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If you've grown up along the California coastline, it's a safe bet that you've had some sort of psychic interlude: Someone's read your aura, your chart, your palm, your cards, or the bumps on your scalp; you've been told about past lives, future loves, dead relatives, or lost trinkets. If you were a child like me -- living with adults endlessly interested in metaphysical truth -- psychic phenomena may have become idle childhood amusements, as commonplace as matinee movies for your father's generation.
"Should we go roller-skating in the park," I might ask a friend on any sunny Sunday afternoon, "or get our tarot cards read?" We'd tumble out of the colorful storefront, laughing and talking about the ridiculous possibilities our futures might or might not hold, and go roller-skating anyway.
As I got older, the price of the future went up, but so did the entertainment value. On one occasion, I convinced an Englishman to see his first psychic. I let him pick a name from the phone book. The spot he chose was one of those Mission District parlors that double as living quarters for seven. The family was sitting down to dinner when we arrived, but the grandmother waved us in anyway. Two of the elder sisters shoved forkfuls in their mouths and grudgingly tossed their napkins on the table. They escorted us to separate corners of the room, lighting candles and mumbling prayers as they swallowed their bites. My reading was pretty standard fare: "You are a creative person." "You will do a lot of traveling." "You will be successful." "The man you love has a dark secret. He will leave but he will come back." "Someone who is envious of you has placed a curse on you and your family. Your family will suffer great hardships if you do not lift the curse. Come back tomorrow, and I will prepare a protection spell."
The woman was clearly distracted by her cooling steak, hardly glancing at me at all to find the "tells" that most hustlers depend on for clues. But the whole key to enjoying a psychic reading is the voluntary suspension of disbelief, and I was tickled to be a creative, successful traveler in the future with a dark, mysterious companion.
Sadly, my friend was not feeling similarly buoyant. In the car, he was uncommunicative and morose. I asked about his reading, and he wouldn't tell me. His psychic had told him not to discuss it with anyone. Ever.
"Did you get a curse?" I asked. He looked startled. Like me, he was also a creative traveler. (His psychic went so far as to suggest his creativity might be aligned with visual arts -- not exactly a limb, given his appearance, but still.) He had definitely gotten his money's worth: the terror caused by a curse that might kill his family; the confirmation of envy he had long suspected; the secret thrill of being the target of a diabolical scheme; the tremendous relief of being safe; and the humility that comes from being taken.
Better than the movies.
But not better than TV.
For almost a year, psychic medium John Edwardhas been communicating with the dead in front of, and for, live studio audiences on the Sci-Fi Channel. His no-nonsense, fast-paced, dressed-down, often funny, sometimes sarcastic approach to mediumship has turned his show, Crossing Over With John Edward,intothe highest-rated late-night program in the channel's history. (It's being picked up by KTVU in August.) Two years ago, while peddling his autobiography, One Last Time, Edward appeared on CNN's Larry King Live,accurately stating that a caller from Salem, Va., had buried her husband with a brand of cigarettes that was not his own. Larry King seemed convinced; the caller was beside herself. Edward's autobiography made it to the New York Timesbest-seller list with ease. His third book is already on its way. There is over a year's wait for private consultations. Edward's sellout live appearances are excellent targets for scalpers. Which is exactly how I get in to his appearance at the Nob Hill Masonic Auditorium.
Aside from a few rows at the edges of the room, kept purposely clear, the 3,000-seat auditorium is at capacity. There is a family of four, three rows above my balcony seat, that has traveled from Washington to speak with a sister/daughter who died in a car wreck; one section over, I find two parties who flew up from Los Angeles because they couldn't get tickets to Southern California dates. I'm seated between a 28-year-old stay-at-home mom from Ventura and a 35-year-old clinical research associate from San Jose. In the lobby, I meet a 42-year-old woman from southern Arizona whose interest is Edward, not her family's dead. (The woman is not alone in her adoration: There are a lot of flower bouquets walking through the doors, and it's not Mother's Day.) The crowd is an enjoyable cross-section of humanity -- gruff ex-servicemen sharing armrests with natural-fibered New Agers; hair spray and sequined denim coexisting with Prada and pashmina wraps -- and everyone is talking about ghosts, God, and the hereafter.
"I want to believe," says Lydia Kilinski, the scientist to my right, "but I'm not completely convinced. Maybe I'll see something tonight."
