nthposition online magazine

The puppet pushers


[ opinion - august 06 ]
John-Ivan Palmer

No person shall give an exhibition... of hypnotism on any living person... or in connection with an entertainment to which the public are admitted...
British Hypnotism Act of 1952
Clause 2, (1)

He charms people, he seduces them, and then he harms them.
wife of Saddam Hussein's personal pilot


I assemble some people on a stage. Through hypnosis I convince them they are human jackhammers, which, strangely, is not as daunting a task as it might appear. The subjects jump, their jowls shake, their glasses fly off, and one may even plummet into the orchestra pit. I am the leader, they are the followers. Everyone howls that such utter subjugation should occur, but the deeper laugh lies in the subjects' apparent conviction that what they are doing is unassailable reality.

Even though I have a thousand people in hysterics, I look out into the front row and notice one or two who are not laughing. I find this irksome. As my subjects lay on the stage like the aftermath of a suicide bombing in a chaos of bodies, shoes and pocket contents, I look down and notice an eyelid open for a peek at what's going on. This bothers me too. The sober face in the audience and the open eyelid on the stage threaten my sense of omnipotence.

Once the spectacle of stage hypnotism is over, there are a lot of questions people want answered. Why are my shoes on the wrong feet? Why all the newspaper stuffed in my pants? Why is my lip bleeding? Why can't I remember being on-stage at all? As the operator of the show, I could ask myself some questions too. Why did I make people bray and kick like donkeys? Why did I convince a man his nose was made of rubber and stretch it back to row 20? Why do I believe so uncritically in what I am doing? And even if I agreed with someone like Dr Moris Kleinhauz, who asserts that stage hypnotism leaves in its wake untold cases of undiscovered and untreated psychiatric disturbances [1], why can't I stop and do something else for a living?

As I drive off into the night on another long journey to the next performance, I plunge from absolute center of attention to absolute solitude. In the darkness I reflect on details of that last casino show in Rapid City, and the hulking man who denied almost to fisticuffs that he was hypnotized, even though his pants were on backwards and his bearded face was smeared with lipstick. I compare his post-show denial to the words of President Jean-Bédel Bokassa of Central African Republic after he was caught with freezers full of cadavers ready for cooking. [2] He said (holding a Bible), "Do you really believe that a French officer [like me] could be a cannibal?" [3] When Ethiopia's President Mengistu Haile Miriam murdered 500,000 non-compliers, making their families pay for the bullets, it was determined he be overthrown. From prison "on a good day" he denied he was imprisoned at all. [4] And when genocide was brought up to Mrs Slobodan Milocovic - who controlled her husband like a ventriloquist's dummy - her simple reply was, "Mass graves? An invention." [5]

Dictatorship and hypnotism are both forms of terminal influence and control. There are obvious differences between the two, not the least of which is a higher survival rate of one over the other, yet both are spectacles before an audience, and both are, by nature, astoundingly absurd. These two dissimilar forms of extreme manipulation have curious similarities. [6]

As forms of absurd control, both have a fledgling beginning with a high probability of failure. That's why the "induction" is the trickiest part of the hypnotist's act, and the part most often sought and stolen by copycats. During this critical stage, those who are not cooperating have to be dispatched, but once "the hypnotic state" (intentional pun) is established, it takes on a strange life of its own, and flies off with everyone following like geese in formation. Sometimes literally. In Saddam Hussein's famous July 22, 1979, inauguration, sixty-six people were taken from his theater to be shot, at which point the rest of the audience spontaneously rose to their feet and acclaimed him the undisputed "Anointed One." [7] In 1990 Dr Radovan Karadzic, who used hypnosis in his psychiatric practice, published a poetry collection titled Black Fable, in which he referred to himself as God, a risky way it would seem to achieve terminal control, but somehow it galvanized the collective myth of Serbian redemption, and led to the uncritical acceptance of the ethnic cleansing stunt. [8]

In Equatorial Guinea, President Francisco Macías Nguema billed himself as 'The Unique Miracle'. He convinced audiences to sit and watch subjects dance around a fire, waiting anxiously for one of them to fall from exhaustion. The reason why this was so eagerly anticipated was because it entitled spectators to pull red hot pokers from the fire and jab them into the flesh of the fallen dancers, who were supposed to leap to their feet singing "let us enjoy our Independence!" [9] Like uncooperative hypnotic subjects, those failing to comply were eliminated from the stage. In this case to the tune of 20,000. [10] With final permanence. You don't defy the omnipotence of a Unique Miracle.

