“Tell me about your earliest memory,” says Rachel, co-founder of Manhattan’s Neuro-linguistic Programming Center, as we begin our first session of hypnotherapy.
I tell her I have just two memories of childhood: the night my father died and the day our house burned in a fire. I am seeking to remember something else, anything else, from my life before I was eleven.
“So, your very first memory is of your father’s death?” Rachel asks. “We have a lot to look at.”
I used to think hypnotism was a show. Entertainment. For Valentine’s Day one year, J.C. Penney ran a commercial featuring a luminous diamond heart, swinging on a chain, held by a hand wrapped in a sleek black cuff. “Shiny, isn’t it?” asked a deep, sexy male voice. “You love how it looks. You think I’m the perfect man.” As if hypnotism, just sound and rhythm, could propel a person out of her consciousness and into someone else’s.
In hypnotherapy, however, patients enter a trance-like state in order to confront problems like panic disorders and addictions, the roots of which, hypnotherapists believe, reside in the unconscious mind. To a hypnotherapist, the unconscious is also the realm of memory, and only when it is “unlocked” can long-forgotten memories flood into consciousness.
Memory, like so many mysteries, invites such a metaphor. It has been likened to a tape recorder, copying the entirety of our lives onto the brain’s folds, or a library, housing neat rows with thousands of volumes, as if you could browse through the titles and pull one out to peruse. But neuroscience has proven these descriptions to be misleading. Neuroscience, that is, and an accident. In 1953, a twenty-seven-year-old man named Henry was robbed of his memory when his hippocampus was sucked out of his brain through a metal straw. Meant to relieve him of epileptic seizures, the operation robbed him of an autobiography instead. The botched surgery was tragic, but it provided science with the key ingredient to memory: Without his hippocampus, Henry was unable to form new memories.
I want to believe my hippocampus is chock-full of memories just waiting to be unleashed. But it doesn’t work that way. The hippocampus stores patterns of neuron firings by which we see mental images. When we remember an image later, whether by chance or choice, it’s because the hippocampus activates that pattern again. Various neurons around the brain follow their orders to fire across synaptic clefts, and a picture comes to mind. We recognize it as a memory, attend to it, and might even feel emotional about it. Most of the time, we let it quiet again, and our attention moves on.
I can’t stop reading about the hippocampus. I want to touch it, massage it, plump it up with vitamins. People say it looks like a seahorse. So many diagrams color it green that it starts to look, to me, like a sugar snap pea pod. I’ve read in stories with unsettling titles in journals and on websites about child abuse that explain emotional stress might cause physical damage to the brain, including the hippocampus. I had an MRI several months ago to investigate some symptoms of minor hearing loss, and I took the pictures back to my apartment. Now I pull them from the filing cabinet and search for evidence of reduced hippocampus size. Has my pea pod shrunk? I can’t even find the hippocampus on the scans, but I pin one to the bulletin board above my desk.
Memory shifts, far too fluid and dynamic to pull out neatly. We don’t just dig around a mental storage box for slides and hold them to the light. But we can, according to hypnotherapists, attempt to reactivate the stored patterns, particular neuron firings that have lain dormant for a long time. We can consciously offer ourselves images from the past.
I’ve signed up for three hour-long hypnotherapy appointments. I’m in no position financially to sign up for more. But Rachel, in her fifties with an auburn bowl-cut and well-tailored pantsuit, seems to think three is a magic number. Enough to get me started.
“All hypnosis is self-hypnosis. You learn how to give yourself suggestions,” she said.
The steps for hypnotherapy: one, enter a state of relaxation; two, travel back in time; three, focus on pleasurable childhood memories. I don’t understand the mechanism, so I look around for Rachel’s device. Obviously there’s no diamond pendant, but maybe a metronome? But it’s a stark place. In the waiting room I sit in the lone metal chair with its cracked black leather seat, listening to a fan in the ventilation system rumble loudly overhead. The office contains just a couch, a large black armchair, Rachel’s desk and bookshelves stuffed with volumes on the process: The Patterns of Her Magic. Sleight of Mouth. Words That Change Minds.
I sink deeper into the soft yellow sofa and let my hands fall to my sides. I try to see myself hopping from happy memory to happy memory as if they are lily pads.
“Hypnotherapy is kind of like age regression,” Rachel says.
I consider the effort it will take to regress in age, like swimming upriver to earlier times. We talk about the riverside village where I grew up.
“Water must mean something to you,” Rachel says. Asking question after question, she writes details on her steno pad: the names of my three sisters, the games we might have played as children, the fact that I play music, all particulars she can use to guide me. Then she describes age regression as a plunge, like Alice’s “falling down the rabbit hole.” That’s comforting—Alice’s fall was hardly a struggle—but a little unnerving, too. Down, down, down. Would the fall never come to an end?
