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'The Amazing Kreskin' Says Hypnotism Is a Gimmick That Belongs Onstage, Not in Court

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Last month, after Brig. Gen. James L. Dozier was abducted by Red Brigade terrorists from his home in Verona, Italy, his anxious wife, Judith, volunteered to undergo hypnosis in an attempt to recall repressed memories of the kidnapping. Increasingly, law enforcement officials in the U.S. and abroad have come to regard hypnotism not as a show business gimmick but as a method of unlocking the memories of cooperative witnesses. The New York Police Department employs two full-time hypnotists; Los Angeles police maintain a 20-officer unit trained in hypnosis and known as the Svengali Squad. The courts, however, seem less than mesmerized. Last year Arizona and Minnesota banned all evidence obtained by hypnosis, and court challenges to the validity of such testimony are being considered in six other states. One expert who supports the ban is Kreskin, the self-described “mentalist” and lecturer who insists that no one can truly be hypnotized. Last summer the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled in favor of limited admissibility of testimony given under hypnosis. Kreskin, 47 (he legally changed his name from George Kresge Jr.), drove to Trenton from his home 90 minutes away and staged a performance on the courthouse steps to demonstrate how easily a hypnotic trance could be faked. Recently he explained his position to Cable Neuhaus of PEOPLE.

Hypnosis has apparently proved helpful in certain criminal investigations. Why are you so opposed to its use?

The idea that people can remember better under hypnosis is wrong. Anyone can lie in his teeth under these conditions, and police who are questioning a witness under hypnosis can easily impart their own biases, wittingly or unwittingly. A question can be as powerful as a command. As a result, hypnosis is contaminating our criminal justice system.

When a person speaks in a hypnotic trance, isn’t his subconscious in control?

There’s no evidence that such a thing as a hypnotic trance even exists. If it does, why does the “hypnotized” person’s galvanic skin response not change? Why do his brain waves not change? Why can anything done “under hypnosis” also be done without it?

How do you explain away the fact that many people believe they have been hypnotized?

A person believes he is hypnotized because he is tricked or conned or intimidated. If he is in a trance, it is essentially the same thing as when a great actor holds you transfixed.

Is it possible these people are simply faking a response to the hypnotist?

The subject who looks as if he’s in deep hypnosis may not be faking. He’s imagining, and the more he imagines the more real everything seems to him. Some people think they’re in a trance because they are able to use their imaginations so well. It never dawns on them that they’re really wide awake. Kids don’t act as if they’re in a trance. They don’t know how to behave that way.

Do you deny that people often remember small, surprising details when under hypnosis?

No. When you think you’re in a trance, you may remember better, and for one reason: You’re relaxed. You begin with details you already know well. Then other details pop into your mind by simple association.

How do you explain the odd or embarrassing things people sometimes do during or after an apparent trance?

If you motivate, threaten or bribe people, you can get them to do the damnedest things. As a showman, I have people hallucinate onstage, regress to their childhood, forget their own names. I can do anything a hypnotist does, but I don’t hypnotize people.

Have you ever assisted police in investigating a criminal case?

About 80 times during the last four years alone. The first time was in the early ’60s, when I helped a witness to a New Jersey bank robbery recall the license number of the getaway car. The robbery was so traumatic for her that she blanked the scene out. But it was still embedded in her subconscious. By looking at the incident as in a movie, she felt more detachment and was able to recall the events.

Do you claim any psychic powers?

No. I’m a mentalist, not a psychic. I have no supernatural powers. I’m an entertainer who can alter the behavior of others and reveal what they are thinking. I’ve learned to harness people’s attention and take advantage of the faith-prestige relationship.

What is that?

It is a very subtle response in which the subject begins to believe so totally in what the other person is trying to transmit that he is not analyzing it away. The impact of suggestion is much more acceptable when the individual being “hypnotized” has a respect for the prestige of the other person. It’s similar to the physician-patient relationship.

Is your method fail-safe?

Hardly. I fail more often than the public realizes. But I’ve learned techniques of diverting people’s attention so they aren’t aware that I’ve failed. Anyway, there is drama in failure.

If hypnosis is suspect, why is it so frequently used?

Hypnosis today means dollars. It means people teaching courses. It has a mystique. Because modern society believes hypnosis exists, it expects results and sees results even where there are none. Heaven help us if videotapes of hypnosis sessions are shown in the courtroom. They’ll convince every judge and jury. It’s dramatic—but it’s hogwash.