The tale of the whistleblower generally follows a predictable arc. There is the dreadful misbehavior, and the whistleblower’s shamefaced confession of his part in it. The whistle blows. The wrongdoing ends. The penitent whistleblower moves on to a better life, book contract in hand. That’s not quite how it seems to have worked out in the case of Mark Edward. But there has been a book contract, and the result is Psychic Blues.
Its author, Mr. Edward, is a mentalist (yes, that’s the word) who has set the traps of junkyard superstition for decades, and the gullible, the lonely, the hopeful, and the dim have fallen right in. Amongst other roles, he’s been a dial-a-psychic (with the old Psychic Friends Network, an entity that does not emerge well from this book), a rent-a-psychic, a TV psychic, a party psychic (“somewhere between the popcorn vendor and the mimes”), a Psychic Revivalist (don’t ask), a palmist, an ESP-tester, a runestone cowboy, a banana-reader (oh yes), a nightclub act, a fortuneteller, a graphologist, and the organizer of a hoax involving the possibility of a three-way interspecies dialogue to be arranged by whales between them, us, and the extraterrestrials that are, as you know, now living in our ocean depths. He has held “quick but dramatic psychic readings for attractive single women” and he has read the paw-print of a dog (“Whitney has a lonely side to her personality”). But there’s a problem. As the subtitle of Psychic Blues signals, Edward is a “conflicted medium.” Those paranormal abilities he’s been touting? He believes that he hasn’t any, and nor, for that matter, has anyone else. As for the supernatural, well, “there’s nothing there in the dark.”
Indeed. But these apparently long-held beliefs did nothing to stop Mr. Edward from pursuing a charlatan career, something that is a touch difficult to square with the way he likes “to look in a mirror and see integrity staring back.” Clearly he is not only in the business of deceiving other people.
But he’s a trickster, not a monster. Many of his clients will have treated his readings as a game. Even those who didn’t won’t have got into much trouble with pronouncements that, as Edward describes them, relied on common sense and his own sharp intuitive gifts, or were of a generality so wide, bland, or broadly benign as to be helpful at best and safely opaque at worst. And sometimes people just like to talk. “A sideshow tent,” writes Edward, “is never far from a psychiatrist’s couch; there’s just more sawdust on the floor”; an exaggeration, to be sure, but not by too much.
Edward goes on to claim that he has “consistently opted to tell people what I feel in my gut is what they need to hear.” This is not the most clinically rigorous of approaches, and Edward’s early background (according to the Wikipedian oracle, it included stints in various absurdly named bands and time as a fire-eater) involves nothing in the way of scientific training. Then again, would the study of old Freud’s woo-woo have added much more? Cleverness and empathy can frequently be enough.
Thus he notes that, “as P. T. Barnum once said, there’s a sucker born every minute. And in the 900 business, every minute counts.” But he then throws in tales of occasions where he was a genuine friend, if not a genuine psychic. As Edward fielded call after call from the “lost souls” out there, he had, he maintains, a “long list of 800 help-line referral numbers” covering everything from alcoholism to alien abductions. He tries to direct the savagely abused Trish to a women’s shelter. His session on the line with Ginger Triggs (“another drunk badly slurring her speech”) turns out to be a life-saver. He discovers later that their conversation has been enough to persuade her to put down the loaded gun that (as, naturally, he had failed to divine at the time) she was aiming at her head while they talked. Ginger leaves her abusive husband, tackles her alcoholism, and starts training to be a nurse: “I had saved someone’s life.” Who could have foreseen that?
Enlightenment sorts, as well as the more conventionally devout, will be dismayed by Edward’s neatly drawn description of the mumbo-jumbo America in which he works, a credulous place where a psychomanteum (look it up if you care; trust me, it’s ludicrous) is technology, tarot is wisdom, and a pendulum is a lie-detector. But Homo sapiens is who he is. Edward wonders whether the New Age abracadabra represents a “terminus of rationality” or a return to our roots, a distinction that implies, rather optimistically, that we have left them. However bizarre, beliefs like those he was pushing — and their antecedents and, inevitably, successors — offer the meaning that many folk feel that they need, but cannot find elsewhere. Such beliefs will forever be with us. What matters is whether they are put to good(ish) use or bad.