As a 10-year-old hypnotist in Pittsburgh in the 1940s, Frank Genco earned cigarettes by mesmerizing neighborhood teen-agers for fun.
Now, Genco has changed his act, coming full circle to lead growing numbers of hypnotists who use the technique of relaxation not for laughs but to help clients steady their nerves, control pain or stop bad habits--including, as it happens, smoking.
Genco's transition mirrors that of the hypnosis profession itself.
When the National Guild of Hypnotists was formed in New Hampshire in 1951, 90% of its members were stage performers, with only a few dozen therapists.
That situation is now reversed, says president Dwight F. Damon, and the membership has grown tenfold, to 5,000.
Hypnotists in Orange County and across the nation are eager to get a bigger slice of the $10 billion or so that Americans spend out-of-pocket annually on alternative therapies, including chiropractic, acupuncture, biofeedback, massage and herbal medicine.
Local schools and colleges are happy to oblige.
Orange Coast College has had a community education class in hypnosis since 1986.
And the American Institute of Hypnotherapy in Irvine, which contends it is the nation's largest hypnosis school, confers 1,000 certificates annually. The number of graduates at the 13-year-old school increases each year, says the institute's Bob Strouse.
The school had a big influx of marriage and family counselors and psychologists about 18 months ago, when President Clinton's health care plan was being debated, Strouse says. "The reason is that one of Clinton's proposals was to only pay for short-term mental health coverage, and hypnotherapy is a very popular short-term technique," he says.
Because the therapy is so quick--generally three sessions at $65 to $85 per hour--customer turnover is high. To reach new clients, many hypnotists tailor their ads to specific health and vanity concerns.
Laurie H. Miller's Hypnosis Concepts in Irvine, for example, offers to help clients relax, stop smoking or control their weight. The Benjamin Moss Hypnosis Center, also in Irvine, lately has emphasized hypnosis' potential to help people pass tests. Memory improvement, painless birthing and relief from phobias are other angles. Even breast enlargement is possible, some hypnotists claim, citing the ability of the subconscious mind to shunt blood, which promotes tissue growth, from one area of the body to another.
Kent Peppard, a clinical psychologist in Irvine, went to Moss a year ago to help prepare for a written exam for his psychologist's license.
"I needed increased retention so I could study longer," Peppard says. "Some people use hypnosis to lower their anxiety when they're taking a test, but I didn't really need that. I had three sessions, and I was able to increase my study time to 12 hours a day and passed the test the first time."
For clients who fear test situations, Moss first builds their confidence. "Then I use hypnotic suggestion to enhance focus and concentration, and the third step is positive visualization--getting rid of the image of freezing when walking into the test room," Moss says.
Even though hypnotherapy has been endorsed by the American Medical Assn. since 1958, the first order of business with many new clients, practitioners say, is correcting misapprehensions about hypnosis.
Some therapists complain that much damage has been done by Hollywood films, with their nightmarish images of evil-eyed necromancers rendering victims helpless, and decades of stage acts, in which audience members clamber onstage to take part in sometimes humiliating procedures.
James Harder, who uses hypnotherapy as part of his psychology practice in Newport Beach, says stage presentations are nothing but "a carny act" and have caused some clients to come to him "terrified of being made to quack like a duck."
But Genco maintains that some of his clients are people who had been so impressed by stage hypnotists that they came in for therapy. Some of these people, especially teen-agers, believe their hypnotic experience is not complete without the use of spiraling discs or blinking lights. Genco, who practices full-time hypnosis from offices in Covina, keeps some gadgets on hand, but says they're generally used by novice hypnotists who lack confidence.
There are at least 1,000 ways to hypnotize people, Genco says, and bring them to that state of deep relaxation that renders them highly susceptible to suggestion. As the conscious mind, with its various fears and agitation, becomes quieted, the innate healing properties of the subconscious become more effective and can even be "reprogrammed," practitioners say.
Harder points out that most people experience hypnosis daily without even realizing it.
"Whenever you're driving a car but thinking of something else at the time, you're subconsciously driving the car, and that's hypnosis," he says.
Hypnosis is not sleep, a spell or mind control; clients remain alert and cannot be forced to act against their will, Laurie Miller says. "Remember, people who get up onstage during performances and do silly things want to be up there," she says.
Still, Miller and Harder say that hypnotists who have only minimal training should refer clients with psychological problems to a state-licensed mental health counselor. No license or other certification is required to practice hypnosis.
Hypnotists, Miller says, "need to be careful with words; you can give a suggestion that someone takes the wrong way."
People who learn hypnotism through local schools should focus on simple things--such as helping clients to stop smoking or raise self-esteem, Miller says. "They should leave the deeper work to specialists."
The practice of hypnotism has suffered some setbacks recently in Southern California.
In 1992 in San Diego County, three school districts banned performances by hypnotists at school assemblies after a teacher at Carlsbad High School noticed one of her students having trouble staying awake in class following the show. The girl was taken to a local hospital, where she was brought out of the apparent trance.
Then, last May, a jury decided that some therapists in Orange County, using hypnosis and sodium Amytal, had negligently "reinforced" an Irvine woman's emerging memories that her father had raped her as a child. The decision led to a review by many mental health professionals of their use of hypnosis and the drug, which lowers a patient's inhibitions.
But such incidents are more than countered, practitioners say, by the numerous unpublicized benefits rendered daily by hypnosis.
The simple stress-reducing benefits of hypnosis have long been used in dentistry and obstetrics, as well as in a variety of business settings to improve productivity and morale.
Fleming's Fundamentals of Law, a Mission Viejo firm that helps law graduates pass the bar exam, has a hypnotist on staff, as do other such companies.
"We started using hypnotists in 1985 for relaxation and stress reduction," says director Jeff Fleming. "Since 25% of the bar exam is mental [preparation], I'm a big believer in anything that reduces stress."
Cancer patients also make use of the technique.
David Robertson, 48, an engineering technician from Huntington Beach who has colon cancer, began hypnotherapy with Harder recently to combat pain.
"I sit down, relax. Doctor Harder turns down the lights and begins by asking a few questions. What we're doing is trying to reduce the pain through relaxation tapes and mental imaging," says Robertson.
"If I have problems with my back, we take a [mental] journey to my back; if I have pain in my stomach, we take a journey down my throat to my stomach. I imagine myself firing a gun or laser beam at the tumors inside my body. It builds my confidence and self-control."
Robertson says audiocassettes made for him by Harder help him relax and get the deep sleep he needs. "I relax myself to where the pain goes away."
Hypnosis' ability to affect the body is perhaps best demonstrated by the marathons that Genco participates in each year. Although his right leg was amputated when he was a child, Genco, 60, has finished 36 marathons, using a special skate and metal crutches and competing in his own unique division.
"I've run the L.A. and New York marathons, and I finish in under four hours," says Genco, who takes time to entertain spectators along the way.
"When I'm at the 20-mile point, I'm in a hyper-suggestible state, and then is when it happens. I hypnotize myself and convince myself I have the energy to finish."