By Chris Moylan
Paring the apple of expression
“Nurse, would you
remove just a bit here please…”
“Hair. The nurse
is going to shave a bit more hair.”
“Are you sure? Do
you have to remove hair?!” the subject sputtered at the bodies looming over him
in the harsh overhead lights of the clinic. It was uncomfortable lying strapped
to a bed, in this harsh light, with those peculiarly tall bodies bending over
him. He didn’t like this one bit.
“Just a small patch of hair,”
the doctor said, with an exaggerated calm that did a poor job of ‘No one
will notice and it will grow back.’ “Now, the nurse is waiting to shave you.
Can she do that? You won’t make it difficult, will you? We can’t sedate you, as
I have explained. So I’ll have to ask you, again, to please just relax and let
us do our work. Nothing bad is going to happen. Absolutely nothing bad is going
“I understand. I’m fine.”
“Good, now we’re ready to fit the device….”
“Will this hurt?”
The brain imaging device was a crown of electrodes that fit
neatly over the skull, and even with all that went wrong he never did
experience pain. The original purpose of the study was to examine body
dysmorphia and deep memory, employing verbal association cues to light up
regions of the brain associated with corporal self-image in various stages of
personal developmental: fat-pizza, fat-lollipop, fat-momma, fat-dadda, and so
on. The hope was to delete a neural historical record, in a sense, of
dysmorphic verbal cues. If obsessive body images were learned, perhaps they
could be unlearned through various forms of intervention, from traditional
talking cures to drugs and so on.
“I’ll say a word and you’ll say the first
word that comes
to mind, ok? Just like we discussed.”
“That’s all? No scalpels or needles or anything…”
It wasn’t all. A power surge and a wiring problem in
brain imaging device delivered a precisely aimed zap of electricity into the
brain, ablating the very word. “Fat” was burned out of his head, in a sense. As
we were to discover, he would never speak it, recognize it, or write it again.
As far as he was concerned, ‘fat’ was an irregular verb in Swahili, or a
Swedish obscenity. It could be anything because to him it meant nothing. The
test was terminated as a safety precaution, the instruments checked, and surge
protection improved. When the study resumed the next day the word ‘fat’
registered no response on the scan monitor. It was gone.
“How do you feel?” asked the doctor.
“Fine. Relaxed. Start the test when you’re ready.”
“Not concerned that something will go wrong?”
“Should I be?”
“Have you checked yourself in the mirror recently?”
“What an odd question! Did I spill something? Miss a
shaving? Come on, just tell me. Everyone makes a mistake…”
“Still an anxiety response?” said the nurse assisting
“Moderate, in my view,” said the doctor.
The patient’s dysmorphia was so improved that an extensive
battery of body image cues was required to register even a modest indication of
body image distortion. The patient’s weight, which actually was on the lean
side, was consistent, but his perception of weight had changed radically. It
was tempting to remove other words associated with weight control, but the
ethics of such a procedure were ambiguous at best. It took decades to overcome
the stigma associated with electro-convulsive therapy; how would the profession
react to electrically induced aphasia, however targeted?
The question never arose, thanks to his research assistant,
the same nurse who performed the menial tasks of shaving the patient,
delivering instruments, preparing the intake, and so on. It was thanks to her
that Trim Thought was born.
“You can’t just send him home,” she said,
when the doctor
announced his plans to interrupt the study to perform safety checks and
recalibrate the instruments. “Look at the improvements in his condition since
the so-called accident. He’s a new man—more confident, at ease, and personable.
Why not complete the treatment?”
“It isn’t a treatment, for one thing. We don’t
clearance, for another. He volunteered for one study; we can’t volunteer him
for another, however strongly we might believe that doing so would benefit
“Then perform the procedure on me. I volunteer. I’m
as unhappy with my body as he was with his. Delete any words you like just so
long as I lose that feeling of frustration with every extra pound or ounce,
real or imagined, every wrinkle and gray hair.”
Nurse was an attractive woman in her late thirties, no
nonsense and extremely professional when on task, quietly teasing and ironic in
down time. The doctor looked at her as if she had just offered to jump off
a cliff for the sake of science.
“I don’t believe any of that,” he said, perhaps
earnestly than he intended. “You, of all people, don’t have extra pounds to
concern yourself with, and if you have gray hairs I don’t see them. You’re not
appropriate for the study. And there is
“Of course I am,” she said, delighted to see him
flustered. “It makes perfect sense to examine a woman in my age range with
self-image issues. If this research has any clinical applications it will be
with middle-aged women, professional, busy, with the disposable income to
invest in a treatment, or intervention if you like, that will improve
confidence, self-image, and general well-being.”
