The Radical Center
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The Radical Center

Reminiscing About James Randi

James Randi, born was in Canada in 1928, became famous due to his work as a magician and escape artist, but became “infamous” by debuking frauds, con artists, and charlatans. No psychic, faith healer, or astrologer was safe when Randi was around. Randi died yesterday, age 92, survived by his husband Deyvi Peña.

His death is no surprise given his age. I first read of his work in the 80s and while living in Connecticut drove down to the coast to attend a small meeting of the local skeptics where Randi would be giving a talk. He had retired from doing professional magic but was lecturing to various skeptic groups. He did some tricks and we briefly chatted. He was a kind man and always entertaining.

I moved to San Francisco in the mid 80s, something I discuss in the highly fictionalized novel City Limits, which was a comedic look at the ex-gay movement and faith healing in general. I was trying to figure out how to intertwine the various stories of all my characters by one incident in a Dickensian way. Randi and individuals from the Bay Area Skeptics helped provide the incident I would use.

Peter Popoff was a “faith healer” who would slither into town, relieve people of vast sums of money, and proclaim a trail of miracles following him wherever he went. It was quite impressive. Popoff would call out a name and shocked individuals would leap out of their sets. Popoff would seemingly hear voices from the air telling him information about these people which he would recount to them. They would get happy-clappy, dance around a bit, maybe babble incoherently in tongues as they knew the magic was about to be delivered and they would find the healing they sought. I did notice the one thing never healed was stupidity. If anything it got worse.

The local head Bay Area Skeptics was Bob Steiner, a friend of mine and a fellow libertarian. The Skeptics would sometimes hold meetings at my bookstore and we’d cram 50 or 60 people into the bookstore on Market Street for the lecture. I even gave one presentation to the group on the Great Satanic Panic.

Randi, Steiner and local Skeptics concocted a plan. First they observed Popoff in action and noticed his wife circulating before the service “chatting” with people and getting them to fill out “prayer cards,” the very people God revealed to Popoff later. Second, they noticed Popoff had an ear piece. They hid a scanner in the building and found the frequency and recorded Mrs. Popoff giving hubby the information she collected from people who didn’t know who she was.

They concocted a plan where a local BAS member dressed in drag and went to the service hanging out in front desperately seeking healing. She claimed to have cancer of the uterus, a miracle in itself as the man lacked a uterus. Popoff called her forward and healed her on national television, never knowing he just healed a man in drag. All this Randi later exposed on the Johnny Carson show. That incident was what I used to set in motion the climax of my novel.

I eventually traveled the world and finally settled down, more or less in Southern California, where I came to know another prominent skeptic Michael Shermer, who like Bob Steiner, shared a lot of my political views. I lost track of Bob briefly and then spoke to my ex who was helping manage Playland-Not-At-The-Beach. Bob would periodically perform magic acts for people there. And that is how I learned he was having problems with dementia and appeared to be homeless.

I got in touch with a friend of Bob’s, Lance Snead, and learned Bob was missing. He had apparently been held prisoner in a scam “elderly care facility” where the patients were handcuffed in their beds in overcrowded rooms and their social security checks were cashed by the owners. Lance and I both filed complaints with the police, who seemed totally unconcerned. I called state agencies and did all I could to raise a ruckus. When Lance had raised questions about Bob he disappeared from this “facility” entirely. He was chucked out on the streets to avoid investigation.

Eventually we managed to get police to look for Bob and he was located in a cheap motel almost starved to death. He was rushed to hospital and put in intensive care for about 10 days as they nursed him back to health, but his dementia remained a problem. I let Randi know what was happening. I wrote him: “At this time his feet are very swollen and he spends a lot of time sleeping due, no doubt, to the medication. Bob is indigent and and covered by Medi-cal. He lost everything during his dementia and no one knows how, not even Bob. While that covers the cost of being there it doesn’t cover personal expenses. Lance said Bob was walking around in his underwear because he had no pajamas. I have gone out today and purchased pajamas and slippers and we will ship them to Bob tomorrow.”

In my next message to Randi I let him know:

Bob was moved from the hospital to a care facility. Several of his friends have visited him there. One of them knows a staff member there. Bob has put on some weight and they said he was looking good.

He seemed to have no idea where he was and thought they were all at a convention of the Society of American Magicians. They said he seemed happy. He walked with them to the elevator but was moving very slowly. He wanted to leave with them but the staff was there to gently take him back to his room. This seems like a proper care facility.

We are discussing some ways to raise some funds to have to get Bob things like haircuts, TV, and incidental expenses, as well as prepare for final arrangements for him when the time comes.

It’s a huge change from just a couple of weeks ago. He is safe, eating and has round-the-clock care now.

Lance and I thought we needed to set up an account for Bob whose fund would be under control of two friends so that we could cover expenses for Bob as simple as a pair of slippers. The idea was to reprint Bob’s book Don’t Get Taken in a limited edition numbered and signed by Randi. I asked Randi to write the foreword “about the book and about Bob as a person,” with the idea of having Michael Shermer write a preface. Randi and Shermer would each sign the books and we’d sell the print run of 100 copies to raise funds that could be used for Bob’s personal expenses.

Meanwhile I spoke to a friend in the area and with her help we found a care facility that was decent and would take Bob in and arranged to have him moved there when released from hospital. Randi wrote back immediately, “I certainly will write the foreword, and sign the books. At this time I have very serious financial obligations and I’m unable to assist the project that way, I’m sorry to say…”

I told him I understood, in fact I understood far more than he knew as I had read a lot of legal documents regarding the case that ravished Randi’s bank account.

It was 1986 when Rand moved to Florida he met Venezuelan artist José Alvarez. Alvarez had fled anti-gay persecution in Venezuela and feared going back, so he took his name from a deceased person in the United States in order to stay in America. He and Randi were involved in a relationship and in 1987 Randi became an American citizen. What wasn’t known was the real Alvarez had not died as assumed and was having trouble getting a passport as it was deemed his second passport. The man Randi knew as José was actually Deyvi Orangel Peña Arteaga. Peña became a successful artist but at the time this was discovered he and Randi used their resources to fight to stay together.

Peña was on trial in 2012 and Judge Daniel Hurley said he was ready to sentence Peña to prison. But in the end he said the multiple witnesses who spoke of Peña as a decent man who feared persecution and was in a committed relationship with Randi changed his mind. Peña was given home arrest for six months and probation for three years.

So, at the time Bob was dying, Randi was still embroiled in this legal tangle and he and Peña were only able to marry in 2012 and remained together until Randi’s death on October 20th.

When Randi said he was financially unable to help Bob directly I assured him I understood. I didn’t tell him I knew about what was going in a Florida courtroom. I sympathized with him and Peña and thought the case exhibited the problem with over-restrictive immigration laws.

But before the three of us could move ahead with the project I got the news that Bob had died in the care facility. I let Randi and Shermer both know and we canceled the fund raiser.

Randi’s basic view of the world is that he wants to know as much truth and he can and doesn’t want anything to interfere with his mind and his ability to perceived reality. That too is my core value. I admired him before I met him and suspect I will until I too pass away. I appreciate what he did and wish there were 100 more just like him.



A blog for the Moorfield Storey Institute: a liberaltarian think tank.

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James Peron

James Peron is the president of the Moorfield Storey Institute, was the founding editor of Esteem a LGBT publication in South Africa under apartheid.