“I Think About This a Lot” is a series dedicated to private memes: images, videos, and other random trivia we are doomed to play forever on loop in our minds.
I’m from London, but growing up, I couldn’t get enough of American pop culture. I loved how ostentatious and garish it could be. It was so different from British culture, with its subtle self-deprecation and aversion to drama. So when my friend’s older brother breathlessly told me about a magician named David Blaine, a man who did card tricks on the streets of Manhattan and was a member of something called the Pussy Posse, I was fascinated.
Then Blaine arrived on our drizzly isle in 2003 and vowed to suspend himself above the River Thames in a small Perspex box for 44 days. With no food and only water to subsist on, Blaine made no promise of a breathtaking act of magic or mind-boggling illusion. Instead, it was teed up to be a piece of dramatic performance art, a feat of mental and physical strength presumably intended to stun and astonish Londoners. We were a little skeptical.
By this point in his career, Blaine had garnered a dedicated following in the U.S. Fans were left awestruck after he buried himself alive outside a Trump building. Media flocked to Times Square to film him attempting to stand inside a block of ice for 72 hours. It made sense, then, that he expected to receive equal adulation when he glided up in his box above central London. Yet not only did he misinterpret the cynicism of the British public, he also underestimated the growing anti-American sentiment across the country — a result of the U.K. entering into the Iraq War alongside the U.S. just a few months before.
The nation’s initial reaction to Blaine’s stunt was a mix of bemusement and irritation. Had anyone actually asked him to do this? Would he run out of oxygen? Where would he go to the toilet? But as the days rolled on and Blaine remained hunched within his three-by-seven-by-seven-foot box, the ridicule grew. Eggs were thrown (an act usually reserved for our most reviled politicians), and at night, people blared music and shone flashlights to prevent him from sleeping. Several men bared their bottoms at Blaine; another tried (and failed) to whack him with golf balls. Some questioned his presence in the box entirely, propelling conspiracy theories that he was, in fact, a hologram.
The tabloids, meanwhile, had a field day. So much so that one paper used a remote-controlled helicopter to swing burgers in front of the fasting Blaine. Even Paul McCartney somehow got pulled into the furor and allegedly had a scuffle with a photographer mere feet away from the site of the box.
By the time Blaine returned to solid ground on day 44, he described experiences of hallucination and delirium — and it felt as if London had entered an altered state with him. Whether it was the tone deafness of the trick during a time of political tension or simply the sheer, mindless cost of executing it, something about the stunt had struck a nerve. Blaine had the privilege of choosing to put himself in the metaphorical stocks but seemed surprised when he was heckled by the angry townspeople below. When an unnamed onlooker made headlines after climbing up to the box and attempting to cut off Blaine’s water supply, shouting, “We don’t want you here,” I became obsessed with the story. I realized I felt the same way. As beguiling as America was, I was a Londoner after all — skeptical, allergic to sentimentality, and uncomfortable with any sort of overt sincerity.
In the 17 years since, I have thought about Blaine in his box pretty much every day. It marked the beginning of a long dismantling of my idealistic view of America, but it was also the first time I developed a deep mistrust of a public figure. Not because of his ability to deceive me as an illusionist but because of his great earnestness, which seemed incredibly disingenuous. Blaine’s attempt to dress up a publicity stunt as an act of thought-provoking performance art felt like far greater trickery than any magic show.
Now in my 30s, I have a general suspicion of anyone who takes themselves too seriously. It’s a British quality and one, now that I live in America, I hold on to with stubborn pride. But I also think seeing through Blaine’s stunt was a turning point that ran parallel with my leap from childhood to adulthood. The world becomes quite a different place the moment you realize that nothing can be taken at face value, even if it’s something extraordinarily dumb — like a grown man sealing himself inside a Perspex box for attention — that helps you pull back the curtain.
It therefore made complete sense to me when, this past August, amid a global pandemic, Blaine announced that he would travel to the Arizona desert and ascend 25,000 feet into the sky attached to a large bunch of helium balloons. I watched the livestream of “Ascension” from my New York apartment, desperately homesick for London, and discovered that I was still incapable of taking him seriously — even during this astonishingly joyless year. A year when, to be more specific, the line between truth and deception has never felt so hazy.