Although terminal influence is a group activity, for the influencer it's a solitary business. As the night wears on I sit alone behind the wheel and ask myself why crowds seem to go for the Poker Thing. If you factor in all the preparation and risk management, does it still take less energy to make the poke than to react to it, even if the energy differential is greatest the more sensitive the spot poked? If one clown sticks another clown with a broomstick, a laugh is virtually guaranteed. Does that say something about clowns or something about us?

Poking worked well for Macías Nguema and Saddam Hussein (whose torturers he called 'The Swords of Government'), and evidently it worked at the Tuesday evening ladies Sociable at Madison Avenue Congregational Church in New York. It was there that E B Jennings, 'Professor of Psychology and Mesmerism', stuck a young male subject in the buttocks with an imaginary red hot poker. According to the New York Times, the young man screamed as he sprang into the air. The good Christian ladies howled with uncontrollable laughter. Professor Jennings ended his show by convincing a woman she was a cannibal and enjoyed the taste of missionaries. [11]

Lest we assume that imaginary pokers are any less potent than real ones, I cite the case of Sharron Tabarn, hypnotized by Andrew Vincent in 1993 at a public house in Leyland, Lancashire. To bring her out of her trance, the amazing Mr Vincent jolted her with 10,000 volts of imaginary electricity. Up, up she went, high into the air in a crowd-pleasing leap of shock and surprise. She died of cardiac arrest. [12]

My intention here is not to simply attack my own profession, although I'm sure it will be perceived that way by some. Besides, there's a sizable faction of detractors out there already. Sharron Tabarns's mother, for example, has created the Campaign Against Stage Hypnotism. Clinical hypnotists and shrinks, like Dr Milton V Kline [13] despite scandals and malpractice in their own ranks, cry out for legislation that would eliminate what I do for a living as thoroughly as Idi Amin purged the Kakwa ethnic component from his army. So I'll leave the frontal assaults to them. In a landmark study of the Sharorn Tabarn case, Dr Michael Heap, no friend of performing mesmerists, once wrote that hypnotists themselves should be studied more than theories about what they do. [14] I am simply taking him at his word.

Tyrants often become quite verbose (if not coherent) in prison or exile, after their public performance is over. But in mid-career if a hypnotist or tyrant is asked a probing question about what they're up to, they close up, as they say in South Dakota, tighter than a bull's ass in fly season. Maintaining such a high level of absurd manipulation is a virtual antipode to equilibrium, and is the very stuff of insecurity. So perhaps I'm breaking precedent by openly pondering a telling remark I hear all the time after my shows - "imagine what you could do with that kind of power." It's amazing how easily and frequently that notion is set aloft. Diana Spearman wrote in Modern Dictatorship (1939) that "the concept of a man untrammelled by any restraints is curiously comforting to the human heart." [15] How comforting is it to know you can eat a person for lunch, or turn them into a cuckoo clock for money? Every time I hear those words - "imagine what you could do with that kind of power" - I ask how close am I to merging with Saddam's karma?

On that issue I can say one thing at least. The path to our respective theaters of the absurd is the same - servility, seizure, sovereignty. Tyrants don't start off as terminal controllers and hypnotists do not "wake up one day" and discover they "have this power." They begin as failed magicians, birthday clowns, beauty shop operators, used car salesmen, welfare cases, who do what they have to do to become 'The World's Greatest', 'The World's Fastest', 'The Incredible', 'The Amazing', 'The Astounding." Terry Stokes, king of the West Coast hypnos, learned how to control people from a pimp. The hugely successful Pat Collins was such a bad lounge singer that someone told her as a cruel joke that she should become a hypnotist. So she did. In my case, I practiced from how-to books to get attention in bars.

