Uri Geller - a bibliography - homepage

Journal of Parapsychology - Volume 39 - 1975

Book Reviews

John Beloff

  • URI GELLER: MY STORY by Uri Geller. New York: Praeger, 1975.
  • URI by Andrija Puharich. New York: Doubleday, 1974.
  • SUPERMINDS, AN ENQUIRY INTO THE PARANORMAL by John Taylor. New York: Viking Press, Inc., 1975.

    Taylor mentions in passing that Geller has given over fourteen hundred public performances and, no doubt, this figure is already very out of date. By contrast, the number of controlled tests to which he has submitted (as distinct from informal demonstrations in the presence of scientists) could be counted on the fingers. Moreover, only a fraction of these have so far issued in a scientific paper in a learned journal. A "Note" by W. E Cox in the issue for December 1974 is, I think, the only entry on Geller that has yet appeared in this Journal. Most of the extant literature on Geller takes the form of feature articles in popular illustrated magazines or in newspapers. The three books here under review are essentially expanded magazine articles between hard covers and they will, I fear, do little to advance the serious study of the Geller case. It is not surprising, in the circumstances, that so many of my parapsychological colleagues turn away in disgust and refuse to take Geller seriously. Someone so immersed in show business and in making money and so little committed to science cannot, they feel, be worthy of their attention.

     This attitude, though understandable, is, I am convinced, profoundly misguided. It is just possible that Geller may prove to be the most gifted all-round psychic subject that there has ever been, not excluding D. D. Home! But even if he falls far short of this, the impact that he has already had on the parapsychological scene has been prodigious. Since his advent, many eminent physicists have been attracted to our field who previously remained unimpressed by all our learned publications. He has, moreover, restored the directly observable PK effect to a central position in the parapsychological arena.
     Let us start with the question that must be asked of every paranormal claim, namely, the question of authenticity. To this reviewer, at least, the Geller case has long since passed the point where it is sensible to doubt that Geller possesses paranormal powers except, that is, in the purely theoretical sense in which all psi phenomena are open to doubt. If asked to justify such a statement, my first impulse would be to reply that no one in the world could be that clever! However, I realize that this intuitive judgment is scarcely going to satisfy the skeptics, so I must be more specific. A good place to start, in considering the authenticity of the Geller phenomena, is the dice test carried out at the Stanford Research Institute (SRI), a test in which Geller was required to call the uppermost face of a die that had just been shaken up inside an enclosed metal container. My reason for singling out this particular test is, first, that it is the simplest of all the tests he has attempted so that it allows for the fewest possible counterexplanations and, secondly, that clairvoyance in general and forced-choice guessing tests in particular represent the weakest part of the Geller repertory so that, if we grant him success here, it would be gratuitous to doubt his performances where he has given a superabundance of evidence of his paranormal ability. As is well known by now, he hazarded a guess on eight trials altogether in this test and was correct each time so that the odds against chance mount to approximately a million to one. How do his critics deal with this result? Joseph Hanlon, the physicist, was assigned by New Scientist to do a hatchet job on Geller and, if possible, to destroy the credibility of the SRI report that had appeared that week in Nature (Oct. 18, 1974). He came up with the ingenious suggestion that the telepathic tests could be explained by postulating a "tooth-radio" invented by Puharich and used by Geller that, with the help of an accomplice armed with a transmitter, would have enabled him to pick up the relevant information. In the case of the dice test, however, where no accomplice could have helped, he suggested that Geller might have infiltrated his own trick die that could emit radio signals indicating how it had landed. In replying to these charges, Targ and Puthoff pointed out to New Scientist that the die they had used was a transparent plastic die, where any internal mechanisms would have been apparent, and that theirs was in any case coded with the SRI stamp. Hanlon made no attempt to pursue the point; indeed, how could he? Targ and Puthoff left us with no option but to assume either that they were deliberately lying to us about the conditions of the experiment or that Geller displayed the clairvoyant powers which these results imply.
     The case for regarding the specific "Geller effect" as authentic (i.e., the paranormal bending of metal objects) strikes me as even more indisputable if only because here there are so many independent witnesses. The stage magicians, like Randi or Romark or Berglas, who claim that they can simulate the Geller effect are really bluffing. What they mean is that they can, on occasion, distract the attention of their audience long enough to bend a key by mechanical means without anyone noticing. But we have numerous reports by scientists or other witnesses of standing of Geller bending a key by merely touching or stroking one end of it while the observer is holding the other end. When the stage magicians can do that we can think again. These same magicians, we may remember, used to say that they could simulate a Serios effect but none was willing to risk doing so under the conditions in which Serios had to operate. Some reports mention, moreover, that the objects which Geller has stroked continue bending when he is no longer touching them. Taylor got Geller to stroke a metal strip that was attached to a balance which recorded the precise degree of pressure exerted. The strip duly bent without the record showing anything like the degree of pressure that would be required using mechanical force.

