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A good mind is hard to read
Rory Raven, Providence's premier mentalist, shows but doesn't tell
BY ALEXANDER PROVAN


I ASK RORY Raven to show me what he does. He and I are sitting outside the Coffee Exchange on Providence’s Wickenden Street on a welcome clement day. His long, dark hair is pulled into a ponytail and creeps down his back. A black bowler hat is perched on his head. He wears spectacles, a gray bow tie with black dots, and a jacket with a white handkerchief in the breast pocket. A silver, hourglass-shaped pin a little smaller than his hand hangs from his lapel. He says it’s a replica of a grave rubbing he bought at a going-out-of-business sale at a local occult shop. An auburn goatee tinged with gray hairs covers the bottom of his face. When he is preparing to perform, he seems to become slightly more serious, his features more focused.

"Think of a number," he says, "any number between one and 100." Skeptical, I quickly pick a number, waiting for a protracted or circuitous attempt to guess it or find out what that number says about me. Raven asks me to look him in the eye and he scratches down a number on a piece of paper. "What number did you pick?"

I tell him I picked the number nine, and he asks why. "Because it was the first number that I thought of," I respond.

"Well," he says, suppressing a smile, "that’s the first number I thought of, also." He shows me the piece of paper, which has the number nine written on it. Pleasantly stupefied, the only thing I can do is grin and utter, "Whoa."

Next, Raven suggests I think of someone’s name, someone whose face I can imagine, whose voice I can hear in my mind. I think of my sister, who I talked to an hour before, and look into Raven’s eyes. He asks me to go through the alphabet, explaining that he should be able to know when I say the first letter of that person’s name. I get to ‘O’ before he asks me to stop. "Now your eyes did this little twitching thing when you said ‘O’, so I’m guessing that’s the first letter." It was. I go through the alphabet again and Raven stops me after a few seconds and tells me the second letter is ‘L.’ It is. Then he recites the alphabet. "The third letter," he tells me, "is ‘I.’ " He recites the alphabet backward, stopping shortly after ‘V.’ "Olivia," he says. For the first time in a few minutes I look away from his bespectacled eyes and silently wonder how he’s doing this, and then wonder if he knows what I’m wondering.

RAVEN IS NOT a magician. He is a mentalist, which he defines as "a theatrical performer who does things that appear to be psychic." He doesn’t like to call what does ‘tricks’. He prefers to say that he reads minds. Or, to be more precise, he employs a variety of skills to produce an effect that seems like it could only be the result of psychic ability.

Raven is so skilled that, at his performances in Providence, audience members sometimes refuse to believe he is not actually psychic, or have a hard time disassociating what he does from what magicians do. Regardless of their belief that he is, indeed, reading their minds, Raven explains to audiences that any of his supernatural-seeming abilities are a result of years of practice, human observation, and psychological research. But, Raven acknowledges, this supernatural explanation is not as sexy, which "makes it hard to sell." If people are going to be mystified, they want to believe it’s the real thing — the inexplicable, the paranormal. In this sense, Raven is not the real thing.

In another sense, he definitely is the real deal. The gray area between ‘magician’ and ‘performer’ certainly resists definitions, and Raven, 34, is the first to admit that this causes some difficulties. "Either you’re not interesting enough or you’re too interesting," he laments, describing the tenuous middle ground between two stereotypes in his profession: the mundane performer and the off-the-wall, slightly demented psychic. But while Raven is no bona fide psychic and lacks the grandeur and intrigue associated with such characters, he is undoubtedly talented. In a profession dominated by jesters with magic cards and flamboyant illusionists, his matter-of-fact attitude toward his work is refreshing. He is not a trickster or an entertainer, not another "asshole in a tuxedo making bad jokes."

A LONGTIME PROVIDENCE-AREA resident, Raven has lived in and around the capital city for most of his life, spending his childhood in Rumford, Seekonk, and Barrington, where he attended St. Andrews High School. He now lives in Providence’s Armory District. He began experimenting with the psychic arts after receiving a magic set as a child. While sipping some coffee, he recalls one of the events that might have led him to the world of mentalism.

As a child, Rory had an ailment of some sort — he doesn’t remember exactly what. He recounts that, in his family, "The cure for this sort of ailment was to keep the child in a dark room for a few days." So young Rory was thrown in the basement. During that time, he remembers, "My sister sat in the room with me reading Poe with a flashlight. I think that’s what psychologists call a formative experience." He says this almost in passing, seemingly not struck by the inauspicious connotations of being locked by your parents in a dark basement with Edgar Allan Poe as your only solace. Besides this incident, his childhood was "pretty normal . . . nothing remarkable."

After graduating from high school, Raven attended Bard for a year, floated in and out of some Rhode Island colleges, eventually deciding not to finish school. In retrospect, he says he realized, "I don’t learn best in a classroom environment; I just wish I had figured that out before age 30 or so." Raven claims to be an autodidact, having acquired his skills as a mentalist by studying various elements of psychology, magic, human behavior, performance, and theater -- he was a theater kid in high school and college, which perhaps explains his persistence in acting a part and his enigmatic refusal to reveal his real name. He is also interested in parapsychology, a discipline that aims to investigate alleged paranormal activity in a scientific and unbiased way. The best known group in the field, the Society for Psychical Research, was started by a group of distinguished scholars in Cambridge in the late 19th century. Still existing in the margins of the scientific world, the group focuses on psychical research concerning exchanges between minds, or, according to its Web site, "between minds and environments which are not dealt with by current, orthodox science."

In his performances, which juxtapose demonstrations of mentalism with personal and professional history, Raven often tells the story of Washington Irving Bishop (1856-1889), a progenitor of mentalism. In a particularly impressive piece, Bishop told a person to hide a pin anywhere in New York City, promising to find it. When the person returned from hiding the pin, Bishop took him in a carriage and rode through the city, studying his reactions as they passed through various neighborhoods and buildings. When the carriage reached a certain hotel, Bishop jumped out, ran into the lobby, pulled up the carpet, and found the pin.

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Issue Date: October 8 - 14, 2004
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