Houdini leans to rise from the sofa on which he has been reclining and, in rising, receives a succession of punches to the lower abdomen. Although the magician endured a similar blow before a small crowd days before, it is backstage in the dressing room at the Princess Theatre that the story of his death often begins. Here, Houdini has been talking with one young man while another uses pen and paper in an attempt to capture his likeness. The magician says he can predict the outcome of any detective story given a few excerpts from the book, and the soon-to-be assailant pulls a mystery from his bag to test this claim. After a few selections are read, Houdini recounts the rest. Then, the young man, Mr. J. Gordon Whitehead, asks Houdini if he might demonstrate the incredible strength of his “iron stomach,” and the magician, tired and enduring what may be a case of appendicitis, tries to direct attention to his equally impressive back and forearm muscles, against which he invites the 28-year-old theology student to lay a hand.
Escape relies on a rejection of pain and fear, Houdini had said three days earlier in a lecture at McGill University To demonstrate, he stuck a needle through his cheek without drawing blood. He added that the imagination inflates suffering; if we could really see, we’d see through so-called miracles. These sorts of claims had gotten him in trouble with the Spiritualists, who believed the living could communicate with the dead through mediums. Houdini considered Spiritualism a manipulation of those who mourned the departed. Although he had devoted more than 30 years of his life to exposing fraudulent mediums, he continued to hold out hope that some communication might be made with his dead mother. He created secret code words, shared with at least 20 individuals; whoever died first would send the message back to him, thereby bridging the inexplicable terrain between life and death and providing proof of the hereafter.
The punches Houdini took to the abdomen backstage on Oct. 22, 1926, would later be considered murder. Or maybe it was the “experimental serum” administered by the doctor in Detroit days later that killed him. Houdini didn’t know. And neither of his biographers has been able to determine the exact cause of his death. Several Spiritualists wanted him dead and had sent him letters to this effect, though mediums often attributed these predictions or threats to a spirit. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, a Spiritualist and former friend of Houdini, claimed to hear his spirit guide say, “Houdini is doomed, doomed!”
Spiritualism is a movement, a philosophy, a religion and a science of continuous life that started in 1848, in Hydesville, N.Y., where sisters Kate and Maggie Fox had devised ways to scare their mother by threading a string through an apple, directing it down the stairs and claiming the noises were those ofa ghost in the dark. They started making sounds by cracking their toes, knees and ankles, and they answered these “calls from beyond” by rapping their knuckles on a table: “Mr. Split-foot, do as I do.” Soon their mother, who believed her daughters, was inviting the neighbors over to bear witness to these occurrences. Their older sister, Leah, returned from Rochester then to form a local “society ofspiritualists,” which she gathered at the house. This is how the Fox sisters came to be called the first modern mediums.
Scientist William Crookes, following an investigation of Kate’s abilities, later said of Ms. Fox:
It seems only necessary for her to place her hand on any substance loud thuds to be heard___ I have heard them in a living tree – on a she of glass – on a stretched iron wire – on a stretched membrane – a tambourine – on the roof of a cab – and on the floor of a theatre. Moreover, actual contact is not always necessary; I have heard these sounds proceeding from the floor, walls, etc., when the medium’s hands and feet were held – when she was standing on a chair – when she was suspended in swing from the ceiling – when she was enclosed in a wire cage – and when she had fallen fainting on a sofa. I have heard them on a glass harmonicon – I have felt them on my own shoulder and under my own hands. I have heard them on a sheet of paper, held between the fingers by a piece of thread passed through one corner.
Such was Kate s desire to believe in her own manifestations that, her sister Maggie later wrote, in a confession published in the Sunday edition of the New York World, Oct. 21, 1888: ‘‘[S]he told me she received messages from spirits. She knew that we were tricking people, but she tried to make us believe. She told us before we were born, spirits came into her room. …” To leave nothing to the imagination, Maggie took the stage at New York’s Academy of Music later that night, slipped her foot out of her right shoe, placed it on a wooden stool for all to witness the cause of the sound and began to rap without, apparently, moving her foot. Of the performance, one woman, now persuaded of the sisters’ 40-year ruse, wrote in from San Francisco: “I know that the pursuit of this shadowy belief has wrought upon my brain and that I am no longer my old self.”
