This article appeared in the September/October 1996 issue of The Skeptical Inquirer, the journal of the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal, an international organization.
‘This is very, very unusual,” Emma says, leaning closer to inspect the whorls on my fingertips and the lines on my right palm. She pauses for a heartbeat and raises her eyes. “This is going to just knock you out of the water, Joseph.”
I ease forward in the cream-colored armchair, keeping my feet flat on the carpet, careful not to cross my energy. I peer down and study the lines of my palm. I look for patterns. Instead, I see a jumble of cracks and creases. Mostly, I see chapped skin.
But what do I know? I’m not the expert here. Emma is. Emma (not her real name) is a spiritual counselor, a palm reader, a numerologist, a clairvoyant, a practitioner of the divine sciences. She is, in a word, a psychic — by reputation, one of the top psychics in Northern California, I am told.
Emma fixes me with a soulful stare. “Are you ready for this, Joseph?”
I am ready. For I’m sitting here today, in the sun-splashed living room of Emma’s ranch-style home, for precisely this reason: to get in touch with my inner path.
I had briefly met Emma at a business function early last year. She is a vibrant, vivacious, life-hugging woman with a bright, chippery voice, soft hands, and dark eyes that lock onto you and won’t let go. A crystal necklace dangles loosely around her neck.
This is my first reading. And going in, I am just a bit skeptical.
But I am also open to the possibilites. My older sister believes in the paranormal. And close friends — even hard-boiled, cynical reporters I know — have told me tales of readings they’ve had by strangers, strangers who knew things about their pasts that no one could possibly know.
Later, after today’s session with Emma, I’ll contact two experts in the field of parapsychology to get their take on this. But for the moment, I want to get my own impressions.
At the beginning of our session — Emma lets me tape-record what turns out to be a 100-minute visit — I pay the $75 fee and smear black ink on my two palms as instructed.
While Emma goes off to meditate with my palm prints, I study a piece of paper that I’m instructed to sign before we can proceed. It’s a legal waiver. Apparently, there have been cases of psychics being sued by clients who were bad sports about their bad karma. I sign the form.
Welcome to fortune-telling in the ’90s.
We chat for a while. Emma tells me about her studies at the International Institute of Hand Analysis and at an outfit called Psychic Horizons. She has had “the gift” — “some people call it ESP,” she says — since childhood.
Emma sits directly across from me and recites a meditation prayer, invoking “the consciousness of the entire universe” so that she may be “an instrument for Joseph Lasica today and read what’s up for him on a soul’s level.”
She gives me the thirty-second crash course in the divine sciences: “Everything in the universe is energy; it just changes shape into different molecular structures. This body you have is a skin bag to house your soul. And the Earth is our big university. We all come many times. Basically, my role is to get people connected with what their mission’s about, with what they’re really here for.”
I nod. We get down to some serious energy-reading.
Emma directs me to hold my palms up and press forward, as if against an imaginary window. She meets my hands with hers. She closes her eyes.
“There are influences in your personal life that are blocking your energy, interfering with what you’re here to do in this life. … Whatever it is, you’re not completely in control. There are influences and circumstances that are holding you back.”
She pauses, as if waiting for me to jump in. Instead, I wait to hear some solid, specific evidence. I want a smoking karmic gun.
Emma forges on. “You like to control events. But you’re not a controller of people. You can be the most stubborn person in the world, if you set your mind to be, but there’s also a part of you that can be easily manipulated by other people.”
“Um-hum,” I say. I’m still waiting for some snippet of insight that doesn’t hold true for 95 percent of the population.
“You go, Um-hum.” A hint of impatience creeps into Emma’s voice. “Do you see that in your life?”
I feel a twinge of guilt for not being a team player. So I prattle on a bit before we move on.
The Rings of Solomon
Next, Emma inspects the curve lines at the base of my right forefinger. “See these lines?” she says.
I peer closer. “Which lines?”
“Right here,” she says, running her finger across them. “These are the Rings of Solomon. This is very, very unusual, Joseph. Very rare — only one or two out of a hundred people have this. It means you’re extremely intuitive. You’ve got several gift markings — look at all this water energy! This curving energy, right here—”
She pauses dramatically. “It means you’re clairvoyant,” she says at last. “Are you in touch with that?”
I’m surprised by this news. Well, I say. Sometimes I do sense things before they happen. But I’ve never felt any special powers or abilities.
“You’re just shut down,” Emma says without missing a beat. “You’re a closet clairvoyant. Your energy’s blocked, you don’t have a handle on it yet. You’ve got all these bursts of energy in your moon, in your spiritual realm, but you’re resisting it. You have to learn to use that, it’s meant for your higher good on the planet.”
I’m still trying to get a handle on all the new buzzwords I’m hearing — “soul agenda,” “karmic debts” — but Emma is already plunging into more personal spheres.
She runs a finger across my right palm. “You’ve got trouble on your heart line, sweetheart. See this bubble right here? Lots of emotional scars.”
