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Psychological Subtleties by Banachek

Reviewed by Jamy Ian Swiss (originally published in Genii June, 1999)


Banachek is the stage name of mentalist Steve Shaw, who first saw the light of time as one of the two protagonists (antagonists?) in James Randi's infamous Alpha Project, wherein two young magicians went forth and submitted themselves for observation to the parapsychology community, which in turn failed to quite discern—or even ask about, for that matter—the fact that they were cheating. Quite a crucible for a young performer to forge his skills of bluff and boldness, two invaluable traits in any successful mentalist.

Previously, Mr. Shaw has marketed several effects in manuscript form which have met with fairly consistent praise and indeed high usage in mentalist circles. In this, his first book-length effort, he explores, as the title denotes, psychological tricks and stratagems for the performance of mentalism. Psychology is of course a powerful and important element of all conjuring, but here Mr. Shaw examines many effects and techniques that are purely psychological in method, rather than those that merely incorporate psychological nuance in cooperation with other secret methodologies. The distinction is useful for purposes of this description but far from absolute, as many of these ideas will also go far to heighten and enhance effects and routines which rely on a combination of methodological approaches.

In 22 chapters the author covers a broad range of classic feats and methods of mentalism, from nail-writing to book tests, spoon bending, telephone tricks, questions and answers, think-of-a-card tricks, and much more. Throughout, he provides touches and additions and insights, from both himself and a host of contributors, that can be successfully, if adventurously added to virtually any mentalist's existing repertoire, with potentially powerful results.

For example, in a chapter on "Subtle Letters," Mr. Shaw provides an impressive quantity of ideas for elaborating upon the revelation of a word secretly known to the performer, in which you not only tell the spectator the number of letters in the word, but apparently reveal the manner in which he or she is thinking of and visualizing those letters and numbers, and even, in asking them to merely think of one of the letters in the word, being able to immediately reveal that letter. These techniques are purely psychological in nature—all you know is the word, as you would in any standard mental trick—yet it appears that the performer has opened a picture window into the spectator's mind. These are unnerving feats—for those who have the nerve to try them.

As these techniques are, as the title implies, subtle, it is difficult to briefly state them in a review without being terribly misleading about their relative simplicity or difficulty, and of course the success rate one might achieve is anyone's guess. In fact, there are times when I confess I am skeptical of the author's concrete claims of predictable outcomes, as when he speaks of, for example, flashing subtle hand signals to the audience when forcing shapes, or emphasizing certain spoken words in a sentence; in such cases, the performer may only be entertaining and deceiving himself. As with much of Kenton Knepper's work (the Wonder Words tapes), I believe that claimants and practitioners of these alleged "techniques" are often victims of their own confusion between correlation and causality—undoubtedly the source of the hopelessly pseudoscientific claims of believers in neuro-linguistic programming, for example. I do not doubt that the author achieves success, but since his approach is generally multi-faceted, it is extremely difficult to determine which element is signal and which is merely noise that no one hears but the performer. As for me, I'll wait for the double-blind tests.

While such reservations apply to a portion of the work described, I also believe that most serious practitioners will be well served by investigating and experimenting with the undeniably interesting and potentially powerful techniques proposed in these pages. The book is neither well-written nor well produced, and the credits unfortunately range from mistaken to non-existent, although rarely does this seem for the purpose of claiming undeserved credit; rather it appears to be more of a case of the "I don't know and I didn't bother to check" school. This is an adequate approach for casual conversation, but once an author commits to print, he assumes a responsibility—like it or not—to the readership, the published record, and especially his fellow creators. Much of this kind of work, for example (as pointed out to me by Max Maven), including some specific examples in Mr. Shaw's book, can be found in Ormand six-part manuscript series, Psychic Magic (Abbott's Magic; 1951), a reprint of a series of articles he contributed to Tops magazine entitled the Psychic Circle, along with a book McGill later wrote for the public in the 1980s.

