The night Uri Geller landed at Larnaca airport an electric storm shook the sky for hours, flaring up in violent bursts that recorded Pentadactylos’ invisible peeks like bones left on an X-ray, and as quickly guttering out.
The next day, a shaggy black cloud followed me to the Hilton Park Hotel, where Geller was staying in the presidential suite. None of this was extraordinary. The rainy season had begun.
All the couches in the Hilton’s lobby were taken; the atrium echoed with the vague hum of voices in transit. It was Sunday and felt it. Outside, a pale lady in a bikini was tanning herself in the autumn chill. A Russian couple on the opposite side of the pool looked uncomfortable in their expensive clothes. I was feeling edgy.
Was Geller peeking at me from a window? Could he read my thoughts, which might have passed more easily through the electrically charged ether? And then there was the uncomfortable thought that any of the unshaven, nondescript Israelis, who seemed to be strolling the hotel grounds in unlikely numbers that morning, could have been Shipi Shtrang, Geller’s brother-in-law and assistant, relaying critical bits of information to the boss in Venusian dialects. I could have sworn a bearded man had been lurking around the parking lot when I pulled up, and here was another one behind me. I'd been reading too much about the legend of Uri Geller.
When Geller arrived in the lobby, he did so unobtrusively, and presumably by elevator and hadn't just teleported in, which I was told he does from time to time. Tall, gaunt, in a hooded Gap sweatshirt and fashionable sunglasses, he could have passed for a man twenty years younger. The reputation he'd acquired for being a fraud and the vitriolic rantings of a coterie of men who have made it their lives’ work to prove this had already warmed me to the man, and I knew that however you felt about him and his claims, spoon-bending was the tip of an iceberg of weirdness that made anything the Israeli had ever accomplished by legerdemain or with supernatural assistance as benign as the worst of the Amazing Kreskin.
Sifting through the varied accounts of the famous CIA-funded SRI (Stanford Research Institute) experiments of the mid-70’s that claimed to have proved Geller’s psychic abilities and did make Geller a household name, I was struck not so much by the tenuously scientific activities they reported as by the crew of oddballs that had been recruited for the purpose. Indeed, the creators of Hellboy might have had to water down that roster. There we find men like Major Ed Dames, described, perhaps unfairly, as ‘an occultist and communer with demons’; Sidney Gottlieb, Mr. LSD himself; Harold Puthoff, a noted quantum physicist and one of several Scientologists inducted into SRI’s ranks; and a certain General Stubblebine, an Army Intelligence man, who, besides having a name ideally suited to wizardry, was occasionally overcome by the baffling need to dematerialize and walk through a wall. Their goal was purportedly to determine if the human brain, tuned to the right frequency, could receive and transmit energy like a radio – or a laser – and thereby, one can only imagine, make life significantly more difficult for the already struggling Russians.
And as in Hellboy, to understand why the US government would have had an interest in such things, you have to dig back ever further to the collapse of the Third Reich, when the OSS was rounding up the best of the ‘worst’ minds in German science even as the atrocities of Dachau hit the international presses. Werner Von Braun and Hubertus Strughold were two among 800 German scientists who found themselves suddenly whisked away to the US, pace Nuremburg, under the auspices of Project Paperclip, the continuation of SS ‘truth serum’ research and the origin of the CIA’s interest in mind control. If you believe this story, the US government just picked up where the Nazis had left off. Fortunately, there is one man whose murky career spans both periods of research, and, moreover, carries us up to the present, insofar as his most remarkable protégé was Uri Geller.
Enter Andrija Puharich, who was, in the words of Ira Einhorn (whose esteem of the scientist’s odd behaviour is perhaps made more credible by the fact that pieces of Einhorn’s girlfriend, Holly Maddux, were found in a steamer trunk in Einhorn’s closet shortly before he fled the US) ‘the great psychic circus manager of this century.’ Like his spiritual mentor Wilhelm Reich, who along with Nicolai Tesla, the godfather of Soviet pyschotronic warfare, was the only 20th century thinker that mattered to Puharich – ‘Einstein was a dupe,’ he is supposed to have said – he invented strange devices like electromagnetic dental implants that allowed a man to hear with his teeth. He is reputed to have invented the Faraday cage, wherein Uri Geller’s telekinetic powers were tested at SRI. For a while he disappeared in the jungles of Mexico, foraging for hallucinogens.
But Puharich may be most remembered for his activities with the Nine, or Council of Nine, a body of garrulous extraterrestrial beings with Egyptian leanings who identified themselves to various mushroom-nibbling psychics as the representatives of the Creator God Atum. Their agents, the Hoovians, found Geller likable enough to consult directly in a series of trances recorded by Puharich and published in a book called Uri, understandably a major stumbling block for the spoon-bending superstar in his attempts to establish his credibility at the time.
