For Entertainment Only: My Experience with a Party Psychic

In 1987 I worked as a receptionist in the real estate lending office of a savings and loan. A savings and loan, for those too young to remember, is a bit like a bank which invests most of it’s money in mortgages (think Bailey Building and Loan). Shortly after I was hired the whole savings and loan industry collapsed, mostly due to questionable commercial lending practices and other bad investments. My office was one of the last to close, so for months we had plenty of time for office chatter.

In our office of about 20 people, and me, about half visited a psychic on a regular basis. They saw the same woman. I often heard my co-workers going on and on about what Sally (I don’t remember her name) told them and when they would go to see her next. I tried a few times to talk to them about psychics. I told them about all of my failed experiments with Zenar cards as a kid. I told them about my experience in high school, when a man came to my psychology class, did a few tricks, then told us he wasn’t psychic, but a magician. I told them about the challenge the Bay Area Skeptics and James Randi (and probably others) offered to anyone who could demonstrate psychic ability.

The looks I got gave me chills. These people were not simply unconvinced. They hated me for what I was saying.

And what they said in response was hurtful. I was just a kid (I was almost, but not quite, 21) with no experience in the world. What did I know? I’d learn.

Fast forward a few years to around 1992. At that time I was working at a software company and was fairly well-respected in my position as an administrator. I called most of my coworkers friends and the company had low turnover, so we had known each other for some time. But I had no idea I was among so many believers.

Me (blown out by the flash), at the Monte Carlo party, before I saw the psychic.

A picture of me (blown out by the flash), at the Monte Carlo party, before I saw the psychic.

The company threw a daytime party that year in an empty space next door. The theme was “Monte Carlo” and we all got dressed up, imbibed, ate, and played blackjack for a few hours. And visited the psychic.

I never understood why the person who planned the party included a psychic. I didn’t realize that psychics were part of the Monte Carlo culture. But there she was. A psychic. At our Monte Carlo office party. And several friends could not stop talking about it.

“Don’t you want to hear what she has to say?” several people asked.

I said “no” every time. I told them about all of my failed experiments with Zenar cards as a kid. I talked about my experience in high school. I told them about the challenge. I talked about the lack of evidence for psychic abilities.

Nobody got angry or hurtful this time. Instead, they wanted to prove to me that it was real. They begged me to take a turn. So I did.

I sat down at her table and vowed to myself that I would not scoff or laugh. I would just answer her questions truthfully and try not to give her any clues. I have a pretty good poker face.

Sylvia (I don’t remember her name, either) really only asked me one question of interest and it was her downfall.

She asked, “Is your mother more like Betty Crocker or Susan B. Anthony?”

That was easy. “Betty Crocker,” I said.

Sylvia then went on for about 20 minutes while I sat, amused and expressionless, listening. My friends/coworkers listened, too. Sylvia lectured me about my inability to break out of the character that my mother had modeled for me–the meek and timid woman who never felt strong enough to stand up for herself or speak up for others. She told me to find my own voice, that I needed to be more assertive. And so on…

I thanked her, then got up and headed back to the office to get some work done.

I thought that this reading would convince my friends that psychics were frauds. You see, I had built a reputation at that company. I was certainly not timid. I was not quiet. I was not meek. I was in fact… kind of a bitch. But I got the job done precisely because I was assertive. My personality has not changed much.

And my mother? Well, the mistake Sylvia made was asking such a simplistic question. I answered “Betty Crocker” because my mother took cake decorating classes (and made the most amazing doll cakes for me every year; she made my wedding cake, too) and is a very talented seamstress. Yes, she cooked and baked and sewed and got involved with the Navy Wives Club and volunteered as a nurse at my elementary school. She was also nothing like Susan B. Anthony. She didn’t burn her bra or march for women’s liberation. BUT, she was tough. Still is. She took cake decorating, but she also took auto repair classes and she taught me how to install car radios. My mother is not meek, not timid, and certainly has no trouble asserting herself. Nor do I.

And I thought it was blatantly obvious that the psychic had totally blown it.

But my friends still gathered around me, giggling excitedly about how great Sylvia was. When I said, “But she got everything wrong,” they dismissed it. They said, “She’s just telling you that you’re on the right track!”

When I objected with, “But my mother is nothing like that,” they said, “Well nobody gets everything 100% perfect.”

They talked about all of the vague things that she’d said in their readings and what they thought all of those things meant. They were drenched in the excitement of belief.

I shook my head and trudged back to my office alone. If that demonstration didn’t convince them, I didn’t know what would. I was sad about that for a long time.

It would be years before I went back to school to study psychology, teach, and look for better ways to promote skepticism.

People who believe in psychics don’t care whether they saw the psychic at their place of business, at a party, or at a county fair. They don’t think that matters because a psychic is a psychic. They don’t think that “party psychics” are just there to give bogus readings for fun. What fun would that be, anyway, if you don’t believe they are real?

“Party psychics” may not bilk a mark out of thousands of dollars, but they take money in exchange for pretending to know things they cannot know. They are no less fraudulent in their actions and just as guilty of promoting harmful superstition. This is not harmless.

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2 comments to For Entertainment Only: My Experience with a Party Psychic

  • MosesZD

    I’ve used Tarot cards to do the same thing. Just making things up on the fly. And people buy off on it in the worst way. Even when I told them I just making things up at random, they refused to believe me and made some silly argument that it worked through me despite my admission of flagrant BS story-telling.

    As a freshman in college my final English paper was on bogus astrology and I presented three people’s psychological profiles compared to their astrological-derived psychological profiles derived from using the computational methodology presented in Linda Goodman’s “Sun Signs.” I also provided quite of bit scientific debunking of astrology.

    But my English teacher was a new-age hippie type and despite it being explicitly stated in my conclusion that astrology had no predictive or explanatory powers in my conclusion gave me an ‘A’ for my defense of astrology!

    So, yeah, I get your experiences.