Back in the day, I believed in psychics. Fully. 100%. I loved them. I needed them. I only wished I had more money to spend to talk to them. Knowing that I could use a psychic to connect with my loved ones who have gone was easy to believe, and was the hardest thing to let go of.Â But once I did let go, I was able to call myself a skeptic, a stronger woman, with a new world-view. I was able to face my old beliefs full-frontal. But in order to get there, I had to prove it to myself that the whole business was a scam. For me, there was only one way to do it, and that was to actually do it.
Back in 2003 some time, I was on my way out of religion, and slowly on my way into what I now know is called skepticism. I was done handing over money to men who were using it to pay their defense lawyers to smear the names of the children they had harmed.Â I think the breaking point may have been when my own pastor was named. (I’m not really sure what specifically made me run from the Church, but rape was- and still is- one of my major turn-offs.)Â While searching for my new home in the spiritual world, I came to realize that there was a better explanation than “God did it all!” In fact, I came to realize that God probably didn’t do any of it.
But I wrestled with that.Â I knew that if I accepted that there was no god, then I had to stop believing in an afterlife… it meant that I could no longer communicate with my dead sister. It meant that my sister, who I missed terribly (and still do) was not watching over me. She wasn’t talking to me. She wasn’t sending me messages. She didn’t want me to know she was okay. She isn’t telling jokes to my grandfather and she’s not playing fetch with our childhood dog. She’s not proud of me. She’s not guiding me. She’s gone. Nothing more, nothing less. Just gone. It meant that the psychics I was communicating through to talk to her were lying to me. It meant I never talked to her after she was gone. It meant that the last thing I ever said to her was that sure, she could call me back later.
She never did call me back… until I talked with a man named Chip Coffey.
I won’t go into much detail about what Chip and other psychics told me about my sister.Â I was assured that Colleen was still around, that she loved me, there is no pain in the afterlife and all the typical beautiful, flowery, heartwarming bullshit that “spiritual mediums” say. Chip did paint a graphic verbal picture of her, on the pavement, a bloody mess of a half-dead body. As upsetting as it was to hear, that served as “validation”, I was told; a way for me to know that I was, indeed, talking to my sister who, just months earlier, died after being struck by a car while crossing the street. I really believed that this was something I needed to hear.
I wasn’t ready to let go of Colleen, and psychics let me hold on to her for as long as my credit card would let them let me.
But with a new world-view coming into focus, I had to walk away from those conversations with Colleen.Â And in order to walk away, I had to admit to myself that those conversations were never had.
For a long time, I brushed off those guys who would come on TV and talk about psychics using a trick called “cold reading”.Â You know the ones – the old guys with the beards… the ones trying to tell me that there was no way I could talk to Colleen anymore. They said that anyone who picked up a book on cold reading could, with practice, become as good as any daytime talkshow medium.Â I used to blow them off as cold, heartless old men who were trying to tear me away from my only means of contact with my beloved little sister. Now I was wondering what if they’re right?
I’d spent years trying to hone my own psychic powers (because supposedly we all have them) to no avail.Â What if there was no such thing as psychic powers at all?Â It would certainly explain my inability to get better at contacting the dead and my failure to move clock hands with my mind.Â What if the reason I couldn’t be psychic was simply because I didn’t open a magician’s handbook and read the chapter on this thing called “cold reading”?
I decided to answer that question for myself.Â If I could make people believe that I had special powers, then I had my answer.
So I became a phone psychic.
Rather than spend money and time reading books on the topic, I decided to just spend an afternoon Googling “cold reading”. I got the basics and got to work.
I decided that my psychic specialty would be love. I figured love advice, psychic or otherwise, was usually a pretty easy thing to give. And I refused to rape the minds of the grieving to prove a point and make a buck.
I called one of my friends, who was already a non-believer, and we came up with a game plan for how the calls would go down. I knew most of it would be improvising and making guesses based on information that the callers would give me, but I still needed a plan of attack. Making educated guesses, I had learned, was important. How would I get that information?
The very first thing I would do was get birthdates. I wanted to quickly get started taking calls. I knew I didn’t have time to memorize the Zodiac, but I could use birthdays as a frame of reference. Was I dealing with a 16-year-old getting over getting dumped at the prom or a 45-year-old woman trying to catch her husband cheating on her with his secretary? The callers could make the assumption that I was doing something astrological if they wanted.
