True Lies: a Review of An Honest Liar
a film about James Randi. By Tim Cridland copyright 2016
|Attributed to Paul Agule|
A Honest Liar Left Turn Films 2014 Directed by Tyler Measom and Justin Weinstein
"We are conditioned to believe that things that look like documentaries but are not are factual, must essentially be true or it wouldn't be presented as if it were factual." -- James Randi in An Honest Liar
This is a film worth seeing but not necessarily believing.
James Randi, a Canadian born magician who is now best known as an anti-paranormal crusader, would like you to believe that he is an honest liar. I don't think I am stretching the truth when I say there ain't no such thing.
Every biography is a lie. They have to be as is every work of nonfiction. The most common kind of lie is deception by omission; truth concealed by what is not said. Every work of nonfiction has to leave out information. It is impossible not to. Information must be skipped over for many reasons. Clarity, brevity, word count, simplicity and focus are just a few, not to mention it would be ridiculous, and impossible, to try and include everything. What an author chooses can reveal his or her biases, conscious or otherwise.
Before I continue I will tell you that I am the author of The Real James Randi (not my choice for a title) that was published in The Anomalist journal in 2010. This was a short article critical of James Randi. Fans of James Randi tend to characterize any criticism of Randi as an "attack." They refer to critics as "grubbies" and are eager to expose them as "woos." Of course I have my own bias and focus. The main point of my article was that in order for Randi to portray himself in his current persona as fighter for truth, he has told more than a few lies and has whitewashed some of his past.
To some, criticizing Randi is as shocking as criticizing the Pope or Mother Teresa. Ironically these same people have no problem with doing just that.
Although I am critical of Randi, I have no ill-will towards him. At least I like to think I don't. My gauge is that I have met plenty of people who do hate him and I can feel their venom.
An Honest Liar (henceforth to be referred to as AHL) is a biography of James Randi, at least partially. Early accounts suggested it was going to be a more linearly account of his life, with much biographical material gathered. In the final edit, it does include accounts of his early life but skips over much to focus on a few incidents in his later life. This is understandable; choose your battles, after all, and the incidents focused upon are major ones that would be wrong to gloss over. These are his exposure of supposed faith healer Peter Popoff, his feud with Uri Geller, his Project Alpha hoax, his Australian "Carlos" hoax and finally a scandal involving identity theft.
Before this, there is focus on his pre anti-paranormal days and his rise as a magician and an escape artist - and also his time as a phony psychic.
This is something that I touched on in The Real James Randi. In the early days Randi represented himself to the public and to the media as a genuine mind reader. In later interviews and accounts he would always claim he did this only briefly, but the historical record shows that this went on from his teens until at least the age of 26. The film shows a very public prediction that Randi, then known as Randall Zwinge, made for a Toronto newspaper. In the film Randi says the prediction, which seemingly foretells the outcome of the World Series, happened when he was 21.
In a self-recorded interview, Randi would say that he was always able to talk his way out if a reporter or interviewer would bring past claims of being psychic. Over the years Randi has a tale of a man from Florida who came to visit him believing he had genuine psychic powers and offered him money to give him information. In one version, told in Randi's book Conjuring, he wants to know the outcome of horses races. Randi then elaborates on the moral dilemma this caused him and states that that was one of the reasons he dropped the whole phony psychic routine. In AHL, Randi's friend, magician Penn Jillette, talks of this time in Randi's life and says that is commendable that ...he backed away from it."
The problem is that Randi has said he backed away, but the record shows he went back to it again and again. Randi's account in Conjuring refers to the World Series prediction and states that he was "eighteen years old" when this occurred. There are other accounts of similar predictions from different years. Both my article and AHL show that Randi's claims of being psychic went on for at least eight years beyond his supposed encounter with the unnamed man from Florida. Randi's reasons for dropping the psychic routine are much more likely related to his success as a stage magician and escape artist than a moral dilemma.
Although Randi and his associates demand a high criteria for accuracy in the people and claims they scrutinize, Randi gets away with slippery story telling. Scientists who would likely otherwise not tolerate such things are quick to justify it for him. In the film, British psychology professor Richard Wiseman says "We all spin personal narratives and so when an event happens that doesn't fit this idea that he is an amazing truth-teller and so on, then something has to happen... and like everyone he may change a few facts around or rub it out completely."
I like to think that Wiseman is responding in part to the article I wrote for TheAnomalist journal. This is not simply arrogance on my part; Wiseman had an article in the same issue and undoubtedly saw what I wrote about Randi.
