Chapter 2 - Magic, Fraud and Self-delusion
Once you discover a man's passion, the rest is easy. Suspicion fades, barriers drop. Barbershop quartets, harness racing, gold, square dancing, Dusenbergs, the best way to cook liver and onions--all that's necessary is to pluck the needle from the haystack.
(Evan S. Connell, Jr. The Connoisseur)(1)
The Real Magic
When I was nine, like many another child, I received a box of magic tricks as a present. After playing with it for a while, I laid it aside. Then one day not too long afterwards, I discovered the section on magic books at the library. I checked out one of the books and was hooked. (It may have been Blackstone's Magic, a wonderful compilation of everything from small close-up effects to large effects only possible on a stage. Blackstone was the outstanding stage magician of his era.) I pored through every magic book in the library, most of which were beyond my meager abilities. I read a biography of Houdini with fascination, dreaming that someday I would become a world-famous magician like Houdini.
In the back of a comic book, I found an advertisement for Douglas Magic Land in Dallas, Texas, and send for their catalog of tricks and jokes. The wait for the catalog seemed endless. When it finally arrived, I read and reread it avidly, thirsting to own everything. After a great deal of second-guessing, I finally selected a trick (called the Tommy Windsor Dye Box) that was within my means and sent for it. When it arrived, I was a little disappointed as it was only a trick (a popcorn box with a false compartment), not the real magic that somehow I had hoped it would be. But I set aside my disappointment and practiced it over and over, trying to develop slight variations in the trick as it was described. That need to play with something until I had adapted it to my own personality was to become a deep part of me. I bought a few more tricks, added some more that I could make from descriptions in library books, and began to develop a tiny magic show that I could perform for my family, or for anyone else willing to watch.
In those early days, I lusted after props that were magical in appearance: brightly colored boxes and tubes with imitation Chinese characters; intricate mechanisms whose workings were hidden from the audience, known only to the magician; huge silk scarves with dragons or skulls for designs. Oh, the possibilities were endless. At this stage, magic for me meant exotic tricks that I could buy and use with little effort on my part. I don't remember when the change occurred in my value system, but at some point I became more interested in sleight-of-hand and less interested in props. There was no abrupt cut-over point, but gradually I did more and more "close-up" effects (as magicians term them) with cards and coins, ropes and silk handkerchiefs. When I performed a magic show for a larger audience, where I couldn't use close-up, I still favored sleight-of-hand over props, to the extent that my talent would allow me.
No matter how clever a magic prop's secret was--and there are some very clever secrets--whenever I used them I always remained aware that I was doing "tricks", not real magic. With sleight-of-hand something wonderful happened: once I had learned the "moves" well enough that my hands knew what to do without the need for any help from my head, the tricks became real magic for me as well as for the audience. Thus I learned early that it isn't whether or not one is "cheating" that separates real magic from mere trickery, it is the belief of the magician and the audience that is the deciding factor. But it is also important to remember that I had to totally master the sleight-of-hand moves--the cheating--before real magic could take place. I was to find this pairing of the material and the sublime over-and-over throughout my lifelong search for the real magic. That search led me down many paths that would seemingly have little to do with magic: dreams and fantasies, drugs, meditation, mathematics, psychology, psychotherapy. But all helped me develop the necessary "muscles"--often psychic muscles--I would need as a magician.
I had learned the power hidden in those psychic muscles when I was six and had poliomyelitis. It was a mild form of polio, but still serious enough; both legs were affected, my left more so than my right. It wasted away to the point that my father could almost put his hand around my calf. In the weeks before I was diagnosed as having polio, I had complained about pain in my legs. A doctor came out to our house, examined me, and told my parents I was just a whiner--which hardly endeared the doctor to my parents. Less than a week later, my mother and I were walking back from the grocery store, each carrying a bag of groceries. Suddenly, I fell down and couldn't get up again. My mother was frantic. She left the groceries where they lay, carried me home, called my father and somehow got me to the hospital.
