When I worked at Condé Nast, a clique of glamorous fashion editors would
periodically dash off to Boston to see a Rasputin-like Russian healer
who could supposedly banish cravings with a wave of his hand. The
fashionistas believed he could make them quit smoking without gaining
weight -- a feat, in their eyes, to rival the human genome project. Some
of them did quit smoking. And their flanks stayed cellulite-free. Mind you, these women are just as passionate about their bimonthly
appointments to get their upper arms waxed. I was more than skeptical.
Then I began hearing the Russian's name dropped in marginally smarter
circles, at gallery openings, restaurant launches, anywhere the rich and
addicted flock. How did you quit smoking? someone would ask. I went to
the Russian, the other would reply in a hushed, knowing way. (His real
name, Yefim Shubentsov, was too complicated for most people to pronounce
That's how I learned that Jann Wenner quit smoking after
one session, though Wenner's pal Fran Leibovitz, who tagged along, is
still puffing. It was whispered that Courteney Cox and David Arquette celebrated their engagement with a pilgrimage to the Russian's unmarked
Brookline, Mass., office, where they emerged giddy nonsmokers. Even novelists Amy Tan
and Alice Hoffman gushed their gratitude on the back of his incoherent,
endlessly repetitive 1998 book, "Cure Your Cravings," co-authored
by Barbara "I'm Dancing As Fast As I Can" Gordon. It was like
Dostoevski plugging "Chicken Soup for the Teenage Soul."
But my curiosity about the Russian's methods was piqued. Especially after I met a sensible, skeptical
Midwestern woman -- someone just like me except her teeth were brown
from decades of chain-smoking. Her nicotine cravings were so intense she
had started lighting up in the shower. At her husband's pleading, she saw
the Russian. Now she is a nonsmoker. I'm not crippled by deadly habits, but I'd
love to effortlessly lose a few unwanted pounds that landed in my midsection
when I hit 30. So I packed my bags and headed for Boston to find out if what I
had heard of the Russian shaman was true.
There are no glamourpusses in Yefim Shubentsov's waiting room. Some are
bloated and flushed, others pale and skinny in all the wrong places. The
stench of stale cigarettes is acute. I settle in for an evening
observing two sessions, one for smokers, the other for weight loss. The
too-warm waiting area is filled with glimmering seascapes. (Shubentsov, an
artist in the former Soviet Union, painted them all.) A quick tally reveals
that about 80 percent of the group had traveled from out of state,
mostly from Florida, New York, Pennsylvania and California. Word of
mouth, they say, brought them here; the famously reclusive Russian
A young Russian woman summons us through a hallway into a smaller
room. We sit in a circle
in plastic chairs. The Russian walks in,
the door behind him with a thud and steps to the front of the room.
Dapper, bespectacled and compactly built, Shubentsov looks more like
Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan than a New Age healer. His
accent is so thick he sounds like he is speaking into a bowl of oatmeal.
"I am the eraser," he announces to the 25 people slumped in plastic
chairs in a circle around him. "The ERASER," he repeats, meaning he will
erase the cravings that torment his patients. Eyes lock around the room
"I am your last chance," he finally says, turning to face his flock. All
25 heads bob.
The Russian claims to cure with a method called bio-energy. He says it's
a way of marshaling the body's own healing forces. The bio-energy bible also happens to be Shubentsov's own self-help book,
"Cure Your Cravings," for which he was the
sole reference source.
Shubentsov grew up in the Soviet Union, then worked as an artist until
his healing gifts were discovered. He says he was trained in bio-energy
top-secret Soviet underground laboratory, where his hands brought dead
plants to life and restored animals' broken limbs in controlled
experiments. He rose through the upper echelons of Soviet medicine,
eventually becoming the Evil Empire's most respected energy
healer. Then he defected.
He's eager to prove that bio-energy works miracles on, say, a leg
injury. You tell him where it hurts. He makes a series of hand movements
over the afflicted area, steps to and fro, waves up and down, then steps
back, his gold jewelry clanking. He'll ask if the pain is gone. If the
answer is yes, he'll twirl around like a magician who just made a tiger
disappear. Poof! If you say no, he will shake and dance and flap his
hands, growing more and more exasperated. Most people eventually get
embarrassed and tell him yes, the pain is gone. Then he'll twirl,
What all this has to do with smoking and addiction is simple: If he can
make pain disappear, he says, he can make your cravings disappear. Of
course, mainstream addiction specialists say that his "treatment" is
merely the power of suggestion wielded by a charismatic figure. "There
is nothing in the medical literature to suggest that cravings can be
reversed in one session with anyone," says Eric Scheiber, M.D., medical
director of the Doreen E. Chapman Center for the Treatment of
Addictions at Evanston Northwestern Healthcare. "I keep
an open mind about alternative therapies, but addiction treatment is a
process, not an event."
The two marathon "healing" sessions I observed fit my definition of an
event, though I doubt this is what Scheiber had in mind. Imagine
being berated for six hours by a cross between Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
and Ricki Lake. First he tells us that
Americans are simpering brats whose biggest problem is a lack of
backbone. Then he exhorts everyone in the room to volunteer complaints.
Do you have pain? Do you suffer from phobias, depression and sex
addiction? I find myself searching for pathologies to report. "I have a
pain in my chest," one woman says. "I've already had two heart attacks,
and I suffer from anxiety," chimes another.