Edward steps out onstage wearing casual shades of gray and wire-rimmed glasses. He waves and the house, on its feet, erupts in applause. Several women shout, "I love you John," and Edward chuckles. He's a loud, fast-talking New Yorker, half Irish, half Italian, good-looking. His parents divorced when he was in the sixth grade, and Edward spent most of his time with his mother, a "psychic junkie" who had frequent house parties. (He likens them to Tupperware parties, with a psychic in place of storage containers.) At 16, he met with famed psychic Lydia Clar, who told him his future, a future that seemed unlikely because, at the time, Edward claims, he just wanted to own a deli. So far, Clar's predictions have been perfect.
Edward sets down some guidelines. No audio- or videotaping; it affects Edward's energy. Edward does not control who visits from the other side or what information he or she shares. "Don't be surprised by what comes through," says Edward. "The universe ... spirits have a wicked sense of humor."
During an anecdote, Edward suddenly stops.
"Somebody's brother is yelling at me." Edward points to a section in the balcony. "He passed from asphyxiation, or strangulation." Edward waits for hands to go up in the air, then starts hurling information to narrow it down to one person. "He's showing me December."
"My dad was born in December," says a woman.
"No, it's something else," says Edwards.
"My sister's birthday is in December."
"I'm getting an older woman and she's showing me a fish, a fish place."
"My grandmother used to work at a fish market," says the woman.
"How are you connected to April?"
"That's my birthday," says the woman, visibly and audibly shaken.
"There's another young male that passed by falling."
"Yes. A friend."
"From three stories."
"Your brother knew him. Why am I getting Washington?"
Someone beneath the balcony yells that she is from Washington, D.C., and that she came to the show with the woman upstairs.
"I can't edit what I'm given," says Edward. "I apologize. Someone had difficulty nursing." The woman on the ground floor says, "Yes."
"There's tumor on the spine. Someone, an older man above you, a father, grandfather, stepfather, named Jack or James."
There's no response.
"There are two fathers."
"I'm seeing two fathers. Was someone raised by a man who was like a father?"
After a long pause, the woman in the balcony shouts again. "Oh! My daughter!"
This gap in connections is what Edward calls "psychic amnesia."
"My daughter's here. Her grandfather raised her."
"You and your brother had kind of a mean relationship," says Edward.
"Yes," says the woman.
The woman is near me, sobbing.
The readings throughout the night are similar. Edward throws out a lot of information, some of which is confirmed, some not, all of which Edward claims could be, if the person could only make the connection, or if the person seated next to him, or nearby, could only make the connection.
At one point, several dozen people raise their hands to claim a set of descriptions. Edward says this is common in big crowds and pokes fun at people trying to steal other people's relatives. But, because the information can apply to any friend, any neighbor, any relative, in any branch of the family (including pets), it is clear in some cases that any person in the audience with a healthy-size family, or an unhealthy circle of friends, could make a given set of connections, if he or she just looks hard enough.
Of course, some information Edward provides is not so easily explained: the flatulent family of the woman who jokes about having three boobs. The woman who has three children, but admits to having five pregnancies after Edward tells her so. The father of two dead children who is called a gym teacher, and verifies that his name is Jim and he is, indeed, a teacher.
After the readings, Edward takes questions. He does believe in the power of prayer. He does believe in reincarnation, though he doesn't believe it happens as quickly as some might imagine. He does not believe bad people stay bad on the other side. He definitely believes connections made here remain connections over there. And he does not believe a medium is a replacement for therapy or grief counseling.
He ends the appearance as he usually ends the show.
"Take the opportunity to communicate [with], appreciate, and validate your loved ones, so you don't need me."
The woman who was given a reading two seats away from me is still crying. Grateful and crying. She won't give me her name, but she believes, and Edward has helped, somehow.
When all is said and done, the existence of psychic phenomena remains a matter of faith, and after the show, the believers still believe, and the doubters still doubt.
"I have an interest in magic," says Louis Kaplan, a 42-year-old self-proclaimed skeptic. "I've seen an elephant disappear right before my very eyes, and I know that elephant didn't really disappear. I'd like to believe that there is more, but I don't think that [Edward] has a gift for anything but being a compassionate and sensitive guy."
Thankfully, skepticism demands only that we ask questions, not that we understand all the answers.