Dictators don't start off with power either. They evolve, like hypnotists, from lower forms of life. A shyster lawyer, Jose Antonio Garcia Trevijano Fos, dean of the Faculty of Political Science and Economics at the University of Madrid, used Macías Nguema as a dummy front man for shady business deals in Equatorial Guinea. Which was fine until Nguema made that laughably incoherent speech at the United Nations, then went home and convinced everyone he could turn himself into a tiger and eat them. After that people did whatever he said, including the shyster lawyer. Idi Amin began as a servile comedy dog licking the fingers of his British military superiors. Thinking he was properly trained in obedience school he was manipulated into what the colonial powers assumed was subservient authority, at which point the fat pooch proceeded to throw a quarter million people to the crocodiles and call himself 'The Last King of Scotland'. Kim Il Sung began as such a weak-willed Sino-Soviet lackey that a Russian official flat out said, "We created him from zero." [16] And Saddam Hussein went from neighborhood cat torturer to lowly rent-a-goon, then sucked up to the right people (before killing them). Eventually he billed himself as 'The Anointed One, The Glorious Leader, Direct Descendant of the Prophet, President of Iraq, Chairman of the Revolutionary Command Council, Field Marshall of its Armies, Doctor of its Laws, and Great Uncle to all its Peoples'. A bit much to fit on a business card, but if you're that anointed and glorious I suppose you don't need one.

At what point does the servility stop and the exaggerated influence begin? With hypnotists and tyrants alike there seems to be a turning point, a liminal event, a single performance after which the erstwhile loser experiences a profound and rapid inflation of power and ego. There's always that first show when you knew you really had them under. The Big Bang of the Absurd. For Saddam it was his 1979 inauguration. The liquidation stunt worked so well he could hardly believe it. For Jean-Bédel Bokassa it was the $25 million fantasy coronation he threw for himself on Napoleon's birthday, which no significant head of state attended. After that he became all at once, in his mind, "President For Life, Minister of Defense, Minister of Justice, Minister of Home Affairs, Minister of Agriculture, Minister of Health and Minister of Aviation." From then on it was said to be increasingly dangerous for anyone to contradict the crowned, bejeweled, ermine-draped, child-raping cannibal.

So too in every hypnotism show there's that precise point during the opening stunts, when its magical, irrational aspect crystallizes, and the back rows of the audience begin to stand up for a better look. An audience has no mind, only a collective urge for momentum, like one more hit off a strange addiction. The show, like the cult of Saddam or Kim Jong Il, then becomes its own autonomous, living entity. The fashions of trance behavior may have changed over the centuries, [17] but one irreducible element has not - it's need to be convincing. And that comes by whatever means at whatever cost. I'll lie, I'll bribe, I'll threaten to make my show work. On stage I am The Anointed One and the spoils are mine.

Hypnotism is the riskiest of all novelty acts. Dictatorship is the riskiest of all political jobs. In both cases there's no allowance for failure. I've sat in audiences myself and watched beginning hypnotists struggle and fail to get people "under." I've seen them leave the stage in utter humiliation, ducking thrown pennies and a gauntlet of contempt like the twenty-two known plotters who tried to assassinate Idi Amin in the eight years of his reign. [18] But for those who manage to achieve that initial strategic success, a further, more ominous transformation takes place.

The Amazing Rudolph [19] began as little more than a playground wimp with high-water pants, a polyester tie and a bad haircut. He was easy to step on, both intentionally and by mistake. Once he was able to convince people they were walking through cow pies or surfboarding through a school of testicle-eating sharks, he took on (like his tyrannical counterparts) the air of someone with ultimate power. He became someone else. Instead of walking hunched over and fearful like some bully was about to yank up his underwear, he started to swagger. He wore flashy suits, pointy-toed boots, sported a pinkie ring and became cocky and obnoxious. He used every trick in the book to crush his competitors - including me - and drove to gigs in a muscle car, his head barely rising above the steering wheel.

