Written by Jenna Sylvester
The Evolution of Psychic Mediums
I woke up early on a sunny Saturday morning so I could call a psychic. I had gotten her number through coincidence after mentioning my paper topic to a friend, she told me her family friend was a psychic. The psychic in question would later tell me that nothing happens by chance, and that the two of us were clearly meant to get connected. After calling about three times, she finally picked up on the fourth. Her name is Marty. That’s not her real name, but it’s what she goes by when she’s working so she can have some level of privacy. When she told me this it immediately struck me as something straight out of a super hero narrative. I loved it. I had about six questions to ask Marty, but I only ended up asking two of them out loud. She answered all of them without me having to voice them. I don’t know if this is because she’s psychic and therefore incredibly intuitive, or if my questions were just common and basic and things she gets asked all the time. I like the former explanation better though, so we’ll go with that.
I told Marty that I was writing a paper on the evolution of psychic mediums, and I wanted to get an idea of what a modern-day psychic looked like. I asked her what she did on a daily basis, and how her psychic abilities came into play. Immediately, she launched into an explanation in her thick Staten Island accent. She wasted no time in detailing how she uses her abilities- helping the police to find missing people, solving murder cases, multiple solo readings every week, book signing tours for her newly released autobiography, and anything but large party readings, which she says she can’t mentally handle. She talked to me about how she can’t do readings for her family, because she’s too emotionally attached to them. She knows too much. In fact, the less she knows about whoever she’s going to channel for, the better.
Marty’s story of how she developed her abilities reminds me of the Oracles and Seers from Ancient Greece. Marty told me she began to have incredibly vivid dreams around the age of five or six; right about when her brother died. She said she would wake up and name family members that had died long before she was born. She told me that her grandmother was a psychic as well, but because they were immigrants directly from Italy, they had to hide their abilities for fear of being prosecuted. Marty only learned of her grandmothers abilities when her grandmother was on her death bed and was finally able to release the secret she had kept so her family could be safe.
Ancient Greek oracles often had similar narratives, although clearly less modern. The oracles were young women who, after showing signs of their abilities, would be trained so they could deliver prophecies to the Gods. The oracles, like Marty, were often in danger. If they told a God something they didn’t like, they could be physically harmed. They were often kidnapped and treated like property (which they technically were- the oracles of Delphi were Apollo’s property). Yet prophets, seers, oracles, psychics, and mediums have all existed for much longer than modern Western society, and in fact have probably existed for longer than we’ve had the words to describe or immortalize them. Delphi, Apollo’s famous cite of Oracles and seers, was first a sacred site for the goddess-embodiment-of-the-earth, Gaia. Once Apollo, the god of the Sun and Prophecy, converted the sacred cite by enticing Cretan priestesses into becoming prophets, he instilled them with his powers of sight. Thus the Greek seers were a result of the combination of earthly beings, (re: Gaia, and their humanness/connection to the earth), and the Gods, (re: Apollo and his priestesses). The oracles would answer the Greek’s questions in riddles; divulging information with subtlety. Pythia, arguably the most famous Greek prophet, is typically portrayed as a virgin; but one myth tells of her rape and the subsequent charge that all Oracles must be over the age of 50 and dress like a virgin, in order to ensure they adhere to the chastity prescribed to them by their profession and avoid Pythia’s fate. This is not unlike modern day nuns and priests; stereotypically older, chaste, humble people, dressed from head to toe and shrouded in incense. The similarities of modern day piety and ancient Greek ideals draws stark connections; seers, priests, nuns, and clergy members are all close to their God(s)- or at least closer to them than lay people. They often are the human vessels through which Gods speak, whether that be through riddles and prophecies, or through sermons and lectures. We rely on them for advice, because we consider them holier than ourselves. They are closer to some vaguely attainable Spirit, and therefore they are qualified to lead us through the obstacles we’re presented with. But what exactly makes someone worthy enough to be a vessel through which God speaks? How did we get from Apollo directly instilling his powers of prophecy into his oracles, to Marty, waking up at age five from a nightmare?