The doctors immediately diagnosed polio and couldn't understand how the other doctor had missed it. Though I spent some time in the hospital, there was only a short period of time when I couldn't walk. There was enough time, however, for the muscles in my legs to atrophy. In order to restore the muscles, the doctors and nurses used a variety of treatments. I would lie for hours with a heat lamp baking my legs. It was so hot that I'd cover my legs whenever the nurses got out of sight. Later I'd sit with my legs soaking in a warm whirlpool bath. I loved that. I had to nap every day for several hours; that kept up almost into my teens. But mostly there were exercises, largely against resistance. For example, a nurse would press on the heel of my foot and I would try to press back, preventing her from moving my foot. Or I would try to lift weights with my legs. In the early stages, there was so little strength in my muscles that my side of the resistance was pretty minimal, but it still helped the muscle development
As a complement to the actual muscle exercises, I was taught to visualize myself lifting the weights or resisting the pressure as I actually attempted the task. I believe that this method was developed by a Australian nurse, Sister Elizabeth Kinney, and became quite well known in the early days of fighting polio, long before the Simontons and their wonderful attempts to battle cancer with visualization. Since I'm not a good visualizer, my visualizations weren't really visual. They were more visceral, a statement which will, I'm sure, only make sense to a small number of you who experience the world in a similar fashion. If my earlier fantasies of alien abduction were my first stage of developing the psychic muscles needed to do any sort of work with the unconscious, this marked the second stage.
In later years, I used the same technique to practice and perform my magic tricks. Much of that practice involves my special form of visualization, imagining just how I will do a trick for an audience. Since I'm not visual, the pictures in my mind are vague and amorphous, hardly the picture-perfect images conjured up by a more visually adept person. What is clear is the feeling of my hands performing the tricks, my body reacting to the audience, the subtle emotions at each stage of the effect.
This method of practicing led me to thinking of variations on the magic. I began modifying the tricks and eventually I created new tricks of my own. When I thought they were good enough, I submitted them to magic magazines. I ended up publishing numerous tricks in magazines and books, wrote a column in a magic magazine, even published two books of original magic tricks. At the time when I began writing about magic, the level of "magical writing" (with some very important exceptions) was not very high . It was a technical field and the writing tended to be composed of boring strings of sleights and hand positions. My writing was unusual because I could present complex magic tricks clearly and entertainingly. Of course, this was easier for me because I could draw on my feeling of how a trick was performed as I was writing. (Happily, writing about magic has changed dramatically for the better in recent years.)
My experience writing about magic led me to conclude that if I could understand something, no matter how complex, I ought to be able to express it in a way others could understand. This need to clearly express complex subjects carried over into writing and speaking about disparate fields: mathematics, computers, science and psychology. Because of my experiences in writing about magic, I knew that first I had to understand something so completely that I could write from my own experience, not simply from someone else's description in a book. My childhood illness thus eventually brought me to my own particular pathway of creativity. It also developed the psychic muscles I was to need in the future.
Harry Houdini vs. the Spiritualists
It is always wise to consider fraud and self-delusion in dealing with events that defy reality as we know it. As a magician I've learned first-hand just how easy it is to trick people into believing they have seen the impossible. For example, in front of audiences trying to catch me in any trickery, I have seemingly read minds, predicted the future, produced objects from thin air, changed one object into another. With my eyes tightly blindfolded I have read the colors of colored cards with my fingertips, even when sealed securely in envelopes. I have even swallowed razor blades and thread, then pulled the razor blades out knotted at intervals on the thread. And these were all tricks! Not an honest miracle in the lot.