AHL bounces around events in Randi's life. I will also bounce around some of the events covered in the film and not necessarily in the presented in film.
One of the major incidents that exposure of faith healer Peter Popoff. This was during the time that Randi had written a book exposing this type of chicanery. It is one of Randi's better efforts. That his targets were both deserved and easily demolished no doubt helped. In the case of Popoff he was able to pick up and record the clandestine audio communications between Popoff and his wife that the deceptive evangelist was trying to pass off as insight from God. What is especially commendable is the behind-the-scenes view that AHL gives to the build up to this, and the literal detective work that pulled it off. Fully show and credited are Steve Shaw, who spotted the receiver in Popoff's ear, and Private Investigator Alex Jason, who was able to pull off the difficult task of isolating and recording the frequency that Popoff was using, all while disguised as a janitor. One of Randi's best and worst attributes is his zeal for self-promotion. In this instance the hard work of his helpers is dutifully highlighted, so bravo for that Randi, and bravo to the filmmakers.
Randi vs Geller
You can't profile Randi without mentioning Uri Geller. In fact it is probably that nobody would know who Randi is if it were not for Geller. The charismatic, spoon-bending Israeli alleged psychic made world-wide headlines when he emerged in the early 70s. It was Geller who transformed Randi from a regionally known magician and radio host to a professional debunker. On a TV special Randi said that Geller was "...the subject of one of my earliest and most controversial investigations."
Geller would make an appearance on a TV show and soon after Randi would appear on the same show and duplicate what Geller had done through trickery. The implication being that if a thing can be duplicated by trickery then the thing being duplicated must be a trick as well.
A clip of Geller on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson is shown. Although this clip is sometimes presented as Randi "exposing" Geller in reality not much gets exposed... in fact not much happens. This is the point apparently. Carson had been in contact with Randi and Randi advised Carson precautions to take so that Geller could not use trickery. And nothing happened. Still, nothing was really exposed. No thumb-tip fell off, no chemicals were found, no magnets were discovered; there was no revelation of a hidden radio transmitter in his tooth. Still, admittedly, it made Geller look bad.
One of the oddest aspects of AHL is that there is an interview with Geller. Odd in that they asked Geller and also odd in that Geller said yes.
The Randi vs Geller feud has gone on for decades. It had gotten to the point where it seemed neither one was interested talking to each other or even talking about each other. Randi, in particular, is to known to have said to Geller "...I hate your guts!" Randi also said that when he dies "I want to be cremated, and I want my ashes blown in Uri Geller's eyes."
So surprising, here is an interview with Geller and the filmmakers allow Geller to have his say. Geller quite correctly points out that despite the efforts of organized skeptics over the decades since Geller arrived on the scene, interest in the paranormal has not subsidized but is "bigger than ever." He also says that magicians were unable to duplicate him the way I was tested. Referring to the scientific testing that Geller underwent, presumably. Of course some would argue with that; it is brought up in the film, and in this review.
Geller does get slighted at the very end of the film when it says that Geller now calls himself a mystifier and sells jewelry on the QVC network.
The first part refers to a statement that Geller had made in a German magazine that Randi found and waved around, claiming Geller admitting to using trickery. Geller quickly responded and clarified that is not what that meant. In fact, earlier in the in AHL there is a clip of Geller saying "What I do is real." It is obvious that Geller has not gone back on his claims.
The clip and the statement that Geller sells jewelry on the QVC network is true, but it is not the whole truth by a long shot. Not said is that Geller, at the time of the filming, lived in a huge mansion in England, produced TV shows internationally, has worked with major corporations, is credited with helping companies find oil and minerals and has worked with the Israeli Red Cross and Palestinian Red Crescent among other achievements.
A portion of AHL is devoted to Project Alpha, something that Randi would characterize as a sociological experiment. This was a hoax conducted on Mac Lab, a parapsychology laboratory at Washington University in St. Louis. Two young men, Steve Shaw and Michael Edwards, were sent in representing themselves as genuine psychics with the intent to fool the scientists conducting the research.
The events are shown in great detail in AHL, with the revelation that it was all a trick revealed with great fanfare at a press conference that had been intended to be a showcase for the scientists.
At least that is how it played out in the media and how it is remembered.
What was the intent of Projects Alpha? I had always assumed that Project Alpha was in reaction to Uri Geller, who had been tested under controlled conditions by the Stanford Research Institute in Palo Alto, California with some of the results being published by the prestigious science journal Nature.
Indeed, this is just what Steve Shaw, who is now better known under the name Banachek, the name he uses as a professional mentalist, says in AHL.
