Catching Geller in the Act

It is often claimed that Uri Geller has never been caught cheating. A well-prepared reporter decided to see for himself.

C. Eugene Emery, Jr.

It's the moment of truth for Uri Geller. The self-proclaimed psychic, who gained fame and fortune in the 1970s by saying he could bend spoons, turn compass needles, and read minds using his mental powers, has just finished telling me that he's made millions during the past ten years by using his psychic abilities to find gold and other precious minerals.

So when I remove 20 sealed film containers from my carrying case, he knows exactly what I'm going to ask. Inside 19 of the plastic containers are chunks of worthless rock. The twentieth holds a gold wedding ring. Geller says he can find the gold.

The question is: Can he do what he claims?

A decade after disappearing from the talk-show circuit, Uri Geller is back with a new book, a nationwide publicity tour, claims that he has made a fortune as a mining consultant, and repeated denials that he uses trickery to perform his psychic feats.

His disappearance coincided with a growing belief that he was not a psychic, but a magician, a belief buttressed by the confession of one of his assistants and by the willingness of magicians and scientists to expose his tricks.

Geller, however, says he slipped from sight because he got tired of the rat race of the lecture circuit, he wanted to spend more time with his family, and he had decided to get rich.

Geller is a thin, tightly wound ball of potential energy who cites figures of $50 million or more when asked how much his psychic powers have earned him. Much of that money, he says, comes from a 1.6 million nonrefundable consulting fee for finding natural resources. But he can't name a single company that has successfully used his services. "They're afraid of ridicule," he said.

He also mentions scientists who have become convinced that he has psychic abilities. And he warns that the U.S. government is not spending enough money on psychic research.

"I can erase computer tapes with my mind," he says. And "I believe the Soviets are training teams to be able to erase (American) computer tapes or cause errors in them." The results, he says, would be disastrous for national security.

His trip to Boston April 6, 1987, to promote his book, The Geller Effect, offered me an opportunity to see whether the man is a gifted psychic or a charlatan with chutzpah.

Two Ways to See

The first piece of evidence came when Geller asked me to make a simple drawing on my note pad. I had come prepared for that.

The day before, I had prepared simple drawings of a sneaker and a locomotive and sealed them in envelopes. I took that precaution because a good magician has many techniques for figuring out what object you've drawn, ranging from "pencil reading" (watching the top of the pencil) to listening to the scratching sounds you make when you draw.

One way to get around those tricks is to draw an unconventional object (not a house or a stick figure or a flower) beforehand and seal it inside of a marked envelope.

But Geller refused to look at my drawings. So I was left with doing things his way, at least for the moment.

When a magician does a mind-reading trick, there are two ways to see it -- the way the magician wants you to see it and the way the trick is actually done.

Here's what Geller apparently wanted me to see: After I sketched a kite on my note pad, Geller asked me to trace the object in my mind. Geller closed his eyes and concentrated. Then he said it wasn't working. He asked to try it again.

My second drawing was a flower. After I had finished, Geller made a few scribbles on a piece of paper. But then he said once again that he was "not getting anything."

When I told him I had drawn a flower, he became excited. He picked up his paper and showed me what looked like a drawing of a cloud and two sketches of a tree. His drawings resembled flowers, Geller noted, saying he had succeeded.

But there was something else on the paper. Next to the other sketches, but crossed out, was the diamond shape of a kite, the first object I had drawn! "The first drawing was very close," Geller said, "but I didn't know what it was."

Suddenly, the man who had admitted failure moments ago was claiming two successes.

But instead of showing that Geller has psychic powers, the demonstration showed something else -- Geller had cheated. He had made the drawing of the kite after I had shown him my drawing.

Let's go back and see how the trick was done.

When Geller was ready to guess my first drawing -- the kite -- I ripped a blank sheet of paper from my notepad. But he placed it on a nearby table, saying: "I'm not getting it, really. We'll do another one. Let me see what you drew." I showed him the kite. Geller told me to draw another picture, then turned away and covered his eyes.

But the blank sheet of paper remained on top of the table. Only after I had made my second drawing -- after I had shown him my sketch of the kite --did Geller pick up the sheet and begin to mark on it for the first time.

So when did the crossed-out sketch of the kite appear on the paper? Geller had plenty of time to draw the kite and cross it out while I was sketching the cloud and the trees.

The psychic apparently was hoping I wouldn't remember the proper sequence of events. Without a sharp eye and a tape recording, I would have missed the deception. "What you see here is real," he insisted. "It's just not a trick."

A few minutes later, I would catch Geller again.

The Bending Spoon

Bending spoons is Geller's trademark, but there are lots of ways to do it.

In a one-on-one situation, the simplest technique is for the "psychic" to bend the spoon with his hands when you're not looking. Then he hides the bent part, either with his hands or by turning the spoon so you can't see the bend.

By gradually revealing the bend -- by slowly moving his hands away or by twisting the spoon around -- the psychic gives the illusion that the object is bending before your eyes.

