Skepticism

My Confession

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.  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.  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.)  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.  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.  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.  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”.  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.  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.  What if there was no such thing as psychic powers at all?  It would certainly explain my inability to get better at contacting the dead and my failure to move clock hands with my mind.  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.  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.  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.  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.  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.  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.  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.  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.  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.  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.  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.  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.  Hopefully it’s more than I’d guess.

Colleen

Colleen

Elyse

Elyse

Elyse MoFo Anders is the bad ass behind forming the Women Thinking, inc and the superhero who launched the Hug Me! I'm Vaccinated campaign as well as podcaster emeritus, writer, slacktivist extraordinaire, cancer survivor and sometimes runs marathons for charity. You probably think she's awesome so you follow her on twitter.

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58 Comments

  1. October 27, 2008 at 12:51 pm —

    Elyse, that was wonderful, and so brave. Without a doubt the best story I’ve ever heard about what psychics are really about. Thanks for writing this.

  2. October 27, 2008 at 12:53 pm —

    Awesome, Elyse, awesome. Skeptic blog post of the year, in my opinion.

  3. October 27, 2008 at 12:53 pm —

    Else, this was a beautiful post. I haven’t read an RSS feed with such alacrity in quite some time. Thank you.

  4. October 27, 2008 at 12:54 pm —

    I couldn’t agree with Jen more. Elyse, that was a fascinating retelling that offers a unique perspective on what it’s like to actually be a psychic. Thanks.

    And dammit you almost made me cry at work.

  5. October 27, 2008 at 12:54 pm —

    Very interesting. Thank you for sharing that.

  6. October 27, 2008 at 12:58 pm —

    Elyse, thank you so much for sharing this – it can’t have been easy.

  7. October 27, 2008 at 12:59 pm —

    What an amazing story, Elyse. Thank you for sharing it. *sniffle* I will not weep at work. I will not weep at work.

  8. October 27, 2008 at 1:01 pm —

    Oh, also, Chip Coffey is an asshole local Atlantan. We really need to do something about him. Amateur Scientist wants to take him out – http://www.amateurscientist.org/search/label/Chip%20Coffey – and now I have more reason to help.

  9. October 27, 2008 at 1:03 pm —

    Very touching. Thank you.

  10. October 27, 2008 at 1:05 pm —

    Wow. That’s some story. Thanks for telling it, and extra thanks for showing us a picture of your sister. That smile says she must have been as beautiful inside as outside. I know you miss her every day and I’m sorry for your loss.

    And dammit, you did make me cry. Luckily I’m at home where no one will see me.

  11. October 27, 2008 at 1:07 pm —

    That was so hard to read. You have my deepest sympathy.

  12. October 27, 2008 at 1:09 pm —

    It was a pleasure to read that story. Thanks, Elyse.

  13. October 27, 2008 at 1:11 pm —

    That was a wonderful and powerful post Elyse. Thanks for having the courage to share your story.

  14. October 27, 2008 at 1:12 pm —

    Thank you, that was beautiful.

  15. October 27, 2008 at 1:21 pm —

    Great post, Chica!

    I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone else who took that path to skepticism; actually becoming a psychic, I mean.

  16. October 27, 2008 at 1:30 pm —

    Incredible post, Elyse. That pretty much runs with everything else I have read about phone ‘psychics’. Folks don’t want psychic visions so much as they want an amateur psychologist.

  17. October 27, 2008 at 1:37 pm —

    Thank you for telling us about your experience, Elyse. Perhaps that was the only to convince yourself of the truth. I read your post with a lump in my throat…

    Everyone wants to know what, if anything, lies beyond the grave. The attraction to anything that might answer that question will be popular.

    My daughters went through a similar (though non-psychic) experience when they were in elementary school and one of their friends was struck down by a drunk driver in broad daylight. Luckily, this was a bit before wide Internet availability and they were too young to be thinking of psychics. It was still a difficult time for all of us, as we struggled to explain what was known and not known about death.

    Thank you again.

  18. October 27, 2008 at 1:39 pm —

    Great big skepchick hugs for you, Elyse.

    And add me to the list of people blinking very hard at work.

