From the S&S archives: Psychic power: It's the mind over a matter of disbelief
By FRANK SUGANO | STARS AND STRIPES Published: April 3, 1983
Call me Uri.
I bend keys, you know. I didn't know I could do it, but bend one I did — in front of about 30 people and a television film crew. Actually, I don't know if I did it. Maybe it was really Uri Geller's doing. His metal-bending power, I mean. But I'm getting ahead of the story. Let's back up a bit ...
It is Friday afternoon, March 25, and reporters — including some skeptical ones — have gathered at a plush Tokyo hotel for Geller's press conference. He enters smiling. Trim, young (36) and handsome (he once was a male model in his native Israel), he greets the press and quickly begins:
"What Japan will experience in the coming week is going to be really amazing. In the nine years (since his first visit) I learned many things I didn't know about this power — mainly, that everyone has it. So I don't believe I'm unique."
Great but humble. You too can be transported 36 miles in seconds. That's one story about him.
He goes on to say that he has a "great concern," and it is about ... the Soviet Union. "I believe the Russians are ahead of the Western world in paranormal research," he says. "They're dangerously ahead. If they see that they have enough psychics to damage a whole country, they will do it.
"Behind the Iron Curtain, people like me are constantly trained day by day for years. If I can erase a computer tape with my mind, in Russia there might be 20 people like me who can do the same from 2,000 miles away. That is terrifying because defense systems in every major country rely on computers."
Well ... sure. OK. Tomorrow's headline: Reagan Calls For Psychic Buildup.
"... and I think with a lot of years of training, children can grow up and keep this power like I have,"
Geller then talks about the television show, for which purpose he was brought to Japan. He'll do a live broadcast from Tokyo Tower.
It is time for questions.
No, he says to my question, he is not sure if his powers come from UFOs any more, as he once believed. "Today I'm more confused about it. I don't know where my powers are really coming from."
A question about detractors, those who call him a fraud: "There are people that can duplicate with trickery some of the things I do. I do it real ... the field is controversial. But I look at Galileo. They wanted to kill him when he said the world was round."
Dr. James McClenon raises his hand trying to get Geller's attention. McClenon is a University of Maryland sociology professor whose book, "Deviant Science: The Case of Parapsychology," will be published this year. He asks Geller:
"Some magicians say they have seen you cheating. Do you ever cheat?
"No," Geller replies quickly.
"Why is it then that they see it?" McClenon asks.
"Why are you so interested in delving into the negative side? Who are you?"
I write in my notebook "paranoia."
Geller says there is a "certain group in America" that devotes its time trying to debunk parapsychology. "Our question is, `Who is financing them?' I don't know, but we suspect the Russians are trying to undermine this research."
The reply is interpreted for the predominantly Japanese audience, and there is some laughter. Geller ignores it.
Enter Eldron Byrd, a scientist at the Navy's Surface Weapons Center in Silver Spring, Md., and a friend of Geller's. "(Detractors) tell people what they want to hear," says Eldon ("The Navy has nothing to do with this') Byrd, who is seated at the table with Geller.
"They want to hear, 'You don't have to worry about this because any magician can do it. It's not real.' And people go 'whew!' because if it's real, it's going to affect their lives some day, and people don't want that."
(Earlier, McClennon told me that it was Byrd who conducted the best experiments with Geller. In 1973, Byrd gave him a small wire made of nitinol, an alloy that possesses a "memory." If nitinol is bent into another shape and then heated, it returns to its original shape. But after Geller held the wire, it took on a new shape and refused to return to normal. Byrd said at the time: "Geller altered the lattice structure of a metal alloy in a way that cannot be duplicated. There is no present scientific explanation as to how he did this.")
More questions, less "negative" questions ... then it's demonstration time.
Geller asks for a fork, and a Japanese reporter goes to the back of the room and picks one up from the table on which plates and silverware are stacked and arranged.
Geller places the fork on the table in front of him and begins to rub the stem with his fingers. "Sometimes, not all the time, the molecules change inside," lie says. "Sometimes it doesn't change , .. you see, it's bending upwards ... you see, it's not a trick. I want it to bend ... of course, I'm under pressure here ... to perform."
He shouts, "Whose fork is this? Whose fork is this?" A man steps up and, on request, identifies the fork as belonging to the hotel. "You see," Geller says, "it's not even my fork."
Then he asks how many of us have keys. I pull out my keys. Then he says to clasp them in our hand. "Now, 1 don't believe it's going to happen, but let's try," he says. "Believe, just believe, that maybe one key will bend ... just believe ... for 30 seconds . maybe something will happen. Out of 100 people there are always one or two or three that will experience it. Here we have only 30 maybe ... believe ... believe . . . OK, now open your hands. Check every key. Don't be disappointed if nothing happened."
