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Mentalist duo walks fine line of 'extra-sensory deception'

A recent afternoon was windowpane-clear, the sun bright and direct. The environment could not have seemed less conducive for communing with the spirit world.

And yet, Jeff and Tessa Evason walked up and down a stretch of Annapolis waterfront known as Ego Alley, telling strangers intimate details of their lives that it was seemingly impossible for the couple to have known in advance.

The Evasons, who describe themselves on their website as "a mind-reading duo," wished a visibly startled Christine Mae Jones of Hebron a happy 47th birthday as she ate lunch with her husband at a sidewalk café.

"You're good, you're good," Raymond I. Jones said, shaking his head slightly in amazement.

The Evasons correctly guessed the number (83) that plumber Josh Bowen of Severn was envisioning in his head. They told a photographer the uncommon name (Tab) of the first boy she'd ever kissed. And they reproduced for another man the random doodle that he'd just drawn behind his back.

Afterward, Jeff Evason asked Bowen for his business card. "We never know when we'll need a good plumber," he said.

If the Annapolis-based couple can do all of this in the clear light of day — and still have enough energy left over to secure the services of a reliable repairman — who knows what they'll accomplish on one of the spookiest nights of the year? Their show, "The Evasons Read Haunted Minds," comes to the Creative Alliance the night before Halloween.

Jeff Evason, 54, and Tessa Evason, 51, are very good at what they do, though that is not necessarily reading minds.

The couple walks a fine line between both maintaining and denying that Tessa is gifted with telepathy, providing fodder both for those who believe in the paranormal and for those who recoil from such assertions. (Jeff, who has a background in television and radio, hosts the show but professes no extrasensory powers on his own behalf.)

"We make no claims," Jeff says. "Is what we're doing real or an illusion? You be the judge."

The couple says they use "extrasensory deception" to put on entertaining shows — whether they're performing on college campuses, cruise ships, at corporate events or in public halls such as the Creative Alliance.

"Tessa is not a fortuneteller," her husband says. "She never has claimed to be and never will be. Our alarm bells go off when we hear someone say they can read your future and will take money in return for telling you what's going to happen."

But as soon as Jeff or Tessa has drawn a line with admirably sharp edges, one or the other begins to smudge it.

Tessa says that about 90 percent of the couple's act involves a kind of sleight of mind based on psychology and intuition, in which the audience is subconsciously prompted to provide the responses desired by the mentalists. But the remaining 10 percent, she says, not even she entirely understands how she does what she does.

"I can't explain it all," she says. "Sometimes the impressions that come to me are so clear and strong that I can't contain them."

Statements such as that cause paranormal investigator Joe Nickell to scoff.

"I've been a magician myself, I've been a mentalist and I've gone undercover," says Nickell, a columnist for Skeptical Inquiry magazine. "In 40 years, I've never found anyone who I believe has psychic abilities.

"They're all playing games, and you're always at a disadvantage because the other person is setting up the rules. If people had these powers, it would be wonderful. We all wish they did."

And that brings up an interesting point. Which one of us has never had a flash of intuition on a matter large or small that has seemed to predict the future?

Some people driving on a crowded street have a gut hunch that they're about to find an open parking space. Others flip a coin, flash on to a mental image of "tails" and discover seconds later that they've guessed correctly. A select few hear a phone ring and know the caller's identity before picking up the receiver. Still others take an instinctive like or dislike to a stranger before even saying hello.

Rational explanations exist for all these mental leaps, from the laws of probability (the coin toss) to the role played by subconscious projections in selecting friends.

But does that make these "predictions" even a smidgen less extraordinary? Isn't it possible that a few people like Tessa Evason have developed a heightened capacity for jumping to uncannily accurate conclusions? If she arrives at the correct destination, does it really matter how she got there?

"We all emanate energy," she says, "and I get a strong sense of whether people are on the right paths in their lives."

Most people think of analysis and intuition as being contradictory, but that's not really true. Both are forms of learning. Both follow the same steps, though one or more of the stages of intuition may occur below the level of conscious awareness.

In the same way, a performer can trick the audience while still possessing genuine insight.

Intriguingly, Tessa — the daughter of a civil engineer and a nurse — once planned to follow the most fact-based of career paths.

"I have a scientific side to me," she says. "I once dreamed of becoming a doctor. I think now that what attracted me to the medical world was the healing aspect."

She says her first experience of her gift occurred shortly after the death of her emotionally restrained grandmother.

The stricken woman was struggling to get out words. "Tell the people, …" she said. "Tell the people…" But she died before she could complete the sentence.

A short time later, the 10-year-old popped out of her grandmother's rocking chair where she'd been dozing.

"Mama says to tell the people that she really did love them," Tessa says she told her astonished elders.

That experience, Tessa says, "really opened the door to me for receiving thoughts and impressions."

The couple met in 1983 when both were participating in a Toronto fashion show. (Though they live for most of the year on a 38-foot sailboat docked in Annapolis' harbor, they are Canadian citizens.)

At a post-show party, Tessa performed a trick in which she repeatedly predicted which of 10 tightly clasped hands held out in front of her was concealing a ring.

"I'm watching this and I'm thinking, 'I know a little about magic tricks, but I don't know how this was done,' " Jeff recalls. "When I talked to her afterward, she didn't know, either."

The couple has performed together ever since, though that doesn't mean that they always see eye to eye.

Jeff will say, for instance, that he's "not a believer in psychics."

Tessa, on the other hand, gives some of these anecdotes the benefit of the doubt.

"I'm more open to thinking psychic things can happen because I've experienced them myself," she says.

There they go again, scuffing the line they've just drawn between two deeply human and perhaps contradictory urges — to see with clear eyes while at the same time suspending our disbelief.

mary.mccauley@baltsun.com

Psst! Over here

It's against the code for current and former magicians to reveal how tricks are performed. Not even professional skeptics such as Scientific Inquiry magazine's Joe Nickell will break that rule. But a quick perusal of the Internet reveals a few tools of the trade:

Spoiler alert: If you're not concerned about ruining the surprise, feel free to scan the list below, though bear in mind that there are at least half a dozen ways to perform the same trick.

If, on the other hand, you cherish your illusions, you've been warned.

See-through blindfolds: Some blindfolds come with two "settings" — transparent and opaque. As a general rule, the harder performers work to demonstrate to the audience that they can't see, the more likely it is they can.

Transparent clipboards: There's a reason that mentalists have their subjects write down the details they're concentrating on before they magically envision the answer. Some clipboards look ordinary but retain a magnetic trace of whatever was just written upon them.

Verbal codes: Let's say the mentalist is on stage and his assistant is in the audience, holding the clipboard on which the subject has just written down a phone number. The pair will have worked out a system of verbal cues in advance. So for instance, if the assistant says "OK," that might stand for the number 4; but if instead he says, "All right," that could stand for the number 7. And so on.

Body language: Hide a coin in your hand and hold both arms out in front of you. The mentalist correctly guesses 20 times in a row which hand is holding the hidden coin. That's because the subject's nose tilts almost imperceptibly toward the hand protecting the money.

mary.mccauley@baltsun.com

If you go

The Evasons will perform at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday at the Creative Alliance, 3134 Eastern Ave., Highlandtown. Tickets cost $20 for members and $25 for the general public. Call 410-276-1651 or go to creativealliance.org.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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