One night in Las Vegas recently I experienced first-hand what it's like to be on the other side of the convincingness equation. I volunteered to be a participant in Justin Tranz's ninety-minute lounge show at Flamingo O'Shea's. As I followed his every command, I was completely aware of what I was doing. In fact, I was his best subject that night. I sang a rap song in Japanese, became the world's first pregnant man giving birth to a monkey, and played a saxophone with my buttocks. People were not laughing with me, they were laughing at me. I suppose I could have walked away at any time, but I didn't. Like Uday Hussein's body double, "I stopped worrying about whether what I was doing was useful or not. The longer I served the dictator, the more removed from reality I became." [20] For me trance was the same response as that of Zainab Salbi, daughter of Saddam Hussein's personal pilot, "I just stepped into that painfully bright white space in my brain that had the power to burn [critical thought] away like overexposed film." [21] With wielders of extreme control, surveillance is everything. As Salbi wrote of 'Uncle Saddam', he "knows how to read eyes." [22] I wasn't worried about Mr Tranz drilling me with a power tool or nailing my ears to the wall, but the idea of getting up and leaving seemed out of the question. But I was conscious of his gaze upon me, monitoring my convincingness a thousand times a second - exactly what I do in my own show.

And as the vortex of absolute control swirls into the final flush, convincingness is no longer enough. Total soul-rooted devotion becomes the absolute requirement. A Vegas hypnotist back in the 70s wasn't above whispering to subjects off-mike, "Close 'em or I'll poke 'em out!" In caffeine-induced dreams I have maniacally clubbed fakers with my Shure SM58 wireless microphone, like President Bokasa personally beating to death with his cane those six kids who threw rocks at his motorcade. [23] Castillo Gonzales, a linguist and expert on the Fang philosophical vocabulary in Equatorial Guinea was thought by Nguema to be one of those faking types. In prison he was beaten to death and his head cracked open to see if a faker's brain looked any different. Finding nothing of out of the ordinary, Professor Gonzales' brain was put to a more practical use. It was simply eaten by those present. [24]

There's a cliché in the business that hypnotists are their own best subjects. Just watch them go about with their big egos, their outlandish publicity, their stage strut. And why shouldn't they get a blowback from their own ballyhoo since they are the only ones present at every one of their shows? And why too shouldn't tyrants succumb to the disorientation of all that isolation, body doubles, disguises, multiple motorcades and sleepless paranoia in more beds than they can keep track of?

When the Italian journalist Riccardo Orizo interviewed President Bokassa in jail, "his eyes remained fixed upon a point in the room which was, so far as I could tell, empty." This was after he returned from exile to Central African Republic on the assumption he would be welcomed as "a saint". In 1981, during his own exile, President Idi Amin called the London Guardian from a pay phone and announced "troops loyal to me are... retaking Kampala." Which was as much of a fantasy as the time he asked Queen Elizabeth out for a date. [25]

The professional skeptic and stage magician James Randi has asserted that what we call hypnotic "power" is "merely an agreement between the subject and the operator that they will fantasize together." [26] And if it is further the case, as stated by Dr Jerrold Post, Elliott School of International Affairs, George Washington University, that terminal control is "not a quality of an individual but a property of a relationship [emphasis added] between a leader and... followers", [27] then it appears that control at the absurd extreme is more consensual than "hypnotic." The free election of Moqtada al-Sadr, Sayyed Nasrallah, and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad seem to bear this out. Your relationship with the controller is modifiable up to and slightly after the point where you buy your ticket of admission. After that, the spectacle takes on the characteristic "life of its own". Once the Great Maurice convinces a Las Vegas tourist to straddle a chair thinking it's a dancing camel, there's little difficulty getting the same tourist to search up the rectum of non-existent ostrich, looking for diamonds. Once President Ahmadinejad tells the holy folks of Iran to wipe Israel off the map, [28] it's easy to mix up a glass of acetone peroxide on an airplane and wipe yourself off the map (along with a few others).

