Future Self We all have a future self, a version of us that is better, more successful. It can inspire us to achieve our dreams, or mock us for everything we have failed to become. A note to listeners: this episode contains some disturbing content related to teen suicide and grieving parents. If you or somebody you know might need help, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is available 24/7 at 1-800-273-8255.
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Future Self

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Future Self

ALIX SPIEGEL, HOST:

Hey there, before we get started we would like to ask a favor. As our season nears its end, we'd like to hear back from you, our listeners. Please take a minute to answer a short survey about the show. Just go to npr.org/invisbilia/survey. Again, that's npr.org/invisbilia/survey. Thank you so much.

Hanna?

HANNA ROSIN, HOST:

Yeah?

SPIEGEL: Today we start with a dance party.

(SOUNDBITE OF NICHOLAS HILL'S "LOOKING AT YOU (INSTRUMENTAL)")

SPIEGEL: Picture a big hall with, like, 300 kids, everybody crowded in and sweaty, getting funky.

(SOUNDBITE OF NICHOLAS HILL'S "LOOKING AT YOU (INSTRUMENTAL)")

ROSIN: (Imitating music).

SPIEGEL: The one very unusual thing about this dance party, though - it's in an orphanage in Syria.

CHRIS SITIK: Yeah, it was awesome. I still remember everybody was just dancing.

SPIEGEL: This is Chris Sitik (ph). He was one of the kids at the party, which happened back in 2007. Chris was 10 at the time, and he says he had never seen people move this way. He'd never heard this kind of music. And he was dumbfounded. And he says he started rushing around, trying to understand - who was the source of this magical music?

SITIK: And I was asking people, what's happening and, like, what's that and what's that?

SPIEGEL: And then the source of all of this awesomeness became clear.

SITIK: Boom. There's a DJ.

SPIEGEL: He couldn't take his eyes off of her.

SITIK: Yeah, she had, like, a bunch of CDs and, you know, big headphones. And I'm like, what's happening right there?

SPIEGEL: Chris was captivated.

And was it, like, the kind of thing where you saw her and all of a sudden you were like, that will be me?

SITIK: Yeah. Like, I want to be the one who's doing that.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HANDS UP")

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER #1: (Singing) Put up your hands in the air. I said put up your hands in the air. I said put up your hands in the air. I said put up your hands in the air.

SPIEGEL: Now, lots of 10-year-old boys see a person doing a cool thing and think, I want to be that. But for Chris this was way more. Chris was shy, a wallflower. He was a kid living in a Syrian orphanage. He had no parents, very limited access to the outside world. But in that moment, he suddenly saw a future, a person that he wanted to be.

SITIK: Boom. I want to be a DJ.

SPIEGEL: For the next decade, no matter how awful the situation Chris found himself in, this future version of himself was like a beacon.

SITIK: This is, like, pretty much why I'm alive.

SPIEGEL: When he was in his early teens, Chris spent a year and a half homeless in Damascus and then in Beirut.

SITIK: Just turning around, trying to find a job, trying to find something to eat, just trying to survive.

SPIEGEL: It was horrible.

SITIK: Two of my friends died and anxiety and depression start kicking me really hard.

SPIEGEL: But always in these dark moments this image of the DJ that he would one day become would appear in his mind, telling him to keep going.

SITIK: Just keep pushing forward.

SPIEGEL: This image of yourself - how many times a day would you bring that up in your head?

SITIK: Every time I listened to music.

SPIEGEL: Hundreds of times a day?

SITIK: Yeah.

SPIEGEL: Eventually, Chris found a shelter to live in. He got a job scrubbing plates and started to assemble elements so that he could make this potential self into an actual self. He got headphones, started watching YouTube videos...

SITIK: Watching, watching, watching.

SPIEGEL: ...Began teaching himself to make electronic music, invented a stage name...

SITIK: Lodestio (ph).

SPIEGEL: And then one day, when he was 19, this faith that he had in his future self was put to a real test. You see, Chris was granted a visa to go to Canada, a place where he could pursue this dream. So he packed his bags, headed to the airport. But in these final moments, right before he got on the plane, he found himself hesitating. Chris was leaving everything that he knew for an idea. He had this concept in his head of who he might one day be. But that was all it was - a concept, a beautiful but at this point fictional idea that he'd conjured that might never become reality. Was it worth it?

SITIK: The last five minutes when I was waiting for the airplane, I said, man, what the hell am I doing here? Why I'm leaving?

SPIEGEL: But then he says he heard that voice in his head again, his future self.

SITIK: You were born for this. That's what he says to me all the time. How the hell are you going to stop right now?

SPIEGEL: How the hell are you not going to become me? So DJ Lodestio walked down the jetway.

(SOUNDBITE OF UNIDENTIFIED SONG)

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER #2: Four. Three. Two. One. Here we go. (Singing) I'm not here to say goodbye. I'm here to take the prize. You can see it in my eyes. Everything is on the line. I'm betting it all (ph)...

