It Costs $55 to Learn How to Bend a Spoon with Your Mind
Daryl Gregory Visits the World of Alternative Energy
In the Land of Magical Thinking
A couple months ago my girlfriend and I drove down to LA on a Friday and paid $55 apiece for a two-hour course on “quantum spoonbending.” By the end of the night we’d learned eight different methods of harnessing arcane energies to warp cutlery.
They all worked.
The seminar was held at the Mind Body Spirit Center, which turned out to be a three-room office suite in Westlake Village, a toney suburb north of LA. Sixteen of us took our places in a circle of folding chairs in the suite’s waiting room. In the center of the circle sat a large cardboard box full of plastic-wrapped utensils.
The teacher of the course, Gene Ang, was a cheery, forty-ish Asian guy in jeans and pullover who exuded the laidback enthusiasm of a hip Methodist youth pastor. Gene said he received a Ph.D. in neurobiology from Yale before starting his healing practice, which, according to his website, focuses on Arcturian healing, pranic healing, vortex healing, and sacred travel. I didn’t know what those terms meant, but I suspected that the other participants did.
When we went around the circle introducing ourselves, each of them turned out to be some flavor of supernatural specialist. They were energy workers, healers, ghost-talkers. One woman spoke to angels who told her the future. Most of the students—all white women, except for one Asian woman, and three white guys, including me—seemed excited to be there and eager to share their experiences. Two sisters, big-boned women with voluminous frizzy hair, were especially intense, and seemed a tad competitive with each other. The darker-haired one said that her dreams sometimes came true, and the full-gray older sister quickly interjected, “That happens to me all the time.”
Then it was my turn. “Hi, my name is Daryl, and…” And what? That I was there as a spy in the house of the paranormal? I’d written Spoonbenders, a novel about a family with psychic powers, but I didn’t believe in the stuff. I prided myself on being a hardcore materialist, one of those grumps who rolls his eyes when people talk about the healing power of magnets. When someone tells me they had a premonition before a bad flight, I’m compelled to explain how confirmation bias works. This does not make me fun at parties. Especially spoon-bending ones.
I didn’t want to lie to these people, but I also didn’t want to be cast out as a skeptic before Gene revealed his secrets. I finished with: “…and I’ve always been interested in ESP.” While I was congratulating myself on this Jesuit-level, true-but-kinda-misleading statement, my girlfriend, the magazine editor Liza Trombi, outdid me. She simply said, “I’m with him.” Indisputably true, with even less information.
Gene had each of us reach into the cardboard box and take out eight plastic-wrapped forks that he’d bought at Target. Forks were a disappointment—spoons were specified in the course name!—but I was happy that Gene immediately addressed the quantum part. The course was called quantum because “all the techniques we’re going to use are consciousness-based.” Several people nodded as if this made sense.
Gene went on to talk about quantum states and collapsing waves, speaking casually, not bothering to finish all his sentences. It was the opposite of a hard sell. It was the tone of someone showing you a new iPhone app—cool, right?—who’d been using buzz words so long they’d stopped buzzing.
Gene told us to hold the fork in two hands, with our arms outstretched, and “test it” by pushing on it a bit. The fork seemed pretty sturdy to me. Then again, with our arms in that position, we couldn’t apply much pressure. Liza, who has an old shoulder injury, brought the fork close to her body, which got her elbows and arms into play. She accidentally bent the fork, and then quickly tried to bend it back before the others noticed.
Not fast enough. The woman next to Liza said, “Wow!” and then others in the circle heard what happened. The gray-haired sister wasn’t happy about it. “I don’t think she’s doing it right.”
Gene wasn’t thrown by Liza jumping the gun. He smiled and said, “Sometimes an object just gets activated by all the energy in the room!” He had everyone close their eyes and told them to hold their fork and say, “Bend… bend… bend.” Being a spy, I peeked. Everyone had brought the spoon close to them, like Liza. Most people were frowning in concentration. Across from me, the younger sister was pushing hard on each end, her hands trembling.
Gene told people to open their eyes and asked how it went. The younger sister said, “It got warm, and then it just… melted.” Everyone approved of her slightly curved stem.