Shaw states "If I could replicated what Geller and SRI had done, in essence, in terms of established scientific protocol on testing a psychic, we could undermine Geller of being deemed legitimate by scientists."
I had always assumed that this is exactly what they did.
But it seems that Project Alpha could just have been more of Randi's Beta Sigma.
A long report by Dr. Michael Thalbourne, one of the scientists involved, states that all of the success of the two boys happened under informal testing conditions that were building up to the formal testing. When it came to controlled tests they did almost nothing and this was noted before Project Alpha was revealed.
This most important statement in the report is: "He [Randi] has stated, and his young men have signed declarations to the effect, that they were not able to cheat under the formal conditions imposed."
If this is so, then Project Alpha was an utter failure; Geller was tested under controlled conditions and was successful while the Alpha kids got no results. And it also means that Randi, again, had no problem with letting the truth get in the way of a good story, especially if that story is about him.
Ethics and Alpha
In Randi's writings he often talks about ethics and has chastised magicians and others who he thinks have violated them. Yet Randi seems to care little for ethics if he is the one running the game. In AHL Steve Shaw does express some misgivings he had while participating in Alpha, saying We thought the ends justifies the means. but feeling guilty for fooling people he had befriended.
Randi has characterized Alpha as a sociological experiment. He made this clear, saying "It must be stressed that Project Alpha was designed as a legitimate, serious sociological experiment." at his press event. But not every prank and hoax is an actual experiment, even if the results have sociological implications.
Marcello Truzzi was at one time a friend of Randi and a founding member, along with Randi, of the skeptics organization Committee for Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal, henceforth referred to as CSICoP. He was also the first person to be "excommunicated" from that organization.
Truzzi wrote an overview of Project Alpha, something he was well qualified to do, as he was a professor of sociology at Eastern Michigan University.
Truzzi wrote "If Randi had been a psychologist and not a conjuror, some pointed out, he very possibly might have been expelled from the American Psychological Association for what would surely be viewed by many as unethical interference in another scientists research program. The norms within the psychological community about such matters are far from clear, but had Randi been a psychologist and APA member, sanctions against him could have been sought and perhaps obtained."
And furthermore: "A normal scientist would be criticizedeven if his facts were trueif he first went to a major popular science magazine and held a press conference at which he announced his revelations and told us that details would soon appear on his forthcoming TV show. (Note that Randi would similarly criticize a psychical researcher who ran to the media with a popular account of his work before having it published in a proper technical/scientific forum.)"
Project Alpha Raised many conflicting ethical and sociological issues and it is recommended that you read both Truzzi's and Dr. Thalbourne's articles to get views beyond those presented by Randi and AHL. Certainly it is obvious that Project Alpha was not a legitimate sociological experiment.
Randi, outwardly at least, advocates scientific investigation of paranormal claims, yet the few science labs that have conduct this type of research get mocked, and in this case, sabotaged by Randi.
Because Randi is not a scientist, he is able to operate outside of the protocols and ethics of science and this may be precisely why scientists, or at least some scientists, like him. He is able to do what they would like to do but would face consequences if they did. As Truzzi wrote "He is, I think, what [fellow CSICoP member] Ray Hyman termed a 'hit man' brought in by scientists to discredit (rather than disprove) unorthodox and extraordinary claims."
The Multi-Layered Carlos Hoax
The Carlos Hoax, as it is known, gets a segment in AHL, and predictably follows Randi's narrative of the event.
This particular stunt was meant to expose the culpability of the media and the gullibility of the public in regards to "new-agey" claims and in this case channeling in particular, which was all the rage in the 1980s, when this event occurred.
The story is that a performance artist was flown to Australia and presented to the media as Carlos, a world famous channeler who would allow an ancient spirit to speak through him. In reality "Carlos" was Randi's companion Jose Alvarez, trained and coached by Randi. Randi remained hidden while Carlos and his "manager" made television appearances and then an appearance to a packed house at the Drama Theatre of the Sydney Opera House. Finally, Randi and "Carlos" appeared together on a major television program and revealed the truth and everyone learned a lesson.
At least that is what we are told and this what most people believe it happened. That is how I believed it happened. But a little bit of research reveals a much different version.
An independent account of the event reported "It should also be stated that to a certain extent the whole hoax backfired. As an exercise to prove that the local media were somewhat lax in doing research and effective checking of claims, [it] proved its point, but on the other hand the media were extremely cynical (if not sceptical) of Alvarez' claims, and he received no sympathetic coverage at all."
The media coverage was there, but one had a member of the Australian Skeptics Society expose on of Carlos tricks. Another TV host was so antagonistic that Carlos' manager threw a glass of water in his face.
