David grew up in the LA area, moved to Minnesota for graduate school, and has lived here ever since. It was here that he met and married his first Marianne, and eventually also his second, and current Mary Ann, while building his family with them both.
His professional life has revolved around his career as a Professor of Psychology at the University of Minnesota, with a particular and longtime interest in hypnosis. David has an uncanny ability to put you to sleep, or rather, into a relaxed state of hypnosis. He has been on the forefront of teaching the world the array of psychological and medical goals that can be achieved using the tools that he has helped develop.
We met recently at a coffee shop near his home in St. Anthony Park.
OK, so give me the nickel tour of your life.
Where do you want to start, Los Angeles?
Sounds good to me, go for it.
I was born in LA and my parents were good middle class working folks. My dad traveled up and down the coast selling clothes, women’s sportswear. And my mom was the secretary – to the secretary – of (Hollywood mogul) Louis B. Mayer. And one of her jobs was keeping track of all his racehorses. So there was a racehorse named King David, that she had named after me. And there was another named Miss Peep for my sister Michelle. They used to call her Peepee Waffle. So among her other tasks, my mother got to name Mayer’s race horses.
How did King David do?
I don’t have the slightest idea! I don’t think he did too well.
I grew up and went to school in LA during the war. I remember the antiaircraft guns were positioned on the golf course just behind my house, apparently in case of attack. They were never fired. They were just there. It may have been because we were close enough to the Douglas Aircraft factory.
We lived in the neighborhood of Monte Mar Vista, but when my folks moved out there it was on the very edge of farmland. It was a very nice neighborhood. My sister and I could walk to school every day … uphill both directions.
I could see that one coming.
My dad came from Saint Louis, and mom came from England, and they met in the US after the First World War. They were very active in the Reform Jewish community, both before and after getting married, so I was raised at the Wilshire Boulevard Temple.
My sister is now a retired speech pathologist living in Florida, and grandmothering. Her name is Michelle, but we usually call her ‘Mich’. And before that it was Peepee Waffle, but I have no idea where that came from.
By the time I began grade school the war had begun, so Mich and I were sent to a boarding school in the country, in Topanga Canyon – I assume it was for our safety. For Mich it was difficult leaving home. But for me it was very liberating. It was a farm school called Barton’s. I milked cows and raised goats, and all the kids spent an hour working in the fields every day. When the weather was nice we would put our beds up in the trees. It sounds very unusual, maybe even harsh, now. But for me growing up, it was an amazing time. And we went home every other weekend.
And then for high school I went to Harvard School in LA. It was very nice, a very academic place. But almost nobody was Jewish. It was an Episcopal school, so I learned the Nicene Creed and the Lords’ Prayer and that kind of stuff. I never did become a bar mitzvah, but truth to tell, in my day, at my temple almost nobody did. Of course, since my parents were both Sunday School teachers, I went to Sunday School through confirmation. I remember that there was a lot of emphasis on Bible stories and comparative religions. Of all the kids I knew, just one became a bar mitzvah – Dickie Baum. I don’t know why he did, and I didn’t go to his service. Nobody explained it to us at the time – I just knew that it happened.
What did you do after high school?
Recalling the conversation with his father.
“So what are you going to do in college David?”
Remember, this was in 1956 – my idea of a really good life was to work for an advertising agency and make a lot of money. Think Madmen. But I couldn’t tell him that.
“I don’t know, Dad”.
“Your mother and I always thought that it would be nice if you became a doctor.”
“OK Dad, I will go for premed.”
So that was it, “the conversation.” I went to Pomona College, which was a very good place. And the Biology Department had a program at the time where they said if you entered the premed program and you graduated, they would promise to place you in a medical school. It was a sure thing. It was a demanding program, but they said if you do it, we will get you into medical school somewhere.
So I said OK, and went to work. But then I hit organic chemistry, and my advisor said ‘David … I don’t think we can get you into medical school. Pick something else.’
So what did you pick next?
Parole work. I was taking sociology courses, and I decided I might be a parole officer. Then my folks introduced me to a friend that worked in that area, and he convinced me otherwise.
Then I got into psychology. That seemed to be OK with everyone. And one day I had an absolutely life changing event. I was walking down the hall and sat in on a poli sci class that was going on. The professor was trying to get students to respond to his interesting questions, and I answered from the back of the room. And then I did the same thing for several more days. And finally the professor asked me my name, and I told him that I wasn’t really registered. But he said that he would like me to join the colleges’ Model United Nations program, and I ended up becoming a delegate from Taiwan.