“This is nonsense. You don’t need help in any of
areas, clearly, and I don’t need help in, well, any areas…”
“Thank you, doctor, but you’ll have to accept that
one instance I know more than you do,” she said, without caring to elaborate on
what area the doctor was deficient. “Now let’s make a list of key terms,
beginning with weight, calorie, fat…”
“And you believe that a selective aphasia of terms for
weight and aging will help your self-image or, for that matter, your figure?”
“It already has.”
They opened the first Trim
Thought Clinic six months later. It was a former martial arts studio
in a low-rent district in a low-rent town an hour west of Boston near the
border with New Hampshire—a place time hadn’t forgot, but just didn’t care to
think about anymore… The first clients were nurses and caretakers from the
nursing home: women, most of them middle aged and divorced, some with grown
children still at home. They came expecting exercise leavened with self-help
exhortations. They got trimmed instead.
With all that it has become, it is strange to think of Trim
Thought as a simple diet substitute, but that is how it was conceived
originally. Don’t lose pounds, lose thinking
about pounds. Don’t go on a flesh diet; try a thought diet instead. The body
isn’t the problem; it’s the mind! Slim thought and the body will follow: no
pills, no hunger, no restrictive meal plans or regimens; just a few simple
questions at intake, then a quick brain imaging procedure and the patented
semantic ablation, done in less time than it takes to get a haircut. Was the
procedure reversible? No, thankfully, it was not reversible; who would want it
to be? Did it cause brain damage? No, merely brain adjustment. Most clients saw
an improvement in work productivity, family adjustment, and even marital
intimacy. These were the side-effects.
In those days, Our Founder did most of the trimming
himself. Nurse did the intake and the initial workup. She listened to the
client’s list of complaints and hang-ups and categorized them: clusters,
blocks, tics, loops and daggers, paper flowers and paint by numbers, thought
formations that thwarted, distracted, dragged down, bored, put down, inflated,
prettified, weighed down…
Eventually, he perfected the use of brain imaging and
electro-deletion, later called semantic ablation. He learned that his first
clients required more aggressive interventions than they requested if
satisfactory results were to be achieved. Constellations of morbid desires,
memories, and recriminations spun out from the most prosaic complaints. All had
to be erased for the desired effect, be it greater self-control or a generally
improved sense of wellbeing.
All that mattered, in the end, is that the treatment did
have the desired effect. The change is documented in the early testimonials and
later in the clinical film work that our Founder commissioned when grant
support started to come in. The typical patient sitting in the recovery room
felt easier and lighter within minutes of completing treatment. A burden had
been lifted, a burden that she didn’t even know she had until that moment.
One patient described having waged a war of aggression
against her own body her whole adult life, punishing herself with exercise,
diets, hot yoga, long hikes, and bike rides, all to gain a sense of inner
resolve and acceptance that she achieved with five easy treatments.
Of course, hardly anyone was satisfied with one or even
five treatments. As so often was the case, Our Nurse led the way, sculpting her
cerebral cortex with treatment after treatment, paring away negative thoughts,
morbid associations, destructive trigger and hook words…until the peace and
happiness she radiated gave her an irresistible spiritual charisma. She became
a truly beautiful person. And that wasn’t the only thing. Her desires rose to
the surface and stayed there; the impulses and wishes we repress she explored
with joy, and her means to express them grew simpler, earthier, and deeper.
In TV commercials from those early days she is a slinky,
low-voiced Lauren Bacall with a Boston accent: tall and slender in a nurse’s
uniform that, no matter how starched and buttoned, managed to inspire the most
lascivious following on social media. It didn’t take long for her to draw
attention from agents and producers, from local news channels and newspaper
columnists. Our Leader was fascinated. It was if a new planet had dropped into his
sky, warm and remote, mysteriously beautiful. Only he could gather her energies
to himself. Only he was worthy of her.
But, as Nurse was the first to point out, a lot of the
women who underwent ablations at the clinic had a certain something after treatment,
ironically something they didn’t have before. With some it was an uncomplicated
sensuality and humor, with others a candor and desire that could be
devastating, delirious, or just refreshing.
Things didn’t take off, however, until that actor walked
asking relief from his outbursts and impulses, his infamous drive to blow up
whenever his career or personal life were going well. I assisted in the
ablation. I was an intern at a local hospital at the time, volunteering my
services for the chance to witness the behavioral changes firsthand. I was
devoted to the Trim Cause; my decision to stick out med school after a rough
start came within days of my treatment. More than that, I was devoted to Our
Leader and Nurse. I came up with those designations, I’m proud to say, and I
made sure that others adopted them. Our Leader and Nurse were my saviors. They
banished the scared, self-doubting me and released the competent, focused me,
the doctor-in-training. Imagine how that felt amidst the chaos of the times, the
violence and scarcity, the riots blooming and spreading like outbreaks of the
flu? Our Leader gave me hope. And Nurse gave me, well, what is the word for
what she gave me? I don’t think one exists.