     These, then, are some of the reasons why it strikes me as a waste of time to debate the basic authenticity of Geller's ESP and PK performances. But, of course this by no means implies that from now on we can accept uncritically every claim which Geller or his friends put out about him. On the contrary, sorting out what is factual from what is spurious or apocryphal in the Geller case is still the prime task for parapsychological scholarship. In terms of their credibility we can perhaps range the Geller phenomena as a hierarchical progression. At the bottom tier we can place those tasks that he can perform repeatedly and more or less to order. Fork-bending, the starting-up of timepieces that have stopped, and the telepathic reception or transmission of images fall into the first category. Next come the phenomena that occur in a wholly unpredictable way such as the dematerializations and teleportations that have become so familiar to those who have had the good fortune to work closely with Geller. Because these are sporadic phenomena, it is much harder to discount for trickery. However, Geller mentions one instance at SRI where a dematerializing effect was caught on videotape. It involved a watch said to have been locked in a briefcase: "On the video film replay, the watch appeared on the top of the screen, falling downward. The watch then disappeared and reappeared twice as it fell, coming back on the screen just before it hit the lucite table" (My Story, p. 247). Then there is the occasion during the Birkbeck investigation by Hasted, Bohm, and Bastin when a fragment of a vanadium carbide crystal dematerialized from inside a plastic capsule under the scrutiny of three witnesses. Finally, we have a number of paranormal incidents that are so far out as to be unique even for Geller.

     A dramatic example of this last category is given by Geller himself in Chapter 17 of his book. There he tells us that on Friday, November 9, 1973, at some time between 6:10 and 6:15 p.m., he was bodily translated from a street on the East side of Manhattan to inside the home of Puharich at Ossining, some thirty miles away. According to his own account he was last seen by his friends Maria and Byron Janis (the composer) at their apartment in Manhattan at around 5:30 p.m. and was next seen by Puharich who had been listening in to the six o'clock news in his bedroom but came down to investigate on hearing a loud thud. Now it is all too easy to laugh this sort of thing out of court as just another tongue-in-cheek tall story; but why, one wonders, should Geller risk telling a story implicating his friends which he fully realizes could only strain the credulity of his supporters and wreck the credibility of the rest of the book so far as his critics are concerned? Or was this a practical joke he was playing at the expense of his friends? Was there perhaps a private helicopter waiting for him on a rooftop in Manhattan to whisk him off to his destination in Ossining? But, then, if he was staging a coup of this scale, why did he not wait for an opportunity when he could have baffled a multitude and not just a few members of his own intimate coterie? I ask these questions because I want to emphasize that, where Geller is concerned, nothing should be allowed to go by default and nothing is too fantastic to be worth probing. It may be worth mentioning that a very similar story is told of that dubious Brazilian medium, Carlos Mirabelli, who flourished in the 1920's. At one moment he was seen on the railway station at Sao Paulo and at the next a phone call revealed that he had already arrived at a friend's house at Sao Vicente some fifty miles away. There is also the case of Mrs. Guppy who is said to have been teleported from her house in Highbury to an address in Conduit Street in the West End of London, a distance of some three miles, where she landed on a table in a state of deep trance while a seance was in progress (see Fodor's encyclopedia under "Guppy"). All this, of course, is the purest Arabian nights; nevertheless, we must remember that the word impossible does not belong in the vocabulary of parapsychology.
     Let us now turn to this trio of books and see what each can contribute to our understanding of Geller and his phenomena. Geller's own book is the one that appeals to me most, if only because it is the most straightforward and least pretentious. Its main interest lies in what it can tell us about the personality of its author. I doubt, however, whether those who pin their hopes on the personality approach to psi will find here much that is suggestive. One searches in vain for any special features of Geller's upbringing or family background that is not common to countless other children who do not have his gifts. He emerges as a rather naive and sentimental young man with an immense zest for life who enjoys the fame and fortune that has so unexpectedly come his way. He is clearly no intellectual and prefers open-air pursuits to books and study. He volunteered for the paratroop regiment when he did his army service in Israel, and fought in the Six-Day War. There is no hint here that he knows anything about the history of psychical research in which he was destined to play such an outstanding role. In general, apart from a good grasp of several languages, he is decidedly undereducated. This is a pity because it makes it harder for him to devote himself to research. He recognizes that he has a duty to science and is apologetic about the amount of time he spends as an entertainer. However, he argues, not unreasonably, that his shows invariably stimulate an interest in the paranormal wherever he goes and this in itself will force scientists to pay more attention to these phenomena. More than that, they appear to trigger psychic potentialities in others so that the phenomena multiply. Yet there can be no question that he is happiest when improvising in front of a large enthusiastic audience, especially of young people. It is significant that his boyhood ambition was to become a movie star.

