Outside my cloistered yeshiva, I found a new social order and a friend who, unlike me, was trusting enough to submit to someone else’s authority
In summer camp I stamped a leather bracelet with “The Itz,” in homage to Arthur Fonzarelli’s truncation of his own name. But such fantasies of self-transformation were as doomed as the pact I’d made with my parents. A better analogy for my situation could be found in a different after-school mainstay: The Beverly Hillbillies. Here were the Clampetts, a family that had struck oil and moved into a fabulous new world, but still couldn’t change the basic, painfully hilarious fact that they didn’t fit. I was like the Fonz, if the Fonz were a boney, giant-footed, feather-haired, 14-year-old Beverly Hillbilly called “The Itz.”
So, despite my undiscerning tendencies, I was certain that I would never place myself in Joe Bower’s hypnotic clutches. There was too much to lose in such a semi-public event. Even without giving myself over to Joe’s higher power it was all I could do to keep my public image moderately stable, to keep my secrets from seeping out.
But Norman, always more trusting, had complied. I’d known Norman forever from the neighborhood, and I was thrilled to find him on the bus my first day of school. He was unlike anyone I’d met in yeshiva: His family lifted dead weights, watched professional wrestling, and had a wood stove. I knew they were Jews but what, I sometimes wondered, did this mean?
In that attic, in our sudden role as Joe’s wary and awkward assistants, the O’Bannons and I snapped into action, quietly lifting, rearranging the room at Joe’s gentle direction as if Norman were a piece of delicate furniture we’d been asked to move and then move again.
Preoccupied with pubescent yearnings and the phobic rituals of adolescent male bonding, the intimacy of these maneuvers was unsettling in the extreme: the discomfiting physicality, the smell of Norman’s body, his absolute vulnerability.
At school that week we didn’t discuss what happened in Joe Bower’s attic. We went about our business of being abject, non-athletic, non-studious, ninth-grade boys and waited out the week until the following Sunday, which is when we had made plans to visit Joe’s dark attic again.
There were train tracks behind Joe’s house, and after shooting a Roman candle at a passing cargo train—and blowing up a few painfully loud M80 firecrackers that Norman’s uncle had brought back from South Carolina—we trudged upstairs a second time to the dim attic for the main event.
We settled in around the candle, and to our amazement Joe Bower quickly had Norman under his spell once again. Again he counted backward from 10 slowly, quietly pausing after each number to describe an increasingly relaxed and remote state. Again he instructed Norman that his heartbeat and breath were slowing, that his hands and feet and eyelids were becoming heavy, that his attention to the candle was making him irresistibly sleepy.
This was by now familiar territory, but if possible, the ease with which Norman slipped into that hypnotic state was even more unnerving than it had been the previous week: Could it really be this easy to make someone your captive? To turn a wiry boy—who just minutes before had been mischievously lighting firecrackers, whooping, and sweating in Joe Bower’s backyard—into a passive, absurd lunk?
Silently watching Norman lose consciousness, I was overcome again by the fact of his rudderless body, its vulnerable proximity.
Then Joe began.
“Norman, I want you to come with me back in time, to last year when we were in eighth grade.”
Time travel. I could hear nothing but Joe’s confident voice.
“Now I want to go back with you a little more, to when you were 12 years old,” and after a suitable pause Joe and Norman continued their backward time travel, to ages 9 and 8 and 7. They kept going through the years until there was nowhere left to go.
“OK, Norman,” Joe said calmly, “now I want you to travel back even further … You’re now in your mother’s womb. It’s warm, and quiet, and dark, and you’re as comfortable and safe as you’ve ever been.” Norman hunched over, quietly holding himself, gently rocking.
I held my breath, terrified, and looked around. The others sat absolutely still in the dim light, their shadows flickering with the candle. I felt myself rocking with Norman. Joe forged ahead.
“Now let’s go back even more, back before you were in your mother’s womb. I want to go back to the time before you were Norman. You’re not Norman anymore. You’re now what you were before you were Norman.”
“Now open your eyes and look around. What do you see?”
Slowly Norman’s eyes opened and he did as he was told, swiveling his head from one side to the other.
“I see a field. I’m under a tree,” he said quietly.
“What are you wearing?”
Norman looked down at his jeans and red T-shirt. “A gray uniform,” he murmured.
“And what color is your hair?”
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