Traditionally scientists are viewed as the ultimate judges of the honesty of paranormal events. Unfortunately, scientists are just as prone as non-scientists to fall for the traps of unscrupulous charlatans. We magicians are constantly amazed by the naivete of scientists viewing what to us are obvious magic tricks. Scientists just aren't trained to look for the sort of thing magicians look for. In the words of magician Martin Gardner (writing under the pseudonym of Uriah Fuller):
Every few years a new psychic sensation appears on the scene. Tested by scientists, reporters and skeptics under conditions that are always proclaimed "rigid," the psychic invariably sails through the tests, producing results that are always announced as "conclusive evidence" of genuine psychic powers…Most scientists and researchers (not to mention reporters, engineers, etc.) have been highly trained in logical thinking. Priding themselves on their ability at deductive reasoning, they do not realize that this straight-line approach to ESP is exactly wrong when used in an attempt to uncover fake psychics.(2)
In the heyday of spiritualism, channeling's turn of the century grandparent, famed escape artist and magician Harry Houdini spent his later years exposing fraudulent mediums. He desperately wanted to communicate with his dead mother and was appalled at the crass insensitivity of phony spiritualistic mediums who would exploit the sincere desire of believers to contact their dead loved ones. Unfortunately Houdini never discovered an honest medium, and never found a phony medium whose trickery he couldn't duplicate and expose. Of course, he sought out only those mediums who were best-known, those making a great deal of money, not those less known who might have been sincere in their beliefs.
Despite his failure to find anyone who could contact the dead, Houdini still wanted to believe in the possibility of communicating from beyond the grave. Late in life, he told his wife Bess that if he died first, he would try his best to communicate with her if he could. And if anyone could, Houdini could! They arranged a secret message that he would use so that she would know it was authentic. Houdini was to say: "Rosabelle, answer, tell, pray, answer, look, tell, answer, answer, tell." In case that sounds like absolute jabberwocky, the reader should know that Rosabelle was a pet name between Houdini and Bess. The night they met on Coney Island, the Floral Sisters were singing:
Rosabelle, sweet Rosabelle,
I love you more than I can tell;
O'er me you cast a spell,
I love you! My Rosabelle!
The remainder was a secret code the Houdinis had used in a mind reading act many years before, which translated into "believe." The words would be delivered with proper pauses so that they sounded like they were merely encouragements to the mind reader.
After Houdini's death (appropriately enough on Halloween of 1926), once each year Bess would faithfully try to contact Houdini. Psychics knew it would be the making of a career to contact Houdini and many tried--without success. In 1929, famed spiritualistic medium Arthur Ford did contact Houdini, and Houdini did use the agreed upon code. Bess agreed that Ford had authentically contacted her late husband and signed a paper attesting to that fact. Though deeply moved during the seance, Bess must have retained some of her husband's skepticism, as her statement was less than a full endorsement of spiritualism. She said that the message was the exact message that Houdini had agreed to send her, but she did not say that she believed that Ford had actually contacted the spirit of her husband.
A female reporter, Rea Jaure, first released this startling news to the public, then two days later the even more startling revelation that Bess and Arthur Ford had collaborated in a hoax on the public. With two witnesses hidden away to verify her story, Jaure had supposedly tricked Ford into revealing his hoax. Both Bess and Ford vehemently denied the accusation.
What Jaure didn't reveal was her own prior involvement with Bess Houdini. She had an agreement to ghostwrite a series of newspaper article by Bess to be called "The Life and Loves of Houdini." Before the series could be published, Bess was hospitalized. This didn't stop Jaure, who had already written the series and only needed a photograph of Bess. Unfortunately, while attempting to take a clandestine photograph of Bess in the hospital, the newspaper's photographer accidentally set a Christmas tree on fire. Bess was fed up and called off the series, losing Jaure an important and lucrative assignment. So she had reasons of her own for wanting to brand Bess as dishonest.
