How Derren Brown Remade Mind Reading for Skeptics

In 2005, when I was visiting London, a magician friend told me that I had to see the English mentalist Derren Brown, who was appearing in the West End, in his one-man show “Something Wicked This Way Comes.” Brown had become famous for an astonishing ability to seemingly read the thoughts of his fellow-humans and to control their actions. In a series of TV specials, he’d reinvented a waning branch of magic—mentalism—for a new generation, framing his feats as evidence not of psychic powers but of a cutting-edge knowledge of the mind and how to manipulate it.

A few days later, I was sitting in a capacity audience at a theatre in Covent Garden. A slim, pale, vulpine man in his mid-thirties, with well-tended light-brown hair and a goatee, came onstage, dressed in a trim black suit and a black shirt. He looked more like the creative director of an advertising agency than like a mind reader, and seemed to take neither his spectators nor himself too seriously: when someone’s cell phone went off, he gave a look of mock alarm and said, “Don’t answer it. It’s very bad news.” Beneath his genially impudent manner lurked a suggestion of preternatural self-assurance and even menace.

Brown spent the next two and a half hours performing a series of increasingly inconceivable set pieces, organized around the theme of how susceptible we are to hidden influence. He gave demonstrations of subliminal persuasion, lie detection, instant trance induction, and mass hypnosis, as well as manipulation of his own mental state to control his response to pain. To show that participants were selected at random, he hurled a stuffed monkey into the auditorium, and whoever caught it would come up onstage. (You can see a later performance of the show on YouTube.)

Early on, a woman in the audience was entrusted with a locked briefcase. For the finale, Brown held up a large envelope, which he said contained “a prediction of the future, about the decisions that you’re going to make”; clipped the envelope to a metal stand at center stage, where it remained in full view; and summoned the woman back up. He then tossed that day’s editions of ten assorted newspapers into the audience and asked her to pick someone who’d caught one of them. Next, he gave her and other audience members a series of choices, through which, eventually, page 14 of the Daily Mail was torn into dozens of pieces, and the woman selected a single word on one of them: “influences.”

Pointing out the number of papers he’d tossed out and the approximate number of words in each one, Brown said, “That’s 1.6 million different words that you had to choose from in this room, and you choose the word ‘influences.’ Is that fair?”

“Yeah,” she said.

“No!” Brown said in a stage whisper. “No, it’s not. It is not fair. It is inevitable.”

He went over to the stand where he’d left the envelope, opened it, and, giving the woman one end to hold, unfurled a long roll of paper that read, in large letters, “Influences.” The audience gasped and started cheering.

Brown held up a hand for quiet, saying, “Hold on a second. You’re all intelligent people. You’re going to be having a drink afterwards, or driving home, or up at four in the morning trying to work out how that worked. And you’ll think, Maybe it didn’t make any difference what she chose. Maybe all that happened is magic boy here switches a bit of paper at the end, hopes she goes for that word, or something. It’s a comfortable thing to think. But here’s the point: if that is what happened and it didn’t matter what paper you chose or what page, and all that was rubbish, then that word ‘influences’ wouldn’t really be on page 14 of today’s Daily Mail. And it is.”

Brown unlocked the woman’s briefcase and removed an envelope containing page 14 of that day’s Mail, with the word “influences” circled in red. The audience roared and leaped to its feet. “Thank you all for coming—good night!” Brown said, taking a bow and starting to walk offstage.

But then he paused and again signalled for quiet. He explained that he had been exposing us to secret messages and that it thus made no difference who got selected for the final trick—anyone in the audience would have picked that word on that page of that paper. “Let me tell you what I’ve been doing,” he said. “We’ve been filming little bits from the wings, little clips of the show.”

There followed a montage of moments from that night, in which Brown gave verbal suggestions, sometimes via subtle mispronunciations or non sequiturs, that we had apparently absorbed subconsciously. In one clip, Brown set up a stunt that involved hammering a nail into his nasal cavity, saying, “Do you hammer daily a number 14 mail into your head?”

In another, he explained, “Because of the sorts of unconscious behaviors that we unconsciously choose daily”—and here he turned to the camera and winked—“male subjects tend to be . . .”

And in another he said, “Pain is a subjective thing, like when you’re young and you tear around influences, and you cut yourself, and you don’t really know that you’re cut till you look down and see the blood.”

