Erickson's Stories

"The Boy Will Be Dead By Morning"

I graduated from high school in June 1919. In August, I heard three doctors, in the other room, tell my mother, "The boy will be dead by morning." (Erickson had his first poliomyelitis infection at age seventeen).

Being a normal kid, I resented that.

Our country doctor had called in two Chicago men, as consultants, and they told
my mother, "The boy will be dead by morning."

I was infuriated. The idea of telling a mother that her son would be dead by morning! It was outrageous!

Afterwards, my mother came into my room, bland of face. She thought I was delirious, because I insisted that she move the large chest in my room, in order for it to be at a different angle beside the bed. She put it beside the bed one way and I kept telling her to move it back and forth, until I was satisfied. The chest was blocking my view through the window---and I was damned if I would die without seeing the sunset! I only saw half of it. I was unconscious for three days.

I didn't tell my mother and she didn't tell me.

Erickson told m this touching story in 1970, when I had come to him asking for help in improving my memory for names and in recovering childhood memories. I immediately recalled some childhood memories---of my own bout with a serious febrile illness, scarlet fever. But my desire for a better memory for names was not to be fulfilled. It was only later that I realized that he was indirectly suggesting that I accept this limitation. His suggestion was also conveyed in a story about his father's comment at his mother's funeral.

"And at my mother's funeral, my father remarked, 'It was nice to have seventy-four wedding anniversaries with one person. It would have been nicer to have seventy-five, but you can't have everything' ".

Through that story and also through the preceding one, he is telling us, indirectly, that we are lucky to be alive.

In his reference to the chest and the sunset, he was also conveying one of his favorite prescriptions for enjoying life, perhaps even for prolonging it! "Always look to the real goal, in the near future." In this case, his goal was to see the sunset. Of course, before this goal could be achieved, it was necessary to move the obstacle. Since Erickson could not do this himself, he needed to get his mother to do it. Significantly, he didn't tell her why he wanted the chest moved. It is not always necessary for us to give reasons for our actions. But is is necessary that we have goals---immediate and achievable.

"Walking Around the Resistance"

In this next tale Erickson demonstrates a very effective way of dealing with resistance to hypnosis.

The first time I practiced hypnosis in Phoenix, a doctor called me up and demanded an appointment. The tone of his voice warned me, "This is trouble. He's demanding that I put him in a trance." I gave him an appointment for the next day. He came into the office and said, "Now hypnotize me."

So I failed, by using a great number of techniques in ways to insure that they wouldn't work. Then I said, "Excuse me for a moment" and went out into the kitchen, where I had an Arizona State University coed working. And I said, " Ilse, I've got a very antagonistic, resistant patient in my office. I'm going to put you into a trance, a somnambulist trance."

I returned to the office with Ilse, lifting her arm to demonstrate catalepsy. Then I said, "Ilse, go over there next to the man. I want you to stand like that until you put him into a trance. I'll come back in fifteen minutes. "

He had already directed resistance toward me. How can you resist an already hypnotized person, who proceeds to hypnotize you?

And when I returned, he was in a deep trance.

You walk around the resistance. You evoke all the resistance you can in that chair and have her sit in this chair. She leaves her resistance there and she has none when she reaches this chair.

When Erickson talks about "directing resistance," he is applying the same principle he uses when he "directs" or "places" a symptom into a particular geographical position. For example, he will have the patient experience all the power of his airplane phobia in one chair. He will then direct the patient to "really experience the phobia in that chair" and then to "leave it in that chair." The implication is that he will not experience it anywhere else--only in that chair.

The doctor in this story had directed his resistance to hypnosis toward Erickson. Therefore he was not resistant toward others---certainly not toward a person who was obviously in a cataleptic trance herself.

"Walking Down the Street"

You, at your present age, walk down the street; you try to walk in a straight line at a steady pace, and you happen to be hungry and you automatically slow down when you pass the first restaurant. If you are a woman you may automatically veer towards a jeweler's window. If you are a sportsman you automatically veer towards a sporting-goods store window. If you have been neglecting your teeth and you know you should get a dental appointment and don't care for that, you automatically speed up when you pass a dental building.

