Hypnosis, man, is the art of making people do dumb sh!t on stage. A subject I explored when I visited my sister this week, while she sat on her sofa recovering from chemo, and we reminisced about a childhood experience we shared. Her kids at their grandmother’s, we had some time to catch up. And I was glad for conversation away from her painfully thin frame, away from talk of the pancreatic cancer growing inside her.
Many years back, my dad took my sister and I to a show. Max Collie. An old legendary hypnotist who made a career out of convincing people to puck like chickens… in front of a live studio audience.
I was about nine at the time, and excited. It was pure magic: a guy who’d zone you out, creating illusions in your own mind. All with simple instructions. Then click his fingers and you’d surrender your dignity before your friends and family.
On some level, I couldn’t believe it. Until I saw it.
Mr Collie asked everyone in the audience willing, over the age of 13, to follow his words, and become part of the show they’d paid to see. This wizened old man – with a balding dome, surrounded by Einstein shocking grey hair, and quivering moustache – commanded all those under his sway to meet at the stage’s base.
I was delighted when my own father stood to his feet in a trance, shuffling zombie-like towards Max Collie.
Wizard indeed. A short man, yet Mr Collie carried Gandalf’s towering presence.
My sister, seven, and I exchanged glances across the empty seat. How exciting!
Imagine my father: a reserved man with a calm centre; a sense of steady power that came with running his own law practice; hardly ever cross with his children, but decisive in tone when we stepped out of line… who suddenly becomes a show piece for a midget magician – a blank slate to be reprogrammed at will – and performing inanely entertaining acts.
Because that’s what happened.
Mr Max Collie, using sorcery cast through his voice, had the flesh-and-blood marionettes dancing on stage. Had them trying to wee desperately like puppy dogs, with legs raised against imaginary fire hydrants. Had one person stick a pin in his arm without feeling pain. Had a heavy smoker sputter on a cigarette like they’d just sucked Satan’s codpiece.
All manner of silly, interesting and, at points, beneficial things.
I heard the memory of Obi-Wan Kenobi in my ear: “These are not the droids you’re looking for.”
Here was compact Mr. Max Collie, the human equivalent of Master Yoda.
I was lying on my bed, hair length down to my shoulders, oily, yuck, reading a book on self-hypnosis, while I awaited the arrival of my art-student girlfriend, Emma, at my dorm. I was immensely fascinated, obsessed with the subject after all this time, years since I first witnessed it. Weed must have reeked off my clothes. During my first-year varsity, I smoked more bud than a light aircraft carrying Buddy Holly’s entourage.
I wanted to understand why hypnosis. Why it was possible. How it worked. What it could do. The boundaries of it. The sheer power of it.
There was a period in the eighties and early nineties when hypnosis was regarded almost as this mythical art…
That’s faded away. Parlour tricks, brushed under the rug. Nothing to write home about.
But I remembered. I would never forget. And hypnosis was done to me, too, in my high school year of 1998. While killing time during a free period in the library, our resident mage, Daryn Chaucer, put a group of us into awakened slumber.
He’d done a hypnosis course. A couple of people I knew had. None of them were any good at it. Except him; he was talented AF. He told us to do the weird ninja-like hand gestures, follow his voice, blah, and tapped us on our heads, suddenly issuing commands. I felt… odd…
His words wormed into my mind: “You don’t remember your name.”
Some of my classmates congealed around me like blood, pestering my person with: “What’s your name? What’s your name?”
I couldn’t say it.
But I could picture it, in my mind’s eye, in bold letters. I just… couldn’t… say… it… There was a weird block that immobilised my tongue in spasming paralysis.
Though I wasn’t in a deep state of hypnosis. I was still aware of my surroundings, of people, still experienced insight into everything. I didn’t want to be enthralled to the whims of another, as my father was.
I couldn’t let this stand.
Dad and the other marionettes were told to go back to their seats. Max Collie commanded them not to remember a thing, but following the show’s interval, Max only had to snap his fingers, and they would all return to his command.
We were instructed by the wizard not to tell our loved ones during the break what happened, even though we’d be tempted to.
Still, my sister and I, impishly grinning, couldn’t help but ask Dad what he thought of the show, as we all stood in the foyer of the theatre. He shook his head, a bit confused, and said he wasn’t sure, he couldn’t remember.
It was surreal. He was completely normal, speaking to us just like… our dad, whose judgement we trusted and whose ability to discern reality we trusted, yet he lacked complete insight and memory into his own actions over the past hour.
I was desperate my whole life to understand the nature of our conscious stream of thought. You know, the words we write in our minds as we go about our lives, as we experience the moment-to-moment, the conversations we have with ourselves… And it… could be… so disrupted..? Altered? Reprogrammed by a man we met mere moments ago?
If it were anyone else, someone I didn’t know at the show, I might remember it now as a sham, rewriting events of wonder as rationally explained occurrences…
Except that I couldn’t say my name – many years later in high school – at the library, though I could remember it… Jay… Dee….
And I brought those two syllables together, saying them separately at first, magnetically pulling them closer and closer until I called it out. Jay. Dee. Jaydeeee. J.D.
I was out of Daryn’s control.
I was awake.
Then in my university first-year, the attempt to learn self-hypnosis didn’t quite work out – doing the book’s exercises only brought on a slumber. I was fast asleep when Emma knocked on my door rather loudly. I let her in, and she tersely informed me I was being dumped for a bartender.
A chap who had no prospects for the future: he’d recently been booted out of varsity for failing the most basic requirements.
Ironically, he ended up serving a great deal of the cheap whisky I drank as I mourned the demise of my relationship.
“It’s not you,” he said. “It’s me.”
He did have swirly eyes, so I understand why Emma ended us. And, as per the universal agreement between bartenders and bar patrons everywhere, he was an excellent listener.
I have a way of babbling on, causing peeps to zone out (sorry about that), but Max Collie did it succinctly, and in the second half of his show, my dad was within a heartbeat brought back under his thrall.
Max the magician asked my dad who he was at the show with. “My children.” Spotlight on us briefly.
Max programmed him with a code to re-interpret everything the magician said (to the audience) as a grievous insult to his daughter – my sister. He sent my father back to his chair and suddenly he was Dad again.
Then the quivering moustache of Max spoke into the mic; it was generalities as I recall. But every single word spiralled Dad up in tension.
The magician went on talking. My normally calm, reserved father started shaking in his seat, then leapt to his feet. “How dare you say that about my daughter!”
Everyone stared at us. My father is wide-shouldered, and carries a presence I never inherited, a booming voice I did, and he yelled a war cry I’d never heard before.
This rage from a stoic, quiet man, unbridled, with the utmost desire to protect his family was astonishing to watch… He loped through our row of seats, legs pumping down the aisle, feet hitting the steps of the stage, bounding up onto the platform, meaty fist raised, powered to obliterate Max Collie’s head, now mere inches from him…
But the wizard said one word.
My God-like father dropped instantly, as if bereft of life.
The old diminutive wizard standing over him brimmed with electrified power.
Even now, 25 years later, Dad shows the same determination and resolve to do anything to save his daughter – such as from the cancer eating her away. “We will fight this!” he told me after I heard the terrible news two months ago. “We won’t let it win! We will do everything we can!” Hypnotically, we’re completely convinced we’ll overwhelm this malevolent entity with the pure strength of our minds. We believe in a miracle of willpower – one to spare our family what pancreatic cancer has reaved from all others.
A power that flies in the face of all reason. A power that defies reality.
But I’ve seen it cast only once before.
And the caster is long dead now. The age of wonders is no more.