By Suzanne Clores
Last June, while attending an academic conference about using psychic ability to predict the stock market, an elegant woman addressed me near the bathroom sinks, saying she’d like to give me a gift in the form of a reading.
“Like an astrology reading?”
“More like an energy reading. It’s an act of karma. I try to pay it forward once in a while.”
For the last several years, I’ve spent my writing life exploring the science and scholarship of psychic experiences. I am an observer, not a practitioner, and although I love the topic, conferences like these freak me out. Something weird—and I mean very weird– always happens. Two years earlier, on a glorious June day, I presented at an extraordinary phenomena conference at Gettysburg College, not far from America’s bloodiest Civil War battlefield. The blazing sun shifted once I arrived within a mile of the town; though the sky was still bright, a cold, dark cloud seeped through the metal of my car, into my heart. It was as though fifty thousand dead soldiers still drifted in the air.
I didn’t really believe that landscapes held memories, or that trauma attached itself to earth, grass, or trees. That was almost two centuries ago, I told myself. These sensations are in your head. This pep talk mostly worked until I entered the conference, a room full of cheerful experts discussing ghost hunting, spirit photography, and EVP, or electronic voice phenomenon (the recordings of ghost voices). All shared the opinion that the dead left impressions; visual, auditory or even tangible impressions. I remained in a place of denial. These are enthusiasts, I told myself. People much more deeply invested in belief.
I continued to repeat this half-truth to myself as the EVP expert set up a recording, and then the lie stopped. A guttural, angry non-human voice in a choir of screams filled the room. I was nauseous with terror.
I am the first to admit I am a sensitive person, but as I sped away from the historic battlefield, I swore I would avoid haunted land in the future, and especially any conferences in which “energy” would be discussed.
Except now here I was, at a new conference set in sunny Las Vegas. The program had nothing to do with spirits of the dead, and much to do with the beauty of human potential. I am face to face with this elegant woman offering me an energy reading and I am tempted. She is a striking brunette in a sharp, tailored suit, and a tiny, diamond cross necklace, something I hadn’t seen or worn since my Catholic school days. She seemed to know all the presenters first hand, and carried herself with a gentle authority. Though I didn’t know her, and as a general rule, I don’t accept any type of healings from strangers, I accepted her offer. I trusted that she had something to give me. I trusted that I could clear it from my personal space if I had to. Most importantly, I sensed the reading would reveal more about her than about me, which, given my mission, was perfect.
A full day passed before I heard from her again. I assumed she had floated away, that the deal was off, that my lesson was right in front of me: energy healers were full of it. I felt a slight shiver of disappointment, followed by that sweet relief specific to reaching a dead end when pursuing something outlandish. I hadn’t realized how much I had wanted this agreement to fall apart. And then: at the height of a terribly boring webinar about light ray experiments, I received a text. She had just done my reading and would email me notes that night. I read it again, making sure I understood. How had she done the reading? I hadn’t actively taken part. What had she read, if not my physical vibe?
In fact, her distance was a good sign. I knew that to sit in person, face to face, for an energy reading creates an opportunity for inferential cues, or little hints. These hints are why most people are suspicious of psychics: it’s a way they can cheat. Either by accident or on purpose, the psychic/healer/energy reader uses these cues, filling in emotional or practical information that makes healing experience more authentic and true. But no inferential cues had been exchanged. We had not spoken. I did not sit for a reading. The only physical contact we had was a handshake. How many cues could she receive from a handshake?
Maybe a lot.
After dinner, in my soulless motel room next to a Hooters, I decided whatever her notes declared, I would take them for what they were: notes from a stranger I met at a psychic conference.
The six photographed pages featured small, feminine handwriting and careful, loopy diagrams. As I read, a rising disequilibrium rolled through me. The words maternal figure dominated the pages, with drawings and descriptions that resembled my very complex and deceased grandmother Rose. Rose had been dead for nine years and I had never properly grieved her. She was a tough, Italian Catholic lady: think of a matriarch in a Ferrante novel, and add in equal parts Sicilian righteousness and Depression-era survivalism. She picked fights with everyone; her sisters, her doctors, her friends. My own mother didn’t speak to her for years.
