I was 13 when my mom dragged my brother and I to a "psychic." We were visiting family in Malaysia, and somewhere amongst the palm oil plantations was the house of an old woman who claimed she could channel Buddha. My mother was enthralled during the hour-long ordeal, during which the woman rolled her eyes often so the whites were showing, dropped her voice a few octaves, and made astonishingly mundane statements that could've applied to anyone (examples: our house had ants out front; my grandma was old and having some health problems). Combined with my love of Harry Houdini ( who spent the last few years of his life debunking psychics and mediums) and teen angst that made me hate everything my parents liked, the experience left me convinced that psychics were con artists who separated vulnerable and desperate people from their cash in exchange for poor acting.
My stance on psychics hasn't really changed since then, but I also consider myself a fairly open-minded person and love having my views changed when enough solid evidence is presented. What if there really is something to psychics, but my mom had just chosen a shitty one? What if she had just been asking the wrong questions? People have turned to psychics for, like, ever, so there must be something to it all, right?
These questions have floated around in my head for a while, but it wasn't until last Sunday that I decided to act on them. Inspired by Houdini, I made up a basic pass/fail test that I could apply to see if someone was actually in tune with all the truths in the universe: If I made up a dead sister and asked a bunch of psychics to connect with her, how many wouldn't be able to tell I was full of shit?
I don't have a sister and am the oldest child in the family, so I figured inventing a big sister would keep any interfering energies or whatever it is psychics pick up on out of the picture. I created "Emily": born January 31, 1990; died June 2, 2014 in a tragic car crash. Her boyfriend, who was driving the car, died with her (RIP).
A quick Kijiji search came up with dozens of psychic/medium listings in Toronto and four immediately responded to my texts and emails. I was set.
My first reading was via phone call—the ad said the psychic was offering free mini-readings. She asked for my full name and birthday and Emily's. I gave her the details and almost instantly, she told me Emily wanted me to know that she's in a good place and that she's watching over the family. She also wanted me to be happy too, but said that my happiness only seems to last temporarily.
Could she tell me how to be happy? Or at least what's holding me back from true happiness? No, but she did see a happiness-ripping darkness surrounding me.
But how's Emily doing?
She's doing well. She doesn't want me to worry about her, but there's something going on here… what's going on in my love life?
"Not much," I answered, truthfully.
Could I be doing better in love, happiness, and success?
"Well, yeah. I guess?"
Apparently I'm meant to have a lot of money and success, but no matter what I do something's leading me in the wrong direction. For $250 plus the cost of two candles and a crystal, I could've had a circle of protection put around me and would see improvements in three to seven days.
The call ended soon after.
The second reading, also free, was done over email, which I didn't know was a thing. I had a response in my inbox within ten minutes of sending out a message with my name, Emily's, and Emily's cause of death. Even with the shift in technology, my sister was still doing fine—more than fine, in fact:
"It's a little different than what she expected on the other side, but she is quite happy and sees things very differently. I get she had a little of a 'wild' streak in her," Psychic Two wrote. She said Emily was mentioning something about clothing and I said she and I had exchanged necklaces.
"She's saying not to worry about her, she is OK. She says not to worry as she is fine and with you. [S]he wants you to live your life, a happy one," she wrote back.
Even though the answers were still pretty vague, this was the most detailed description I would get of Emily all day. The Houdini in me was doing backflips. Two for two.
To up the difficulty for myself and to make it easier for the psychics (it's one thing to lie over an email or call, but another to lie to someone's face), I decided to see my next psychics IRL—who knows, maybe getting readings via email didn't provide a strong enough spiritual connection or clues to see I was lying. I also looked for people who charged for readings (maybe you get what you pay for?) and settled on one for $20 and another for $40. Both told me to bring a photo, so I pulled one off a (very much alive) friend's Facebook and, armed with Emily's backstory and a few years of high school acting/improv experience, headed out for my third reading of the day. At this point, I was almost hoping to be called out soon—it was too easy.
Psychic Three's studio was nestled in a suburban strip mall and plastered with the classic psychic decor that makes graphic designers consider seppuku—deep purple signs with all-caps yellow text and neon crystal balls. I scampered up a bright red stairwell and into a purple room (same purple as the signs) where a smiling woman wearing a tank top and sweatpants was sitting at a small table. I sat down opposite her and took in the weird mix of art—a small tapestry of what I'm quite sure was Jesus and his disciples on the table, but also a fair share of Buddha statues, too.
She asked for Emily's photo. I handed her my phone. She stared at the screen and told me to say Emily's full name and birthday, then looked up at me. My heart dropped— would my face betray something?—and immediately jumped back into my chest when she told me she could feel Emily's presence and that she was happy. In a new development, Emily had "passed on" and become my guardian angel.
Using all my willpower to keep a straight face and sombre-sounding voice, I asked if Emily was mad about dying.
No, the psychic said, because it had been her time. Throughout the eight-minute reading, she repeatedly told me Emily's death was meant to be. Emily was sad that she left me behind, but she's in a positive place now and is the reason why I feel a presence around my house (it's her watching over me and I should try talking to her). I also learned that after death, souls hang around Earth for six weeks, which is why I dreamt of Emily a lot right after she died.
My fourth and last psychic was 30 minutes late for our meeting at her downtown condo because she hadn't expected traffic to be so bad (should've taken that as a sign). She charged the most, but I received a 45-minute check-in-on-Emily/see-your-future combo that was leagues above the others in experience and sheer entertainment.
