This is a guest post by Bo Gardiner, the pen name of a Virginia-based environmental professional, naturalist (in both senses of the word), writer and humanist activist. She blogs at Under the Greenwood Tree.
Erin Auerbach was a failed actress who came to Las Vegas for an exciting job opportunity that fed what she admitted was a strong ego: She was going to become a professional psychic. “The thing is, I’m not sure that I’m psychic,” she admitted to the interviewer.
“That’s OK,” he replied. “We’ll give you everything you need for the job.”
It seemed easy at first.
I attended one short training session… He stressed that we didn’t necessarily have to be psychic to do the job…
The main thrust of the job entailed keeping clients on the phone for as long as possible. At $5 per minute, some lonely, needy or desperate person could pay hundreds of dollars for a chat. (By the time I joined the 1-900-number business in 1998, laws had been passed to automatically end the calls after an hour. Too many sad sacks had racked up thousands of dollars in phone bills they would never be able to pay. After lots of complaints, the government intervened.)…
It wasn’t hard to tell herself in the beginning that she was simply in the job of making people happy:
Anita [her pseudonym] had only positive things to say about everyone’s future. Trust me, no one wanted to hear otherwise…
So I gave every card a positive spin. “Oh, I see we’ve pulled that Death Card. How exciting! You’ve overcome a lot. This means good things are going to happen for you.”
In response to what most women wanted to hear, I said: “Well, of course you’ll find love. And soon.”
And for men: “A new career opportunity will give you lots of options and more money.”
But Erin wasn’t a good professional psychic. Why? First, she was a lousy actress, and second, she had a conscience (unlike her coworker Russ, a “talented actor” who “thoroughly enjoyed perpetrating a fraud”). Soon Erin began to understand the dark side of the psychic’s job:
Some people had terrible problems and cried a lot. I had a list of crisis hotline numbers to give to those who confessed to thoughts of suicide and other equally alarming problems…
An 18-year-old caller from Alaska… wanted to know if he should enlist in the military so he could pay for college… He didn’t have any money, and his parents were gone.
I cringed. How was this poor guy ever going to pay for this call? My stomach hurt. I identified with his uncertainty, his searching for a place to fit in, and his desire to escape, but I had a safety net. He didn’t. That’s when it occurred to me that I had no business trying to guide anybody’s major life decisions. I had enough trouble with my own.
“So what do the cards say, Anita?” He sounded so hopeful.
… That’s when it dawned on me that burger flippers, toilet scrubbers and those who facilitate elephant mating had cleaner jobs (and probably took more pride in their work) than I did. My psychic days ended with that call.
The growing American exodus from churches is well known to readers here, but what’s not as often discussed is the accompanying rise in New Age beliefs like psychics and astrology. For many of us who became nontheists after leaving traditional religion, New Age spirituality was a halfway house of sorts to independent thought. It certainly was for me. So this question of New Age religion’s relative value is an increasingly significant one.
So often I’m told by even my most skeptical friends, “But psychics aren’t hurting anyone. Besides, everyone knows it’s just for fun!” How such denial is possible is beyond me, when it seems we regularly read a new heartbreaking story of a troubled, vulnerable person who has lost everything to psychic scammers. Do we really have to ask what’s wrong with a business making false claims to consumers (knowingly or unknowingly) when it comes to providing psychic guidance to life’s most important decisions?
There’s another danger in even the most benign and well-intended of psychics: They’re a kind of gateway drug to a dependency on a group of people composed of predators and the disturbingly self-deluded. As magician and skeptic Jamy Ian Swiss said after the 2011 ABC Nightline “Beyond Belief” episode, in which he served as advisor for a fascinating on-air testing of psychics:
It’s inarguable that studies show it’s beneficial to talk to someone. It’s incredibly valuable to someone who is troubled to talk to someone. The problem with talking to a psychic, albeit the rates are cheaper, is the client goes out in the world more convinced that such things area real, and is far more vulnerable to the predator in the shop next door, waiting to take their money.
(Image via Shutterstock)