Spring – Summer 1968, Age 16
“ … you are thinking of nothing, nothing but what I say, your arms and legs feel heavy, heavier and heavier, and you are relaxed, more and more relaxed… as I count from one to ten, you will sleep even deeper: one, deeper and deeper—two, deeper and deeper—three…” My voice droned on and on—soft, slow and monotonous—putting Danny into a hypnotic trance.
We were in our bedroom under the eaves, a dim light shining through the thin curtains. Kevin, raw from our confrontation, had moved into another room—so there was just Danny and me. Over the past two weeks, I’d hypnotized Danny a number of times. He seemed to like it.
Danny was an easy subject and the sounds of gentle breathing came from the bed a few feet away telling me he’d slipped into a deeply relaxed state. When he was under, I often didn’t know what to do. The book where I’d learned the induction wasn’t much help. Usually I’d let Danny rest a while and then start counting backward to bring him out, but this evening I planned something different.
“When I count to three and click my fingers you will open your eyes, sit up and see my bed rise into the air.”
My body tensed with anticipation. Would the suggestion work? I counted to three and snapped my fingers as loud as I could. Immediately, Danny sat bolt upright in bed, his eyes wide with surprise.
“What do you see?” I asked.
“The bed. It’s floating around. Wow, that’s really strange.” His words were filled with wonder, yet his voice sounded flat and unemotional. I asked a few more questions and let him enjoy the show. Before I counted him back down, I remembered something the Hypnosis book had said: If the subject is deeply susceptible, a post-hypnotic suggestion can be given to induce subsequent states of hypnosis, and thus the length of time required may be reduced to a matter of seconds… That would be handy; I wouldn’t have to go through the whole hypnotic rigmarole each time.
“Whenever I count to three and click my fingers, you will immediately go into a deep state of relaxation… Now, you can begin to wake up as I count back from ten to one… ”
As Danny came round, I congratulated myself: I was good at this hypnosis thing. There was one problem: whenever Danny went into a trance, my stomach tensed and I felt a kind of quivering vibration in my body. The sessions left me exhilarated but somewhat unsettled and drained.
I’d fallen into hypnosis by accident. Looking through the books in Eason and Son, the main bookshop in Cork, I’d come across a small blue paperback: Hypnosis: Fact and Fiction. I had to have it.
The Irish were fascinated by the abnormal—and hypnotism was definitely uncanny. At the Ormond Hotel, Linda and the girls had told stories about a stage hypnotist who’d come to Dungarvan not long before. He’d made a hypnotized girl kiss and caress the heads of bald men in the audience. He told a man to become so rigid, his body made a bridge between two chairs that two girls sat on.
Some of their stories were plain weird. One man had his veins removed! He’d gone white as a sheet with no pulse or sign of life until he was revived. The previous year, the hypnotist had been called back to Dungarvan to fix one of his subjects. The showman had suggested someone in the audience see leprechauns everywhere. After the show, one poor deluded soul kept running around town yelling, “Stop those feckin’ leprechauns!”
Hypnosis was intriguing but unfortunately the small blue book was a bit of a letdown: page after page of dry discussion of the history, science and medical applications of hypnosis. Browsing through the book, I almost gave up in disgust. Then, after 50 pages of dross, I found a short hypnotic induction. I read it over and over until I’d learned it by heart. All I needed was a chance to practice.
My opportunity came at an odd little birthday party in Dungarvan. On one of my many trips back to the caravan, I’d met a sweet girl called Noreen, the daughter of one of Mother’s friends. She was petite with short black hair and a pretty oval face—a good Catholic girl, far too nice to be a real girlfriend. We went out for coffee and long walks during which I prattled on, sharing my thoughts and opinions on just about everything. I knew she had a crush on me; she listened attentively to every word I said, gazing up at me with big brown eyes. I felt brilliant in her presence.
Noreen turned sixteen and shyly invited me to her birthday party—just her closest girl friends from the Mercy Convent and me. I was horrified. Did those girls know I lived in the derelict caravan; had they witnessed me collecting water from the Mercy schoolyard? I wanted to say no, but Mother was adamant: this was her friend’s daughter and it would be rude to refuse.