“This is what you’ve been hearing without realizing you’ve been hearing it,” Brown announced triumphantly. “That’s why it was the Daily Mail, that’s why it was page 14, and that’s why it was the word ‘influences.’ Thank you for your attention, thank you for coming out tonight, and thank you for playing. Good night!”

This is what Brown does best: he takes an effect from the mentalism repertoire and generates from it an escalating series of climaxes that forces you to rethink everything you’ve just seen. Rather than diminish the mystery, Brown’s revelation of his ostensible methods reasserts and deepens it. He has always maintained that he neither has nor believes in any kind of psychic power, and his emphasis on manipulating people with techniques from the outer frontiers of psychology gives an audience too sophisticated to believe in the paranormal something scientific-seeming to hold on to. Often, the explanations end up being even more perplexing than the feat itself. Whether one believes that he’s actually doing what he claims or that he’s simply cloaking sleight of hand and the like in brilliant theatrics, he seems to be drawing back the curtain and offering a glimpse into some uncanny realm. As Brown once told me, “People feel that they understand something about what I’m up to but not everything, which satisfies their rational side but leaves room for something more playful and subterranean.”

In the U.K., Brown has been a household name for nearly two decades, thanks to dozens of TV shows, several stage shows, two Olivier Awards, and a number of best-selling books. Despite various forays into the U.S., including an Off Broadway run and Netflix specials, he remains relatively unknown here, but now he is making his Broadway début, with the show “Secret.” One of the producers, Thomas Kail, who directed “Hamilton,” told me that he’d been obsessed with Brown for years. “He just kind of lifts you up and takes you away, showing you things that should not be, and yet they are,” Kail said. “He tells you that it’s not real, and then he does it.”

Kail’s words reminded me of something that had happened after the London show I saw. I’d been invited to say hello to Brown in his dressing room. Though clearly exhausted, he was courtly and chatty, but, as we talked, he sat down and started picking tiny shards of glass out of the sole of his foot. Earlier, he’d done a routine that involved walking barefoot across a carpet of jagged broken bottles without bleeding or feeling pain. As I stood in his dressing room, I wondered whether these glass splinters were really from earlier or if he was just treating me to an extra layer of deception—what magicians call a “convincer.” Fourteen years later, I’m still not sure.

I met up with Brown again for breakfast one summer morning last year in Southend-on-Sea, a down-at-the-heels resort town about forty miles east of London. Southend’s points of interest include the world’s longest pleasure pier and the Cliffs Pavilion, a sixteen-hundred-seat theatre where Brown was performing the final shows of a tour of the U.K. and Ireland. I was waiting for him to join me on the patio of his hotel, above an esplanade with a view of the Thames Estuary, which, at low tide, amounted to a vast expanse of muck dotted with grounded boats. As I sipped a weak espresso, I noticed a lanky man with graying hair pass by, do a double take, and stop. “Adam?” he said, in a mildly disreputable English accent. “I don’t believe this. Good God, what are you doing here?”

I had no idea who he was, and as my mind frantically tried to place him I stammered something about being there for work, adding hopefully, “And you?”

“Well, I’m here for work, too, aren’t I?” he said, hovering over my table. “I’m sure you’ve heard that Trump is coming to Southend as part of his visit—he’s being made an earl, in recompense for all he’s done—and I’m here covering it for the New York Times.”

I stood up to discourage him from taking a seat, and he went on, “How did you make out with all those people, after I left you that night in New York? Did you go out for more drinks?” Sensing my confusion, he gave me a wounded look and said, “Don’t tell me you don’t remember me.”

Just then, Brown emerged from the hotel, waved, and walked over to the table. This seemed to offend the man. “Excuse me,” he snapped. “We’re having a private conversation, and it’s extremely rude of you to listen in.”

“No, no, it’s O.K.—he’s a friend,” I explained. “He’s supposed to meet me, and—”

At this point, Brown and the man looked at each other and started laughing. Brown introduced me to Michael Vine, who has been his manager since the start of his TV career. Vine left, and we sat down to order breakfast. I told Brown that I felt like one of the unwitting participants in his TV specials, who are often put through bewildering, elaborately constructed scenarios—part social-science experiment, part con game—designed to make them do things they ordinarily wouldn’t, whether good (take a bullet for another person) or bad (push a man off a roof). He laughed and said, “It’s a classic hypnotic technique—you induce confusion. You were so baffled by Michael that you were just trying to make sense of it, trying to find something that you could hang on to. And that makes you very responsive and suggestible.”

