There are many things I’ve done in my life that I am not proud of. I’ve lied. I’ve stolen. I’ve misled boyfriends regarding the extent of my interest in jazz-fusion music. But I am perhaps least proud of a phase I had in my early twenties, when I became hooked on storefront psychics.
Alone or with similarly miserable girlfriends, I walked into their offices—neon sign, red flocked velvet wallpaper, almost always located within stumbling distance of a bar –trying to impulse-purchase some insight into my painfully hazy future.
Every session went the same way, mixing the vaguely familiar with seemingly free-associated ideas: I should beware of someone with the initial “M,” I’d be meeting a man very soon, I would have five children, I was followed by a constant darkness. Then they’d spend the last five minutes trying to sell me a special candle that would remove a curse that had been placed on me at birth. One psychic asked me to go to the CVS on the corner and buy her some Pampers with my credit card– I’d get a crystal reading for free if I did.
No storefront psychic ever told me the things I really wanted to know, like how to become famous, or how to get Dave to start taking my calls again after I cried when he said that I was “fun” but “too intense” to keep dating. But just like with Dave, I held out hope. I doubled down on losing bets as a matter of course in my early twenties, so that seemed like the best track to take with these psychics, too: if I kept going, one of them eventually had to tell me the thing that would help me get my confused, vodka-soaked, Dave-free life together, right?
I was busted in my psychic obsession by a less-than-sympathetic male friend, and like Tuesday night binge-drinking and the Daves of my youth, storefront psychics eventually melted safely into my past, their storefronts not even registering anymore as I passed by them.
To get this out of the way: I believe in psychics. I believe there are people who can either see the future, or commune with spirits, or just get inexplicable, extremely compelling hunches. I’ve been to paid sessions with people who I felt were legitimate psychics, and gotten a lot out of it. I’ve known people for whom practicing mediumship or divining the future was a method of religious and spiritual expression. I believe in ghosts. I believe that alien life probably exists, and if we get seated next to each other at a dinner where a lot of wine is served, I’m liable to tell you as much. I don’t see any reason why there couldn’t be a Bigfoot. Basically, I’m very fun at parties.
But I don’t know if any storefront psychics have true psychic abilities, and honestly, I don’t really care. I’ve lived much of my life as a dime-store Fox Mulder, always wanting to believe, but with storefront psychics, I just want to understand: why does anyone go to them? Why did I go to them? How do they stay in business in mega-ritzy neighborhoods that only have Olsen twins and artisanal hat stores as residents?
Well, I have a little bit of any idea about why I went to them—to a certain extent, I was just lonely, having recently moved to a huge city where I knew almost no one. I wanted a non-judgmental shoulder to cry on about the exquisite agony of being twenty-three.
But there was a reason I sought out psychics instead of, say, a trained therapist covered by my health plan. Having grown up surrounded by the casual fortune-telling that penetrates nearly every corner of American culture, I thought there might be something to them.
When it comes to trying to predict the future, we sends out some deeply mixed messages. Predicting the future is a national pastime, from fortune cookies after dinner, to Ouija boards at middle school sleepovers, to Magic 8-Balls in toy stores, to horoscopes in the newspaper. For almost 70 years, New York City was home to a popular chain of fortune-telling themed restaurants called The Gypsy Tea Kettle (a name that has fortunately died with the franchise), where diners, following their meals, would drink a cup of tea, and “gypsies” would read their leaves. Those of us who were raised by TV in the ‘80s and ‘90s have brain space colonized by that era’s endless ads for psychic hotlines –I, for instance, cannot consistently remember anyone’s birthday, but I can recite Miss Cleo‘s catchphrase on command (“Call me now for a free reading!“).
This can go double for women, where we begin playing with the future the second we understand that there is a future, trying to draw it out. As a kid I spent hours playing with cootie-catcher fortune tellers and M.A.S.H. charts; today, there are online equivalents.
It makes sense that girls have so often played games based around predicting the future –women are certainly pressured to begin worrying about the future at a much earlier age than men (“Who will you marry? How will you manage a job AND your children? What do you mean, ‘I don’t know, I’m 8’?”), and the obsessive pondering of the future provides good training for a day, in the distant future, when you’ll ruin a nice brunch with friends by coming up with increasingly fantastical reasons why some guy you met on OKCupid didn’t call you back.