It was obvious how important this case would be. The entire
staff took special care to ensure the treatment would exceed and not just meet
the patient’s expectations. The workup alone took several days. The legal
consultations, P.R. arrangements on his side, and press arrangements on ours
were all a big headache. My own small contribution was a cocktail of mild
sedatives and anti-anxiety drugs to induce a relaxed, cooperative state without
the patient losing consciousness. Some patients, or shall I say clients, had in
the past exhibited such agitated behavior and vocalizations so as to interfere
with the procedure. Although my mix eliminated the problem, I’m afraid this
contribution has received far too many accolades in the profession than it
deserves, and mention it only for the sake of this record.
The actor’s ablation was more extensive than had been
attempted previously. But when he—after the staff, including me, submitted to a
name ablation to insure privacy (which an assistant could look up now, but I
wouldn’t retain the name)—emerged from the clinic and stepped before the
microphones, anyone could see that he was a changed man. The wrinkles in his
face were gone. That pinched, self-consciously naughty expression he’d affected
for so many years had vanished. He looked healthier, taller even, and more mature.
His posture improved with his demeanor. I had never been prouder of Our
Leader than when I saw the transformation in that actor. This was not a
clinical outcome, but a work of art, visionary and world-changing. I could
barely hold back the tears when we led him outside to meet the press.
“Jim (let’s say)! How do you feel?” a reporter
know. A couple of dozen reporters covered the procedure, crowding around the
front steps of the clinic while the locals danced around them waving gang signs
for the cameras and mugging behind the heavily made up women reporters trying
to conduct interviews with anyone who had the slightest background information
to share about Our Leader, even if it was just his usual, rather meager takeout
lunch order…When the actor emerged from the clinic the ordeal was well worth
“Great,” he said, with a hint of a smile, an expression
that point entirely out of his repertoire.
“Notice any changes in your mood or thought processes?”
asked a network reporter in the front row.
“Could you describe them?” he persisted.
“Possibly,” he said, to laughter that was as nervous
was appreciative. He didn’t laugh or smile.
“Any thoughts on how this will affect your career?”
another network reporter.
“No thoughts. Action. Just action.”
Like the nurse, this star of lowbrow comedies discovered a
quiet confidence, a sexiness that no one would have suspected previously. He
walked away from the press of microphones as if he were leaving an empty diner
and made his way into the woods, emerging eventually to a second career in
small independent films, a laconic actor hovering between self-parody and
He was soon followed by a rock star whose career was
brought back from the dead by a series of ablations that transformed him from a
purveyor of cringe-worthy romantic ballads into the founder of the New
Minimalism. And next came a politician emerging from sex scandals and alcohol
detox treatment to reveal an understated gravitas and simplicity no one would
have suspected that he had in him…
This was the beginning of my worry and sadness. It should
have been otherwise. Most of us, including Our Leader, celebrated the
endorsements and testimonials by celebrity clients. There was the feeling
generally that the Trim Cause was entering a phase of exponential growth and
popularity. It was no longer a matter of drawing clients but of managing the
influx that was bound to come. We wouldn’t have to go begging any longer;
we would clear the neural pathways of the American people and everything else
would drop into place.
Nurse kept her own counsel regarding the celebrity Trims,
but it was evident that she disapproved. She didn’t complain, not publicly
anyway, but late at night, after a long day of procedures and post-procedure
checks, she and I would talk sometimes over a cup of tea in the staff room.
Talk is maybe not the right word. Nurse had achieved such
an advanced state of neural economy that she used words as rare landmarks in
gradual unfolding of gestures, silences, sighs, and subtle shifts in posture
and expression. Or I communed and she, hardly any words (so many having been
ablated already), complained of setting Trim Thought in search of fame and
The treatments were no longer about weight loss. For that
matter, they were not to be seen as treatments. They were life-style
enhancements, ego loss sessions, and synaptic reviews. They were franchised
reflexive interventions, salves for the daily news fever dream of Canadian
cyclones, Rocky Mountain dust storms, and subway flash floods. They were
efficient, timely, and profitable as all hell. They spread from the Boston area
throughout the northeast, with clinics as well in Miami, San Francisco and LA.