When Brown puts audience members into a trance, he often starts by introducing himself and then withdrawing his hand when they reach out to shake it. “They’re coming up onstage and they’re already a little bit baffled, looking for direction from me, and then when you drop something that’s very automatic, like a handshake, it throws them into disarray,” he explained. “When I interrupt the handshake, put my hand on their foreheads, and say, ‘Look at me. Sleep. All the way down, all the way deep,’ they just go with it.”

Brown is now forty-eight. Since the first time I saw him, he has got rid of his goatee and, after years of progressively more indisputable hair loss, has shaved his head. “It’s such a relief not having to labor over the intricacies and subterfuges of styling thinning hair and just say fuck it,” he told me. Brown’s winsome air and even keel can make him hard to read, though he has a distinctive tell—a kind of sudden myoclonic twitch of his head that he refers to as “my nod.” It’s the last vestige of a childhood plagued by involuntary tics, he told me, and indicates that he is feeling self-conscious, stressed, or anxious.

Off the clock, Brown neither reads anyone’s mind nor, despite being a world-class card magician, performs tricks of any kind. He finds it embarrassing. He seems milder than his suave and commanding stage self—charming and scrupulously polite, with no aura of mystery or danger. Though watchful, he exudes no sense that he’s scrutinizing your every unconscious action or trying to worm his way inside your head. He is articulate and erudite, and he speaks earnestly but with an undercurrent of amusement—at himself and others—that bubbles up to flavor the sincerity.

When our food arrived, Brown, although he has eaten a light bulb onstage, found his poached egg and smoked haddock suspect. “This tastes very fishy,” he said. “I’m not good enough with fish to know, but it tastes—how to put this?—very ‘of the sea.’ Is that a good thing?” For the next ten minutes or so, Brown alternated between forging ahead with his breakfast—“It’s fine, it’s fine”—and pausing, a look of skepticism on his face. “I could just ask them to take it back, but that’s a real insult, isn’t it?” he said. “This is a very English situation.”

In the opening monologue of Brown’s New York show, he says, “My story was that I had a secret, a big, dark secret I couldn’t possibly tell anyone. . . . I presumed that I was gay when I was fifteen, but I didn’t come out till I was thirty-one. Which is a very long time to be avoiding the subject of sex. No one must ever know. Which is silly, because when you do eventually come out you realize no one gives a fuck. Truly, nobody cares. Which is a little disappointing, something of an anticlimax. All the things about ourselves that we think are so terrible—to other people, it’s just a bit more information about us. We’d worry a lot less about what other people think of us if we realized how seldom they do.”

Brown actually came out a bit later—at the age of thirty-five to his friends and family, and publicly a year after. Since then, he has come to understand the toll of having kept that particular secret for so long. “Before coming out, you work—unconsciously, but you work—to sort of divert attention from those parts of yourself that you don’t want to expose,” he told me. “And even when all that’s sorted out it doesn’t take much to bring it all rushing back, particularly if you’re a magician, because you’re doing something fundamentally dishonest.”

The theme of Brown’s show is that the stories we tell ourselves about who we are and how the world works distort our perception of reality. As a person, Brown may lament that human tendency; as a performer, he relies on it. To be distracted from what a magician is really up to, an audience has to believe the story that’s unfolding. Brown’s gift is for making that surface story believable and compelling. Though he’s not the first mentalist to hint at scientific explanations for his abilities, what he has done better than anyone else in his profession is to turn the purported method into an observable drama. “I remember that, whenever I saw mentalism, it was always about ‘O.K., think of a word and write it down.’ Now I write something down and turn it around. ‘This is the word you were thinking of.’ Bam! End of the trick,” Brown said. “The entire focus was on the revelation, and it always struck me as misplaced, because that’s not the interesting part of the trick. The interesting part of the trick is, What are you doing to read that person’s mind? So my contribution was to put more weight on the process, because—dramatically and theatrically and intellectually and everything-ally—that’s what’s interesting.”

