'The Skeptic' Journal
For two weeks, beginning May 20, 1990, Australia was host to Ms Penny Torres Rubin, alleged channeller of 32,000 year old entity, Mafu. Mafu, it is claimed, has lived seventeen times, most recently as a leper in Pompeii, ‘about 2,000 years ago’. As the deadline for this edition is too close, we have held over a complete report on this visitation until the next issue, however, here are some impressions gained by Barry Williams during his TV appearance on the Midday with Ray Martin Show on May 22, with Ms Torres Rubin.
I am sitting in the Channel 9 Green Room, wondering if the ‘flu I am harbouring can be cured by a dose of ancient wisdom. Worse still, will I burst into uncontrollable coughing and stop the show? Or uncontrollable laughter? My fellow guests are a rock group, of whom I have never heard, and John Mortimer, creator of Rumpole, one of my favourite fictional characters. Mr Mortimer also appears to be suffering from the ‘flu. There is no sign of Ms TR nor of any of the entourage that accompanies her. My hosts tell me that we are being kept apart deliberately. It can’t be my ‘flu. Surely, during seventeen lifetimes, Mafu must have had it before. I believe that it maintains the tension and makes for better television. I can understand that, it would be boring if guests settled their differences over a couple of drinks in the Green Room and spent the interview swearing undying devotion to each other.
I am well briefed, the Midday researchers having previously supplied me with a video-tape of a performance by Mafu on a regional US television program, and from having watched her in a show on SBS-TV a couple of weeks ago. In the US program, she was confronted by an audience consisting equally of believers and of fundamentalist Christians. It was an odd feeling, listening to argument between two protagonists, both of whom were talking through their hats. A bit like watching the Gulf War. Clearly, Ms TR can handle moral indignation quite well. Wonder how she handles laughter?
The format of the interview is that Ms TR is on air with Ray Martin alone for five minutes, then assumes the Mafu role for eight, then I go on with her for a further eight. I remain in a room watching a monitor for the first thirteen minutes.
Air Time. Ms TR is a small, pleasant looking young woman who has obviously told her story many times before. Brought up as a Catholic, she was living with her LA cop husband when Mafu entered her life. Rather than seeking help from her priest, it appears that she asked a ‘well known Californian psychic’ for counsel. She accepted Mafu's bona fides and agreed to let her body be used for the promulgation of his ancient wisdom. She had recently been accepted into a Vedic Hindu group as a monk and has renounced all her worldly goods. All of this was delivered at high speed and it was near enough to letter perfect with the two previous iterations of the same summary that I had heard from the tape and the SBS program. Ray Martin, ever the gentleman, treated her gently.
Now is the time for the transformation. Interestingly, in the two previous performances I had witnessed, this had taken some time. One was in an hour long show and the other was in a documentary. This was in a restricted time, chat show, format and Mafu shows that he understands TV schedules as well as the next entity. Penny has barely closed her eyes and entered the ‘Theta’ state, when she is breathing harshly, eyes, throwing her legs wide apart, squaring her shoulders and pulling down the corners of her mouth. Total time, twenty one seconds. “Good morning” she says, in an accent that sounds like someone playing Fagin in an amateur dramatic society production of Oliver.
The wisdom begins to pour forth. In fractured syntax, Mafu produces the fruits of seventeen incarnations and 32 centuries of existence. Excepting only 1950s Hollywood Biblical Epics, produced by Sam Katzman and starring Victor Mature, no-one in the entire history of the human species ever talked this way. I wonder what Vic is doing these days - could he be working as a dialogue coach for channellers? The words are typically New Age jargon, full of love, godbeing, Christ consciousness, self-awareness, feeling good and cosmic awakening but the phrasing is pure Hollywood B picture. I file it away for later.
Ray’s questions become more probing. Can Mafu give us any evidence that he is what he claims to be? With the consummate skill of a practiced interviewee, Penny deflects the question, saying that it is good to doubt the facts and to be left with the response of the emotions only. Other questions of a like nature are deflected with equal facility. It is clear to me that one of Mafu’s former incarnations was as a politician. The ability to answer any question other than the one asked is obviously not a recently acquired skill. To the question, “Why do you speak English?” the not unreasonable answer is given, “Because you understand English”, however, she then goes on to explain that she can speak other languages but does not because she is using her “oracle’s English-speaking tongue”. This solves the problem of being asked to speak in another language, but raises the larger problem of whether non-English speakers have different tongues. I must ask a physiologist.