Bizarre enough, I’m sure, for the average reader, and for the author any deeper would entail taking up permanent residence at the bottom of Philip K. Dick’s mind. (Dick himself claimed to be the victim of Russian mind warfare, complaining of ‘violent phosphene activity’ that bombarded him relentlessly.) But reality? I didn’t know. Did Geller emerge relatively unscathed from all this oddness? Undoubtedly. Sitting across from him in the Hilton cafe, I knew I had little hope of talking deeply about any of that, so I asked him about the reality program, I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here!, he'd appeared on several years ago. He reported almost verbatim what I'd read in the paper, speaking of the nuisances of snakes and spiders and the physical challenge of carting heavy buckets of water.
Geller, whose eyes hadn't left mine for several minutes, was forthcoming enough. Waving away the jungle, he said, “Since then I’ve done much more important things."
A TV program of his own was mentioned in this context. A sort of Star Search for the budding psychics and odd birds of Israel.
Geller said, “We’re looking for the new Uri Geller.”
I realized very few people could, or would, have said such a thing.
“We gather the 10 most amazing people in Israel, and the factor is not ‘prove to me that you’re real.’ What we want to achieve here is ‘amaze us, shock us, bewilder us . . . entertain us.’ I’m very careful not to call it supernatural power.”
“Does that make a difference to you?” I asked.
“Throughout my life I’ve always said that I’m not a magician. And I’m not a magician, full stop.”
“Does it irritate you when people confuse you for one?”
“When I was gullible and naïve, I thought that the sceptics who tried to debunk Uri Geller would hurt my career, but very quickly I learned that it was the opposite. Controversy made me famous. So the answer is no, it doesn’t bother me at all. As long as they spell my name correctly.”
The waitress returned with our coffees and two spoons. Of course, I'd brought one of my own, a Habitat heavyweight that wouldn’t have bent if Andre the Giant had sat on it with Mean Joe Green in his lap.
Geller said, “98% of the scientists have stuck by me . . . Puthoff, Targ, Mitchell. Of course, it was important to me then, because I was trying to prove that I was real. Today, I realize how not so important it is. It doesn’t matter what you are . . . Do you understand?"
I didn’t exactly.
“Look, let me tell you something. . . and then I’ll also bend a spoon for you, of course . . . what I do is nothing new. You see the room you’re sitting in, the glass you’ve just picked up, your senses are misleading you. Because if you think this table is solid, you’re dead wrong. We’re energy beings. We emit frequencies all the time. We live in an ocean of motion. What I used to do with my powers is manipulate energy and that’s really it.”
Geller sounded sincere. I was worried about my own energy transmissions, particularly that some completely irrelevant, obscene image might pop into my head and be snatched out by Geller. I felt it was time to broach the subject of the mysterious Hoovians, the representatives of Atum.
“Puharich believed that I was some sort of channeler,” Geller admitted.
“Do you believe this?"
“That’s a good question. My answer is this. I’m a great believer in extraterrestrial life. I would be an idiot not to believe that there is some type of intelligence out there. Every rational person should have at least an open mind that we’re not alone in the universe. I’ve seen too many things not to believe in this.”
The conversation then turned to Mossad and the CIA, the first being off-limits, the second passé. Then Geller asked, “Do you remember the Son of Sam? . . . David Berkowitz? I located him for the FBI.”
I hadn’t known that.
“I did.” He chuckled. “I’m very proud of this cloak-and-dagger work.”
Various Gellerian endeavours were then covered, most of them decades old and no longer of any interest to Geller. Chief on my list was Uri Geller Associates, a mining outfit described as combining the know-how of geologists with Geller’s ‘less conventional abilities to investigate, locate and explore oil fields, mineral deposits, precious stones and diamonds throughout the world.’ Then there were the inventions, my favourite being Moneytron, a counterfeit bill detector, and the Geller Home Earthquake Detector.
Geller said tiredly, “I’m not in the business of making money anymore. All these little things I do now go to charity.”
Then he asked me, suddenly, “Are you a believer?”
I hedged, not knowing if he meant a believer in Geller, or a believer in Hoova or God or what. Sensing my unease, Geller said, “Did you bring your own spoon?”
I withdrew my Habitat mallet apologetically. Geller looked at it for a moment and frowned. “Oh, that’s huge. Are you serious?” He picked up his cappuccino spoon and began to massage it. “Do you have a bunch of keys on you? Choose one that you don’t need.”
“I need them all,” I said.
“See. It’s already going.”
A few tables were now following the demonstration. Geller continued to coax the teaspoon. It was bending. When it had achieved a substantial bend, Geller admired it and said, “I’ll stop here for a moment.”
The spoon continued to bend. Geller continued to massage.
“Your eyes cannot see it, but it’s still going. This is not a trick. I’ll tell you what’s really amazing. When I did this on TV, I said to the viewers, ‘Now you go get spoons.’ And I didn’t realize 22 million people went to their kitchens and brought spoons to their TV sets and they started bending.”
“It’s still going,” I said.
“Yes. Of course."
“Is it easier if you touch it?”
“Yes. It’s psychological. Look at it again. Almost 90 degrees.”
“Do you heat it up?”
“No. I talk to it. You see . . . Bend! Bend! Bend!”
Geller signed the spoon and we shook hands, Geller’s making a pulp of mine, and I dropped the spoon in my pocket. I was, unexpectedly, quite happy to have it.