Saturday, November 23, 2013

Fakes, Frauds, and Desperation

Famed psychic, Sylvia Browne, died Wednesday at age 77. Over numerous decades, she appeared on television, lectured to audiences, and charged hundreds of dollars for readings.

I first became aware of her when she began appearing on the Montel Williams show. She would come on once or twice a year, make some predictions about the future, "help" audience members, and, I'm sure, collect a paycheck. She must have drawn huge ratings, because she soon became a staple of the program. Members of my family started buying her books, and taking her very seriously. One member even began saving the $750 for a half hour phone call. I think I even read one of her books.

When I got older, and began critically looking at everything, I saw her on television again. She was spouting off her usual advice while the audience, and Motel, stared wide-eyed. This time, she didn't seem helpful at all. She didn't even seem like harmless fun. I finally realized how she was taking advantage of desperate people. She wasn't a psychic or spiritualist. She was a conman.

I looked her up on the internet, which was still coming to fruition at that point, and found numerous sites dedicated to outing her fraudulent claims. As I read example after example, I became angry. The yearly predictions, which never panned out, were one thing. The fact that she was derailing police investigations and misleading grieving families infuriated me.

In college, I went to a lecture given my physics professor on the dangers of "psychics."  He explained about cold reading, and all the various methods of trickery they employ. He made a few jokes, and kept the presentation light...until the end. He concluded with the story of how a "medium" directed the police to a specific location to find a missing child. The child was not there; in fact, he had been murdered just a couple of miles from his home. The evidence of the child's presence, a makeshift camp site, had been staged by the "psychic." Had the police followed actual leads, instead of the supernatural ones, they could have possibly saved the child's life.

I am lucky to never had a loved one go missing, or have an unexplained death weigh on me. I can not imagine the turmoil and the dark emotions that must go with those circumstances. I can only sympathize with the families from the sidelines. The closest I have come to experiencing the type of vulture that Sylvia Browne was, has been from dubious publishing services that constantly bombard my email account with "special offers."

There is a sect of people that prey upon desperation. Psychics attach themselves to despondent families, hoping to make a quick buck. Other companies target self published authors who are struggling to sell books. While I'm not saying the emotional impact of these two situations are the same, the intentions of the fraudsters comes from the same place.

When asked to comment on Browne's death, illusionist Penn Jillette responded only that he was sad for her family. On the one hand, I agree with his sentiments. Losing a relative is a difficult thing to process. For the members of Browne's clan that are not a part of her industry, I do offer my condolences.

On the other hand, Browne enlisted her son, and other members of her family, to help with her scams. I believe that they were all fully aware of the con they were running, and that they possessed no supernatural abilities whatsoever. As for their spirituality, I can only hazard a guess.

Browne wrote a number of books on heaven, angels, and what happens when a person dies. Those books outlined a quasi-Christian belief structure that was supposedly the basis for her psychic powers. Those that have interviewed Browne have reported her enthusiasm for the topic, which may (or may not) indicate her actual ideology.

Let's take her at face value, and assume she and her family believe all that to be true. Why should anyone feel bad for them, then? According to her writings, Browne is now a 30 year old looking angel, hovering a few feet above her son. Sounds great, right? If that's not the case, then I'm sure soft caress of hundred dollar bills go a long way to heal their aching hearts.

Sylvia Browne's legacy is one of heartlessness. Not only did she take advantage of her audience, she despised them for letting her. She callously hurled one liners about dead children and white slavery to crying parents and said it was divine information. She was almost always wrong about her predictions, and defamed anyone who called her on it. Browne was the lowest form of swindler. While I will not claim that I'm glad she is dead, I am glad that she is no longer able to make money from the misfortunes of others.

If you have any doubts about the harm she caused, just watch this video.


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