I check my keys. One, a postal key of heavy steel, is slightly bent, but I'm not sure if it was straight to begin with.
"Did anyone's key bend?" Geller is asking.
"My key's bent." I say
He turns to me and asks if I was sure it was straight before. I lie and say yes.
"Let me see the key," he says. He holds it up against better lighting and closes one eye. "It's bent," Geller says. "This man says it was straight before. I believe him."
He calls me to him and, looking at me in an assessing way, says, "Let's try something."
The TV cameras are rolling and I'm embarrassed. "Here," Geller says, "hold the key this way" and he arranges my fingers — left thumb and forefinger on the handle and right thumb and forefinger along the notches. I hold the key. Nothing is happening.
"Rub it a little," he says.
I rub it with my right hand . . . slowly .. . barely touching the key. Seconds pass, perhaps 15, and then, suddenly, it gets soft. 1 feel as if something is coursing through the metal. I feel heat — or rather, a warmth.
The key is bending by itself. Or am I applying pressure? I don't know, but I feel that soon the angle will reach 90 degrees. I think about this journey into the unknown, I think about God and lapsed faith, I think about my mailbox, and I let go with my right hand.
Smiling beatifically, Geller takes the key from my hand and raises it to show the reporters. The Romans play dice, and I feel like a spectacle, like the lady's who's just been sawed in half.
But it happened. And as far as I could tell, it was no trick. But was it his power or was it mine? Let's assume ... Just call me Uri.
"It looks like it's bent more," McClenon says later as he examines the key. "But if you ask a magician ..."
"Hey, I bent it," I say.
"Magicians are really something," he says. "It's incredible what they can do."
McClenon mentions the name of one magician who claims he can duplicate any of Geller's feats: bend spoons and keys, read minds, make broken clocks work again, et cetera. And all through trickery.
But he is playing devil's advocate right now. After talking to many psychics and hundreds of people who say they have had psychic experiences, McClenon admits to belief. And he agrees with Geller that science has pretty much closed its doors on parapsychology. One reason is that psychics cannot perform under controlled conditions.
(At the press conference, Geller said: "All 1 have to do is one major thing. For instance, I can make sure that nobody's in Tokyo Tower and bend it. But it doesn't want to happen.
"And in the laboratory, it is very, very difficult for a psychic to prove himself. For some unexplained reason, phenomena does not want to be proven in the laboratory. I tried so many years, and it was so difficult. I think the power itself is an intelligence. It's like a thinking intelligence which makes its own decisions.")
"The trouble," McClenon says, "is that no one really knows how to go about testing a psychic."
The powers Geller claims to have is of a different realm.
"People have out-of-body experiences, death-bed experiences." he says. "People see apparitions, which are highly evidential in nature. People have haunting experiences. People get voices from the dead on their tape recorders.
"None of this can he proven, but there's a covert religiosity to this. Maybe at some level all men are one. "There's a latent ideology behind this research, which hopefully can regain equality for mankind.
''We're living in a nuclear age, and we might blow ourselves off the face of the earth thinking that we're all separate. Maybe in the future people will be more accepting of the ideology that at some level we are one, that if I do injury to you, that would actually be injuring me."
He adds, "I do believe in the paranormal, but at the same time magicians are astonishing."
"But what happened to me'?" I ask.
"That was surprising," McClenon says. "I can't explain it." Then he adds, "The general opinion of parapsychologists is that Geller cheats. I have to revise my opinion."
March 28. 1 am with 30 Japanese and tell them about my experience with Uri Geller. I show them my bent key, and then I ask, "How many of you believe me'?" Only one person raises his hand. The general opinion is that the Japanese are very superstitious people. I have to revise my opinion.
March 30. Eldon Byrd calls and tells me that Geller last night stopped a computer at Tokai University in Tokyo. To his knowledge, it was the first time it had ever been attempted under "controlled conditions." Can I get the word out to Associated Press and United Press International? I say I'd have to know more about it. We agree to meet at 5 at Geller's hotel.
At 5, Byrd explains what happened at Tokai. Geller arrives about 5:30 and he adds his own feelings on what happened during the computer experiment.
I ask, "What if Tokai says that you actually had no effect on the tape?"
"My feelings will be that this is science," Geller says. "I wouldn't be surprised. He's shocked. It's against all the laws."
Geller and Byrd talk about some of the strange things they say went on when Geller was tested at Stanford Research Institute in 1973. Byrd says he has seen a videotape of a watch materializing in the room in which Geller was being tested. "It was decelerating," Byrd says, "and the watch would appear in one frame of the tape and disappear in the next, reappear and then disappear."
The event was never made public because, according to Byrd, the scientists conducting the experiments weren't testing for watches materializing out of nowhere. Skeptical colleagues would frown on their methodology.
