For six months, I attempted to quiet my fact-checking, left-brain voice and tap into my goddess roots, where fiction and reality are interchangeable

Montclair Psychic School sits above a florist’s store in the town of Rutherford, New Jersey. On a Sunday in June, eight students sit in a amber painted classroom, watching a mastiff named Axel sniff a bust of the Buddha.

” C’mere, Axel ,” says a woman whose T-shirt reads:” Medicine heals the body. DOGS mended the spirit .” She offers him a treat.” Good son .”

Axel slobbers on her lap, then lopes all over the room, sniffing amethyst crystals, a conga drum and a gold Tibetan sing bowl.

” Send your heartstrings out ,” says Natalie Anderson, a special education educator who moonlights as an animal communicator.” Connect. Ask Axel: what’s in his world? What does he know? What does he want? Don’t be shy .”

Axel salivates on the carpet as the students try to read his mind.

” He’s saying’ hikes ‘,” says one woman.” He wants a chore, so he feels like he has a purpose. Maybe he can get a backpack, so his chore can be carrying water on hikes ?”

A description of this seven-hour” pet communication” class reads:” You will learn how to send supposes to your animal companions and trust what you are receiving back. It is merely a matter of understanding telepathic communication, the natural mode of communication for all animals AND an inherent ability for all humans !”

” Say whatever’s coming to intellect ,” Natalie instructs.” Give me that spirit vomit .”

The students say: “He’s bored.”

” He wants a playmate. And some range in his puppy food .”

” He wants developing. Focus. A chore .”

Axel sniffs a boulder painted with a butterfly and the word “BELIEVE”. A lava lamp incandescences on a wooden chest. On the wall, a clock with the words” I Assure DEAD PEOPLE” printed on its face reads 3pm. It’s time for Axel’s afternoon walk.

” Bye, Axel !” the students say.” Thanks so much !”

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Everyone is psychic !

Montclair Psychic School was founded by a woman named Lee Van Zyl in 2006 on the premise that every single person has ” clairvoyant abilities “. The definition varies depending on whom you ask but here, in addition to animal telepathy, the school offers instruction in angel-channeling, mind-reading, psychometry and communication with spirits of the dead.


I first heard the claim that everyone could become clairvoyant- a popular assert among scattered factions of the New Age movement- while working on an assignment in 2015. A Norse rune reader told me I possessed” dark magical “; a crystal ball reader told me I was ” very psychic “; a dominatrix-slash-medium told me I was a latent witch.

I didn’t believe any of them; aside from going through a Wiccan phase at 11 and having a psilocybin-induced mystical experience on a golf course at 18, I’d never strayed much from a secular worldview. But I was secretly flattered- until I realized that most of these psychics’ clients probably got similar evaluations.

According to them, most people simply aren’t aware of their innate paranormal abilities.

” I believe that 100% of us are clairvoyant ,” writes Pete A Sanders Jr, in his volume You Are Psychic !” I learned to be clairvoyant ,” gushes Krishanti, a vlogger, in a YouTube video.” If I can do it, everybody can … It’s not brain science !”

I wanted to know what would happen if I took these clairvoyant evangelists at their word. Maybe the Norse rune reader was right, and my intellect was infinitely more powerful than I’d ever fathomed. Or, as most of my friends insisted after being informed of such projects, maybe all clairvoyants are charlatans.

So from January to June of 2018, when I wasn’t at my job as a factchecker, I listened to the podcast Everyone is Psychic; read books like Your Psychic Soul and You Are Psychic !; and attended” psychic developing” classes promising students they would speak with the dead, find the future, or know for certain what’s inside others’ minds.

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You seem like a mugwort person

On a frost Tuesday in January, I attend a class called Herbs for Dreamwork and Opening Psychic Abilities at Catland, an occult bookshop in Brooklyn which gained minor notoriety in 2017 for organizing a ceremony to “hex” US chairperson Donald Trump.

In a black-walled room lighted by a single bulb, 17 students sit before Rebecca Fey, an aerialist acrobat and tarot reader wearing skull-printed tights and feather earrings. She’s listing herbs with purported mystic benefits. Mugwort, she says, is great for opening your Third Eye; wormwood helps induce visions; cinnamon raises vibrational frequencies; catnip attracts good spirit; wild lettuce can be smoked- Hopi Indian used it to induce trance states.

Students scribble notes as Fey explains how to scratch herbs into a mirror to practice a sort of divination called ” scrying “.

” Does it have to be so dark in here ?” one student asks.

” How do you spell’ scry ‘?” asks another.

Scientific consensus regarding psychic abilities hasn’t changed much since a 1988 report by the US National Research council observed” no scientific justification from research conducted over a period of 130 years for the existence of parapsychological phenomena “. While a few prominent physicists like Freeman Dyson and Brian Josephson have expressed heretical faiths in the existence of telepathy, most contemporary scientists dismiss purported supernatural powers as the stuff of science fiction.

In the US, skeptics about psychic phenomena outnumber disciples, but not by much. Polls tend to show that around one-third to one-half of Americans believe in phenomena such as telepathy and precognition. These faiths fuel a$ 2bn psychic services industry that has been growing steadily since the 2008 recession.

