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Medium, Not Rare

by Andrew Stuttaford

Psychic Blues: Confessions of a Conflicted Medium, by Mark Edward (Feral House, 242 pp., $18.95)

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.

The odds of the latter markedly increase when there’s a buck involved. In Edward’s trade there is plenty of room for “callous exploitation” of vulnerable prey. He quotes Ambrose Bierce: “Magic is a way of ‘converting superstition into coin.’” And this coin can travel in unexpected directions. Edward argues that it’s the phone company, not the psychic, that does best out of all those late-night sessions on the 900 line, followed by the network’s owner, not the psychic. Edward depicts a tough world in which most of his cohort, a carny crowd really — all “greasepaint and bulls**t” — eke their way through. In a reflection of the hardscrabble existences of those on whom they so often feed, they too can struggle to survive. He describes the skills, tricks, flimflam, and cheating that they deploy to make a living, something made easier by humanity’s willingness to believe just about anything, or, for that matter, to pay for a spooky thrill: “Sweat it out, miss a few details, and the audience is left with no other explanation than that you are the real deal.”

At times, this makes for a fascinating read — and Psychic Blues would make a useful gift for a friend susceptible to circling light-workers — even if it falls far short of the bleak, brilliant brutality of Nightmare Alley, the Truman-era novel (and movie) with which Edward would dearly like his book to be compared. Perhaps it takes fiction to do true justice to fables of the psychic con. And some literary talent: Despite some good lines and better insights, Edward is not much more of a writer than he is a clairvoyant.

He’s also pretty cagey. Like so many of his peers, he has peddled what he knows to be nonsense. Nevertheless he claims that he would never “outright lie” (note that careful “outright”). He never, he declares, claimed “to see spirits,” which makes one think that the séances he has organized (briefly referred to elsewhere in the book) must have been a little dull. Nor has he, he says, tried to cheat his clients by telling them only what he “sensed they wanted to hear.” Given the shenanigans to which he does admit, not least his confession that “hope” is what he sells, more cynical readers may not be entirely convinced.

They may also puzzle over the question of why he really reached for that whistle. The way Edward puts it, he was tired of his double life as both skeptic and seer, and became “committed to letting the psychic cat out of the bag.” This book, complete with a foreword by the Great Debunker, James “The Amazing” Randi himself, is part of that process, but some of those pesky cynics may still be suspicious. Could this conversion be just another routine for a conjurer still — notwithstanding an appearance at Buddy Hackett’s 70th-birthday party — looking to hit the big time?

That said, Edward has paid his skeptic dues. He has been on TV with Penn and Teller, he’s shown up at Skepticamps, he posts at Skepticblog, and he practices guerrilla skepticism, swilling what ought to be lethal quantities of homeopathic remedies and punking the infamous Sylvia Browne, “world-renowned” spiritual teacher, psychic, and author.

But Edward’s road to Damascus may have space for some U-turns. In a recent interview with the New York Times, he confirmed that he was “still involved” in some of his old psychic games. It’s impossible not to think that this particular whistleblower may be playing a decidedly ambiguous tune.

Meanwhile, just last year the septuagenarian Browne published her new book, Afterlives of the Rich and Famous, an update on how things are going for the glitterati on the Other Side — Princess Diana, Elvis, and Heath Ledger the newbie, to name but a few.

The gypsy caravan trundles on. Always has. Always will.

– Mr. Stuttaford is a contributing editor of National Review Online.

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