And although no one in the media checked to see if the claims made in Carlos' bogus press kit were real, at least one program did consult with someone in the USA. They called up James Randi and asked if he knew anything about Carlos. Randi lied to them in order to keep the hoax going.
The hoax was sponsored by Australia's 60 Minutes TV show, whose report misrepresented the facts. They represented a packed audience at Carlos' pubic event, full of gullible believers drawn by the TV coverage.
The Australian report states:
"The hall was by no means full. Our estimate put the audience at about 250-300, as opposed to the 60 Minutes' 400-500; the Drama Theatre holds a maximum of 550. A large percentage of the audience were sceptical (if not skeptical), with an even larger proportion thus unconvinced after the session was over." The report further pointing out that Carlos was unable to achieve a full house with a lot of media coverage and free admission, while channeler J. Z. Knight, AKA Ramtha, who Carlos was undoubtedly responding to, was able to achieve a sold-out house with ticket prices in the hundreds of dollars and almost no press.
Because 60 Minutes and Randi both had a vested, and invested, interest in the hoax, they were both motivated to misrepresent the results. Other media, the Australian report notes, were not constrained, saying, "Other TV programs replayed interviews with those at the seminar who had not been convinced by Alvarez/ Carlos (including the author of this report). This was in response to the 60 Minutes coverage, which only showed believers..."
The story of how the media and the public were bamboozled by Randi is a much better story than what the facts actually show. As the old movie said, "When legend becomes fact, print the legend."
This is exactly what AHL, and most of the media have done. The Australian report states, even back when "...there was probably greater coverage for the hoax than for poor old Carlos."
Lest you think that the report I have been quoting was the doings of Randi's enemies "the grubbies" or "the woos" I will reveal that all of this is from an issue of The Skeptic, a publication of Australian Skeptics Inc., a group that was aligned with CSIoCP, an organization that Randi helped found.
Something of note: when "Carlos" obtained his passport for his trip to Australia, using the name Jose Alvarez, it would prove to have unforeseen consequences that would not manifest for decades but would change the lives of both Alvarez and Randi. What was generally not know at the time of the Carlos Hoax was that Randi and Alvarez had entered into a long-term relationship, which is documented in AHL.
When I wrote The Real James Randi, Randi had not yet come out. I touched on Randi's sexuality only briefly and indirectly and this only because it was a part of another incident that Randi had been ingenuous about. The issue of The Anomalist that contained my article was actually at the printers when Randi came out, but this did not stop some people from suggesting that there was a connection. Nope. But now that Randi is out and about, it is an open subject.
That Randi is gay is something dealt with and even celebrated in AHL. I am writing this section not to deride Randi for his lifestyle, but to show that this is another aspect of his life that he presents with a strange spin on it, even when it is no longer necessary.
Randi came out as gay in 2010 at the age of 81. What was more surprising than his decision to come out was that it was at such a late age. In his official announcement, he said that it had to do with seeing the movie Milk, about the life of the celebrated openly gay San Francisco politician, but I suspect that there were other reasons. He was being pushed into the open. A San Francisco paper had published a long profile of Randi that almost said it and referred to Alvarez as Randi's "long time companion." But it was a very small publication put out by Randi's former friend Jim Moseley that was publishing below-the-belt details. Moseley had previously indirectly alluded to Randi's lifestyle, but in a couple of issues of his newsletter, Saucer Smear, published shortly before Randi went public, there were very direct statements and an account of an incident known to Moseley. He even named names. This apparently unnerved Randi so much that he wrote a couple of letters explaining his side of the situation. This was unusual because Randi had been on a long hiatus of contact with Moseley. Moseley had previously veiled Randi's lifestyle even in the midst of their years-long feud. Perhaps it was the fact that they were both closer to the grave that caused Moseley to change his tactics, and coming out may have been the only choice Randi had after it was obvious that Moseley was going tell all, or at least enough to make Randi uncomfortable.
Strangest of all, when Randi did come out, he decided to say that he had never really been in the closet. On the same blog post where he made his announcement he wrote, "At no time did I choose to adopt any protective coloration" and further says in the audio interview that he has never pretended not to be gay, but just never made a statement as to what his orientation was.
When I informed Moseley of this, he let out a loud exclamation of "bullshit!" Moseley and Randi were friends in the in the 1960s, and Moseley told me that back then Randi had always denied being homosexual. "...he never would admit to it, even in private," Moseley wrote in the issue of Saucer Smear that reported Randi's self-outing. I have a magazine where Randi says he has been interested in magic as long as he has been interested in girls. You can find interviews where Randi spends a great deal of time pretending to have the hots for Sophia Loren. Randi can't even be straight about coming out; he has to retro-spin it.