SPIEGEL: This is INVISIBILIA. I'm Alix Spiegel.

ROSIN: And I'm Hanna Rosin. INVISIBILIA is a show about all the invisible forces that shape human behavior - our thoughts, beliefs, feelings. And today we're talking about the concept of our future selves.

SPIEGEL: Chris' future self was remarkably powerful. It launched him from the Middle East all the way to Canada.

ROSIN: But most of us have one, an idea about ourselves we get from our family or our neighborhood or our culture. Or maybe a random event comes along and gives us a whole new idea of who we might be. Either way, that future self hovers in our mind, guiding our path, what steps we take and don't take.

SPIEGEL: Hanna, when you were growing up, who was your future self? Was she, like, the hard-nosed, high-class reporter that you are today?

ROSIN: Honest truth?

SPIEGEL: Honest truth.

ROSIN: It's just someone who didn't live in Queens.

SPIEGEL: (Laughter) That was your future self?

ROSIN: I didn't get much further than that. I was like...

SPIEGEL: Shooting high.

ROSIN: Forgive me, Queens.

(SOUNDBITE OF UNIDENTIFIED SONG)

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER #2: (Singing) I've got what it takes, takes, takes. Nothing's stopping me, no, no, no.

SPIEGEL: Coming up we have a story that begs the question - can our faith in our future selves go too far?

ROSIN: Stay with us.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SPIEGEL: You're listening to INVISIBILIA. I'm Alix Spiegel.

ROSIN: And I'm Hanna Rosin.

SPIEGEL: And now we have a story from Hanna which is about a group of teenagers who were part of an experiment to reach their future selves that went really, really wrong. It should be noted this episode does contain some disturbing content and might not be appropriate for some listeners. Hanna tells the story.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Five. And the deeper you go, the better you feel. Four. And the better you feel, the deeper you will go. Three, two and one.

ROSIN: Our story takes place in North Port, a small city on the east coast of Florida that you've probably never heard of. And it centers on a high school. The kids at this high school were like kids at most American high schools. When they grow up, they want to be somebody.

UNIDENTIFIED GIRL #1: In 10 years, I will plan on being...

UNIDENTIFIED BOY #1: A doctor, lawyer, whatever has good money.

UNIDENTIFIED BOY #2: Hopefully in college.

UNIDENTIFIED GIRL #2: Ten years? Why's it going to take 10 years?

UNIDENTIFIED BOY #3: I'm going to be a millionaire. I'm not going to sell drugs, but I'm going to...

UNIDENTIFIED GIRL #3: I want to be, like, a psychiatrist. You know, wear a pantsuit (laughter).

ROSIN: But the kids in North Port, they weren't living in a community that would set you up for a pantsuit kind of job. North Port's a working-class town, one of those Florida towns that just grew up out of the swamp land in the '90s. And it was still kind of one step away from being a place that people would say they were proud to live in, which brings us to the high school.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Good morning, bobcats.

ROSIN: A brand-new building that opened its doors in 2000.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: As always, North Port works, North Port wins, and let's get to work.

PAIGE DAVIDSON: Well, when I first saw it, it looked like a prison (laughter).

ROSIN: Paige Davidson (ph).

DAVIDSON: It's gray. And you're like, what is that?

ROSIN: She says when she first saw the building it didn't look like the kind of place that was going to breed the future leaders of America.

DAVIDSON: No.

ROSIN: And she wasn't the only one who thought that.

CHERI THOMPSON DENNEN: For some reason, North Port has had a bad rap.

ROSIN: Cheri Thompson Dennen is a teacher who used to work in Venice, a nearby fancy beach town. When she told her colleagues at Venice that she was thinking about leaving for North Port High...

THOMPSON DENNEN: They said, oh, we'll give you flak jacket for a gift. And I'm like, why? Because those kids are terrible.

ROSIN: Almost a quarter of North Port kids drop out of high school. Fights break out in the courtyard all the time. These kids may have grand ideas about who they want to become, but they aren't exactly doing the things you need to do to get there. Here's Paige and Cheri again.

DAVIDSON: I would either come to school late or - I'm not even going to lie - I mean, I would smoke and then I would come to school and I wouldn't even care about what was going on.

THOMPSON DENNEN: I would get upset sometimes with my students because of negative self-talk about North Port and about our school. Oh, our school sucks and we suck and everything is terrible here.

ROSIN: So big dreams, fuzzy about how to get there, which is precisely why it appealed to Principal George Kenney.

Can you describe Dr. Kenney?

DAVIDSON: All-white hair, white beard, glasses.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: He's doctoral.

THOMPSON DENNEN: He is doctoral.

DAVIDSON: Yeah. I would be like, Dr. K, yo, Dr. K, what's up (laughter)?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: I don't know if he actually wore a suit as a fact, but in my head every time I saw him I saw him with a suit.

GEORGE KENNEY: Hello.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Hi.