What did happen? The code the Houdinis used was hardly unknown; it had been printed in a biography of Houdini only the year before. There was a nurse in the same room with Bess and Houdini when he died who might have overheard the message. If Ford wanted the information badly enough, he could have sought her out. As with so many issues involving strange occurrences, definitive answers are hard to come by.(3)
It can be just as bad to remain totally skeptical as totally credulous. In recent times, escape artist and magician James Randi has tried to follow in Houdini's footsteps as an exposer of the fraudulent paranormal. Where Houdini was content to expose frauds, Randi is equally ready to condemn those he regards as credulous true believers. Randi has put up a $10,000 reward for anyone successfully demonstrating any paranormal power at all. Here's Randi:
Just who has shown up in the last fifteen years to claim this handsome sum! Only two types: those who honestly believe they have the claimed powers, and those who are outright fakes. The first group far outnumbers the second, I have found. The fakes are unwilling, if they're smart, to accept my offer.(4)
The braggadocio of the last sentence is typical of Randi and other total skeptics, such as the previously quoted Martin Gardner, and their friends at CSICOP (i.e., the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal). In his book, The New Inquisition, science-fiction writer and intellectual gadfly Robert Anton Wilson quoted fellow writer Colin Wilson as saying of Martin Gardner: "I wish I was as sure of anything as Martin Gardner is of everything."(5)
Where can we find a middle ground between total skepticism and total credulity? Perhaps we should begin by assuming that the majority of those who claim paranormal abilities are honest. They may or may not have those claimed abilities, but they are honest in their belief. Even Randi agrees with that, though he presumes they are all deluded and have no paranormal abilities because paranormal abilities don't exist. Ipso facto. But maybe, just maybe, reality is more complex than skeptics would acknowledge.
There is probably nothing that represents the nonsense of the New Age better in the public mind than crystals. I won't go into the many claimed powers for crystals; I'll just discuss my own experience. I was first exposed to the paranormal use of crystals by a controversial Meti teacher and medicine man, Harley "SwiftDeer" Reagan.(6) (Meti means mixed-breed; in this case, Cherokee and Irish). We will discuss him more later. One thing Harley taught was a technique for working with crystals, which was totally new to me at the time. (Some called him Harley, some SwiftDeer; I'll use both names throughout this description). He began by showing us how to "tune" our crystals. You held a crystal in one hand with the point of the crystal facing the palm of the other hand, which was about six inches away. You twisted the crystal back and forth, just as if you were winding the stem of a traditional mechanical watch. You were supposed to be able to feel the energy passing through the crystal in the palm of the other hand, either as heat or cold or a tingling. I did. A definite combination of heat and tingling. As you twisted, the feeling was supposed to increase. It did. As you "wound" the crystal, it would get tighter and tighter until it couldn't be wound any further (again, just like a mechanical watch). And that's exactly what happened for me.
Now, of course, Harley was telling us (with complete honesty, I'm convinced) what we should experience. So a self-fulfilling prophecy was undoubtedly involved. Those of us who were susceptible to suggestion were likely to feel what he told us we would feel. And we did. Nothing paranormal there, just gullible dupes, Randi and company would tell us. Or perhaps Harley was providing a ritual symbolic structure for concentrating our attention on the crystal? The latter seems closer to the truth for me.
The rest of the techniques Harley taught with crystals didn't interest me, so I started experimenting on my own. I immediately realized I could more easily feel and balance chakra energy using the crystals than I could with my hands alone. It was much, much easier using a crystal. After much experimentation, I discovered my own technique. After "winding" the crystal, I held it in my right hand and passed it over someone's body. My left hand was held about waist high, parallel to the floor. I could feel any shift in energy in this reference hand as a sharp tingling. I figured this strange method had to be peculiar to me, and was surprised later to read that a number of cultures diagnosed illness by a similar "trembling" of a reference hand while the other hand passed over a patient. I couldn't find any reference to the details of the technique, but then I wasn't doing scholarly research; I was looking for clinical tools.