In AHL the filmmakers say that Randi ...hid his true relationship with [his partner] Jose. and I think it was just a thing that people would use against him. But this is not supported by the facts. Randi's sexual preference was already well known to his enemies thanks to what Randi would refer to as a "blackmail tape," an audio recording of Randi talking sex with young men that has been circulating since at least the 1980s. The information was already out there and in a far more salacious form. Anyone who was going to use this aspect of his life against him were already doing so and already had the ammo.
Of course his friends already knew. In fact, Leon Jaroff, his friend and fellow co-founder of CSICoP, the anti-paranormal group, almost came out and said it in a profile he wrote on Randi for a 1988 issue of Time magazine, writing "Randi has never married. 'I was too good an escape artist,' he explains. Over the years, however, he has given shelter to young aspiring magicians, taking them in as apprentices and serving as a foster parent. 'Kids keep showing up at my door with knapsacks on their backs,' Randi says, 'offering to work for nothing if I help train them.' Today he shares his secluded, cluttered Florida house with his cat Charlie and Jose Alvarez, 20, his latest protege."
At the risk of sounding repetitive, Randi's friends and enemies already knew, so when he came out it was only news to John Q. Public.
Many have wondered why it took so long for Randi to come out. Certainly in the 1950s, it was a difficult time to be gay but it has been noted that in the 1960s Randi lived in Greenwich Village in New York, a much more open and tolerant environment. Certainly the 70s and 80s were decades where gay rights and awareness advanced tremendously. Certainly if Randi had come out earlier in life, he would have had an easier time with some aspects of his life.
I cannot pretend to know what it was like to grow up as a gay man, especially in the 1950s, but it must have been difficult for Randi, but still there must have been more to it than just that for him to wait so long. It is my personal belief that Randi remained secretive so long because of his father. AHL touches, just briefly, on Randi's difficult relationship with his father. I had conversations with Jim Moseley where he related things that Randi had told him about his father that makes me think that Randi's longtime secrecy is a reaction to his father's disapproval that lead to almost life-long mental trauma. Whatever the case, I have sympathy for Randi's plight in this aspect of his life and am glad he was finally able to true, or at least truer, to himself.
A pivotal scene in Randi's life plays out as the cameras are rolling. Earlier it established that Jose Alvarez, the man who played the part of the channeler "Carlos," was in a long-term relationship with Randi. There is some foreshadowing when a segment of the TV game show To Tell The Truth is shown, presumably filmed not long after the Carlos hoax. But the real truth would not be revealed until 2011 when Alvarez was arrested by federal agents - because he was not Jose Alvarez. The real Jose Alvarez was a victim of identity theft. This had happened when Randi and "Alvarez" went to Australia for the Carlos Hoax. For a while, the person formerly known as Jose Alvarez was in detention as a John Doe, a man with no name. Eventually it was revealed that his real name was Deyvi Orangel Peña Arteaga, a
For the record, I have no problem with Randi and Pena's relationship and am sympathetic to people with immigration problems.
One person conspicuously absent from this section, or any part of the film, is the real Jose Alvarez. He is mentioned but never shown or interviewed. Glossed over is the fact that Pena committed a crime with a victim, and in this case the victim is given no voice.
Working The Memory Hole: Things Left Out
Working The Memory Hole: Things Left Out
Randi's Roudy Friend Won't Settle Down
One person in Randi's life who almost goes down the memory hole is a one-time colleague William "Roudy" Rodriguez. Randi wrote about Rodriguez in two of his books. In Flim-Flam he tells how Roudy accompanied him on a trip to Italy and in The Faith Healers Randi tells how Roudy was able to get backstage at a performance by evangelical faith healer Rev. W. V. Grant. Roudy was able to accomplish this partially by donning a maintenance worker outfit. You will realize the irony of this shortly.
roudy makes an appearance in AHL for a fraction of a second. There is a bit of footage were Carlos/Alverez is stressed out and is being consoled by someone speaking in Spanish. That person's face shows up on camera for an instant. If you pause at just the right moment his face is visible and it is undeniably William "Roudy" Rodriguez. Why is Roudy not mentioned or interviewed? A big reason is undoubtedly what happened with Roudy after he left Randi's entourage.
|William "Roudy" Rodriguez with the master-key to the World Trade Center|
Various reports state that Rodriguez initially teamed up with Randi with the intention of being mentored into a career as a professional magician. That was not how things worked out; he ended up getting a job as a janitor. Surprisingly, this would turn out to be a pivotal moment in his life, and more importantly, the lives of others.