And he doesn't need an elaborate diversion. It takes less than a second. Unless you know what to look for, you quickly forget the diversion. But you don't forget the bend.

When Geller took one of my two spoons, he initially held it in plain view, the bowl facing down. "So look what I do," he said, "Basically, I stroke it very gently." For the next 30 seconds, nothing happened.

Then came the diversion.

"What I need is to sit on metal," he said, "Do you have a bunch of keys on you that I could sit on?" Instead, he had me take another spoon, reach down, and put it underneath his sneaker. "it's not going to work, that's my feeling," Geller said as I sat back up and refocused the camera.

But I could tell right away something was different. First, I could no longer see the whole spoon; Geller was covering the handle with his left hand. Second, he was no longer holding it flat. The bowl, instead of facing down, was tilted toward his lap.

Even with the bad angle, I could catch glimpses of a bend in the handle. At that point, I took a photograph that shows the spoon with its bent handle.

In short, the spoon had been bent while Geller was getting me to put another spoon under his foot.

Geller himself provided the evidence that he was cheating.

It wasn't until 13 seconds after I took the photograph showing a dramatically deformed spoon that Geller reported that the spoon was definitely bending.

Here is the timed transcript of Geller's statements, which begins after the telltale picture was taken.

:00 seconds --- Wait a minute, I think it's happening.

:09 seconds --- Is it?

:10 seconds --- Yes, I think something's bending slowly. Is it?

:13 seconds --- Yeah, it's bending, very slowly.

:16 seconds --- Look. It's in front of your eyes and there's nothing hidden here.

But Geller wasn't finished. He got out of his seat and raced to a nearby table lamp, keeping his back to me for a few seconds as I followed. It would have been a perfect time to manually bend the spoon even further.

Sure enough, as he held the spoon near the lamp, Geller was again hiding the handle. Gradually he let me see how the hand had bent further upward.

Once more, Geller insisted it was not a trick. But the photographs and the tape recording would reveal a different story.

Debatable Documentation

To support his claims, Geller notes that some scientists have documented his powers. He was the subject of a study of those powers at the Stanford Research Institute (now SRI International), a California think tank, where two physicists in 1974 published a report in the scientific journal Nature attesting to his psychic skills.

But he neglects to mention that the research has been widely criticized by other scientists or that the Nature article was published with a disclaimer from the editors.

The disclaimer said that although the work did not meet the journal's standards for good scientific research, the editors had decided to publish the "highly debatable experimental data" in part to resolve "extravagant rumor" about the experiments involving Geller's powers and "maybe stimulate and advance the controversy" over the legitimacy of psychic phenomena.

Geller said he never performed metal-bending experiments at SRI International because "I just didn't want to do it."

The fact is, Geller did try for weeks to bend metal at SRI, but he failed to do it under conditions that would have ruled out trickery.

Geller also drops the names of prominent politicians, including Jimmy Carter and Henry Kissinger, saying he tried to read Kissinger's mind and to influence Carter through thoughts. However, a newspaper in Britain, where Geller lives, tracked down Kissinger and a Carter spokesman who denied the assertions.

While Geller is passionately arguing that the United States is falling behind the Russians in psychic research, he is also refusing to prove his powers under conditions that would eliminate the possibility of fraud or trickery.

In the 1970s a group of respected scientists and magicians --- the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal, based in Buffalo, N.Y. --- challenged Geller to demonstrate any paranormal powers under such conditions. Geller never responded.

James Randi, the flamboyant magician who recently won the prestigious MacArthur Foundation "Genius" Award for his work exposing psychic hucksters, has a standing offer of $10,000 to Geller --- or anyone else --- if he can demonstrate psychic powers under controlled conditions. Geller won't even appear on the same program as Randi.

Other organizations have offered similar challenges.

To test his claim that he uses his mental powers to find natural resources, the British newspaper The Mail on Sunday gave Geller 84 matchboxes and asked him to find the one containing a diamond, gold, silver, oil, and coal. Geller refused.

'Not Interested'

In a hotel in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Uri Geller is staring at the 20 film canisters I've pulled from my bag. It doesn't take a psychic to know what I'm after or to see from the seals on the containers that I've taken precautions to prevent him from cheating.

"How do you know I do these things?" he asks, his voice rising as I tell him about the gold in one of the canisters. "Sure I could tell you, if it was laid on the table and I had an hour and a half or two hours. Sometimes it takes a day. I'm not trying to back out on you."

"I have all afternoon," I said, "I'm told your afternoon is free." (I had been told by his publicist that he had no appointments between 1:30 P.M. and 10 that night.)

"I'm not interested," he said.

And he left, 15 minutes before the scheduled end of the interview.

Eugene Emery is the science writer for the Providence (Rhode Island) Journal-Bulletin. This article originally appeared in the Providence Sunday Journal in 1987. It is reprinted with permission.

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