When I ask which herbs are best for beginners, Fey says:” You seem like a mugwort person. Burn mugwort to sharpen your intuition. Stare into a candle flame. Ask what it wants you to know .”

After class, students mill around the shop, sniffing bundles of juniper, inspecting ankh pendants and penis-shaped candles. I buy an ounce of mugwort for $3. One woman spends $93.73 on pre-packaged” spiritual bath herb mixes “.

Later, I indicate a friend my new mugwort hoard.” I don’t think you’d handle seeing the future very well ,” she says. Still, when I get home I burn mugwort in a shot glass and stare into a candle flame, silently asking what it wants me to know. The candle doesn’t answer. The mugwort smells like crappy marijuana, but nothing happens when I inhale its smoke.

This is disappointing, though Fey had somewhat advised me:” What you’re gonna experience isn’t like on TV, where you touch person and abruptly find their whole life story. Don’t think of it as, like, zero to 10 .”

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I don’t think you’d handle watching the future very well

The next morning, I go to my factchecking task. Factcheckers are supposed to ensure the accuracy of every grain of information in a given article. Under a chairperson who makes an average of 6. 5 false or misleading asserts a day ,~ ATAGEND the often tedious business of factchecking has taken on new urgency.

While factchecking in February, I confirm that a pair of cat-shaped Gucci earrings expenses $2,390; that an average of 31 American women succumb from opioids every day; that 17 people were killed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas high school on Valentine’s Day; and that the Milky Way galaxy has a supermassive black hole at its heart.

At work, the tyranny of facts feels inescapable.

At clairvoyant school, facts don’t matter.

” If it’s coming from spirit, then it’s true ,” says Melissa Waite Stamps, a self-described clairvoyant medium who has Morticia Addams hair.” This world is totally nonlinear. It’s a different world. It’s like being in a dream nation .”

At age 11, Melissa was inducted as a priestess by her Irish nanny into the Pagan” path of goddess mysteries” without the knowledge of her Upper East Side socialite mom. Now she operates a weekly clairvoyant developing Meetup group.

On a Monday evening, in a cramped, windowless room near the Empire State Building, Melissa tells six students about how spirits might give information to channelers: through dreams, goosebumps, flashing illuminations, radios randomly turning on and off.

Then she guides the group on a meditative trip.

” Journey it is now time non-ordinary reality ,” Melissa lilts over a recording of singing bowls playing from an iPhone.” Let your spirit guide to lead you to places where you find the missing parts of yourself. Crystal caves, star systems, universe below the ocean. Travel beyond hour and human experience .”

After five minutes, we describe our journeys to” non-ordinary reality “.

A PR professional flew through the skies with her recently deceased pet monk parrot. A tired-looking nurse met a shepherd in Biblical Jerusalem who exposed her unlimited potential. A wellness blogger drank from a Thermos full of light. I swam in a grotto with Glinda the Good Witch.

When each person speaks, the students say: Wow. Amazing. Beautiful.

” I used to differentiate between imagination and reality, but now, it’s all real to me ,” says Sirene, an artist from Tokyo. Sirene is” learning to speak dolphin”, because, in a past life, he was a” giant bipedal dolphinoid, with tiny little humans as pets “. He misses that life and, when he’s not painting pictures of winged muscle-gods, often returns to it during meditations.

In her book Your Psychic Soul, Judith Pennington explains how you know if a past-life memory is true:” Deep inside, you will feel whether it is true or not. But in the end, it doesn’t really matter. What is real in the mind is what is real in your present life .”

From this perspective, the question of what is objectively true becomes irrelevant; fantasy and reality are interchangeable.

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Can you read the colourings in your partner’s aura ?

Next, Melissa has us pair up to practice” aura reading “.

The modern conception of auras– color-changing, emotion-reflecting fields of sunlight that supposedly surround every human, invisible to the non-clairvoyant eye- was first popularized in the late 19 th century by Madame Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, founder of the Theosophical Society. Some 12 decades later, many professional clairvoyants specialize in aura reading.

” Using your clairvoyance, give your partner a message from spirit based on the colorings you read in their aura ,” Melissa tells the Meetup group.

I sit across from the PR professional grieve her parrot. She gazes at me, takes deep breaths, and says she sees” a crown of green and white light, like the Statue of Liberty’s”, emanating from my head: “It’s very clear.”

I stare back and see no colourings surrounding the woman, save an orange incandescence from a lamp on her black hair. I wonder if she actually insures a gleaming crown on my head. I find myself doubting it- I don’t feel any crown of light; I have a headache- but, ultimately, I have no way of knowing what she sees or doesn’t see. Psychic lessons aren’t working on me, and I can’t telepathically occupy her intellect to detect if she’s telling the truth.

Studies indicate we’re not as skilled at divining other people’s thoughts and emotions as we might like to think we are. According to social psychologist William Ickes, a innovator of” empathic accuracy” research,” strangers read one another with an average accuracy rate of about 20%” when videotaped and asked to record their moment-to-moment thoughts and impressions. Close friends and married couples are only slightly better at reading one another, with an accuracy rate of 35%. One meta-analysis received that people’s ability to distinguish truth from lies is just a few percentage points above a random coin flip.

