I used to be so sure about everything. I used to be so wise.
The arrogant assumed clarity of youth told me I could never be wrong. There is no God; there are no such things as aliens; people who believe in homeopathy are idiots. All of these thoughts were self-evident, self-proving and very validating to hold. Anyone who didn’t agree didn’t just have a different opinion; they were Wrong, and probably Dangerous. I read a lot of Dawkins.
The people I held in lowest regard were psychics, horoscopiers and fortune tellers, because their deception, I thought, was the most blatantly transparent. Having read the Wikipedia entries for cold reading and the Barnum effect, I was immune to their deceit, and was able to see them for what they were: charlatans and hucksters, exchanging false hopes for money. They were Monsters and I hated them.
Of course, I aged, and became what I will reluctantly call an “adult”. My certainty turned to uncertainty. It began to dawn on me that just because something was not true or real for me did not make it false for other people. More and more, I realised that we exist from moment to moment.
But at the height of my scorn, I volunteered to write horoscopes for the weekly student magazine Salient, as if to demonstrate just how transparent I found them, and how far above it all I was. I kept this up for two years.
I am not going to link you to them; you have Google. But know that I am not proud of them, partly because people found truth in my blatant falsehoods, my lame jokes, my trying too hard, even as I pushed into ever-deeper realms of absurdity. Some people – not many, but too many – asked me to write nice things so that nice things would happen to them.
What if it was real? What if she revealed some dark truths that not even I knew?
That’s when it stopped being funny and started feeling really weird. I became uncomfortably aware of the power, however slight and perverse, I was wielding. If you speak confidently and generally enough, people will really buy it. I began to see how it was possible to believe – how people could convince themselves that others could talk to the dead or read their mind or imagine their past lives. Which brings us I guess, to last week – when I went to get a psychic reading.
It started as a joke, in the way that the heaviest things always do. The Wireless put out the call for pitches for Fortune. I thought it would be funny if I reviewed a fortune teller. They agreed enough to commission me to do it. Fortune tellers, the Yellow Pages would suggest, are somewhat passé today, so I made an appointment with a psychic. She would speak to my spirit guides and any dead relatives she could reach, and then, if there was time, we’d take a look at my past lives. Wireless producer Elle Hunt decided to tag along, partly to document the experience, partly because it was obviously going to be a hoot.
But as we drove to Trentham, where Kathy the psychic lived, I felt less sure of myself. What if it was real? What if she revealed some dark truths that not even I knew? I realised that, almost despite myself, I wanted to believe. Somewhere along State Highway 2, I had turned from Scully into Mulder.
Elle broke the silence. “I think the worst case scenario is you were Hitler in a past life,” she said. “That will be a quiet drive home.”
Ten minutes later, only ten minutes late, we were seated in Kathy’s poky kitchen, beneath a framed drawing of chickens labelled “Chickens”. The mundanity of it was almost alarming. This wasn’t a shadowy, beaded den where people consulted orbs and foamed at the mouth. This was a kitchen.
Kathy’s phone chirruped. “That’s not the ghosts, that’s just my phone,” she said.
Kathy herself had the manic frizzy energy of a high school arts teacher, all big grins and chain-smoked Holidays. She told us about her marriage, her divorce, her son, what she was like at school as a child, what she did in her spare time; there was a transparency, an honesty, about her.
“Sometimes it just doesn’t work,” she said. “I won’t charge you if I can’t find anyone.”
That totally disarmed me. I’d steeled myself against deceit, but the woman seated across from me – cigarette in one hand, pen in the other, mug of black coffee at her elbow – was chatting, quite offhandedly, to my “spirit guide”.
She asked if there was anything in particular I needed guidance about, and the best I could volunteer was that I’d been struggling to manage my workload. We got straight into it.
Her gaze was erratic, as were the answers that came. The spirits talked a lot about all the mess in my life, which is certainly true; how I need to find order; how I was “not mentally ready” to prioritise. So far, so vague.
But then she got more specific, and I felt the air drain from the room. As she talked about my diary full of to-do lists, she mimed it in the air. And I could see it. Because I have it. She told me that I wasted too much time watching Doctor Who – which maybe you can tell by looking at me, but in that moment, it felt real. In this moment, writing this, I know it sounds ridiculous, and I’m sort of hating myself a little bit, but at the time I began to believe.
We hit a fair amount of dead-ends. She tried to tell me that I was a dog person; she mentioned a lot of injuries and health problems – teeth, back, legs – that, she assured me, would go on to have. At points it was obvious that Kathy was equivocating, searching, fishing, but I couldn’t tell whether that was her reaching for guidance from me, or the people that could be speaking through her.
Then she knew my grandfather’s name. I didn’t say it. It doesn’t come up when you Google me. It wasn’t a laugh. It wasn’t ridiculous. She said my grandfather was talking to her, and then she wrote down his name, out of thin air, on the pad of ruled paper in front of her.
And then she described him. She described him. On the audio recording I made I can just hear myself mutter under my breath, “Oh, shit.”
