In this profession, as in his real life, Stephen Travers, calculates his words for maximum effect.
“You all know we weren’t born to be miserable, right?” microphone in one hand, Stephen Travers blasts his rhetorical question. “We are put on this earth to do more than just be miserable. We are put here to achieve happiness…and how do we achieve happiness?” The crowd in rapt silence, hanging on to his every word.
“Now I can give you the politically correct answer. Happiness is family, happiness is all that bullshit. There is only one thing that dictates our happiness. Success…success informs everything you do— your relationships, your health, your confidence. Success is everything… and I promise that with my program, you will see the results.”
He is met with bombastic applause. They can’t get enough of this… a sea of puppets.
“I want you to look in the mirror, and visualize your success. Imagine yourself staring at your goal— it’s at arm’s length from you, all you have to do is reach out and grab it. Envision yourself with new eyes and picture your success just a stone’s throw away.” On the stage, around the auditorium, the banners proclaim: ‘THE STEPHEN TRAVERS METHOD: CONCEIVE, BELIEVE, EXECUTE, AND ACHIEVE.’ His picture blown-up, bright-eyed, blue-eyed, painted brows and well-manicured hair and a photoshop grin. A small group of security guards is hidden in the corner, keeping an eye out on the squeezed crowd.
“I was born in a small mining town near Sudbury. My father was a miner, my grandfather was a miner and although miners get paid a lot these days,” He pauses, letting the audience chuckle a bit. “Back in those days, they didn’t, and they didn’t have a luxury of a ‘safe’ working environment.” He said, following a chorus of nods. This session was in a small town, he usually recounted his past strategically to grab at the heart strings of a similar sentiment. “I didn’t want to follow the family business. So I took off and never looked back; but, what they said about the mines stays with me to this day. Hard hats with a thin trail of light, toiling away in the dark… full of arsenic, lead, and cadmium. They persevered through for a better life in those Nickel mines. Both my father and grandfather toiled through for a better life. It’s not easy to stumble in the dark… But I know now what it takes… and why my method works.” He said in a more thoughtful way.
“Now I know there are some non-members here too, so please if you liked today’s seminar, there are some signup sheets near the tables and will be disseminating soon. Sign up if you want to be a regular. It’s just $9.99 every month, for only being a silver member, for which you will receive your very own handheld mirror and our regular web sessions.” He holds the small mirror, up high, hand extending towards the heavens and the light reflects into the crowd, some in the first-row wince. “The Gold members, who pay $15.99, get some additional things as well; this will include: webinars, daily motivational quotes, and exclusive speaking engagements…which reminds me— I will be talking to our gold members, exclusively, today”, he said. “Please, join us back after a 15-minute interval.”
Ravenous applause. There are flashbulbs of electricity: the crowd is feeling it tonight. Donation baskets passing through palms of people who are in need of constant self-validation. He sees on the right-side of the stage— Garry, the web guy, giving him the thumbs up, his scrawny face peering through the laptop, glowing. The internet donations are coming in thick and fast. He fixes his silk tie, adjusting his royal blue tailored suit turning towards the side as he walks off stage. Handing the mic to a stage presenter, who entertains the crowd in his absence. He sees Roselle as he walks to the exit, wearing her silvery-white dress, sunglasses precariously positioned in her utter indifference. When he saw her, he let go of the mirror breaking into a thousand reflective edges. Faces disjointed. He and Roselle were going their separate ways. It didn’t help that she was still his manager. They decided to keep their relationship with each other as professional as possible, but it was hard to do that. She wasn’t thrilled about the idea of helping him organizing these ‘self-help’ seminars but wanted to help his career, however, after seeing the method that he had employed, she started hating the idea. She finally had enough of it; this would be her last show.
His stare lingered on her for a couple of seconds. He liked unquestioned loyalty— anything less was a betrayal. Though their ties were about to end, Roselle was still trying to make sure that they left on amicable terms even if she didn’t agree with Stephen’s methods.
“Do you think it’s a good idea to do the ‘mass hypnosis’ thing today?” She says in a calm tone. “You haven’t perfected it with such a large group.” Both of them start walking towards the dressing room.
“I do this because that is what people pay me to do. We need each other to survive, if it’s not me, it would be someone else.”
“Well, that’s fine, and all but do you think it will help them?”
“If I can raise someone’s self-esteem enough…I deserve a little bit of their money…you realize how much a shrink costs?” he said taking off his suit and handing it to an unnamed assistant signaling her to iron it a little bit more.
“You know what forget about it…sometimes …I can’t even…” she says, both of them standing on the threshold of the door.
“Can’t even what…? Tell me?” he says.
“Never mind.” She enters and seats herself on the couch.
