When I was about 10, my mom helped out a friend of hers by occasionally watching her kids — a girl my age, and a boy a few years younger. I got along very well with the girl, and we enjoyed taking care of her brother while bossing him around. We’d all ride bikes, climb trees, swing on ropes into a creek — don’t be fooled, it wasn’t all hokey Tom Sawyer-esque cavorting. At one point I set up a small casino, taught them both how to play craps, blackjack, and roulette (I had a wheel) and took their money.
We all grew up and grew apart once the need to be babysat was past. I had just moved away to attend college when my mom called to tell me that the boy had been killed when a drunk driver struck his school bus.
I had been working at the time at a magic shop, and was dating a fellow magician. A day or so after the news, we were walking down the street and I said to him, “You know, I think I’ve changed my mind about the afterlife — I think there very well may be something.” I told him that I was watching TV earlier and saw a guy who claimed to be able to talk to the dead, John Edward. He told families things that he shouldn’t have been able to know. “It seems so possible,” I said.
My then-boyfriend looked at me in horror. “It’s what you do,” he said. “It’s a magic trick. Cold reading. You know cold reading.”
Of course I knew cold reading. I was studying magic and psychology, and using some of the same tricks on audiences myself. Edward just wrapped it up in a different presentation. The main difference was that in this case, I desperately wanted to believe in it. Researching Edward later, I remembered having heard of magician James Randi’s educational foundation and their million dollar paranormal challenge.
People often ask how I first got involved in skepticism. My stock answer is that I was a magician and a fan of James Randi, through whom I discovered the JREF. But I guess the elongated answer is that I became a skeptic the moment I believed in a fraud. It was hardly more than just the one moment, but it was enough to clearly illustrate the overwhelming power of belief and self-delusion.
Back on Monday with 80% less death, I promise.