But all this messing around with fortune-telling trying creates space for psychics in women’s lives even after they grow up, in a way that doesn’t exist in men’s culture (a casual perusal of Esquire and Men’s Health revealed no version of the omnipresent women’s magazine horoscope column). In a 2009 Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life study, 15% of American admitted to having seen a psychic—but within that group, twice as many women as men had done it.
But even as we’re inundated, we’re cautioned. All this fortune-telling is for entertainment purposes only, and anyone who actually believes in it is a moron. This attitude is present everywhere, from instructions on board games with a fortune-telling element, to smirky, self-righteous magazine articles about how everyone who goes to storefront psychics is an idiot. The two impulses create a lot of cognitive dissonance, which is one of the reasons people end up at storefront psychics. Everyone I spoke to was of two minds about their experience.
My friend Karen* had been to a storefront psychic twice. Karen—who, like me, believes in the existence of psychic abilities, but not necessarily in the psychic abilities of these particular women– told me that “both times I’ve gone it’s been because I felt quite anxious about the future. I don’t believe in them, either, but I guess I hope that maybe there’s a chance.”
Storefront psychics, in fact, are often scorned by the larger psychic and intuitive community I mentioned above; a New York Times article on high-end psychics quoted one who took pains to differentiate herself from the “storefront gypsies who take advantage of people’s fear.”
I met with five storefront psychics over the course of researching this article. All were women, each middle-aged or older. Each painted my future with wild, dramatic, yet generally vague strokes. I was, each psychic told me, followed or enveloped by a “darkness” of some sort or another. Some left it at that, others got specific—an angry spirit was following me, the ghost of a suicide in my family, or evil energy that had followed me back from an out-of-body experience I had while getting my wisdom teeth taken out (I didn’t remember having an out-of-body experience while getting my wisdom teeth taken out, but in the spirit of research, I didn’t fight her on it).
Without my own crisis to guide them (my life is luxuriously dull at the moment), the psychics had to fall back on the classics: I was haunted by worries and had trouble focusing. I wanted peace and happiness in my life with my boyfriend. I would live a very long time. I was smiling on the outside, but possessed an inner sadness. Sometimes, I fell back into the sensation I had remembered from my psychic-hopping days, when I would become soothed and transfixed by the attention being lavished on me; other times, I just wanted to say, “Well, fucking duh.”
Within seconds of entering Marlena’s shop, she had upsold me from a palm reading to a tarot reading, and then just laid the cards out willy-nilly, like we were about to play Go Fish. She gave me a monotone speech about the darkness surrounding me, recited with all the enthusiasm of a telemarketer working a double shift. Marlena, also like all the psychics that I saw, ended most of her sentences with a gentle, “…or no?” that was supposed to feel like a tossed-off, Old World inflection, but was actually there to steer the conversation towards the facts of my life, without coming out and asking them.
“You know, you can ask me questions,” Marlena said, after we both realized that she was striking out. She was struggling because I didn’t have any of the usual traumas that drive one to a psychic–no cheating boyfriend, no job loss. What kind of idiot pays $30 to a stranger to talk when they’re not in a crisis?, she seemed to be asking. I told her I’d had some trouble sleeping lately. She tried to sell me some crystals to help me sleep. But she didn’t try that hard. Maybe Marlena was actually at the end of a double shift.
Most of my encounters felt as awkward and off-the-mark as a bad blind date. But my visit with Christina was different.
Christina guessed my job and a few other personal facts up front. She seemed different than the other women I had visited–more joyful and at ease in her work, often interjecting her own odd thoughts as she speculated on my life (at one point, she advised me to not to do yoga in public, lest I become infected by the sullied auras of others).
Christina then began to dive into the details, none of which felt right–I’d been in a bad place emotionally for 3 years, she told me. I began to wrack my brain for things that began 3 years ago. This is a phenomenon called “apophenia”—the compulsion to seek out meaningful patterns in random cascades of information. It’s also a key factor in the success of cold reading, the system of educated guesses and verbal tricks one can use to make false psychic predictions sound convincing. Christina was warm and parental, but her stats were going down. She was losing me.
