THE VIEW FROM JERUSALEM
Heinz C. Berendt
Uri Geller’s controversial international triumphs have taken place during the years since he left Israel, the country of his birth. But it was in Israel that he began his career and where his remarkable abilities were noted by Dr. Andrija Puharich. How do Geller’s phenomena, his claims, and his critics look to a leading Israeli parapsychologist? Dr. Berendt, who is president of the Israeli Parapsychology Society, gave a lecture on the subject “Uri Geller: Pro and Con” under the society’s sponsorship early in 1974. The following contribution is based on this lecture.
To fully understand the intricate pattern of Uri Geller’s worldwide impact, we should examine those elements of his personal history that have been explored in the Israeli press. Beyond this, as parapsychologists we must weigh most carefully the aspects of his performances that strengthen a serious interest in parapsychological studies, as well as those which tend to distract from it.
Geller has made a number of statements on his early life in interviews for newspapers and magazines and on television and radio. It is my understanding that other contributions to this symposium deal with this information. In addition, Geller’s “discoverer,” Dr. Andrija Puharich, has claimed that extraterrestrial entities are using Geller and Puharich as contacts with our own level of existence. But, as this information has been released outside Israel, and as we certainly have no way of either confirming or refuting it, I should not like to comment on it.
But we can presumably find clues to Geller’s ambitions and drives in the early development of his personality. His father, of whom he speaks little, was a sergeant during the period of the British Palestine Mandate. As a member of the military force, he was esteemed for his reliability and integrity. Uri’s early years show a contrast with this pattern of discipline: during his school years, young Geller often disturbed lectures; his lack of concentration and interest made things difficult for some of his teachers.
According to the Israeli weekly Haolam Haze (February 20, 1974), Geller’s adolescence was a period of restlessness. After living in Cyprus for several years, and then returning to Israel, Uri’s apparent efforts to emulate or outdo his father’s military achievements did not prove successful. Instead, he did not pass an army officers’ course, and he did not stay with a parachute unit he had joined. A wish to be accepted as at least the equal of his father may have been a driving force behind the development of his gifts as a conjurer.
Psychologists tell us that the development of magical skills may amount to the channeling of a desire, based on childhood resentment, “to fool the adult establishment,” to have the last laugh, to elude its supervision and control, to best it, to avoid being found out. Uri has made varying claims concerning himself and his family. Among these is the assertion that his constant companion, Shipi Strang, is his half-brother. Strang and his sister are frequently present at Geller’s performances, and some stage magicians have claimed that Uri has received signals from them which enable him to perform conjuring tricks that masquerade as telepathy, as well as other stage magic. Whether this is so has yet to be fully proven. In any event, Shipi is not in any way related to Uri, but simply came to him as the brother of one of his girl friends who served as a collaborator in his public performances. The newspaper report claims that “the girl herself admitted that she has at times helped, from a seat in the first row of the audience, by giving Uri covertly prearranged signs.”
It is my understanding that, while Uri travels and performs with Shipi and his sister, he often does so without their presence. It strikes me as of particular importance that, the magicians’ claims notwithstanding, Geller appeared entirely by himself during crucial tests at the Stanford Research Institute in California, just as he has appeared on television shows in Europe and the United States, showing phenomena that could not have been influenced by the presence or absence of his assistants.
We of the Israeli Parapsychology Society have frequently been asked why we permitted Uri to “slip through our fingers”. I have been personally questioned as to why we did not subject Geller to controlled ESP testing of the laboratory type, which would have established whether or not he actually practiced clairvoyance, telepathy, and psychokinesis. The fact is that we did try to obtain Geller’s cooperation in just such carefully planned experiments. I actually telephoned him no less than seven or eight times, asking him to submit to testing by our Jerusalem society. Twice I spoke to Uri personally. After that, his father was on the telephone, and later his newly acquired secretary. Finally, after he gave a performance in Jerusalem, Professor T. S. Rothschild, research advisor of the Israeli Parapsychology Society, invited Geller once more. Yet, in his interview with Psychic magazine, Uri claimed that he had “never heard” of us. I am not even ruling out that, in the manner of earlier mediums and sensitives, Geller may be subject to periods of disassociation, which may weaken or wipe out certain events from his memory — our repeated invitations included. But I do want to make it clear that we diligently pursued him in our effort to test his gifts in a controlled setting, right here in Israel.