ROSIN: This is George Kenney, who became the first principal of North Port High. Kenney had been working at Pine View School for the Gifted in a wealthier part of the county. And when he was considering taking the job at North Port, he ran into a colleague who was like...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KENNEY: Who the [expletive] would want to work with those people? And that's when I decided that that's the place that I wanted to go.

ROSIN: See, Kenney came from a working-class family himself. He was the first in his family to go to college.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KENNEY: Well, I've always kind of rooted for the underdog and the people that can pull themselves up by their bootstraps. One of my strengths was to be able to see the potential in people and to try to bring that out.

ROSIN: When Kenney looked around North Port High, he didn't see a bunch of hot-headed losers destined for hourly labor and minimum wage. He saw what they could be, their better future selves. All they needed were new ideas in their head about what those selves could look like. And once Kenney accepted the job at North Port High, he bent his whole life around that mission. Those big dreams they all had - he would give them the tools to make those dreams real.

THOMPSON DENNEN: And he did.

ROSIN: Here's Cheri Thompson Dennen again.

THOMPSON DENNEN: I've never had a principal, before or since, that bought into this community like he did.

ROSIN: Kenney started doing things to introduce them to worlds they weren't familiar with, futures they hadn't even imagined yet. He created an art center. He started dozens of afterschool clubs. He introduced AP and college-level courses. He held job fairs at the school, and it was good. But these days, the odds are stacked against kids like this more than ever, so Kenney felt like he needed to find something on another level. And then one day in 2009, Kenney discovered something pretty weird, something probably no principal had ever even considered before.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HANSRUEDI WIPF: And the deeper you go, the better you feel.

ROSIN: This is Hansruedi Wipf, a teacher at the Omni Hypnosis Training Center.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

WIPF: Four. And the better you feel, the deeper you will go.

ROSIN: Every year, Hansruedi and the famous hypnotist Jerry Kein rent a conference room at a Hampton Inn in Deland, Fla., for a week. For about $3,000, they teach their students about hypnosis - the basic scripts, methods and laws in every state about when and how it can be practiced. Their philosophy is that a better version of ourselves, the version we've always dreamed of, is locked up inside us.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

WIPF: ...Three...

ROSIN: And we can use our wonderful, powerful, minds, as Kein likes to say, to achieve everything we want.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

WIPF: ...Two...

ROSIN: But there's no reason to wait for this someday self when we can reach it very easily today with hypnosis.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

WIPF: One.

ROSIN: In the Kein school, hypnosis is not just a tool. It's a miracle drug. It's the secret.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

WIPF: You're going to reach the stars. You're going to achieve everything you want because you can easily do those things. We have a wonderful ability to be anything or do anything that you have within you.

ROSIN: In 2009, one of the people who sat in the audience as Jerry Kein did his demonstration was Principal George Kenney. A few years before, Kenney had seen a hypnotist perform at a gathering for kids. And this guy, he'd gotten the kids to suspend their inhibitions in some pretty interesting ways. Like, he got a shy kid to dance onstage and a prankster to become an instant math whiz. It was like this guy could get these kids to do things they didn't even know they were capable of. And when Kenney was watching the demonstration, a word popped into his head - potential.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ROSIN: This could be the way for Kenney to help the kids of North Port High quickly reach their future selves, a shortcut.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

WIPF: Five - be anything. Four, do anything. Five, four, three, two...

UNIDENTIFIED BOY #1: A doctor...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

WIPF: Anything.

UNIDENTIFIED BOY #3: Millionaire...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

WIPF: Anything.

UNIDENTIFIED GIRL #3: Psychiatrist.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

WIPF: Anything.

One.

ROSIN: Kenney believed he had found a key, but he had to test it. So he found his first subject, a North Port High student named Mike (ph) who wanted to be a Marine.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KENNEY: He saw the Marines as his ticket out of town and a future for himself.

ROSIN: But at the time, the Marines were an unreachable dream for Mike. Mike was working after-school jobs to help with the rent. His home life was really unstable.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KENNEY: Their electricity had been shut off. They ran a extension cord from the neighbor's house to run the refrigerator.

ROSIN: And because of all the stress, Mike had developed a tic, a head twitch.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KENNEY: He had, by then, started grunting as well.

ROSIN: And the tics would get worse in high-pressure situations, like boot camp. So Kenney offered hypnosis. He said, picture your brain like a dark cloud with lightning jumping from one cloud to the next. Now picture the sun coming out and the lightning disappearing. Now your neck is going to relax. And the tics disappeared.

Mike went to boot camp and on to the Marines. He did two tours overseas. And now he's in college on the GI Bill.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KENNEY: I was really pleased with how well it worked for Mike.

ROSIN: So Kenney kept at it. The second test subject was a kid named Eric (ph). Eric was being offered a full scholarship to Florida A&M if he could get his SAT scores up. But he was nervous, and so he kept messing up. So Kenney put him under.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KENNEY: Eric's score improved on the next test by 189 points, so he qualified to attend Florida A&M.