Rodriguez got a job at the World Trade Center in New York. He was working when the planes hit. As the janitor, he had access to keys to open locked doors. He led people out of the building and saved many lives.
He also heard things inside the building that he is convinced were bombs. Roudy does not believe in the conventional narrative of 9/11. He is a Truther and gives lectures about the events he experienced that day and the cover-up that he believes occurred. And he credits his experience with Randi for helping him see through the official smoke-screen. One account quotes him as saying "It is like Randi said. Theres reality, and theres illusion. When illusion becomes reality, thats a problem. Nine-eleven is a giant illusion...."
Considering that Randi and his milieu considers any type of conspiracy speculation to be heretical, it is no wonder they are not telling us about Roudy.
New York and WOR
Randi did a lot of interesting things in the 1960s when he lived in New York. He was a frequent guest on Long John Nebel's Party Line late night radio show on WOR. Nebel pretty much invented the late night call-in radio show. His show was a predecessor to Art Bell's Coast to Coast show, as he had the same kind of oddball guests. People who said they had been to Venus on a flying saucer or were in contact with underground-dwelling, ray-yielding humanoids were the norm on Nebel's show. Randi was a regular and would often share Nebel's studio with his then friend, flying saucer promoting publisher Jim Moseley.
After Nebel left WOR, when another station offered him higher pay, the time slot that Nebel vacated was given to Randi, who had his late night show on WOR for three years.
Responding to an article critical of him that mention his WOR show, Randi claimed that "It debunked any and all current vendors of nonsense" The record indicates otherwise.
Although Randi's show was not paranormal themed, he would often have the same "way out" topics that Nebel was known for, and guests included Moseley, Tim "Mr. UFO" Beckley and Gray Barker, the original promoter of the Men in Black mythos. Moseley was in fact a guest on Randi's last show.
In the midst of Randi's WOR fame, he made an appearance at Moseley's 1967 Congress of Scientific Ufologists, where he was a speaker. A Washington Post reporter attended the convention and quoted Randi as saying, "Let's not fool ourselves. There are some garden variety liars involved in all this. But in among all the trash and nonsense perpetrated in the name of Ufology, I think there is a small grain of truth."
|The Amazing Randi and flying saucer contactee Andy Sinatra at a 1967 UFO Convention|
Flying Saucer contactee Frank Stranges included a photo of Randi at the 1967 event in his book Stranger at the Pentagon. It shows Randi in the company of Andy Sinatra, The Mystic Barber.
Tim Beckley wrote "...Randi and I shared a small office at 303 Fifth Ave in Manhattan that was also occupied by Jim Moseley of UFO fame. I traveled with Randi to several of his gigs. I remember one in particular at a high school gym where he levitated a young lady and the curtain shook behind him." Beckley told me that Randi wanted him to be his manager and this is why he accompanied him to some of his shows. That's right, Randi wanted Mr. UFO to be his manager.
Randi has talked about his time at WOR over the years, although not in great detail. It was a great achievement, so there is no wonder he mentions it. Strangely, AHL has a photo of Randi at WOR on its website but not one mention in the film itself.
Strangely absent in AHL is any mention of lawsuits, especially those brought against Randi by Uri Geller. This is strange because, while the results of the many lawsuits brought against Randi were actually somewhat mixed, Randi has always been able to spin it so that he appeared to come out on top every time.
Most notably absent is any mention of the "cereal box" lawsuit.
In this one Geller, sued Randi partly because Randi had said that Geller's tricks could be found on the back of cereal boxes. One weird thing about this is, it almost seemed that Geller was saying what he did WAS a trick. He stated that he was upset that Randi was attacking his originality. The lawsuit gave Randi some grief for a while. He came out of it the victor, although a victor with a lot less money in his bank account. AHL shows clips of Randi saying the dreaded "cornflakes boxes when I was a kid" line twice and a clip of Geller holding a bent spoon while saying "This is my trademark and you will not find in on any cereal box."
So why talk around it with talking about it? Undoubtedly, this is partly due the fact that talking about the lawsuits in any simply-to-understand manner is incredibly difficult. Most of the information comes from very biased sources on both sides. It also involves navigating a labyrinth of legal language and maneuvers. Things got so entangled that Geller sued his own lawyer, and Randi sued CSICoPs insurance company. Marcello Truzzi came the closest to presenting the legal back-and-forth in a somewhat coherent form, but of course he had his own biases.