By now, stage magicians throughout the world have accused Geller of actually being one of them, but pretending to exercise psychic gifts. Still, they have not really pinned him down. Nor have they, to my knowledge, repeated his “tricks” under the same conditions under which he performs. He has not been “caught” while actually using stage trickery. This pattern began in Israel, where he had such outstanding successes that he outdid all professional conjurers. True, a group of professional stage magicians managed to perform many, but not all, of his phenomena. Amateur magicians, including a college professor, gave a public performance in Tel Aviv during which they explained some of these tricks. It was after this that Geller’s star declined in Israel, and he tried his luck abroad, where this star became a soaring meteor of public acclaim.
The magazine Haolam Haze has also published the claims of his former Israeli impresario, Daniel Pelz, who was quoted as saying that he originally believed Geller’s performances in telepathy and PK (psychokinesis) were “totally genuine.” Stage personnel seeing Uri perform held the same view. I was present during a talk in which Pelz spoke to some five hundred people about Uri’s “tricks” and character. He said that Uri has a charming manner and appearance, makes a “strong impression on the female sex, and prefers women as subjects for his experiments.” Usually Geller begins his performance slightly behind schedule. As he has an excellent memory and a sharp eye, he is able to gain valuable clues from the fidgety audience while it is waiting for him to appear.
According to Pelz, Geller notes how the bored audience marks time by pulling a comb or powder box from a handbag, uses distinctive cigarette lighters, or gives away other personal details that may be used later in one or another of Uri’s “clairvoyant” or “telepathic” revelations. Geller can thus reveal seemingly unknown details about the content of a bag, can name the brand of cigarette, or describe the sise and color of a powder compact.
Pelz said that the feat of mentally guessing names or colors, which are first written on a blackboard and then erased, was accomplished by Uri through the use of an accomplice sitting in the first row. This accomplice, in standard stage tradition, used such signals as touching her hair if the color was black, crossing her legs to indicate brown, putting a finger to her lips for red, and so forth. Numbers were transmitted in a sign language similar to that used by deaf-mutes.
Uri has performed many tricks that called for being blindfolded, including driving a car. Pelz said that these blindfolds “were never 100% effective and always permitted some marginal sight”. I understand that this technique is practiced by many conjurers and is widely known. Once, Pelz recalled, Uri had set himself the task of continuing, through “second sight”, a line of chalk on a blackboard that had been begun by someone else. However, the blindfold had apparently been done too well, so he did not have enough marginal vision to find the right spot on the board. Uri hesitated, started to fumble, became nervous, and finally shouted, “Somebody disturbs me. In the balcony somebody has started to smoke.” He tore off the bandage in simulated anger, discovered the smoker, reprimanded him, and then replaced the bandage as he wanted it done, and promptly succeeded with his experiment.
One celebrated stunt was Geller’s “clairvoyant” knowledge of the death of Egypt’s President Gamal Abdel Nasser on September 28, 1970. Uri, giving a stage performance that day, appeared to faint in front of the audience, asked for a doctor, and appeared to be in critical condition. While apparently in some sort of spasm, he muttered faintly, “Nasser just died.” The announcement met with disbelief, was regarded as a somewhat crude joke by the audience, and there was laughter. But on leaving the performance, the audience learned of Nasser’s death and was duly impressed with Uri’s “crisis clairvoyance.” In actual fact, news of the Egyptian presidents death had been broadcast during the performance; a note with the news had been covertly slipped to Uri while he was on stage. Overall, Pelz stated, Geller has excellent presence of mind, a gift to solve or exploit unforeseen circumstances, knows how to extemporise and manipulate his audiences.