We moved on to the next fork, and the next technique. Gene told us to picture a white light—possibly the Arcturian light I’d read about on his website—and imagine that energy flowing through us. This time when we opened our eyes, the older sister’s fork was bent nearly in half.
For each fork, Gene described how to use a different energy—Earth energy, pranic energy—or a different “modality.” Spin technique, for example, requires multiple steps: First, look at the fork and picture which way its energy should spin, and then tell say, “Go to max speed” or “Speed up maximally” (either one would work, he assured us). Next, concentrate for three seconds (“on average”) and say, “Stabilize permanently at that speed.” Finally, say “Release.”
If this conversation with our cutlery didn’t work, Gene assured us that we weren’t failing; sometimes the process took a while to take effect. In Gene’s view, not only were all techniques equally valid, but all results were, too.
Gene did suggest that if a method wasn’t working for us, we could try to give the fork a “boost” by applying a little more pressure with our hands. While Gene was still explaining this, the older sister was boosting the hell out of the tines of her fork.
It’s Not About the Spoonbending
The point of the seminar, Gene impressed on us, was not just to learn how to bend metal. That’s the easy part, merely a demonstration of the energies available to us. The real point was to learn how to use these powers to heal people.
That’s also where the money is. Uri Geller got rich in the 70s by bending spoons and keys, and spoonbending workshops still happen around the country every week. But these days, alternative medicine is the much bigger business. Americans spend about $34 billion a year in homeopathic tinctures, Reiki therapy, crystals, and a host of other non-traditional, scientifically shaky products and services.
Case in point, the Mind Body Spirit Center, where the seminar was held. The center is owned by Dr. Sharon Norling, an OB\GYN whose career had taken a turn toward alternative medicine. In the room were stacks of her book, Your Doctor is WRONG, published by a vanity press. The Amazon product description notes that the book is “filled with patients’ stories, life saving [sic] information, and is documented with medical journal citations. It is also tainted with humor.” The other shelves were stocked with presumably untainted food additives and pills for sale, most of which were in the “Ultra” family: Ultra Calm, Ultra Meal Cardio 360, Ultra Clear. This was alarming, in a life-imitates-art way. In Spoonbenders one of the characters peddles a similar product line I’d made up called UltraLife.
Dr. Norling’s target audience, for both her book and practice, were people who’d been told by mainstream doctors that the cause for their symptoms can’t be found. Dr. Norling offers a host of specialized testing, but I suspected that the cures she’d suggest would be found somewhere in the Ultra product line.
Gene, though, was about to do some healing in front of us. He asked for a volunteer, and a woman said that she suffered from pulmonary hypertension. Gene stood a couple feet behind her, spread his fingers, and moved his hand, first clockwise, then counterclockwise. After perhaps thirty seconds of this he asked, “How do you feel?”
“I could feel the energy” she said. “Like little particles.”
A person in the circle said, “Your color’s better, too.”
Liza raised an eyebrow in my direction, warning me not to start explaining the placebo effect.
The Proof is in the Science
We moved on to more bending techniques, including those using the super mind (also known as the “known information field”), divine doubles, the morphic field, shamanic tradition, resonance (which Gene learned about from “biogeometry, which is like Egyptian energy work”), and one method he called the “non-technique.” “It happens so fast,” Gene said, “you start to wonder if you’re doing anything.”
Liza had stopped being shy about her abilities. She’d just bend it and wait for everyone to catch up. The older sister, however, was getting annoyed with Liza’s lack of psychic sweat. She looked pointedly at Liza and then asked Gene, “Is there anything you can do to stop someone from bending it too easily?”
This threw him for a second, and then he said to Liza, “Let’s try anchoring it to the earth.” Not the surface of the earth, he explained, because the surface was contaminated with “atomic bombs and radiation,” but the center of the earth. We all watched Liza as she stared at her fork.
“How’d it go?” Gene asked.
Liza said, “Okay, I guess.” At the next demonstration, she somehow overcame the earth anchor and bent her fork in two seconds.