And then she said, “Something happened to you. You would not call it rape—but it was.”
On one hand, statistically, it was a decent (though very bold) guess. Many, many women have been sexually assaulted, and many, many of those women are reluctant to identify it as such.
And on the other hand: it was true. I had been raped. And I had been reluctant to call it rape, because I wanted to have not been raped, and not calling it rape seemed like as good a way as any to try to get around it.
Christina went on. “But what happened to you was unholy,” she said, “monstrous.” I began to have a hard time focusing. I nodded to her.
I had spent a lot of time in therapy talking about what had happened to me, a lot of time talking to my sympathetic friends and reading the comments on feminist blogs and sitting alone late at night, trying to figure out if it had changed me in ways I couldn’t even tell. I had spent a lot of time hearing how “this is not your fault,” and “this happens to so many women,” and “you are not alone.”
But this was what I had wanted to hear the whole entire time, I realized. I wanted a stranger to come up to me and tell me what had happened was unholy, demonic, from Hell. I wanted an explanation as divorced from rationality and reason as the experience had felt.
Even as she went off into a spiel about how if I gave her $58 she could write up some chart that would cleanse my aura–even, she distastefully implied, the spiritual stain left by my rape–I couldn’t process how I felt. I left while giving her awkward assurances that consider buying the chart, feeling like I was leaving a one-night stand and taking a phone number that I never intended to call.
I was both smoothed out and shaken. I felt a relief that all that talk therapy had never brought me. I also felt like I needed to take a Xanax immediately. I could see how–if this had just been a wild guess on her part–this was an excellent technique to forge the kind of explosive and unfounded emotional intimacy with that could lead someone to doing anything you said—like handing over all your money for a special candle or fifty.
And with all that, I was still in and out in under 15 minutes.
Here’s the rub with storefront psychics—it’s all groovy and empowering, to a point. Hearing predictions about the future, on some level, just reminds us that there is a future, that whatever darkness the envelopes us has an end in sight. What you’re buying isn’t an accurate prediction of the future—it is the relief, the freedom from worry that makes life bearable again.
And sometimes, that feeling of relief can be worth $20, or $40, or a box of Pampers purchased with your credit card. It is this element that makes me want to say that storefront psychics aren’t so bad, that they perform a service of value to someone—someone who has no one else to talk to, someone mistrustful of therapists, someone who needs the confidentiality of a stranger.
But that sense of relief is so valuable, and the search for it so strong, that people can screw the hell out of someone struggling to find it.
Every single storefront psychic pushed me to buy crystals, or customized candles, or more visits where we’d figure out how to remove the darkness that supposedly followed me. And that’s not even getting into the actual, full-on crimes—when the hustle turns into a stick-up. Fortune telling is a highly regulated activity. It is actually illegal in Minnesota, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Wisconsin, and New York; in Arkansas, Mississippi, and a number of other states, local government guide the regulation of psychic services. New York’s laws were enacted in 1967 and the statute is rarely invoked; when it is, it’s generally as part of bringing down a large-scale crook, like the infamous NYC psychic Sylvia Mitchell, who was busted earlier this year for swindling a client out of upwards of $120,000. It’s easy to get caught up in telling your secrets to a strange sympathetic ear, but it is not always particularly smart.
Like the Magic 8 Ball—which is roughly based on spiritual practices like automatic writing—the storefront psychic is the commercial, “for entertainment purposes only” version of a lot of different things—therapists, confidantes, communicators with the other side bearing assurances of a brighter tomorrow. If you were able to keep your wits about you, it’s easy to see how you could get something out of confessing to them.
But, of course, almost no one with their wits about them is seeking out a storefront psychic for relief. The problems arise when people confuse the toy for a tool, and play for real life.
A storefront psychic can provide temporary relief. But a Magic 8 Ball is gonna be right some of the time, too. Its answer might even provide a sense of assurance or a freedom from worry. But that doesn’t mean you should give it $58 for some crystals.
* All names in this piece have been changed.