Unlike most magicians, Brown wasn’t obsessed with the craft and its niceties as a child. His parents gave him a magic set one Christmas, but he can’t recall whether he ever performed any tricks. Born in 1971, Brown grew up in Purley, a town in South London, which he describes as “the epitome of middle-class suburbia.” Brown’s mother, a former wedding-dress model, worked as a medical receptionist. She doted on her son. Brown had cooler relations with his father, who was a swimming and water-polo coach at the local secondary school. “He was sporty and manly and didn’t have a lot of education,” Brown said. “While I was bright and precocious and not sporty and liked to play dress-up with my nan’s scarves.”

At school, Brown got high grades without studying much, but he was ill at ease among his peers and was sometimes picked on. He spent most of his time alone, obsessively drawing, devising Lego creations, or talking to an imaginary friend, Hublar, for whom his mother would set a place at the dinner table. “Derren was a complicated boy but just so lovely,” his mother told me. “We were worried about him, because we thought he was quite lonely.”

Though neither of Brown’s parents was religious, at the age of six he asked them if he could attend Bible classes. Later, he started going to church on his own, growing increasingly fervent. “I would be the insufferable one who would sit you down and give you all the proof of why God exists—a neat system that all makes sense,” he said. “My relationship with my father wasn’t great, and there’s God as this sort of father figure and the whole lovely network of certainties that comes with it. And, of course, as I got older there was the sexuality thing that I was hiding and not facing and hoping might go away. Having a big thing you can put up in front of you and say ‘That’s me’ is a very handy tool.”

At school, Brown fell in with a group of kids known variously as the Music-School Gang and the Poof Gang. “You were ostracized if you were part of that nerdy group,” he said. By the end of high school, other students had become more accepting, and Brown ingratiated himself with witty banter and by drawing caricatures of teachers. “It was all a bit much, born out of a desperate urge to impress, but the relief that I felt of not being trapped in that little group was immense,” he said. Brown scored among the highest grades in the country on his English, Politics, and German A-levels, despite not reading any of the assigned books. “I just got quite good at making it sound like I knew what I was talking about in essays,” he said.

After a gap year in Germany, Brown enrolled at the University of Bristol, to study German and law, and he took up ballroom dancing, which he had discovered abroad. (“It was an oddly cool thing in Bavaria.”) He competed on the collegiate Latin dance circuit, winning several trophies for cha-cha before retiring. “The sad thing is, it kills your desire and ability to dance in any other situation,” he said. “I dread weddings.”

Still attending church and struggling to reconcile himself to his sexuality, Brown gravitated toward a group called Living Waters, which espoused a kind of gay conversion therapy based on Scripture, prayer, and a belief that male same-sex attraction stemmed from overcompensating for deficits in the father-son relationship. But, he said, “at some point I sort of realized, Nobody’s standing up there saying it’s worked for them—not really.”

During his first year at university, Brown saw a performance on campus by a hypnotist named Martin Taylor. In one routine, Taylor got a student to forget the number seven; when the student counted his fingers, he couldn’t understand why he had eleven. “You’re laughing out of amazement and disbelief and kind of empathizing with the confusion,” Brown said. “Almost right away I decided, I’m going to do that.”

He started amassing books on hypnotism and practicing on fellow-students. Soon he was performing on campus and at a nearby theatre. His mother recalled seeing one of those early shows. “I was shaking, absolutely petrified,” she said. “I kept thinking, Oh, no. What if it doesn’t work? But he was able to put people under in a split second, and everybody loved it. There was a woman who heckled him, but he handled it with aplomb.” Another show was disrupted by a group of students from the university’s Christian Union. “They were casting demons out, exorcising the process that was happening onstage,” Brown said. “And that began—or, at least, fed into—a process of starting to question all of that, too.” After some reading and thought, he found that his faith “started to fall apart and seem a bit silly,” he said. “I became very atheist, with all the fervor of the righteous.”

If Brown had a new religion, it was getting up in front of a crowd. “It would make me look and feel impressive, which I adored, and give me a feeling of control,” he said. Alongside his study of hypnotism, Brown began to teach himself sleight-of-hand tricks with cards, and soon he was earning extra money by giving walk-around performances at local restaurants. As graduation approached, he nervously told his parents that, rather than become a lawyer, as had been the plan, he wanted to be a magician. “We said, ‘Fine—whatever makes you happy,’ ” Brown’s mother told me. “I think he was quite surprised.”