According to Marty, God still has everything to do with it. Interestingly enough, about two thirds of Catholics believe in psychic phenomena. Maybe this is because they’re operating from a basis of faith already. Maybe it isn’t much of a leap from believing in God to believing in psychic mediums. Marty seems to agree. She tells me that she believes her abilities to channel spirits are a gift from God. She goes to church every day at her late grandmother’s request, because she needs the protection that God offers. Protection from bad spirits, illness, or something else a bit more ominous, she didn’t specify. Maybe it’s just for general protection during her readings; she spoke of how mentally exhausted she is after reading certain people. Young people who passed too early are the hardest for her. During her readings, Marty doesn’t read tarot cards, doesn’t use crystal balls, doesn’t even look at pictures of the people she’s contacting. Her readings are cold- she either gets results or she doesn’t. During her readings, she says she’s in another place, and often can’t remember what she’s said to the people who come to her. When she works with the local police on forensic files, she often comes up with last names, birthdays, or descriptions of a location to help the police find missing people. She told me that officers often don’t believe she’ll be any help until they see her in action. She tells me that whenever someone doesn’t believe in her work, she’ll do a reading for them on the spot, often leaving the stranger baffled and tearful. She begins to laugh as she tells a story about how she proved a young doubter wrong at a Christmas party, I began to think that perhaps nowadays, psychics, like God, are a phenomena that you can only believe it if you’ve witnessed it yourself. So many people are reluctant to believe in things that can’t be proven by science. God, spirits (and those who channel them), are things that exist beyond our categorization capabilities. So maybe Marty got her powers in the same way as Pythia- through God- and maybe she would be widely recognized as a religious leader if she was part of some organized religion, but only if more people were willing to believe in the inherent existence of spirits and channeling abilities. The fact is, psychics are still shrouded in mystery. They aren’t as widely recognized as they once were. Maybe that’s the fault of the growing popularization of psychics, or maybe it’s because we don’t believe anything we can’t prove ourselves, but either way it’s a reality that Marty is actively challenging through her work.
Popularization of psychics is something I’ve been puzzled over for some time. On the one hand, we as a society are fascinated by stories of witches, witchcraft, magic, and lore. We have proven it with popular shows like That’s So Raven, or Long Island Medium, both shows that follow psychics around in their daily lives, highlighting the idea that magic is always around us, just out of reach. That’s So Raven is clearly a fictionalized version of psychics, but Long Island Medium operates on the belief that the woman it follows, Theresa Caputo, is the Real DealTM. That’s So Raven was the first show in Disney Channel history to make the 100 episode mark. It went on for four seasons, serving to highlight just how popular fictionalized stories about psychics can be. Long Island Medium has gone on for eight seasons, and in fact is still running. In addition to popular culture television shows, psychics are showing up in cities all over the world. Towson has a psychic on York Road, DC has signs advertising tarot card readings all over the city; it’s become a commercialized profession. On the other hand, this popularization causes disbelief in psychics. It seems like fiction instead of reality. It’s not something we witness every day; it’s something we go to the television to see. Psychics have become a source of entertainment. It’s hard to tell the difference between “real deal” psychics like Marty and Theresa Caputo, and the fake psychics like Raven Symone and random Tarot readers on the streets of various cities.
The way Marty sees it, the fake psychics make her look bad. Even if the television shows give her profession visibility, it isn’t the kind of visibility she wants. It ruins her credibility. Marty often ends up reporting these fake mediums to the detectives she works with so they can’t scam trusting people out of their money. These fake psychics reel people in by saying “come back next week, maybe your loved one will come in clearer then.” They give generalizations, grasp at straws to make any kind of connection, to make you believe. Of course, maybe they’re doing their best. Maybe we ought to give them the benefit of the doubt, and assume that they aren’t trying to scam others. I’m sure some street ad psychics do have good intentions. According to my grandmother, every person on this earth has some amount of psychic ability, it just depends on whether or not you’re tuned into it. I’m not sure if that’s truly the case, but I do believe that psychic work takes a whole lot of empathy. No matter if you’re the Real Deal or a faker, a psychic has to immediately make a connection with the person coming in for a reading. The customer expects immediate knowledge of what they’re there for. They expect the psychic to deliver. Or at least, that’s what I thought psychic readings were about.