I draw back a little. She’s hit on something, and her words resonate deeply. I feel my palms begin to dampen. I peer into her eyes and wonder, What does she see? What does she know? Has she tapped into some cosmic pipeline to the truth?
But a moment later the thought intrudes: I’m not wearing a wedding band. And the skeptical side of me thinks, What 38-year-old single guy doesn’t have emotional scars?
Emma runs a finger across my right palm. “Somewhere when you were a child you had humiliation and embarrassment, whether you’re aware of it or not. It affected you so much that the energy created these lines.”
She shows me the bubbles on my heart line. “See? This is energy imprinting. You’ve got some issues that have not been resolved in the heart arena. This has to be healed. The emotional arena is not easy for you. It’s not easy for you to express your feelings. Are you in touch with that?”
I am still waiting for a revelation, an epiphany, a moment of spiritual eureka. Instead, I am hearing generalizations that could be applied to most males in America.
Emma now takes my left hand. “Things have never come easily for you, You’ve had a tough life, things never seem to work out — whether it was your mother, you father, your family, the church or whatever. You’ve got a lot of repressed feelings — hurt, anger, pain. You didn’t have a ‘Father Knows Best’ childhood.”
Well, no. Not exactly. But in fairness, my childhood fairly brimmed with humdrum. I had a typical, uneventful upbringing in the middle-class confines of Lowell. I’m unusually close to my parents; they just celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary.
But I don’t mention this. I haven’t come here to argue.
Emma now moves into the meaning-of-life realm. “You have a very old soul,” she says. The room goes quiet, the seconds swimming past. “You’ve been hanging around this planet for a long time. Are you in touch with what you’re here to do yet in this life?”
“No,” I say, bracing myself. My pulse quickens. I haven’t talked about this sort of thing for years.
“Your life in this time is about being an artist with something to say — writing, art, music. You have an enormous gift that you’re not fully utilizing yet. Your time here is about carrying out the message to the world, to serve the higher good of the planet. The message you’re here to bring out is to heal people. … You’re here to be a leader and to pass on new concepts. You’re here to help the planet. This is big-time stuff, Joseph.”
Instantly, I regret the fact that I’d mentioned my writing and journalism career in passing to Emma when we’d met briefly at a friend’s house several weeks ago. But something else bothers me. The patter I’m hearing strikes me as oddly familiar.
An ex-girlfriend, who believed in the supernatural, once related to me some of her psychic’s findings: that she had a very old soul, and that she had an important mission to accomplish for the planet that would reveal itself within five years. (This psychic also confirmed that my ex-flame — who had a special kinship with dolphins and whales — had originally come from another planet. This revelation did not do wonders for our relationship.)
‘A period of illumination’
The rest of my session with Emma races by. She discusses my numerology. She reads my fingerprints. I ask about my life line and what the future holds. But Emma won’t talk about that — not at a first reading.
Instead, she speaks vaguely of “closures, endings, completions” that took place two years ago. This doesn’t ring any bells. My last serious relationship ended four years ago; I’ve been in my job for eight years.
“You’re now entering a period of illumination,” Emma says. “The vibrations over you for the rest of your life is a 9; it’s about expanding you, stretching you. If one is in denial during this vibration, it’s a hellacious life. Nothing flowers. If people with 9 paths don’t wake up, they’re the most miserable people on the planet when they’re 70, 80 years old. But if you are open and you follow the truth about this path, then you can get over this hurdle. You’ll look upon this day and recognize what it was all about.”
She springs up and disappears into the bedroom. “I want you to be open to new ideas,” she calls out. “I want you to accept personal growth and do some serious healing stuff. I want you to really dig deep and do the inner child work. If we work on our souls’ growth, then our lives will flourish.”
Emma reappears and hands me a brochure for a “Life Training Systems” seminar, where participants can discover their “ultimate destiny” (for a mere $1,200, I discover after a phone call). She also hands me fliers for a half-dozen self-help groups: Co-dependents Anonymous, Workaholics Anonymous, other 12-step programs.
The leaflets brim with “positive affirmations”: “I am a precious person. … I am capable of changing. … The pain that I might feel by remembering can’t be any worse than the pain I feel by knowing and not remembering.”
I am taken slightly aback by this. My mind flashes on a recent magazine article about the ’90s being The Twelve-Step Decade — apparently, if you’re not in recovery, you’re in denial — and now, for the first time, I wonder if I need to get with the program.
Emma has some final admonitions. She urges me to open up my chakras, to explore the spiritual, to visit metaphysical bookstores, to work on meditation exercises, to “get out of my head — you’re spending too much time in there.” She suggests another visit in three to six months.
As I prepare to leave, she has one lasting parting gift: a rose-colored stencil cutout of the word LOVE.
Across the bottom of the stencil, she has penned: “I love you!”
“I want you to tape this to your bathroom mirror,” she says.
I thank her. We hug. I walk outside, buffeted by a cool afternoon breeze, feeling a bit dazed, clutching the leaflets and the bright-colored Love note.
