Adderall, I offered to demonstrate the power of suggestion. When a late-night dorm game required me to reveal a personal secret, I told my friends about her.

I may not yet deeply and completely accept myself.

But I deeply and completely accept Ruth Carr.