Chasing It Down the Elevator Shaft to the Subconscious: Or, Getting Hypnotized



Flashes of light pulsing through the nebula surrounding the protostellar object LRLL 54361. Image from NASA‘s Hubble Space Telescope, public domain.

A little more than two years ago, an image appeared in my thoughts, which I took to be a memory. It first struck me randomly, while making lunch at home, but immediately the image felt familiar and well-worn, though I couldn’t concretely remember thinking about it in the past. It was a short clip of myself in bed, at my family’s home in Maine, when I was about seven or eight, peering out the window in the middle of the night and seeing an ambient white light coming from an uncertain origin above, flooding down like a curtain onto the field.

The image was almost certainly a false memory—perhaps derived from a dream—or some kind of psychological projection. But I’d been wrong in this assumption before: I once began to suspect that a story I’d told for decades, about being a baby model for a diaper company, was an odd fantasy that I’d inserted into my biography, but when I asked my mother, she confirmed that it was true. If only as an anomalous psychological object, one of uncertain provenance and meaning, the memory-image seemed worthy of investigation. But how do you investigate the origin of an image in your mind’s eye? It occurred to me that perhaps I’d found a reason to finally call on the services of my friend Louise Mittelman, a hypnotherapist. Hypnotism may have the mustiness of nineteenth-century spiritualism hanging over it, as well as associations both sinister (like the CIA’s MKUltra mind-control program) and cartoonish (think Rocky and Bullwinkle, spiraling eyeballs), but this all felt appropriate to the irreality of my investigation (and, for that matter, the irreality of our postpandemic moment). I texted her to make an appointment.

Louise belongs to a collective of practitioners, including psychotherapists, yogis, and herbalists, who work out of Get Right Wellness in Ridgewood, New York, an unassuming storefront just a few blocks from my home, marked only by a sign with two delicately drawn hands releasing a radiating sun, the letters GRW stamped in its center. When I arrived, I rang a buzzer labeled “Clarity,” and a minute later, Louise appeared. She made us each a cup of tea and walked me to her office, settling into a large orange chair beside a table on which sat a notebook and a small gold bell. I sat down across from her.

Hypnotism works, or doesn’t, to the extent that a patient is open to suggestion, and everyone has a different degree of “suggestibility.” “It’s a boon for hypnotists to be suggestible themselves,” Louise explained. “The way that I visualize hypnosis, it’s sort of like an elevator shaft into your subconscious.” Most of Louise’s hypnotherapy clients come to break a habit—often to quit smoking, which is a classic use of hypnotherapy and has a high success rate. She also helps people work through relationship issues, prepare for public speaking or exams, and wants to learn more about treating trauma. Some people come with more esoteric requests, though, particularly for past life regression therapy, which involves retrieving memories from previous incarnations of oneself—though, of course, the interpretation of these “memories” is highly contested. Louise told me about one of her own experiences, while she was getting certified at the Divine Feminine School of Hypnosis, of “dropping in” on what seemed like a past life. “I was in the twenties and I was this female jewelry maker, and I was wearing pants—what came through really clearly was the pants.” At lunch after the session, one of her classmates mentioned that she was working on a project Louise hadn’t been aware of, a movie about a female artist who’d popularized women’s pants. Like my own memory-image, the origin of Louise’s hypnotic vision was mysterious. I felt I was probably in the right place.

 “So, what’s the story of this memory? What was going on when it came up for you?” she asked. I told Louise that the memory-image of the light on the field had surfaced for me a couple of years earlier, amid the congressional hubbub over UFOs and after a friend became obsessed with them, all of which caused me to reflect more deeply on a different, entirely certain memory. In 2018, at the same house in Maine, my brother and I saw something weird: a single, unblinking white light arcing over the sky, like a satellite but too near, which then made a ninety-degree turn, as if instantaneously shifting from the x-axis to the y-axis, glowed red, and shot out of the atmosphere. Who knows what it was? As I reflected on this strange sighting, this image of a light over the field wheedled its way into or up from my mind.

Louise didn’t bat an eye. “You have this thing in you that you want to get out more clearly,” she said. “What’s the texture of the obfuscation?” Well, it’s either repression or not a real memory, I thought, but the question was actually about why I was suspicious of the memory-image at all. Sputtering for a minute, I said, “The same reason I’m wary about a lot of weird stuff—you want to appear employable.” But, she pressed, how did this memory fit into the larger dynamics of my life? Shit, I thought, is this whole thing somehow an unconscious response to my slow exit from academia? Or my father’s death, which occurred a year or so before I started contemplating the image? Is this all about releasing myself from certain standards and expectations? “I think what I’m really interested in,” I managed, “is trying to rebuild where I think the wall belongs between the acceptable and the unacceptable.”