What I would like to suggest, using crystals as an example, is that both the skeptics and the true believers are right. I doubt that anything physical is actually going on; I would be very surprised if actual physical energy could be recorded when a crystal is used. As the skeptics would insist, it's all in the mind of the true believers. On the other hand, something definitely is going on in the mind, and the crystal makes it easier, where some other object wouldn't. Now if someone talked convincingly of the occult possibilities of a stalk of celery, I imagine those of us who were open to the suggestion would in fact find ourselves able to do strange things with celery stalks. But I would suggest two things:
* if we can do something by believing in it, who cares!! And
* I would venture to guess that crystals would work better than celery stalks.
Now it would be difficult to demonstrate this in any way acceptable to science, but so much the worse for an overly rigid science. I'm suggesting that crystals might be an example of a future kind of tool that mediates between mind and matter. Let's not take that any further right now. First we need to talk about shamans and other medicine people, because they don't normally fall conveniently into either of Randi's two camps of true believer or fake. More often, they are both true believers and fakes, as well as being true masters of paranormal experience. Ah, we live in a complicated world.
Shamans and Healers
Clever-men emerge into aboriginal society as men of outstanding personality, well versed in trickery, sleight of hand, and sly opportunism, first-class hypnotists, politicians, mystics, and intermediaries with the great forces of nature.(7)
Unfortunately, many people view shamans and other varieties of medicine people as, at best, primitive medical doctors who know the simpler healing techniques, especially those involving herbs. At worse, they are considered charlatans who prey on the superstitious beliefs of natives who don't have the benefit of our vaunted Western knowledge and, therefore, don't know any better. In actuality, the more we come to know of shamans in a wide variety of cultures, the more we realize that they are more closely related to psychologists and psychiatrists than to medical doctors. And, while much of their knowledge is pre-scientific, they also know a great deal about psychological and paranormal matters ignored by Western culture.
Take the Australian aborigine clever-men (a wonderful term for a shaman). When a patient comes to a clever-man for healing, the shaman might run his hands over the patient's body, then seemingly pull a bone or a quartz crystal or a stone from the body, leaving no sign of a wound. Or he might suck on the patient's skin, then spit out blood, bones and stones. Obviously, this is a very satisfying technique of healing for a patient, since they can actually see the source of their illness magically removed from their body. To the extent that their illness is subject to psychosomatic healing, it would be a very rare patient who wouldn't get better.
Psychologist and scientist Ernest Lawrence Rossi has brought together a wide variety of research on the "placebo effect"; i.e. the patient's belief that he will be cured. Rossi has reached the startling conclusion that fully 55% of almost all healing is due to the placebo effect. In other words, even when drugs are being used which we know to be medically effective, 55% of that effectiveness is due to the placebo effect.(8)
Parapsychologist Ronald Rose studied Australian clever-men over more than a decade, and became convinced that when a clever-man extracts bones and crystals from a patient's body, he is using sleight-of-hand techniques that are familiar to magicians throughout the world. In fact, when Rose used sleight-of-hand to magically extract a twig from a clever-man's body, the clever-man smilingly agreed that Rose had hit on the technique. However, there is a further catch here: when a clever-man himself gets sick, he goes to another clever-man for healing. He will receive the same sort of treatment, with bones or quartz crystals magically removed from his body. And he will get well, just as his patients get well, even though he is fully aware of the conjuring techniques that are used to extract the bones and crystals.(9)
Clearly the clever-man knows that sleight-of-hand is involved, so he qualifies as a fake by Randi's lights. Yet he must believe that the fakery is incidental to the healing, or he couldn't be healed by a fellow practitioner. So he's a true believer. Yet the healing actually takes place. Oh, we're in deep waters now. To what extent are shamans merely powerful psychologists consciously or unconsciously using the placebo effect, and to what extent might their power of diagnosis and healing reach beyond the placebo effect?
Jungian analyst Margaret Johnson tells about the powers of the isangomas, the rural Zulu medicine women. When Dr. Johnson and her husband Bob visited South Africa in 1988, she was lucky enough to actually meet an isangoma, a large shy black woman whose ancestral spirits spoke to her in whistles. The Johnsons were shocked when the woman said that Bob's body was healthy, but he had heart trouble. Two months later, back in the U.S., Bob's cardiologist diagnosed coronary artery disease, thankfully not needing surgery at that time.
