Monday, February 7, 2011

Ethics for Magicians and Mentalists

I'm a magician who dabbles from time to time in a bit of mental magic. There are others who specialize in one field or other. There are those who see the fields as one and the same, and others who see them as completely different. Personally, I see them as two branches of the same tree. They use similar methods, and both are related to performing the impossible. The difference isn't the substance, but the "flavor."

There are forums and clubs and groups of friends who gather, both online and in person, to discuss this art form. Generally, I steer clear of the topics related to pure mentalism, because that's not my specialty, and because I often find myself getting pissed off when I read about it (such as the time I saw Uri Geller on the cover of a magicians' trade journal). But this evening, I broke down and peeked at the mentalists board on a forum, and found a topic in which people were discussing Sylvia Browne (if you're unfamiliar with Sylvia Browne, I suggest you visit for more information--that site, maintained by Robert Lancaster, has an amazing wealth of information). Anyway, the point is, I was prompted to post a discussion of ethics for mentalists and magicians, because apparently, common human decency are in shorter supply in my profession than I had thought.

I'll begin by trying to explain the difference between magicians and mentalists. A magician uses trickery, sleight of hand, psychology, and various other means of deception to accomplish the apparently impossible. Mentalists do exactly the same thing, but they specialize in apparently "mental" or "psychic" feats. Basically, mentalists are magicians whose effects are apparently accomplished with mental powers.

Sylvia Browne and Uri Geller, were they legitimate entertainers, would fall into the category of mentalists. Their apparently psychic feats seem to happen by mental power alone. But of course, they aren't really doing these things--it's all trickery.

So, back to the forum topic. A guy mentioned Browne, and here are some samples of comments posted to the forums.

While Browne is just a normal medium who earns a living like everyone else, I've always felt that the extent she takes it goes just a little bit far. Even among mediums there is a level of decency and more importantly caution that Browne doesn't seem to exhibit.

Another responded:

This may be the case, but she's out there doing it and making a living at it! That puts her on the top rung of the ladder. Who is to say what is the level of decency when it comes to this area?

She is quite a PRO!

And the same person later commented:

You guys are just too funny. LOL

No one twist arms to make people listen to her. Since you guys are talking about taking the high road when it comes to dealing with people, would one of you mediums (here) tell me where to buy/find the rule book for mediums and where it talks about the levels of decency and caution. You know, where it states that mediums must exhibited these trates. Anyone?

So I guess the levels of decency and caution is really something that you guys thought up on your own. How nice of you to judge others with what you think is right.

I could care less what other mediums do or their methods, but really would like to read this rule book that you guys must be getting your infomation from. I want my copy.

To be fair, there were some level-headed responses as well, such as the gentleman who remarked:

Who is to say? Anyone who finds her pronouncements to parents of missing children reprehensible. Anyone who thinks the parents of Shawn Hornbeck did not deserve to be lied to like Sylvia lied to them. Anyone who thinks her comments regarding Opal Jo Jennings were vile and disgusting.

I am one of those people, and I have no qualms about saying Sylvia Browne is a predator who takes advantage of the grief of her victims to line her pockets and does not care what harm she brings to them.

I take issue with a lot of mediums, but I will be more circumspect with most. Browne, however, is at the far end of the spectrum and deserves no respect, no circumspection, and no kind words.

Eventually, the conversation devolved into people referring to the Bible as the aforementioned "rule book," and I stopped reading at that point, as I suspect you probably already know what my thought are on that kind of thing.

But here's the thing, Sylvia Browne doesn't just earn a living like anyone else. What she does is fraud, and it's the worst sort of fraud I can imagine. She tramples the loving memories of the bereaved for a quick undeserved dollar. As Penn Jillette said about these psychics, they are in a very real sense, motherfuckers. Nor is Browne just making a living like anyone else in the sense that she charges something like $600 for a 30-minute "psychic reading," during which time she spends most of those few short minutes reading off the names of your guardian angels, rather than providing the "service" she's supposed to be.

And then when she gets involved in missing persons cases or anything related to that, she sends investigators on a wild goose chase, diverting attention from the proper investigation which could actually save lives. Listening to people like Browne will at the very least rob you of your money, likely cause emotional distress, and quite possibly cost lives.

When we get into this debate, though, we see people talking about the other mediums, such as ones on that forum. The fact of the matter is, there is no such thing as an honest "medium." There are honest mentalists, sure. They're legitimate entertainers and don't claim to be real psychics anymore than Hal Holbrook claims to be the real Mark Twain.

Yes, magicians and mentalists, even the honest ones, use deception. It's part of the game. But there's a big difference between lying to people from a stage as part of a show, and lying to people and claiming it's all real. It's what separates legitimate magicians from those scumbags who need to be behind bars.

But, since people seem to want a rule-book, I thought I'd provide some thoughts on ethics for magicians. Whenever someone joins a magical society, the first thing he or she needs to do is swear an oath. Generally speaking, it's all about protecting secrets. "I swear on my honor I will not tell how it's done." That sort of thing. I think we need some additions to these oaths. Magicians need to start policing their own ranks, because there are a few motherfuckers out there who give us all a bad name.

First, and most importantly: Thou shalt not claim real powers. Sure, by all means pretend to have powers while you're on stage. But don't start opening up psychic hotlines, or giving psychic readings to the bereaved on television programs, or pretending to assist police in finding missing children. If you do that sort of thing, you need to be behind bars.

Secondly, in situations in which people are likely to think you might have real powers, I think it is only prudent to publicly disclaim said powers. It's not going to hurt your performance to begin a show by saying "I don't have real powers--it's all trickery--but I bet that we can still have a good time."

We don't expect a magician who does a watch stealing routine to actually go out and steal watches. It's all part of the act. By the same token, I don't expect an entertainer with a psychic routine to pretend to be a real psychic. Anyone who steals watches is a thief and needs to be behind bars, and the same is true of anyone who claims psychic powers.

It's not that difficult to tell the difference between legitimate entertainment and fraud. Magicians, mentalists--if you're claiming real powers, watch your backs. There are a lot of us who are sick of this shit, and we're not going to take it anymore. Everyone else, I urge you to not take it anymore either. If you're not mad as hell already, you better get there soon. Law enforcement--start putting the frauds behind bars. We need a purging of our industry, and it's time we start enforcing some very basic ethics. We need to stop tolerating the rampant fraud in this business. Anyone who even hints at having real powers should be immediately barred from magical societies, shunned by the community, and sent packing. Because the longer they're allowed to stay, the more people will begin to associate them with the rest of us, and that's the last thing anyone needs.