Arizona psychology professor uses magic to teach, went viral on … – The Arizona Republic

Tom Virden stands in a classroom. In front of him are several straitjackets, slung over a row of chairs.
“Clearly,” he says, his face and voice deadpan, “I didn’t have an ordinary childhood.”
Virden, a professor of clinical psychology at Midwestern University, wears round glasses and a short leather top hat. He picks up one of the straitjackets and, with some help, pulls it on, his arms crossed over his chest within the restraints. He walks backward toward the first row.
“All right, so, um, did she buckle me in tight enough?” He shows the students the belted straps.
A few laughs from the back. “That looks like the tightest it can go!” one student pipes up.
Virden paces, telling his audience that it took legendary escape artist Harry Houdini seven hours to escape from a straitjacket, though with a little practice, he whittled it down to five minutes.
He asks for a time of fewer than five minutes. “Two!” one student offers.
“Two?” Virden says incredulously, a slight smile on his face.
“I’m optimistic,” the student says.
A student sets a stopwatch for two minutes. Virden starts wriggling. Behind a camera, one of his students watches her professor’s every move, documenting the performance on video.
Virden is used to this. The straitjacket is part of his lesson plan almost every year. Not part of the plan? Over 8 million people watching this year’s performance on TikTok.
Virden didn’t expect the fame, but said what was an equally surprising and gratifying experience was the showcase of kindness on the Internet, a place that, as he puts it, is not always known for being nice. The outpouring of support in the comments “felt like a group hug,” he said, and touched him deeply.
But that outpouring was no trick mirror. Rather, it reflected the appreciation Virden’s students had for him well before he skyrocketed to viral stardom. From the student who filmed the TikTok to alumni who now have their own research or clinical practices, Virden has affected countless curious individuals who have crossed his path.
Ever reflective, Virden connects his unusual styles of teaching and mentoring to some of the formative moments of his life, including his childhood as a street performer and a cancer diagnosis later in life.
And he, along with others in the Midwestern Clinical Psychology program, wonders to what extent his methods of education and performance can reach others through virtual modes like TikTok. That’s part of a larger debate about the future of psychology education, and one that won’t easily be resolved despite Virden’s recent online success.
But for now, he and his students, his family, his seven dogs and his three rabbits — including one official therapy rabbit — are appreciating the moments that led him here, and the unity that formed between a Houdini-like professor and his awe-filled audience.
Virden stumbled into the world of magic and escape artistry at an early age.
He remembers the day before he started kindergarten at a school in New Orleans, his cousins teased and threatened him, saying that now that he’d be going to school with the big kids, somebody was going to throw him in a locker and leave him there.
To Virden’s young mind, that meant he needed to figure a way out. So he asked his classmate’s older brother to put him inside a locker. The brother reluctantly agreed, and Virden soon figured out the mechanism to get the door open. The brother was impressed.
“Can you do it again?” the brother asked, and gathered a crowd of students.
Virden escaped for a second time. The students applauded, and the classmate proclaimed him New Orleans’ youngest escape artist.
When Virden got home, he asked his mother what an escape artist was. That’s when his entertainment career took off.
His mother was a fortune teller and a clown, and introduced him to the world of performance art. They worked street corners and carnivals. They didn’t have much growing up, and he saw some tough things sometimes, but the adult performers watched out for him on the streets.
Virden grew up reading the adventures of Sherlock Holmes, and had finished the whole canon by the time he was 13. He fell in love with the character and did everything he could to emulate the famed detective.
He learned to play the violin and started smoking a pipe. To this day, he often wears a Victorian-style top hat.
Once, while he and his mother were performing at a carnival with a 10-in-1 attraction (a type of variety show featuring several acts including sword swallowers, contortionists and other side shows), Virden saw a magician perform. The magician was terrible, Virden said, and it inspired him to try to do better, to learn more tricks and stunts. Just escaping got boring after a while, he said, and he wanted to mix things up.
It was a seasonal job, and they tried to work during the heavy tourist seasons. Some days would be very hot and humid. But he enjoyed the feeling from the applause.
Even so, he knew making a full-time career out of performing wouldn’t be easy. So throughout high school and after, he decided to look for something more stable. College looked like a way out of difficult economic circumstances. He started as a robotics student, but took a psychology course with an amazing professor that changed his life forever.
Now, as a professor himself, Virden tries to teach his students important life lessons as well as psychology material. In his viral straitjacket escape, Virden says that with flexibility, willingness and perseverance, one can overcome adversity, a message that resonates with him personally.
“I was not in a situation where I should have been able to go to college, much less graduate school and get a doctorate, become a professor,” he said. “If you would have seen me as this urchin performing on the streets in New Orleans, you would not have said, ‘Well, that’s a future professor, there.’”
That feeling is not unique to Virden. The student who filmed the video tells her own story of overcoming the odds.
Catalina Blanton didn’t grow up seeing people like her in psychology.
Blanton grew up in Yuma, in a community of undocumented agricultural workers, including her mother, who had come to the United States from Mexico. Her mom traveled between Yuma and Salinas, California, to work.
It wasn’t an easy childhood. Her mother “would have these anger outbursts,” she said. “It would be explosive.”
From an early age, Blanton could see that her mother was having a hard time accessing the mental health resources she needed. When Blanton was 11, she was orphaned. And when she was 14, she had a baby of her own.
Blanton felt that there needed to be people like her in the field of psychology, so she decided to become the representation she wanted. She went to NYU, got her master’s degree in counseling and started working with foster children.
In that role, she says she saw firsthand the disparities that she herself had experienced, and how underrepresented groups mistrusted people in positions of power, including her, as a counselor.
So she decided to return to school to get more training. She’s now a first-year clinical psychology doctoral student at Midwestern, and she runs the @mwuclinicalpsychology TikTok account as part of her work-study program.
