Dear Mentalists

Sometimes it seems like mentalists are the saddest kind of magicians. Oh, I know they'll tell you they're not magicians at all, and that is, in fact, one of the outward expressions of their sadness. "I'm not a magician, I'm a mentalist." Mmhmmm. If someone said, "I'm not a musician, I'm a tuba player!" You'd think, Oh, here is someone with wildly low self-esteem and a need to differentiate himself to make himself feel special. Or you'd think, Does this idiot not know that one of these things is a subset of the other?

"Mentalism is different than magic," they'll say, "because people often believe that it's real." And that's true enough, but are you really trying to define yourself and your work by the most ignorant members of your audience? That seems like a bizarre artistic approach. You'll often hear them brag, "This woman came up to me after the show and asked me if I could contact her grandmother in the spirit world." They say this like it reflects well on their performance. But if you look at something like acting, it is usually the people on soap operas whose fans approach them in real life as if they are the characters they play. Susan Lucci deals with this much more often than Daniel Day-Lewis. And this isn't because soap opera actors are our best actors. It's because of the demographic that is drawn to soap operas -- a demographic that confuses fiction with reality. What I'm saying is, if you have a lot of people who watch your show and then come up to you after to ask you where to find their aunt's missing ring, you likely have a show that appeals to dumb people.

More than any other area of the Magic Cafe, the mentalist section (Penny For Your Thoughts) is filled with people who want their audiences to believe they have real powers. And not just in the moment of the performance, but they want people to think they have real powers in real life. There are even members who claim that they really do have some kind of supernatural gift. I don't think they have any concept of how sad they appear to everyone else there. These people tend to be the most awkward and alienating on that message board. Why would you think adopting that posture would come off any differently in real life?

This need to be seen as real has affected the methods used in mentalism as well. It's a lot easier to delude yourself into believing you have some special power when you're not using a peek wallet. So there's been a big move towards propless mentalism. 95% of this is grade-A cat-shit. They confuse removing the props with removing the process.

Speaking of the word process, one of my friends told me once that she didn't eat any sugar. Later I saw her putting honey on something. I asked her why she would eat honey when she wouldn't eat sugar.

"Honey is natural," she said. "Sugar is processed."

"Honey is processed too," I said.

"Uhm, no it isn't."

"Of course it is," I said. "It's processed by bees. What difference does it make what species is doing the processing?"

This was a sad and disturbing notion for my animal loving friend.

Mentalists suffer from the same blind spot: they forget about the fucking bees. You don't just get the honey. Something has to make it. Something has to make an effect as well. You can't just concentrate on what the effect doesn't require (i.e., "no props"), and ignore the fact that sometimes by stripping the props you make the method a hot mess.

Derren Brown wrote in his early books about "invisible compromise," a concept that clearly was misunderstood by many mentalists. (Although what can you expect from a group that has spent 10+ years confusing his presentations for his methods?) Invisible is not the same thing as intangible. Yes, it's great if things don't have to be written down; if you can get rid of billets, and center tears, and peeks. But if you replace the writing down of information (a one-step physical process) with a 10-step mental process, that's a step backwards and hardly "invisible."

"I can tell someone their birthday without them writing anything down!" Right, and they only have to do a fucking trigonometry problem in their head to accomplish this. For anyone who actually performs for people (and isn't just creating methods to appeal to other performers) it is painfully obvious that, if anything, these mental processes are often more restrictive and invasive than the physical ones. I can think of a dozen different contexts that would be interesting to an audience to reveal a PIN number that I've peeked. But if you have to go through a long, dull mental process to figure out the number, you can't tack on an interesting fake process after that. You've already shown them the process; it's you asking questions and having them do a bunch of math in their head. Instead of making the compromises invisible, you're just substituting in a whole different (and usually worse) set of compromises. And then you pat yourself on the back for making it "propless." Meanwhile, this is the experience you create...

You: Won't you be astounded when I reach into your mind and touch your soul by revealing your PIN code which you never wrote down?

Them: Hold on... let's see... carry the six... so that's 22... add those digits together... that's four. Okay my Lucky Secret Money number is four. I'm supposed to add that to my birthday? I'm sorry... what were you saying?