12 May 2013

Prophet and Loss

On Thursday, Eve Fisher set aside her usual article and wrote a heartfelt piece about opinion-mongers that judge the three young women who survived imprisonment by Ariel Castro. In a one-size-fits-all society, some people find it hard to understand different people react differently in differing situations. Patty Hearst paid for such judgment after her abduction because prosecutors and the public couldn't understand she'd been brainwashed and probably remains affected to this day.
A person can never tell how they'll react until events overtake them. My own reaction to armed robberies has been an out-of-body distancing: I felt like I was above it all looking down, not fearful or angry but sort of an unreasonable reasonableness. I patiently argued with them: No, I wasn't going to give up my watch and wallet. It wasn't the smartest response and there wasn't anything brave about it, but it was my reaction, one of an untrained man in a dangerous quandary who can't bear being pushed around. Perhaps that's part of the answer: in tense situations our innermost instincts emerge.

Subnormal or Supernatural?

money in the hand
As much as sick Cleveland abductor Ariel Castro disgusts me, another type of predator preys upon victims in the guise of 'helping' others. They call themselves…


Whenever a personal disaster strikes, slimy, slippery-tongued parasites crawl out of money-lined holes. They dispense advice and 'readings' to anyone who'll listen, hoping to make money from another's misery. Marc Klaas, father of a little girl who was raped and strangled, says "You become increasingly desperate and afraid. Every day the police don't find your child, you think they're not doing their job. So you go elsewhere, and psychics put themselves out there as a very viable solution." He goes on to say, "I call them the second wave of predators. First you lose your child and then these people descend. Every time."

Shock and Awww…

Contrary to public relations and opinion, study after study demonstrates predictions are almost always wrong. Nevertheless, psychics invariably find a way to reflect wrong predictions in their favor. In the Caylee Anthony case, close to ninety psychics descended upon Orlando to 'help direct' the search with spirit-guided 'blind driving'. A blathering Nancy Grace went on the air to beg the public to let the "professionals, the police and the psychics, do their job" to find the missing girl.

In fact the psychics, all 86 of them, got the location absolutely backwards, pointing the police in the wrong direction. Out of the first 2500 tips, all but two were from psychics, all of them wrong. And yet by the time of the trial, at least one medium managed to insinuate he'd been right although he hadn't managed to pinpoint the body even after Roy Kronk stumbled across the remains. Blind monkeys throwing darts at a map could have done better.

Nor is Caylee Anthony the only case occultists botched in Florida. The state boasts its own clairvoyant town– Cassadaga. You'd think with so many preternatural mediums gathered in one spot, crime should become a thing of the past, if not abolished at least rapidly solved. Sadly, that's not been the case.

Palmist Predators

In 1979, St. Cloud police relied upon Cassadaga fortune tellers rather than criminal science to assist in a then-rare homicide of a preacher's wife. They failed miserably. Years later, a new police chief and detective reopened the cold case in 2010 and, with proper investigation, came up with the killer.

But Cassadaga wasn't done embarrassing itself. In 2001, Lillian Martin and her grandson, Joshua Bryant, disappeared from nearby Deltona. Psychics tormented the family and variously predicted the grandmother had kidnapped the boy –or– the parents had killed them –or– they were abducted by a long-hauler at a truck stop. Psychics failed to predict they were apparently murdered by confessed killer Douglas McClymont and that the body of Joshua would be found three years later virtually on Cassadaga's doorstep.

But even Florida has its limits. After a dozen states complained, the Feds and the attorney general managed to take Miss Cleo, the actress with a fake Jamaican accent, off the air, but not before she'd conned a handsome living out of her bogus 'readings'.

Bacon Bits

The human mind has a way of convincing itself of things that aren't true. Therefore, I admit a few people may honestly believe they have prophetic dreams or psychic powers. They may be exceptionally good at reading people. I knew one of these for many years and she insisted she was never wrong, and indeed, she was right at least 49% of the time.

Her sister had an amazing talent too, that when she gambled, she never lost. Ever. And yet, when I was with her when she played slots or bought lottery tickets, I never saw her win once. Ever. And yet, she continued to insist, even to me, that she always won. Rob Lopresti quoted Francis Bacon who said the root of all superstition is the human tendency to remember hits and forget misses.

These sisters (two of five) were part of a family fractured by a radio psychic. Their mother's gold cross had gone missing. After months of anger and accusations, another sister phoned a 'world famous psychic' to ask about the missing cross, revealing suspicions about a nephew. The psychic agreed it was obvious the young son of yet another sister had stolen it. The old woman immediately disowned that daughter and her family. Years later, the case for the cross turned up– in the house of the sister who'd originally phoned the psychic.

The Magic of Mental Meddling

Multiple studies of paranormal predictions have discredited psychics and clearly proved several frauds. Subjects respond that scientific approaches and apparatus disrupt the metaphysical fabric of the other world and make it impossible for spirits to function on our side of the curtain. They claim the scientific community is out to get them. They claim the spirits won't speak in controlled environments.

