Written by Shaun Curran.
Derren Brown’s professional life has been a constant exploration of what is real, and what is not. Throughout a career on TV, on stage and, latterly, on the page, Brown has continually shifted perceptions about his work and its themes to the point where you’re not even sure how you would define what it is he actually does. Is he a magician? Hypnotist? Mentalist? Illusionist? Sceptic? Or just an old-fashioned performer with a couple of neat tricks to wow the audience? The truth probably lies somewhere in the middle of it all, and that is just how Brown precisely constructs it; he revels in the vague and undefined. He has a huge, dedicated following, all addicted to his boundary pushing – and at times controversial – work that has in the past included a live Russian Roulette show, predicting the national lottery numbers and convincing a group of innocent businesspeople to rob a bank at gunpoint.
Aspects of his personal life have been just as fiercely dedicated to questioning what he believes in – be it the battle between good and bad, right and wrong, true and false. Inevitably, this includes matters of faith; a subject that has, for better and worse, defined Brown’s life since his younger years right up until the present day.
In true Brown fashion, the question of his own faith has not been a straightforward one. When he calls Sorted, the illusionist is more than happy to spend time recounting tales from his youth, all of which contributed to his current standing. The succinct version of Brown’s story is that he used to be devoutly religious when he was younger and grew out of it to such an extent that he is now one of the most famous atheists in the country, alongside Richard Dawkins and Ricky Gervais.
But that would be a far too simplified account of Brown’s transition. To fully understand his path from Christianity to disbelief, one has to go back to his pre-adolescence. Brown was born on 27 February 1971 in Putney, south-west London to mother and father Chris and Bob Brown, the latter of whom was a sports teacher at the private Whitgift School in Croydon that Brown attended from the age of ten. By that stage, Brown was already deeply committed to Christianity, a regular Sunday school attendee, and enjoying the feeling of belonging to something he could believe in.
“I was a proper believer,” he told the Daily Mail. “I’d been to a Sunday school class when I was five and maintained my beliefs for many years. With the self-assurance of the truly naive, I would sit down and tell my friends why they should be Christians.”
Initially, this faith would come as a comfort to him. At Whitgift – “a posh grammar school with peacocks and quadrangles and things,” he laughs – Brown felt an acute displacement and a sense that he was struggling to fit in. Quiet and awkward, the athletic pressures piled on by the school and fellow pupils brought about feelings of unease.
“At school, I was definitely in the wrong crowd,” he admits, albeit recalling a fairly sad time in his life with a touch of his distinctly wry wit. “Not in the cool sense, it was just embarrassing. I was in a group of kids who liked classical music. I didn’t even like classical music! I was just in with the wrong crowd. So that wasn’t great. I wasn’t very sporty but my dad was a sports teacher at the school. And I think if he hadn’t have been I would have got properly bullied. I wasn’t but I was very much intimidated by the sporty crowd and it was a very sporty school.”
Today, his memories echo some of the recent comments he gave The Guardian about his teenage years: “As I grew up, I didn’t go out drinking, wasn’t going to the gym, I didn’t fit into that whole world. That feeling of alienation can turn into envy, and it becomes an issue.” He then mentioned the crux of his issues, “Sexuality is often tied in with something you feel you lack in yourself and look for in others.”
As his adolescence gathered pace, so did his awareness of his own sexuality, and it is only with hindsight that Brown can make sense of what he was feeling, and the impact that had on his faith. He recognises now that a difficult relationship with his father also wasn’t helping matters. “It was tough and unhealthy, the classic thing,” he said to the Daily Mail. “Not getting on with my father, not fitting in with the boys at school, at that age you don’t know whether that happens because you’re gay, or if you’re gay because of them.” He says the uncertainly lasted some time. “For years I was rather embarrassed about it, hoping it would pass, and was basically celibate.”
Though it wasn’t as pronounced and deliberately devious as it may seem looking back, Brown was essentially using his faith to cover up his gay feelings, using it as a shield to deflect the personal questions he was desperately trying to avoid. It also had the desired effect of handing him the readymade selfhood that he was searching for. “Belief becomes part of your identity. And if you feel not very impressive, it’s a good feeling to be able to go, ‘Oh, sorry, could you not make that joke please, because I’m a Christian.’” Brown’s self-deprecation is audible.
Another way to seek the acceptance he craved was to throw himself into the world of magic, which in turn would gradually steer him away from Christianity. Magic had always been a curiosity of Brown’s – “I did have a magic set when I was young and had a free-floating interest” – but it started up again in earnest when Brown went to study Law and German at the University of Bristol. “It became much more serious then,” he reveals.
