Jonah Lehrer’s Teller Deception

The duo of skeptical libertarian magicians.

Tuesday night, I showed a printed excerpt from Jonah Lehrer’s bestselling book, Imagine: How Creativity Works, to Teller, the quieter half of the magic duo Penn and Teller. Teller read what was allegedly a statement he made about a previous point in his career: “I was definitely on the verge of giving up the dream of becoming a magician,” Lehrer quoted Teller. “I was ready to go back home and become a high-school Latin teacher.”

I began to ask Teller if he had really said that, but before I could finish, he interrupted with a quick and decisive, “No.”

It was too bad. I really liked that book.

Days earlier, Reason contributing editor Michael Moynihan had exposed Lehrer for fabricating Bob Dylan quotes. When I read about it, I was shocked by Lehrer’s audacity, not just in matters of journalistic integrity, but also in self-preservation. Dylan is still alive, after all. I thought, “Couldn’t someone verify the legitimacy of a living person’s quote just by asking them if they really said it?” I had no idea that I would soon be answering this question.

In Imagine, Lehrer tells a story about how Penn Jillette and Teller developed their version of the ancient “cups and balls” trick. The trick was traditionally performed with opaque cups that covered small balls. The magician would use sleight of hand to sneak the balls in and out, so that when they were uncovered, the balls would appear to have vanished or magically transported. Penn and Teller discovered that the trick became even more fascinating when they used clear cups and described every step of the trick as they performed it. Audiences found the illusion of magic persists even though they know the secret.

Lehrer’s version of the story starts with a bleak scene that allegedly took place in 1981, six years into Penn and Teller’s professional magic partnership. He wrote, “Their costumes were embarrassing, getups of black tights, purple velour capes, fake leather vests, and belts made of rope. They were frustrated and fed up, tired of life on the road.” Then the unhappy magicians who were on the verge of quitting created the cups and balls trick that launched them into stardom.

Lehrer’s account makes for a great story, but even at a glance, it raises some questions. Why would Teller say he had considered giving up on his dream of becoming a magician in 1981? At that point, he had already been a professional magician with Jillette for six years. And why would Teller have said that he was ready to “become a high-school Latin teacher,” without indicating that he had been one before? (If Michael Jordan wanted to play for the Bulls again, he probably wouldn’t say he wants to “become a basketball player.”)

But the most serious problem with this quotation is that it doesn’t sound like something Teller would say. He had been passionate about magic since he was a child and was never preoccupied with fame.

Ironically, one of the most damning pieces of evidence against the quote’s validity lies in a 2009 Wired article by Lehrer himself, which discussed the same period in Teller’s career, but described a satisfied Teller, who thought he’d be happy to perform in small theaters his whole life. It’s hard to reconcile this with the Teller found in Imagine, who was just about ready to give up on magic.

Even more problematic is that the only source Lehrer cites for the material in the book is an interview conducted with Teller on January 8, 2009, just a few months before the Wired article was published. If both of Lehrer’s accounts are accurate, Teller wouldn’t have had to just convey two apparently contradictory versions of the same story, he would have had to convey them almost simultaneously.

Adding credibility to the Wired description of Teller, who was happy performing in little theaters, Jillette’s book God, No! recounts a story in which the two of them saw the washed-up comedy duo Marty Allen and Steve Rossi perform in an Atlantic City casino lounge, competing with background noises to entertain a tiny and under-appreciative audience. At the time, Penn and Teller were doing the sorts of huge performances and TV appearances that Allen and Rossi had once enjoyed in their heyday. Penn suggested to Teller that in a few years they would probably be doing the same kind of small-time shows. Teller replied, “I am so okay with that.”

In the wake of Moynihan’s exposé,
Lehrer has resigned from the New Yorker.

On the August 5 episode of his weekly podcast, Penn’s Sunday School, Jillette said that when he read that the Dylan quotes had been fabricated, he also became suspicious of the Teller quotation. Teller didn’t think the story sounded right when Penn ran his version of it by him, but Penn was careful to clarify on the show, “I should say, in Jonah Lehrer’s defense, Teller has not read it. So everything in the book could be accurate about us. It could be a complete reporting of what Teller said.”

That was my cue. I attempted to contact Lehrer about it by email and through his Twitter feed, but I have yet to hear back. So yesterday, I drove to Las Vegas to interview Teller directly. I read Teller his quote from the Wired article: “I always assumed I’d spend my life happily performing in artsy-fartsy little theaters,” before asking him about the contradictory quote in Lehrer’s book.

“That’s correct,” Teller confirmed, before pointing to the fabricated quote from Imagine, “This is not.”