“Trance”: Is the Use of Hypnotherapy Accurately Depicted?

Currently in limited release, the new crime drama Trance, directed by Danny Boyle, is largely about the use of hypnotherapy by character Elizabeth Lamb (Rosario Dawson).

IMDB describes the plot: “An art auctioneer who has become mixed up with a group of criminals partners with a hypnotherapist in order to recover a lost painting.” Seems the auctioneer/robber Simon (James McAvoy) can’t recall what happened to the uber-expensive Goya since stealing it. That will happen when you get conked on the head by your leader in crime, Franck (Vincent Cassel), after you do all the dirty work.

The London Evening Standard elaborates on the ensuing shenanigans among Franck, Simon, and Elizabeth in this “heist ‘n’ hypnotism movie”:

…(T)he story gets mighty complicated, as this trio play out scary games on each other, leaving you trying to work out who’s screwing whom, unsure whether you are watching hypnotically induced dreams or actual events, and whether what you are seeing is past, present or future, even if it is real. But that’s amnesia for you, if I remember rightly.

Watch the movie trailer, which opens with Elizabeth saying, “Five percent of the population can be described as extremely suggestible.” Franck: “What can you make him do?” Elizabeth: “Anything.”

David Carr of The New York Times notes that “…trances are the building blocks of the movie” and that Dawson did research for her role at the Hypnosis Motivation Institute in California. In addition, psychologist David Oakley, who co-directs a hypnosis institute abroad, served as a consultant on the film.

Amnesia, of course, isn’t the only thing Elizabeth treats with hypnotherapy in her practice. She’s also seen in the movie with clients who have “agoraphobia, arachnophobia, obesity and golf trouble,” according to the London Evening Standard article.

In the real world, hypnotherapists do tackle a variety of problems, though psychiatrist Robert London believes the technique is “underused” as a therapeutic tool. He talks it up in a Psychology Today blog post, first exposing some misinformation:

For many people, including plenty of mental health professionals, hypnosis brings to mind mental weakness, mind control, sleep, or loss of consciousness. Women are often considered more hypnotizable than men. Those are myths. Hypnosis is neither mind control nor a strategy for the weak-willed.

It is not mind control, he states. But only when used appropriately and for the right reasons.

And Trance goes well beyond appropriate. From David Carr’s article:

Of course, this being a movie, there had to be subterfuge and subtext to the hypnosis, which meant some aspect of mind control would come in. Elizabeth is threatened on all sides, and she fights back with what she knows, which is the ability to guide people down different paths…As Elizabeth struggles to regain custody of her own life, she manipulates Simon into losing control of his.

Well, it’s just a movie, you say. Unfortunately, mind control via hypnosis exists in the real world too. Whereas some reputable therapists treat trauma with hypnosis, some unreputable ones cause trauma with hypnosis. A recent legal case in the UK involved a hypnotherapist sexually abusing a 19-year-old female client—and filming it. As reported in the Telegraph, the judge, who gave him 18 months in jail, also expressed his concern about the field’s lack of regulation and inadequate requirements regarding formal training.

You can find out more about the misuse of hypnotherapy at such sites as WanttoKnow.info, where there’s a special section on Mind Control and ritual abuse cults.

Anthony Lane‘s review in The New Yorker reveals even more about broken ethics in Trance—and it only gets worse. Although Lane issues no spoiler alert, the following could be regarded as a bit TMI:

If you want to see ‘Trance,’ do so before it is sued, and outlawed from cinemas worldwide, by the British Society of Hypnotherapists. As matters stand, the profession may never recover from the defamatory portrait of clinical hypnosis that is enshrined in Elizabeth Lamb. Having discovered the hoodlums’ quest, she joins them for a cut of the loot, professing great boredom with her usual clients. She also sleeps with Simon, not content with putting him to sleep.

Apart from the film, and recognizing that those who misuse hypnosis or any other therapy technique are in the minority, hypnotherapy has many adherents who say it works. If you’re interested in using it, though, just a warning: make sure you use your good-consumer skills and do your research before moving forward.

And, don’t steal any paintings.

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