Shubentsov beams when a stunning blond stockbroker from
Manhattan admits she is depressed, anxious, phobic, can't quit smoking,
has a searing pain in her foot ("I feel like someone stuck a knife in
me") and is terrified about gaining weight. Shubentsov bends down on one
knee, runs his hands over her foot and asks if it feels better. Bio
energy to the rescue. "No," she whispers. He tries again. "A little
better," she says. Shubentsov tells her she needs to see a chiropractor
and move to Arizona. (Her eyes scream, "Why am I here?") He continues,
"Your circulation is terrible; you need a warm climate." He breaks away
from her to explain to the group that a high-pressure system in the
Northeast is the reason many of them don't feel well. "I hate Arizona,"
the woman wails. "What about Carmel?" Shubentsov tells her Carmel or
Napa Valley -- in fact, anywhere in Northern California -- would be OK.
"What about Florida?" asks a woman
with a Long Island accent. "NO!!" thunders Shubentsov. "Too humid."
Shubentsov loses patience when the disclosures trail off. "You're so
afraid to speak in front of each other! That's so American! Nobody
cares about your problems."
From across the room a young balding man tells Shubentsov he suffers
from a condition called anxiety disorder. "Are you trying to drive me crazy?" the Russian
bellows. "Speak English!" The man coughs, inhales and booms back, "I
tear my hair out in clumps!" Shubentsov paces a while, then says, "I call
that a bad habit." He chuckles at his own joke. Everyone smiles tightly.
And so it goes, hour after hour, the Russian sharing his views on
lawyers (hates them), attention deficit disorder (doesn't buy it),
American education (sub-par) and sexual harassment ("I never touch
American women"). Someone worries that quitting smoking will make her
fat. He retorts that if cigarettes helped keep weight off, "you wouldn't
see big fat pigs that smoke three packs a day." Later on in the session, he "cures" a heavyset blond woman
of a hearing problem, although she later tells me she wasn't hard of
hearing when she walked in.
By the end of the performance, Shubentsov is pacing from one end of the
room to another, mopping his brow and reaching out to people like an
Eastern Bloc Jimmy Swaggart. He asks a woman to read a passage from a
recent issue of Time magazine on the evils of antidepressant medication.
Then he grabs a small statue of a man and shoves it in each person's
face, demanding they guess his identity. No one can, and Shubentsov is
ebullient. "It is Rembrandt, the greatest Dutch painter who ever lived!
The antique dealer I bought it from didn't know either."
After the anti-smoking session comes the weight-loss session, slated to
last four hours. It is identical to the smoking session, as if he
choreographed the entire evening. He "cures" a second heavyset blond woman's
imagined hearing problem, women are told they have circulatory disorders
and banished to drier climes and someone is prompted to read Time
magazine. A man is told to see a chiropractor. When Shubentsov brandishes the
Rembrandt statue, I excuse myself and head for the door. The Eraser
leaves the group and follows me out.
"What did you think? Did you think it was good?" he asks. I say it
was interesting. He tells me I have a problem he is able to define just
by looking at me. Is he on to my plans to devour an entire chicken at my
favorite Greek hole in the wall and wash it down with several glasses of
retsina? "You have very poor circulation," he says. I tell him
I don't think so. He blinks twice, smiles sweetly and touches my
hand. "Of course I am right. You're so cold." But my hand is warmer
When I follow up with people who attended the sessions I had, everyone
-- even one of the women with the so-called hearing problem -- is glad to
have seen him. "I think it was a mass hypnosis," says Alice Thompson, a
recipe developer in Manhattan and former pack-a-day smoker who hasn't
wanted a cigarette since her session. She shrugs off the fact that Shubentsov vehemently denies the ability to hypnotize anyone.
Valerie, a Boston graphic designer who didn't want her last name
published, says her sweet tooth has abated since Shubentsov put his
hands on her and asked what she wanted erased. "I said 'chocolate,' and
I felt a not unpleasant sensation in my head. Since then my cravings
have definitely backed off a bit. Maybe I was just ready to take that
Anne, who asked that her real name not be used, wanted Shubentsov to
help her lose 50 pounds gained after a hysterectomy. During the
confessional call-outs, she revealed a history of manic depression that
was being managed with medication. When the session ended, she says
Shubentsov implored her to get off antidepressants and "put your life in
my hands." But he later denies telling her to quit the prescription drugs,
saying, "I am very, very legal. I never recommend what is illegal." When
I ask him if he has ever been sued, he just says, "I have enough
problems in my life." Anne characterizes her experience as "more
negative than positive" but admits that, post-Shubentsov, she has been
eating less compulsively.
So what are we to make of the
mountains of anecdotes that suggest bio-energy really does work? I don't think that his arm-flapping and twirls of bio-energy really do anything. But there is
new evidence that the placebo effect -- patients are cured
simply because they believe they will be -- works up to 70 percent of
the time. And a handful of
maverick medical experts, including Andrew Weil, argue that
healing works in mysterious ways that science can't measure. If that's the case, then I believe
all credit should go to the the Russian's patients. His success stories
are ripe to quit smoking, drinking and overeating. Because they're
addicts, they're especially receptive to his quick-fix promises. (By
definition, addicts hate delayed gratification.) If it takes a bully
with an accent like Dr. No to get them back on the straight and narrow,
the $65 they paid him is probably worth every penny.