Even taking Pelz’s claims fully into account, together with various imitations of Geller’s performances by professional conjurers, it is wise to see Uri’s work in fair balance and from a parapsychological point of view. We need be carried away neither by Geller’s own claims – including the unearthly-aid theory he has accepted from Dr. Puharich – nor by the outraged cries of the conjurers whom he has, if nothing else, outdone at their own game. For instance, a Mr. Alon duplicated Geller’s trick of driving blindfolded before a television camera. I was present during the filming of his stunt. Alon explained how this was done, but that particular sequence was mysteriously eliminated from the telecast on the following day, perhaps to safeguard a secret of the magician profession.
While much has been duplicated by magicians, such tricks are, of themselves, insufficient to convince me, as a parapsychologist, that Geller uses their methods either always or occasionally. I feel that the magicians must duplicate the phenomena under precisely the same conditions as those under which Geller, or any other real or alleged medium, operates.
Geller’s well-known performance of making unusable watches work is another case in point. Statistically, we can always assume that a certain percentage of such watches need only a little winding or shaking to make them work, at least for a time. When Uri performs before a large television audience, this percentage can amount to hundreds or even thousands of watches that “miraculously”, or by some mysterious psychokinetic force, begin to run again. People then simply disregard the watches that didn’t respond to the “Geller effect”. My own watchmaker tells me that people come to him often with a watch that has not functioned in months. Quite often it starts and keeps going when he simply rewinds it, and nothing else has to be done. Sometimes, he says, tiny dust particles enter the oil between the small cogs and wheels and stop the mechanism. After some time the oil dries up a bit; then, when the watch is rewound, the dry particles are dislodged and the newly-wound watch starts to work as usual.
When all that is said and done, there seems to be no doubt about the nonparanormal side of Geller’s work. Let us summarise some of the points that count against his effect being a genuine psychic (or psi) phenomenon:
(1) Psi phenomena tend to occur sporadically in Western civilization. The chances that anyone is always “psychic” are slim. You just cannot give one or two performances, almost daily, for months and even years on end, by relying exclusively on psi information and psi forces. Tricks must come in, even if part of Geller’s power and knowledge is truly paranormal.
(2) We must not judge too harshly Geller’s evasion to be tested by the Israeli Parapsychology Society. We know from Dr. Puharich’s account that Uri Geller was very reluctant to be tested by the Stanford Research Institute. He attributes both this hesitation and Geller’s eventual agreement to extraterrestrial influence. Be that as it may, perhaps Uri had gathered enough experience by then, and possibly his psi power had become strong enough to enable him to cooperate with the SRI.
(3) There are published allegations that Geller has said, at least earlier in his career, that he “sometimes” uses tricks, presumably in addition to his genuine psychic ability. I am aware that he has, in later interviews, denied using conjurers’ methods; but I think he has become wrought up about continued accusations from professional magicians and does not realise that such denials are unnecessary. The question is not whether he sometimes uses sleight-of-hand but whether some of his phenomena are genuine.
(4) There is a respected tradition among serious mediums not to give public performances, not to accept payment, and to use their gifts exclusively for the benefit of mankind. Particularly when they have been impressed that their gifts have been bestowed upon them by a higher power, materialistic and self-seeking attitudes are frowned upon. Even when a medium has to earn a living from these gifts, this is to be done reluctantly and modestly, and not as a part of a publicised effort to make a fortune. One well-known Dutch paregnost, Gerard Croiset, best known for locating missing persons, never takes money for paranormal knowledge and advice, or from people in need. Geller, on the other hand, is frank in his desire for fame and fortune.
(5) Geller’s explanations of his gifts, of his role in society, and of the origin of his seemingly paranormal powers, are often superficial. Some of the observations in the Psychic interview sound primitive and childlike. It is rare among psychic sensitives — one such rarity was Eileen J. Garrett, the late president of the Parapsychology Foundation in New York — to have insight into their own depth, or to define their experiences in a manner acceptable to scientists.
Must we, then, surrender to the view that Geller, his personality, motivation, and performance add up to a purely negative total? Is he nothing but a big minus sign to parapsychology? Certainly not. I am aware that leading U.S. parapsychologists, while quite unhappy over Geller’s public notoriety, are nevertheless fascinated and continually open-minded concerning his genuine phenomena. Among these are Dr. J. B. Rhine, director of the Foundation for the Study of the Nature of Man, Durham, North Carolina; Dr. Montague Ullman, president of the American Society for Psychical Research, New York; and Captain Edgar D. Mitchell, director of the Institute for Noetic Sciences, Palo Alto, California. I tend to see eye-to-eye with these American colleagues. We must remain detached, not be tempted into simplistic conclusions, to remain aware of the complexity of these phenomena, and of the individual psychological motivations involved.