ROSIN: It seemed to work.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ROSIN: So now that Kenney had found hypnosis, he started doing it with everyone. He hypnotized teachers who wanted to pass professional exams. He hypnotized students who wanted to get better grades or be better athletes. He hypnotized parents who wanted to stop smoking. He hypnotized so many Bobcats softball and baseball and football and volleyball players, sometimes entire teams at once.

(SOUNDBITE OF WHISTLE BLOWING)

ROSIN: And it did seem like hypnosis was giving the kids a fast track to their future selves, giving them new ideas about who they could be almost overnight. They would trade all kinds of stories, like about the basketball player who made it on to a college team or the skate punk who was acing his history tests or a whole bunch of North Port kids suddenly passing AP tests. But there were stories of strange things, too, like the thing with the hotel and the Chinese letters.

RENEE LISLE: It's like...

ROSIN: This is Renee Lisle (ph), a parent at the school. She told me that a bunch of kids went on an ROTC trip in Orlando. Kenney was there. And one evening, he gathered the kids in his hotel room and started to hypnotize them. Renee's son Thomas (ph) was on that trip. And when he got home, he told her...

LISLE: He told me that the one kid got lost, and they couldn't find him. And they were instructed not to go look for him. And it's like, (sigh) that really didn't happen. But OK.

ROSIN: It did happen. The kid's name was Kyle. Kenney had hypnotized the kids to read numbers as Chinese letters. So when Kyle went looking for his room, he didn't recognize the room number. Renee's son Thomas later found Kyle wandering around in the lobby, lost. And there were other things that happened on that trip.

LISLE: The dollar being in somebody's pocket, and they didn't know how it got there. And...

ROSIN: Also the lipstick.

LISLE: Passed around lipstick - and I'm like, that is disgusting. From my lips to your lips to the next person's lips, it's disgusting.

ROSIN: It was odd. But at the time, either the parents weren't paying attention or they thought of hypnosis as part of Project Potential. They trusted Principal Kenney. He was Dr. Kenney. And they really did believe he wanted to help their kids - until everything went wrong.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KENNEY: I was not involved in killing any of these students.

ROSIN: And it ended in lawyers and testimony and well-meaning George Kenney shocked that anyone would ever link hypnosis to homicide.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SPIEGEL: When we come back, Hanna returns to her story.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SPIEGEL: Welcome back to INVISIBILIA. I'm Alix Spiegel. Today we're trying to figure out if there might be a dark side to filling kids' heads with new big ideas about who they could become.

And you should know that this is where our story involves some darker content. When we left off, Hanna was telling the story of a high school in Florida whose principal hypnotized his students to help them reach their maximum potential. For some, the hypnosis really did seem magical. They were succeeding more than ever. But for others, it started to feel like a bad spell. Hanna picks up the story with one of those students.

ROSIN: Wesley McKinley was a new kid. But as far as being the new kid goes, he was fitting in really well. He was funny and popular. And - oh, my God - was he cute.

PEGGY MCKINLEY: He had the Bieber.

ROSIN: This is his mom, Peggy McKinley.

MCKINLEY: He let his hair grow into that because of Justin - or whatever his name was - Bieber was really - real popular at the time.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BELIEVE")

JUSTIN BIEBER: (Singing) I don't know how I got here.

ROSIN: The future self that Wesley saw was a musician, a guitarist trained at the best music schools and then discovered by a promoter and turned into a rock star, which is why he let his blond hair grow long enough that he could swoop it across his forehead just so.

MCKINLEY: As a matter of fact, we had to get up at least an hour early so he could straighten the hair so it would do exact - so he was really excited about it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BELIEVE")

BIEBER: (Singing) Just look at me now 'cause everything starts from something.

ROSIN: Wesley spent all his time in the music room at North Port High - playing the guitar, writing songs and teaching other kids to play the guitar. His music teacher told him that he had a real gift, and so Wesley began to dream the biggest dream that a musician can dream.

MCKINLEY: He had told us when he graduated, he wanted to go to New York, which blew us away because, I mean, New York - really? You're going to go to New York? But he wanted to go to Julliard.

ROSIN: Wesley had never been to New York. And that vision was a stretch for him in other ways, too. Wesley loved playing his guitar. But music fundamentals, theory - not so much.

MCKINLEY: Wasn't as stoked about it 'cause it was more, you know, reading and applying versus the actual performance of it.

ROSIN: Wesley's teacher had already lined up an audition for him at Juilliard. But to reach this future fantasy self, Wesley would need a Hail Mary. And then one day in the fall, Wesley came back with some exciting news to tell his mom. He'd just been part of a hypnosis demonstration that Principal Kenney did in a psych class, and he thought that hypnosis could really help him with this audition.

MCKINLEY: He thought he could more focused.

ROSIN: To prove it, Peggy says he did a demonstration for her to show her that hypnosis had given him some instant math skills.

MCKINLEY: I can tell you right now I could - and he counted threes up to a thousand (snapping) like that - three, six, nine - and just went on. And while he was an OK student, I mean, that really was not part of his realm.

