VOL. 1  NO. 2  SEPTEMBER 1999



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  Mad As Hell

He is called the Mad Russian. It is said he can cure what ails you.

They come from around the world as well as the country, from Florida to California, famous and unknown, desperate, curious, hopeful, skeptical. They have heard about him, his exploits whispered by word of mouth. He is a last resort, something they wouldn't necessarily try if they weren't a little bit crazy by now, crazy with anxiety, with the fear that maybe they'll never be able to kick the habit. Others come who are simply curious, or maybe a little bit more than curious; they would like to stop smoking or lose that nagging pain in their right knee, and they sure hope he can help, but they aren't expecting miracles. And scholars come, to test him, to discover what it is that he does; how, why, if it works.

They seek him...in a place called Brookline. It's a city within Boston, where funky alternative shops mingle with orthodox restaurants and temples.

He doesn't advertise - doesn't need to, really. His business is thriving, with a self-proclaimed 90% success rate and testimonials from famous names like Courteney Cox, Billy Joel, and Amy Tan. In the phone book, he is listed by his name only - Yefim Shubentsov. You can call to make an appointment to join his group therapy sessions (Thursdays only). You may even be able to see him the same week. And, as an added guarantee, if the first session doesn't cure you, you can come back as often as you want - for free.

A recent online interview with Yefim (June 8, 1999, barnesandnoble.com) hawking his self-help book (Cure Your Cravings, Putnam, 1998) presented a curious contradiction in his approach to treating addiction. On the more metaphysical side, he stated that his healing power was discovered by accident ("I had some biologists tell me about it") and was rooted in balancing the body's "energy fields" through touch. This branch of holistic healing is known as 'bioenergetics'. However, when answering questions about craving and addiction he seems to take an essentially common sense approach. One reader asks how he deals with the physical aspect of addiction to, say, nicotine. Yefim's reply: "It is very simple. We are born without a desire to smoke, and it is not genetic....After three days, your body doesn't need nicotine. So why do you need a patch for three months? One more thing against the patch is that it is a reminder that you want and desire to smoke....If you break up with your girlfriend, you don't want a picture of her in front of you."

Or, rephrasing with another enlightening girlfriend metaphor: "If you never ate sushi you cannot crave sushi. The French have an expression, 'Don't show your girlfriend a new restaurant because if you do, she will ask you to take her there.' You only really crave what you have had before."

Yefim believes that all addictions lie in the same category: "For me, all my patients are the same". He tends to treat smoking most often, but only because that is the most common hang-up that he is asked to treat. When asked what role he believes genetics to play in addiction, he is somewhat skeptical: "...very seldom, but possibly....It just means it is easy to be alcoholic, but you can still fight it....A person cannot be born weak - it is up to you." He is even more skeptical about sex addiction: "We are born with the desire for sex, we have a lot of sex criminals, but that is not addiction; if a person is spoiled then that is not addiction." I'm starting to like this guy.

But these are the words of a self-help guru, not a mystical healer. Throughout this entire interview, bioenergetics was mentioned only once, and Yefim quickly moved on. However, it doesn't seem likely that people are coming from as far away as Kuwait and Germany just to receive a lecture on common sense. (Although one enthusiastic penitent gushed, "What a lovely way to be hollered at!") They come for the mysterious power he seems to wield, and because of the fantastic testimonials he has been given.

So, what is bioenergetics? It is a loaded term, sounding like a mystical combination between life science and L. Ron Hubbard. A quick little internet search turned up three broad categories answering to this description: a genuine scientific field of study, an alternative healing branch, and a tiny mysogynistic press (dedicated to "men's issues"). Leaving that last one alone for the moment, the first two present some interesting parallels.

Bioenergetics, scientifically speaking, has to do with how energy is supplied to an organism so that it can continue to function. Living organisms, to survive, must be able to efficiently convert energy obtained from various environmental sources (light, oxygen, carbohydrates) into forms which are usable in the cell (adenosine triphosphate, or ATP). In oxygen-consuming organisms (such as human beings), cellular respiration is a key aspect of energy conversion. This respiration takes place in mitochondria, symbiotic organisms that live in our cells, contain their own DNA, and make the molecule ATP for us, essentially supplying the force that makes our bodies function. (If you want to know more about this, start with an article in the Boston Globe, 8/30/99, page C6. Or for a fun, fictionalized version, check out Madeleine L'Engle's book The Wind in the Door.)

I doubt, somehow, that the Mad Russian knows any of this. And I wonder about the mysterious biologist who told him he had a gift - did this scientist believe that Yefim could actually manipulate these tiny organisms somehow?

Naaah. Well, probably not. Bioenergetics is also used to describe a form of mind-body psychotherapy. It is, and I quote, "a way of understanding personality in terms of the body and its energetic processes". (Want to know more? Check out http://www.bioenergetic-therapy.com.) So far, doesn't sound that dissimilar from the scientific field, except for the personality part. Bioenergetic psychotherapists, who believe in a strong body-mind link, focus on "the muscular patterns in a person's body". This provides a sort of "second language" of body expression, developed in early childhood perhaps, giving the therapist clues on how to treat various neurotic disorders (depression, anxiety). This type of therapy seems to have little to do with Yefim, who in fact doesn't spend enough individual time with any of his patients to become fluent in their respective body languages. But we'll get to that in a moment.

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