Rachel says we’re ready to begin, and offers me a choice of seats. I move to the big leather chair with high arms and close my eyes, sitting perfectly still, my feet planted on the ground, my hands planted on my thighs, elbows perched on the arm rests. I concentrate on Rachel’s voice, now at a lower register. Her words ebb and flow in volume but they don’t stop. Like the ocean, she’s never completely silent. Her voice reminds me of the nature music played in spas—insistently gentle. This must be Rachel’s device, just her voice. I follow it down the rabbit hole. Even the noise of traffic on East 12th Street disappears. It’s not muffled; it’s erased.
My hands and feet fall asleep. Rachel asks me to decide which finger seems like “yes” so that I can indicate to her when I want to speak. I am absolutely sure that my right forefinger means “yes.” I struggle to raise my heavy finger from its slumber. My left thumb is going to be “no,” and my left pinky, “I don’t know.”
Rachel tells me to choose a memory from recent times. Focusing on my first homeroom as a teacher, I watch my students run around the playground, dodging equipment, bumping into one another. I’m about to move on when Rachel tells me to stay there longer. Adam’s light blue polo shirt with a paint stain on the sleeve. Kristen cross-legged against the brick wall, her white-blonde head close to Joanna’s, both girls whispering intently. They are five. I’m new at this. I can’t guess at what they are whispering about because I was never five-years-old. I’m twenty-four in the memory.
“Go a little younger now,” Rachel says.
As Rachel speaks, my mind drifts backwards. I’m adding green spiked hair to the sketch of a protester, part of a mural we’re painting on a seminar room wall in college. Now I’m zipping up a pale pink silk gown, my costume as Glinda the Good Witch in my high school senior musical. At Rachel’s urging, I stay long enough in each scene to fill it in with sounds and smells.
“Feel the rise and fall of your breath as it widens and deepens,” Rachel says. “Your mind holds the key to unlocking your memories.”
High school hallway.
“Just open it up like a book. Look at the different chapters of your life.”
Opening my locker.
I’m in the southeast corner of the freshman wing, in front of my pale green locker on the upper row. A window is behind me—the locker is even uglier in the bright sunlight. What is inside? I still know the combination: 24, 12, 27.
“Through these chapters you are going back in the past.”
Three friends are at my house. I’m thirteen or fourteen. We’re recording a cassette tape of ourselves, singing and cracking jokes. It’s so funny. I’m laughing. A wool sweater scratches at my neck. My chest, light and full, expands with giggled breaths.
“All different chapters.”
Piano bench. Nervous to play.
How long have I been sitting here? Five minutes? A half hour? I try to open my eyes but can’t. I lift my eyebrows like a stage curtain but my eyelids won’t follow. A thick sponge separates me from Rachel’s office. Her voice suspends me between consciousness and unconsciousness. I’m on a rope, deep in the rabbit hole but not letting go completely.
“All different ways of discovering your stored memory.”
Skunk cabbage by the brook behind our house. It smells awful.
The mountain laurel branches hang so low they touch the ground. I can hide in here, gazing at the sunlight that filters through the trees. I can always get out again.
I’m ready to talk. Eyes still closed, I tell Rachel about the skunk cabbage and the brook, as sweet barbecue smoke wafts through the trees and mingles with the must of the woods. What a wonderful smell, a barbecue.
“The memory is so close to you. It’s right there.”
I rest by the brook, contemplating skunk cabbage, its huge leaves a brilliant tropical green.
The dinner table.
I’m in my assigned seat. My sister Debbie is across from me, Tammy to the right, Beth diagonal. They are so young, in pigtails. My cup is in front of me, but there is no plate yet.
Spaghetti sauce on the stove, I can smell it. I think it’s been simmering all afternoon.
I tell Rachel I’m at the table.
“Allow yourself to explore all the different ways of being with your family. You know what those dinners are like, where you sit, what the rules of the table are.”
The garage door is opening. It’s loud.
This can’t really be happening. Or it can be, because it did, a thousand times over. I know that garage door. I open it each time I visit my mother. It’s on a rope and pulley system and it makes a great rumbling sound.
The side door is opening, the one from the garage into the house. My sisters erupt in cheers. “Daddy’s home!”
It can’t be Daddy. He’s dead. But my sisters are so excited that he’s home.
I sense him, just around the corner.
I wait for him but he doesn’t come in. He is there, just around the corner. Why doesn’t he come into the room? To have dinner? To see me?
Come around the corner, Daddy. Come around the corner.
“It’s time to come back,” Rachel says.
Slowly I wake, as if from a catnap, to horns on East 12th Street. The hour has passed.