Houdini hangs head first over a crowd in Times Square. With his neck and shoulders curled forward in the straitjacket about his torso, he looks like a hook rising only to be cast again. Houdini relaxes. The crane stops. Houdini thrashes—and after a few seconds, he folds the canvas from his core, dangles it from his right arm. The camera frames only the sky and his form. Rewind the film, and he has fettered himself again—the restraint an extension, the body a stage. Because the jacket dangles, divested of its power, and because the body arches against a cloudless sky, we may assume that those who gaze upon him from beneath the lower frame have sounded their applause and are, perhaps, reaching, though such evidence has not been preserved. Houdini knows the body, knows it’s not an instrument for the voice from beyond and could never hold the message for which he waits. Every voice needs a body that beds a pain, troubles a mind, but surely any attempt to embody the ineffable would overwhelm that through which it passes. Here is Houdini lifted like some newborn exposed to gravity and distance, the body alone.
In my favorite picture of her, my mother wears a strapless black lace ball gown. She is at a round table, looking down at her fingertips playing at the edges ofa wine glass. She seems to be in the middle ofa story as men on either side lean toward her like legs ofan isosceles triangle. The glass of white wine stands tall before her hands, which linger, dripping long fingers with large knuckles. These hands angle daintily toward the rim of the glass. I remember how she used to make the glasses whirr. She passed her index finger quickly along the surface ofthe wine and then circled the lip of the glass again and again until a magnificent sound came on slowly as if always there, then expanded like a gas filling every corner ofthe room. She would wink and look the other way when the notes had reached their peak and people at other tables hushed to search the room for an origin.
The voice is intimate: We each experience our own voice through air and tissue conduction; that is, we both hear our voices and feel the vibration of the sound we emit. This is what I am thinking about as I sit on a red couch in the waiting room at the University of Iowa’s Wendell Johnson Speech and Hearing Center. In the opposite corner of the room, a mummified child sits in a blue plastic chair. The plaque above the figure indicates that it is the result of a project completed by children with hearing complications. The figure’s torso and head are extremely reclined, and it has no eyes though it holds a mummified book open in its lap.
I have come here to explore the second largest anechoic chamber in the United States, built in 1967. A blonde-haired woman appears and leads me down two flights of stairs, down to the basement. The stairs end at a thick, heavy door, which she pulls open by wrapping her hands around the handle and throwing her body back. Inside, a plank rests on a wire trapeze, which bisects the cube room. The ground is the same distance below our feet as the ceiling is above us. The walls, floor and ceiling are covered in fiberglass wedges designed to absorb sound.
“Hear that?” she asks.
“No, what is it?”
“The whirring of that light above us is so loud. Let me turn it off. Don’t worry. I won’t shut you in here. It would be too disorienting.”
In an anechoic chamber, the only sound that exists is the sound that derives from a source. In other words, a sound that cannot be accounted for may be an illusion triggered by the brain; this is an environment in which one may discover how the body leads itself astray. The first anechoic chamber in the United States was built in 1940 at Bell Labs, in Murray Hill, N.J., and was once cited by Guinness World Records as the “world’s quietest room.” I turn away from the door as the woman goes out to extinguish the light. In the dark, my ears strain to grasp something, but the only thing I hear is a sort of static that I imagine could be confused with the workings of the ear itself. I pronounce an “h” as if too exhausted to complete the mundane English salutation. It seems to follow as far as my breath endures on exhale.
We are strangers to our own voices. Psychiatrist D. Ewen Cameron knew this. In 1953, he claimed that one way to get a defensive, or psychologically blocked, patient to confront his own psychological problem was to record his voice and play it back. But not just once. Cameron devised an experiment in which patients remained in an isolated room for days—in some cases, weeks—listening to their own voices repeat for 16 hours a day through a microphone planted in a pillow.
In these experiments, negative expressions made by the subject in an initial interview, which included an exploration of the psychological problem, were played over and over in an attempt to break the subject down. Cameron called this technique “psychic driving” and claimed it would break through the patient’s defenses, draw out inaccessible material and set up a dynamic implant, which could later facilitate access to previously inaccessible material. Occasionally, he paired the driving with treatments of electroshock therapy. Occasionally, he paired it with LSD. As his experiments progressed, Cameron wondered: Would it be possible to wipe a person clean and begin again?
In a 1956 scientific article entitled “Psychic Driving,” Cameron recounts a success story. The problem: a 50-year-old woman suffering from feelings of “inadequacy and profound ambivalence toward her husband.” Cameron claims that as a result of his experiment, the woman realized her mother was at fault:
The following statement was driven some 15 or 20 times: “That’s what I can’t understand—that one could strike at a little child. “ The patient has reference here to the fact that her mother used to take out all her own frustrations and disappointments and antagonisms on the patient during her early childhood—even going so far, when the patient was 7, as to tell her, “I tried to abort you, too, but you just wouldn’t abort.”