After graduating, Brown stayed in Bristol. He went on housing assistance, moved into a tiny apartment, and eked out a living performing at restaurants. He claims never to have had any real ambition, but his mother remembers him telling her, “Mum, someday I’m going to be a millionaire.” His focus and intensity bordered on the fanatical. Brown’s friend Peter Clifford, a magician and an actor, remembers spending nine hours with him working on various methods for one card routine. “We’d work on something until I thought we’d exhausted every possibility,” Clifford told me. “And Derren would then go off and refine it even more.”

Early on, Brown affected a showy persona: long hair, blousy white shirts with billowing sleeves, leather vests, velvet pants tucked into knee-high boots, and Byronic capes. As his act grew in sophistication, he realized that his appearance hadn’t kept pace. He cut his hair, updated his wardrobe, and found that he was able to double his fees. He spent most of his twenties working the tables at a Turkish restaurant in Bristol, creating a signature style that blended urbane cheekiness with serious intention. Whether revealing that a man’s watch had vanished off his wrist and wound up in Brown’s sock, causing a woman’s wedding ring to float above his outstretched hand, or making a playing card dissolve into a shower of rose petals, Brown created effects that engaged his spectators emotionally and put more emphasis on their reactions than on his abilities.

Over time, Brown found himself more and more drawn to mentalism and started developing his credo of letting audiences see what the process of mind reading looked like in action. He got his break in 1999, when he received a call from Michael Vine—the man who fooled me at the hotel in Southend. A magician and juggler turned talent manager, Vine had formed a TV production company with an actor and comedian, Andrew O’Connor. The pair told Brown that they were looking for a mentalist to front a new show on Channel 4. O’Connor remembers that Brown seemed completely uninterested, but they persuaded him to come to London for a meeting.

Mentalism differs from other magic in a significant way: no one believes that it’s truly possible to overcome the laws of physics and, say, make a leopard vanish from a cage, but lots of people believe that it’s possible to divine someone’s thoughts, to see the future, or to communicate with the dead. Hunger for proof of a world beyond our own fuelled the rise of spiritualism in the mid-nineteenth century, and then the birth of mentalism as a form of popular entertainment. Early performers, such as the Fox sisters and the Davenport brothers, sought to pass themselves off as genuinely psychic, but, among the famous stage mentalists of the twentieth century, any claim to supernatural powers was generally soft-pedalled. Joseph Dunninger worked to debunk fake mediums; Chan Canasta and David Berglas were both coy about whether their “experiments” were genuine or mere trickery; the Amazing Kreskin calls himself simply “an entertainer.”

After Kreskin’s heyday, in the nineteen-seventies, mentalism’s popularity went into decline, and by the mid-nineties Vine thought that it was overdue for a comeback. He and O’Connor had noted how the American illusionist David Blaine had made magic feel more contemporary and cool. O’Connor went to Channel 4’s head of entertainment and asked, “If I could find you a mind-reading David Blaine, would you buy that?”

Vine and O’Connor got the go-ahead, but finding the right mind reader proved to be a challenge, and they spent two years auditioning candidates from all over the world. The only one who felt right was Andy Nyman, an actor who supported himself between gigs by performing mentalism; he turned them down, because he wanted to focus on his acting career, but he agreed to work on the show behind the scenes if it ever went into production. Vine and O’Connor were about to give up when someone Vine managed suggested that they consider his friend Derren Brown.

When Brown came to London to meet Vine and O’Connor, they took him to dinner, and, once the check had been paid, he said, “Would you like me to show you something?” After lighting a cigarette, he spread out a deck of cards and asked O’Connor to remember one of them and to repeat it over and over in his head. First, Brown named the card O’Connor was thinking of; next, he demonstrated that the card O’Connor had chosen wasn’t in the deck; finally, starting to cough, he revealed that the cigarette in his mouth had transformed into O’Connor’s card, rolled up and smoldering. “It was like the ground opened up and swallowed me,” O’Connor recalled.

“Mind Control,” the show that Nyman, O’Connor, and Brown devised—they have since collaborated on nearly all of the stage shows—débuted at the end of 2000 and quickly generated buzz. Brown’s approach caught a moment: neuroscience, “mind-hacking,” evolutionary psychology, and neurolinguistic programming were in the air. His explanations for his feats allowed him to slip under the radar of viewers’ skepticism, tapping into technocratic belief systems in order to produce a deeper credulity. “Mind Control” and its sequels borrowed the fragmented structure of Blaine’s street-magic specials, following Brown around as he performed such feats as subliminally influencing a betting-window cashier at a dog track to pay out on a losing ticket and convincing dancers in a night club that they’d been touched by invisible hands. His breakthrough came with his 2003 special, “Russian Roulette,” during which he performed the game of chance on live TV, generating headlines and controversy while earning a reputation as a kind of bad boy with extraordinary powers.