As Louise instructed, I uncrossed my legs, put my feet firmly on the ground, sat back on the couch, and fixed my eyes on a point on the ceiling, feeling a twinge of apprehension. “Allow your eyes to rest on that place as you simultaneously focus on the sound of my voice,” she said. For a minute she described how it would feel to relax my eyes, and then she told me to close my eyes and snapped her fingers as she said it. She said waves of relaxation were streaming down my jaw, shoulders, clavicle, my arms and legs. “Noticing now that your arms feel heavy,” she said, “like marble.” I felt my arms go slightly dead with the word “marble.” It wasn’t that I couldn’t move them, I’m certain I could have, but it felt like I would have had to go back into them, as though I were a half step removed from my body.

Louise instructed me to go to my “anchor place,” a home base of calm and security that we’d chosen beforehand. I’d picked Jackson, Wyoming, where I once spent a summer hiking in the backcountry. I explored it in my mind’s eye and settled down on a fallen tree in a forest clearing. Louise then counted down from three, snapping her fingers with each number, encouraging me to visualize and inhabit this clearing below the Grand Teton. By the end, I could feel the temperature, hear the sounds of birds around me, and see the view in every direction. I’d had to consciously construct the scene, but after the snapping, a surprisingly vivid and comprehensive awareness of that world remained stably in place. It was as though I was looking in on a dream I could wake from at will, which Louise and my subconscious were constructing together.

Next, Louise told me to bring the memory-image of the light on the field into the forest clearing with me. As we counted down from ten, she said, the image would become clearer and clearer. She rang her gold bell. “Ten,” she said. “The image is getting clearer and clearer.” Ring. “Nine—clearer and clearer.” But I couldn’t incorporate the image into the scene. I felt analytic gears shifting, a soldier of rationalism appear at the crest of a hill, and I began consciously trying to force a representation. By the time she said “One,” the image appeared as a large, black-and-white photograph stapled to a tree. It was not alive like everything else in the scene, and I couldn’t animate it. I felt for a moment like the spell had been broken.

Louise asked me instead to imagine the thing blocking me from interacting with the image. Immediately a stone wall appeared in the middle of my clearing, like the ones scattered throughout the forests of New England, where I grew up. “What feelings are attached to this wall?” she asked. “A desire to climb over it, but also a feeling of safety from it,” I said. What does the wall protect you from? Fear? Confusion? “Fear of confusion,” I said. She told me then to locate where the fear of confusion lived in my body, and to my surprise, I instantly knew where it was and what it looked like—a slightly deflated blue-gray ball between my heart and stomach. It did seem like the endless second-guessing and searching of my consciousness had been dampened. The images came easily now, without intention, and I accepted them almost without question. How hypnotized was I? She told me that the semideflated ball would now appear in my right hand as a different object, and immediately I pictured a long, carved wooden candlestick, which I knew was somehow related to my paternal grandmother. When she told me to find in my left hand a symbol of my curiosity about the memory-image, a star appeared before my mind’s eye. I understood these to be Platonic images: the artificial light of the candle and the true light of the star were analogous to the fire and the sun in the allegory of the cave, which I have taught ten thousand times. Except—I realized after the fact—the star I’d seen had not been a ball of plasma, a star in the sky, but instead a Christmas ornament.

Louise had me mash my hands together and the star broke the candlestick in half, the triumph of curiosity over fear. We returned to my clearing in the woods. The stone wall had deteriorated. She suggested I apply the star energy to the wall, and it began crackling like Pop Rocks in your mouth. When it had disappeared entirely, the photograph on the tree shrank. Shrink it down even further, Louise instructed, let the image fly away. I imagined it zooming away from my sanctum, over the horizon, and I felt a sense of relief. “It doesn’t belong,” I said.

The sun was now setting in my scene. “Letting your intuition speak to you and give you a message about this memory, how do you want to relate to this memory?” I was disappointed, but not surprised, by the message that came to me: “Chase it.” It seemed like the only answer possible, and I later wondered if Louise had somehow suggested it to me. She counted us out of the hypnosis, this time up from one, again using the bell. At “Ten,” it was over. I noticed no transition as the trance ended.

I never expected to discover whether the image is a memory of something real or not—I don’t think I’ll ever know. But since visiting Louise, I’ve developed a healthier attitude toward the unknown. What the hypnotic session clarified is that the meaning of the image, whatever its provenance, lies in an anxiety about abandoning established beliefs. The memory-image appeared as an invocation to tear down and rebuild the walls of my understanding, the distinctions and categories through which “reality” is worked out in the first place. The death of a parent, the derailment of a career, the apparent collapse of a society—in the midst of these world-breaking experiences, it’s another “I,” one that is not governed by our conscious mind, that is called on to reorder reality. The light on the field emerged as a symbol of this irreal process of reordering, under the influence of which one might also be better able to confront the meaning of a UFO making a right-angle turn, and recognize other signs that things are not what they appear. Such aberrations, like Gramscian monsters, are figures in the struggle to birth a new world. Even if it doesn’t make sense, or feels like a futile adventure, it must be worth chasing them.


Jeremy Butman is a writer and academic who has been published in The Believer, Los Angeles Review of Books, the New York Times, and elsewhere. He is currently working on a book about anomalous experiences for Strange Attractor Press.