Because oh, shit, I didn’t sign up for this. I’d expected to sit there, mocking and aloof, but in the moment it felt real. I caught myself, at times, willing her to be right, and meeting her approximations at insight halfway (“I’m not a dog person, but I do like cats!”). But other times, she was just right.
“As a child, did you have night terrors?”
“Do you have a sister?”
“Did she have the night terrors?”
“Thank you.” She said it with evident satisfaction, almost triumph, as though she’d finally put her finger on something that had been bothering her for a while, or solved a particularly difficult brainteaser. I hadn’t mentioned my sister up to that point.
That wasn’t a cold read. That wasn’t a Barnum word. In that kitchen in Trentham at dusk on a rainy day, as the woman talking to my dead relatives lit a sixth Holiday, it was a real thing that was happening. I felt electrified. I was terrified. I exchanged a look with Elle and saw that she was feeling it, too.
Kathy talked about my mental illness, which I had not mentioned to her beforehand, and barely acknowledged when she brought it up. “Got a little theory here that I picked up about you straight away,” she said. “That you’re actually spiritually gifted yourself. Don’t scream.”
She said the invisible friends I’d had as children were ghosts – “dead people” – which continues to trouble me. She said the reason waking up sometimes felt like landing on concrete or grass was because I left my body as I slept.
My being spiritually gifted, she said, was the reason I was so “pig-headed” (which she wrote in capitals across the top of the page she gave me at the end of the session), but so loving. It explained my obsessive nature. My short attention span. How I hated working for bosses.
I felt myself drifting again: this could be anyone. It could be everyone; there’s nothing like being told you’re spiritually gifted to boost the ego. But I wanted it to be true so badly. I wasn’t just a very empathetic person, or manipulative; I was gifted. Of course I was.
We moved onto past lives. We all have a book of our past lives, said Kathy. Some are short, but was mine was long – and especially dusty, she remarked, miming a hefty tome. I’d been a woman more times than I had a man, which explained why I had so many female friends. I quite like that thought, if I’m honest – but not enough to believe it this time.
Again, Kathy gazed into the distance; again, she searched. But I felt more strongly than I had earlier in the session that I was just watching someone make stories up in front of me. Maybe the magic was beginning to wear off, or maybe only this bit wasn’t real, or maybe it all was and I’d shaken myself out of it.
As she turned the pages of my book (sometimes literally miming the action), she told me of how I had been a can-can dancer/prostitute in the Wild West. With my long, dark hair and good legs, I, tragically, fell for one of my clients – which, I guess, could explain my ongoing obsession with unrequited love. I died young, shot in the back while protecting the other girls – to whom I had become something of a maternal figure, in spite of my tender age – during a shoot-out.
I liked this story. I even liked it when Kathy tried, unsuccessfully, to relate it to my life. No, it doesn’t explain my hang-ups about sex, because I don’t really have any. No, it doesn’t make sense of my history of back pain, since I don’t have one.
I was also a pilot during World War II, dropping bombs on Germany. (Not Hitler, Kathy confirmed at Elle’s insistence – though Elle had been gassed during the Holocaust, which explained her “obsession with Hitler”.) I survived the war, but terrorised my wife Betty and two children when I got home. My leg was amputated after I was involved in a farming accident and got blood poisoning.
I didn’t like this story. Even though I felt sure it was a fabrication, it found it troubling. What had she seen in me to weave that tale?
I was also a dandy Byron – she kept saying “dandy”, she kept saying “Byron”. He was an advisor and confidant of a king Henry. She wasn’t sure which – maybe “the third”, though that didn’t gel with the 16th century, which she’d already placed him in, or her description of a Restoration-era French fop. Kathy protested that she didn’t really know her history, as spiritually gifted people struggled at school.
Elle excitedly pulled up a Wikipedia page on her phone: Sir Francis Bryan, a sycophant of Henry VIII’s, complicit in the downfall of his cousin Anne Boleyn. “But this guy has an eyepatch…”
We briefly touched on some of my other lives – a young Spanish dude on a boat, a flower merchant in France – our time was up. One hour, ninety dollars, several revelations. She didn’t have Eftpos, and we asked if we could nip across the road to the dairy to get some cash out, but she said she was happy for me to make a bank transfer when I got home. “I trust you,” she said. “I mean, I know everything about you.”
But almost instantly after we left her house, the magic that I’d felt when she’d guessed my grandfather’s name and my sister’s night terrors began to fade away. Immediately, I could see the trick of it – or, rather, the logic of it. John is a common name, after all.
Listening back to the recording now, it’s apparent to me that I wasn’t only encouraging, but doing a lot of the heavy lifting. I can hear myself wanting to be spiritually gifted, seeing myself in her vagaries the same way we see faces in the clouds.
With the distance afforded by time and State Highway 2, I find myself a Scully again. I think of Kathy now as an amazing performer, who made it came true in that room, in that moment. And now I think maybe that is true enough.
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