To put it briefly: the different appraisals of Uri Geller demand that, once we have heard the accusations concerning trickery, we inquire whether there is nevertheless a genuine psi power that enables him to perform an unmistakable psi experiment. I personally consider such a view completely tenable. In support of this opinion, I should like to mention these findings.
People who are psychically gifted are subtly different from others. We may call them mediums, paragnosts, or other names; but they tend to share personality structures that are the basis of their psychic abilities. It appears that during their paranormal performances they surrender part of their own personality, and at times it appears that they lose it completely. At such times, it seems as if an outside personality takes over, as in the case of an entranced medium apparently under the control of a discarnate entity, or in a case of “possession”. We may assume that these are, in actual fact, projects or personifications enabling the sensitives to verbaise alien content, or information, which they have visualised or heard. They thus dramatise, in the form of a personality, what they may have perceived telepathically or by clairvoyance.
In the same way, a good actor first learns his role and later “lives” this part so intensively that his tears, for instance, are natural when the script calls for him to weep. This sort of thing can exceed the intended goal in artistic production. Novelists are forever saying that the characters they are developing begin to “take over” the action of their narrative. Human imagination, as in the famous prophetic novels of Jules Verne, may take on truly precognitive qualities. One well-known example is Morgan Robertson’s novel The Wreck of the Titan, published in 1898, which in remarkable detail foretold the sinking of the ocean liner Titanic fourteen years later.
To link this type of experience with Uri Geller, we must observe that all magic seeks to establish symbolic parallels, to imitate reality. Geller may thus be engaged in acting out an expected situation that ultimately changes from pretense to reality. It may all begin with childlike playacting, putting something over on the “adult establishment”, with some well-rehearsed trickery. Yet, during the trance-like state of successfully dominating an audience, things may begin to happen which, starting with some hunch of “intuition”, pass over into genuine paranormal knowledge.
I have been of two minds about Uri Geller for some time, and I must confess that my own feelings and conclusions have fluctuated. It is certainly too early to pass a final judgment on Geller, but we know that often there is no time limit on the discussion and interpretations of a sensitive’s gifts. Many of the figures in psychic history still remain controversial: was he or she genuine or fake; did they fool their public sometimes, all the time, or never?
But there really are answers to such questions, at least now that we have the experience, the know-how, and the equipment to run carefully controlled experiments. With tape recorders and motion pictures, provided they are used skillfully, records of unusual performances can be made and rerun for further inspection. The balance between laboratory-type control and sufficient emotional freedom for the gifted sensitive can be established by the right kind of research team. In a case such as Geller, psychologists, physicists, and expert stage magicians should set up and run tests within the framework of a university. People like Geller are a challenge to scientific ingenuity. Only when this ingenuity is fully employed shall we—perhaps!—be able to answer the question of the authenticity of such phenomena.
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“There is no spoon!”
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“Uri Geller gave an absolutely resonating talk on his life and career. He had every single magician in the room on the edge of their seats trying to digest as much information as they could. Uri emphasized that the path to frame is through uniqueness and charisma and that professional entertainers must be creative in their pursuits of success and never shy away from publicity.”
Tannens Magic Blog
“The man is a natural magician. He does everything with great care, meticulous misdirection and flawless instinct. The nails are real, the keys are really borrowed, the envelopes are actually sealed, there are no stooges, there are no secret radio devices and there are no props from the magic catalogues.”
James Randi (In an open letter to Abracadabra Magazine)
Sir Elton John
“Eternity is down the hall And you sit there bending spoons In your mind, in your mind”
“I Have watched Uri Geller… I have seen that so I am a believer. It was my house key and the only way I would be able to use it is get a hammer and beat it out back flat again.”
“Better than watching Geller bending silver spoons, better than witnessing new born nebulae’s in bloom”