“If you have a problem with the way I do things here, you can leave… oh, wait! you’re already doing that”. He struts in sitting on the opposite chair to her. She doesn’t move, silently staring at him…he has never talked to her like this before. “Yeah, exactly, you are leaving. You said we could separate our personal relationship from our professional one, and you couldn’t so don’t guilt trip me about any of my dealings now, ok?” She acquiesced; she realized that this was harder than she thought. The door knocks.
“Can I come in?” Garry asks.
“We’re busy” Roselle shouts.
“It’s ok you can come in” Stephen replies. Roselle gets up, crossing her arms and shaking her head with frustration.
“I just wanted to ask what music you wanted us to queue when you do the hypnosis? The Sufi ‘call to the sea’ or the sound of a waterfall.” Garry asks in a hushed tone.
“Whatever, you feel like.”
“Call to the sea, it is…”
“And could you please escort Roselle out of the building?” he says with contempt.
“Uhmm…” Garry said, unsettled by the situation.
“I’ll show myself out, don’t worry. I tried my best to be civil with you, but you made it impossible. I just want you to remember that if you ever realize how wrong you were don’t bother calling me back, ok? I will not feel sorry for you.” she walked with a brisk pace and he caught the whiff of her scent. She pulls the door with force, as Garry stumbles a little forward. Footsteps of angry heels.
“Is there anything else, Garry?” Stephen asks.
“No, everything else is swell…”
“Ok, then, get lost. Thanks.”
Stephen started out as a hypnotist. Making people do silly faces, funny noises, and slapstick dances. Realizing early that he had gone as far as he could, he cleaned up his act and changed his name to Stephen Travers and started holding self-help seminars. Now he was doing something which would have a greater impact on his audience; imprinting their lives with his motivational speeches, and now mixing hypnosis with his presentations. The quest for total self-actualization, he called it.
“If you can conceive. If you can believe. If you can execute then, you can achieve.” He bellowed to a round of hoots and hollers as he returned to entertain the gold members. “And that’s what I have been able to do from the lessons I’ve learned in my life.”
The seminar is a convenient construct that helps with his promotion. It’s a story that helps him to be more relatable to his audience, which to be honest is a lower income segment of the population (typically, the people who have chosen the gold membership are a bit higher up on the lower income segment). The audience wants a narrative to cling onto; the truth is that he despised his family. He saw them as lumps of wasteful space, lumbering through the horrible mines all their lives—for nothing. He had never met his grandfather because he had died in the mines; the cable snapping as the rust accumulated, falling 10 meters below in complete darkness of the elevator shaft. The fall had crushed his legs, and it didn’t help that there were no rescue crews at the time, he’s embedded somewhere below. His father was a drunkard, he did what all miserable drunkards do…neglecting everyone around him. His mother left soon getting out of an unhappy situation. For a majority of his life, it was only him and his father.
His father was slowly becoming a shell. Finding relief only at the bottom of that bottle. Showing up after work, drunken, covered in soot, and an emotional mess. He threatened to be the local barfly but luckily for him he faced stiff competition from a lot of the townsfolk. It’s not pleasant to live in a mining town— people are miserable, and everyone’s lungs are infected with chemical agents. On the odd day that he was sober, he was very distant and didn’t care much about, Stephen. He never beat him, but he wasn’t there for him either. Indifference was always worse than hatred.
Eventually, he drank himself to death and Stephen was all by himself. But even when he was alive, Stephen felt a profound sense of loneliness and no self-worth. He knew what he had to do to become somebody. The world had ‘nickel and dimed’ him (he laughs at his joke), and he wanted to pay it back. On his many lonely journeys, he would go into the shadowy depths of the forest to a dark opening on a hill. This fissure in the Earth represented, to him the Nickel Mines, which to him represented the black hole of his despair. The mine had taken everything from him and was threatening to envelop the rest of his life as well. He would stare into the mines, chucking his emotional baggage below, as well as any spare quarters he had… he liked to hear the silver chink as they hit the surface below, unburdening himself of the mental torment he felt as well as acting as an act of catharsis. Depositing his physical and psychological anguish, returning it to its source.
Lately, he had been dreaming about that mine a lot. But the place in the dreams was much different. The opening of the mine was much wider: a dark fall with no bottom. The quarter dropped made no noise. In his dreams, he felt that a monster lived below the surface. A darkened passageway to nihilistic horrors. Sometimes, he could see the monster rear its head. It was so dark below that even a speck of light was made visible. The eyes of Green copper and the tongue of yellow plumbum were like distant stars. He heard the snarls, the sulfurous breath coming closer. The pulleys were squealing, upwards, he’s coming closer. He comes closer, gripping with unending terror and relief of freedom. An elevator platform ascending at a steady pace.