When Melissa checks in with me and my partner, I tell her that if I were to claim I watched glowing colorings, I’d feel guilty of constructing stuff up.

” Everyone feels like they’re making it up at first ,” Melissa tells me.” Attain it up .”

When I squeeze my eyes shut, greenish floaters appear.

” I guess I’m getting a green vibe ,” I tell my partner,” but maybe that’s because you’d seem good in green .”

” What do you think it means ?” Melissa says.

” Maybe it would help you to spend time in a green space ,” I try.” Like a park ?”

” My bird was green ,” the two partners says.

” There you go !” says Melissa.

I deliver a message from the floaters behind my eyelids:” Maybe you could visit the green monk parrots who live in[ Brooklyn’s] Green-Wood Cemetery .”

” I didn’t know parrots lived there ,” my partner says.

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Like velocity dating … but with ghosts

The notion that every human can develop supernatural abilities has captivated Americans for centuries. It wasn’t just the counterculture that was seduced: the government bought it, too.

In the 1970 s, the US army and the Defense Intelligence Agency launched a secret program that, among other things, trained intelligence professionals to become” remote viewers”, purportedly capable of clairvoyantly spying on events from a great distance. The army also entertained a proposal for developing a new military of clairvoyant super-soldiers who would” sense plant auras, attain the power to pass[ through] walls, bend metal with their minds,[ watch] the future[ and] be able to see and hear other people’s thinks “.

These parapsychology experiments were, in part, a cold war government’s response to the fear that Soviets were utilizing” psychoenergetic war “. The $20 m Stargate Project was declassified and shut down in 1995 after a CIA report concluded that it had not rendered any actionable intelligence information. Its legacy, however, lingers.

In recent years, belief in mediumship has gained prominence in pop culture. Oprah Winfrey, Dr Phil and the Real Housewives all feature mediums on their Tv presents. Goop, Gwyneth Paltrow’s $250 m lifestyle juggernaut, promotes mediums- as well as animal communicators and “Psychic Vampire Repellent”- on its heavily-trafficked website. At the brand’s recent In Goop Health conference, a medium claimed that” death does not exist “.

In March, I attend Montclair Psychic School’s nine-hour Unfoldment Into Mediumship class. A course description claims that, following completion of this workshop, students” will have conducted spirit contact with proof of life “.

When I arrive, Lee sits puffing on an e-cigarette before one man and five girls, all middle-aged. Wearing sweatshirts and mom jeans, they seem more like a focus group on suburban Costco shoppers than a circle of aspiring necromancers.

” We are here to prove the soul survives ,” Lee says. A dark-haired ex-lawyer from Cape Town, she calls her students “darling” as she explains how, in order to be allowed to channel spirits,” we must learn to quiet our analytical left-brain voice “.

” I dedicated that nagging, critical voice a name ,” Lee says.” I call her Frankie .”

Throughout class, Lee refers disparagingly to” Frankie Talk”, exemplifying the voice of rational gues, which, she explains, are due to be silenced whenever possible.

“Frankie” interferes with trust in the” five clairs”, which are like supercharged versions of the five senses. The best known is clairvoyance, which makes emblems and images appear on a screen behind your forehead. There’s also clairaudience, clairsentience, clairalience and clairgustance.

As an example of how clairgustance, the” gift of clear taste”, works, Lee says:” You might be sitting with person and taste bitter lemon. Why? Well, perhaps the person likes lemon, but perhaps they’re feeling bitter .”

Next, Lee guides us through training exercises that’s like velocity dating, but with ghosts.

” Close your eyes and project yourself into the corner of the room ,” she says.” There are spirit people over there. Run introduce yourself. Ask:’ What was your life like? How did you die ?’ Be friendly. Some might be shy .”

I close my eyes and try to summon spirit people.

” Hi, guys. How did you die ?” I mentally whisper. No one responds.

Lee suggests icebreakers:” Ask spirit people who are somehow connected to water to introduce themselves. Maybe you’ll gratify a surfer, a fireman holding a hose, farmers watering their lands .”

I wait for dead surfers and firemen and farmers to appear. Nothing happens.

” Now spirit people are gonna tell you how they experienced illness ,” Lee says. She indicates summoning spirits who died of emphysema, tuberculosis, heart attacks, Alzheimer’s or sugar diabetes. “‘ Frankie Brain’ might say:’ Oh, shit, I’m not getting anything .’ Make it happen .”

I picture clusters of ghosts floating by the water cooler, demonstrating me their ruptured aortas and emphysemic lungs.

When we return to the mortal realm, Lee asks:” How’d that run ?”

One student conveys doubt that the spirit people she met were more than figments:” I don’t know- is it merely in my intellect, or is it really real ?”

Another student brags about her spirit world networking skills.

” I met a skier named Bernie ,” she says.” And a pale girl, in a white gown, who was’ desperate for company ‘, and a poor little peasant son .”

Lee seems pleased.

” The thing about this work is you start to disfavour living people ,” she says.” It’s much more fun to talk to dead people .”

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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.


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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