Two experts give their takes
Later, I convey the gist of my encounter with Emma to Charles T. Tart, an internationally known authority on parapsychology. Tart, a senior fellow at the Institute of Noetic Sciences in Sausalito, Calif., has written 11 books on parapyschology and altered states of consciousness.
He tells me that most psychics absolutely believe in what they’re doing. “The vast majority of psychics are honest,” he says. “They’re not out to fleece the public.”
People go to psychics for two reasons, Tart says. “Some people go to test if there’s anything to it or not. More commonly, they go to get some counseling with what to do with their life, to get some feedback on their problems, whether it’s about love, relationships, money, sex, the meaning of life.”
Tart is absolutely convinced that certain aspects of psychic ability — occasional flashes of telepathy, clairvoyance, precognition — do take place in everyday life.
But he doubts that these abilities can be summoned at will or controlled during a psychic reading. “There’s no evidential value to those sorts of claims,” he says.
Ray Hyman, a professor of psychology at the University of Oregon in Eugene, takes an even stronger view. He says researchers have consistently failed to find any evidence of psychic phenomena when controlled laboratory conditions are in place.
“They’ve tested psychics and none seem to be able to do what they claim,” says Hyman, who’s on the executive council of the national Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal. “There’s no scientific evidence that psychics have any paranormal powers of any sort — other than good observational powers.”
But it’s not surprising, Hyman says, that a lot of people buy into these psychic parlor games.
“Anyone who’s been to a reading knows that it’s quite a powerful experience. A psychic has the upper hand right from the start. You’re entering their world, using their language, following their rules.”
What’s really happening here
What makes it all work, Hyman and Tart both say, is this: Psychics are terrifically keen judges of character.
Hyman says: “The psychic reader can make an educated guess about your background by observing the way you’re dressed, your weight, posture, body language, speech patterns. Then they go into their basic spiel, making it sound as if these general, universal problems we all have — about childhood, work, marriage— is a very personalized experience unique to you. All the while, they’re picking up on subtle cues you give off — eye contact, gestures, the way you move your hands — to find out when they’re hitting home or when they’re cold.
“The person being read, meantime, is doing all the work. It’s part of our nature to make sense out of nonsense, to find more meaning than is really there. What happens is, the psychic begins to tell you things about yourself that you already know, and so you’ll feel validated by that. You’ll overlook the things the psychic says that are dead wrong because you want the psychic to succeed.”
Hyman says a small minority of psychics — “fewer than 10 percent” — are charlatans who use unethical methods, such as license plates and computer databases, to discover a telling personal detail in a person’s background. But Hyman also says that most psychics “mean well and believe in what they’re doing.”
Emma, he agrees, clearly falls into this latter camp.
Hyman knows about the power and allure of the “divine sciences.” He used to be a palm reader himself, as a teenager in Boston.
He tells this story: “After doing it for years, I actually came to believe in the `science’ of palmistry. Until one day, when a friend whom I respected, a professional mentalist, said it would make an interesting experiment if I would deliberately give readings that were the exact opposite of what the lines on the palm indicated. I tried it out. And, to my horror, my readings were as successful as ever.”
Hyman chuckles at the memory. “Of course, it had nothing to do with the lines on people’s hands. They’re the ones who were creating the meaning, shaping the reading to make it fit into their lives.”
One last thing, I ask. A judgment call: Do psychic readings serve any beneficial purpose?
Hyman thinks not. “We’re the least scientifically literate society of any country in the civilized world, and this just feeds into that trend. It gives people a false idea about where the source of our health and well-being comes from. It opens up all sorts of dangers of people being manipulated and deceived and exploited.”
Tart is more forgiving.
“If you put the science aside and approach it from a therapist’s perspective,” Tart says, “there’s a social need that psychics are filling. We have a spiritual nature that’s largely repressed in our society. We’re not sure of what values and beliefs we can depend on anymore. We are desperately hungry for deep meaning. So we’ll take this kind of spiritual junk food, tied in with all the mumbo-jumbo, because we’re looking for these little cores of truth.”
It all depends, he says, on how a person uses the information gleaned in a reading. “If you use that stimulation to become a better person, to break out of your old habits and see your life in a new light, then the experience might actually be positive. If it sort of jump-starts you to ask, ‘What am I doing with my life? How am I going to feel on my death bed?,’ then it might be pretty helpful.”
Tart pauses to consider this some more. “If you’ve approached your problems in a creative way and found a solution, does it matter that much what the actual mechanism was? If it makes people happy, then what’s the harm? If you’re able to talk straight with someone about the meaning of life, well, that’s more than you can do with the average psychologist.”
I tell him about the “I Love You” sign that I’ve pasted, for a day at least, on my bathroom mirror. He laughs approvingly.
“That beats looking in the mirror every morning and thinking, ‘I’m flawed, I’m ugly, I’m getting old.’ Seeing a positive little message like that? There are worse ways to start the day.”