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
The first time we hypnotized Norman, we made his body stiff like a board. We lifted his head while his feet were on the ground. Then we lifted his feet while his head was on the ground. Then we hung him between two wooden chairs, with his head resting on one, and his heels on the other.
We were just following orders. There was a general acknowledgement among us ninth-graders that we walked in the shadow of Joe Bower’s genius, and so we did as we were told. As a recent yeshiva refugee, I knew authority when I faced it. But Joe Bower—a tall boy with a thin brown mustache, a digital watch with a calculator, and an unnerving air of quiet competence—was compellingly different from the rabbis who had populated my life until then.
In the early days of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud thought hypnosis was the key to his patients’ unconscious. But he was a mediocre hypnotist, and often his patients would look up at him after his strenuous attempts to subdue them and, wide awake, shrug sheepishly.
Joe Bower had no such problem. When he turned to hypnosis, Joe’s only challenge was finding a volunteer, and really all he had to do was ask. Norman, sweet-natured stoner and irrepressible pontificator, stepped forward.
In Joe Bower’s stuffy attic we lit the candle and switched off the light. We settled into a tight circle, Norman and Joe facing one another, the O’Bannon twins and me rounding out the space between them. Joe’s resonant voice filled the room.
“All right Norman, I want you to relax,” Joe said. By the time Joe counted backward from 10, Norman—quietly sitting, all bushy brown hair, zits, and peach-fuzz—was gone.
The first time Joe did this, the O’Bannons and I sat stunned, looking at each other. Surely Norman was pretending. Surely he and Joe had planned this in advance. But Joe was no joker, and Norman, with first his left, then his right wrist attached to imaginary helium balloons, was too earnest to fake it so thoroughly.
The giddy exhilaration I felt when I realized that Norman, arms floating above his head, strawberry rolling paper still peeking out of his shirt pocket, was not with us anymore—that he was entirely under Joe’s sway and would do his bidding no matter how ridiculous—this exhilaration was deeply flecked with relief.
I was in the midst of a rocky transition from yeshiva to public high school. Desperate to enter the broader world that I encountered nightly on TV, I had spent my last full year at yeshiva tearfully lobbying until my parents’ resolve to cloister me away there finally broke. We made a pact doomed to failure: no swine, no shiksehs, no Friday-night football games.
The day before school began, three black-suited rabbis visited our small living room. Rabbi Mayer, the yeshiva’s headmaster, brought the two newest members of the faculty, young bearded men who sat awkwardly on our piano bench—site, through the years, of monumental battles with my parents over my resistance to practice. The men came to entice and cajole, to convince me that this would be the most exciting year yet at yeshiva, and to certify that the fate of the Jews depended on my decision. I nodded obligingly, but it was clear their power had faded. The more their mouths moved, the more desperate they seemed, making the pitch to an inwardly defiant and mostly uncomprehending adolescent. I emerged from the meeting absolutely in control of my destiny.
This feeling lasted one day. Then I was lost amid my new school’s confusing sway. Yeshiva hadn’t prepared me for the rigorous social demands of public school, the uniquely distorted hierarchies, the ceaseless, awkward flirtations, the ebb and flow of a social world not shadowed by Talmudic debate.
How much nicer it was to self-hypnotize during afternoons at home, to lose myself in the fantasy of miraculous transformation that characterized so many of the TV heroes about whom I obsessed: Steve Austin, a man barely alive, was given bionic strength after a horrible aeronautic accident; in The Incredible Hulk one had only to make David Banner a little angry and he’d quickly turn into a bright green Lou Ferrigno; and most impressively, somehow Henry Winkler, a short, slender Jewish fellow, for a time had us all convinced that he was a seductive Italian street tough.
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?”
With his right hand Norman reached over his right shoulder and grabbed a handful of air. He brought his empty fist in front of his face and studied it. “Yellow,” he replied.
How to describe the feeling that flushed through my body when Norman looked at his empty hand and said “yellow”? What reflex in that split second had led Norman to conjure hair he could see and grab? From which part of his being did Norman pluck this unexpected word, “yellow”?
I had spent most of my life in parochial school. I had logged countless, interminable hours in synagogue, obediently worn tzitzit under my shirt day in and day out, and wrapped my arms carefully with phylacteries at morning prayers as I had been taught to do. But it was only now, watching Norman stare at his empty hand and claim that he was a blond, that I finally found something I could believe in: In a previous life, Norman had been a tall, blond, long-haired, Confederate soldier. I didn’t know how this golden-haired rustic had become my D&D-playing friend; I just knew it was true, and I loved that it was true. But I loved it in a way that also burned with envy.
Until now, Norman had been trapped like the rest of us in his painfully evolving adolescent body, his stagnant adolescent life, and despite this he seemed straightforward and uncomplicated—far more than those of us who surrounded him—despite a home life that I knew had complications. But now Norman was suddenly the hero of a very different kind of tale, marked by a dead-serious and alien manhood. What would other undiscovered corners of Norman’s imagination have to say? Who else was in there? And what lives, past and present, were trapped inside of “the Itz,” refusing forever to emerge because I would always be too timid to give myself to Joe Bower?
It was getting late, time for Norman to come home, and Joe began to reverse the process. After some gentle suggestion, Norman arrived successfully back in his mother’s womb. Then Joe Bower ran into a problem.
“Norman, you’re now a baby again,” he said with authority. “You can see and smell what’s around you.” But it quickly became clear that despite Joe’s suggestion, Norman had not left his mother’s womb on the return trip, and didn’t plan to. Joe’s calm voice tightened, “Norman, I want you to come back now to the present time. You are now 14 years old again, and here with me.” But Norman just sat and rocked quietly.
The room shuffled, the candle flickered. I looked at Joe Bower, until now a towering figure, and saw in his place a gangly, moustachioed 14-year-old, suddenly, dangerously, fallible. If Norman’s hypnosis had unexpectedly led me to a new belief system, this was the moment when I discovered that the clergy was all too human. Again Joe firmly insisted that Norman emerge from the womb, and then again a few moments later. But Joe Bower’s commanding voice died out ineffectually.
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.
Thanksgiving is a uniquely American holiday, but in Israel cancer patients have appropriated the tradition to celebrate beating the disease