According to EL, she surrounded me.
The notes were full of moving assurances She loves you/She is so proud of you/ She is here for you/ Primarily on your right side/She wants you to call on her more. My vision blurred, and I could barely finish reading before I wept. I never expected EL to channel the dead, and was not prepared for the raw flood of memory. My grandmother adhered to the bottom line. She had our whole family trained to her will. Case in point: when she was too sick to come to my wedding, my uncle, a wealthy man, flew on a private jet to bring her a piece of cake the next day. When she was in hospice a few months later, my husband and I drove hundreds of miles from Chicago to upstate New York so we could tell her I was pregnant. In person. She was all about real time spent together. She was all about real life.
She died about a month later, probably aided by the knowledge that I was at last loved, married and fertile. But I had abandoned her emotionally, withdrew at a young age, because I did not understand her marvelous strength and ferocity. I knew only her cruel letters and punishing temper, and couldn’t process that they came from the same woman who made delectable spinach pizza and Italian cookies. I threw out admiration for her intense work ethic, slow eating, tinkling laugh and attention to the tiniest detail. Admitting this filled me with sadness.
I went to bed considering for a moment EL was hustling me, not for money but for empathy, attention, or a brief stint of psychological dominance. Power games weren’t out of the question at these types of conferences. Was this happening? Was I being played? The highway traffic never quite lulled me to sleep. I woke up the next morning exhausted, forty-five minutes after the conference started, and overwhelmed at the emotional plunge I had taken. I was too deep. The last three years writing about psychic phenomena had drained me. My view of human perception had stretched far, but now this reading moved the dial towards a whole new set of concerns. What’s the critical thinking path? How do I properly discern message from metaphor. How to I not drown in the deep water of belief, wearing full-on believer goggles? Vaguely annoyed, my thoughts wandered to my grandmother. She had not been a mysterious person. What was I supposed to do with this information? I dressed and packed my suitcase, intending to leave. “I don’t know what any of this means,” I said to the empty room. “I don’t know what I’m supposed to do next.”
My email beeped. Maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised, but I was.
A note had come in from a colleague I hadn’t heard from in 15 years. He was a documentary producer interested in my work. Could it maybe translate to TV? Could we talk?
A chill ran through me.
Was this what I was supposed to do next?
I said I’d get back to him, and I took a taxi to the conference. I was still processing the email, its promise and uncanny timing, when I found EL sipping coffee by the conference room doors. I felt a curious tug of intimacy as we ventured outside to a private park bench amid gravel and landscaped succulents. You don’t know her, I reminded myself. This could be her game, and you could be her mark.
I know lots of skeptics like to put themselves in the shoes of psychics and energy workers, plotting through how they would pull off such manipulative stunts if the Machiavellian urge struck them. The money they could make. The power they could glean. In my work, had encountered many frauds, 90% of whom were discernable almost instantly. They tend to have grand confidence and skilled showmanship. But when EL told me my grandmother had come again, and was asking to sit with us, I was curious if frauds could comes in convincing packages, too. What was she seeing and hearing? I looked beside her, even checked above her head for evidence of my little blond grandma in a housecoat. I saw nothing.
She navigated a conversation with empty space as though talking to a real person. She bore no white eyeballs or neck twitches, only some gentle nodding and the look of listening.
“Is this freaking you out? That I’m having a conversation with her?”
It did, but also it didn’t. The part of me that didn’t believe didn’t care. The part of me that did believe wondered about their discussion.
“She wants to enter my body.”
“Is that normal?” I asked.
She sighed, weary. “Sometimes. In certain cases. She’s very insistent. Okay, okay,” she smiled. “If it’s alright with you, I can let her in.”
