Deceptive Practices

My son needed a big U-turn in his life and though I looked for some sign of fear in his eyes, I saw only a kind of wonder

I was killing time in S.F. and went to see the documentary “Deceptive Practice: The Mysteries and Mentors of Ricky Jay.” This is not an insult; killing time is one of my favorite things to do, and when I feel the need to drink or drug, to escape in the ways I once felt so comfortable indulging, I often go to the movies. It worked when I was a kid, and is still one of my favorite forms of escape. I don’t get people who don’t go to the movies.

Mr. Jay — illusionist, con man, card sharp extraordinaire — is an expert in escapism. Not the Houdini sort — the man only handles cards (his “52 assistants”) — but the human need for escape. It’s why people let themselves get conned but also why we long for the trick. “Pull the other one,” we say, children at a magic show. The documentary (directed by Molly Bernstein and Alan Edelstein) was inspired by Mark Singer’s classic New Yorker profile of the sleight-of-hand artist, “Secrets of the Magus,” published in 1993. It was Singer who captured Jay’s great charm and mission. “He has a particular aversion to the ‘magic lumpen,’” he wrote, “hoi polloi who congregate in magic clubs and at conventions, where they unabashedly seek to expropriate each other’s secrets, meanwhile failing to grasp the critical distinction between doing tricks and creating a sense of wonder.”

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I was thinking about this as I drove with my brother down to Santa Barbara last weekend to see my son, who is in rehab for drug and alcohol abuse. We all have problems, but it’s safe to say my son has more than his share, as if trouble was some pie we were all supposed to split equally. He had been engaging in some deceptive practices himself and went reluctantly at first (see “The Undeparted”) but, 45 days later, he seems to be down for the count. Since I had found this place via Google, I wanted to see “the ranch” and him with my own eyes, to make sure I hadn’t landed him in some cult. I was not disappointed.

All the young men there introduced themselves and shook our hands. They were clean-shaven and their hair was short (my son had requested an electric razor) and it reminded my brother of boot camp, right down to the beds made military-style, with hospital corners. My son showed me around with great pride and, as he spoke of the work he was doing — ranch work, volunteer service and a lot of group meetings — I was reminded of his desire for change. He needed a big U-turn in his life and though I looked for some sign of fear or desperation in his eyes, I saw only a kind of wonder — the wonder you get at having been given a second chance.

One of the most memorable stories in “Deceptive Practice” comes from journalist Suzie Mackenzie, who profiled Jay for The Guardian years ago. She found him cantankerous and irascible, unhappy with a BBC documentary that was in the works and somewhat uncooperative with her. Spontaneously (it seemed), he invited her to lunch, took her to remote diner and then, in the bright sunshine, amidst the lunchtime masses, produced a block of ice from behind his menu. His smile exuded only delight and the memory still makes her cry. “It was a supreme piece of artistry that I witnessed,” she recalls, “and it was done for me.”

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I had a second, seeing my son, when I thought: What if this is all some massive con? A grand illusion structured and performed to fool me into thinking he was turning his life around: maybe he was doing it for me! Foolish Dad. For the real magic was that he was doing it for himself. You can’t trick people there.

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