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Apr 08 2014

Psychics and Mediums: Where’s the Harm? Guest Post by Rebecca Hensler

This is a guest post by Rebecca Hensler, founder and co-moderator of Grief Beyond Belief, the online grief support group for atheists and other non-believers.

A lot of people think professional “psychics” are harmless. (Please henceforth assume that any time I use the word “psychic” it is in quotes.) Especially if you are sophisticated enough to understand the learnable skill of cold reading, you may simply chuckle at the gullibility of an audience gasping in awe as a celebrity psychic seems to “know things she couldn’t possibly know” about some stranger’s dead mother or grandfather or dog. Most of us even know otherwise intelligent people who believe that they or others have supernatural powers beyond their human powers of observation, insight into human nature, and a knack for the educated guess.

It wasn’t until I began grieving myself that I started seeing how psychics and mediums manipulate and profit from the bereaved. They can be particularly dangerous to — and particularly exploitive of — those experiencing the more complex, more painful and often longer-lasting grief that results from a traumatic death, a suicide, or the death of someone with whom the bereaved had a conflicted relationship. And boy, can they milk the heck out of the grief of parents! A friend for whom I care deeply has spent literally thousands of dollars on psychics since the drowning death of her toddler.

Some might still wonder, “If it makes her feel better, where’s the harm? It isn’t hurting anyone else.” I thought that too, until she began encouraging another grieving mother — a vulnerable younger woman — to seek help from the same high-priced psychic to contact her own baby who had died just days after birth.

Others might point out that not all self-declared psychics are out to make money. Some honestly believe that they can communicate with the dead, and are just trying to help people feel better, as we do at Grief Beyond Belief.

Just a week after my son died, my coworker tried to offer me that kind of “help.” She told me she had been in touch with my son, could “see” him. She told me he had told her why he had died. She told me that he hadn’t wanted me to suffer the pain of taking care of such a sick child.

As if there was anything I would not have been willing to suffer to keep him alive.

I left the room before I could start screaming at her. She thought she was being kind and supportive, so much so that she told me the same thing again a few weeks later. Her belief in her own psychic powers gave her permission to say something that as a friend and a counselor she would never have said otherwise.

Celebrity “psychics” such as Theresa Caputo, aka The Long Island Medium, present their own dangers. They do make money from private and group readings — a 30-minute session with Caputo is reported to cost around $400 to $500 — but most of their work is as performers, doing live shows, TV talk shows and their own “reality” programming. People who watch purely for entertainment or to admire the trick, as one would watch a magician or a hypnotist, are unharmed. But for those who are themselves grieving, the credulous crowds and fawning talk show hosts give undeserved weight to the promises that our loved ones still exist, still love us, and can be sought and found. Psychics — like preachers — tell believers that that death is not final, and that grief can be addressed through faith in a continuing connection with the immortal soul or spirit of the deceased. In other words, psychics, celebrity and otherwise, tell us that facing the reality of death — the first of psychologist J. William Worden’s “Tasks of Mourning” (Worden, 2009) — is unnecessary.

It’s a load of crap and a harmful one. The psychic — also like the preacher — profits, while the bereaved pay to delay exactly what is necessary for their healing. Psychics dine off the pain of the grieving, and celebrity psychics dine very well.

This is why I am joining Skepchick blogger Rebecca Watson in beseeching Ellen Degeneres to end her willing participation in Theresa Caputo’s exploitation of the grieving members of both her live and television audiences. Ellen is an intelligent woman, and should know better than to support this type of manipulative, deceitful bullshit. Perhaps she thinks she needs to sink to this level to compete with her fellow talk show hosts, but she is mistaken. Truly great hosts have always displayed respect for the minds of their fans, not just played to their emotions. They have challenged their guests, not just enabled them. Great hosts offer their audiences wisdom and compassion, not false empathy and false hope.

Charlatans of Caputo’s ilk have existed for millennia, around the world. For one talk show host to deny one such charlatan one audience does not solve the problem of this particular brand of grief exploitation. But, as the song goes, “it’s a damn good place to start.