ROSIN: Wesley seemed really into the hypnosis. But his mom didn't like the idea.

MCKINLEY: Uh-uh, no. I don't know anything about hypnosis. But what I do know is I don't like the idea that somebody can manipulate your brain to do anything. I think that that's a very dangerous, dangerous scenario. So we both said no, don't do it. And we thought that it was - that was done.

ROSIN: About a mile away lived another North Port student, Brittany Palumbo. Like Wesley, Brittany had been affected by the be-your-best-self atmosphere at the school. And she had a very clear idea of her future self. Neither of her parents had graduated from college. Her mom was a waitress. Her dad worked in construction. But Brittany set her sights higher. Here's her mom, Patty (ph).

ROSIN: How specific was her vision of her future?

PATRICIA PALUMBO: Very specific. She was going to go to UCF. She'd bought UCF sweatshirts. She had a UCF cup. I mean, she was just dead set on UCF.

ROSIN: UCF, the University of Central Florida - Brittany had it all mapped out. Her boyfriend was already there. They'd been together since sophomore year, and she was going to be rooming with her best friend.

PALUMBO: Oh, she was very excited. It was a big deal for her.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPORTING EVENT)

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Cheering) Go Knights.

ROSIN: But Brittany had never exactly been a natural scholar. Her mom had to come up with all sorts of tricks to get her to focus.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ROSIN: As a waitress, Patty knew that the minimum-wage life could be rough, so she would get Brittany to visualize a kind of future nightmare, a negative future self, Brittany 10 years down the road without the college degree.

PALUMBO: Well, what do you want to do, grow up and say, would you like to supersize your lunch or would you like fries with your order?

ROSIN: The trick worked. Brittany developed ideas about herself that went way beyond what she'd seen at home. In sophomore year, Brittany started studying and getting her grades up. And by senior year, she was single-mindedly focused on her college dream. She was studying all the time, even lying to her friends to get out of parties so she could study even more.

PALUMBO: Well, it just got to be that that was pretty much 80 percent of what she did. She seemed to have what I thought were her priorities in line.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ROSIN: When it came time to apply for college, Brittany had an excellent GPA. She'd joined lots of clubs. She was volunteering. But there was one nut she couldn't crack, the SAT. To get in to UCF, Brittany needed to improve her SAT scores. But she couldn't. Whenever she would take the test, she would get distracted by her legs jiggling, by the clock ticking, by people sniffling and making noise. One day, she went into Kenney's office to ask for a recommendation. She mentioned her SAT distraction thing. Kenney said he could help her. Brittany asked her mom Patty, and Patty said OK as long as she could come, too. And so Brittany headed to school to be hypnotized.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

WIPF: Five. And the deeper you go, the better you feel.

ROSIN: On a Friday afternoon at 3:30, after most people had gone home, Brittany and Patty walked into Kenney's office. He shut the door, dimmed the lights, closed the blinds. He motioned for Brittany to sit in a big, comfortable chair right in front of his desk.

PALUMBO: And he was looking at her directly, maybe a foot between them.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KENNEY: Close your eyes and relax.

ROSIN: This is Kenney's voice from hypnosis tapes he recorded.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KENNEY: Take in a nice, deep breath.

ROSIN: Patty is watching.

PALUMBO: She was bent over, like at a 90-degree angle almost, with her head between her knees and her arms dangling down where her fingertips almost had touched the floor.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KENNEY: Feel your heart rate slow down ever so slightly.

PALUMBO: And then I remember him telling her she was not going to hear the ticking of the clock or people...

(SOUNDBITE OF COUGHING)

PALUMBO: ...Coughing or sniffling.

(SOUNDBITE OF CLOCK TICKING)

PALUMBO: And he said, and I'm going to give you a subliminal message that any time in your life that you feel anxious, depressed, confused that you will blink your eyes rapidly and enter a calm and relaxed state.

ROSIN: When they got outside, Patty asked Brittany if her back and neck hurt from all that slumping.

PALUMBO: She said, (scoffing) Mom, I wasn't in that position.

ROSIN: And then she asked her daughter about those last words, that subliminal message Kenney had left about the calm and relaxed state.

PALUMBO: And she said, he never said that. It concerned me enough that I would not allow her to drive her car. I took her keys from her. And she gave me (sighing), and she got in my car and came home.

ROSIN: It was sessions much like this one that Wesley McKinley began attending behind his mother's back. Sure, his mom had said no, but there was a future self waiting for him, a self he was eager to get to. So he did it anyway. He fudged a permission slip by telling his mom it was a field trip form, and then he made an appointment with Dr. Kenney. And it was a day after one of those sessions that the first truly disturbing thing happened at North Port High.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ROSIN: Wesley was riding the bus home with his friend Thomas, the same kid who was on that ROTC trip with the Chinese letters. Usually on the ride home, Wesley played the jokester. There was this thing he did a lot. Here's his mom again, Peg.