Coaxed and harried, filled with dread, I knocked on Noreen’s door and was let in. The gathering was small and awkward—four strange girls, Noreen and me. After semi-silent tea and cake, we sat in the cramped living room playing half-hearted party games. The atmosphere was leaden; no one knew what to say or do.
Suddenly I surprised myself by saying, “Noreen, remember I was telling you about hypnosis?” It was one of the topics in my list of monologues. “Would you like to try it? It probably won’t work but it might be fun.”
Noreen’s friends got excited, pleading with Noreen to give it a go. With a sweet smile she gave in.
“All right, I’ll do it—as long as you don’t make me do anything stupid, like tell you my secrets.”
“Of course not.”
In my mind I thought she was silly to let me practice on her. I hadn’t a clue what I was doing but the hypnosis book said I had to sound confident—so I pretended to take charge.
“Lie down on the floor with a cushion under your head and relax. I’ll talk and you listen—that’s all there is to it. Start by focusing on a point on the ceiling.”
Noreen got settled, smoothed down her skirt and rested her hands on her stomach. The other girls perched expectantly around her head while I sat by her side and began the hypnotic spiel—hesitant at first but gaining in conviction as I saw Noreen relax and close her eyes.
“ … and ten, you are in a deep sound sleep, a deep sound sleep.”
Now I’d got myself into a spot: what should I do next? I had to come up with some harmless entertainment. I’d read and reread the book’s section on regression: Frequently, there appears to be a reliving of a past situation in the framework of the present. What could be a safe event to recall? Not a birthday or Christmas—too obvious. Then I had an idea: all convent girls had to have a First Holy Communion. It was an important community event.
“You are going back in time, getting younger and younger. It’s the morning of your First Holy Communion… How old are you?”
Noreen was silent for a long moment and I tensed up. Then she spoke in a high-pitched cheerful voice: “I’m seven. I’m going to be with all my friends.”
It worked! All I had to do was milk it. “Who are you with?”
“I’m with me Mam. Hey, there’s Fiona… Hi Fiona! You look so pretty in that dress.” She began to prattle on just like an excited seven-year-old.
Just then, one of the other girls burst out, “I remember that! We met in the street just outside the church.”
The other girls added their own memories, talking over each other while Noreen kept up a one-sided conversation with an imaginary Fiona. The room was getting noisy but Noreen didn’t seem to notice. She kept talking about her special day—detailing ordinary, mundane events—until I suggested she return to her current age and counted her down.
Her eyes opened but she looked dazed for a moment as if awoken from a distant dream. As her friends chatted on excitedly, she gave me a long thoughtful look. Then she joined the shared conversation and I was shifted to the sidelines. Still, I left her house feeling content; for once, I’d been the life and soul of the party.
With Danny, I was more confident, even cocky about the hypnotic sessions. I could simply count to three, click my fingers and he would fall into a kind of waking trance. At first, it was just fun. I asked him what he would most like to see.
“Sure, I’ve always wanted to visit New York City and climb the Empire States building.”
His wish was my command and soon he was Oohing and Aahing over the stunning view high over New York. I’d no idea what he was seeing—but he was excited and happy.
I wondered if Danny could be hypnotized during the day. We were sitting in a café one afternoon drinking Coca Cola and I asked him if he would like to have a stronger drink.
“Of course. It’d be great!” he answered. “Go for it.”
I did the finger-click thing and told him he was drinking whiskey and not Coke. His next swig made him clear his throat and smack his lips. By the time we left the café, he was slurring his words, staggering and hanging onto my shoulder. Was it hypnosis or simply Danny playing the fool? I couldn’t be sure.
Then it went too far. One of the new boys at the Home got on my nerves, messing around and making stupid remarks. We were in the sitting room—the idiot boy (I never got his name), Danny and myself—when I decided to test my powers. I did the finger-click and told Danny: “He’s annoying you; you need to fight him.”
Danny strode across the room and jumped onto the unsuspecting kid. There was a messy struggle for a few minutes. Sadly, Danny was no fighter and he ended up getting a black eye. I’d crossed a line: no more daytime pranks—we’d keep hypnosis for the night.
