“Psychic” Psychopaths Have to Go

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As many of you know, I got my start in this business – the business of talking to you on YouTube – through psychics. When I was 17 I started working at a magic shop and that eventually led me to befriending James “The Amazing” Randi, an escape artist who offered a million dollar prize to anyone who could prove they have any kind of supernatural power. Randi came from a long history of magicians exposing people for using magic tricks but claiming to have special powers, like gurus and dowsers and perhaps most famously, psychics.

Despite millions of people over thousands of years claiming to have psychic powers, no one has ever been able to prove that they are doing anything other than a clever magic trick: usually, cold reading, hot reading, “Barnum statements,” things like that. These are all techniques that are as easy to master as basic sleight of hand stuff, but the difference is that no one but a 4-year old thinks that you ACTUALLY made a coin slip into an alternate dimension. Adults WILL believe that you actually can speak to their dead loved ones. The only difference is that they really, really, really want to believe you’re talking to MeeMaw. No one really gives a shit where that quarter went. We wanna know where MeeMaw went. When she died.

Anyway, let me state up front that I am very biased on this topic: anyone who claims to be a psychic and takes money from people for their “services” is a ghoul–a sick, predatory animal who preys on vulnerable people to enrich themselves, regardless of who they hurt. And they do it knowingly, in my opinion. M. Lamar Keene is the pseudonym of an ex-professional psychic who detailed his journey in the book “The Psychic Mafia,” and he points out that lots of people start out by just fantasizing that they have magical powers, giving “readings” to family and friends and occasionally sharing their creepy prophetic dreams or whatever. My great grandmother was a psychic, in that she just “knew” things. She wasn’t working carnivals, she was just a normal little old lady who everyone in the family said accurately guessed the sex of every baby in the family before they were born. You know, really low stakes shit, at least back in the days before expensive gender reveals were a thing.

But Keene points out that the “psychics” who go on to make it their living inevitably come to realize that they are liars. Because you can’t actually make a living by occasionally correctly guessing that someone is going to have a baby girl. In order to make it a job, you inevitably must start lying, and lying well, because psychic powers do not actually exist. They may start small, with some “hot reading,” like, your cousin’s sister-in-law comes to you for help and you already know some stuff through the grapevine. So you casually mention her drinking problem but pretend you saw it in the tarot cards instead of through your gossipy family.

And eventually you work in some cold reading, which is where you throw out statements that are fairly common and focus on the ones that your client relates to. “I see someone with a J name, Jamie or John or Jessie or…oh yes, John, it’s John.”

Cold reading is so easy and so effective that I was recording a pilot for public radio 15 years ago, and I gave an off-the-cuff example of a typical cold-reading that a “talk to the dead” medium might do, and when I finished my sound engineer came into the room with tears in his eyes and explained that I had described his dead mother to a T and even though he KNEW I was not psychic and that I was just making it up, and he knew psychics aren’t real, it still affected him greatly. Imagine how much easier it is when you’re throwing this stuff out to a sold out theater full of true believers?

Anyway, I’m talking about all this because I kinda hoped that we were past the age of television mediums but I guess we aren’t. The other day I saw this BONKERS clip from CBS Sunday Morning, in which these complete dweebs give nearly six minutes of PR fellatio to a guy named Tyler Henry.

Henry is a sociopath (IN MY OPINION) who pretends (IN MY OPINION) to have magical powers so that he can make people cry and give him money. Some of those people are strangers in a large audience, for which he can easily use cold reading techniques. Others are one-on-one video chats for which he can easily get the person’s name and basic information to do some googling beforehand for a hot reading, and now because he’s so gosh darn famous with his own TV show, he can give readings to celebrities like Jim Parsons from the Big Bang Theory. This is the absolute easiest gig a psychic can get, because celebrities tend to be very credulous AND have all their private information spread everywhere. For instance, it took me about 3.7 seconds of searching to find Jim Parsons’ father’s death information (thanks, which lists Jim’s grandmother, Mae Alice Johnson Parsons.

Henry describes his first psychic experience at the age of 10. He woke up in the middle of the night and just KNEW his grandmother had died. He went to tell his mom and as he was telling her, the phone rang: it was his dad, explaining that his grandmother had in fact just died.

Now if this were a friend sharing this experience I would, like CBS Sunday Morning interviewer Tracy Smith, nod my head and say “Oh wow.” But because this is a man giving the foundation for an enormous multi-million dollar scam he is currently perpetuating (IN MY OPINION), instead I’d like to know why his dad was with his grandmother in the middle of the night when she died, instead of home with his wife and child? Could it be because she was, I don’t know, ON HER DEATHBED? Could tiny Henry possibly have known that dad was with grandma in the middle of the night for the very reason that she was about to die? No, no, that’s ridiculous. His dad probably just got up in the middle of the night and drove to grandma’s house because he forgot to return the lawnmower that she said she needed the next morning, because she was sprightly and active and wanted to get some landscaping done before the sun came up. But as he handed over the machine to her at 2 in the morning, a rattlesnake suddenly leapt from the engine, biting her on the face. The hospital had no antivenom on hand, and grandma’s life ended prematurely, in a completely unexpected manner. That’s probably what happened. Not the other thing. The thing where everyone knew she was about to die.

Anyway, I guess the people around him must have bought this story of psychic powers because he realized he could make way more money doing that then something stupid like…hospice care. Huh, I wonder what got him interested in hospice care in the first place…you know what, it probably doesn’t matter.