12 comments

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  1. 1
    Gregory in Seattle

    No disrespect to Ms. Hensler’s excellent piece, but if I might summarize:

    Preying on people who are grieving, distraught, desperate or confused is just plain evil.

  2. 2
    tychabrahe

    STAN

    I’m saying this to you, John Edward, you are a liar, you are a fake, and you are the biggest douche ever!

    JOHN EDWARD

    Everything I tell people is positive and gives them hope! How does that make me a douche?!

    STAN

    Because the big questions in life are tough: Why are we here? Where are we from? Where are we going? But if people believe in asshole douchey liars like you, we’re never gonna find the real answer to those questions. You aren’t just lying, you’re slowing down the progress of all mankind, you douche!

  3. 3
    jrfdeux, mode d'emploi

    At one point in my life due to some extremely painful grieving from a loss, I resorted to online psychics in hopes of obtaining some kind of understanding and relief from the emotional agony. Let me tell you, some of us, when we’re in that kind of horrifying emotional pain, will give or do anything for surcease. Thanks to the Psychic Online Network (or whatever it’s called now) I ended up dishing out over $5,400 for their services.

    Looking back, I believe that a large percentage of the “psychics” I conversed with sincerely believed they had some other-worldly power. One in particular was extremely personable, and seemed to find fulfillment in helping people through their pain. They were paid something like half of the rate I was charged for the “online psychic time” which amounted to a dollar a minute. Thankfully I’m a fast typist.

    Serves me right for being so gullible. But also the pain I was in was so indescribable that I would’ve taken nearly any bait. Humiliation mixed with agony is a tough mix to face. :-(

  4. 4
    cactuswren

    I remember when Sylvia Browne was a regular guest on Larry King’s CNN show. I have no doubt that if anyone had confronted King, pointing out the obscenity of tormenting grieving people in this manner, he’d have protested that people are just taking comfort in it and they really do believe it — how can it be right to deprive people of something they really do believe in?

    Before CNN, back in the 1970s and 80s, Larry King was a late-night-radio host. Every New Year’s Eve, he devoted the show to an “interview” with the alien “Gork”, who supposedly existed a year in the future on the planet “Fringus”. “Gork” was too obviously only King’s own electronically distorted voice, offering intentionally preposterous “predictions” of what would happen over the next year. It was played for comedy, but always ended awkwardly — because by the end of the show, people were calling up to ask, absolutely seriously, things like “My daughter has cancer, is she going to recover?” “Will my husband come back?” “My son disappeared six months ago, is he still alive?”

    Exactly the sort of thing people asked Browne. King had to dismiss them with a vague mumble of, “I dunno what I’m talking about.” If anyone in the world knew eagerly some people would seize on anything, no matter how nonsensical — even things that were obvious fakes — King did.

    And yet, over and over, he had Sylvia Browne as a guest. Billed not as an “alleged psychic” or “self-proclaimed psychic”, but flatly as “Sylvia Browne, psychic”.

  5. 5
    nrdo

    I absolutely agree with Ms. Hensler’s analysis, but would go further and suggest that any “readings” that purport to deal with important life decisions are inescapably unethical. The consequences are less obvious and severe than those of charlatans like Sylvia Browne telling parents that their child is dead. However, people vary greatly in terms of their belief and suggestibility and a “psychic” telling someone whether they should consider a given course of action in life can also have serious negative effects on the person’s subsequent decisions no matter how well meaning they are.

  6. 6
    Anne Marie

    Right now, there’s a woman in NYC who’s been missing for a week. On the Facebook page for her search, a man commented that he was a “psychic” and gave “information” on what had happened to her even though he said he wasn’t “sure if this will help.” 21 people liked his comment. One person replied adding, “Bernard, add me i could use a reading.” I find that hideously depressing. There’s a woman missing and her loved ones are sick with worry and some guy shows up to tell them absolutely nothing and gets praise for it. Terrible.

    https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=375517175919758&set=a.374756319329177.1073741827.374744992663643&type=1&stream_ref=10

  7. 7
    thomwatson

    Ellen is an intelligent woman, and should know better than to support this type of manipulative, deceitful bullshit.