“Now I want you all to close your eyes and listen to the music as we all go into a trance. I am going to be accessing our entire collective subconscious. What we want to do today is to learn a technique called: auto-suggestion—this will be our trigger. If you have read my book: ‘SUCCESS IS WITHIN YOU: THE STEPHEN TRAVERS METHOD’, you’ll understand …if not, what we’re simply trying to do is to visualize success to be our single motivation becoming embedded in all of us, as mentioned in my book, being single-minded is the key to achieving success; and all of you can do this by following my plan. Now everyone in this room is a gold member, which means that you have the opportunity to get access to my personal hypnosis sessions, motivational videos, newsletters and also one-on-one consultation once a year. So this is what you all are paying me for Ok? So is everyone ready?!” He roared.
“YES!!!” they all replied.
“Ok, Garry you know what to do, hit it up!” he said. Stephen started his chanting as an indescribable language reverberated around the auditorium. Everyone had closed their eyes. The trance was perfect. The track had soft sitar music, with subliminal audio of phrases like, ‘visualize,’ ‘execution,’ and ‘self-realization.’
“I open up my eye, and I see all of you. We’re going to be visualizing success.” He murmurs, he is starting to remember himself looking down the mine, which was darker than the refuge of his eyelids.
“Breathe with me, Speak to me, and Sing with me,” he said, the possessed crowd obliged:
“HMMMMMM-HMMMMMM-HMMMMMM-HMMMMMM!” they chanted, swaying their hands back and forth.
There was something wrong. Stephen felt uneasy as he couldn’t hold onto his solid body. He was trying to hold onto his method. Conceiving, believing, execution and finally achieving transcendence.
Everyone mutters in gibberish. Psycho-babble, tongue twisters, loosens the mind and stretches out the will. Flashes of light, the spotlight peaks through. The cult leader, Stephen Travers, is trapped in his dream now. He is staring now at the mouth of the black hole.
“I’m here for you, Stephen.” the monster from below the mines. “I think that’s what they call you these days…right? Stephen…ha-ha…. I’m here for you, I’ll make it all better…ha-ha” it said.
He opened his eyes, and he saw the audience zapped in their unawareness. They were paused— caught in the trance; even the security guards were gone. The music was skipping.
“What happened, Stephen?” Garry yelled from behind the stage.
“Yeah, what the hell went wrong?” Roselle came running to him on stage.
“The hypnosis… they’re stuck in there.” He said in a panicked state. He jumps off the stage frantically running down the aisle snapping his fingers, but the audience isn’t coming out of it. A mass state of catatonia.
“They might want refunds,” Roselle says. “Think quickly.”
“Garry, can you please put on the music again? I have to find them. I have to get them back…” he comes back up to the stage.
“Got it…I’ll try again.” He said, frantically trying to restart the music.
“I hope you can find them…somehow…huh?” Roselle said and then out of nowhere a black hole forms beneath her feet.
“Roselle!” he quickly tries to grab her, and she falls into the mouth of the mine. He barely can touch her fingernails, and she keeps going down.
“AHHHH!” she screams.
“Roselle!” He yells and jumps into the black hole following her.
He isn’t awake. He’s not on the stage anymore; he’s in a field of poisonous flowers that line the lips of the mouth. He’s in the forest again looking at the dark opening. Colorful flowers combine to look like the neon sludge left after the waste materials are taken out. He’s peering into the abyss. Behind him, the audience is moving autonomously. However, they look like miners, complete with hard hats, flannel shirts, and steel toed shoes— a sprinkle of them are also carrying pick axes. Faces smudged with charcoal and eyesight bad as moles.
“How did we get here?” An older gentleman asked.
“I feel woozy…”
“The last thing I remember was that was attending a self-help seminar…”
“Look above that hill…”
They all converge to Stephen. He’s getting nervous, how are all of them in a dream of his? He shudders a little. The tiny pulleys working upwards, the elevator is coming up. He’s getting nervous. They approach him.
“Hello! my friends. I’m here to bring you back…”
“Shut up, Travers—if that’s even your real name—we were all waiting for you,” A woman from the crowd yelled.
“You ever been down the mines, boy?” the old miner screamed.
“No, I don’t want to…please, I escaped this town. I don’t want to be in this town. I couldn’t be like those miners. The sickness, oh god the sickness.”
“The mine was always yours” they all speak at the same time. “It’s where you came from, it’s where you’ll end up at.”
He is standing now, waiting for them to push him over. They all walk closer to him. Brushing aside the shrubbery, stepping into the colored flowers. A sign appears as the bushels clear: THE MINE IS CLOSED.
The audience stops, it disperses away their purpose. “Peer into the mine, it’s closed for now…but we’ll come back later.” Retreating now, as they migrate out to the waking world.
He stares deep into the mine. He goes into his pocket to find a quarter like he used to. There were no quarters anymore. The monster below starts laughing. Eyes of chemicals malevolently looking up at him. The squeals of the spoke die, and the elevator is descending. All of a sudden, he falls to his knees. Subliminally, he can hear the words calling him to the real world. He is crying at the foot of the edge. Staring into the abyss and now it didn’t even bother returning the favor.
© A.R. Minhas 2016