The evening sessions took an unexpected turn. Whilst under, Danny spontaneously began to describe images that came into his head. He spoke slowly, hesitantly and in a monotone, as if the words were dredged from a deep well.
“There’s a little boy at the bottom of a big stairs. He’s holding the hand of a nun.” The narrative always started in the same place.
“Who is the little boy?” I asked. No answer.
“What is the nun doing?”
“She’s taking him up the long stair.”
“What’s at the top of the stairs?”
“There’s a big room with beds. It has high windows with bars on the windows.”
Danny kept repeating the images as through stuck in a loop. What did they mean? Was it a dream or a memory? Two frustrating sessions later, I got more information.
“How old is the little boy?”
“He is three.” His voice was definite.
“What is he feeling?”
“He is sad—and lonely. He looks out the window.” His voice was flat.
“What happens after that?”
“Nothing… I want to go to sleep now.”
Question haunted me: What happened to the boy? Was he stranded there forever? What kind of place was it? Frustrated with the feeling of stuckness, I hit on a strategy. That night I suggested he go forward in time and tell me what he saw then. Danny was silent for long minutes. Eventually he spoke as if each word was dragged out of him.
“The nun is leading him down the stairs. There is a man and a woman. She takes him by the hand.”
Those were the last images. No matter what I asked or suggested, I couldn’t get any more. Putting the pieces together, I tried to come up with a coherent story: a three-year-old boy left in an orphanage run by nuns; he is shown up to a dormitory with barred windows. Sometime later, a couple comes and adopts him. Could this be Danny?
When I asked Danny about his life, he couldn’t remember his childhood. He mostly talked about how his Dad constantly needled him, calling him a “little bastard.” Those words enraged Danny. He would get into a state and then do something thoughtless that got him into trouble.
I formed a theory: what if Danny really was a bastard, born out of wedlock? Like so many women in Ireland, his mother might have been forced to take him to an orphanage. What if his mother then married and persuaded her husband to adopt the boy? Maybe the new father never accepted Danny. The puzzle all seemed to fit together.
Excited by my theory, I tried to tell Danny. To my surprise, he wouldn’t listen. I insisted; he simply turned away and wouldn’t speak. I coaxed and he walked out of the room. That night he refused hypnosis.
From that moment on, Danny would hardly speak to me and our friendship gradually dwindled. My attention had shifted elsewhere so I didn’t try hard to revive our close connection. About the same time, I’d made a new kind of friend—more intellectual, more worldly and more interesting.
One afternoon, I’d arrived home to find the boys circling excitedly around a young man of about twenty; he was dressed in a trim blue three-piece suit, white shirt and narrow black tie. Beneath slicked back dark hair, his thin, angular face was unremarkable, yet he commanded the room, magnetically drawing everyone’s eyes as he performed card trick after card trick.
“Crowd around. That’s it—get in closer. Pay attention,” he ordered in a controlled voice. I joined the other four boys to form a tight circle.
“See—nothing up my sleeves.” He took off his coat and pulled back starched white shirt cuffs fastened with gold cufflinks. He held the deck of cards in his left hand and showed the top card: the King of Diamonds.
“Look carefully at the card—just an ordinary card in an ordinary deck. You see the King, yes? You all agree it’s the King? Keep your eyes on the King.” He waved the pack of cards under each person’s nose, making sure we were satisfied.
“Watch closely.” With an elegant flourish of his right hand over the pack, the King vanished to reveal a nine of clubs. He turned over his right hand to show it was empty and flipped the last card in the pack to show it was not the King.
“Do it again,” said one of the boys.
He did it again—and again and again—effortlessly, tirelessly, with a fluid motion that was breath taking.
“How do you do it?” someone asked. “C’mon tell us!”
He smiled and another card disappeared right there in front of our eyes. No matter how I tried, I couldn’t work out how he did it—that was the mesmerizing and frustrating part.
