Gerard Senehi hates the term magician. It suggests top hats and bunnies and ladies hewn in two. Mentalists, on the other hand, rely on the thoughts and personal effects of other people to bring their acts to life. For Senehi, the joy is in this interaction, and the spectacle is in the storm of questions it generates: Do you have magnets implanted in your fingertips? Did you hypnotize me? Do you ever go to the racetrack?
Though Senehi began his professional career in earnest only about four years ago, he already commands between $4,000 and $10,000 per performance. Those who book him say he makes an impression unlike anyone else. "Watching most of my performers, you say, 'That's really cool—what a wonderful effect," says Bill Herz, founder of Magicorp Productions, a huge booker of mentalists and magicians for the corporate world. "But with Gerard, you say, 'I wonder if it's real?' There's an astonishing believability to what he does." Gerard Senehi, Mentalist I certainly thought so the first time I saw Senehi. It was Christmas-time, at a private party and even before he took center stage, he had created his own buzzing energy field. He was expensively dressed but shy; he is handsome, with big, liquid eyes, but did not flirt. He spoke with the untraceable accent one associates with Bond villains, but his manner was natural, childlike, affectation-free. Then Senehi began his performance bending wineglass stems, floating objects, the whole bit and the amazing thing was, his stage persona remained exactly the same. He was charming and slightly awkward and totally unslick. He used no canned music, which even his most accomplished cohorts do, and he didn't rely on any patter, which still tends toward the rim-shot yakety-yak of the Vegas lounge. (For example: "You'll notice I have three balls-hey, I'm not proud!")
"When Gerard performs," says Allen Zingg, a well-known fellow mentalist, "it's almost like an absence of a performance."
Whatever it was, it startled all of us speechless. Some of it was the booze, I'm sure, but I think most of our pleasure came from the charged, liberating innocence we all suddenly felt. These were tiny miracles we were seeing. For most of us, this was as close to religion as we'd ever come.
The next day, I called one of my closest female friends to tell her about it.
"There has to be some explanation," she said, sounding surprisingly cross.
"I know," I said. "But this was a rough crowd, and you should have seen how promiscuously we gave up our cynicism. It was like some sort of religious experience from the sixteenth century. A colleague of mine declared he was a witch."
"It seemed like the simplest explanation at the time."
"Did he try to pass himself off as genuinely psychic?"
"That's just it. He wouldn't say."
"Because he wasn't. He isn't."
"I know. I know. I know." And I did know.
Of course I did.
Okay. So I've gathered together a group of scientists at my friend Brian's new loft because I'm curious to see whether they're as flappable as I am. They're not physicists or engineers, who might be better equipped to explain Senehi's techniques, but they're all analytical people, all trained to come up with hypotheses and test them for a living. There's Terry, a professor of bioinformatics at Rockefeller University; Larry, a biochemistry professor at Columbia Medical School; Dave, a neuroscientist at Suny-Stonybrook; and Dimple.
Dimple is the guy I really want Senehi to meet. He's a good-looking and outrageous polymath, a physician-in-training who's just finished his doctorate in neuroscience but earns a handsome living as a screenwriter. I figure if he doesn't have some creative explanations for what Senehi does, no one will. He also comes from a long line of astrologers to the kings of India. His father abandoned the profession when he read the palm of a friend, foresaw the death of his child, and watched it all come true.
Dimple believes in none of this stuff. "Let's lay this on the table right now," he declares, pretty much the moment he and Senehi are introduced. "There's no such thing as psychic phenomena. 'Psychic' is how people describe something that can't be attributed to a single sense. Five hundred years ago, a burp was probably considered psychic until they discovered gas."
A half-hour later, when Senehi begins his act, he makes a beeline for Dimple.
"Can I have something of yours?" Dim removes his glasses.
"Hold them like this..."
Dim keeps them unfolded and places them flat in the palm of his hand. Senehi flutters his hand above them. They pop upright.
"Telekinesis." says Senehi.
There's something else that Dimple's father accurately predicted: The shrieking car wreck that nearly killed Dimple when he was 17 years old.
Dim folds his arms, shifts in his wheelchair, and gives Senehi a wicked grin. "Telekinesis? Uh-uh. Now, if you could make me get up and walk to the bathroom - that'd be some telekinesis."
Senehi laughs. "Fair point."