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How David Copperfield learned the therapeutic power of magic

How David Copperfield learned the therapeutic power of magic

BY David Copperfield

9th Feb 2024 Life

4 min read

Through an encounter with a disabled fan and his Project Magic programme in hospitals, David Copperfield learned the therapeutic power of magic, as he told Craig Tomashoff in this archive article from December 2003
In 1981, I was performing on television and just beginning to have an audience. I started getting letters from people who liked my work and from aspiring magicians asking for advice. One letter stood out. It started typically, the writer asking how to perform a sleight-of-hand trick. Judging from the handwriting, I assumed it was from a primary school student, so I sent back answers to his questions.
But the writer wrote again to ask if I could get him booked on The Tonight Show—America's famous late-night talk show. As I hadn't even been on The Tonight Show, I didn't quite know how to help.
Still, we began to correspond and a few letters later the writer enclosed a newspaper article about himself. The picture accompanying the piece showed a man in his twenties in a wheelchair. I read more closely. Though the childlike handwriting might have hinted at this, he'd never mentioned to me that he suffered from a disability. And when he advertised himself as a magician, he also never gave any indication of his physical challenges. He'd get hired to perform at a party or local event and just come rolling out in his chair.

Inspiring attitude and the possibility of magic helping people

I asked him, “Aren't people a little surprised when you come in, never having mentioned your disability?” He said, “That's their problem.” I thought, Wow! What a great self-image! He didn't think of himself as disabled because he had a skill—magic. He could captivate his audience with the things he could do and not worry about the things he couldn't.
"I saw the possibility of magic helping other people get beyond their problems"
I had known since I was a child that magic had this power. I remember the first time I performed in a talent show at school. Afterwards, I walked back into the classroom and all the kids applauded. I loved that feeling. And I wanted more.
But after corresponding with this young man, I wondered if I could do something different. I saw the possibility of magic helping other people get beyond their problems, in the way my friend had used magic to get beyond his disabilities.

The start of the Project Magic programme

Stethoscope, face mask and paper and chocolate hearts
I took the idea to the Daniel Freeman Memorial Hospital near Los Angeles and met an occupational therapist there called Julie De Jean. She was working with patients who'd suffered physical traumas.
I demonstrated magic with items that are used in therapy—blocks, ropes, rubber bands and tried out some illusions with Janae, an eight-year-old girl who had had a stroke and didn't want to use her right hand at all. I taught her this rubber band trick and a short time later watched her perform it with her right hand. Her face glowed with pride.
"A young girl who'd had a stroke performed a rubber band trick I taught her"
I looked around and saw that everyone else there—the girl's parents, the therapists—were crying. That's when I realised we had something. Julie, the other therapists and I developed a programme that uses magic as therapy for patients—Project Magic. We went through all the books, trying to find illusions and effects that could be therapeutic, and took them into hospitals.

Therapeutic power of magic

Through the programme, I got to know Steve, who was not in good shape at all. He had suffered head trauma following a motorcycle accident. When you're in physiotherapy, you rarely get a genuine response from family members. They'll say things like, “Oh, you look handsome today,” when the truth is that when you're in therapy, you don't look your best.
One day I stopped by to see Steve in his hospital room and he was all dressed up, his hair combed and slicked back for the first time in a long time. His family was with him.

Patients doing magic and improving their lives

Dollar notes with rubber band
Through Project Magic, he had learned to do magic with a rubber band and the result was quite amazing. This guy couldn't even smile before. There had been no movement in his face. But when he did his first piece of magic for his parents and brother, their jaws dropped. It was probably the first genuine response he'd had from them since his accident. When he saw that, one side of his mouth started to curl up into a smile.
Once, a man came up to me at a benefit and started handing me 100-dollar notes. He said, “You helped me get my father back.” His father had had a stroke and was angry at the world. He'd locked himself in his room and was so despondent that he would literally only crack the door open for food. One day the father opened the door for food and his son, who'd heard about Project Magic, stuck his hands inside and did a one-handed trick with a rope. The father opened the door wider, motioning for his son to do it again. Eventually, he invited his son into the room to teach him magic, and little by little it brought the man back into the world.
The reactions people have carry a lot of weight with me. I know if my shows are good based on the audience's response. I feel the same way about the reactions people have to the work of Project Magic. I see the looks of delight on the faces of patients and families and I know this is doing some good. Their lives are better.

Copperfield’s life changed too

In my life, I'm still searching for a balance between personal time and work. Because I loved the responses I got when I performed magic, I focused 100 per cent on my work. But I paid a price. I put too much emphasis on the craft and never gave myself enough time just to be me.
"Project Magic taught me not just about the power of magic but about the power of people"
Project Magic is what finally helped change that. It taught me not just about the power of magic but about the power of people. I appreciate a hug or smile from someone the programme has helped. I wasn't Scrooge before I started Project Magic—I was just a focused person—but there are some similarities. At the end of A Christmas Carol, Scrooge wakes up from a life where work is all that mattered to him, ready to live in a whole new world. His life has changed completely—and so has mine.
This article is part of our archival collection and was originally published in December 2003. While we strive to present historical content accurately, please note that circumstances and information may have changed since the article's original publication. Some individuals mentioned in the article may no longer be alive, and events or details may have evolved. We encourage readers to consider the context of the original publication and to verify any current information independently.
Banner photo: David Copperfield (DC Bullett Photo)
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