NEWPORT, R.I. - Mentalist and mindbender.
That’s how Rory Raven describes his unique skillset – born straight out of the era of traveling showmen of the mid-1800s. And after an hour of presentation and demonstrations in Dr. Sheila Quinn’s “History of Psychology” class this week, his audience was thoroughly mesmerized.
Had Raven followed up his jaw-dropping, mind reading successes in the classic mesmerist form – by selling magical elixirs and potions to cure a variety of ills – more than a dozen Salve Regina students and a handful of guest faculty members in attendance would have likely walked out of McAuley 105 with cases of useless “stuff.”
Instead, Raven – the author of three books on Rhode Island history – graciously accepted questions from his audience, whose collective paradigm of psychological understanding had been stretched to say the least.
“Ahhhhh,” screamed anthropology professor Debra Curtis after Raven scrawled on his pad a date she was instructed to think over and over in her mind – April 19, 1998. “How did you do that!” she demanded.
That wasn’t all Raven did. He went five-for-five in mind reading exercises. “Think it don’t say it,” he said again and again because, after all, saying it would be too easy.
Junior Jessica Long and sophomore Tyler Delaney pulled words out of pages Raven flipped in front of them from Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” and Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar” (two authors, incidentally, who were fascinated with mesmerism).
Raven, after a healthy dose of show business razzmatazz, successfully guessed both their words – ‘Neither’ and ‘Appear.’
The class gave him the benefit of doubt after he scrawled ‘Tony’ on his pad when senior Jordan Sileo had been thinking ‘Anthony.’ There wasn’t an iota of doubt when he asked senior Lauren DeGennaro to think of a place and he correctly wrote down “Pearl River.”
“So, Mr. Raven, you’re able to read minds and that sort of thing because you’re in touch with the universal mesemeric fluid?’ Quinn interjected.
“Absolutely,” Raven responded, not missing a beat. “Duh!”
This so-called “fluid” isn’t a liquid substance but the mesmeric way of describing energy, Raven explained. Traditionally, mesmerists focused on “animal magnetism,” the energy projected by living beings. But later indoctrinations of the performance art-science latched onto the idea that inanimate objects also exude magnetism – things like tables and pieces of paper.
“A lot of people who were my ancestors, in a way, seized on this and took it on the road,” Raven said. “They may have had some philosophy behind it but their goal was making money on it. What I’m really interested in is the performance of it. How much is real and how much is show biz?”
Quinn had invited Raven to her class to demonstrate the importance of systematically testing our observations instead of being convinced by appearances. “I have always been bothered by the fact that a modern reader can easily assume that the audience viewing these shows must have been very gullible,” Quinn said. “Having seen his demonstrations, I know that the audience is moved from ‘How could they believe that?’ to ‘How did he do that?’”
One thing common among successful practitioners of mesmerism – then and now – is their ability to leverage the imagination of their ‘patients,’ or their audience. Mesmerist salons and traveling shows used dazzling outfits like wizard robes and set up bizarre atmospheres that purported to effectively manipulate people’s magnetism and primed their imaginations to be stretched.
Raven, dressed somewhat wizard-like in an extravagant black suit with grey vest and long jacket, must have used it to his advantage … somehow.
“Was I in some way manipulating your magnetism?” he asked the class. “Or was there something else going on? Is this science or is this show biz?”
Mesmerist Rory Raven conducts an introductory fingertip exercise with students and faculty who attended Dr. Sheila Quinn’s “History of Psychology” class on Thursday, Jan. 26.
Jessica Long, a junior, channels her energy to Raven who successfully writes down the word she is thinking.
Sophomore Tyler Delaney has his magnetism read by Raven.