BEHIND THE SCENES with Sarah Geis

You met Larry when you were given a hypnosis session with him as a gift. When did you learn his backstory and did you believe him right away? What convinced you that Larry would be a compelling subject of a radio doc?

After I received a gift certificate for hypnosis, I didn’t know quite what to do, so I went to the hypnotist’s website. Larry has updated the site since, but at the time, right underneath the headers “So you wanna quit smoking?” and “Weight Loss and Hypnosis,” was a smaller link: “Hypnotizing the Devil.” I clicked, and learned that Larry had self-published a memoir about his time as the personal hypnotist to Uday Hussein. Which was a record-scratch moment.

I called Larry - he recognized my name from the gift certificate - and told him that I wasn’t quite ready to be hypnotized, but I was a radio producer and would love to talk to him about his work in Iraq. That first day he showed me date-stamped photographs, newspapers, and souvenirs from his trips, and forwarded me emails from his Iraqi bodyguard and contacts there that alluded to “the patient.” I believed him.

Larry was incredibly game, and such a good storyteller. But while I knew I had stumbled on something special, I was initially worried that the story was kind of… dudely , for me. By which I mean primarily a linear, action-movie style plot: American man goes to Iraq! Is the personal hypnotist to a Saddam Hussein’s son! I wasn’t sure that there was nuance or meaning there outside the “whoa” factor. But, after meeting with Larry, I quickly realized that there was so much more there. I was especially interested in his decision to abstain from the news, and his continued insistence that my job, as reporter looking to understand his thinking, was not dissimilar to his as hypnotist learning about the mind of his patient.

I was also at first concerned, narratively, that the experience of being in Iraq didn’t change Larry at all. I think that, especially in American radio stories, we look for a narrative turn, a moment that changes everything, and that our interviewee then reflects on. The experience of going to Iraq didn’t change Larry one bit, it only made him more Larry . I came to believe that his cultivated ability to remain unchanged is one the most interesting things about him, and was happy when the folks at Love + Radio were up for exploring that with me.

Over a year-and-a-half, I met with Larry for 10 interview sessions, each between two and four hours long, and then recorded my own hypnosis. Maybe that was excessive! But we used tape from 8 out of those 10 sessions in the story, and the time getting to know each other allowed us to develop more trust, for Larry to re-live scenes almost in real time (which elicited great details and recitations of dialogue), and for us to build a strong relationship before I challenged him on some of his viewpoints.

IN PRAISE OF GOOD EDITORS: I collected over 30 hours of tape with Larry, and had 20 hours of his own audio and video recordings from Iraq. I edited it down to an over-two-hour first draft, weaving in my own hypnosis. Then the folks of Love + Radio and I went back and forth chipping away at it. For every great detail, there were 2 or 3 others that had to be cut to make the story shine. For instance, the Sufi ceremony had 5 incredible acts before the man stabbed himself in the head with a dagger (you can see some photos at Love + Radio). I'm grateful to Nick van der Kolk and Jessi Carrier for repeatedly, and firmly, saying: "Sarah, it's time you give up the razor-blade swallowing guy."

Thinking of Larry’s quote “life is only as good as you think it is,” did you come to admire Larry’s determination to screen out all news and only see the good in people?

There is a lot I admire about Larry. I admire his ability to see the good in people, his ability to fully concentrate on whoever is in front of him, and the way that he has intentionally created a life for himself that he likes. There are aspects of his news fast that I admire too. I think many of us could benefit from monitoring our own news intake more thoughtfully.

But, of course, avoiding negative thoughts altogether has consequences. Larry’s choice to ignore bad news, and to not be affected by pain and suffering, is, without a doubt, an act of privilege. It’s a luxury to be able to ignore bad news, versus be victim of it. I worry that the decision to avoid darkness altogether diminishes the possibility of empathy for those who are experiencing it.

That said, if I knew only what Larry allowed himself to know about Iraq and the Hussein family (and that’s a BIG ‘if’), I could imagine making the same decisions that he did. And I’ve said that to him. I don’t know that there’s a clear moral center to this story, and that’s exciting to me.

Were you concerned about spreading a rumor that Uday Hussein is still alive and living in America? And what shocked you most about Larry’s attitude toward Uday?

