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Hypnotizing Norman

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

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(Collage Tablet Magazine; original photo Lasse Kristensen/Shutterstock; background Library of Congress.)

The rest of us held the silence, until first one, and then another of us began gently to call to Norman. Worry, and soon desperation, cracked our voices. Someone flicked the light switch, and in the harsh brightness I became consumed with the fear that if Norman did wake up it would be at the wrong age—as a toddler, say, or as a 7-year-old. As nightmare scenarios raced through my mind I felt us all rapidly shrinking. Norman, facing Joe from across the snuffed candle—eyes closed and looking doggedly peaceful as the panic of those surrounding him began to take hold—was not inclined to leave his mother’s womb a second time. I closed my eyes, too.

***

In 1775, German physician Franz Mesmer publicly challenged a priest who specialized in exorcism. The priest had found renown for expelling the devil from the souls of his supplicants. Mesmer countered that this process was not spiritual but biological: Magnetic currents within the bodies of the possessed, he argued, responded to the priest’s cross as it was waved in front of them. This argument formed the basis for Mesmer’s theory of animal magnetism, and ultimately led to the process soon called “mesmerism,” which Scottish physician James Braid modified 70 years later and re-dubbed “hypnosis.”

Mesmer’s battles with the cleric about the mysteries of the human soul now seem quaint: Do we believe an invisible devil periodically occupies unfortunate hosts, or do we believe that there are electrical currents flowing through our bodies that can be controlled by a magnet-wielding doctor named Mesmer?

But as I sat waiting for something to make right our horrible experiment, imagining how I would explain to Norman’s parents why their son had become a vegetable (“he thinks he’s stuck in your womb, Mrs. D.!”), I caught a glimpse of the same challenges that animated both Mesmer and the priest, the same sense that existence is fragile, that authority is in the eye of the beholder, and that behind life’s smooth surfaces are mysteries about which we can only dream.

Norman’s eyes finally blinked open, and they saw not the open field of the manly blond stranger, but four terrified, pimply faces staring back at him in the bright light of the bare attic bulb. “Hey,” he said, and looked around slowly, as if we’d just woken him in the middle of pre-Calculus. My throat tightened and I brushed away the welling tears before anyone could see. A few feet away Joe closed his eyes and sighed deeply as Norman, unaware, readjusted to life in the 1980s.

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Wonderful story! Thank you for sharing it with us.

I really enjoyed reading this story. Well done!

lovely.

Itzkovitz (NORMAN) has a charming easy-to-read style but is still some steps away from the introspection and irony of Shalom Auslander, who I would dub his literary cousin. I will wait with patience.

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Hypnotizing Norman

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

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