    You may be giving Ellen more credit than she deserves. She’s also been an outspoken advocate for Transcendental Meditation.

  8. 8
    Hershele Ostropoler

    My sophomore-year college roommate listened to a radio show that every week had a psychic on. If one overlooks the pretense — which she never made a big deal of that I recall — she wasn’t a half-bad advice columnist (or, radio equivalent thereof).

  9. 9
    Peter Fraser-Bodenham

    Delay the healing?!?!?! WTF….. no one ever heal’s from the death of a true loved one. They cope a bit better over time, but it never goes. So what if people want to believe in some sort of life after death, so what if people want to pay to have their beliefs validated by getting ‘messages’ from these so called psychics, It’s their choice to make.
    I would much rather be one of those people who could believe that there is something after death, rather than being a person who knows I will never see my loved ones again and that life is not a gift, but a pointless waste of time.

  10. 10
    Indra Blade

    This is the standard attack on religion perpetrated by those in service to the new world order globalist oligarchy implementing the world government.
    They need to destroy religion because as they strive for feudal, Orwellian world governance they cannot tolerate devotion to something other than the state, particularly something that promotes family, morals, individualism, marriage and the value of life, principles that are the antithesis of the Darwinian, feudal, Communist, eco-fascist power structure they seek to implement. Religion also promotes social cohesion via defined male and female roles that promote harmony as opposed to the intentionally orchestrated feminism designed to make male female relationships, marriage and family harder to form, hence more troubled broken homes and children to be raised and conditioned by the state machine.

    While Psychics are fake and profiting off misery, the real reason for this article is to attack the ‘afterlife’ as a doorway into attacking relgion.

    Many gullible liberals will jump on the bandwagon without realising that it’s heading down the road to breaching the human rights of millions to believe what they want.

  11. 11
    don1

    Peter Fraser-Bodenham

    Just because something is not a gift doesn’t make it a pointless waste of time.

  12. 12
    rebeccahensler

    Peter Fraser-Bodenham, the statement that “no one ever heal’s from the death of a true loved one” is only as accurate as the statement that “no one ever heals from the loss of a limb.” The fact that, even after an extended period of healing, a person who has suffered a serious injury never returns to their original state does not mean that no healing has occurred. Neither I, nor Dr. Worden, have suggested that engaging in his “tasks of mourning” will result in the bereaved returning to the condition in which they existed before the death of a loved one, only that those tasks are part of the process of eventually living a healthy life following that loss.

    I have never suggested that grief “goes” anywhere. I do, however, propose that it is possible to do more than “cope a bit better over time.” And I have learned that it is possible without belief in a god or an afterlife.

    I personally would rather be someone who knows I will never see my son again than force myself to believe what I know to be false. And I would rather honor my son with constructive action than by wasting money on psychics.

  1. 13
    Religious Oppression and Ridiculous Actions | Evangelically Atheist

    […] it is in quotes.) Especially if you are sophisticated enough to understand the learnable skill of cold reading, you may simply chuckle at the gullibility of an audience gasping in awe as a celebrity psychic […]

  2. 14
    The Reading List, 4/13/2014 » Almost Diamonds

    […] Psychics and Mediums: Where’s the Harm? Guest Post by Rebecca Hensler–”It wasn’t until I began grieving myself that I started seeing how psychics and mediums manipulate and profit from the bereaved.” […]

  3. 15
    No, actually we do pretty much know… | Grief Beyond Belief

    […] Do you ever get tired of hearing people say “Well, we don’t know what happens after someone dies”?  Or, “It’s not like anyone can come back to tell us what happens after we die, so we’re never going to know for sure”?  And then they use that as a justification for believing in their pet afterlife hypothesis: heaven or reincarnation or spirits hanging around and sending us signs, or celebrity psychics who can talk to your deceased loved one for thousands of dollars. […]

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