It will be the rematch of the year.
In one corner is Natalia Lulova, an 11-year-old Jewish immigrant from St. Petersburg, Russia — now living in Brooklyn — who says that she can see through blindfolds.
In the other corner is James Randi, a 74-year-old former magician and avowed skeptic — known in his magician days as “the Amazing Randi” — who offers a $1 million prize to anyone who can offer proof of the paranormal.
These two titans first clashed last year: Lulova challenged Randi for the prize and lost. But after waiting the requisite 12 months, Lulova is back. She will be the first person ever to re-challenge Randi. She says that her extra-sensory abilities are better than ever. This sixth-grader is ready to do battle this summer.
Donning a special blindfold that looks like two Mickey Mouse ears, Lulova can read cookbooks or comic strips. With bored disinterest, she flips through colored pieces of construction paper calling out, “Purple! Green! Yellow! Brown!” She’s right on the money every time. She can box. She can play tic-tac-toe, and even manages to beat an adult who is 13 years older than her — much to the adult’s embarrassment. When two journalists try to look through the same blindfold, everything is black.
“I don’t believe in miracles,” said Mark Komissarov, 53, a Russian immigrant and former chemical engineer who, when he’s not driving a cab, is Lulova’s coach and teacher. He holds court in the Midwood section of Brooklyn, where he has a small following of students trying to discover their inner paranormal.
Komissarov’s circle of psychics conducts its weekly class almost entirely in Russian. The dozen or so students — most of whom are Jewish immigrants — range in age from 7 to 71 years old, and they spend the four-hour sessions testing their various paranormal gifts.
Komissarov is most proud of Lulova, who will be representing all of them when she goes up against Randi. “Natasha” — Lulova’s nickname — “is one of my best students,” Komissarov said.
“It’s not X-ray vision,” Komissarov was quick to point out. If one were to put a slab of concrete on top of a newspaper, Lulova wouldn’t be able to read the paper. Instead, Lulova’s vision comes to her through her forehead, said Komissarov, noting that each person uses a different body part for such feats. Komissarov said that children are better able to do this because they are more open; they have a fresh psychic palate.
Randi is skeptical.
“She’s doing a blindfold act that a lot of kids can do,” said Randi, who says he has encountered thousands of children who have boasted similar tricks. “It fools the lawyers and the teachers.”
“Particularly in the former Soviet Union, [it’s] a popular trick, but I’ve seen it all over Europe and in Korea,” said Randi, adding that he encountered huge numbers of children who knew the trick in China.
When a reporter protested that he tried reading through Lulova’s blindfold and could see nothing, Randi countered: “Of course! You don’t play the violin just by accident. You practice.”
When Randi and Lulova faced off last year, Lulova read while wearing the blindfold, but Randi was unsatisfied; he said she was peeking through the minuscule gaps the blindfold left between her nose and cheek. He sealed its edges with duct tape.
Lulova said that she became so intimidated that she could not see through the blindfold. Moreover, for the next 10 months she found that her gifts had left her. It was only after hours of study and concentration that she relearned her gift.
“In Russia we have an expression, ‘blind from rage,’” Komissarov explained.
Randi said that he doubts he will see anything that will change his mind when he faces off with Lulova in the next couple of months.
“She’s created a monster that she can’t kill,” Randi said. “And parents can’t believe that their child is lying.”
Even after they are exposed, most children who make similar claims will never admit that they’re performing tricks.
“Sometimes they do break down,” Randi said, but only to their parents. Randi has often had angry parents reproach him: “They say: ‘You caused my son or daughter to admit they were cheating, and we know that’s not true.’” Parents conclude that Randi’s bullying destroyed their child’s confidence.
Komissarov is a big believer that Randi likes to inhibit children’s natural extrasensory gifts. And he is wary of other skeptics as well. When a reporter suggested that Lulova try her gifts while blindfolded by a scarf that he brought to the class — rather than the blindfold she usually uses — Komissarov was put off at first. Why, he asked, would the reporter doubt Lulova?
The reporter insisted.
Lulova could not read through the scarf, and Komissarov was furious. Lulova must get used to her blindfolds, he said; she couldn’t go into it cold, she needed to become comfortable with it. Moreover, he continued, this minor failure might set her back psychically. It might destroy her confidence, just like her last encounter with Randi.
Komissarov is a big believer in nourishing children with this gift. He doesn’t believe any of them try to cheat Randi. Komissarov said that Lulova is not the only child to have faced off against Randi who has had her gifts destroyed by his pessimism and rough attitude. “I believe all of them have this gift,” Komissarov said. All of them? No one is in it for the money?
Komissarov shrugged: “Maybe one or two percent.”