But science professionals aren't the only fronts exposing fraud among spiritualists. A handful of magicians have taken on the task, most notably the Amazing Randi who offers a million dollars ($1,000,000) to any psychic who can prove their mettle. None has passed the test, including Uri Geller.

On Halloween night 2007, magician Criss Angel challenged Uri Geller's psychic ability, offering him a million dollars to prove he was the real thing. Geller could not. Criss Angel wasn't the first to discredit Geller and the list of his skeptics includes Johnny Carson. As far back as the 1970s, a French magician duplicated Geller's so-called feats of mentalism "even more convincingly than Geller." Eventually, Geller's stage manager, Yasha Katz, admitted Geller used simple stage tricks.

Geller blew his big crime chance when he was called in to investigate the disappearance of model Helga Farkas. Geller predicted she was alive and well, when in fact she'd been abducted and murdered.

And now, back to our story…

Sylvia Browne
And so we return to the case of the Cleveland kidnapper. To the disgust of many and the surprise of few, in 2004 infamous psychic Sylvia Browne told Louwana Miller, mother of Amanda Berry, her daughter was dead. The mother died the following year of, according to friends, a broken heart.

And yet after Amanda Berry's release, her cousin Sherry Cole "reached out to Browne" on Wednesday to offer support. "Our family in no way blames Sylvia. … We still love her and believe in her."

Jon Ronson, columnist for The Guardian, believes people are too polite to challenge the celebrity psychic. He's made sort of a project out of Sylvia Browne. Over the years, he's documented one failed prediction after another.
  • Browne claimed missing Texas 6-year-old Opal Jennings had been sold into slavery in "Kukouro, Japan," a place that doesn't exist. An autopsy revealed the little girl had been killed within hours of her abduction and buried in Fort Worth.
  • She told the parents of missing 11-year-old Shawn Hornbeck their little son was dead. The father said, "Hearing that was one of the hardest things we ever had to hear." Four years later, the little boy was found alive and well. Browne's ex-husband, Gary Dufresne, said of his wife: "I try to get her out of my mind as much as possible, but the damage she does to unsuspecting people in crisis situations is atrocious."
  • She claimed 19-year-old Ryan Katcher had been murdered and dumped in an iron mine shaft. Katcher was found in a pond, an apparent victim of accidental drowning.
  • She told Lynda McClelland's daughters in a 'reading' their mother was alive and had been abducted to Orlando, Florida by a man with the initials "MJ". McClelland's body was found buried near her home in Pennsylvania, killed by David Repasky, her son-in-law, who'd shaken Sylvia Browne's hand at the reading.
  • She changed her position three times within an hour in the rapidly unfolding events of the Sago Mine Disaster.
  • She predicted Michael Jackson would be found guilty of child molestation, when in fact he was found innocent.
  • She predicted Osama bin Laden had died in a cave in Iran when in fact he was subsequently killed in a compound in Pakistan.

The Big Lie

Extensive studies of Sylvia Browne proved false her claims she's more than 85% correct, concluding she erred in virtually every substantive prediction,  although in the majority of cases, Browne's 'help' was too vague and watery to be useful, e.g, "I see two boulders somewhere…"
  • Skeptic Robert Lancaster, creator of the web site StopSylvia.com, details a plethora of missing child cases Browne got wrong, noting James Randi calls her a "callous fraud".
  • Steven Brill is the founder of CourtTV, American Lawyer magazine, and the magazine Brill's Content, which examined fourteen cases of known outcomes. Law enforcement officials and victim family members evinced Browne was unable to provide any useful information.
  • Ryan Shaffer and Agatha Jadwiszczok of the Skeptical Inquirer found in 25 cases of known result, Browne was completely wrong.

In other words, if you find yourself blest or beset with a Sylvia Browne prediction, you can pretty much bank on the opposite outcome. Again quoting her ex-husband, Gary Dufresne, after a tarot reading party: "I said to her as we were washing dishes and she was wiping, I said, 'Sylvia, how can you tell people this kind of stuff? You know it's not true, and some of these people actually are probably going to believe it?' And she said, 'Screw 'em. Anybody who believes this stuff ought to be taken.'"

The Big Question

It's bad enough Nancy Grace puts psychics on an equal footing with police investigators, but it's truly embarrassing when police listen to psychics and follow up their 'leads'… which are almost invariably wrong.

The Guardian's Jon Ronson asked CIA psychologist Dr Ray Hyman why the agency and police departments bother to employ psychics. "People are basically nutty, which means there are just as many nutty people within our government and our law enforcement agencies as there are outside them."

Ah, so that explains it. Special Agent Chris Whitcomb of the FBI and the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children maintain that to their knowledge, psychic detectives have never solved a single missing-person case, not one, not ever.

Unfortunately, I predict desperate families and police departments will continue to hire clairvoyants. I must be psychic.


  1. A good piece. Alas, P.T. Barnum was right.

  2. How do you know theyre fake?

  3. Leigh, going back to the opinion mongers, I also have a problem with those who fault law enforcement. They should have caught him because he was pulled over due to improper license on his motorcycle? Since when does that offense authorize a search of the violator's home?

