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"I'm not a brilliant person," says Sam Meranto. "I've never even studied a book on psychology or psychiatry. The book I study is the Scriptures in the Bible."

How does a guy sell religion and hypnotism? Meranto says he downplays both of them.

"One of the downplays is the word `hypnosis' because people get confused," he says. "Actually it's just a Greek word meaning sleep that's been artificially induced.

"Mothers can rock their babies and make them fall asleep. They'll take a child who's hurt and say, `Mommy will kiss it and it will go away.' And it works because that's a hypnotic suggestion. But God forbid you have a mother who's stressful, who's negative or who's sick a lot, because she can actually program her child into having these same psychological problems. `I have headaches. Grandma had headaches. You'll have headaches.' And she will."

A very real headache to Meranto, he says, is religion, especially the brand practiced by televangelists.

"Religion today has taken a kick in the pants like you wouldn't believe," moans Meranto. "Just look around. You've got the Bakkers, you've got the Swaggarts, you've got the . . . " At a rare loss for words, Meranto rolls his eyes heavenward as he gathers another head of steam. "Listen, all I've got to do is start getting real heavy on religion and I'll be laughed out of town," he says. "Sure, I'm trying to reach people and bring them closer to the Lord, but I'm not doing it like most of the ministers you see on TV. I'm not into that `Hallelujah, brother!' Today, most people are really turned off by that.

"If I go on television and say, `Come to the Lord!,' I'd have a small group. Instead, I go on television and say, `Hey, you got a weight problem? Come and see me.' People will bang the door down to get in." SAM MERANTO'S biggest success story--all 290 pounds of her--came barging into his office in early 1977, shortly after he'd hung up his shingle in Phoenix. The client was Carol Ford, a zaftig, local quasi-celebrity of the era known for impersonating Mae West at Rawhide.

Eight months, twelve dress sizes and umpteen trances later, the newly svelte Ford shared the story of her dramatic 150-pound weight loss (along with a startling pair of before-and-after pictures) with the Arizona Republic. A mere shadow of her former self, the grateful Ford turned the spotlight on Meranto, the man who'd cooked her up a heavy diet of hypnotism. Of her mental mentor, Ford averred, "He just turned me off food." Fourteen years later, Meranto is still dining out on that story--even though he confesses that he has no idea whether Ford's wonder weight loss was permanent or simply gone-today, here-tomorrow.

"She lost the weight, she stopped coming around," shrugs Meranto. "I will tell you one thing, though." He thwacks a finger across a reprint of the newspaper article, which continues to be the crux of his advertising brochures. "This little lady really put us on the map. After that story came out in the paper, we had to bring in extra girls to handle the phones. Business went through the roof. It was unbelievable--we had people coming in for sessions practically here around the clock."

Or at least they used to.
Apparently, an ailing economy is one of the few problems over which the mind of Sam Meranto is powerless.

"People are really hurting financially," says Meranto, who adds that his center is in similar fiscal straits. "Ten years ago, we had so many people coming through here that I needed a wheelbarrow to get the money out. Today I could do it with an eyedropper."

Could it be that a newly discerning public has grown skeptical of mind salons like Meranto's?

Not likely, says Joanne Babich, a Phoenix psychologist who sometimes uses hypnosis in her practice. "People are always looking for quick solutions to their problems."

Although Babich admits that listening to tapes such as Meranto's might be beneficial to smokers, overeaters and others with bad habits who are seeking "a booster shot or reinforcer to get them thinking on the right track," the psychologist says the success or failure ultimately falls back on the patient.

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Dewey Webb