     Such, in brief, is the character of one who is rapidly becoming a legend in his lifetime, at least so far as can be gleaned from his own writings. Some people, I know, find him exasperating but many more quickly succumb to his boyish charm and striking good looks. But what should make him of interest to readers of this journal is that his life, by all accounts, has been one prolonged poltergeist episode with amazing things happening at every turn. While, in the usual case, the poltergeist focus loses his powers in childhood, in Geller's case they appear to go from strength to strength as he gets older. He may well have reached the peak of his powers and if we neglect him now posterity may not lightly forgive us. The fact that he lacks the docile temperament to make a good experimental subject should not deter us. Great psychics like great geniuses in any field are so rare and so precious we have to learn to accept them as we find them.

     Andrija Puharich may not be everyone's favorite parapsychologist but no one can deny that he is a man of immense energy, great initiative, and a bold imagination. It was he, after all, who, so to speak, discovered Arigo, the first and foremost of the psychic surgeons, and he has played a key role in Geller's life, as it was he who brought Geller over from Israel to the United States and made him available to the SRI team. He has also courted controversy by providing Geller with a mythology to accompany his phenomena. It is this curious mythology based on the notion of Geller being under the control of superior intelligences in outer-space that constitutes the main substance of his puzzling book Uri. A reader not knowing anything about the author might conclude that this was a harmless essay in science fiction woven around the personality of Geller; people, after all, do write novels taking real people as their protagonists. Alternatively, he might see it as a sinister attempt to sabotage the Geller case and to make sure that no one ever took it seriously again. But we know that neither interpretation will fit so we must make an effort to understand what lies behind it all. To discover that one is able to perform miracles must, even for the toughest of us, be an unnerving experience. Perhaps the only way one can avoid megalomania in these circumstances is to believe that one is no more than the passive vehicle of external forces and agencies. Since, in any case, psi would appear to be a function of the unconscious, its manifestations are bound to seem alien to the conscious self. Thus it is entirely natural that miracles should come to be thought of as due to the intervention of occult entities. In earlier times these might be thought of as angels or as demons; in the nineteenth century they were attributed to the spirits of deceased human beings; in our own age it is the turn of extraterrestrial or extragalactic creatures. Such myths do not, of course, explain how the phenomena are brought about, but they can help the subject to come to terms with them.

     What is less easy to understand is why Puharich should have succumbed to his own fantasies. It seems to have started in February 1952 when he met a certain Hindu sage and psychic, one Dr. D. G. Vinod. When entranced, Vinod would utter messages purporting to come from a group of beings calling themselves the "Nine Principies." These beings claim to have charge of human affairs and to act as the intermediaries of God. One of this group, calling himself "R," is described in Appendix One as "the principle of art and rhythm." However that may be, it transpires that he is no great shakes as a linguist because in the Introduction he suddenly remarks a propos of nothing at all: "Of course, you all know that alchemy is actually operative whenever we are forcing a crisis on ourselves, or permitting a crisis to be forced on us, we are exposed to alchemy. Of course, 'Al' means God and 'Kern' means Egypt; therefore Alchemy is God of Egypt, and God of Egypt was this" (p. 17). I particularly relished the "of course's." However, one does not need to be an Arabist—all one needs is a good English dictionary— to discover that, while -chemy does indeed relate to the Greek word for Egypt, al- is not related to Allah (=God) but is the Arabic definite article, as in algebra, alcohol, etc. Hence alchemy = the Egyptian art. It seems these new-fangled science-fiction entities are apt to talk the same tedious and portentous drivel as the spirit controls that manifested through the famous mediums of yesteryear.

