When First We Practice To Deceive

 "I'm following the ambulance, and we are almost to the hospital," my voice cracked as I strained to hold back the panic. "I dunno, Mom. Todd was found lying next to the lawnmower, no one knows how long he wasn't breathing." I could hear her start to cry, and that's when I knew I had gone too far.

 The thing was, I wasn't following an ambulance, I was sat in a chair in my office. Next to Todd. Todd, my brother, whose face was now ashen pale, his wide eyes looking at me in genuine horror. He rocked slightly back and forth in his chair as he shook his head. Yep - I had definitely gone too far.

To be fair I wasn't entirely culpable. It was April Fool's Day, and she should have been a teensy bit less gullible, not only because of the timing of the call, but because of the many ruses that my brother and I had employed over the past two decades.

From our vast experience, we learned that a good con needs these things: 

·         Plausibility; usually in the form of a clean, clear premise rooted in believability that allows the incredible to seem authentic.

·         An emotional hook; nothing draws in a participant like their own ego, fears, or the chance to validate their preconceived belief systems.

·         And, finally, a quality performance; taking care to pay attention to presentational details, making whatever is performed an entertaining or thrilling experience, and knowing the script of your material well enough that you cleanly communicate the ideas that you set out to.

My brother had walked in that morning and talked me into playing an April Fool's joke on Mom. Long time collaborators, we set out to do something a little bit out of our wheelhouse. At first he suggested that we tell Mom that he had a heart attack, which would nail the emotional hook, he being fully grown, but still Mother's little baby.  However, his being only 31, I felt that lacked some of the plausibility that our classic hijinks required. We bounced ideas back and forth, little brother catches fire whilst cutting the grass, kid brother shears his toes off whilst cutting the grass, (before finally settling on) the boy suffers an allergic reaction and passes out whilst cutting the grass, seemingly lifeless.

This idea met both the criteria of plausibility--when my brother was 14 he had developed a full body allergic reaction to newly cut grass, and the doctors warned that if it happened again, it could well kill him--and it had an emotional hook that was razor sharp. All we needed now was the quality performance. This is where I came in.

Admittedly, the idea was Todd's. He takes full responsibility for that, but for my mother, the voice on the other end of the line was mine, and therefore I hold full blame for her reaction. When first I called, she did not pick up the line, and I was tasked with leaving a message that would be believable enough, that even on April 1st of all days, it would cause her to pause and contemplate the possibility of the awful lie.

I left a few messages, deleting them as I went. My performance would be the difference between a genuine reaction and complete disbelief. I spoke through the lines a few times, figuring out the little details that I could weave in to make the story real. By the time I was satisfied with the message, I had sold it. My voice was choked with emotion and I begged my mother to call back as I quickly explained the situation. When I hung up, even my brother was halfway to tears.

She called back not five minutes later, her first words asking if this were some kind of twisted April Fool's joke. A question to which I should have just said, "Yes, of course!"

In retrospect, I should have said that.

But instead, I continued to sell it, honing my performance. When she started crying in earnest, I lamely told her it had indeed been a joke. That did little to placate her, now a gibbering wreck, and she said she needed to get off the phone.

As I hung up, I noticed that my brother had slunk out of the office, and not 30 seconds later I found him on the phone with Mom, claiming not to have been party to the April Fool's gag that we (now only I) had so cruelly played on her. That's when I realized that he had let me do every last bit of the talking...

My brother and I have a storied history of this sort of behavior, much of it stemming from our childhoods. At a young age, we both learned simple card sleights from books, and we would ofttimes deploy them to astound our peers.

Once, on a long train ride cross country, we decided to hustle some other preteens at poker. We had learned false shuffles and knew well how to stack a deck.  Like our television heroes, we were both ready to lie and cheat our way into a tidy fortune, but this is before we came to one important realization: Children don't carry great amounts of cash.

Or any cash, really.  In fact, they appear to be the lowest earning demographic.