  19. October 27, 2008 at 1:42 pm —

    Thanks for this post, Elyse. That was a very brave thing you did, actually seeing for yourself how those psychics were lying to you and others.

  20. October 27, 2008 at 1:58 pm —

    Thank you so much for writing this. I know it couldn’t have been easy, I know it wasn’t easy for me to read since I’m still teared up now.

  21. October 27, 2008 at 2:00 pm —

    This really is a beautiful illustration of the bravery I think it must take to embrace skepticism. Thanks for sharing this. *hugs*

  22. October 27, 2008 at 2:00 pm —

    @Sam Ogden: You know, I keep bringing this up here, but it’s something that has to be said until it’s actually heard: Derren Brown is as awesome, if not many layers more so, than The Amazing Randi.

    He didn’t become a psychic (immediately), but he did become a hypnotist.

    So much to learn from him about human nature.

    Hopefully he’ll show up at the next TAM so I don’t have to be alone in my Derren-worship here in America.

  23. October 27, 2008 at 2:05 pm —

    That was wonderful. Thank you for sharing it, and I admire your strength.

  24. October 27, 2008 at 2:07 pm —

    @JRice:

    I’ve heard Derren Brown’s awesome, and don’t mean any disrespect by lack of mention. I’m just personally not all that familiar with his story.

  25. October 27, 2008 at 2:18 pm —

    What a wonderful post. Thank you so much for giving me a glimpse of what it must be like to feel lonely and sad and desperate enough to patronize a psychic. Sometimes it’s easy to forget that a lot of belief is connected to painful experiences and not just some sort of malicious ignorance.

  26. October 27, 2008 at 2:20 pm —

    What a wonderful post.

  27. October 27, 2008 at 2:20 pm —

    @Jessica: Jinx!

  28. October 27, 2008 at 2:35 pm —

    Elyse: thank you for this brave and wonderful post. You ROCK!

  29. October 27, 2008 at 2:44 pm —

    @Jessica:

    desperate enough to patronize a psychic.

    I love it when words have two different meanings, and they both work in a sentence. Although when I’ve been patronizing to a psychic, I’ve never felt all that desperate.

    Elyse, I admit I didn’t tear up reading your post, but I do think I bit through my own fillings.

    My coworkers are conditioned to me standing up and shouting COFFEEYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYY with no warning, shaking my fist at the merciless heavens.

    When RSL gets back on his feet, we’ll have to see if we can license the Stop Chip Coffey logo. And it looks like StopChipCoffey.com is available…

  30. October 27, 2008 at 3:03 pm —

    Elyse,
    Feel free to tell me to fuck off I will totally understand. Did any of your friends or family try to talk you out of your use of psychics?

    When it was almost time to come home from Kuwait one of my fellow petty officer’s found out that his wife was able to get tickets for the biggest douche in the universe John Edwards’ show. He was thrilled and hoped he would be able to talk to his dead grandparents. I tried to talk to him about it but I couldn’t find a way to do it without hurting him. It was really tough.

  31. October 27, 2008 at 3:05 pm —

    That was very inspirational, thank you.

    I’ve got to admit I have no idea who Chip Coffey is (maybe thats a good thing) but my favourite psychic to hate on is John Edward. When I see the lying bastard stand there and deceive the hoards of mostly female members in his audience, I feel like throwing something at the TV.

  32. October 27, 2008 at 3:20 pm —

    Thanks for sharing this with us Elyse. Truly a beautiful posts. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got something in my eye…

  33. October 27, 2008 at 3:21 pm —

    Great story… Thanks for sharing.

  34. October 27, 2008 at 3:35 pm —

    just wonderful. Even better when I put on my reading glasses and see that it does not refer to “physics”. As soon as I read physics was a scam I got the glasses and then enjoyed the post.

  35. October 27, 2008 at 3:54 pm —

    Wow. Very nicely written, and very powerful. I can hope that people who seek out a psychic will read this first.

  36. October 27, 2008 at 5:22 pm —

    Thank you for sharing that story Elyse. Your sister was beautiful and I’m very sorry for your loss. People stay alive in a sense as long as there is someone thinking about them and today you have not just you and your family but also strangers around the world thinking about Colleen.