Every new technique was accompanied by a flurry of technobabble, and assurances that scientists had looked into them. Gene mentioned “the tests at SRI,” by which he meant the Stanford Research Institute, now SRI International. In the 70s, an SRI electrical engineer and a physicist, Harold Puthoff and Russell Targ, decided that their expertise in tunable lasers could be applied to parapsychology. Their work was backed by the CIA and the Defense Intelligence Agency, who’d started sinking millions into ESP research during the Cold War, for fear of falling behind the Russians in psychic warfare. The research eventually fell under the umbrella of the Stargate Project, a name so blatantly sci-fi that when I brought up the project in Spoonbenders, my editor thought I was making it up.
Puthoff and Targ decided to test Uri Geller, at that time at the height of his fame. What happened next is detailed in the book The Truth About Uri Geller by James Randi, a stage magician and skeptic’s skeptic. In front of live audiences, Randi notes, Geller usually depended on misdirection, but when the cameras were on he’d sometimes get caught bending items in full view. (You can watch several examples on YouTube.)
In the book, Randi reprints a newspaper story from a reporter who showed up for a restaurant meeting with Geller, and spotted a pre-bent spoon hidden under the psychic’s napkin. When the reporter pointed it out, Geller professed amazement: These kinds of things happened around him all the time. Or, as Gene Ang would have put it, sometimes an object just gets activated by all the energy in the room.
When Geller was tested by the Puthoff and Targ, Randi notes, Geller fooled them completely, relying not only on misdirection, but on the assistance of his manager and brother-in-law, the beautifully named Shipi Shtrang, who was particularly helpful when Geller had to draw objects from a photograph that only the researchers (and Shtrang) could see.
The most important factor in Geller’s success at SRI, however, was that Puthoff and Targ wanted to believe. When Geller proposed changes in a test, or declared that some random fluctuation in a measuring device was because Geller had done it, the scientists went along. In their desire prove the existence of ESP, they became complicit in Geller’s act.
You can read all the Stargate documents, including Geller’s telepathy-based scribbles, online. The CIA posted them in their “reading room” a few months ago, after pressure from a reporter. It’s a buffet of earnest, bureaucratic gullibility. The government terminated Project Stargate in 1995 only seven years after the United States National Research Council declared that the Targ-Puthoff studies were “fatally flawed.” To parapsychologists, however, the two men are heroes whose work has been suppressed by mainstream science.
With Great Power…
By the end of the night, every student of Gene Ang’s seminar could bend a fork within a few seconds of picking it up. After all that practice it was pretty hard not to.
Gene encouraged us to go home and bend something tougher, like an iron rod. But he also warned us not to use our powers carelessly. Don’t heal people without their consent, though if you can’t ask them for permission in person, it was okay to ask their divine double. Speaking of divine doubles, he warned, if you send yours into the world, make sure to recall it your body, otherwise it will “drift free and become what some people call a ghost.”
A few folks became alarmed. Gene laughed and said, “You’re thinking, oh no, don’t call the astral police!” Everyone laughed with him. Then he said, “Actually, there are astral police, there’s a book about them.” The laughter stopped.
I don’t know if Gene Ang is a fraud or if he’s another smart Ph.D., confident in his misplaced expertise, whose convinced himself it’s all real. Maybe he hasn’t realized that all of his new-age methods boil down to this: just hold onto a utensil with both hands and bear down. After all, the people he teaches swear that they’re not doing it themselves, that they can feel the power moving through them. They’re as awed as teenagers with their hands on an Ouija board planchette.
Or perhaps some of them were like me and Liza, playing along. We were all having a good time, and a lot of people got to feel special. What was the harm?
Maybe it’s this: Most of that night’s participants were coming back Saturday for an all-day seminar on energy healing, with additional sessions on Sunday, where they’d learn how to relieve pain, cure diabetes, and eradicate cancer. Afterward, would they try to convince their friends and clients that their doctors were WRONG? Maybe nobody would forego chemotherapy for Arcturian light, but many people—and some in my extended family had already done this—would hand over thousands of dollars to a quack who couldn’t help them.
I get that the rational world is boring—that’s why I write fiction, and why I wrote a book about psychics in particular. But as I left I hoped that the healers and ghost-talkers and energy workers in Gene Ang’s seminar would find a way to feel gifted and unique that wouldn’t take advantage of people who couldn’t afford it. I hoped they’d stick with bending spoons. Or forks. Either one’s fine.
Daryl Gregory’s Spoonbenders is available now from Knopf.