Our first hopes dashed, we regrouped and decided that if we couldn't scam other kids out of money, we could at least trick them out of candy. But another roadblock lay in our path. It wasn't Halloween and no one had so much as a Mike or Ike. Ever the benevolent hucksters, and determined to fleece these rubes, we decided to share our own candy--a rather large bag of M&Ms--with our newfound marks so that we would have something to win back.

We clumsily set our plan into action, allowing each kid to shuffle and deal. When it was my turn to deal, I dealt Todd the winning hand.  When it was his turn, I somehow won. We knew that, even with a cursory understanding of poker, the rubes we played against wouldn't make big bets unless they thought they had an amazing hand, so we would deal them a hand with four queens, only to reveal a winning hand of four kings.

Luckily for us, neither they (nor we), understood how rare hands like that truly were in this fickle game; so our false reality was never once challenged.

However, one thing that we hadn't counted on was that when the other kids went all-in against us, only to inevitably lose - they didn't care. They were neither sad nor frustrated nor astounded that they had stumbled upon the two youngest poker prodigies in the world.

There was no emotional hook for them, they had sat cross-legged on the floor before us, they brought nothing to the table and they left the same way. Despite all the time we spent preparing for this scam, it lacked any kind of punch.

We learned then that only two of the three components to a con was not enough.  A plausible scenario and a quality performance weren't enough to make the grift a success in our eyes. Without an emotional attachment to the deception, there were no raised stakes, and the victory - though a success - felt empty.

We laughed with our mother shortly after our April Fool's prank.  It was folly to ever have believed us in the first place and she knew that.  We reminded her of a time a few years ago, when my brother (who was then away at college) had been chatting to me on the phone. Our mother called my phone in the middle of our conversation and I told Todd to hang on while I conferenced her in.

Unrehearsed, he cunningly stayed silent as I told Mom that I was at her house - which was the truth - and asked her where she was. She said that she was out of town for a weekend holiday. I told her that it was too bad, as her baby boy was at their home with me. She boldly declared this a falsehood. Todd had stayed quiet up to this point, so I said, "One sec, I'll put Todd on the phone."

Unprompted, Todd said, "Hey, Mom. Why aren't you and Dad home?"

She gasped.  You could actually hear her heart tearing into little pieces.

"I wanted to surprise you so I took a flight home for the weekend. Where are you guys?" Never before had I held my younger brother in such high esteem. His eagerness to commit impromptu treachery was something that I admired in him.

Together, we continued to fill in the details of the deception until we had spun a perfect web of lies; and our mother, never suspecting the magic of modern technology, quickly fell for our subterfuge. We had learned over the years since our gambling fiasco on the train, that sometimes less staged preparation can make for a stronger effect for the audience, just as long as the performance itself is strong, believable, and accesses an emotional hook for the parties involved.

When I first began dabbling in mentalism, I realized that perhaps the greatest tool a mentalist can have is a confidant. Someone that knows how everything is done, and can use that information to focus the performance aspects of the show in order to get the best possible reaction from the audience.

Naturally, my brother was my first choice to fill this role and together we have been able to refine my performances so that they are constantly improving.

As we learned so long ago - when either the premise, the emotional hook or the presentation are lacking, the performance suffers, and feels anticlimactic. There is nothing quite like the feeling of fully succeeding in winning an audience over and hearing their laughter and bewilderment at a seemingly impossible prediction.

It is in this sphere that we are able to use our talents for legerdemain to our benefit. If you lie to a person, they vilify you. But if you amaze them, they revere you.

It was a logical step for my brother and I to work together doing what we loved best as children: fooling others. But now we are out to amaze them as well.

Welcome to 'The Tangled Web'.

Over the coming months, we will look at many varied aspects of mentalism, and offer thoughts, ideas, and reviews of the works of others in the industry.  In fact, next week I will be back with some thoughts regarding Peter Turner's "The Portugal Notes".

I hope to see you again soon.




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