An element I found extremely interesting about this book is the introduction contributed by Teller. To find this arch skeptic introducing the work of a professional mentalist presents certain questions which are probably not fully answered in the balance of this volume. In these four-and-a-half pages, however, Teller offers the most succinct explanation in print of which I am aware that attempts to explain directly why mentalism continues its third-class status in the world of show business (as witnessed by the fact that, if pressed, laymen will either be completely unable to mention the name of any professional mentalist, or may in fact man-age to come up with one name that currently represents little more than the butt of David Letterman's jokes—a joke the entire country is in on with the exception of the mentalist himself, and a handful of his equally clueless colleagues).

Observing the unarguable fact that mentalists often prop their performances up on the cheap theater and dubious morality of the audience's confusion between reality and trickery, Teller offers that "files these shady connections that keep mentalism from being a mainstream form of show business. You can't love a performer if he's treating you as a sucker." Of course, those who wish to believe in the supernatural nature of the performer's powers will be drawn in, just as some folks are drawn to the cult of pure celebrity, fascinated with the trash of supermarket tabloids that offer fake insights into lives more interesting than those of the desperate reader.

Mentalists will cry "Foul!" and offer up the usual Annemannesque defenses of their poor theatrical sportsman-ship, but the fact of mentalism's relatively low status and success—I mean, even magic, with all its attendant trashiness and low-class cachet, has better standing and a far greater number of more successful practitioners—combined with the fact of the author's choice to include this material in the pages of his own book, provides undeniable food for thought. (May I remind the reader, before he sends off his latest missive calling for my head on a block, that I am responsible for neither of the above-stated facts.) More questions are raised than answered, however, as the author repeatedly refers to his desire to "convince the audience I am really reading their minds," as opposed to convincing them that he is creating the illusion of such mindreading.

Although Mr. Shaw endorses the line, attributed to Ned Rutledge, that "I use my five known senses to create the illusion of a sixth," and I know that he also denies paranormal abilities in his performances as Banachek, I still find it difficult to resolve these two apparently opposing points of view. Late in the book he addresses "a new breed of mentalist that (sic) tells his audience that what he does is not psychic in nature but simply non-verbal communication and psychological directing of people." I believe there is merit to this approach—which is, by the way, far from an entirely new one!—but I would not be so sanguine as to endorse Mr. Shaw's claims that the work of, for example, Marc Salem, star of the recently successful Off-Broadway show, Mind Games, does "not raise eyebrows at the national skeptics' headquarters." I, for one, read a profile of Mr. Salem in the New York Times that was filled with double-talk and disinformation that, while of an admittedly different specific claim than the usual muddied verbiage, seemed to me to be little more than a different flavor of pseudo-explanatory gobbledygook, substituting one extraordinary claim for another.

My point, for purpose at least of this discussion, is not to become bogged down in the moral issues (which I believe are nevertheless compelling in their own right), but rather to consider the theatrical implications of these issues, as addressed by Teller in his interesting contribution to Mr. Shaw's book. Would that mentalists consider the possibility that by bringing mentalism up to a similar theatrical, intellectual, and moral standing as conjuring—namely, performing what the audience is confidently certain as being illusion, without wordy prevarication and theatrical slipperiness—they would in fact achieve a more powerful theatrical impact and a far wider commercial acceptance.

There is not a single non-magician's name on my speed dialer—most of whom are appreciators of magic—that is anything other than intellectually insulted when he or she hears a mentalist playing coy with the subject of whether his tricks are anything other than exercises in skillful deception. If mentalists would stop wading around in the shallow end of the gene pool and cease insulting that great swath of the intelligent audience, they might in fact find a far larger and more interesting audience of appreciative and thoughtful non-believers. Why not attribute one's success with the kinds of difficult and effective material described in this volume to the great skill that it genuinely requires, rather than foisting it off on at best a confusing claim and at worst a supernatural one?

Psychological Subtleties • by Banachek • 8.5" x 5.5" • laminated hardcover • 115 pages • several illustrations and photographs of the author • 1998