Charlatans

One time, in art school, I got bamboozled by a con man. I was walking home in a hurry, thinking about dinner, and a huge, hulking man sidled up beside me, all “Hey, stop, hold on—don’t you go to Emily Carr?”

I sort of shrugged. I didn’t want him near me. He was big and messy-looking, and he reeked of booze. And he was still talking, blithering on about how he’d seen me around, how he’d meant to introduce himself, how he thought he’d seen one of my photos—wasn’t mine the one with the scrapyard? No, it wasn’t: c’mon. Piss off.

Anyway, he kept following me. I grunted. He raved. I walked faster. He kept up. He took my arm and turned me to face him: “hey, I can see you’re in a hurry—someone at home, yeah?—but, look. I’m doing photography, too. I’ve got this project, uh…I’m doing these self-portraits wearing other people’s clothes, and I thought, man, your coat is awesome. It’s so red, like, so luxurious. Could I just—“

“It wouldn’t fit you.”

“Maybe, nah—but let me wear it like a cape. Drape it over my shoulders. I swear I won’t stretch it.” And he broke out in this great, boyish grin, and that’s where I lost the battle—not because I was charmed, but because he was distracting me on three levels:

  1. He was bothering me with an endless line of blather, annoying the pants off me;
  2. He was blocking my exit—I couldn’t get past him without physically brushing him aside. Most people won’t do that, especially to a large, intimidating man;
  3. He had all my attention on my coat, and none of it on my camera bag, which contained a Pentax I couldn’t afford to replace.

So, to make a long story short, this man managed to harangue, annoy, and intimidate me into taking off my coat. I couldn’t do that without putting down my bag, and the moment I did, he snatched it up and ran off. I chased him, of course, but I didn’t stand a chance. He was out of sight before I’d cleared Granville Island. I finished my photography class with a 7-11 disposable.

I mention this to evoke a sense of sympathy before I confess to having turned into that man, and worse—to having been him for years. This is what we do, see? We manipulate people. And by “we,” I mean clairvoyants, fortune-tellers, and purveyors of woo, us who’ll sell you a lie at an exorbitant price, and stop at nothing to do it.

Now, me, I never really committed: I never owned a magic shop. I never fed “tips” to the cops to get my face on the telly, nor did I persuade anyone to mortgage their home for a curse removal. But I did spend years spinning fortunes via text, phone, and video chat, for a company which no longer exists. I was good at my job. My retention rate hovered around 85, which means 85% of my calls were from customers who’d requested me by name. My conversion rate was 67%, which means 2/3 of my new customers called or texted back within 30 days of our original chat.

Now, to be clear, what I was selling was nonsense. I can’t read minds. I can’t see the future, or where you left your specs. I can’t talk to dead people—I don’t believe it’s possible. (I mean, sure, you could talk to them; getting a response, on the other hand…no. I don’t believe it can be done.)

It’s hardly an excuse, but I took the job when my cupboard was bare. I was hungry, cold, and ill. I wanted food. I wanted to turn on the heat. I wanted the wolf off my doorstep. So I pitched the world some woo, and here’s how I did it:

“P**********; Socar speaking! Mary, is it?”

“Hey, yeah, Mary—it’s my first time calling. I wanted, uh…my gran passed away, and I thought….”

“Oh, I’m so sorry for your loss—I can feel how close you were. It was a long illness, wasn’t it?” (Sympathy. A tidbit gleaned from social media. A leading question.)

“Yeah. It was Alzheimer’s. She lived with me, at the end…but what I wanted to know, uh…we’re clearing out her house. There’s this necklace she always wore; she wanted me to have it, but I can’t find it anywhere. Could you ask where she put it?”

Now, at this point, the script called for, y’know…we billed by the minute. I’d prevaricate, waste some time: “I can try, but, ah…listen, I have to be honest—contacting someone on the other side, it’s not quite like picking up a phone. There’s, well…mmm…let me see….” And I’d be tapping away on my keyboard, looking for “affirmations,” as we called them: that is, anecdotes or identifying characteristics that’d make it sound like I had Grandma on the other end. If the client didn’t have an online presence, or if the their name was too common, this part got trickier—I’d have to go by accent, apparent education, and so forth, build a conjecture from that. But let’s say I found something: Grandma was Czech. So I’d hum a few bars of Má Vlast: “oh, I’m hearing the most beautiful music; she must’ve loved this. I see a wide, silvery river, open sky, summer-blue. She’s from, ah…Eastern Europe, right? Moldova? Poland?”

“The Czech Republic….”

“And I see her with a dog. A huge, long-haired one.”