     Some years later, when he went to Brazil, Puharich developed an interest in UFO's. Geller's involvement with the invisible powers began only in December 1971 when Puharich, on a visit to Israel, began using hypnosis on him. At first, the messages were heard as if by some kind of direct-voice phenomenon. Later, however, the regular procedure was to have them record themselves on tape and it was no longer necessary that Geller should be in a trance. Unfortunately this recording was something of a waste of time since it was invariably followed either by the cassette itself physically dematerializing or being wiped clean! "The secret of Spectra was safe," as Puharich puts it so disarmingly, "because they had leaked out just enough information to convince me of their reality, but not enough for me to ever convince any other human being" (p. 122). As to the content of the messages that came through, these were either high-flown pronouncements about the world situation and the future of the human race or else quite specific instructions as to what Uri should or should not do at that particular juncture in his career. Although Uri himself nowhere repudiates the title of "ambassador of an advanced civilization" which Puharich bestows on him in the preface of his biography, he is alive to the comic aspect of being controlled by superior intelligences with phony-sounding names like "Hoova" or "Rhombus 4D." Sometimes, indeed, he wonders whether he might not be the victim of some vast cosmic joke. Let us assume, for the sake of argument, that the tapes did exist and that the voices were real enough. The obvious question, which Puharich never seems to have considered, is whether the voices might not have been paranormally imposed on the tapes by virtue of Geller's own psychokinetic powers (this very possibility has been raised in the case of the Raudive tapes)? Geller, after all, claims that he has been able to modify or erase information that is magnetically stored on videotape, why should he not also be credited with the power of feeding in the information? Puharich's obsession with UFO's, however, seems to have blinded him to this possibility. Consider, for example, the photograph which Geller took from the window of his Lufthansa plane (My Story opp. p. 187). Geller saw only clear sky when he looked out of that window, yet the photograph reveals three unmistakable flying saucers. Surely what we have here is not some extraterrestrial visitation but a typical Serios effect?

     A regular feature of Geller's broadcast performances in almost every country that he has visited is that his phenomena are reported by his listeners or viewers as occurring in their own homes! To suggest that this is no more than the mass hysteria sparked off by the publicity surrounding Geller is to overlook certain pertinent facts. For example, following Geller's very first radio broadcast on the "Jimmy Young Show" in November 1973, the BBC's switchboard was jammed with callers wanting to talk about the phenomena they had observed in their homes. Yet, at the time, Geller's name was virtually unknown in Great Britain. It was only after the famous "Dimbleby Talk-In" on BBC television that same evening that Geller became headline news in the British press and a household word in my country. John Taylor, head of the department of applied mathematics at King's College, London University, was present in the studio during the Dimbleby Talk-In. Convinced by his own eyes that the phenomena were genuine, he felt that here was a challenge which, as a scientist, he could not resist. Nothing less than an explanation of the "Geller effect" and of related psi phenomena in acceptable scientific terms was required. Although Geller paid several visits to his laboratory, he soon realized that his best hope for research lay with the "mini-Gellers" (those individuals, mainly young children or adolescents, who initially discovered their abilities after watching Geller perform but thereafter could operate independently). Superminds represents the first published evidence on these mini-Gellers of whom Taylor managed to track down some 38 cases. He is in the privileged position of being among the very few investigators to witness some authentic bending phenomena with these subjects, whose powers usually seem to desert them when they are placed in a controlled situation. Even Taylor never managed to get a videotape recording of their performances. However, the illustrations showing metal strips bent into an S-shape inside sealed glass tubes (see p. 159) are very impressive, even though the process of bending in this instance was not witnessed. It is a pity only that the reporting is so casual and the presentation so confusing that it is almost impossible to tell exactly what was firmly established or how much of what the author describes he is personally prepared to vouch for.

     Taylor adopts a curiously stringent criterion as to what is to count as explanation. The phenomena must be explainable in terms of the known laws and forces recognized in physics. In other words, it must be shown that they are not, after all, paranormal. Anything else, he feels, would place science in serious jeopardy. As to the idea that psi may not fundamentally be physical at all, that is something the author does not care even to contemplate. From this point of departure, Taylor arrives, by elimination, at his hypothesis that both the ESP and PK phenomena associated with Geller must be due to very low frequency electromagnetic waves emitted by the brain or nervous system of the subject. Indeed, he concludes that all psi phenomena must be basically electromagnetic in nature. I need hardly say, to readers of this journal, that such an explanation is so patently incommensurable with the magnitude of the problem that it would be an act of gratuitous unkindness on my part to belabor the point. After reading these three volumes it occurs to me that what we need even more than another good experimental investigation of Geller is a really reliable, detailed, and documented biography. And this work should be started as soon as possible while those connected with Geller are still available for questioning. If any wealthy benefactors would care to finance such an enterprise, they may be assured that parapsychology would be permanently in their debt.

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