Eventually he asked what I was going to do after graduation, and when I told him that I was thinking about advertising, he shook his head and gave me an application for graduate school in Minnesota. At the time, the Ford Foundation was looking for people interested in the social services, and offering to send them to graduate school for free. He thought I would be a great candidate.
So I said “OK, I just have one question”.
“Where is Minnesota?”
And that is really how I ended up in Minnesota. I flew here, but on the way I made a stopover in Chicago to see a girlfriend from Pomona. She was still a senior, and we thought we had something great going on. But, as I walked down the ramp from the airplane she met me at the bottom, and immediately we both knew it was over. So I stayed for dinner, and her parents put me up in the guest room that night. In the morning I went on to Minnesota and never saw her again.
I got my PhD six years later. And during that time, I met this wonderful lady, my first Marianne. We connected at a meeting in the Hillel House on campus, and were married within about a year. We had a kid and a half while I was still in school at the U. First she had our daughter, Kathleen, and then she was pregnant with Jeffry when I graduated.
And again, it was an advisor that appeared and said “Here, take this.” He was recruiting psychologists for the Army’s Medical Service Corp. I had graduated from Pomona with an ROTC commission requirement that had been postponed while I was in graduate school, so I entered the army as a First Lieutenant, and finished two years later as a Captain.
This was in 1961, during the cold war and the Berlin Blockade. My advisor had a request from the Army Surgeon General, who was looking for psychologists to work in a counseling service, or who knew about programmed instruction, which was this hot topic in training, that the Army had bought into in a big way. And because of my work at the University Counseling Service, and my thesis research, I could do both. I spent my military years as a psychology officer, stationed at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, and so I missed the Berlin Call up.
And from there?
Then I went back to the University of Minnesota and went to work in the Student Counseling Service. I did that until I retired in 1995, while also doing research and teaching. I was Director of the Counseling Center on the St. Paul campus, and got a grant to develop computer based therapy. And along the way I took a course in what they then called “systematic desensitization.” Because my specialty had been test anxiety – working with kids who knew their coursework at home, but when they would sit down for an exam it would all disappear. So I taught study skills – how to study, how to review, how to memorize, how to practice taking tests.
And how to relax….. Even more. Even …. more. And on the day of the exam, you close your eyes. And you breathe… slowly… deeply. And you remember… everything. And you go in and you sit down. And notice how calm……..and confident……you feel as you look at the test question……..and recall that you read that…….you read about it.
By this time, suffice it to say, I was relaxed.
It works, it literally works. Anxious students remember and do well on tests. And one day somebody said, “My gosh, you would be good at hypnosis.” And at first I shuddered at the thought. But they said “No you are really good. You should get some training.” Eventually I did, and that has been a focus of mine ever since. And that started me off on a whole new career.
Where does hypnosis fit into conventional psychology?
In some places it’s accepted wholeheartedly. But in many other places it’s frowned upon. Often it is still seen as voodoo science – keep your eyes on the watch …you are in my power … you are getting sleepier and sleepier. The stuff from a Bella Lugosi movie.
So many people still think it’s demonic. But when you look at the history of hypnosis, it has been used for good since prehistoric times. There have been shamans and others throughout history, using the power of focus and suggestion for health and healing.
There are many physicians and other health care professionals here in Minnesota who use hypnosis as part of an integrated health science treatment program. It’s not a night club act.
Can anyone be hypnotized? Can you hypnotize yourself?
Absolutely! I had an inguinal hernia repaired and I did the hypnosis, the anesthesia for my surgery. And I was talking to the surgeon and nurse as they were working on me.
Were they a bit surprised?
They were quite surprised! And after it was over I wanted to get off the table and go home, but they wanted me to stay for recovery, and to sit in the wheel chair. So I said, “OK, but let’s not drag this out too long, I’ve got things to do.” The point is, I felt good about what was going on, and that I was participating in this process with them.
Over the years, I’ve become the President of the Minnesota Society of Clinical Hypnosis, and President of the American Society of Clinical Hypnosis, and I’ve been on the Board of the International Society of Hypnosis. And I have lectured around the world – in China, Australia, Europe, and Israel.
Do people respond differently to hypnosis?
Absolutely. There is probably a genetic basis for that. It can be related to the amount of dopamine that is released in the brain.
My take on this is that hypnosis is an evolutionary development. As humans have evolved from the instinctive and powerful fight, flight, or freeze response to stressors, we have developed the ability to stop and think about what is going on. The monkey hears the tiger and runs. The human hears the tiger and has the ability to stop and think – “Do I run, or throw a rock, or go back to the cave and get help?” If we learn to focus, then we can stop, and we can make that decision. That’s what hypnosis is all about.