Those believer goggles I mentioned? They were fully on. I was overcome with the possibility that Rose wanted to talk to me. At that moment, all objectivity dissolved in the hot desert sun and I felt something in me merge with the screaming blue sky at the bigness of the possibility. I am almost embarrassed at how quickly and completely this happened, except for one tiny shred I clung to: doesn’t everyone desperately want this? Doesn’t everyone wish for their dead loved ones to become a benevolent extract in the afterlife, to come back with messages of love? We are wired to see what we want to see, and I realized now I was connected to this woman by my desire to believe what she showed me.
Even so, I nodded my head. EL looked misty for a moment before she met my eyes with her crystal blues. I had an overwhelmingly calm thought: she will either get this channeling very wrong, and I will know, or she will get it right and buckle under the wrath of Rose. Either way, I was safe. My goggles were off, and I prepared myself for the end of the charade.
“I love you, and I’m so proud of you. For all you’ve done. For how far you’ve come.”
“Thank you,” I say, holding back tears because this maybe completely false.
But,” she paused, “you can do a little bit better.”
I wasn’t sure I heard correctly. “Excuse me?”
“You can try a little bit harder. I know you work hard. But you can do a little more. Use your voice, and tow the line,” EL drew a line on the paper in front of her. “Have better boundaries.”
My mind was all over the place. The love mixed with scolding, the admiration peppered with critique sounded strangely familiar. Strangely like Rose.
WTF, I thought. This is what she says coming from the afterlife?
I wondered more about the mention of boundaries. Was it a generalization? Was she talking about my work life? With EL?
My mind returned to the email, and whether this would make good TV.
“Where’s the camera crew?” EL blurted.
She looked confused. “Your grandmother wants me to shout, Where’s the camera crew! Okay, okay,” EL interrupted herself. “Where’s the camera crew?” she shouted, laughing. “Where’s the camera crew? Where’s the camera crew?”
I was speechless. What looked like a display of my grandmother’s force of will quickly got out of control. A man walked by and looked at us strangely. EL cackled, “Your grandmother just told me, ‘give that man a dirty look!’ Now she wants to walk around and see things. EL stood up. I followed her.
“‘This is fun, let’s go over there,’ she’s saying. She’s funny. She’s not exactly rude, but,” EL looked as if she had been interrupted. ‘Spicy,’ she’s telling me. ‘I’m spicy.’”
It was hard not to laugh at the crazy display. EL seemed genuinely amused and only a little addled by the continual request.
“Okay, again? Where’s the camera crew? Where’s the camera crew?’ Does this mean something to you?” EL finally asked me. “Are you getting the message?”
It was hard not to get the message. I should pay attention to the morning’s email. I should work harder on this project. I should keep good boundaries. And I should get a camera crew. Even if I wanted to, I couldn’t ignore the shouting insistence, the same tone that once veered into years-long family feuds and strident refusals to be treated by even the best medical professionals. The very same voice of ferocious love.
“Yes,” I said. “I’m getting the message.”
The goggles were back on.
Because this is the deal with belief, I was nearly drowning in doubt the very next moment. Who was this woman anyway? Why was she talking to me about my dead grandmother? Isn’t that the most ridiculous cliché? Plus, my grandmother had been a strict, Italian Catholic. She would not waste my time or hers with a two-bit psychic. Indelicately, I asked for her credentials.
“Actually, I’m a foot and ankle surgeon. I live in Monterey,” she said “but my heart is really in Sicily. That’s where I call home.”
Of course. Not a two-bit psychic, but a freaking foot doctor. Somehow, from the afterlife, my grandmother had found a beautiful, female, Catholic, Sicilian foot doctor through whom to communicate.
I boarded the airplane with my goggles off, and have thought, more than once, I would be wise to not take any of this literally. It’s much safer to see the experience as a giant metaphor for love and self- forgiveness and courage. It makes more sense to see EL as a type of improvisational performer, whose special ability is to manufacture experience out of vibes skillfully divined by a handshake.
Meanwhile, the TV documentary is well on its way. I don’t want to reveal too much too soon. But let’s just say I’ve got a camera crew.