Here’s what Henry tells the reporter, and possibly himself, about how this scam is actually good for the people he takes money from: it helps people process emotions that they don’t generally feel comfortable processing. It’s a beautiful opportunity.”

He goes on to say that he embraces skepticism, so let me express some now: I don’t think lying is a beneficial or even a kind way to help people process their emotions and especially not their grief. If your kid’s hamster dies and you tell him Waffles went to live on a hamster farm where she will do hamster activities until the end of time, you haven’t helped him. You’ve AVOIDED a difficult but extremely important conversation about death and dying. And if you continue to lie, like by getting letters from the hamster farm talking about how much fun Waffles is having, you’re just pushing back that conversation to the point where it will become much, much harder in the future for your son to understand what happened and how to grieve.

I will say that I’m sure there are some people who get something warm and fuzzy out of Henry’s lies. I personally think about my dead grandmom a lot, and if I believed in an afterlife AND the ability of a random guy on TV to speak to people in the afterlife, and he told my my grandmom says she’s proud of who I am today, I’d probably walk away feeling pretty happy about that. I’ve already grieved her because she died when I was a kid, so the hard work of that process is over, and this is just a little happy thought. Great. I’m sure that Jim Parsons didn’t end up worse off because this jerk made him believe that his grandmother said “sorry I was such an asshole.”

But is that happy little pick-me-up worth it, if the same kind of lie can and is used to devastate people? You won’t see any of that in a 5-minute fluff piece on CBS Sunday Morning (though we do see a few seconds of what appears to be a man having a full on breakdown because he lost his niece a month ago, which doesn’t seem great). But we have AMPLE evidence of the damage these TV psychics can do, thanks to their victims speaking out and investigators like Randi exposing them. This has happened SO OFTEN, despite the precautions these frauds take AND the general unwillingness of victims to speak up for fear of being embarrassed or mocked or sued, that it’s now standard to do what Henry does in this interview and admit that yes, many of his colleagues are frauds. But he’s for real. They literally all say that. All of them. Every one. And every one is eventually exposed to be a fraud.

And so let’s turn to Sylvia Browne, one of the worst human beings to have made it to the 21st century. A big reason I wanted to make this video is because I saw that clip of CBS Sunday Morning literally the morning after I listened to an old episode of the true crime show 20/20, called “Captive, a journey of hope and survival.”

The show describes the story of Michelle Knight, Amanda Berry, and Gina DeJesus, three girls who were kidnapped in 2002 through 2004 by a monster in Ohio. A year after Amanda disappeared, her desperate mother went on the Montel Williams show to see Sylvia Browne, in the hopes that she could guide her to Amanda. Instead, Browne informed Louwanna Miller that her daughter was “not alive, honey,” that her corpse could be found in water, and that she’d see her again in the afterlife. Miller said she believed her, and she died of heart failure the following year.

It’s a heartbreaking story, and that’s before you learn that Miller died in hopeless, abject grief, having no idea that her daughter was in fact still alive and being held captive just a few miles from home. She would escape after ten years in captivity to learn that her mother was gone.

Sylvia Browne didn’t help Miller “process” emotions. She stole her hope.

Now, I knew all of that before I listened to this episode of 20/20. What I didn’t know was that the story gets even more heartbreaking. Because in that episode, I learned that Amanda Berry was allowed to watch TV while chained up in her prison, and she loved watching Sylvia Browne, and hoped her mother would go on one day so Sylvia could help her find her. She watched in real time as Sylvia Browne told her mother to give up looking for her because she was dead. Not only did Browne steal the mother’s hope, but also the daughter’s. Oh, but it’s okay because she told someone else once that their great grandfather died of a stroke and says he’s happier in Heaven. It all washes out, right?

That’s just one example of course. She told another woman that her daughter had been sold into white slavery (when she had been murdered), Shawn Hornbeck’s parents that he was dead and buried under a boulder (when he was alive), and a grieving widow that her husband had died by drowning, before the widow revealed that he had died in the World Trade Center on September 11th.

Back in the day my late friend Robert Lancaster had an entire website dedicated to cataloging Sylvia Browne’s victims, now available only on Just for funsies I went there and chose an article at random. It’s a letter from a woman reporting that her grandmother went to Sylvia Browne to ask if her deceased husband was happy in the afterlife, to which Browne informed her that he had cheated on her during their marriage. She gave her a common woman’s first name, which happened to be the name of an acquaintance of the family’s, which led to complete chaos.

I honestly think that this is the inevitable path of a professional TV psychic. As the years go on, each lie strips a tiny bit of humanity from you, until you have the amazing ability to tell the most heartless lies with willful disregard over how they will affect the lives of the people who believe you. Even that is me being a bit nice about it, because a lot of what Sylvia said actually seemed designed to cause the most pain, probably because that’s what made headlines and kept people coming back for more. I sneaked into a Sylvia Browne show once and recorded it, and it was one of the worst things I’ve ever seen. I have some transcripts of a few moments over on Skepchick if you’re morbidly interested. She told a woman that her husband was murdered by two people close to her. I’m sure that lady slept well that night.

So yeah, just when I thought we were done with all that, here’s CBS Sunday Morning giving a glowing segment to the new Sylvia Browne. Congratulations, Tyler Henry, you’re very rich now. I hope it was worth it.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor. Twitter @rebeccawatson Mastodon Instagram @actuallyrebeccawatson TikTok @actuallyrebeccawatson YouTube @rebeccawatson BlueSky

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