No joke, comedy hypnotist blows skeptic's mind

Published August 6, 2005

You could call me something of a skeptic when it comes to "mind readers" and hypnotists. Even though I've been awakened by someone staring at me, I think it has more to do with sound than with telepathy. (I'm so sound sensitive that if someone is in the room when I'm trying to sleep, I wear earplugs, because the sound of their breathing - not snoring, just breathing - wakes me up.)

So when I set up an interview with comedy hypnotist/mentalist Ken Whitener, I asked if he would mind demonstrating his act, rather than just telling me about it. I wasn't out to discredit Whitener; my job is to do the story and let things happen as they happen. I just wanted to see him in action.

We met Monday morning at the Palace Grand, where Whitener will do his show on Friday. Since no one else was handy to be the subject, I volunteered.

It was a strange and disquieting experience, but fun in a spooky way.

I had never been hypnotized by a professional and induced to do things I didn't intend to do, though I have gone into root beer and popcorn-induced stupors in front of the TV lots of times, which Whitener says is a form of self-hypnosis. Frankly, I've always thought that no one could put me into a state of hypnosis from a wide-awake condition sans the root beer and popcorn.

As photographer Brendan Fitterer set up his equipment, Whitener said he'd give me a sample of the mentalist part of his act. According to Webster's New World Dictionary, a mentalist is "a person who professes to read minds or tell fortunes." Okay, so read my mind.

Whitener handed me a book, asked me how many pages it had (280) and asked me to open it at random and pick out a word with several letters in it and not say or write the word anywhere.

I glanced at several pages and noted that they weren't all alike (that would have been too easy to spot) and thumbed past the page where the book seemed to fall open naturally. I noted the page number (153) and looked for a likely word.

Near the top was "newspaper," which seemed too obvious to me, so I decided to choose it just to be perverse. Then I spied the word "receptionist" near the bottom, and as I slammed the book closed, decided that would be my word.

I was careful not to move my lips or let my eyes rest on my chosen word.

Whitener looked me in the eye for a moment and said, "The second letter is "e.' But the first letter is bouncing around between two different words, so tell me the first letter." I told him "r," pretty sure that there were at least a couple of other words on the page that started "re," though I couldn't swear to this part.

"The third letter is "c,' isn't it?" he asked. Yeeesss, that's right. He began scribbling and in a moment held up a card with "receptionist" written on it.

My jaw dropped. "Lemme outta here," I half-joked, truly startled, as Brendan chuckled.

I know there is some kind of technique, some artifice, some contrivance that allowed Whitener to do this, and for the last four days, I've tried to figure it out and flat out can't. Even if he memorized the whole book, page by page, and could see the number of the page I was looking at, how did he know which word I picked out of the hundreds on the page? (Dear readers, please don't write and tell me the secret; I really don't want to know because not knowing is the fun.)

Later, Whitener casually said, "By the way, your second choice was "newspaper.' " Hmmmm.

Meanwhile, he began a soft, relaxing patter about being drowsy, and though I went along - after all, I needed this experience for my story - I was determined that I wasn't going to do whatever he told me to do.

All he asked me to do was hold my writing pen between my thumb and forefinger and not drop it. More patter, and, as his voice went lower, he told me to drop the pen on the count of four.

"No way," I clearly thought. "Then pen stays right between that finger and that thumb."

Then, Whitener said "four," and - I don't know why or how - the pen dropped. And Brendan laughed out loud.

Moments later, Whitener led me out of the trancelike state, and I was as wide awake as I am when my cat suddenly yowls and jumps on my stomach at 2 a.m.

Whitener said some subjects remember everything they did, heard and saw during hypnosis and others don't remember a single thing. I'm a rememberer, but I don't remember why I couldn't control my hand.

As for mind reading, I haven't suddenly become a true believer. But I do believe that Whitener is one extraordinarily gifted and entertaining fellow.

Tickets to the Friday show are $15, plus a two drink/appetizer minimum. Call 863-7949 in west Pasco or toll-free at 1-888-655-7469 elsewhere.