Imitators sprang up around the country. We didn’t bother
trying to stop them; ours was the trusted name in cognitive reduction. The
occasional attempts to legislate regulation of the procedure died in committee
thanks to Trim makeovers we provided to key legislators as a public service.
You might remember the wave of sex scandals that swept through Congress that
year, the suicides that followed, and that endless testimony before the special
prosecutor. It was a hard time; we offered the only proved effective remedy. I
couldn’t blame anyone for accepting what help science could offer to get them
I worked twelve to sixteen hours a day trimming blocks and
negative cycles, simplifying unwanted complications. In most of the larger
cities in the U.S., Trim Thought replaced coffee, overtook yoga, and made
spinning classes a thing of memory. Trim Thought brought a revival of American
vernacular clip-talk, the Hemingway-into-Gary Cooper-into-Clint Eastwood
laconic speech that used to evoke the wide open spaces of the West when there
was a West. Trim Kids just out of college spoke their own patois of simplified
grammar and part words called De-Talk, an un-language as soft as rotted wood.
TrimThought turned used car salesmen into minimalist poets and made politicians
sound like frontier trappers, which is what they had wanted to sound like all
along but just didn’t know it.
There was a lot more dead time on the radio for a while as
disc jockeys adjusted to their trimmer verbal skills. Gradually the dead time
was filled with music and everyone was happy. People slept better. They argued
less…and less. The divorce rate declined. The trim benefits kept revealed
themselves in steady increments. It was like we’d found a cure for cancer, and the
cancer was words.
Less said, less thought, less sad. Trim Smiles… I still
remember those ads from years back. Trim Time. I loved them. I loved everything
about Trim Thought. At night, after a long shift, I skimmed through the photos
and testimonials on social media, occasionally contributing words of
encouragement or congratulations. I opened different accounts using assumed
identities to post versions of my own story. The few women I allowed into my
life at this time—it was easy enough to find company now that the tethers
of shyness and fear were trimmed away—these lucky few were never invited into
this part of my life. Trim was my secret mistress, my passion.
Four years after the start of the first Trim Thought
enterprise Our Founder relocated to New York to oversee the opening of several
facilities in Williamsburg and Chelsea. Nurse remained in Mass. to oversee the
expansion of the facility into a campus setting outside town. Trim Thought International
moved to a
thirty-acre spread complete with horse barn, art studio and state-of-the-art
There was talk of bringing Trim Thought to Quebec as a
trial run for an entree into the Europe. Lawyers frequented the Trim Campus,
and secretive business consultants with retinues of personal assistants and
secretaries, each prettier than the next.
Nurse contributed little to the negotiations. She listened,
mostly, and nodded her head from time to time. She continued receiving
treatments. I administered them as the most experienced clinician after our Leader,
who was too preoccupied with administrative work to do them himself.
Gradually, the neural ablations reduced her working
vocabulary considerably, perhaps by as much as two thirds. Of the words that
remained she generally confined herself to just a few: yes, no, maybe, later,
please. Nonetheless, I could sense her displeasure with the direction that Trim
Thought was going, the growing emphasis on profit margins and subsidiary income
streams: Trim Music and booklets, instructional videos, Trim Wear and Trim Food.
She would not allow mention of these things in her
presence. She spent more and more time alone, withdrawn into the dry climate of
her silences, a totem animated by flickers of sadness in her eyes. One could
see that our Leader was wounded by this disapproval, although he maintained a
reverential tone in her presence. He worshipped her, as he had from the
beginning. You can use all those words for what she was to him; muse, goddess,
inspiration… I can’t recall the rest. But worship is different from love. They
were no longer seen leaving the Trim Center together at the end of the day.
Developments in New York required Our Leader’s personal
intervention for a week or more. If he had any reservations about leaving the
campus in our hands, he did not show it. A small army of consultants and
industry advisors remained at the campus to continue their work on plans for
the rollout of TrimThought abroad. Nurse presided over meetings in Our Leader’s
absence, and I took notes and acted as her go-between.
Nurse listened quietly to the pitches by the lawyers and
industry executives, and glanced at the fact sheets handed to her by the pretty
assistants of the lawyers and industry executives. Finally, she motioned for me
to receive her whispered instructions. I leaned close, gripping the side of the
conference table to steady myself against the intoxicating influence of her
“Who are us?” she whispered. “Make it known.”
I understood. Of course, this was the essential matter.
“Shouldn’t we consult Our Leader about this matter?” I asked.
“Make it known. Now.”
“He might not want everyone to be put on the spot like
that. Are you sure?”