The tendency of humans to coalesce into these kinds of charismatic relationships - with absurdity a mere relative quality - may very well be innate. [29] Tragically innate. We may have the unfortunate destiny of ultimately snuffing ourselves inside one big chicken suit.

In the meantime one constructive thing you can do is question a thousand times a second everything you believe as unassailable reality. Because once you pull the pin for seventy-two virgins, or play a saxophone with your buttocks, it's too late to stop faking.



1 "Some After-Effects of Stage Hypnosis: A Case Study of Psychological Manifestations," International Journal of Clinical and Experimental Hypnosis, Vol. XXVII (3), 1979, p224. [Back]
2 Riccardo Orizio, "Dear Tyrant," in Granta #79, Fall, 2002, p. 189. [Back]
3 Ibid. p193. [Back]
4 Riccardo Orizio, Talk of the Devil, Encounters with Seven Dictators, 2002, p151. [Back]
5 Ibid. p196. [Back]
6 The "terrorism" of al-Qaeda, Aum Shinrikyo, Tamil Tigers and others is to personal dictatorship what street "hypnosis" is to the platform show, but with the same goal of extreme action "intended," according to Title 22 of the US Code Section 2656f(d), "to influence an audience." [Back]
7 Con Coughlin, Saddam, King of Terror, 2002, p158f. [Back]
8 Leaders and Their Followers in a Dangerous World, the Psychology of Political Behavior, Jerrold M Post, 2004, p171f. [Back]
9 Randall Fegley, Equatorial Guinea, An African Tragedy, 1989. [Back]
10 Ibid. p1. [Back]
11 "Mesmerism in a Church," New York Times, March 9, 1881. [Back]
12 "Minister Orders Legal Review of Stage Hypnotists," London Times, December 14, 1994, p8. Later, some experts concluded there was no causal connection. [Back]
13 "Dangerous Aspects of the Practice of Hypnosis and the Need for Legislative Regulation," Clinical Psychologist, Vol 29(2), Winter 1976. [Back]
14 "A Case of Death Following Stage Hypnosis: Analysis and Implications," Contemporary Hypnosis, Vol. 12, No.2, p106. [Back]
15 p113. [Back]
16 Jasper Becker, Rogue Regime, Kim Jong Il and the Looming Threat of North Korea, 2005, p50. [Back]
17 For a discussion of trance fads, see Jonathan Miller, "Going Unconscious" in Hidden Histories of Science, 1995, pp1-34. [Back]
18 Samuel Decalo, Psychoses of Power, African Personal Dictatorships, 1989, p103. [Back]
19 I'm disguising his name because he directly competes with me in casinos and comedy clubs and each of us would like nothing better than to have the other's head in our freezer. [Back]
20 Was Saddam's Son, Latif Yahia,1997, p92. [Back]
21 Zainab Salbi, Between Two Worlds, Escape From Tyranny: Growing Up in the Shadow of Saddam, 2005, p148. [Back]
22 Ibid. p120. [Back]
23 Alex Shoumatoff, African Madness, 1988, p117. Too exhausted to finish the job, President Bokassa had associates do the same thing to the remaining 143 classmates. [Back]
24 Fegley, op. cit. p80. [Back]
25 Orizo, op. cit. p11. [Back]
26 James Randi Educational Foundation, Commentary, June 1, 2001, randi.org/jr/06-01-01.html [Back]
27 Post, op. cit. p257. [Back]
28 New York Times, October 30, 2005. Translated as, "we... will eliminate this disgraceful stain [Israel]." [Back]
29 For the primate hypothalamus theory of hypnotic dominance see Arnold M Ludwig, King of the Mountain, the Nature of Political Leadership, 2002, esp. pages 16 and 21. [Back]