"Why don't people believe?" I ask.
Geller sighs, as if bored by the question, and says, "Custom, religion, fear of the unknown, coping with everyday life. That's enough for people."
"People who believe in ESP and things like that don't think Uri Geller's for real," Byrd says.
"I chose the glamorous side of the field — television, radio, magazines," Geller says. "People have this idea that if you have powers you have to live on a mountain and eat herbs. If I wanted to be a guru — you know that fat little guy from India — he sat among flowers and he was worshiped and became very wealthy. Can you imagine if I sat in flowers and bent spoons? He couldn't even bend spoons."
But without doubters and debunkers. where would he be, he asks. "Those guys made me a millionaire," he says. "Every time they say something bad about me, I get 100 telephone calls to go out and do television shows and lectures. As long as they spell my name right, as the saying goes.
"But it hurts these guys (pointing to Byrd), the scientists, the universities that want to pursue phenomenon but feel threatened by the controversy. They feel it will lead to cutoff of other grants. So they stop the research. That's one way how these Russians can manipulate ... I think there's a network, an intricate, complex network to discredit this field in America."
Recalling what McClenon said ("I would hope Byrd is embarrassed" by some of the things Geller says), I turn to Byrd and ask what he thinks.
"I'm a scientist," he says. "I'm not a politician."
Back to belief: "If all the world would know that I'm real, two things can happen," Geller says "Number one: I become not interesting any more. I need the controversy. Number two is more shadowy. I could be eliminated by certain people."
He has been wounded twice, he says — once in the 1967 war with Egypt when he was a 19-year-old soldier, and later in Europe, when he was lecturing and had his hand raised to a blackboard. The bullet missed his head "by a half-inch," he says. "It went right through my arm." And he shows me the scars. "I don't know who it was. It could have the PLO, a fanatic, the Russians. I don't know.
"By staying controversial — you know I'm real because it happened to you — only certain people know. But the masses, they don't know, and that's the way I'd like to keep it. I need the debunkers, I need those groups. That way I'll really be protected."
He says he tries to live like a human being; but sometimes it gets scary. He tells of the time when he was jogging in New York City and suddenly something appeared in front of him. "It was like a screen; you know the kind that keeps out mosquitos," he says. "I don't know if I was going toward it or it was hurtling toward me." He says he crashed into screen and went through a window, landing finally on a table at the home of a friend. The friend lived in Ossining, 36 miles away.
"1 know I have another 20, 30, 40 years to live. That's it. I'm finished on this planet," he says. "So I might as well enjoy life."
And because he is rich, he can. "I became extremely wealthy because I have located certain minerals for a certain very big company," he says. "I have to do that only one time in my life."
"You know the old saying," Byrd says. " '1f you're psychic, why aren't you rich?' Well, he is. "
"Do you believe in death?" I ask Geller.
"But you said 'finished' before?"
"On this planet, I said."
"Where will you go after you're finished"?"
"I don't know, but definitely I'll go somewhere. My energy will. Everyone's energy will go somewhere else, whether it's another dimension, another planet, inner space or outer space. No energy dies. It goes on."
March 31, 9 p.m..Japan is Mount Fuji, tea ceremony and bent spoons. Geller has finished his 1½-hour live television special from Tokyo Tower. The TV station gets hundreds of calls from throughout the country. Uri Geller is a success, even though the tower is still standing straight as ever, even though the spoon that I was working on ("Now everybody try it at home," he said) didn't get soft and bend.
I remember the previous evening. I forgot my umbrella and went back up to Geller's room.
"You got five minutes?" he asked.
"Does a white horse mean anything to you?"
"A white horse'?" I immediately thought of my horse-trainer friend in Chicago, but he doesn't have any white horses, just slow ones. "No," I said. "I don't even drink Scotch."
Geller shook his head. "I don't know. When I see you I think of a white horse." He got up and asked, "You got two minutes'?"
We went into another room. We were alone. He said he wanted me to draw a picture. I pulled out my notebook, he turned his head to the wall and I began drawing — a car.
"Don't let me see it," he said, returning to face me. He grabbed a piece of paper on the table. It had writing on one side; he turned it over. "Now think of it in terms of line, not name. Draw an outline of it in your mind and stare into my face."
As I outlined, as I stared, he raised pen in hand and drew in the air. His eyes were closed as he drew, following the lines I was making in my head. I finished the wheels and outlined two boxes for the windows. He drew two squares in the air. I did not outline the doors of my car. Geller put pen to paper. Then he showed one his drawing — a car, with no doors.
He did not ask if that was what I had drawn.
"That was a game," McClenon says.
"He was watching your pen."
"No, his face was turned away."
"Then he was using a mirror."
"There was no mirror."
April 1. All Fools' Day. Despite that, I am looking for the white horse.