Now there is a breakthrough. To the question, “Why do you charge for your performance?” the answer is that Mafu does not, but that his ‘oracle’ requires transport in ‘aeroships’ and accommodation in `hotels’ and that ‘donations’ seem to be the norm on this planet and so on, but there is no requirement to ‘exchange gold’. The wisdom is available for all. Ray presses further. Does that mean that if someone attends and does not wish to pay, then they will be let in? “Of course”, says Mafu. What is that strangled cry I hear from offstage? Could Mafu’s business manager be tearing his hair out? How many Skeptics can I muster for a free night out next week?
Now a commercial break and I am ushered on stage. What is it like to meet an ‘ascended master’ face-to-face? I am under-awed. Mafu, in the flesh, looks just like a pleasant young woman with a scowl on her face.
Back on air. Ray asks me what I think. I respond that I am still waiting for some wisdom and suggest that all I have heard thus far could have come from a cab driver or a bartender. Penny explains that cab drivers and bartenders are ‘also divinely accessed’. Does this mean that only a god can get a cab on a wet Friday night? If so, then I am on Mafu’s side. If not, then I don’t know what it means. She then goes on to explain that, had she the time, she could discourse on quantum physics or the meaning of life for an hour or so. Ray reminds her that that is not possible within the format of the show, a point which Penny graciously concedes, but he then asks her for a sample of her wisdom. She responds with the observation that she loves Ray and he is her father. Ray looks a trifle nonplussed at this revelation of paternity. I intervene with my observation about stage Jewish accents and Hollywood scripts, the audience titters and Penny launches into a long and convoluted monologue in the now familiar vein. When she pauses to draw a much needed breath, I opine that seventeen lifetimes makes for extreme long-windedness. The audience laughs loudly and Penny looks less than pleased. I have been maintaining eye contact during all this and have a disbelieving grin plastered onto my face. I think this is getting to Penny.
Penny then embarks on an even longer foray into the wilds of obfuscation. She goes on and on mentioning Christ consciousness, Krishna, Mohammed, God and much, much more. At last she finishes and I reply, after a dramatic pause, “Yeah, I’ll go along with all that”, at which point the audience breaks into hysteria. Penny smiles and then realises that she is not supposed to. She wipes the smile from her face with her hand, but the slip from her role-playing is very obvious. The audience is on my side and Penny is staring daggers at me. I essay some channelling of my own. Albert Einstein no less. “E=mc2”, I say, pointing out that Albert sounds like me because he is using my vocal cords, and modestly claiming that that is the wisest thing that has been said all day.
Pressed to make a prediction, Penny tells Ray that he will become a god. He points out that that is the prediction she always makes. I jump in and ask whether I too will become a god. She seems to feel that I might if I lose my anger, to which I respond that I am not angry, I am in fact greatly amused. So is the audience. The interview is nearing its end and Ray persists with the question of whether people can get into Penny’s seminar without paying. She can hardly refuse now. He reads out her dates and venues and finishes with the observation that anyone should turn up, whether they wish to pay or not.
The interview ends and Geoff Harvey and the Channel 9 orchestra strike up the play-out music. It is Colonel Bogey. Geoff knows, I know and much of the audience knows that the popular words ascribed to that old march are, ‘Bullshit was all the band could play’. Penny, being young and American, probably does not know this, but one would expect that someone as old and wise as Mafu would. Luckily he is very forgiving or he could have wrecked the studio. Later in the show, Ray Martin asks the audience how many believe that channelling is a load of bollocks. The response is almost unanimous.
At the beginning, I was in two minds about Ms Torres Rubin. Was she always in control, or had she subconsciously convinced herself that Mafu was real? During the performance, she gave me the option of believing that she was what she claimed to be or that she was a brilliant actress. I chose neither option. I believe that she is a mediocre actress and that her performance showed that she knows exactly what she is doing at all times. She is accomplished at handling moral indignation but cannot successfully contend with being laughed at. H.L. Mencken was right, ‘One horselaugh is worth a thousand syllogisms’.
