When Jon Ronson encountered Sylvia Browne

First he tells a story of one of her exercises in lost child finding.

A six-year-old, Opal Jo Jennings, had a month earlier been snatched from her grandparents’ front yard in Texas while playing with her cousin. A man pulled up, grabbed her, threw her into his truck, hit her when she screamed and drove off. Her distraught grandmother went on Montel’s show and said, “This is too much for my family and me to handle. We want her back. I need to know where Opal is. I can’t stand this. I need your help, Sylvia. Where is Opal? Where is she?”

Sylvia said, “She’s not dead. But what bothers me – now I’ve never heard of this before – but she was taken and put into some kind of a slavery thing and taken into Japan. The place is Kukouro.”

“Kukouro?” Montel Williams asked, after a moment’s stunned silence.

“So she was taken and put on some kind of a boat or a plane and taken into white slavery,” Sylvia said.

Opal’s grandmother looked drained and confused. Opal’s body was eventually found buried in Fort Worth, Texas. She had, the pathologist concluded, been murdered the night she went missing. A local man – Richard Lee Franks – was convicted.


She doesn’t give interviews any more, apparently not wanting to answer journalists’ questions about such things.

So Jon Ronson decided to go on a cruise where she was a guest lecturer. He went to her first lecture.

The next woman walks to the microphone.

“I have a strained relationship with my daughter,” she begins. “And I want to know …”

“Your daughter is strange,” interrupts Sylvia.

Sylvia doesn’t pause. Other psychics will often reach around for some inner voice, but Sylvia answers the question instantly, in a low, smoky growl, sometimes before the person has even finished asking it.

“Your daughter is stubborn,” she says. “She’s selfish, narcissistic. Leave her alone.” The woman reluctantly nods. Tears roll down her cheeks.

“Don’t get too involved with her,” Sylvia says. “She’ll hurt you. Leave her alone. I don’t like her.”

“Thank you, Sylvia,” the woman says.

I want to yell out, “Don’t listen to her! Sylvia doesn’t know anything about your situation! She’s just saying the first thing that comes into her head!” But I don’t.

There are some situations where skepticism really is the one thing necessary.

Famous sceptics such as James Randi say Sylvia is not a silly, deluded person who believes herself to be psychic. They say she’s a callous fraud. She’s just a good cold reader.

Why isn’t that kind of thing prosecuted?



  1. Nick Gotts (formerly KG) says

    Matthew 16:28 Verily I say unto you, There be some standing here, which shall not taste of death, till they see the Son of man coming in his kingdom.

    Well, if you start prosecuting one sort of callous fraud, there’s no obvious place to stop. Investment bankers, and pharmaceutical companies that hide poor trial data, might be at risk.

  2. Nick Gotts (formerly KG) says

    Whoops! I was commenting elsewhere and must have failed to copy what I intended to from the OP. #2 should read:

    Why isn’t that kind of thing prosecuted?

    Well, if you start prosecuting one sort of callous fraud, there’s no obvious place to stop. Investment bankers, and pharmaceutical companies that hide poor trial data, might be at risk.

  3. jamessweet says

    I think the biggest obstacle to prosecution is that it would be difficult to write a statute that covered it adequately and unambiguously, and would also be narrow enough to satisfy First Amendment requirements. “Don’t be a callous fraud” is not really a law 😉 What about somebody like Dick Morris, who is not claiming anything supernatural behind his predictions, but a) charges money for it, and b) is consistently wrong? Well, maybe he should be prosecuted too, but now we’re getting into difficult First Amendment territory. How do we prove Morris isn’t operating in good faith? And if he is, can we really prosecute someone for sucking at their job?

    Anyway, this is not to say we shouldn’t try. I absolutely agree, people like this should be in fucking jail. I think it’s non-trivial to make an enforceable law to accomplish that, but it’s worth the effort anyway.

  4. Reginald Selkirk says

    It was considerate of that Japanese white slavery ring to bring her body back to Texas for burial.

  5. Reginald Selkirk says

    The best book on cold reading is by Ian Rowland, The Full Facts book of Cold Reading. ISBN-13: 978-0955847608

  6. Phil H says

    False advertising, surely! We probably can’t stop her doing what she does, but there are laws to stop her claiming that the services she offers for money are something that they are not. I don’t know how such laws are interpreted in the USA, but in the UK, I’m fairly sure you can keep this kind of thing to a very low level. It couldn’t get on TV like that, for example.

  7. Kimpatsu says

    Kukouro? Where the hell’s that? There’s certainly nowhere in Japan with that place name; it doesn’t match the way proper nouns are formed in Japanese. But Sylvia is very good at concocting word salad: http://www.stopsylvia.com/articles/novusspiritus_anaramaicprayer.shtml

  8. freemage says

    Phil: She probably, like most psychics, puts a line in the advertising and promotional material about her show being ‘just for entertainment purposes’. That drastically limits how much they can go after her, no matter how much damage her advice does to the people who take her at face value.

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