I took up a station where I could watch young women walking past a medical building. When they altered their gait in a certain way, slowed down, and their arm swinging altered and a very soft expression came over their faces as they walked past the medical building, I would cross over and ask, "Was the first frog test or the rabbit test positive?" Unthinkingly, they would say, "The first one was, or I hope it will be."

One young woman altered her walk, arm swing, and facial expression. You could see a fear reaction! You have to be careful--she is not married!

Every person, old or young, male or female, automatically slows down as if the air had become thick and difficult to penetrate. Do you know at what building?--a bakery! That powerful olfactory stimulus slows you automatically.

Again, we are given an example illustrating that most of our behavior is unconsciously determined. Erickson is also inserting frequent references to "automatic" behavior. Thus, this tale is useful in encouraging a patient to allow himself to respond automatically in a hypnotic trance, especially if the words are delivered in a rhythmic way.

Of course, this story can be used diagnostically as well. One can note a patient's response as one mentions the various elements in the story--the jeweler, the sporting-goods store, the dental building. Concerns about pregnancy may emerge in the response to the part that refers to a young woman's concern about being pregnant. The commentary about the bakery may very easily bring a subject back to early childhood memories that are associated with the smells of baking or cooking.

I wondered why Erickson emphasized the fact that "every person....slows down automatically" when passing a bakery. I finally realized that the message he was giving me was "Slow down, Rosen." He is telling all of his listeners to slow down and allow time for learning and for sensory associations.


Usually I send alcoholic patients to AA because AA can do a better job than I can do. An alcoholic came to me and he said, "My grandparents on both sides were alcoholics; my parents were alcoholics; my wife's parents were alcoholics; my wife is an alcoholic and I have a had delirium tremors eleven times. I am sick of being an alcoholic. My brother is an alcoholic too. Now that is a hell of a job for you. What do you think you can do about it?"

I asked him what his occupation was.

"When I am sober I work on a newspaper. And alcohol is an occupational hazard there."

I said, "All right, you want me to do something about it---with that history. Now, the thing I am going to suggest to you won't seem the right thing. You go out to the Botanical Gardens. You look at all the cacti there and marvel at cacti that can survive three years without water, without rain. And do a lot of thinking."

Many years later a young woman came in and said,"Dr. Erickson, you knew me when I was three years old. I moved to California when I was three years old. Now I am in Phoenix and I came to see what kind of a man you were---what you looked like."

I said, "Take a good look, and I'm curious to know why you want to look at me."

She said, "Any man who would send an alcoholic out to the Botanical Gardens to look around, to learn how to get around without alcohol, and have it work, is the kind of man I want to see! My mother and father have been sober ever since you sent my father out there."

"What is your father doing now?"

"He's working for a magazine. He got out of the newspaper business. He says the newspaper business has an occupational hazard of alcoholism."

Now, that was a nice way to cure an alcoholic. Get him to respect cacti that survive three years without rain. You see you can talk about your textbooks. Today you take up this much. Tomorrow you take up that much. They say you do such and such. But actually you ought to look at your patient to figure out what kind of a man he is ---or woman--then deal with the patient in a way that fits his or her problem, his or her unique problem.

This story is a beautiful example of indirect suggestion, applied symbolically.


My daughter came home from grade school and said, "Daddy, all the girls in school bite their nails and I want to be in style too."

I said, "Well, you certainly ought to be in style. I think style is very important for girls. You are way behind the girls. They have had a lot of practice. So I think the best way for you to catch up with the girls is to make sure you bite your nails enough each day. Now I think if you bite your nails for fifteen minutes three three times a day, every day (I'll furnish the clock) at exactly such-and-such hour, you can catch up.

She began enthusiastically at first. Then she began beginning late and quitting early and one day she said, "Daddy, I'm going to start a new style at school--long nails.

Starting by "joining the patient" in her desire to be in style, Erickson proceeds to make the "stylish behavior" into an ordeal. He often used this approach to symptoms---making it more of a bother to keep them than to give them up.

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