“Yes! Molly! Her sheepdog—that’s her!”

And then came the ramp-up to the Big Lie: “Yeah, okay, she—ha, ha! I’m sorry. She’s so excited. She knows you’re there. I can’t keep up, ah…she wants you to know she’s at peace. She says she’s gathered what life took away from her; does that sound—“

“Her memories! She must mean her memories.”

“Oh, yeah, from the Alzheimers. I…she says to tell you omnes una manet nox.”

“Huh? What’s that mean?”

“I don’t, uh…oh! It means we all end up in the same place. One night awaits us all, sort of thing. I think she means she’s looking forward to the day she’ll show you, ah—you’ll see for yourself, the other side, how welcoming it is. She’ll be waiting. You can be certain of that. But till then, it’s her dearest wish that you love your life. That you…you want to be a nurse, right? You’ll be so good, man, you have no idea, the good you’ll do….”

And then would come the assurances, the reminiscences: usually, at this point, the client would tell me a lot of things, troves of stories and memories I’d add to my notes, for use at a later date. Hopefully, this part brought some comfort, because after that, well…the Big Lie.

“So, getting back to that necklace: she’s showing me, hmm…it’s a big, bulky sideboard—” (the actual location varied, depending on the means, origin, and personality of the deceased, but we were encouraged to use words like “sideboard” and “pergola” and “escritoire,” ones where most people, y’know…they wouldn’t be sure what we meant. They’d match the word to something that sounded right. A sideboard could be a dresser, a vanity, just about anything with drawers. Any trellis could be a pergola, and an escritoire…well, you get the idea. Anyway….) “—it’s a big, bulky sideboard, lots of drawers, ah…I see bills in there. Old letters, maybe. A lot of paper. A broken watch. And the necklace, yes…large central stone; gold embellishments?”

“Alexandrite, yeah, and gold.”

“Well, look in the sideboard, and if by chance it’s not there, let me know—but I have a good feeling. I think you’ll find it.”

Sometimes, they did: never exactly as I’d said, but they’d turn the thing up in a drawer or a nightstand, and think “close enough.” Usually, they didn’t, and that’s when we really scraped the bottom of the barrel. This was the line for that—the line that kept them calling, though we’d lied, and been caught lying, and intended to continue lying: “She says, ah…oh, my God; she’s so sorry; no, it’s okay–let me…. She truly thought…. She’s showing me a memory; it’s…oh, lilacs, the smell of fresh-cut grass. Springtime, an open window, and she’s looking out at this gorgeous day. She’s thinking of you, in fact. That day you went to the beach. You were tiny, barely walking. You forgot your spade and bucket. You were so upset, and she went all the way home, to get that for you…yes, she’s smiling. That was the best day, and that was…she was thinking about that, mm…the necklace; she’s dropping it in the drawer. It’s still warm from her skin. It makes a wee sound, this rattle-chink on the velvet. She swears that’s the last time she saw it—you’re quite sure? No-one could’ve…you don’t suppose…maybe someone set it aside for safekeeping? Ask your sister, perhaps?”

I mean, how cruel is that? Make them think they’ve upset their dead grandma. Fling a gilded memory in their face, one that might’ve come from anyone’s life. And, for the coup de grâce…cast suspicion on their family. Bloody awful. Who does that? (Well, me, and I’m sorry.)

It was James Randi who pricked my conscience, made me want to confess my sins. He’s a magician (the stage sort, not the charlatan sort), and he used to go around making fools of people like me, exposing us for frauds. He did a TED talk, a while back, where he mentioned how he’d asked hundreds of “psychics” where his dead, ah…great aunt, I believe…had left her will. None of them could tell him. I’d like to think they didn’t try to manipulate him into spending more money…but I’m sure they did. That’s the job.

What I came to understand, as I told fortune after fortune, was that I was preying on people as vulnerable as myself, or more so: people grasping at straws. People who couldn’t afford the service, but didn’t know where else to turn. Most of them had one thing in common: they wanted something so badly they couldn’t see even one inch beyond it.

During training, I was told I’d be doing sunny, upbeat tarot readings, offering hope and guidance. That was seldom true. Most days, I listened to sad, distraught people crying over loves who’d left them, children who’d died too soon, and looming financial ruin. The tarot cards confused them; they’d tell me to put those away. They just wanted to talk: an hour with me was expensive, but not as expensive as a therapist. Maybe I was passable, in that capacity. But for the true believers, the ones who thought I had answers from beyond, I can’t imagine I was anything but a disaster.