O’Connor recalled, “Michael Vine would literally get calls from people going, ‘We are pitching to a government, we’re bidding for a billion-dollar contract, and if Derren will come to the meeting and use his techniques, if we’re successful, we’ll give him a million dollars.’ ” Vine would try to explain that it didn’t really work like that, just as a magician who puts a woman in a box stage left and has her walk out of a box stage right may not actually be able to render air travel obsolete. O’Connor went on, “They’d go, ‘Oh, of course that’s silly, but can he please come to the meeting and influence the people so that we can get the contract?’ ”

As his act has evolved, Brown has gradually tempered his claims about psychological manipulation. These days, he says that he uses a combination of “magic, suggestion, psychology, misdirection, and showmanship,” not to mention “the power of the well-placed lie.” But he still regularly has to disabuse people of their belief in him. “There’s plenty of people that think that I’m genuinely psychic and just won’t admit to it,” he told me. He cited a moment after a show in which he announced that there was no such thing as spirit mediums and then went on to tell people impossibly specific details about their dead relatives, all the while assuring them that the whole thing was bullshit. “I went out to sign autographs at the stage door, and a girl said, ‘My grandmother died recently. Can you put me in touch with her?’ And I said, ‘Well, you realize what I was doing wasn’t real. I wasn’t actually doing it.’ And she said, ‘Oh, no, no, no, I know you’re not really doing it, but are you able to put me in touch with her?’ ”

Brown lives in a four-story town house in London, with his boyfriend of almost four years. He asked me not to identify the exact neighborhood, or his boyfriend’s name and occupation, because of stalkers. Early in Brown’s career, a woman became convinced that she was married to him and turned up one afternoon at his mother’s door to complain that he was an abusive husband. Not long before, Brown had come out to his mother. “It was a very confusing day for my mum,” he told me.

His house is decorated with leather club chairs, paintings, photographs, marble busts, magic memorabilia, bookshelves with secret doors built into them, and a large and lovingly curated collection of taxidermy. Brown has been a collector since he first started making money. (He’s at pains to stress that he buys only animals that died of natural causes.) He used to be a regular presence at auctions, becoming well known in taxidermy circles, though now he mostly fields e-mail inquiries from dealers. When I first walked in, a giraffe (from the neck up), a swan, and the mounted head of a unicorn seemed to give me the eye. A pair of stuffed dogs and a dog bed off to one side struck me as a nice touch, but then two dogs who were very much alive—Doodle, a beagle mix, and Humbug, a Tibetan terrier—ran in. A parrot flew into the room, past a taxidermied piglet with wings that was suspended from the ceiling, and alighted on Brown’s outstretched finger. This was evidently an everyday domestic scene, but the moment had a disorienting, shivery vibe that felt very Derren Brown. He told me, “I’ve always been interested in creating things that look and feel kind of real, and I love the idea of people not being quite sure how real what they’re seeing is.”

At home, Brown likes to relax by painting (he’s had a number of gallery shows) and cooking elaborate meals. On tour, he spends his days wandering with a Leica through whatever city he’s in, shooting street scenes, or in cafés writing. He published his first book for the conjuring community in 2000, and a second the next year. He has also published three books for the general public: a look at the quirks of human cognition; a memoir built around the card routines he performed in his pre-fame days; and “Happy: Why More or Less Everything Is Absolutely Fine,” a survey of Stoic philosophy and how it applies to the way we live now. By Brown’s reckoning, writing “Happy” helped him move through his own life with more equanimity, and many of the tenets of Stoicism—that we are disturbed not by what happens to us but by how we react to what happens, that we should let go of the things we can’t control—have found their way into his performances.

Brown is starting to plan a follow-up to “Happy,” which he thinks may focus on the tension between our relationships with other people and our need for self-realization. Whether listening to a partner vent frustrations or performing mentalism for a theatre full of strangers, the secret, he believes, is to take the focus off ourselves and make the moment about the other person or people. “Emerson made the comment ‘My giant goes with me wherever I go,’ ” Brown said. “I really love that image of this sort of big lumbering giant standing behind us. Not just because I have one myself but because everyone has one. And it is the things that we feel separate us, our own insecurities, that generally turn out to be the things that connect us, because they’re the very things that we share. Which is how a psychic can so easily sound like she knows about you, or an author can essentially be writing about himself, but it feels as if he’s writing about you.”