Before deciding to write this paper, I went to one of those street psychics. I was in DC with a friend, and we saw an ad for a $5 reading, so I convinced her to come with me. We trudged up the steep steps to the second floor where the door was. We rang the doorbell a few times with no response, idling in the vestibule of the strange, dingy apartment without speaking, wondering if we were really supposed to be there. It was late; close to midnight, and although we could see shadows moving around inside, we weren’t sure if the place was truly open. After a few long minutes staring into our own eyes in the mirror that hung on the adjacent wall, someone opened the door.
The room we were ushered into was small, with a few decorative partitions separating us from someone who was clearly doing an in depth reading for some mysteriously veiled customer. We couldn’t see them, but we could hear the mutterings of various suggestions. A small woman steered us onto a couch that seemed to sigh as we sat down, its weathered cushions sagging down farther than expected until we were sitting at an uncomfortably low level. The woman was unremarkable, which was somehow more jarring than if she had been dressed in a robe or wearing extravagant jewelry, mimicking the old oracles of Ancient Greece. She wore jeans and a large maroon cardigan, which she pulled around herself to keep out the mild chill that we had brought in from outside. She sat down across from us, dragged a chair across the carpet, crossed her arms, and asked us what we came in for. My friend was silent. This had been my idea, and therefore I had to be the one to speak. I mentioned the five dollar special, and she nodded. She told me the special was that I could ask any two questions, and she would read my palm and be able to answer them. This gave me pause. I thought psychics could look at me once and be able to tell me what I wanted to hear. I thought a true medium would be overcome with the spirits of my deceased loved ones, and would begin pouring out with information about the people I missed so dearly. Instead, I was asked to do some of the work myself.
Any two questions. I didn’t know what to ask. I turned to my friend, and she shrugged, giving me suggestions like “ask about your career”, or “ask about love”. Neither of those seemed like they were important enough, or specific enough. I felt like I was faced with a genie who gave me two questions, and if I asked something stupid I would regret it for the rest of my life. I froze, panicked, made some kind of feeble excuse and left, my friend in tow.
When we got out on the street, I took a deep breath, realizing I had been holding my breath since we first rang the bell. My friend asked me why I didn’t go through with it, and I realized it was because of how sudden it all was. The woman had barely introduced herself. I didn’t know her, she didn’t know me, and yet she was asking an incredibly intimate question. If you could ask any two things, what would you ask? What are the two things that are most important to you in that moment, the most pressing, that matter more to you than anything else? It was such sudden intimacy that it scared me.
With Marty, however, it’s different. There’s still the immediate intimacy, but she does more of the intuitive work that I had expected. I asked Marty to describe a regular session to me, and she said she has people bring in pictures, and lay them face down on the table throughout the reading. At the very end, Marty will turn over the pictures and point out to the customer who it was that was speaking. Oftentimes, she can say exactly what the person is wearing within the picture without having seen the picture itself. The intimacy Marty creates is one of conveying important messages. It’s the kind of intimacy I imagine a doctor would have with a patient when telling them important news about their health. Or the kind of intimacy a priest would have with a believer in the confessional booth. It’s personal, and it affects you deeply. It stays with you once you leave the room. It impacts you in such a way that you can’t help but believe there’s real truth behind it.
The evolution of psychic mediums has been a complicated one. From the fame of Pythia to the fame of Raven Symone, and all of the fake psychics and Real Deals in-between, society at large has had a complicated relationship with psychics. Ultimately, psychic mediums are just another form of a wise elder. They are just a different kind of leader, one for a people who believe in communication with spirits. Whether your preferred leader is a preacher, priest, teacher, grandparent, or peer, psychics can be considered as an additional option. They are just a different vessel in which to give us advice. A vessel to which our relationship has changed with our evolving societies. Despite any cultural influences you may have, it’s your call whether or not you want to believe.