Some people believe God to be the first hypnotist: He put Adam to sleep and took out a rib to make Eve. It's a leap, but today hypnotism is used as an alternative to anesthesia — in dental work and even in serious surgeries. More and more, the medical establishment is accepting, even encouraging, alternative therapies. Law enforcement uses hypnotism — most commonly in helping people recall crimes they've witnessed. It's used as entertainment. Therapeutically, it's used to treat an array of conditions/addictions/phobias. Steve Piccus, whom we'll meet later, treats narcoleptics and somnambulists (I wish I'd asked him if he knew any narcoleptics who were also somnambulists), does suicide intervention, teaches pain-management techniques, and more — all using hypnosis.
Most people know the term "animal magnetism." Its connotations have little to do with its original meaning. When we use it today, it means, when applied to a person, usually male, that he holds a unique and inexplicable power, something that makes him particularly attractive to the opposite sex. Though it wasn't his coinage, the term came into being because of Franz Anton Mesmer, who was born in Austria in 1734. It's also from Mesmer that we get the word "mesmerized," which has the same connotations as "animal magnetism." To be mesmerized is to be fascinated by another to such a degree as to be under some mysterious power. Mesmer, a doctor, meant something else entirely. In a nutshell, Mesmer believed the sun, moon, and fixed stars affected each other and caused tides (just like oceanic tides) in a subtle fluid, an ether that he believed existed in the atmosphere and the body. These atmospheric tides, when thrown out of whack, were the cause of all disease, especially of the "nerves." Mesmer believed that interrupted or lost equilibrium could be corrected by moving magnets over the body. He called his theory animal magnetism. Later, he believed that his hands contained the same powers as steel magnets. He did not, however, give up magnets completely. One of his treatments involved a large oak tub filled with magnetized water and iron shavings. Many iron bars poked out of the tub, each one grasped by a different patient. Mesmer's treatments were popular (using the tub he could treat many patients simultaneously) and sometimes successful. He believed there was only one disease. And one cure: his.
Mesmer spent most of his adult life in France and enjoyed, for a time, the support of Marie Antoinette. Most other physicians considered him a quack. He made a fair amount of money, but by nearly all accounts he was sincere. He treated the poor for free. The medical establishment abhorred his theories and was determined to take him down. And it did, officially, with committees, experiments, and reports by eminent doctors who dismissed his claims. All but one, a Dr. Deslon, a respected court physician. Deslon believed in the phenomenon of animal magnetism but did not believe it had anything to do with magnets. Deslon believed it worked (sometimes) via the imagination of the patient, by what we would now call suggestion. Or hypnosis.
Mesmer was adamant that his treatments had nothing to do with the imagination and adopted a "thanks, but no thanks attitude" toward Deslon. Undeterred, Mesmer continued his work. The disdain of the medical establishment was water off the back of a double-greased duck. Mesmer moved out of Paris to the fashionable resort of Spa and continued his work. Most of the money he made he put back into promoting his theories. Eventually, 20 hospitals, called Societies of Harmony, were built in major cities all over France. This annoyed the medical establishment, but there was nothing they could do about it. The king of Prussia begged Mesmer to settle in Berlin. He declined, so the king sent a man to apprentice himself to Mesmer, and later the king appointed the man Professor of Mesmerism in the Academy of Berlin. (Do this professorship and the Academy of Berlin still exist?) A hospital, where Mesmerism was the only form of treatment, was built in Germany.
Mesmer's last years were peaceful. He owned a canary who lived in an open cage in his bedroom. Each morning the bird flew out and landed on Mesmer's head and then awoke him with a song, which would not end until Mesmer was up and dressed. He could put the canary to sleep with a light touch of the hand and wake it up again by stroking the feathers in the opposite direction. He played his harmonica and still treated poor people for free. He died at night in February 1815. When dawn broke, the canary did not fly to Mesmer's head. The bird, in fact, never sang or ate again and soon died.
Mesmer went the way of his canary still believing it was a kind of magnetic field that produced cures. Little did he know he would be considered one day the father of hypnotism. Actually, I prefer to think of him as the accidental grandfather and Dr. Deslon the father. The word "mesmerized" that has come down to us should be "deslonized."
I'd been interested in hypnotism for some time. Probably because I'm a born skeptic and I didn't quite believe it worked but had heard of its efficacy from enough people over the years to know there must be something to it. My daughter, for example, suffers from terrible headaches, just as I did at her age. She was taught some self-hypnosis techniques by a hypnotherapist, and it helped her a great deal. I, on the other hand, had to learn the fine art of puking in my lunch box while the school nurse drove me home with what was termed a "sick headache." I'd spoken to law enforcement people who use hypnosis forensically. I knew people who had tried it to quit smoking and to lose weight. I knew enough to know that the stereotypes -- the hypnotist swinging a watch in front of a subject's face and saying, "You're getting sle-e-e-e-e-e-epy," or the nightclub act where a shy librarian is made to jump up and down on one foot, flap her arms, and bark like a seal -- were just that: stereotypes. Still, I was skeptical. Could I be hypnotized?