One day two years ago, my boyfriend told me I seemed unhappy. "You're such a lackluster smoker," he said. "You do it so halfheartedly."

"Please don't smoke," he said. "I don't want you to die of cancer."

So when a friend told me about the Mad Russian, I googled him.

Even the most cursory Google search makes it difficult to take commercial hypnotism seriously: most non-medical hypnotists look like straight-up creeps. Their Web pages often incorporate clouds, disembodied eyes, pocket watches, and other disreputable stock photos. The default facial expression of hypnotists in publicity shots falls somewhere between Bob Dole and Bela Lugosi.

The Mad Russian, more properly known as Yefim Shubentsov, is an exception. He doesn't even have his own Web site, or do any advertising at all. He doesn't call himself the Mad Russian, though that's how he's referred to by Yelp, TripAdvisor, and USA Today. He also doesn't call himself a hypnotist, though he's widely known in the field. Instead, he claims to use something called "bio-energy" to cure people of their wicked habits.

"When people doesn't know what I'm doing, they call it simple, typical work," he told me in a phone call some months after my visit. "They try to give explanation that's simple and easy. Hypnotists are supposed to put in mind this idea. You remember, I removed pain from everybody who had."


YOU ARE GETTING SLEEPY

"He says he doesn't do hypnosis, but most people think it's a kind of hypnosis," counters Lorna McKenzie-Pollock, a Brookline-based therapist who uses hypnosis as part of her practice.

"He says he does bio-energetic healing, but people think that what's really happening is that he's doing some sort of hypnosis thing that sets an expectation, so that when he does whatever he does, that people have been given the expectation that it's going to be effective, and so it is."

McKenzie-Pollock is a licensed social worker and therapist. When I went to meet her, I found a white-haired, bespectacled baby boomer for whom hypnosis is just another way to do her job.

Half of McKenzie-Pollock's practice consists of hypnosis. She specializes in treating habit-forming behaviors like smoking and skin-picking, as well as anxiety and phobias. Hypnosis, she says, can be very effective for habitual behaviors.

"If you're in hypnosis and there's a suggestion that you don't want to smoke anymore, you'd be much more receptive than [you would be] in a waking state," she says.

Receptive, or biddable, or prone. No matter how susceptible McKenzie-Pollock's patients are to her whims, she practices permissive hypnosis, collaborating with her patients on what the patient wants to do while in a hypnotic state.

"I don't say, You are in a traaaaance," she explains, putting on her best Dracula voice.

McKenzie belongs to two professional organizations that exist, in part, to prove the doubters wrong. The ranks of the American Society for Clinical Hypnosis and the New England Society for Clinical Hypnosis are both comprised exclusively of mental-health professionals.

"People who are trained, clinical hypnotherapists believe very strongly that you should be a trained clinician to practice hypnosis," she says. "It's very powerful, and there can be adverse effects because people are very suggestible while they're in hypnosis."

On the other hand, she says there are organizations like the National Guild of Hypnotists that train anyone who will pay for it.

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