Randi and his supporters have characterized legal action taken against him as attacks on free speech; however, Randi himself does not seem to be a fan of free speech when that speech is critical of him. Randi, or at least lawyers presumably working on Randi's behalf, threatened publisher Jim Moseley and Baltimore radio show host Bob Hieronimus with legal action unless they stopped putting out embarrassing information about Randi.
It is very easy to understand why AHL left out any mention of what James Randi characterized as a "blackmail tape." An audio tape of Randi talking sex-talk with young men has been circulating for decades. Randi has had explanations for it over the years, often conflicting. It even was part of a court case brought against him by scientist and Geller supporter Eldon Byrd, which proved to be embarrassing and unprofitable for both of them.
Like the lawsuits, the true story of the tape is a tangled one with the added caveat that it goes to some dark places. An inquiry into its true nature would be challenging and rewardless. But like the lawsuits, it is such a part of the Randi story that it can't be ignored.
There is even the question as to whether the tape was used for blackmail, as Randi claims. It is true that copies of the tape were sent out in the mail to a number of people, but was the purpose blackmail or just to embarrass him? Considering that one of the reasons Byrd sued Randi was because Randi had said Byrd was responsible for a blackmail campaign against him, and that Byrd apparently admitted to having and obtaining the tape and seeing that Byrd won the case, it would seem not. Or it would seem if there was blackmail, it did not come from Byrd. Only a reading of the court transcript will clarify this, and I have yet to see a copy.
One thing I have seen is one of the original "blackmail packets," which contained the tape and a few other things. The weirdest thing about it was that whoever was responsible for disseminating them had figured out a way to send them with a partial postmark that hid the location of the mailing.
Any substantive biography of Randi would have to include an account of his feud with New Jersey police officer Stephen Xanthos. Their disagreements and interactions were infamous enough to have been written up in the New York Times. And it was Xanthros, more than anyone, who is said to be responsible for the release of the abovementioned "blackmail" tape.
Lest you think that I am only concerned with the omissions that may cast Randi in a bad light; there were all kinds of aspects of the Randi story that were left out. His travels to South America, which he wrote about in Canadian newspapers, are not mentioned. His battle with a French scientist who was favorable to homeopathy is completely missing. Although the AHL filmmakers gathered lots of information about his rise from a teenaged carnival worker to Montreal nightclub performer to appearing on television and radio, very little of it is used. This is a shame because, for me at least, the most interesting thing about Randi is his ability to promote himself and change over the years. For me, most of what is shown in AHL -- Popoff, Geller, Carlos, Alpha, etc. -- is old news. Most of it had already been played-out in public years ago. I was hoping that there would more of Randi's background that was not so well known. Luckily, some of that information is on the film's website and on YouTube as part of a presentation the filmmakers made in Las Vegas.
Other BiographiesObviously, the filmmakers were limited by time as to how much information could be presented, which begs the question: is there any more biographical information about Randi beyond the film?
The answer is yes... I mean no... I mean not yet… I mean…
In the mid-2000s, Randi's friend magician Penn Jillette commissioned researcher Kim Scheinberg to gather materials for a biography to be written by Jillette himself. In 2012, writer Ryan Shaffer asked him about this.
Jillette stated that he had put a lot of money into it and had laid out the chronology to get everything right, and it was just a question of who would write it and what style it would be written in.
But if you look around, you can find evidence that Jillette wanted to write the book or may have already written it. There is a title (I, James Randi, Will Die Today), a publishing company (strangely, a comic book publisher, Boom Studios), an ISBN number (10:193450632X), a publication date (2008), a surprisingly short page count (128), and, at one time, a listing in a book catalog. So what happened to it?
The latest story is that Italian skeptic Massimo Polidoro is writing it. He announced this at the Randi convention in Las Vegas in 2014. There was a plea for a publisher and a crowdfunding campaign. There is a website, but there is not much information or activity. There was at least one well-written excerpt in The Skeptical Inquirer, the official publication of the organization formerly known as CSICoP, now known as CSI. Beyond that, not much seems to be happening.
And what about Randi's autobiography? He has been talking about it for years. Titled A Magician in the Laboratory, excerpts have appeared on a website and in Skeptic magazine, but a release date remains elusive.
A problem with these planned bios is that the authors are too close to their subjects. Way too close. Polidoro was Randi's apprentice and has stated that he considers Randi "...like a second father." Penn Jillette's Wikipedia page says, "Jillette regularly acknowledges Randi as the one person on the planet he loves the most besides members of his family." Bias much?