The following evening, Penny Torres Rubin appeared on the ABC-TV Couchman program, confronted by an audience liberally sprinkled with members of the Victorian branch of Australian Skeptics. This appearance served to confirm my judgement about her. A report on this, and an analysis of the Mafu visit will appear in the next issue.
The visit of Penny Torres to Australia, to act as a medium “channelling” a Pompeiian leper Mafu, gave me a chance to put into practice some debunking skills I had learned in the USA. While I was working at CSICOP we had been able to apply linguistic techniques to our study of channellers and I hoped to use this approach here. Unfortunately, during the recent visit, I was only partly successful.
Had Ms Torres actually been channelling a citizen of Pompeii, then it is not unreasonable to suppose for that entity to remember the tongue he had used in life. The claim was made that Mafu could remember his past life and it is reasonable to assume that these memories should have been stored in some linguistic form. Yet when challenged to speak in Latin on the Couchman TV programme, Mafu refused. Secondly, when she was allegedly channelling, Penny Torres, in keeping with most channellers, used a different voice from her normal one. This skill is not evidence of any external entity influencing the channeller and is quite common in competent actors (one can imagine the numbers of entities who could be “channelled” by actors with the imitative skills of Meryl Streep and the late Peter Sellers, had they had the desire to do it).
Aware of an analysis of the voice patterns of prominent American channellers’ by leading American linguist, Prof Thomason I approached a number of Australian linguists, with the request that they read his work and comment on Penny Torres' voice and accent while she was in Australia. Regrettably, they all declined, preferring "not to get involved". This disinclination by some Australian academics to get involved in exposing fringe areas is unfortunate and contrasts with the attitude of their counterparts in the USA.
We had ample notice of the visit of Ms Torres and were invited to participate in the Couchman ABC TV programme, in which psychologist David Freeman and myself were to appear on stage with Ms Torres and her assistant. We had a great deal of material on our subject from CSICOP and other sources and had had the advantage of seeing her appearance on the previous day's Channel 9 Midday with Ray Martin programme, in which Barry Williams had treated her claims with amused disbelief. This typically Australian approach was obviously new to Ms Torres, who is more accustomed to being treated seriously by the American media. (see the report in the Skeptic Vol 10 No 2) She was clearly unnerved by the experience and we decided to use a similar approach in Melbourne.
The best laid plans, however, do not always stay firm when dealing with the proponents of the New Age. When we arrived at the ABC for the taping of the Couchman show, we found that Ms Torres had refused to appear if David Freeman and myself were allowed to share the stage with her. Peter Couchman was faced with the dilemma that he was about to prerecord a programme, for transmission later that evening, and his principal guest was threatening to withdraw. This is a common tactic, used by ‘psychics’ in the USA, to ensure that they can control the show. Couchman took the only course available to him and acceded to her demands. He requested that David Freeman and I remain in the front row but assured us that we would be given preference during the question period.
We could have stood on our dignity and withdrawn from the show but it would be unlikely that we would have been invited to take part in any further shows had we done so. It is unfortunate that the producers of TV current affairs programmes do not realise that they do not have to pander to the demands of visiting ‘psychics’. As was shown by the Carlos hoax of a couple of years ago, the ‘psychic’ depends on the free publicity afforded by the media to get an audience and the producers are actually in a strong position to set their own standards and to insist that they be adhered to.
I briefed members who attended the show and suggested that we refer to her as Penny Torres throughout and not to use any of the titles, such as Mafu, Swami Paramananda Saraswati etc, which she had adopted. She appeared to be happy to respond to her given name, even when she was supposedly in her Mafu persona. She began the show with the initiative as she went into her performance of pretending to be Mafu, the leper from Pompeii, which seemed to convince the believers in the audience that her play acting was real. We began by requesting that she spoke in Latin, which she steadfastly refused to do throughout. Her excuses were long and unconvincing but that did not appear to discomfort the believers. We missed an opportunity at this point in not demanding that, if she would not speak Latin, then she should try English, in lieu of the pretentious gibberish which she was spouting.