Suddenly, Brown found that where previously he was ignored, he was now the centre of attention. It was a scenario that fits into the stereotype. “Magicians tend to be kids with no social confidence,’ he told the Mail. ‘You rely on the tricks; hide behind the cards as a way to social acceptance. That was me for many years.”
He was now in a situation where he was lauding power over those who had previously helped cultivate his outsider status. “The people who often responded well to it were the lads, and suddenly I was in the position of a) being quite cool among them, and b) having control of them, which is very different from being intimidated by them. I was suddenly an authority in this world.”
As he began to perform regularly at university, Brown became addicted to both the theory and the exhibition of magic, setting him on the path to fame and fortune. But he admits that it was to be the beginning of the end for his faith. The Christian Union, initially a refuge for Brown, turned against him once they saw early versions of his act, and thought that his attempts at hypnosis were proof he had been possessed by the devil.
“I immediately got this backlash of anger from them,” he told the Mail. “I had people exorcising me during my shows. They really attacked me. I started to see there was a capacity for fear and misunderstanding in the church. Learning hypnosis taught me how suggestion works and studying magic gave me an understanding of how charlatans work.
“So suddenly, when I’d hear my minister saying Tarot cards were the work of the devil, I said to myself, ‘Well, they’re not. There’s no magic happening. I know it isn’t’. So, bit by bit, I began disassembling my religious beliefs.”
By now, Brown was feeling more confident about his sexuality – within himself, at least – and far less of the guilt that had plagued him. Curious, he agreed to go to a church-organised camp that promised people they could ‘cure’ their sexuality – sceptical to begin with, the experience left him unimpressed and more disconnected with his faith than ever.
“I had a friend who was very into that movement and he had heard of a course that people went on,” he told Alan Carr on Chatty Man, “and it’s not uncommon for you to go through a phase where you think ‘maybe it will pass’. So I went along for a day or two with this friend and they had this whole method of ‘curing it’ as they said. I do think some of the psychology is interesting, as sexuality is a complicated thing and I could understand some of what they were saying. But it just doesn’t work, and that is the bit that they were missing. They had this moment where I was asking ‘So, do you no longer feel attracted to people from the same sex?’ and they would say, ‘Well, the Lord has shown me a way of dealing with those feelings when I get them’. And I’d be like, ‘So you still get those feelings? It’s not really worked, has it?’ One guy would go (puts on exaggerated camp accent), ‘The Lord has given me a fabulous wife!’ It just doesn’t work.”
It was the final nail in the coffin, and for Brown magic had now completely replaced religion – today, his official website proudly states: “I am an atheist and a sceptic of all things paranormal. As an atheist, I merely do not believe, which is not the same as having an anti-theist agenda.”
Professionally, the decision was one of the best he ever made. By honing his act and becoming ever more daring with his technique and performances, he became the most famous exponent of illusion in a generation, and his nationwide tours are still phenomenally popular. Still, faith has pervaded his work – most famously on his 2012 TV show Fear and Faith, which examined the psychology of religious belief and in which he conducted a ‘Conversion Experience’ to induce a religious experience in a self-identified non-believer.
Emboldened by fame, Brown eventually came out at the height of his popularity during his 30s. After decades of bottling up his feelings, worrying about what others would think and using religion to hide the truth, the experience was nowhere near as traumatic as Brown had always envisaged.
“With something like that, if you carry something around with you for a long time that you make into a big secret, you turn it into a much bigger thing that it actually is!” he laughs, thinking back. “What you think other people are going to think doesn’t bear relation to what they actually do and what is interesting is someone trying to hide something that is actually quite self-evident – that’s much more interesting to people than who you fancy. Afterwards you think, ‘Oh why on earth did I turn this into such a big deal?’ It seems less so nowadays than years ago, it is a little easier now but what it does do is make you realise that – I think David Foster Wallace said it – you’d be a lot less worried about what other people think of you when you realise how seldom they do! That’s what it taught me, in the nicest way, other people don’t really care,” he says earnestly.
It is a lesson that he preaches constantly. When asked what piece of advice he would give to his younger self, Brown replied, “There’s no God and no one cares if you’re gay.” It has been an arduous, personally taxing journey for the master of magic to get to that point – and rightly or wrongly, there appears to be no chance of him turning back any time soon.
Derren Brown is currently touring the UK with his new show, ‘Miracle’. Tickets and info at derrenbrown.co.uk.