Scenes from a Life: How Dr. Dean Saved my Fingernails

It was round about 1976, and back then schools took liberties with the kids' safety and dignity that would be inconceivable today. Without forewarning the parents or issuing permission slips or even considering whether this was a good idea at all, our small school brought in a locally renowned night club hypnotist to entertain at a morning assembly. As we sat on the bleachers with baited breath, Dr. Michael Dean cast his piercing eyes across the assembled hundred and thirty students and somehow picked out the twenty most likely (and impressionable) candidates for an hour of hilarity and humiliation, seventies-style.

Swaying like a human pendulum, Dr. Dean repeated his mantra in a resonant bass voice: "Way down. Deeper and deeper asleep. Your eyes are getting heavy. So heavy. Way down…," until the twenty were largely lulled into submission. Where hypnosis left off and compliance due to peer pressure and expectations began is anyone's guess. One student was asked to act like a chicken and willingly clucked and flapped. One of the older girls sang "Bennie and the Jets" at the top of her lungs. A future Harvard man was made to crawl like a toddler, suck his thumb, and sit on the lap of the singing hypnotist while he crooned "Danny Boy." The rest is a blur, hideous images of teenagers made to look like fools fortunately lost to memory.

However, all of this put us in mind of hypnosis, for good or evil. At the next sleepover, a batch of us girls decided to try it on ourselves despite warnings about the dangers. The logical hypnotist was (let's call her) Marie, whose father was a psychiatrist, which by osmosis made her the one most qualified to tap into our brains. Fortunately, this girl, who later played Glinda in the high school play, was a good witch even then. Her object was to use the power for good. When she called for volunteers, I asked to be cured of biting my fingernails. Marie used her own soothing pattern of words, and all the girls crowded around, watching to make sure I fell under her spell. Of course I didn't. But like the kids on stage, I obeyed various instructions, such as repeating words, answering questions, and lifting my arms. Finally, she instructed me that whenever I had the urge to bite my nails, I was to think of blue mountains and green gorillas. And then she "woke me up."

That was the day I stopped biting my nails, not because of photosynthetic primates on smurf-colored hills, but because everyone expected me to. For weeks, they would be inspecting my hands and asking for progress reports. I couldn't let them down. I couldn't burst the bubble. We were too invested in believing in the power of hypnotism, because the alternative was to conclude that all our friends had willingly performed those embarrassing antics.