When I had dinner with Brown and his boyfriend at an outdoor table at their local Italian restaurant on a warm summer night, the conversation turned again to relationships and the consolation of philosophy. Brown told me that when a former partner broke up with him in 2014, after seven years together, he had been in the middle of writing “Happy” and was steeped in the Stoic mind-set, which seemed to cushion the blow. “The breakup was relatively amicable and light and easy,” Brown said. “And I remember feeling quite proud that I’d dealt with it all extremely well.” A few months later, though, when a guy he’d met on Tinder broke things off, Brown, as he put it, “totally went to pieces.”

For a long time, he remained puzzled by his reaction. “I fell apart over the little breakup that followed the big breakup, totally out of proportion to what it was—a decidedly un-Stoic response,” he said. “But I’ve thought about it since, and it makes sense. It’s the bit that takes you by surprise when you’ve dealt with this thing over here and put all your attention on that, and then something else sneaks in from the outside.” A thought seemed to occur to him, and he added, “Which is kind of what I spend my life doing.”

Early in his career, Brown would astonish members of his audience by telling them things about themselves that he couldn’t possibly have known. He did this with a technique called cold reading, much used by psychics and mediums. “They throw out statements about you, sometimes guesses based on what they observe about you,” he explained. “And sometimes based on probabilities, or sometimes just general statements that could apply to almost anybody.” The technique works because of so-called confirmation bias, our tendency to latch on to evidence that supports our beliefs while ignoring evidence that contradicts them. Brown no longer does cold reading and, in his shows, has ridiculed psychics and discredited their techniques. Despite having studied these techniques extensively, he mentioned to me that he had never gone to see a psychic himself. But when I told Brown, while we were in Southend, about a few I’d consulted over the years, he became curious. We searched online and settled on a clairvoyant named Chrissy Bee, who does readings and reiki healings out of her house.

Chrissy had a kind, maternal face and a head of tight brown curls, which, along with acid-washed mom jeans and a floral-print short-sleeved shirt, gave her the appearance of a seaside pensioner, though her bare feet and a pair of esoteric-looking amulets around her neck alluded to her profession. She smiled at Brown and said, “You must be Darren.”

“It’s Derren, actually,” Brown said. “With an ‘e.’ ”

The name seemed to mean nothing to Chrissy, who ushered us inside and asked us to take off our shoes so as not to track in any negative energy. After introducing us to her dog and showing us framed photos of its two predecessors, which, she told us, “are in spirit now,” she led Brown upstairs for his reading. Earlier, Brown and I had decided that it would seem peculiar for me to sit in on his reading, so I gave him a digital recorder and was left to wait in the living room with piped-in New Age music and the July issue of the magazine Fate & Fortune. Porcelain figurines, stuffed dolls, crystals, chalices, and talismans covered every surface.

On the recording of Brown’s session, Chrissy said that she wasn’t a fortune-teller—“They don’t exist”—and explained her method as being like a radio with bad reception: “I give you everything that I get, but it’s like a puzzle that we both put together between us.” After leading Brown through a guided meditation, she began her reading, which involved tarot cards, angel cards, chakra cards, and messages from the spirit world. She told Brown that she saw two past lives, one in which he was a warrior in ancient China and one, more recently, in which he was an artist. “You might not have been fully fulfilled as an artist,” she said. “But you was in France, and you was an amazing artist. And what they showed me was you had one of those cravat things on. So I don’t know what year it was, but it was very artistic, very Noël Coward-ish. Does that make sense?”

“Yeah, absolutely.”

“So I don’t know what you do for a living, but are you working with that creative energy this lifetime? Are you expressing it?”

“Yeah, I am.”

“Right. So that’s where they want you to go. So that’s that.”

A little later, she said, “Someone’s just touched me on the head, and I’ve got a gentleman here who’s trying to connect with you. He’s put a cross up as well, in blue. Is there anyone in spirit or on the earth plane, please, who is currently in your life that’s either to do with hospitals or doctors?”

“Um, my father.”

