You may have heard of a person who gives this kind of service: a clairvoyant who tells you by phone some angels’ advice for you, an Internet web site that offers tarot cards and tells you whether your new romance will work out, a fortune-teller on a fast on-line service who will help you plan for the coming year and what it will bring you… If scientific technology has reached new heights in our days, its success hasn’t caused a dent in the industry of mysticism and superstitions. To the contrary, it seems that in our uncertain times, this industry is prospering more than ever before.
No one is surprised when it turns out that Shula Zaken decided upon a legal strategy in her trial against Olmert after consulting with a clairvoyant, or that Russian politicians regularly consult with a Bulgarian fortune-teller called Baba Vanga. Between us, when one considers lawyers and polls’ rate of success, who can say that a mysterious clairvoyant is not any worse?
What people don’t know is that it is very easy to fall victim to the charlatans that fill the industry. The regular clients of the various mediums and mystics enrich them due to their naïve belief in the special spiritual powers that these people supposedly have. Even when an objective, external source points out the contradictions and failures that should undermine their belief in the mystic, the devoted clients refuse to listen. That was the case with Miss Cleo, a famous American medium who recently died.
Miss Cleo was a single mother and failed theater producer who in the end found well-paying work at the end of the 90’s when she began to work for the Psychic Readers Network in the US, a company that supplies mystical consulting services through the telephone. It quickly turned out that she was ideal for the job: she adopted a persona of a shaman from Jamaica, invented her biography, practiced speaking with a phony accent and began to star in all the company’s advertising.
The mysterious aura surrounding her was so convincing that the company’s profits experienced unprecedented growth. Its advertising, that was also sent by email, had a simple enthusiastic message: Miss Cleo will read cards especially for you, but “Call me now!”
However, those who called usually didn’t get to speak with Miss Cleo. With whom did they get to speak? With Bennett Madison, for instance, a young American who just published her recollections about the period when she worked for the Psychic Readers Network:
It was 2001. I was … living in a two-bedroom sublet … My share of the rent was $600, but I was broke.
When Heidi found the ad for “phone actors”, it seemed like the solution to everything.
Getting hired was easy. Our new employer was the Psychic Readers Network, a hotline known for its ads starring Miss Cleo, who was always barking at advice seekers: “Call me now!”
Instead, they called me. That summer, whenever I could, I stayed up all night smoking out the window and guzzling cheap wine while doling out fortunes over a landline. For some reason, the customers expecting Miss Cleo didn’t seem to mind when they got a clueless 20-year-old from the suburbs instead.
Since I was not actually psychic, the Psychic Readers Network provided me with a minimal script to read and a computer program that simulated a tarot card spread. I used neither. It worked better to make it up as I went along.
Often I slipped into one of a few personas I had invented to make myself feel more authentically magical. Sometimes I was Cassandra, a husky-voiced Southern belle who called everyone “honey child.” Other times I became Gabriel, a fey mystic with an accent that I imagined to be French-ish. People seemed to like Cassandra best, but I could never keep her up for more than a call or two. She made my throat sore.
It seems obvious that at least some of the clients would realize that they were speaking with an imposter who knew nothing about psychic communication or tarots. Bennet was sure that they would figure out the truth sooner or later. But that never happened.
I expected callers to see through my act, but mostly they dialed in ready to believe. The key was just to toss out a bunch of free associations and hope one of them hit.
When a woman asked me who her true love was, I told her that the spirits were sending me a mental picture of a star. “Maybe you’ll meet him at a planetarium,” I said, affecting Cassandra’s confident drawl.
There was a silence on the other end. “My ex-husband is a sheriff,” the woman said, awe-struck. “You know. With a badge.”
“That’s it. Get him back. He’s the one.”
I was pleased with myself. It didn’t occur to me that my arbitrary advice may have consequences. Who could take me seriously?
Bennett only began to moderate her advice to telephoners after her boss at her other job, a publishing house where she was responsible for sending rejection slips, told her to write slips that were not so indulging.
The editor I was working for told me to make my rejection letters more discouraging. If you are too nice, they will never stop bothering you, she said, and it was mean to give them false hope.
I continued sending thoughtful rejections but became more circumspect in my psychic predictions. I stopped telling people they were about to come into large fortunes and started saying things like “The Six of Pentacles tells me you should make a budget and sign up with a temp agency.”
My call average went way down.
How does she explain the fact that the telephoners were willing to let themselves be fooled?
Our customers were desperate and sad.
They were being evicted. They were about to lose custody of their children. They were lonely enough to pay by the minute to chat with a stranger. The fact that the stranger was me began to seem cruel.
It wasn’t worth it. I was a fraud, sure, but I fancied myself the hapless kind, not the evil kind. I stopped dialing in.
The final words of Bennett’s confession explain more than anything the irrationality that characterizes those who seek answers in mysticism.
Lately my friends have gotten into witchcraft, and they’re only half-joking about it… I’ve learned to read tarot, but just for myself… Miss Cleo died in July from cancer. Everyone joked, “I bet she didn’t predict that.” I kept thinking, “What a dumb joke.” I kept thinking: “How do you know? Maybe she did predict it.”
I know better than anyone else that Miss Cleo was a fake, but I always kind of believed in her anyway.