MCKINLEY: Wesley being 6-foot-1, he would - there was a bump they would go over it, and he would always jump up and hit his head on the thing just to make everybody laugh.

ROSIN: But that day, he didn't do the head bump. He just laid with his head across the lap of one of the girls on the bus. And they knew something was up. Something was wrong. When he sat up and looked out the window, Wesley started acting really bizarre. Here's Renee, Thomas's mom.

ROSIN: When he sat up and looked out the window, Wesley started acting really bizarre. Here's Renee, Thomas's mom.

ROSIN: And he was asking his friends in the bus to call him Tyler.

LISLE: Tyler.

ROSIN: His middle name. It was a name he never used. But it turned out it was the name George Kenney used during hypnosis. It was Kenney's way of testing if Wesley was really under. If Wesley responded to Tyler, the answer was yes. And so there was Wesley, counting lights, calling himself Tyler. And then as soon as they got off the bus together, Wesley turned to his friend Thomas and said...

LISLE: Punch me.

ROSIN: He kept repeating it...

LISLE: Punch me.

ROSIN: ...Begging his friends to do it.

LISLE: Thomas, Josh, Ashley, punch me. Punch me in the face. No, I'm not going to punch you. Why would I punch you?

ROSIN: Instead, they went to Thomas's house to play video games. And while they were playing, Wesley got a text from his on-again-off-again girlfriend. She said in the text that she kissed someone. It wasn't the first time she'd said that, but this time she also said that she didn't want Wesley to call or text her anymore. Wesley threw the remote control across the room and went home. Here's his mom, Peg.

MCKINLEY: He walked in the front door. I was folding clothes, laundry. And I had the stack in my hand. And I said to him as he passed by me - he had friends - it was Friday. He had friends coming over. I said, made you some cookies. What time is Ash and everybody coming over?

And he walked in his room, and he dropped his book bag. And he walked out the glass doors, the sliding doors to the back. Never spoke to me, which was really unusual because I was sick. And my Wesley would have said, you know, how are you feeling today? What's going on?

He didn't say anything to me. He just walked past me and then didn't go to the chair, which he normally went to. But as I'm putting the clothes away. I saw him walk past the window. And I'm banging on the window. Wes, Wes. I called him, and I said, there's something wrong. I'm calling Wesley, and he's not answering me. And he said, I'll try to call him. And with that, they were at the door. Tommy was dead.

ROSIN: They were the cops. They came to the door. And they told Peg that Wesley had gone to an abandoned house around the corner and killed himself.

LISLE: I wish Thomas would've punched him. Who knows?

ROSIN: In the weeks after Wesley's death, the community of North Port mourned the loss of this beautiful boy who could've one day gone on to Juilliard. How could this kid have given up on his future self? The one person who seemed to have some idea was Brittany Palumbo.

A few days after he died, Brittany posted a long note on his Facebook page. She wrote, I don't exactly know if suicide is the right answer to escape all your problems. But I hope you are free of them now. By that point, Brittany's own dream of her future self, going to UCF, being with her boyfriend and her best friend - it was falling apart.

After the hypnosis session with Dr. Kenney, Brittany's SAT score only went up by 11 points, not enough to get her into UCF. Her best friend, the one she was supposed to room with - they'd had an argument. They weren't speaking. And her boyfriend - he'd broken up with her. In fact, he said he didn't want to talk to her anymore. He told her that he needed a real break.

PALUMBO: Sad. Sad.

ROSIN: This is her mom, Patty, again. Patty knew that her daughter was in bad shape. So she was keeping a very close eye on her.

PALUMBO: She never wanted anybody to see her like that. So she hid that even from us. And then I heard her cry sometimes at night. I'd listen outside of her door.

ROSIN: On May 3, 2011, Patty and Brittany officially gave up on her original dream for her future self. There would be no UCF. Instead, she was going to Valencia.

PALUMBO: It was a community college so it wasn't like an application process that was like when we tried to get into UCF. It was just fill out the paperwork and give them a credit card in. And she said, now we're done? And I said, now we're done. And she said, OK. Well, Valencia it is.

ROSIN: The next day, when Brittany came home from school, she asked her mom for a favor.

PALUMBO: Said she was low on gas. And could she drive my car to go down here to CVS and pick up some eyeliner? And I said OK. I gave her my car keys. She left. She came back. When she came back, she put a little brown bag on the counter that had an eyeliner. She said she was going in to lay down and take a nap. And at 6 o'clock, my husband and I went to go get her. Or I went to go knock on her door. And it was locked. And we kept banging on the door. And she didn't answer. So then we went in through her bedroom window, through the pool.

ROSIN: She had taken her own life.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED BOY #4: In 10 years, I'm hoping to be - I'm hoping...

UNIDENTIFIED BOY #5: Professionally playing oboe.

UNIDENTIFIED GIRL #2: Professional volleyball player.

UNIDENTIFIED BOY #6: Professional soccer player.

UNIDENTIFIED BOY #4: In 10 years..

UNIDENTIFIED BOY #7: I want to be...