  4. PS - When developing the characters for the Callie books, I consider phone psychic for Jane's occupation, but discarded that in favor of the fantasy actress Roxanne. Decided I didn't want to go there.

  5. Thanks for this, Leigh. If anyone wants more proof that these evil people do real harm, do a web search for these words: Colleen Leduc psychic (to be clear, Leduc was the victim, not the psychic.)

  6. Hi Leigh,
    I’ve had a few “psychic” experiences in my life, but they have always happened infrequently. I had no control over them and believe anyone who claims to do so is either kidding themselves or is a liar. The one time I consulted a “psychic” she was so off the mark it wasn’t funny. You wouldn’t believe how many people told me she how good she was. I had her do a reading on a whim for ten bucks.

    I once had a gypsy offer to do me a reading, she must have thought me totally stupid because she grilled me first thinking I’d go for it. Why did she question me? So she could figure out what I wanted to hear. I told her no thanks.

    I get angry when I see “psychics” telling suffering people what they want to hear. That’s just WRONG in so many ways.

  7. Hi Vicki! Florida gets a lot of Gypsies or 'Travelers' in the winter season when 'psychics' signs start going up around Orlando. Like you, I detest people who prey upon others and pretended ability is no substitute for the truth.

    Rob, I know you see things similarly. I'm off to google Colleen Leduc psychic…

    Fran, I thought the same thing– since when should an expired motorcycle plate inspire suspicion about kidnapping women? And I'm glad you gave Jane the career she has. I find it clever and charming in an odd way.

    Anon, I assume you mean mentalists/psychics, etc. While it's not possible to prove a negative, it's possible to experiment in a controlled environment, which seems to flummox the breed. For example, Johnny Carson provided spoons to Uri Geller, which Geller failed to bend. Carson's implication was Geller couldn't manipulated undoctored spoons. Also, as the FBI says, they can't document a single situation in which a psychic actually solved a case. When they claim to, they're usually manipulating the facts or are deluded.

    Thanks, Janice. Barnum was right and so are you!

  8. Any psychic that advertises is a fake. Period. And any psychic who claims to know what happens to missing people - and then turns out to be wrong - should undergo criminal charges.

    How many of you remember a book called "Seance on a Wet Afternoon" by Mark McShane? A chilling tale, a great tale, about a psychic who kidnaps a child in order to help the police solve the crime and prove her psychic gift. With completely unexpected - unforeseen by said psychic - consequences.

  9. Rob, I just read about the Colleen Leduc case. What a stunt, a psychic claiming she could see a crime! Fortunately, the mother had fitted the little girl with an audio GPS, so she was able to prove nothing happened. But what if there was no GPS? The family could have been broken up on the word of a charlatan.

    Eve, I haven't read Mark McShane's Seance on a Wet Afternoon but it certainly sounds worth reading. Thanks for that!

  10. "Our family in no way blames Sylvia. … We still love her and believe in her."

    That is sad--and revealing. Psychics and charlatans are shameless and even when exposed continue to get support, even by some of their victims. The psychics know they are phonies, and continue to take advantage of these victims. Nothing is more abhorrent to me than someone who takes advantage of a terrible situation, "helps" those when they are most vulnerable, then brazens it out when they are exposed. I agree with Eve. File charges.

    Consider, too, the evangelists who take advantage of the gullible and never have to answer to anyone. I recall one elderly lady who gave thousands of dollars to one of these crooks and when he was prosecuted for misappropriation of funds, she found another one, equally as phony, and started donating to him. I guess some people deserve what they get.

    Nancy Grace is a buffoon. (Can a female be a buffoon?)

  11. A Broad Abroad12 May, 2013 22:20

    Although this site, What’s the harm?, has not been updated since early 2009, it provides links to articles in numerous areas where sharks and charlatans, frauds and fakes prey on the vulnerable, the desperate and the uninformed. Makes for both horrifying and heartbreaking reading.

  12. Hey Leigh: What do you think of these so-called "readers" who claim they can tell you exactly why your four-legged friend is upset or agitated? Is it an I.Q. thing or what? I'm not blaming the pet, you understand. It's the human in the relationship I question. By the way, ever notice how pets seem to "know" exactly what you're up to moment by moment. They read us like a cheat book. Spooky. Yours truly, Toe.

  13. Toe, I sometimes drive past a billboard advertising a pet clairvoyant– I wish I could remember how it's worded. And you're right– animals understand us a lot better than we understand them. My cockatoo, Valentine, is finely attuned to emotional tension. If we become upset, he does too.

    ABA, thanks for the link– and so professional inserted, too! Nicely done. I wish I'd seen that in time to include in the article.

    Herschel, I thought the same thing. But the psychology seems to make victims defend the psychic– in my research, I read victims often apologize to the psychic when the psychic get it wrong.

    Hershcel, maybe the word is buffoonette?

  14. See http://www.WhatsTheHarm.net/


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