"Sometimes I think I was a cult leader in a former lifetime," says Bob Fellows, a magician who has also made it part of his business to speak against cults.
Hastening to add that he does not believe in reincarnation, he suggested with a smile that "my fate was to return with the same skills and talents, but with a conscience."
In fact, the West Hollywood resident, a graduate of Harvard's divinity school who chose to practice magic instead of entering the ministry, uses his skills to demonstrate how the unwary are trapped.
His experiences as a student and teacher of yoga, which he described as cult-like but benign--"I got off easy"--are reflected in his talks, which include explanations of how to do magic tricks that mimic extrasensory perception (ESP).
"I've seen it from both sides," he said. "I understand what it's like to be caught up in following a guru and having followers, and as a magician, I have a sense of the manipulation that can be used."
His demonstrations, he said, are "experiential, but they come out of my own experience rather than just counseling a lot of kids, unlike many psychologists. The experiential aspect is unique and there isn't anybody else who does it."
Some of his appearances are pure entertainment. Others, for a reduced fee, include a workshop on what Fellows calls critical thinking, or "exposing mind control methods."
At a recent talk to an anti-cult workshop at the Jewish Federation Council building, Fellows, 35, made it look as though he was predicting the behavior of several volunteers from the audience.
In one trick, he placed a match book, a battery and souvenir airline wings on the podium and asked a young woman to choose among them.
First, though, he asked her name. "Lisa," she said.
"I should have known that," he responded, raising a laugh.
Holding up one closed fist, he declared that it contained a prediction of her behavior. After she chose one of the three items on the podium, he asked, "Is there any way I possibly could have known beforehand that you would be left holding the battery?"
No, she said, then gasped with surprise when he opened his hand and revealed the "prediction"--another battery.
Actually, he explained later, if she had put down the battery and ended up holding one of the other objects, he was ready with an alternate punch line: "Is there any way I could have known beforehand that you would put the battery on the table?"
He also posed for pictures that made it look as if he was floating in air, but his legs, carefully folded in yoga's lotus position, concealed a stack of telephone books on which he was perched.
On another evening, he appeared to divine the birth dates and ages of several teen-agers simply by holding a watch or ring belonging to the subject. This is a trick he does not expose. "It's too good," he said.
But the demonstrations were convincing enough to persuade several in the first audience to volunteer for a separate seminar on the use of ESP to help in their fight against cults.
Fellows said that he wished he could conduct that kind of seminar "because I could make a lot of money," but told the crowd, many of whom have been involved with the issue for years, that ESP, if it does exist, is unteachable. "In fact, what you've just seen is a sophisticated magic show, not much different than making handkerchiefs disappear.
"But the fact is that we want to see something like this (the supposed power of ESP). We know the mind has great potential--it's actually a positive aspect of personality. And the problem is that it can be manipulated by people who don't have the same interest you do."
The Boston native said his talks to high school and college audiences may help vulnerable youngsters shy away from destructive groups.
"I don't think (my presentation) is enough on its own," he said. "But if a student is wondering, 'Should I join this group, I'm feeling kind of funny about it,' there's a good chance he'll have second thoughts after the presentation."
Fellows began his career at age 9, appearing occasionally on local television before dropping magic as a teen-ager.
Later, after graduating from Lawrence College in Appleton, Wis., he became involved with an Indian mystic in studying and teaching hatha-yoga, but gradually returned to magic after he saw that a fellow student at divinity school was making a living at it.
The interest in cults came after a close relative married someone who had been involved in one of the major groups.
At the American Family Foundation, a Weston, Mass.-based group staffed by psychologists and former cult members, spokesman Fred Kretchman said using magic in such presentations is "a nice way of getting the point across that you can actually dupe somebody."