I tried to mitigate the damage I was doing by veering from the script on certain points. Like, I never told anyone the guy who’d taken out a restraining order against them would show up at their door in the middle of the night, drop to one knee, and swear eternal love. But, really, when you’re doing something you know is wrong, doing it a little less wrong isn’t…it doesn’t mean much, does it?

Anyway, I’m not posting this for the purpose of self-castigation. I could wallow in my shame without an audience. I’m posting this to explain how it works, why it’s a scam, and how to avoid falling for it. If you use “psychic” lines, and you’re reading this, maybe you’ll recognise some of the patter. It’s a script. It’s designed to manipulate, and to part you from your money. If you absolutely must call a “psychic,” pick one who offers 1-3 minutes for free. Ask a single, simple question, and demand a one-sentence reply. Hang up as soon as you’ve got it. The more you let us talk, the more we’ll pelt you with “affirmations,” and it’s all rubbish. We have your billing information. We know who you are. We’re all over your social media, and we keep detailed notes on you, which we share amongst ourselves. Don’t enable us.

Things Woo-Merchants Do to Make You Think We’re Psychic (When We’re Bloody Not)

  • Overload you with information. This is a cold-reading technique, one we use when we can’t find any relevant information online, or when we’re doing a video/live reading and can’t immediately consult our notes. Watch out for word salad: “You, uh…I’m seeing daffodils. No, snowdrops. No—what do you call those flowers, with the little bell-clappers? Yes, lobelias. I see the letter M. I see M…S? Oh, she HAD MS! My, I’m so sorry. I see a vacation, uh…I see cobblestones. A big cathedral. Oh, you went to Italy! That explains the sinking city. And I hear music…et cetera, et cetera.” What you’re hearing is a flood of generalities. We’ll watch you as we go, and when you react, we know we’ve got a “hit.” And we’ll chase up that hit, getting more and more specific, resulting in more and more “hits,” which, if you’re not paying attention, might make you think we’re getting something.
  • Barnum statements: these are generalities, vague and largely meaningless, which could apply to anyone. Simple ones are easy to catch: tell someone they’re strong, but sometimes feel intimidated by others, and they won’t be terribly impressed. But describe what sounds like a very specific childhood memory, with plenty of sensory detail, and most people will fall for it. That’s because memory’s a funny thing*: it doesn’t take much to prompt us to “remember” things that never happened at all. I “remember” sitting by the window, at the age of three, waiting for my father to come home from jail—but was he in jail? Like, at all? Common sense suggests not: the man was a teacher. Jail time would’ve put an end to his career. Never trust a memory, especially one related to you by a “psychic.”
  • Leading questions: if we don’t know much about you, we’ll try to draw you out. And we can glean more than you think from a simple response. Tell me you’re from Umeå, I’ll surmise you’ve eaten rullkebab, picnicked under the midnight sun, suffered the indignity of vinterkräksjukan. I’ll remind you of the smell of the firepots they put out in winter, to light the way to the shops. I’ll guess you know a Peter, a Johan, a Mats. You ride a bike. You prefer hardwood floors to carpets. You played in the forest, as a child…and the list goes on. And I’ve found your Facebook, now. Never tell a “psychic” anything.
  • Outright bullying: some “psychics,” when they’ve given you an answer that’s way out in left field, will try to turn the tables on you, convince you you’ve misheard. You’re “toying with the spirits.” You’ve asked a trick question, and are being punished. The late Sylvia Browne was known for this (and she was particularly cruel, as her favourite trick was holding out hope to the families of missing children…many of whom were later found to have been dead for years).
  • Tugging at your heartstrings: beware of vivid descriptions of people and places from your past, especially those designed to tickle your nostalgia bone. Beware of “psychics” who call you “honey” or “sweetheart,” who offer you tea, who talk to you like old friends. It’s all part of the game.
  • Review-begging: a lot of “psychic” services, especially online ones, will send you an e-mail or text prompting you to leave a review within 5 minutes of your reading. They’re trying to catch you in the “glow”: that halcyon moment before you’ve had the chance to think about what was said, and how helpful it truly was. You’ve just talked to someone eager to listen and make comforting noises. That can be hard to come by. Of course you’re feeling better. But were you really helped? Did you learn anything new? Will you be better off for the experience? Most folks feel pretty good, in the glow. You can’t trust their reviews. Don’t trust those reviews. Mine were nearly all five stars, and remember, I’m as psychic as a tin can.

Anyway, I think that’s all. I’m ashamed of what I’ve done. I won’t do it again. But that, there, above—that’s how I did it. Don’t let anyone do it to you. And if they try…why, if they try, leave them with a flea in their ear. They deserve it.

* https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/brain-sense/201307/remembering-something-never-happened

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