The grief vampires
After weeks spent googling terms like” animal telepathy”, targeted advertisements pop up in my Facebook feed soliciting me to participate in a research analyze about the early signs of psychosis.
” BELIEVING OR HEARING THINGS THAT OTHERS DO NOT ?” the ads ask.” LOSING CONTROL OF YOUR THOUGHTS ?”
Advertising algorithms are reading my mind. When I click the ads, a website explains that” psychosis[ induces] it difficult to know what’s real and what isn’t “.
In the mediumship class, students nod when Lee describes how, as a shy, bullied teen, she heard voices that others didn’t.” I supposed I was schizo ,” she says.” I watched the movie Sybil and supposed:’ Oh god, they’re gonna lock me up, because I’m worse than her .'”
It wasn’t until she started attending seances with her father, also a medium, that she came to believe she was hearing spirit people.
Eventually, these voices” only shut off”, and she became a lawyer. But after noticing that her two-year-old daughter” seemed to be talking to spirits” in 2006, Lee quit her job and founded Montclair Psychic School.
When she came out, in middle age, as homosexual, Lee’s family cut off contact with her.” My living family were no longer speaking to me ,” she says,” but the dead were. I still felt like I had family who loved me, because the dead became life and the living became dead .”
During my class, I witness many total strangers call and talk about loss. In the animal telepathy workshop, a nurse breaks down, saying:” I’m lonely. Everybody I’ve loved has been taken away. My parent, my two children, my three puppies. Every hour I see the light, it’s like, boom. Gone .”
In Melissa’s aura reading class, a wellness blogger moves her hands around in the air like she’s miming rinsing windows, because, she explains, she’s been” going through a spiritual kundalini awakening” since her father died in 2017.
In the mediumship class, a woman in a floral blouse weeps as Lee claims to be channeling the spirit of her son, who died of a drug overdose.” When I feel him all around me, is that him ?” the woman asks. “Yes,” Lee says.” He’s saying:’ You’re my best friend .'”
Sirene, the artist from Tokyo, tells me that, for years, he was depressed and suicidal:” I felt like a sponge, assimilating everyone’s feelings, cursed with empathy .” Now in clairvoyant school, where educators often frame mental illnesses as signs of undeveloped mystic gifts, he feels” more at home “. He’s focusing on” psychopomp run”- the guiding of freshly dead souls into the afterlife. After a close friend from childhood killed herself, he says he shepherded her spirit toward a portal in the sunshine:” You imagine they have wings. Tell them:’ There’s a better place than here. Fly toward the sunlight .'”
As homework for his yearlong psychic certification course at the Edgar Cayce Association for Research and Enlightenment, Sirene has to give 10 reads to strangers. I offer to be his guinea pig. We sit near a statue called Durga Killing the Buffalo Demon at the Rubin Museum of Art.
Sirene closes his eyes. For three minutes, his eyelids twitch crazily, his mouth agape, like he’s possessed. Then he draws what he saw during his “REM trance”: a Scandinavian man he claims I’ll meet while hiking in France. With swishy blond hair, a tiny chin and a giant neck, the man in the sketch looks like a Disney cherub on steroids. We will have three children, Sirene says, and our household will be like” a harmonious dolphin pod “.
Sirene’s yearlong course costs $2,700. I ask if he plans to charge money for his readings. He says no.” If I did, I’d feel like I should be paying the spirits. I don’t think these messages are coming from me. I’m like a telephone .”
Stories of self-proclaimed psychics conning clients out of vast sums are legion. Recently, there was the Times Square fortune teller found guilty of grand robbery after bilking a recovering junkie of $550,000, having promised to revive his lost love using a day machine and a golden bridge. But this industry rife with scammers attracts plenty of true disciples, like Sirene, whose motives seem solely immaterial.
” We’re led to believe we’re just this physical body ,” Sirene says.” Right now, I happen to be Asian with black hair. But in reality, we’re everything. We can be a dolphin, an extraterrestrial, a reptilian, an insect. I was a dwarf in the 17 th century. The psychic thing lets you know the truth , not just the material ego .”
Skeptics often call mediums” grief vampires “. They argue that any comfort were obtained from paranormal belief is false, and comes at a grave expense. Some warn of the potential political ramifications of such belief.
In an age of total epistemic disarray, the mainstreaming of parapsychology and related New Age practices seems to run parallel to other anti-scientific tendencies: climate change denial, the anti-vaxxer motion, conspiracy theories from PizzaGate to QAnon. A recent study found the espousal of conspiracy theories, pseudoscience and faith in the paranormal turn out to be highly correlated with one another.
After six months, I drop out of psychic school. I don’t have the patience to stare into a candle flame for 15 minutes a day, and my mugwort stash has been sitting untouched in my underwear drawer for weeks. Since the animal telepathy class, I often try to read the mind of my roommate’s cat, but all I ever gather is that she wants food.
Over the phone, I thank Melissa for her teachings.
” I hope you find your route back to your goddess roots ,” she says.
I think I detect a note of pity or motherly fear in her voice, like she’s looking down from the astral plane, feeling sorry that I haven’t found my way back to my goddess roots. But I might just be projecting.
I’m not sure. I can’t read her mind.
Illustrations by Gabriel Alcala
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