UNIDENTIFIED GIRL #3: I want to be...

UNIDENTIFIED BOY #8: I want to be a millionaire.

ROSIN: There's no more hypnosis at North Port High School. Principal George Kenney resigned, moved away. And he isn't working in education anymore. A year after the suicides, family members of the children sued the school for negligence. The case settled out of court, so it was never decided whether hypnosis contributed to those deaths.

To the families of the kids who died, Dr. Kenney is a villain, a guy peddling snake oil, a false profit. But a lot of people in North Port still regard him as a hero, the one guy who was trying to do everything he possibly could to help their kids reach their dreams when other people just wouldn't bother.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #5: Be anything.

UNIDENTIFIED GIRL #4: Pediatrician.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #5: Do anything.

UNIDENTIFIED BOY #9: Therapist.

UNIDENTIFIED GIRL #5: Forensic scientist.

UNIDENTIFIED BOY #9: Finish with my Ph.D.

UNIDENTIFIED BOY #10: Pediatric surgeon.

ROSIN: In America, we tell people to dream big - that they can be anything they want to be, regardless of who they are now. We say this to rich kids, and we say it to poor kids - brown, black and white - kids who may have no models or concepts in their heads for how to become those things.

DAPHNA OYSERMAN: One of the boys looked at me and said, what am I hoping to be like? And I said, yeah. And he said to me, well, I would hope to be the first man on the sun.

ROSIN: Daphna Oyserman is a psychology professor at the University of Southern California. She's interviewed hundreds of adolescents about their imagined future selves. This particular kid, the sun traveler...

OYSERMAN: He was probably somewhere between 13 and 15. And this question really captured his imagination.

ROSIN: Except that he was in juvie when he told her that. In his case, he would be lucky if he graduated from high school. So when she was talking to him, what went through Daphna's head is basically what goes through all of our heads when we encounter a future self that seems so out of reach. What is the right thing to tell this kid?

OYSERMAN: Do we have a duty to elevate kids' aspirations? Do we have a duty to sober kids up and, you know, tell them what's really realistic?

ROSIN: On the one hand if you are realistic, then aren't you dimming a light, making this kid's days duller and his dreams seem ridiculous? Telling him, yeah. In America, everyone has a right to dream - everyone except you.

But on the other hand, if you encourage him - dream big. Reach for that Ph.D. Try on the astronaut suit - aren't you just being willfully blind to a hard reality that the American dream is nearly impossible to achieve? This is the dilemma Dr. Kenney faced. And, according to Daphna Oyserman, at least, he made a classic error, pinning the kids to such a specific and singular version of their future self that anything else seemed like failure.

OYSERMAN: It set kids up to feel really badly about themselves. Instead of setting students up to interpret difficulties along the way, fears along the way as part of the process, you've reframed it as a flaw in themselves and make kids feel that whatever failures are permanent. That one thing was my essence. So if I can't have that, there is no meaning.

ROSIN: The thing about introducing new concepts to kids - to anyone, even to yourself - it's noble but also dangerous work. Eventually, new concepts could expand your horizons, make your life richer and fuller.

But one of the things we heard over and over again as we learned about concepts is that, in the short term, it's stressful. And it can put you at odds with your family, your world and your old self. So do it carefully, slowly and with open eyes about how much meticulous work is required. There are no shortcuts, no magic keys that can unlock your amazing, new, future self because maybe there just isn't one single future self.

It's more like a dance you have to do with lots of future selves. And you can't hold on to anyone too tightly. And you might even consider the idea that you don't need any future self - that 10 years from now, you could be more or less who you are, just a little older. And that's fine.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED BOY #8: In 10 years...

UNIDENTIFIED GIRL #6: In 10 years...

UNIDENTIFIED GIRL #7: In 10 years...

UNIDENTIFIED GIRL #8: In 10 years, I'll be happy, hopefully.

UNIDENTIFIED GIRL #9: In 10 years, I'll be fabulous.

ROSIN: Patty, Brittany's mom - she worries that this is what she got wrong. What rolls around over and over in her head is, did she push Brittany too hard? Did she make Brittany feel like a failure if she didn't get into UCF, if she didn't live out the college dream?

Sounds to me like one of the lessons you're drawing here is there is some danger in dreaming that high.

PALUMBO: Yes.

ROSIN: Yes.

See, Patty has another child, a son who easily sailed through school. He was on the fast track to the kind of professional life Patty had always imagined for her kids. When Brittany died, he was a freshman in college, and he was about to take his finals. He missed them. The school gave him a second chance and then a third. But he couldn't do it. He called up his mom and said...

PALUMBO: And he just said, mom, you know, I know this is going to be hard. I know it's going to be something you don't want to hear.

ROSIN: He was dropping out.

PALUMBO: He kept assuring me, I will go back. I will go back. And all I kept thinking was that's exactly what I said to my mother after the first year when I quit, you know?

ROSIN: She could understand, but she couldn't believe it. As a waitress, Patty worked nights, weekends, holidays. And she did not want that kind of life for her son.