“Right, so this gentleman will be connected with your father on the other side. Does your dad not always express his feelings? Does he try and whitewash over things?”

“He’s not well at the moment.”

“Stiff upper lip sometimes, but he doesn’t always open up?”

“Yeah.”

“O.K., well, he needs to. Because he needs a lot of healing at the moment. Has there been any communication breakdowns around the family? If not with you lot, with him and his father?”

“No, I think it’s more that he’s not well, and he’s finding it depressing. It’s difficult. But he’s good at always putting a happy face on.”

“Yes, that’s it.”

Exploring a different tack, Chrissy said, “Right, you like nice things. So this is, like, artistic and everything, in your garden, so to speak. This could also represent beautifying the home, like moving, decorating, renovating. Are you doing anything like that? Are you thinking of doing anything like that? Or have you recently?”

“Thinking of moving, yes.”

“Oh, right, so that’s there as well. And it’s beauty, it’s beautifying.”

After the session was over, we chatted with Chrissy in her living room. She seemed taken with Brown and asked about his work, which he described as “sort of mind reading, but from a magician’s perspective.” When she found out that he was performing at the Cliffs Pavilion, she was thrilled, having last been there to see the late comedian Ken Dodd. “He’s in spirit now, isn’t he? Another one that’s gone,” she said. “So you’re just doing your magic, then? And it’s like subliminal hypnosis?”

“Yeah, it’s hypnosis and suggestion and mind reading and so on,” Brown explained. “But it’s definitely rooted in stuff that I could stop the video and point out, ‘See, I’m doing that, and I’m doing that.’ ”

Chrissy’s face fell for a moment, but she pressed on, asking, “So, obviously, you must be interested in the mystical side of things, mustn’t you?”

“I’m interested in how it sort of blurs into other things and other people’s take on it,” Brown said. “And sometimes you end up at a similar point.”

“The mind’s an amazing thing, really, isn’t it?” Chrissy said. “I personally believe that consciousness has got nothing to do with the mind. I mean, I’ve been out of my body three times. Unfortunately, I haven’t got control over it—it happened involuntary with me. But, with what you do, do you feel that the consciousness has nothing to do with the mind?”

“Oh, I think we get a little too caught up in the self being this,” Brown said, indicating his body. “And I think actually the self is something that naturally extends into our relationships with people and out into the physical world.”

Before we left, Chrissy asked Brown to pose for a picture with her, and then she said, “I’m so sorry I didn’t know who you are. But that’s good, really, I think, isn’t it? It allows me to be more myself, and that’s all I ever can be. I’m not really into telly.” She sighed. “To me, I’m in the world but not of the world, if that makes sense. To me, it’s all the mystical stuff that’s real.”

“That there are things more important than us,” Brown said, speaking in the soothing, measured tone he uses when putting someone into a hypnotic trance. Chrissy stood up and grasped Brown’s hand, her eyes glistening. “It’s the divine, isn’t it?” she said. “Everything comes from source, and everything goes back to source.”

As soon as we were outside, Brown started analyzing Chrissy’s reading. She hadn’t been specific enough to have employed so-called hot reading (using information secretly obtained beforehand). She certainly had been using cold reading, but he felt that she sincerely believed in her abilities. “She did refer to moving house and in the same breath ‘a lot of decoration, a lot of interior décor.’ So maybe she was picking up on a slightly gay vibe from me,” he said. “If I was not who I am and had not been a step back from it, I might have gone, ‘Fuck! Amazing!’ ”

He went on, “What role is she filling? On a basic level, we all like a bit of guidance and a bit of advice. But I think, more deeply, we all yearn for something that will kind of magically relieve our sense of isolation, and she’s giving a lot of what we sort of want from our loved one.”

A few days later, he was still thinking about Chrissy and her reading. “She had an aspiration for something beyond herself, which is wonderful, isn’t it?” he said. “We all have it. I have it. And my rational, sort of cosmopolitan version may give me a snooty feeling of superiority sometimes over somebody’s more suburban version, which is just very unpleasant of me. It’s easy to be amused by, or put in brackets, somebody’s attempts at transcendence that are different from our own, but we’re all trying to find that thing that’s bigger than ourselves. I really liked when she said, ‘I’m in this world but not of this world.’ It’s lovely. I felt really sort of warm toward her, and you could sort of imagine people going back and having a chat. Though a little bit of ectoplasm would have been appreciated.” ♦

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