Over tea, Michael told us he worked as a magician and made lots of money doing magic shows. He’d graduated from the boy’s home a couple of years back and was visiting to see what was up. Whenever he spoke, his gray eyes and a certain mysterious air held everyone’s attention. He was fascinating—and he knew it.
Michael started appearing at the boy’s home every few days and soon invited me to go for coffee. During long walks through the streets, we got into deep discussions and I found myself opening up to him. Here was someone who listened and understood, who could follow my wildest ideas, someone who was an intellectual equal.
Starved for intelligent conversation, my natural reticence fell away and I talked about everything: the meaning of life, radical politics, my hypnotic experiments with Danny, the family in Wales, my frustration with having to go to Dungarvan. Something in me let down and with it came a kind of elation at having found a real friend.
Then things got weird. One Saturday afternoon, Michael, Danny and I took the bus to Fountainstown, a small seaside town on the South coast. We packed sandwiches and a flagon of cider to lubricate our day out. After a long bus ride, we arrived at the beach, laid out our towels amongst the pink bodies, ate lunch and shared the cider. The day was hot so we braved the icy Irish Sea and splashed around in the shallows. Later, tired and happy we ran up the beach to dry off and get dressed for the bus ride home.
I’d hidden my trousers under my towel but when I put my hand in my pocket, it was empty: my tan pigskin wallet was gone. That wallet had travelled with me all the way from Cardiff, my one and only constant companion. Looking around the mob of parents and young children, no likely thief popped out. Trying to find the culprit was hopeless; my heart plummeted.
“It’s gone; my wallets gone! It had my bus ticket and all my money. Shit—what am I going to do?”
Michael’s response was calm and sympathetic. “It must have been taken while we were swimming.”
“The money’s not so important—it was only a couple of pounds—but the wallet was a birthday present from my Dad.”
“Maybe it’ll still turn up,” Michael said. “Someone might hand it in to the Guards. I can pay for your bus ticket home. Cheer up—don’t take it so hard.”
We walked up from the beach surrounded by people returning home from a happy day out. Once on the bus, I sat silent in a cloud of gloom. Leaving it on the beach like that—how could I be so stupid?
A week went by and I was returning home from work, lost in thought, still bummed but getting used to an empty pocket. All of a sudden, Michael was there at my side walking in step, dressed as usual in his trim blue suit. I noticed the cuffs were beginning to fray and wondered if he owned any other set of clothes.
“Guess what?” He sounded excited.
“Hi, Michael.” I kept walking, not in the mood for his enthusiasm.
“I put a notice in the newspaper about your wallet.” He stopped and made sure he had my attention. “Someone sent it to me. And here it is!” He popped a tan pigskin object out of his pocket with a magician’s flourish.
I stood there, bewildered. This isn’t right. It’s only been a week—not enough time to get anything in the mail. Maybe it’s one of his tricks.
I hesitated, then took the wallet and fanned it open. Yes, it was mine and it was empty.
“You mean some stranger sent it to you? Who was it; how did he get it?”
Michael was casual. “Oh, he didn’t tell me his name. Aren’t you glad to get it back? I knew it was important to you so I paid for the ad.” He seemed surprised I wasn’t overjoyed.
“So when did you advertise? Which newspaper?” I needed him to convince me he was telling the truth.
He gave some confusing explanation, just like his patter during his magic tricks. This time I was not distracted, not convinced. What’s he up to? Does he think I’d believe such a lame explanation? Then a realization hit: He’s not as smart as he seems; it’s all misdirection. Our conversations are simply me spouting off while he listens and makes the right noises.
Obviously he’d stolen my wallet and was returning it for some reason. Maybe he felt guilty or it was part of a bigger scam. Disgust welled up in my throat, but I didn’t say anything. What’s the use—I’d only get more flimflam. I thanked him coolly and turned to go home. He walked beside me for a while, then with a false farewell and a feeble excuse, he turned into a side street.
Michael didn’t appear at the Boy’s Home over the next few weeks. I was relieved; he was too tricky, too befuddling, like a juggler flipping my thoughts and feelings into the air. After an initial burst of outrage, I’d decided to let it go: I have my wallet; that’s all I want. I don’t have to think about him again.