Listening to her own voice in distress, the patient later said, “I can see that it was really my mother who damaged me. … It gives me one of those ‘all gone’ feelings.”1
Cameron’s experiments in psychic driving were part of the CIA’s Project MKULTRA, which began in 1950. The goal was the control of the human mind against such fundamental laws of nature as self-preservation. Project MKULTRA was a 25-year, $25-million exploration in response to the strange confessions being produced by American prisoners ofwar in Korea. The CIA was convinced that the Soviets had come up with a new, powerful brainwashing technique. Further alarm arose with the arrest of two Soviet agents in Germany. The agents were said to be armed with identical plastic cylinders containing hypodermic needles, the contents of which would cause a victim to become amenable to the will of his captor. In addition to Cameron’s psychic driving, Project MKULTRA’s experiments studied the effects of sensory deprivation, radiation, LSD, Thorazine, Sernyl, mescaline, hypnosis, magic and a variety of sexual positions test-run in brothels as agents watched.
In 1951, Cameron’s McGill University colleague, psychologist D.O. Hebb, conducted experiments on student volunteers to explore the effect of a lack of external stimuli on the human brain. These experiments were devised to limit the subject’s ability to perceive his or her environment. The subject would lie on a bed in a partially soundproof room within a room. He or she lay for hours, days, in the darkness beneath the hum of the air conditioner—hands and forearms fitted with cotton gloves and cylindrical cardboard cuffs to limit tactile sensation; eyes covered by translucent goggles, which allowed only a hazy light, to prevent patterned vision; and head placed in a U-shaped foam-rubber pillow. If at any point the subject felt he could not go on, he could press a panic button.
Although Hebb preferred to use the term “perceptual isolation,” many people still apply the term “sensory deprivation” to the methods used in his early experiments. Both terms are misleading. While it is possible to deprive the eyes of light, the same cannot be done with hearing. Although a subject may be placed in an entirely soundproof room, there is still the matter of the circulatory system. The subject hears blood coursing through the vessels near the ear, listens to the breath rushing through the chest, notices the rumblings of the stomach. There are heart noises, breathing noises, sounds made by the middle-ear muscles. In some cases, they are mistaken for auditory hallucinations, which the subject recognizes as “dripping water,” “typewriter,” “howling dog.”
Most subjects in Hebb’s experiments indicated that, as the test wore on, they came to believe that the experimenter had deserted them, though that was never the case. Some subjects reported that they felt as if another body was lying beside them in the cubicle, but that was never the case. One subject drew a picture to show how he felt at one point and said it was as if there were two of him and he was momentarily unable to decide whether he was A or B.
Before leaving the house where my mother died, I went looking for her. There was a stillness in her room that could have been mistaken for order. I searched through the hangers to which her blouses and jackets clung tenuously by pale buttons, through the yellow legal pads on which she kept her days’ lists. I searched as if she, like a paper doll, had been cut from the background of the world and could be found in the space left behind.” I am willing to believe,” said Houdini when asked about Spiritualism, “but of all I have seen, I have never found anything that couldn’t be explained by human effort. My mind is open. I am a human being, and I have loved ones on the other side. I would like to get in touch with them if it were possible.”
After an initial period of sleep in the chamber, Hebb’s subjects would lapse into daydreaming. Although some had planned to spend the time thinking over some mathematical problem, they quickly found they could not maintain concentration. Their thoughts wandered to the past. They imagined traveling from one land to the next, envisioning each step.
One subject made up a game of listing, according to the alphabet, chemical reactions and the scientists who had discovered them. At the letter “n,” he was unable to think of an example. He tried to skip “n” and go on, but “n” kept coming back. “N” demanded an answer. He tried to dismiss the game altogether but could not. He endured the game for a short time. And finding that he was unable to control it, he pushed the panic button.
The experiments associated with MKULTRA were explored as methods of truth-seeking. In an attempt to explain things people had a hard time explaining, the CIA even decided to hire a magician. They found a professional New York magician and asked him to write a “Magic Manual” for $3,000. They wanted to know how to “perform a variety of acts secretly and indetectably.” They wanted to know how to read minds and transmit thoughts, possibly across long distances like oceans. They wanted many other things as well:
They wanted to know if rubber could be produced from mushrooms.
They wanted to know if water witching could locate an enemy submarine.
They wanted to know how to achieve the controlled production of headaches and earaches; twitches, jerks and staggers. They wanted to know how to induce amnesia.
They wanted to know how to reduce a man to a bewildered, self-doubting mass.
And they wanted to know how to direct him in ways that might lead to the construction of a new person.
Of his colleague at McGill University, Hebb said:
Cameron was irresponsible—criminally stupid—in that there was no reason to expect that he would get any results from the experiments. Anyone with any appreciation of the complexity of the human mind would not expect that you could erase an adult mind and then add things back with this stupid psychic driving. … He was the victim of his own kind of brainwashing—he wanted something so much that he was blinded by the evidence in front of his eyes.