Next I made a list of mundane things that everyone has a story about.Â Something that would apply to them personally without appearing to apply to anyone. It’s been years, so I can’t remember what all those things were, but a couple of my favorites stand out in my memory.
What did the note say? There was a note. On a small piece of paper. Tell me about it. What did it say? It was one of the first questions I’d ask. And I’d ask it suddenly, as if it came to me out of nowhere. I was trying to gain credibility. We’d barely gotten past names and birthdates and suddenly I already knew about this note the two love-birds passed between each other… or the note passed between friends about this target of hopeful lust… or it was a break-up letter that she wrote and threw away… or it was a phone number he found in his girlfriend’s pocket last night… There was always a note. Always. No one ever questioned this one.Â The first day of calls I took, my callers could practically see the green of my inexperience glowing through their phones’ earpieces. Some calls were unsalvageable wrecks of magled miss after miss.Â But most of the time, that initial hit – the note – gave my callers faith in me. Sometimes it even gave me divine credibility.
Who’s got the funny nickname? Of course, if I were psychic, I should have known what the nickname was and whose it was. But no one called me out.Â They were more impressed that I knew there was a funny nickname at all.
At that point, I usually had enough information to dispense some pretty solid advice.Â Even if I asked them not to offer up information, they couldn’t help themselves. Within 5 minutes I usually knew every detail required to tell them what they wanted to hear.
My callers usually already knew the answers to their questions before they even called; they just needed a “psychic” to look into the future and confirm they were making the right decision. It wasn’t hard to “see” what they needed to hear and “see” what they needed to do.
I took calls for about two weeks, then ended my experiment.
Though not the case with every caller, there was an undeniable theme of desperation and vulnerability. My most memorable caller was a woman, 44-years-old, who had been in a bad relationship for about a year and a half.Â She didn’t need a psychic; she needed a support system. She needed friends. She needed help. I dropped the psychic act early in the call, and talked to her like a friend.
Her boyfriend didn’t have a job. He didn’t help around the house. He didn’t respect her; he called her names. He’d go out without saying anything to her only to return the next afternoon, still drunk. It wasn’t hard to peek into the future and see that this wasn’t going to stop. What she needed to do was dump him and never looked back.Â She knew this, she told me repeatedly, but she was afraid. She needed the reassurance of someone who could see the end of this and tell her everything would be okay if she left him.
I don’t know what ever happened with her and her boyfriend. She very well may have stayed with him. I do know that there is little chance she would have left him if she hadn’t received “psychic” guidance. She would have been easy to take advantage of… I could have gotten her to call me every day for a year. And the reality is, she probably called more psychics after me. I hope she did the right thing. I hope she left him. I hope she didn’t get a second opinion. But I’ll never know. The call still breaks my heart, 5 years later.
My experience changed me, no doubt.Â I had a new disgust for the people who “help” people connect with their deceased loved ones.
I was able to look back at my talks with Chip Coffey and the like. For a long time I couldn’t figure out how he knew the details of my sister’s accident without me telling her how she died. I realize now that he never actually painted the picture. He threw out a few random nouns and adjectives (e.g.; red, black, car) and let me fill in the blanks. Those blanks were filled in with the mental image of my sister bleeding out on the street. As I described it back to him, Chip did nothing to dissuade me from believing that this was the information my sister wanted me to have, and instead encouraged me to continue picturing the accident site. That picture gave him two advantages. First, as I talked about the accident, it kept me on the phone, paying by the minute. Second, I provided him plate after plate of information at the all-you-can-eat detail-buffet of my loss. And immediately after talking to him, I believed that he was the one providing the details.
Thanks to my experiment I can walk myself through those post-Colleen calls I made, and I can see where I went wrong and how I was taken advantage of.
I used to watch the TV psychics in amazement.Â I would have given anything to get onto Crossing Over or Montel. After my experiment, I turned on these shows and I could see through the whole act. I could see exactly what they were doing, the whole process.Â I was still amazed… but for new reasons.
I can’t say that I’m proud of what I did. But I’m glad I did it. I can’t know if I would have ended up the skeptic that I am today if I hadn’t. The thing I regret most, though, is not telling my callers I was a fraud. I wonder how many saw through it.Â Hopefully it’s more than I’d guess.