So I am seeing some of the tools you must use, are there others?
Tonality and touch, and vision, and pacing, breathing. And saying “relax” as people breathe out, rather than when they breath in.
Can you tell me how your Judaism jives with your professional life.
For some, it’s probably verboten! There are some very strict, ancient Jewish laws about dealing with soothsayers. I think hypnotic practitioners would have been considered soothsayers, and it would have been unacceptable. For some fundamentalist believers, in and out of Judaism, hypnosis is demonic, it allows the devil in. That is sad, because hypnosis can do a lot of good.
Let’s skip to your family life, from arriving in Minnesota to today.
When I came to Minnesota in ‘56, and said goodbye to my girlfriend in Chicago, I was free and unencumbered. As I said, I went to Hillel and fell in love and got married, and had two wonderful kids. But eventually my first Marianne developed kidney problems, and she never really recovered from the slow slide downhill. It was a tough time for us all.
How long was it before you met your new Mary Ann?
After Mari died I was single parenting for a while, with two teenagers, while I was teaching and working in counseling. By then I was a full professor.
And I met Mary Ann at the board room at Mount Zion. I had been teaching Sunday School while my kids were growing up. Then Temple President Jim Seesel saw that I was kicking around and decided I was too good to lose. And Mary Ann had just graduated from law school and was starting to practice here in Minneapolis, so he put us both on a committee to help find a new rabbi. I think this was when we ended up hiring Leigh Lerner. And pretty soon we realized that when I was about to make a comment, she would make it. And when she was about to make a comment, I would make it first.
And you saw this as a good thing?
This was a good thing! We had something in common. True, I was thirteen years older, and I had two kids. And I had been looking around for all sorts of women. After Mari died, I got a post doc in human sexuality, so I was having a good time. And at one point I had a chance to go to Europe for a couple weeks, to teach there, and I had invited a couple of women to go with me, but neither of them wanted to go.
You invited them at the same time, or in series?
In seriatim. So then I asked Mary Ann, and she said “all right”, and went with me. After I had finished teaching, she joined me and we went skiing in Switzerland. She skied behind me because she was a super skier, and she didn’t want me to see how good she was. She’s wonderful. We came back deeply committed to each other, and eventually Leigh Lerner married us.
Tell us about your kids today.
Kathleen, my oldest, is trained as an interior decorator. She helps real estate agents stage houses for sale, and works as a personal care assistant. She specializes in helping elders move smoothly and comfortably into smaller spaces, or into elder care. Jeffry, who was born when I was in the Army, is an MSW (Master of Social Work) social worker with a mind-body-spirit practice here in town, and has two boys, 15 and 12 years old. Barry, our kid, is now living with his wife Abbey and four kids in the Boston area. He has started a company called Physion, that does data management for several large labs, and his wife Abbey is a Post Doc in a medical lab at Harvard. They both earned a PhD in neuroscience.
Do you have any regrets in your professional life, anything you would have done differently?
This may sound hokey, but I don’t have a single regret. For a brief while I thought I wanted to become a rabbi, but I’m glad I didn’t. That was during college at Pomona, I organized a Jewish student group, mostly to get dates.
How about the name Wark, do you know its origin, or history ?
It came from something like Warkovsky or Warkovetsky. It depends on who you ask. The story is when grandpa came over with his wife Lena, they opened a chicken and egg store in Saint Louis, in a very narrow building. There wasn’t room for the ‘ovetsky’. So it became Wark.
I’d imagine you have received all sorts of recognition and honors over the years – what would be your most coveted award?
Oh boy! (thinking) I received the Erika Fromm award for teaching clinical hypnosis. Erika was a brilliant psychologist who escaped from the Nazis and came to America. She eventually taught at the University of Chicago, and became the smart, insightful, loving grandmother of clinical hypnosis. She had a huge positive influence on the field. And the award is in her name.
And, um …
And I knew Erika. I’m breaking up. Oh my god, it’s like she’s still here.
That’s OK. Relax….. Breathe.
She was a teacher and a great mentor to me.
I can tell.
I didn’t see that one coming. Oh my god.
Let’s wrap up – do you have a favorite poem?
I do, it’s called Invictus, and I think I remember parts of it.
Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.
In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.
It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll.
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.
What does that say to you?
To keep on going. Stay calm. It’s not fight, or flight, or freeze. But relax, and decide what the best response may be. I can look at my life now and decide that this is where I was going, and this is where I was meant to be. To live a better life for myself, and to teach other people how to do the same.