“[W]e see man governed by instinctive drives and by long-buried, long-forgotten memories,” Cameron said in a 1962 speech given during McGill University’s Reunion Weekend Seminar on The Mind of Man. He continued:
Logic and reason are held in admiration, but an extraordinary amount of thinking is non-logical. ... [W]e recognize that the mind of man sometimes accords meanings destructive of his well-being and even imperiling his ultimate survival.
Hebb later admitted that his own experiments in perceptual isolation were used to explore the effects of brainwashing. In 1961, at Harvard’s Symposium on Sensory Deprivation, years after he had completed his experiments, Hebb explained:
The work that we have done at McGill University began, actually, with the problem of brainwashing. We were not permitted to say so in the first publishing. What we did say, however, was true. … ‘Brainwashing’ was a term that came a little later.
There is a form of soft torture used in the early stages of brainwashing. The effects—in extreme cases, a breakdown of the subject’s sense of self—are seldom discussed. You are the prisoner of war, and the guard hands you a blank sheet of paper. He says, “Write out your autobiography in as much detail as possible.” You write for hours, days. You hand over the record. He thanks you, may commend your attention to detail. He hands you another sheet of paper. “Write out your autobiography.” There appears to be no end.
“Anechoic” literally means “without echo.” The anechoic chamber at Harvard University was supposedly the source of inspiration for John Cage’s 1952 classic, “4’33.” In 1951, he entered the room, expecting to hear silence. Instead, he claimed to have heard two sounds, one high and one low. The engineer in charge informed Cage that the high sound was his nervous system and the low one was his blood. “What we require is silence,” Cage had said in his 1950 “Lecture on Nothing,” before his visit to the chamber. “What silence requires is that I go on talking.”
Houdini escaped from chains; cuffs; cuffs with 13 Bramah locks; Bean Giant cuffs; French letter cuffs; Rohan’s cuffs; Krupp’s cuffs (“I was in that cuff half of an hour, and it seemed like an eternity”); a Black Maria en route to a prison in Siberia; a galloping horse; a sea monster; a crazy crib; a giant football; a U.S. mailbag; a fragile paper bag; a wet sheet; a lit cannon; a leather belt; a packing case; a rotating wheel; a rolltop desk; the Water Torture Cell; a hot-water boiler; a water mill; a glass box; a “ghost box”; the “Metamorphosis box”; the “Milk Can”; milk churns; the Mirror cuffs; an “invincible bracelet”; irons; leg irons; “bridge jumpers”; iron boilers; an iron-ringed wicker basket; manacles; shackles; straitjackets; sailcloth sacks; safes; cells in Brooklyn, Buffalo, Cleveland, Detroit, Missouri and Rochester; cell no. 3 in D.C.; cell no. 2 on Murderer’s Row; trunks; locked trunks; roped trunks; snow tires; Boston tombs; diving suits; and a coffin with screwed-down lid. He remains in the coffin originally fashioned for a performance from which, now, he is forever expected to emerge.
In Iowa, after inching onto the wire trapeze, across to the middle of the chamber, I ask my guide whether the engineer was accurate in his explanation of the two sounds as the nervous system and circulatory system. She looks me squarely in the eyes and replies, “I don’t know about silence. I don’t work with silence.”
In the neurology of the 1930s and 40s, certain areas of the human cortex were called “silent.” In his 1941 book, “Epilepsy and Cerebral Localization,” neurologist Wilder Penfìeld writes that these areas ofthe cortex “are called silent only because it is found that their destruction produces no detectable interference with mental or psychical function. This is due to the replaceability of those areas. …” In the darkness of the anechoic chamber, I knew it might be wrong to infuse the approximation of silence with meaning or hope, to find comfort in an environment that prides itself on the purity of experience, but I found comfort in thinking that here was a place where each sound was, at least theoretically, ensured of an origin.
I woke at 4 a.m. and tiptoed downstairs to find her bed empty. The covers were thrown back, and I noticed that the indentation of her body in the mattress had grown smaller. I pushed open the swinging door to the small adjoining kitchen until it bumped against something on the other side. I pushed the object forward using the weight of the door and stuck my head through the opening to find her sitting on the floor, surrounded by shards of glass, which caught the moonlight from the window and dazzled her sunken outline. She looked up at me, smiling, and said, “Sorry to wake you. I was just getting a drink of water, and the glass slipped from my hands.” As she spoke, she held her hands up, and we watched as they twitched in the air, beholden to no one.