Mentalism in “Reading Writing”

Modern mentalism has its roots in the 19th century medium craze, as a way to present mediumistic stunts as entertainment. The effects were similar, and for this reason, so were the explanations. Experiments were thus presented as displays of spirit writing, clairvoyance, psychometry, and so on.

This is still largely the case today, but in recent years, a few performers have taken a different approach. Instead of invoking psychic abilities, they claim to use psychology and related disciplines. Effects are explained as being accomplished by subliminal influences, the interpretation of body language, voice inflections, facial micro-movements, and the like. Some of the best-known performers of this style include Richard Osterlind, Banachek, and Marc Salem in the USA, Derren Brown in the UK, and Tom Baxter here in Canada.

Naturally, graphology — handwriting analysis — fits perfectly into this new style of mentalism, since it’s about determining a person’s character traits, not a divination system. In fact, Lee Earle praises it highly and recommends that all mentalists learn it: “This will be the hot premise for a lot of future Mentalism because it bridges the gap between the believable and the impossible.”

My vision for “Reading Writing” — the book I just released — is that of a complete treatise on every aspect of handwriting analysis as it applies to us mystery performers. Therefore, in addition to teaching graphology and how to do readings, it had to include a section on mentalism with experiments that use graphology as a presentational device. The mentalism had to be solid, so I chose standard, classical effects that, I knew, had stood the test of time. The experiments had to be usable as described, so I provided a full script for each one. Finally, the presentations had to be engaging enough to be worth performing, so I peppered the scripts with emotional hooks, humour, and intriguing bits of psychology.

It wasn’t very difficult to find a few effects that lend themselves particularly well to a graphological explanation. These have to do primarily with the theme of identification. Living and Dead became a way of finding a lie among truths, the truth among lies, a participant’s favourite book, movie or brand of beer. Pseudo Psychometry turned into a way of detecting forgeries and of matching writing to writer. And so on.

But I wanted to go further. If my book was going to be as complete as I envisioned it, I had to show my readers how to apply graphological explanations in non-obvious ways, so that they can explore the ideas further, if they so choose. Could I make this work with a book test? With predictions? With other effects?

This proved to be tremendously difficult. So much so, in fact, that I had to delay publishing the book for several months as I explored, cogitated, experimented, followed paths, bumped into walls, turned back, tore my hair out and drank lots of coffee. (Not to mention bugging my good friend Paul Pacific at all hours of the day and night. Thank you, Paul!)

I started with my favourite effect: the book test. To me — perhaps because I’m a writer — there is something emotionally satisfying about the combination of a book and handwriting. It also seemed easy enough: I would simply use a Living-and-Dead approach, once again, to locate the chosen word from a list of words written by the spectator.

But there was a huge flaw in this idea. The participant selects a word, writes it down, then writes several other words. If these other words come from the book, then the spectator has looked at them as much as at the chosen word. To then claim that it is written differently is not believable. Conversely, if the other words do not come from the book — i.e., are pulled from the participant’s imagination — then it’s obvious that the performer only has to eliminate the words that he knows aren’t likely to be in the book, since it can be assumed that he has read it.

But I’m nothing if not determined, so I persevered. Eventually, I found a solution that turned out to be quite elegant: the participant writes down things that are in the book — but that he doesn’t actually see! Believe it or not, it’s very convincing and straightforward (and in case you’re wondering, it’s not auditory at all).

I wrote about book tests in a previous post. Now that you know that I’m using the Living-and-Dead principle, you’ll understand why I wrote that piece.

My explorations turned out to be worthwhile. In addition to a Book Test, I devised a straightforward prediction effect, a Triple Prediction, a rigorously scientific pendulum swinging divination and a Murder Mystery. I explored a few other effects as well, but didn’t find satisfying explanations or presentations for these, so I dropped them.

There’s another aspect to the Mentalism section. While every experiment in it had to relate to graphology in some way, I didn’t want everything to be about graphology exclusively. First, this would be an instance of the saying, “To a child with a hammer, everything is a nail.” It’s just plain ugly. Second, a few effects involve repetition, so it would be much more interesting to vary the explanations than to invoke the same one over and over again. And third, the point of this chapter is not to show how to present any effect with a graphology slant, but rather, to show ways in which the notion of graphology can be integrated into psychological mentalism presentations, as one of many fields of knowledge mastered by the performer.

This helps to create a synergy, a “Houdini effect” that shows the performer as an expert for whom human behaviour has no secrets. In addition to handwriting, this expert can interpret body language and posture, voice inflections and facial expressions — even deduce a person’s tastes in music from the colour of her clothing. Most presentations thus include bits and explanations from other branches of psychology and neurology.

Writing this chapter was a wonderful experience, hair loss notwithstanding. When I first did graphology readings over twenty years ago (see my post The story of “Reading Writing”), I would never have believed that it would lead me to contribute something to the field of mentalism. I hope you find it worthwhile.

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