I worry about a lot of things, but didn’t think to worry about that one! My hope is, by the time we get to that (in no way journalistic) last question - “In your wildest imaginings, where is Uday today?” - the listener understands that I am not an objective voice guiding them through this, but am implicated in this story myself. I mean - the piece starts with me going under Larry’s spell, literally!

I believe that Larry’s prime motivation to go to Iraq was to have an adventure and to satisfy his curiosity. He makes the case himself that this isn’t so dissimilar to a journalist going after a great story. I think that, as the story develops, you can hear me pulled between getting caught up in his great storytelling and the desire to confront him about the implications of his choices.

Side note, this is another area where having great editors was key. Had I been left to my own devices, I would likely have questioned Larry’s morals earlier in the story - out of a kind of vanity, to show that I, like the listener, was skeptical and dubious. I don’t think that would have benefited the story, or allowed the listener to be alternately conflicted and charmed by Larry, in the same way.

In terms of Larry’s attitude toward Uday: by the time Larry and I got to talking about him, which was a couple sessions in, I wasn’t really shockable. Larry is incredibly consistent. I was impressed by, and sometimes disagreed strongly with, his ability to protect himself from violent news, but, given that, I wasn’t surprised at his tenderness for his patient.

Did Larry record a great deal during his trips to Iraq? How and why did he record? How did you select the tape you used in this story?

Yes, and this was such a gift. Larry brought a mini-disc recorder on his first trip to Iraq, and a Camcorder on the second. He wanted to record the experience for himself, as a travel journal and so that he could write about it. He never brought the recording devices into his sessions with Uday, but much of the rest of his experience is on tape, including that incredible moment when he is videotaping the television as the Twin Towers fall in New York.

Larry handed over all his video and audio to me, and I poured through it. I kept my ears out for tape that illustrated scenes we had discussed in interviews. I think my favorite moment is the audio of him in the car on the way to Iraq, talking non-stop nervously - “Does anyone want a throat lozenge?”

I was very attached to the recording of Larry’s visit to the Amiriya bomb shelter, but for the longest time couldn’t figure out where to place that scene in in the piece. It was Nick’s suggestion to have it at the start of the story, and I think it works there - locating Larry in Iraq, and giving listeners a small reminder of history. It’s also the only time we hear Larry directly and knowingly encounter darkness.

The background music/sounds in No Bad News are hypnotic, did you want listeners to feel as if we were being put under a spell, or into a dream state?

This was mostly Nick - and he did such a beautiful job of balancing whimsical and terrifying. We did hope that the listener would feel like they were being pulled, maybe despite themselves, under Larry’s undertow with me, and wanted the music and sound design enhance the surreality of the whole scenario. One challenge to make the music in the Iraq just foreboding enough - but not too foreboding, as Larry himself was, for the most part, not experiencing the world as such. The music underneath the hypnosis sessions is very similar in tone to the music that Larry actually plays during his sessions, including the subliminal “boop boop boops,” which are from a musical piece Larry commissioned.

Did you actually use the gift card? And did the hypnosis work for you?

I waited to cash in the gift card until all of our interview sessions were over. I requested that Larry to help me be more “in the moment,” and to reduce my anxious and negative thoughts. Larry hypnotizes via headphones - he was in his office speaking into a microphone, I was in a chair in a room across the hall, covered with an afghan that his mother made.

I wasn’t an ideal candidate for hypnosis: I’d known Larry for a year and a half, was slightly wary, and, halfway through the session, changed the batteries in my recorder. Despite that, it worked. When the session was over, Larry came into the room and asked me to think of something negative. I really had to rack my brain. After about 30 seconds, I came up with, “the Holocaust?” I remember going to the grocery store after that, and the checkout woman asked “How are you?” and I said, “I’m great! I’ve just been hypnotized!”

My positive state lasted for an evening, but wore off by the time I woke up. Larry gave me a CD of the session, and says I should listen to it every night before I go to bed if I want the state to continue. I can't say it isn't tempting. I'd love to eliminate some of my petty anxieties. But I believe that there's lots to be productively anxious about, these days. And I’m not interested in becoming dulled to suffering that's around me.