The story got more complex three years later, when the Johnsons again visited South Africa. Because of their initial experience with an isangoma in 1988, Dr. Johnson was eager to meet more such healers. Their guide Thembe initially took them to an unexpected place to meet a shaman: a Christian church in a black township. She brought them because the bishop of the region, known as a prophet and healer, was visiting the church that day. Without ever meeting them previously, he looked at them closely, then announced to both them and the congregation that Bob had a serious heart condition. He also divined that Dr. Johnson had a sinus headache (true) and Thembe a problem with her womb (also true). He suggested they return in a few days for some holy water which could help control Bob's condition. When they did return, the bishop had left, but one of the assistant healers prepared some for them, telling Bob to boil the water, then take a little each day. Unfortunately, during the following week, they didn't have an opportunity to boil the water, so were still carrying it.
Deep in rural Zululand, they were taken to meet another isangoma, an older woman who was very reluctant to meet them until she heard that Dr. Johnson was a psychologist, a person who performed a similar function to her own, in a far-off country, and was interested in seeing her methods. After she contacted her ancestral spirits and asked them about the Johnsons, she asked Bob what was wrong inside his chest. When told he had heart trouble which Western doctors were treating as best they could, but the medicine wasn't very effective. The Johnsons were startled when she then told him that he had been given medicine that would be effective, and why hadn't he taken it. They remembered the holy water they had been given, and explained that they hadn't had a chance to boil it. The isangoma was only reassured when he told her that he would do so at the first chance, and take the medicine regularly afterwards.
Nothing in Dr. Johnson's story tells us how effective the holy water might have been in the healing. In a private communication, she told me that Bob hasn't had any recurrence of his heart problems since he drank the holy water. Of course, as she pointed out herself, heart problems do go into remission just as many other illnesses do. There is no way to say a heart problem is cured, just that it no longer occurs. Or perhaps this might be another manifestation of the placebo effect; Bob's belief in the healers might have affected his body enough to prevent further heart trouble. But the placebo effect could have nothing to do with the startling accuracy of the diagnosis by three different healers, each using techniques the Western World would regard as ridiculous. And how did the final isangoma not only diagnose the illness, but know that Bob had already been given medicine by another healer?(10) I'll talk of my own experiences with psychic diagnosis later in this book.
1. Evan S. Connell, Jr., The Connoisseur (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1974), p. 74.
2. Uriah Fuller (pseudonym for Martin Gardner), Confessions of a Psychic. (Teaneck, New Jersey: Karl Fulves Publications, 1975). Martin Gardner is probably best-known for his books on mathematical puzzles and his column "Mathematical Recreations," which appeared for many years in "Scientific American". He is also a total skeptic with regard to any and all paranormal phenomena.
3. See Ruth Brandon, The Life and Many Deaths of Harry Houdini (New York: Random House, 1993). pp. 305-310.
4. James Randi, Flim-Flam. (Buffalo: Prometheus Books, 1982), p. 254.
5. Robert Anton Wilson, The New Inquisition. (Phoenix: Falcon Press, 1986). p. 39.
6. for more on SwiftDeer, see Bill Wahlberg, Star Warrior: The Story of SwiftDeer (Santa Fe: Bear & Company, 1993).
7. Ronald Rose, Living Magic: The Realities Underlying the Primitive Practices and Beliefs of Australian Aborigines (London: Chatto & Windus, 1957), p. 114.
8. Ernest Lawrence Rossi, The Psychobiology of Mind-Body Healing (New York: W. W. Norton & Co.,1986) pp.15-18.)
9. Ronald Rose, Living Magic, ch. 5.)
10. See Margaret Johnson, "African Healers." Psychological Perspectives #25, Fall 1991 (Los Angeles: C. G. Jung Institute, 1991), pp. 82-93.
Return to Home Page