Trial could break legal ground
MILFORD - Michael Johnstone advertised he could help people lose weight, quit smoking and shed phobias when he opened the Positive Changes hypnotherapy clinic on Broad Street.
One day, in June 2000, a middle-aged woman walked into Johnstone's office seeking help. She decided to give hypnotherapy a try, believing Johnstone might help her overcome a personal problem through hypnosis.
Instead, authorities say, she was raped during the sessions.
"I was his client and he was my therapist and I trusted him," the woman said during a March 17 court hearing for 64-year-old Johnstone. "I went to Johnstone for therapy to solve a problem, not to create more."
The woman is one of three former patients who allege that Johnstone sexually assaulted them while under his treatment. The assaults allegedly began in June 2000 and ended in June 2002 after Johnstone suffered a heart attack.
The allegations against Johnstone, who was arrested in May 2003, form the crux of a rare sexual assault case, one based on the theory that it is possible to use hypnosis to manipulate people into having sex against their will.
"Johnstone needs to understand the horror of what he did, and he has to be held accountable," one of the accusers previously said. "This wasn't a random crime."
Assistant State's Attorney Kevin Lawlor said Johnstone gave the women sexual suggestions while under hypnosis and initiated affairs with the victims during the sessions. The prosecutor said that Johnstone also videotaped the encounters with hidden cameras in his office.
While Johnstone and other hypnotherapists say it's impossible to make a patient do something against his or her morals while under hypnosis, experts in the field contend it's theoretically possible.
"The majority of research done on the subject states that you can't make someone do something they don't want to," said Dr. Elgan L. Baker, director of the Indiana Center for Psychoanalysis and past president for the Society for Clinical and Experimental Hypnosis.
He said that whether a person responds to hypnotic suggestions is a function of several factors, including the trust placed in the hypnotist and the patient's motivations.
"If a person is motivated to stop smoking and seeks the help of a hypnotist that he trusts, then the treatment can be successful," Baker said. "If the person if forced to go by a spouse or doesn't feel comfortable being hypnotized, then it may not be successful."
Baker added that a highly skilled hypnotist who understands the factors and the client's motivations might be able to change the client's perceptions instead of outright compelling behavior against their moral code.
Dwight Damon, president of the National Guild of Hypnotists, gave the example of telling someone to rob a bank. He said that normally a person couldn't be told to rob a bank under hypnosis, but if the skilled professional created a different perception it could be theoretically possible.
"The hypnotist could tell the client that the bank is filled with drug money, and it is being used by evil people to create child pornography," he said. "Then robbing the bank would fit with the client's belief system."
While there is no government agency that issues licenses for hypnotherapists, the guild has a certification program for those wishing to enter the field, Damon said.
The organization requires that those seeking certification complete two semesters of training through an approved program. Certified hypnotherapists are also required to complete at least 15 hours of additional annual training. The guild also has an ethics statement that prohibits the kind of behavior Johnstone is accused of.
Many professionals stress that such a case is abnormal and requires a highly skilled practitioner.
"Such cases are extremely rare," Baker said. "There have been some cases of people trying to hypnotize their spouse to get a confession of adultery. Hypnotism has also been used in the past by the Central Intelligence Agency to train assassins."
Dr. Herbert Spiegel, a psychiatrist and facility member at Columbia University, said hypnosis can be an effective tool when used as a secondary treatment with other therapies.
"Hypnosis is a way of altering your strategy of living," he said. "Some people are more responsive to it than others. There is no such thing as projecting hypnosis on someone. Instead, you instruct them to go inward and into a self-induced state."
Spiegel added that anyone could alter his or her behavior through a practice of repeating a phrase for at least 20 seconds, 10 times during a day.
"By repeating the phrase over and over again, it will develop new biological patterns in the brain and the old ones disappear," he said.
In the case of Johnstone, the prosecution alleges that the defendant had ongoing affairs with the women.
"Over a period of time it's unlikely that the client wouldn't have an awareness of what was happening," Baker said. "It makes it less likely that hypnosis alone was responsible."
Damon added that the situation isn't unique to hypnotists. He said that any professional who develops a trusting relationship with a client could abuse that trust.
"It could happen with a dentist, a doctor or a lawyer," he said. "Hypnotism alone isn't dangerous unless it's misused."
The state has charged Johnstone with several counts of second-degree sexual assault. Lawlor said an element of the charge concerns a professional who engages in intercourse with a patient who is seeking treatment.
Hugh Keefe, a prominent defense attorney from New Haven, said the charges levied against Johnstone are the same as those used in situations in which other professionals, such as lawyers or doctors, abuse the trusting relationship they have with their clients.
"It's an interesting case because all of the women are middle-aged and, to my knowledge, none of them are claiming there was any force involved," he said. "It should be an interesting case to watch if it goes to trial."
Johnstone is expected to appear again in court to face the charges on March 28. A trial date has not yet been set.