That weekend I hitchhiked back to Dungarvan and did the chores as usual. Feeling relaxed because it was summer holidays and the girls weren’t in school, I was about to fill the buckets with water when I spied a familiar blue-suited figure in the distance. Suddenly the person turned on his heel and headed away from me.
I couldn’t believe my eyes; it was so freaky to see Michael here in Dungarvan. A shudder passed through me: I dimly recalled seeing a similar figure a few times in the past. My stomach erupted with a wave of outrage: He’s following me!
I shouted out, “Michael.” He turned and walked nonchalantly towards me. We met at the convent yard gate.
“What are you doing here?” I demanded. “Why are you following me?”
He paused. “Don’t you remember? You invited me to come.”
For a moment I was taken in: Have I talked to him about coming to Dungarvan? When did I do that? No—it can’t be true!
He saw doubt flicker across my face and quickly followed up: “You don’t remember because I hypnotized you. You’ve been in a trance all this time. That’s why you’re confused.”
Now I knew he was lying: he couldn’t have hypnotized me. He was befuddling me again, trying to mess with my mind!
A rush of anger rose from my stomach to my shoulders and instinctively, I raised the empty metal bucket, ready to smash it across his head. He stepped back in surprise, eyes wide.
“Fuck off. Fuck off,” I yelled in his face, loud enough for the whole street to hear. “I don’t want to see you ever again. Do you understand?”
His face turned white and wooden. Without a word, he spun on his heel and strode away. I watched him go—ready to attack—until he rounded the corner. In a daze, I turned on the water. As the bucket filled, the wild energy in my body drained away. By the time I lugged the heavy buckets back to the caravan, I was feeling quite elated.
Hypnosis and the Unconscious
Writing this, I found and reread, Hypnosis: Fact and Fiction, the book that started it all. It’s so pedantic I’m surprised I learned anything from it. There is something to be said for naiveté, the kind of innocent conviction that allowed me at 16 to do something I shouldn’t have been able to. Hypnosis is a sophisticated phenomenon and not to be messed with.
As a psychologist in my 30’s, I did extensive training in hypnotherapy, totally forgetting I’d done hypnosis so many years earlier. Knowing what I know now, I’m somewhat alarmed and hope my clumsy experiments did Danny no lasting harm. Still the questions haunt me: Was Danny illegitimate and adopted? Did his father hold some kind of unconscious grudge? Were his escapades indirect cries for help? I’ll never know, but I tend to believe my adolescent theory wasn’t far off the mark.
Many of us are burdened by forgotten traumas and lurking family secrets. They push and pull at us, warp our feelings and thoughts, make us do things that are basically self-destructive. Throughout our lives we are bedeviled by hidden aspects that have a mind of their own, by complexes and urges that rise unbidden from the shadows. Danny’s delinquent behavior is a prime example: unconscious forces overwhelmed his conscious personality and made him do ‘stupid’ things.
Regardless of what we believe, our unconscious holds the inherent reality of our experience. We mostly don’t need to know what it does, how it provides the underpinning of our sense of self, how it heals our body, integrates our perceptions and coordinates our actions. It quietly goes about its business of keeping us alive without recognition or attention. To keep it functioning, all we have to do is stay healthy and get enough sleep!
Think of our conscious experience as the images on the screen of a computer; the unconscious is all those hidden levels of intricate programming humming away in its processors. Only when something goes wrong or we get an error message do we need to access the programming in the system. Then, if we look at the program code, most of us are totally baffled. The strings of letters, numbers and signs make no sense because we cannot understand the language, just as we have trouble understanding dreams.
Trauma creates a glitch in our unconscious programming. Psychic disorders—anxiety, depression, addictions, etc.—are potent and persistent error messages. They tell us something is wrong with the system and our unconscious is unable to fix it. Our deeper self signals its stuckness through dreams, moods and puzzling reactions. If we fail to take its messages seriously, it shouts louder and louder, actively intruding into our conscious experience.
You might say psychotherapy is a process of reprogramming certain glitchy aspects of our unconscious—a kind of ‘debugging’. Most talk therapy engages the conscious ego of the client while the unconscious ‘listens in’ and learns what it needs. Hypnosis is a different approach; it bypasses the ego to speak more directly to the unconscious in its own language.
