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Mind Magic : Illusionist Uses His Skills to Demonstrate How Cults Manipulate the Unsuspecting

Times Staff Writer

“Sometimes I think I was a cult leader in a former lifetime,” says Bob Fellows, a magician who has also made it part of his business to speak against cults.

Hastening to add that he does not believe in reincarnation, he suggested with a smile that “my fate was to return with the same skills and talents, but with a conscience.”

In fact, the West Hollywood resident, a graduate of Harvard’s divinity school who chose to practice magic instead of entering the ministry, uses his skills to demonstrate how the unwary are trapped.

His experiences as a student and teacher of yoga, which he described as cult-like but benign--"I got off easy"--are reflected in his talks, which include explanations of how to do magic tricks that mimic extrasensory perception (ESP).

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“I’ve seen it from both sides,” he said. “I understand what it’s like to be caught up in following a guru and having followers, and as a magician, I have a sense of the manipulation that can be used.”

His demonstrations, he said, are “experiential, but they come out of my own experience rather than just counseling a lot of kids, unlike many psychologists. The experiential aspect is unique and there isn’t anybody else who does it.”

Some of his appearances are pure entertainment. Others, for a reduced fee, include a workshop on what Fellows calls critical thinking, or “exposing mind control methods.”

At a recent talk to an anti-cult workshop at the Jewish Federation Council building, Fellows, 35, made it look as though he was predicting the behavior of several volunteers from the audience.

In one trick, he placed a match book, a battery and souvenir airline wings on the podium and asked a young woman to choose among them.

First, though, he asked her name. “Lisa,” she said.

“I should have known that,” he responded, raising a laugh.

Holding up one closed fist, he declared that it contained a prediction of her behavior. After she chose one of the three items on the podium, he asked, “Is there any way I possibly could have known beforehand that you would be left holding the battery?”

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No, she said, then gasped with surprise when he opened his hand and revealed the “prediction"--another battery.

Actually, he explained later, if she had put down the battery and ended up holding one of the other objects, he was ready with an alternate punch line: “Is there any way I could have known beforehand that you would put the battery on the table?”

He also posed for pictures that made it look as if he was floating in air, but his legs, carefully folded in yoga’s lotus position, concealed a stack of telephone books on which he was perched.

On another evening, he appeared to divine the birth dates and ages of several teen-agers simply by holding a watch or ring belonging to the subject. This is a trick he does not expose. “It’s too good,” he said.

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But the demonstrations were convincing enough to persuade several in the first audience to volunteer for a separate seminar on the use of ESP to help in their fight against cults.

Fellows said that he wished he could conduct that kind of seminar “because I could make a lot of money,” but told the crowd, many of whom have been involved with the issue for years, that ESP, if it does exist, is unteachable. “In fact, what you’ve just seen is a sophisticated magic show, not much different than making handkerchiefs disappear.

“But the fact is that we want to see something like this (the supposed power of ESP). We know the mind has great potential--it’s actually a positive aspect of personality. And the problem is that it can be manipulated by people who don’t have the same interest you do.”

The Boston native said his talks to high school and college audiences may help vulnerable youngsters shy away from destructive groups.

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“I don’t think (my presentation) is enough on its own,” he said. “But if a student is wondering, ‘Should I join this group, I’m feeling kind of funny about it,’ there’s a good chance he’ll have second thoughts after the presentation.”

Fellows began his career at age 9, appearing occasionally on local television before dropping magic as a teen-ager.

Later, after graduating from Lawrence College in Appleton, Wis., he became involved with an Indian mystic in studying and teaching hatha-yoga, but gradually returned to magic after he saw that a fellow student at divinity school was making a living at it.

The interest in cults came after a close relative married someone who had been involved in one of the major groups.

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At the American Family Foundation, a Weston, Mass.-based group staffed by psychologists and former cult members, spokesman Fred Kretchman said using magic in such presentations is “a nice way of getting the point across that you can actually dupe somebody.”

Often, he said, cult recruiters will offer potential members “something they’re not used to seeing, or not able to see through easily, the same way a magician would. The magician tells you it’s a trick and you go for entertainment. The cult person, or cults in general, they don’t tell you it’s a trick--they try to get you to believe it’s serious or real.”

Dr. John Hochman, assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at the UCLA School of Medicine who attended one of Fellows’ recent presentations, said magic has played an important role in several cults, including Jim Jones’ People’s Temple.

At that group’s healing sessions, he said, animal entrails were often produced, as if from the bodies of ailing members, and presented as though they were tumors or other dangerous growths.

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“There are many people who are looking for somebody they see as having special abilities, and if somebody can sell them (on the idea) that they do have some kind of special powers, some people who are going through a crisis or are very dependent people may want to let those people take charge of their lives,” Hochman said.

“The point Fellows was trying to make was . . . there are potentials for growth, and just because a teacher is helping you to harness them does not mean this teacher has an answer for anything,” he said.

In his presentations, Fellows does not venture public judgments on whether a group is good or bad.

“The problem is that is a really negative approach,” he said. “When you say watch out for this and watch out for that, then the whole thing is a downer, a bummer. So I tried to develop a positive approach.

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“Develop your critical thinking,” he tells his audiences. “Find out where your vulnerabilities are, find ways to counteract them, and then see how that can be practiced in everyday situations, and then you don’t have to worry about cults.”

His routine, which he also delivers at conventions and trade shows, centers on apparent control of extrasensory perception, preceding a brief how-to-do-magic talk and further discussion involving advertising techniques and cult recruitment pitches.

“I’m teaching people they can be fooled,” he said. “Reasonable, intelligent people can be fooled. ESP is just one example.”

According to Dick Zimmerman, a producer of magic shows and a director of the Academy of Magical Arts, magicians going back to Houdini have been interested in exposing psychic frauds.

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“The great advantage of seeing a magician, or someone who can do experiments like Bob does with the mind, is that it shows there are many ways of achieving seemingly impossible results; and it’s not necessarily what somebody might have you believe, some supernatural force,” he said. “Just because you can’t figure it out doesn’t mean it is what you want it to be.”

All of which is not to say that Fellows does not believe in extrasensory perception. He cites personal experiences such as dreams that come true or phenomena such as thinking of distant friends and picking up the phone only to find them already on the line.

“Maybe there is ESP,” he said, “but you won’t find it in a stage act.”

His fees range from $1,500 for a full-fledged show complete with levitation to $300 for a talk with college students about mind control. He has performed at more than 100 colleges, at the Magic Castle, Nevada resorts and several U.S. Air Force bases.

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