This is a general problem with information about Randi: that most of it is coming from fans and oftentime super-fans. This is a fault as well with AHL. AHL is more fan-nonfiction.
Alexander has a lot of background knowledge on some of the people and events in the movie and is able to give a unique perspective in his review.
A review by British journalist Will Storr is more devastating. Storr had already written about Randi in his book The Unpersuadables. He is one of few writers to actually investigate Randi's stories. When he interviewed Randi for his book, he was able to get Randi to admit to lying in order to win arguments. Randi said to Storr "...I don't know whether the lies are conscious lies all the time, but there can be untruths. It is no wonder Storr was not overwhelmed by AHL.
Final WordsI have called James Randi the Michael Moore of the skeptics movement. He probably believes in what he advocates, but self-promotion, arrogance, and winning are more important than the truth.
A strange kind of cult of personality has formed around Randi; he had become a living secular saint to some. His followers, I will call them Randi-roids, seem to think he can do wrong. Much of their behavior mirrors that of the followers of religious figures, the same type of behavior that they are supposedly against.
In an interview Journalist Will Storr said "...when you poke the James Randi cult it all falls to bits rather quickly."
Until recently, there was a charitable organization that, according to most reports, gave James Randi nearly $200,000 per year. There was an annual meeting in Las Vegas dedicated to Randi where you could purchase an effigy of the amazing one.
And like any cult, the followers are able to justify contradictions.
There was a time when Randi's Wikipedia page was constantly monitored by Randi promoters, and oftentimes the citations lead back to Randi's own website.
Randi's friends, like his internet followers, also do some spin for him. As shown in AHL, British psychology professor Richard Wiseman says "Hes a great storyteller, and like all good storytellers, well, theres probably some information and detail in there that may not be in his version of events."
This must be much more of a problem for biographers, who have access to much more accurate information. In an interview, Randi biographer Massimo Polidoro said:
"One of the most interesting things is that going through the research about Randi's life, his stories, when he tells them, that's quite something because many times you see they are different, but the original ones, they're even more interesting, more surprising! And that's how memory works."
AHL's co-director, Justin Weinstein, admitted that he played fast and loose with the facts, telling journalist Will Storr "Sometimes there are greater truths you can reach when you dont adhere to the facts." and further "Sometimes in order to get to a truth you bend the truth. And in Randi's case sometimes he bends it too far. The irony is hes leading a sceptical movement thats calling it out when other people are lying."
In AHL, Steve Shaw says that Randi once said to him that there is ...nothing I can't get out of." This is contradicted by the film itself, which shows Randi getting into a life threatening situation when he failed to get out of a locked, water-filled container. In his book Conjuring, he writes of another escape gone wrong, this time from a safe. There is an Art Buchwald column about his failure to escape from a jail in France, so this statement is not true in the literal sense.
But if this is a metaphorical statement, it makes perfect sense. Randi has a way of spinning tales so that he comes on top, no matter what the facts are. And that's no lie.
An Honest Liar has been shown on BBC and PBS. It is available on Netflix in some countries. It can be watched on Amazon instant video, iTunes and other streaming services. It is available on DVD and Blue Ray. For more information go to http://anhonestliar.com
Note: In the preceding post organized skepticism and skeptics are always spelled with a K no matter what country it is being used in. The organization Committee for Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICoP), referred to several times in this post, is currently known as Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (CSI).
Info about sources
A full listing of sources used for this article will be posted soon. Many can be found by doing a simple internet search. Below you can find some links to some articles that are mentioned or quoted.
Michael Thalbourne's article on Project Alpha:
Science Versus Showmanship: A History of the Randi Hoax by Michael A. Thalbourne
The Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research Vol. 89, October 1995
In the interest of balance, below is a response from Steve Shaw who was a subject of Project Alpha
Marcello Truzzi on Project Alpha:
Reflections on "Project Alpha": Scientific Experiment or Conjurer's Illusion? by Marcello Truzzi
Transcribed from Zetetic Scholar (1987), pp. 73–98
The Carlos Hoax
The Carlos Hoax by Tim Mendham as originally published in The Skeptic Magazine Vol 8 No 1 - 1988 can be found in this collection that is available on the Australian Skeptics website
The Second Coming – 1986 to 1990 collection
Marcello Truzzi's article on the Geller/Randi lawsuits can be found below.
An End to the Uri Geller vs. Randi & CSICOP Litigations? by Marcello Truzzi
Psi Researcher No. 21. (originally in Parapsychological Association Newsletter)
All quotations and images used in this post are intended to be within the Fair Use Act for purposes of commentary and criticism