Charlatans Revisited

When it comes to woo and trickery, my tolerance is higher than some. I believe in harmless fun: that palm guy at your birthday isn’t out to snake your savings. He’ll feed you a dream laced with humour. He’ll leave you a story to tell. Your Aunt Becky with the crystals, your neighbour with the cards: they’re not bunco artists. They’re creative. Imaginative, sort of thing. It’s not a vice.

It’s the ones who make a career of it you want to worry about. The ones whose income depends on your repeat business. And of those, the most dangerous are the true believers, the ones who think they’ve got powers.

The pure grifters, see, they know they can’t tell if you’ve got cancer. They know they can’t attract money to your pocket or cast a love spell on your ex. They might, if you’re fortunate, exercise discretion: “Go to the doctor.” “Knock it off with the readings till you can cover your rent.” “Stop pining for the past.” They might recognise your fear and your peril, and nudge you back to safety. I did, in my woo-woo days. As far as I was able.

The believers, on the other hand, they might not see the harm they can do. They might tell you, no, you’re healthy. They might cast that love spell, or promise you a windfall, and maybe you’ll get lucky. Maybe you’ll die. Fifty-fifty, right?

(It’s not. It’s really not. Fifty-fifty, that is. No-one gets Schrödinger’s cancer: you’ve got it or you’ve not, and if someone’s daft guess delays your diagnosis even an hour, that’s a travesty.)

You’d think that’s a stretch, toying with death. You’d think no-one would do that, take a guess on your innards, or tell you what you want to hear when you’re courting disaster, in pursuit of it. Again, it really isn’t. You get that, folks who believe in the spirit guide on their shoulder, the angel on their tongue. A thought’ll flash through their heads, a wish or a feeling, and they’ll spit it out like chewed meat. Please don’t eat it.

If you’re into the woo—if you enjoy a palm session or a good tarot reading—go to a friend. Go to someone who loves you. Let them look at your hand and tell you what they’ve always wanted you to know; let them look at your cards and find your life in the pictures. It’ll help, probably. It’ll be heartfelt and relevant, something you can use. And it’ll be more fun, ’cause it’ll have specifics. Things a stranger wouldn’t know. You won’t sit down, later, all foggy in the head, trying to recall one meaningful nugget.

If you’re doing the woo, watch your step. Cancer’s sometimes real. Most cheaters don’t leave their wives. Huge bequests are rare. Don’t soothe fears just to soothe them; don’t be lazy. Offer alternatives: better ones. Achievable ones, paired with clear paths to get there. Frame them as visions, bursting with detail. Give them life. Your clients will resist you: they came for one answer. They don’t want another. If you can’t sell them on another, what kind of swindler are you?

if you haven’t got a penny, a ha’penny will do. If you haven’t got a ha’penny, I’ll feed you.

(Oops. Wrong song.)

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