Bob Fellows knows what it feels like to have hundreds of people venerate him. As a yoga master at the tender age of 19, he was aware of a certain in-front-of-the-guru mentality among his students. The feeling, he said, made him uncomfortable.
It would have been easy to misuse his students' trust, he admits. "People would ask me questions about things that were unrelated to what I was teaching. What do I eat? How long do I sleep and meditate each day?"
But Fellows, who has been knocking around the human potential movement since 1969, had a conscience.
So he decided to use his own background as a yoga master, magician and mind-control illusionist to help bust cults instead. The 37-year-old Los Angeles magician, who has appeared on the "Phil Donahue," "David Letterman" and "Will Shriner" shows, goes around the country talking to groups about the various techniques and psychobabble that many destructive cults employ to manipulate people and draw in new converts.
Last Monday evening, Fellows was hired to perform his magic tricks and illusions for nearly 400 teen-agers and adults at Adat Ari El Synagogue in North Hollywood as part of a series sponsored by the Bureau of Jewish Education's Program for Teens. (He is paid $3,000 for a magic show and $500 for his lectures on cults.)
"I think of my whole presentation as a kind of inoculation," Fellows explained. "I'm a magician and entertainer, not a psychic." Everything he does is a trick, including his mimicking of extrasensory perception. By giving people a good dose of what others call the paranormal, "hopefully, they'll be less prone to being manipulated by someone who shows them these things for the first time."
People should be skeptical, not cynical, he said, quoting a favorite line from movie character Charlie Chan: "The mind is like a parachute. It only functions when open." But, he went on, he agrees with philosopher and theologian Jacob Needleman, who said, "It's good to have an open mind, but not so open that your brains fall out."
He then demonstrated some of his ESP talents. "Pick a number between 1 and 50," he said, "both of them odd and without repeating the same numeral." When he asked, "How many of you picked 35 or 37?" three-quarters of the audience oohed and ahhed and raised their hands. "Statistical probability," he explained.
"Let's see if it's Ericksonian hypnosis, neuro-linguistic programming or just a trick," Fellows said, smiling impishly at the crowd. He then correctly guessed which of three objects a girl from the audience would pick up from a table.
Gil Graff, assistant director of the Bureau of Jewish Education, said the organization invited Fellows to speak on cult awareness to help teen-agers "develop critical thinking abilities early, so there won't be problems later on. Mostly, high schoolers don't get drawn into cults. We hear about them when they go to college."
No one else in the field of cult awareness is using magic to show how these organizations can manipulate unsuspecting people, said Rachel Andres, director of the cult commission at the Jewish Federation Council in Los Angeles.
"There are cults who claim they can read your mind through their special powers. He does the same thing, but tells you it's a trick."
A Useful Skill
Getting people to use their critical thinking is useful in everyday situations as well, Andres said, such as buying a car or renting an apartment. People are often unconsciously manipulated, going along with the crowd when they feel pressured or can't ask questions.
Fellows' interest in magic began when he was 9 years old. By the time he was 12, he had developed an hourlong magic show for which he was charging admission and had appeared on a local television show. Then came yoga and graduate work at Harvard University's divinity school. But in the end he decided to continue in magic rather than go into the ministry.
In 1982 he was drawn to the work going on in the field of cults when a relative had to be counseled to leave one of the larger groups. Fellows was excited to meet with a group of professionals interested in religions, yoga, and how people could be fooled through illusions. "I couldn't believe there was something that tied my interests together," he said.
"Everyone thinks people involved in this work were in a cult. That's not the case with me." Although he followed an Indian swami in the late '60s, from whom he learned yoga, he considers him a teacher, not a leader. "I never lived in an ashram or wore special clothes," he says. "I got off easy."
For the last several years he has been called in as a consultant for Pittsburg attorney Peter Georgiades, former chairman of the Cult-Related Litigation Committee for the American Bar Assn. Fellows has investigated half a dozen gurus to see if they use magic tricks to make people believe they have special powers.
Many cult experts believe cults are on the rise in the 80s. "Not the typical Eastern, sell-the-flowers, be-in-the-airport type of cult," Fellows explained. "The new ones are self-improvement groups, political groups and Christian groups--all groups that people don't think of as cults."
Fellows speaks at college campuses around the country. "One student came up after my seminar and told me he was going to leave college and join this Christian group and work full time for them for no pay. But after seeing my talk, he decided instead to stay in college and take an independent study course on cults.
"I get a lot of feedback like that," Fellows said. 'Not because I'm a magician, but because I'm manipulating them and then showing them how I did it."