PALUMBO: There was no doubt in my mind that he would've completed college - that that was where he wanted to be - not just what I wanted for him. That was him. But his concentration level, he said, was the worst. Sit in a quiet room by yourself, Mom, and try to think about something other than - and you can't.

ROSIN: He took a job at a mall. He's been there for 5 years and worked his way up to area manager. The other day, he called his mom. And he asked her, was she proud of him?

PALUMBO: So even now I think he's doing what he's doing to show us that, even though he didn't go to college - that even though he didn't do everything the way that we had planned - that he's done OK for himself. But he wants that feeling that we are proud of him.

ROSIN: Wants that feeling because it's really hard to shake the sense that you're a failure if you don't become that one future self that you set out to be.

When you tell him, like, there's no shame in being - there's no shame in this. There's no shame in that. Do you believe that in your heart?

PALUMBO: I want to say yes. But, honestly, I don't know.

ROSIN: Do you still tell Ryan, you can be anything you want to be?

PALUMBO: Yeah, because I believe you can.

ROSIN: Do you think that makes him feel like a disappointment?

PALUMBO: Wow. Now that you say it like that - because am I not accepting him for what he is, then, if I'm telling him to - oh, Hanna, I'll tell you this. Being a mom, I mean, for a job for me is the most important job that there is - is raising a child and being a mother. I certainly wish there was more of a handbook.

ROSIN: A handbook that would tell you exactly which proportions of self-acceptance plus drive would get you where you want to go safely. But there isn't.

SPIEGEL: INVISIBILIA's Hanna Rosin.

And a word now about our other podcast this week. In it, we tell two stories which look in a different way at our ideas about ourselves and how they affect our life. Our own Lulu Miller is back with a story about a man who self-identifies as a square.

CHAD: (Laughter) I'm a professor at a business school.

SPIEGEL: And the other story is about a woman who's a dreamer.

TANYA MARQUARDT: (Unintelligible).

SPIEGEL: They both were chugging along in their 30s, knowing exactly who they were. And then...

LULU MILLER, BYLINE: And then one day...

ABBY WENDLE, BYLINE: One day...

MILLER: ...He was taking a train down the northwest coast.

WENDLE: She woke from a deep, deep sleep and heard...

ROSIN: A very different side of themselves suddenly emerged.

MARQUARDT: (Imitating giggling, laughing) Like, what? What is that?

WENDLE: Lord birthday.

CHAD: Yeah, that's it.

SPIEGEL: How these two people responded to these new selves could not have been more different.

ROSIN: You can listen to this episode tomorrow. It'll be in your feed then. It's called True You. Enjoy.

SPIEGEL: Now, if you haven't heard the earlier episodes in our concept album, you can go back. There is a bear fairy tale, a musical of umpires and the discovery of a new emotion. And if you're listening on Apple podcasts, please, please, please write us a review. We will be forever grateful.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NO REGRETS")

AESOP ROCK: (Singing) Lucy was 7 and wore a head of blue barrettes. City-born into this world with no knowledge and no regrets.

SPIEGEL: INVISIBILIA is hosted by me, Alix Spiegel.

ROSIN: And me, Hanna Rosin.

SPIEGEL: Our senior editor is Anne Gudenkauf. Our executive producer is Jeff Rogers. INVISIBILIA is produced by Megan Kane (ph), Yowei Shaw and Abby Wendle. Our showrunner is Leeanna Simons (ph).

ROSIN: We had help from Lulu Miller, Micaela Rodriguez, Anastasia Cupstis (ph), Mark Memmott, Micah Ratner, Nancy Shute, Meredith Rizzo, Jon Hamilton, Maya Dukmasova and Viviane Fairbank.

SPIEGEL: Our technical director is Andy Huether. And our vice president of programming is Anya Grundmann. Special thanks to...

ROSIN: Ellyn Gamberg for schooling us on hypnosis and Aesop Rock.

SPIEGEL: For naming themselves after a Greek storyteller and for letting us use the classic that you are bobbing your head to right now, "No Regrets."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NO REGRETS")

AESOP ROCK: (Singing) One, two, three. That's the speed of the seed. A, B, C. That's the speed of the need. You can dream a little dream, or you can live a little dream. I'd rather live it 'cause dreamers chase but never get it.

ROSIN: Also to Ryan Deaver for his guitar and for trying to make the world a better place. And to the band Peals for letting us use their song "Believers" from the album "Walking Field" and to Xander Clinthorne for his song "In A Plane Above The Clouds."

SPIEGEL: And now for our moment of non-Zen.

ROSIN: OK. Bieber music. (Imitating music).

SPIEGEL: That's INVISIBILIA.

ROSIN: Thank you so much for listening to INVISIBILIA. As our season nears its end, we'd really like to hear from you, our listeners. Please, please take a minute to answer a short survey about the show. Just go to npr.org/invisibilia/survey. Again, that's npr.org/invisibilia/survey. Thank you so much.

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