Psychic Four was very motherly, constantly calling me "darling" and telling me how sorry she was for my loss. Her method of Emily-contact was a mix of prayer and coffee-dregs reading. She made me a small cup of Turkish coffee and when I finished the liquid, she placed the saucer on top of the cup, had me hold it with both hands while moving my arms in a circle three times and then flip the cup and saucer over and put it on the table. She put a blue glass cube with white circles on all six sides on top of the overturned cup and had me put my finger on the cube and make a wish. I did, and she asked me for the photo. I handed her my phone. She put a small statue of a Turkish philosopher and an angel snow globe in front of me and told me to hold on to both and pray while she turned on her laptop and started playing weird reverb-heavy new age music featuring a man and woman speaking about being intoxicated on love (not Beyoncé style, unfortunately). She was going to ask Emily to make herself known to me.
After ten minutes of bowing my head and trying really hard not to laugh, the music stopped.
The psychic, who'd had her hand on my phone screen the whole time, said she had felt it shaking and that it was probably a sign Emily was around (my friend had sent me two texts around that time). She also said she had been praying and crying with me too (I was recovering from a cold and sniffled a few times to try to keep snot from dripping out of my nose). She took the statue, closed her eyes, and murmured for 30 seconds, then took the glass cube off the cup and lifted the cup. The dregs formed a vaguely heart-shaped smear on the saucer.
"Love! You have love in your future! And tears," she said, shaking a few drops of coffee free from the cup.
The short version predictions are as follows: I have two men competing for me, I will pick one, be engaged by 2016, married by 2017, and have two children (a boy and then a girl) immediately after. My mother, struck hard by Emily's death, will forget the pain once I give her grandchildren. Emily is my guardian angel who will deflect bad things from coming my way. She died young because God loves her so much and wanted her with Him, and she's wearing all white and dancing with her boyfriend in heaven. I, on the other hand, have a long life ahead of me. I can afford to take this summer easy because I'll be hired into a full-time job come September (I currently work full-time), and not only that, but the job will be well-paid and I won't be some pleb—I'll start pretty high up the ladder, thank you very much. She also sensed I studied something like social work and the coffee dregs told her I went to the University of Toronto (I majored in journalism at Ryerson).
Emily wanted me to be happy and wanted to get some rest, too. It's important to remember her and even talk to her but it isn't healthy to dwell on her death, Psychic Four said, and for the first time that day, I began to understand how some people can find going to a psychic comforting. She hugged me a few times as I was getting ready to leave, and as I stepped outside she told me "life is a gift."
But as much as I liked Psychic Four, she was the fourth out of four psychics who claimed to have connected with a non-exist Emily. Thirteen-year-old me had been vindicated. Houdini was smiling down on me.
Kind of shocked that I had successfully bullshitted my way through four psychics, I decided to follow up with all of them via text (email, in Psychic Two's case) to tell them about my little experiment and see what they had to say for themselves.
Psychic One: "There's a spirit around trying to tell you something, but why would you do that anyway."
Psychic Two said it became obvious when I lied about the necklaces, nothing more.
Psychic Three called me a few minutes after I sent my text. She said she read the picture and told me what the picture told her, and the picture told her the person in it was happy. It didn't necessarily mean she thought the picture was of Emily. I asked her about the guardian angel and passing on bit but she stood firm.
"The picture reading shows me what goes on in the past life and in this life […] So if it shows me she was your guardian angel at one point, she was a guardian angel," she said. She added that the reading wasn't accurate because I had come in with the intention to trick, that the energy I came in with was one about my sister which is what she picked up on, that the whole thing wasn't very "civilized" of me and that she'd be calling other psychics and warning them about me. She told me she's been tested by people who declared their intentions and passed their tests, and offered to give me a reading that would reveal secrets about me that not even my closest friends know. I declined.
I'm not sure Psychic Four understood my confession: "Well darling, you have a sister and protects you! And loves you.. You take care of your self you need meditation and I am sorry for your loss again." [ sic]
I don't think any of these women intentionally bullshitted me. I'm sure they believe they possess abilities to communicate with the dead and tap into people's lives. But, again, out of four psychics—people who claim to have special powers to know greater truths—not one noticed that the very premise I approached them on was phony. Maybe it's because I sprung for the cheaper ones. Maybe it's because I found them on Kijiji. Maybe I'm so fucking good at lying that, like Psychic Three said, I managed to conjure up enough spiritual energy to bring Emily into existence. (I guess there's also the possibility that they all knew I was lying but didn't care because I was paying them.) Or maybe psychic powers don't really exist.
Besides reaffirming my belief that I'm a great liar and should do it more, my test also helped me understand the emotional benefit psychics can provide for some people. If you're willing to let yourself believe they're not full of shit, psychics can help ease the fear of the great unknown that is death and give meaning and purpose to seemingly unfair and random events in our chaotic universe. To me, that's a form of preying on the weak and exploiting people at their most emotionally vulnerable, but if you believe in the afterlife and psychic powers, I can understand how the experience would be comforting—after all, who doesn't want to know that a loved family member, living or dead, is doing OK?
So, there you have it, my first (and probably last, since I'm apparently shitlisted) foray into psychic-busting. I'm not going to tell people to stop seeing psychics—if it makes you happy and you have the cash, go wild. Whether you go in as a believer or as an asshole like me, the psychics are the ones making bank, so either way, in the end, they win. And who knows, maybe I have a sister I don't know about whose birth and death dates I guessed right, in which case I should set up my own psychic shop. I'm sure Emily would approve.
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