Couchman had invited an actress to demonstrate the ease with which a trained person can put on a performance as a medium, which she was about to demonstrate when Ms Torres interrupted and changed the subject. Unfortunately, the programme never got back to this demonstration, but it should have been clear to all that Ms Torres’ performance as Mafu was not of Oscar standard. Torres was clearly nonplussed when a member of the audience stated that, although she herself was a medium, and believed in the spirits, she could not understand the “wisdom” that Mafu was propounding. And so say all of us.
Probably the most telling strike against Ms Torres came from her own mouth. It is an article of faith with most channellers that the events which occur while they are channelling are unknown to them when they are in their normal state. Ms Torres has publicly stated, on more than one occasion, that the only way she knows what Mafu says is if someone else tells her. Yet, on the Couchman programme, she answered questions as Penny, about things that had been put to her as Mafu. I wished to reinforce this point during the programme, however, time ran out. I need not have been worried, as this was the most common point raised by people who had viewed the programme. Ms Torres had in fact been hoist with her own petard.
In an overview of Penny Torres’ visit to Australia, we can be confident that her media performance would not have advanced her cause at all. Her performance was amateurish and would only have convinced those who already were committed believers. It is generally recognised that no committed believer will be turned off by any rational analysis. If the performer puts on a good show, then it convinces them; if the performer acts badly, as Penny did, then that is “proof” that she is not acting at all and is thus genuine. We are unable to ascertain just how much money Ms Torres made from her visit to Australia, but we have been told that people who sought to attend he performances without paying were despite her assurances to the contrary on the Ray Martin show, not admitted.
Penny Torres was, before her decision to become a channeller, a housewife from Los Angeles. The “wisdom” she offers to her followers is precisely what one would expect from such a source. It was quite disconcerting, during the Couchman programme, to see the blind acceptance the believers gave to Ms Torres’ pronouncements on pap and their conviction that what she said was some sort of profound statement about the world. But then, the same sort of people said the same sort of things about the statements of Carlos and we all know that James Randi made up Carlos’ thoughts to be trite and meaningless but to sound like typical New Age verbiage. We await the visit of Shirley MacLaine, who at least can act.
Volume 18 No.1 (Autumn 1998)
One previous laureate who seems to have suffered no ill effects, is the 1990 winner Mafu, aka Penny Torres Rubin. Until recently we had assumed that channelling had succumbed to its own inanity, and been replaced by something new and equally vacuous.
Then we were alerted by Gold Coast subscriber, Ian Schilling, that Mafu was due to make a public appearance in that fair city in February. She was holding a free public meeting and a series of private seminars for seekers after wisdom, at the not inconsiderable cost of $2,000 per person (meals not included). We heard that more than 80 people had signed up for these.
Girding their loins, two stalwarts of the Gold Coast Skeptics, John Winckle and Graeme Laing, went along to the public meeting. We’ll let John describe it:
“Talk about boring, I was less bored the night the power went off.
Penny and Mafu are now one; she didn't go into her trance act, or come out of it. The punters regarded her as a holy entity, and she was conferring blessings. At least Pope status.
“She performed for an hour, then took 20 minutes to walk out of the joint (she did everything in hyper slow motion and the fans loved it). Mainly hugging women her own age, and a short dose of wisdom ‘the booommerrrraang, comes back, perfect kama’. I got out of the hall in case I was asked for money.
“Graeme and I waited outside the hall. There were people on their knees, people praying and people crawling after her. One girl stopped her and ‘just wanted to thank you’, and cried and hugged her. Spooky stuff for yours truly, not being used to religious hysteria. We were the last people she had to pass, and she homed in on us and started rubbing Graeme’s forehead.
“I was trying to hide behind Graeme, and was on the point of diving into the ladies’ toilet when Graeme took her hand and shook it and said ‘good show, good act’. ‘Have you joy’ she said. ‘You should’, said Graeme, adding some more sarcasm. She was totally unfazed and stared us down.
“There was a wall of faces behind the glass doors, each bearing a look of simpering idiocy. Then the chanting began. A barefoot lady in the hall told us Penny would not come back for the chanting, because she was ‘very elevated’. Inside there were people standing and swaying to the chant, all practising their looks of divinely inspired stupidity. Bit like an up-market disco. Look out Catholic church, this is alternative religion.
“However, I did feel a sense of fulfillment and gratitude for one piece of wisdom she gave; ’Keep breathing’.”
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