My heart quickened, though I dared not allow myself to
think that her love was for anyone but Our Leader. I didn’t think this. What my
heart believed I cannot say. “We could just put in a quick call…just to be
“Nurse has instructed me to ask one simple question to
of you in turn,” I said. “A simple yes or no answer will suffice. I begin with
you, sir. Are you Trim?”
The executive required an explanation from one of his
assistants. He smoothed his silk tie over a comfortable belly and stared off
into the distance as if to compose his answer. He was a stern, bald man in his
fifties, an executive who, no doubt, had little recent experience composing an
answer to anything. “No,” he said, finally. “I am not Trim…not yet…but intend
to be, very soon.”
“Yes or no. Are you Trim?” I asked another person
table, a woman this time, and she smiled as if that were a ridiculous question
before also answering no. I asked another, and then another, all around the
table. The answer was always the same.
“So, are we to conclude,” I said, “that the
business representatives of our movement do not endorse Trim Thought? Do you
find fault with it in some way? Do you believe that you are superior to all
others who are Trim, enthusiastically Trim? Is that what you would have us
All denied that this was the case. A denial required a
substantial demonstration of good faith, a convincing assurance that,
appearances to the contrary, these consultants and lawyers were fully as
convinced of the benefits of Trim Thought as we were. Nurse, in her whispered
conference with me, was definite as to what form this assurance should take.
All gathered in that room were required to submit a Trim plan for themselves if
they were to be considered friends of the movement. A few walked out in
protest, although in their best interest they came back again. Others argued
and pleaded, claiming the press of commitments elsewhere or the need for
special preparations at their home offices. One man trembled during his Trim
intake, becoming so distraught that a small spot of wet appeared on the front
of his trousers. Why would a man reach such a state when millions of
ordinary citizens gladly submitted to a procedure that had proven safe and
effective? Even now it makes me laugh to think of such childishness.
All of them submitted in the end. The clinic was occupied
with this project well into the early hours of the morning. It was exhausting,
but at the time I didn’t feel the least tired. Nurse required my assistance,
and the word ‘love’ was mentioned in the request. Love wove through all I did.
I pushed the syringe into an arm muscle with love and pushed love into his
vein, soothing and calming him so he would be suitably receptive to the searing
kiss of love in the synapses, the sweet blank of aphasia that opens a social
space for the penetration of understanding and submission…
Black, large, their rotors thumping the roof of the low sky
like a jealous husband at a closed door, a half dozen helicopters touched down
in the wheat field behind the main facility. Men in suits came out first. They
were tall and hard. They wore their dark sunglasses as if they were dialed in
to the mind of Krishna. Our Leader dropped down last, improbably white haired
and ethereal, walking in the clouds of dust and wheat seed whipped up by the
The security men fanned out across the campus and rounded
up everyone they found: staff, clients, the few lawyers and executives who
remained from their treatments, and, finally, Nurse and me. Our Leader met the
two of us in one of the treatment rooms. He closed the door on the two guards
“It’s time for you to take a rest,” he said
“You’ve taken on too much responsibility and it has made you brittle and
fatigued. I worry about you.”
She sat on the edge of the inclining chair used for
procedures, electrodes on plastic tubes hovering over her like the tentacles of
a large squid. The light bleached her face, simplified her angular features
into a placid, waxen mask. She was expressionless, corpse-like. He traced the
tip of his forefinger along her cheek and down her throat, his nail following
the line of her carotid artery.
“You were trying to help, I know. But you can’t
unless money wants to be Trimmed. I wish it were otherwise. Soon it could be.”
His nail slipped down the open throat of her blouse and pushed into her chest,
drawing a thin line of blood. “We’re going to simplify things so that mistake
doesn’t happen again.”
Nurse made the slightest movement of her eyes, as if in
acceptance of what was to happen. But she wasn’t looking at Our Leader. She was
looking beyond Him, to me.
The one true advance in the anti-anxiety cocktail is how
quickly it works. I doubt that the prick of the syringe even registered before
the drugs dropped him to his knees as if in prayer.
“This isn’t going to hurt,” I told the doctor,
never undergone the procedure. I helped him onto the table. Remarkable, isn’t
it, that a professional who had administered the procedure, invented it no
less, could show such concern.
“It won’t hurt at all. I’ll just remove a
little hair for
the contacts right here, and here….”
A radical ablation was necessary in this case. I think it
was Michelangelo who claimed that sculpture is just removing stone to find the
figure within the block. Trimming is much the same. Trim and trim to find the
placid, real self in the block, the Edenic true self untroubled by the
knowledge of good and evil, knowing only the one sublime command: to enjoy.
You will know this soon, and when you do you will forget
this story. I tell everyone and I make everyone forget. It’s a new world, isn’t