Blanton’s daughter is now 15, and has taught Blanton a lot about TikTok. Some of Blanton’s personal comedy videos have also taken off, and she’s thinking about writing her dissertation on the psychology of comments sections of TikToks — specifically what motivates people to comment, and how online commenting can be used as a tool to reach a younger audience in therapy.
Others in clinical psychology were more apprehensive about sharing their psychology education online than Virden was, Blanton said. She only started populating the TikTok channel a few months ago, so the project is relatively new. And she said some of the professors were worried about overlaps with their clinical practices, since patients or potential patients might end up seeing some of their educational process or research online.
Still, Virden is optimistic about the potential of online learning, and he thinks a “renaissance” of virtual education will bloom in the coming years, bolstered by the necessity of the coronavirus pandemic.
The Midwestern clinical psychology social media effort is a newer platform for the program to showcase its offerings to potential applicants, and virtual and online promotion is still somewhat uncharted territory for the program’s communications staff, said Elizabeth Armijo, the clinical education coordinator for Midwestern’s clinical psychology program. But she was happy to see so many people commenting on the video of Virden and expressing their gratitude for his empowering message.
Blanton feels the same way. Her favorite part of watching the video go viral was seeing how positive people were about it. She was amazed to see so many people expressing the same awe that she’d always felt watching Virden in his element.
“I was enamored with (Virden) to begin with, so I knew he was the star of the show,” she said. “I needed to get content of him doing these things, and he loves performing — he’s a natural performer. So it was a beautiful collision.”
Virden’s penchant for performance was clear in Blanton’s video.
“If I don’t get out in the three hours allotted with class, just go,” he jokes as he prepares to begin the escape. “I’ll drive home with my teeth or something.”
He leans over to give a student his hat and glasses. Then the clock starts.
As he twists and writhes, he shares his lesson. “We find ourselves in weird situations all the time. We get out of weird situations all the time,” he says.
“It’s rumored — oh God,” he adds, pausing to rotate his body sharply, “that Houdini would dislocate his shoulder to get out of a straitjacket, but that’s not true. He didn’t actually do that. You don’t have to hurt yourself to wiggle out of strange and odd conditions.
“You really have to be flexible. If you’re willing to make mistakes — wrong direction,” he says as his hand appears out of the straitjacket by his neck, then points back down to his stomach.
“You merely have to be willing to look a little foolish in public sometimes, willing to experience a little discomfort.”
He contorts and turns, shoots his hand out of the bottom of the straitjacket and unbuckles the strap between his legs.
“The thing is,” he says with a flourish, “with persistence, flexibility and willingness, there are no inescapable situations.”
It’s a message that carries personal significance for him, and one he wants to share with others in and out of the classroom. Virden performed his straitjacket escape again in late November, at a conference for psychology educators at Arizona State University West. He also swallowed razor blades and created the illusion that a magic key was twisting of its own accord in an audience member’s hand.
It was the last talk of the day at the conference, but many attendees had stuck around just to see Virden perform. His tricks aren’t unheard of. He himself will tell you that the razor blade swallow, the “haunted key” and the straitjacket escape are tried-and-true classics of the magic world.
But what makes Virden so unique is the way he folds those tricks into his teaching. As part of his presentation, Virden explained the psychology of performance and why creative performance art can be so effective for communicators and educators. He cited research studies, told personal anecdotes (including his fabled kindergarten locker escape) and kept the audience laughing with his slides and narration.
There’s another part of his story, one he only alludes to in his performances but that shapes his views. When he performs the razor blade swallow for kids, he said at one point, it’s easy for him to tell them not to try this at home. He points to the thick scar on his neck, and the divot of skin where part of his jaw used to be.
Virden is a cancer survivor, but the kids don’t need to know that. He tells them it was part of a razor blade swallow gone wrong.
But his experience with cancer inspired the way he continues to interface with magic to this day. Everyone has an expiration date, he said, but when you get a serious illness like cancer, that date instantly turns from the hypothetical to the real.
When it happened to him, he didn’t know if he would live, and he started thinking about the legacy he would leave behind. So he created a nonprofit organization called Meaningful Magic and started performing at community organizations for kids, senior citizens and other local groups.
The COVID-19 pandemic hit the program hard, but he’s hoping to have more shows up and running again soon. In the meantime, he’s continuing to focus on communicating effectively to his students with magic. He uses a mind-reading stunt to illustrate the principles of psychological testing and razor blades as a metaphor for adversity.
Along with the tricks are several hours of scientific expertise, something Blanton urges her viewers not to forget. It might seem like fun and games, but studying psychology is no joke, she said. Even if Professor Virden makes it that much more fun.
So much more fun that his students threw a party to celebrate his viral video. In a follow-up TikTok, Virden enters his classroom to a crowd of students shouting “Congratulations!” and giving him a round of applause. They hang number balloons (6.6, for the number of millions of people who’d seen the original video at the time, a number that’s now over 8). Below the balloons is a cake with Virden’s picture on it, top hat, straitjacket and all.
Virden was dumbfounded, then grateful. Students had never thrown him a party before, he said. But no matter the class, there’s been something in every year of his teaching that touches him.
“Psychology, I think, asks the most interesting questions,” he said. “And I find that people are the best collections of stories that you can ever, ever hope for.”
Virden, to his students, is no exception. In the video of the party, once he registers what’s happening, he smiles and laughs.
Then he removes his top hat and takes a bow.
Melina Walling is a general assignment reporter based in Phoenix. She is drawn to stories about interesting people, scientific discoveries, unusual creatures and the hopeful, surprising and unexpected moments of the human experience. You can contact her via email at or on Twitter @MelinaWalling.
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