A hypnotic induction is slow, rhythmic, repetitive and somewhat boring. This deliberately shifts the ego out of its controlling role and allows the unconscious to rise close to the surface. The person is not asleep but they are not awake either—it is an in-between state of increased receptivity in which different information and abilities are available.
In hypnotic sessions, I have communicated with multiple personalities, retrieved traumatic experiences, relieved pain, soothed inflamed skin, resolved erectile dysfunction, helped heal physical disease and aided insomnia. Hypnosis is not a mystic art or a magic bullet; it does not always create miraculous results. The client has to trust the therapist and be willing and able to face difficult experiences and make necessary changes. Without trust and without motivation, hypnosis does not heal.
That is why Danny could go no further with our hypnotic sessions. He was not mature enough and I was certainly not trustworthy. Like a psychic immune reaction, he shrugged off my intrusive meddling in his unconscious. His inner self let me know in no uncertain terms that I was more an infectious bug than a healer.
Con-artistry and Gaslighting
When I think of Michael a vivid image comes to mind: the wily fox, Honest John, in the Disney cartoon Pinocchio. If you recall, he’s the sly sophisticated conman with a top hat and catchy song that leads Pinocchio astray. First he sells Pinocchio to Stromboli as a performer and later sells him into slavery on Pleasure Island. In the animated movie, Honest John is one of the most captivating characters, brimful with patter, tricks and stratagems—just like Michael.
What was Michael up to? I have no idea and doubt he really had a coherent plan. Michael was a brilliant card shark, adept at misdirecting attention and projecting his mesmerizing persona. He occasionally mentioned an unnamed magician who mentored him in magic; I wondered if that man might be the brain behind it all. My guess is that Michael was in training as a con artist, practicing his nascent skills on the naïve and gullible—and I was simply his latest mark.
Michael was not a true psychopath but he did have many sociopathic traits. Sociopathy is another term for Antisocial Personality Disorder (ASPD). In common usage, psychopaths are born without human feeling or conscience, while sociopaths develop a manipulative, deceitful approach to life primarily because of environmental factors. The fact that Michael made the mistake of returning my wallet marks him as more impulsive than unfeeling. Somewhere behind the mask was a damaged human being.
Why was he following me? Another guess: I intrigued him as much as he intrigued me. I was not your average Irish boy and he wanted to know if there was more to me than I let on. He projected his secretiveness onto me and searched for some hidden truth—or an angle that might give him leverage. Obviously unprepared to be caught and confronted, his Gaslighting assertion that I had been hypnotized was most likely an on-the-spot invention.
Gaslighting is a risky manipulation. It seeks to persuade the victim that they cannot trust their own mind, memory or perceptions. Only those in a position of authority and power can carry it off and it requires the victim to be insecure and uncertain. One of my clients was gaslighted by her husband: he was a psychiatrist and spiked her daily drink with a powerful drug. He almost persuaded her she was mentally ill—but she was too resilient to be misled for long.
Michael was clutching at straws when he said I’d been hypnotized. I knew he was Gaslighting me not only because there was no opportunity, but because of the hypnotic feeling. When I hypnotized Danny, there was always a strange tingling vibration in my body. I’d never experienced that feeling around Michael and instinctively knew he was lying.
There is a strange parallel between my relationship with Danny and Michael’s relationship with me. Both were manipulative; both had an imbalanced power dynamic. I intruded into Danny’s inner world until he rejected me. Michael intruded into my world and I rejected him. It was a powerful lesson for me.
Read the next chapter: 15 Stuck in the Mud
 Marcuse, F. L. Hypnosis: Fact and Fiction (1959), Penguin Books, England.
 The diagnosis of Antisocial Personality Disorder in the DSM-5 includes: failure to conform to social norms (breaking the law), lying, conning others for personal gain or pleasure, impulsivity, irritability, aggressiveness, recklessness, failure to meet responsibilities and lack of remorse for wrongdoings. Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (2013). American Psychiatric Association.