  37. October 27, 2008 at 5:41 pm —

    Excellent post

  38. October 27, 2008 at 5:47 pm —

    Great story Elyse, thanks for sharing all of this with the Internets.

  39. October 27, 2008 at 5:51 pm —

    This was an amazing story and an incredibly interesting point of view to see. Thank you Elyse.

  40. October 27, 2008 at 5:57 pm —

    Elyse, you rock even harder than i could have imagined.

  41. October 27, 2008 at 6:26 pm —

    Elyse, thank you for sharing this. I have new perspective on your blogs, and a better understanding for why people don’t see what most skeptics do.
    Your sister was a beautiful young woman, and I’m sure a beautiful person also.

  42. October 27, 2008 at 7:46 pm —

    Beautiful, the post and your sister.

  43. October 27, 2008 at 9:19 pm —

    Awesome post. A bit sad, but I’m so glad you are a skeptic now.

  44. October 27, 2008 at 10:50 pm —

    You honor your sister with your writing, E. Thank you for sharing this.

  45. October 27, 2008 at 10:59 pm —

    Thank you. All of you.

    I don’t even know what to say. I expected some backlash, not this amazing outpouring of love and support.

    Thank you… just thank you.

  46. October 27, 2008 at 11:01 pm —

    @Gabrielbrawley:

    I knew people would think it was silly, most people didn’t know about it. My husband didn’t even realize it until he read this post. I was kind of like the alcoholic that hides booze in the toilet tank.

  47. October 27, 2008 at 11:03 pm —

    For all the good you’ve done here, Elyse, I think it is safe to say that the good that came from this outweighs the bad. Thank you so much for sharing.

  48. October 27, 2008 at 11:15 pm —

    Brave post. Well done. I’m sorry for your loss. Thank you for sharing this with us. And yes, you are freaking awesome.

  49. October 27, 2008 at 11:47 pm —

    I cried. Manly tears, I assure you…. ;_;

  50. October 28, 2008 at 12:00 am —

    Thank you Elyse. Even someone who’s of skeptical nature to begin with can fall prey to those vultures while trying to come to terms with such a tragic loss. It took great courage to reject their charms, especially when you had believed in them before hand.

    As for crying…Well, after losing my own brother to cancer at 20, a few tears don’t bother me too much.

  51. October 28, 2008 at 12:15 am —

    Elyse, reading something as moving and touching as this makes me realize even more how great you are. I am buying you a dirty martini at the green zebra as soon as Carr2d2 and I get there. :-)

  52. October 28, 2008 at 10:52 am —

    A brave and intimate post, I salute you!

    I agree with Sam, opening a Psychic Hotline is a rather unusual way to become a skeptic. But, I would guess that nothing is more convincing of how easy something is to fake than doing it yourself. :-)

  53. October 28, 2008 at 2:03 pm —

    Elyse,
    so sorry to hear about your sister. This was a wonderful post.
    Take care.

  54. October 29, 2008 at 1:19 pm —

    @Elyse: I am so sorry that you thought the people on this sight wouldn’t support you. It seems that whenever people need support here they receive it. I would have been shocked if your heartfelt confession had been treated in any way other than it was. With love and respect and care.

  55. October 29, 2008 at 3:45 pm —

    Wow, what an incredible story. It is a wonderful monument to your sisters memory as she was clearly the catalyst of your finding your skeptical path and this was a great way to honor her memory by recounting your experiences. Hopefully your story will help others to see the psychic swindlers for what they are and show them the light of reason.

  56. October 30, 2008 at 1:44 am —

    Elyse: powerful and enlightening! I’m distressed to admit the John Edward Show originates from the facility at which I work.

    It might give you some small bit of solace to know that slime is not held in high regard here; quite the opposite.

  57. November 15, 2008 at 2:07 pm —

    It’s been awhile since you wrote this. I’ve been trying to think of a good comment, because it is one of the best things I’ve read on Skepchick. But, I guess the piece speaks for itself. It reminds me of how important skepticism is, and it’s inspiring.

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