“Deep in the human unconscious is a pervasive need for a logical universe that makes sense. But the real universe is always one step beyond logic.”
― Frank Herbert, Dune
“I always wanted to do a full psychic reading cause I was curious,” says Emilie Lonkvist, 21, a Media Culture Communication student at Steinhardt. “So it was my birthday, and there is a lady who does them just across my street. As much as I wanted to believe what she was saying, it was kind of vague. She said that I will have a job where I will make a lot of money and help people, that I am going to die from old age, general stuff.” Emilie’s experience made me wonder how fortune tellers are staying afloat, especially in these challenging times. I thought persuading one of them to have an interview would be impossible, yet the willingness to talk was surprising.
“I get a lot of requests from journalists,” says Janet Lee, 46, the owner of The Psychic Of Soho. Lee’s business has been featured in multiple publications. “It’s been 20 years since the visit to Greenwich that launched Janet Lee’s successful business in our town,” says The Greenwich Free Press in an article dating back to when Lee’s parlor was in Greenwich. A contemporary New York Post story describes it as a popular after hours hangout, “the hot spot turns out to be the candlelit office of the Greenwich Psychic, Janet Lee.” As of 2020, Lee has establishments for psychic readings in New York, Connecticut, and Florida.
However, not all the news is good. “Former Greenwich’ psychic’ sentenced in Westchester court,” reads the headline of a Greenwich Time report. “Lee, 45, was arrested in Bedford, N.Y., in connection with the transfer of $11,600 from a Bedford woman to Lee for her fortune-telling services in June of 2018. Lee was also held responsible for the loss of $32,900 from a Greenwich woman, according to a 2017 lawsuit in Superior Court in Stamford, but was not charged criminally in Connecticut.”
Schemes such as claims of evil spirits and cursed money that attract the police to some mediums and psychics are nothing new. What is interesting is how individuals in those occupations and the modern culture, including scientific research of paranormal phenomena, describe the alleged existence of the supernatural. And incidents of fraud on behalf of the supposed seers may not imply that they don’t believe in their powers themselves.
“I was about ten years old when I started having dreams,” says Lee when asked about how she decided to go into her line of work, “growing up, I could not go to malls, restaurants, movie theaters. I would just hear things in my head. Like if somebody was going through something or they were upset or angry, I would have a snapshot in my head, and I would know how they’re feeling.” Lee then mentions that her grandmother had the same gift she used to help visitors and that Lee’s daughter is a practicing medium.
The notion of a family trait appears to be common, so much so that Daryl J. Bem interpreted psi as an evolved characteristic in a study whose validity we will later examine. Kara Johnson, a reader at Psychic Jade NY, says, “my father was a spiritual medium. I am Native Indian and also Greek, so a lot of women in my bloodline do this. At seven, I realized that something was happening to me after I was in a car crash. Once I woke up (in a hospital), I was able to feel everybody’s intensity, their emotions, their energy. In the early 90s psychic spiritualism was not very popular, so being in New York I wanted to be an interior decorator. But everything was just not working with me, and I realized that I wasn’t really doing what I deserved to do; my purpose here in life is to help others.”
The first divergence of opinions among psychics comes with the question of the source of their abilities. “We live in a world that is surrounded on a daily basis by energy,” says Lee, “so when people are gifted with ESP (extrasensory perception), the energies are trying to let us know what’s going on. You and I are in the flesh right now, but everything that comes here happens in the spirit first.” Johnson has a slightly different, more cosmic take on this. She mentions empathy for the person she reads as key for opening her chakras and the third eye so that she could pick up on what the universe holds for them, “the person is like a masterpiece to put together to see their future, but the source comes from the one who’s gifted.”
Parapsychology, the study of mental phenomena with paranormal claims, is historically closely linked to the fledging of academic psychology. To popularize the nascent science, late-19th century researchers such as Wundt, Munsterberg, and Preyer publicly demarcated the “new psychology” from psychical research. Nevertheless, even nowadays, one of the main reasons for supernatural beliefs apart from personal experience is academic publications. One prominent example is a paper by social psychologist Daryl Bem in the high-quality Journal Of Personality And Social Psychology. The study triggered a credibility crisis in psychological science not by swaying to believe in time-reversed causality but by creating doubt in other published findings in psychology. Since Bem’s article, it has become apparent that many researchers present results that fail to provide credible evidence for theoretical claims, such as replication, because they do not report unknown numbers of failed attempts. The sensitivity of social psychological effects to small changes in experimental procedures justifies that it is necessary to conduct many studies that are expected to fail. These failures are treated as unimportant, needed to find the conditions that produce the desired outcome. As a result, study after study is conducted in the search for a predicted outcome without realizing that a few successes among many failures are expected simply due to chance alone.
During the interviews, the last detail I wanted to discuss was the psychics’ point of view on their work being compared to magic, a negative concept for many people, especially Christians. “The three wise men are astrologers,” says Lee, “they predicted the future. There is also witchcraft in the Bible, and that came from the dark side. So it’s just like now. I believe that my vision is good, and I use the tarot cards as a tool for good, but the women who practice witchism do things through the dark side, and they also use the cards. So these are just tools.” Johnson, on the other hand, thinks that this is an outdated outlook, “the psychics that were once upon a time talked about in the Bible, or in a comic book or a fiction TV show are not realistic. Do I believe that there is good and bad among psychics? Yes, I do. I believe there are people who practice good work and not such good work. Today people are open to super-nature. It now becomes like a trend. So I think that the world became a little bit better towards psychics recently.”
As a matter of fact, some scholars in the fields of anthropology and religious studies have suggested that there is no real difference between magic and religion and that the categories merely denote social conventions. “For if I had been there then, should I not have thought, from the fact that the magicians did like things to those which Moses did, either that Moses was a magician, or that magicians wrought their signs by divine commission,” states a quote from The Ante-Nicene Fathers, a collection containing English translations of the majority of Early Christian writings, referring to the fact that Moses and Aaron demonstrated their authority by the use of tricks with which Egyptian magicians were familiar.