Confessions of a Conflicted Medium
by Mark Edwards
Feral House, 2012
Don’t expect Mark Edward to reveal the secret code used by mentalists to guess what their assistant is holding in their hand from across the audience, but he is captivating as he describes the art of cold reading. This biographical exploration is a collection of anecdotes offering insight on the world of the professional psychic. Starting out years ago performing stage magic for anyone who would watch, Mark parallels himself with The Great Stanton from the movie Nightmare Alley.
Edward cut his teeth at The Magic Castle in L.A., but soon found himself disillusioned and deep in the heart of the 1990s 1-900 epidemic. How many of us remember those incessant television commercials: “Call now!” during Commander USA’s Groovie Movies?
Mark tells how he could give a reading using only generalities and sometimes get a lucky hit, and hope to help someone just by listening, because he was aware of how the $4 a minute calls were drawn out in a misleading scam. Many of the apparently competing 900 lines were in reality owned by the same corporation, under the Psychic Friends Network. He was able to ride the wave until finally it became too popularized, but that and some television appearances along with that gig at the Magic Castle had provided him with valuable audience-handling experience.
Hope is what I sell, folks. And it must be delivered without hesitation and with utter confidence.
I laughed out loud when the author offhandedly mentions the fact that he has studied neuro-linguistic programming techniques. Mentalism is not just raw mind-reading. In order to be successful in the game, you need to be highly aware of what’s going on and who knows what. You must be resourceful. You need the ability to recognize and make a grab at opportunities like power outages (“Oww… This happens sometimes folks…”) and try not to make readings look too easy.
It takes a big character to read palms and tell fortunes and we meet a few along the way who make a not-always-fun industry worth the struggle for the people at the bottom of the money-making pyramid.
Check? Oh, yeah. They’ll probably send it to you in a couple of weeks.
We see how people who are “with it” know their way around a con, and how they contrast with “shut-eyes”; the customers… and often the employers. The folks behind the curtain don’t try to con each other, it’s just an unspoken truth.
“Pre-show work” defines the difference between a hot and cold reading. That’s what makes infomercial psychics look so good– not only the editing of a show, but a few questions (“Who are you hoping to contact tonight?”) and a piece of green tape on the floor indicating what seat an audience member is in can afford the performance a believable appearance.
Hot readings, he says, may go as far as to border on criminal fraud. Even if people realize they’ve been duped with only a repetition of the facts they have already shared with the psychic or medium, they have no media outlet and would likely be too embarrassed to speak out anyway.
What if you don’t want to cheat by screening the participants ahead of time? This is the rub, folks. “Can’t I just go out there and do it for real?” is answered by the financial backers with “We don’t work that way.”
There must be a special ring of Hell reserved for people who put on this kind of sham for a living. Hold on… sh*t! I was part of it!
The people who do this work have real talent. Maybe they are not mystically in tune with a cosmic consciousness, but like a professional wrestler who spends countless hours choreographing the perfect double-flip off the top rope, trained psychics can read a person’s minute facial expressions, body language, posture, even pick up on a slight hesitation, cues that most conversationalists would take for granted. It’s fun to experience.
Mark wrestles with hypocrisy, working both as a skeptic for CSI-COP and performing as a psychic himself. He never finds a resolution to this duality although it is a constant theme throughout the book.
Call it synchronicity. Call it blind luck. Call it magic. If you set the table for coincidence it will show up.
My favorite part of the memoir is Mark’s time with the Light Path psychic fair. He describes characters that could each be the protagonist of their own novel. Not to mention Edward’s own spirit guide, Dr. Edward Saint (a sideshow barker and phony himself, who presided over Houdini’s Last Seance). There is the dark, wraith-like Lucretia, automatic writer Chandra, Edith Anne and Rosie, “like the two aunts in Arsenic and Old Lace”, the large and loud Byllie, and more.
No matter how glamorous or romantic the Hollywood version of a well-off psychic may look, like any other service job, it’s hard work.
Edward describes his craft well. For instance, he describes how to work when someone hands you a ring to give a cold reading from. Is it more than 50 years old? Look at the finger itself– has it been worn there for more than a few years? The rest is all how good a story you can tell.
I loved Edward’s block of wood from a magic store that would fall over after a specified amount of time, because it reminded me of a haunted house tour I once took where a flashlight left near the door would flicker on and off by itself!
One of the more interesting aspects of Mark’s expose is something the movie Nightmare Alley touches upon, and that he refers to often. When his experience with private readings comes up, Edward talks about “the lady who never listened” and others who appeared to just need to hear something, to have it said to them, though subconsciously they already knew the truth. Some supplicants know they are headed in the wrong direction in life or have landed in bad circumstances, and they only need that small nudge to change their lives. In these cases the psychic might do just as well as a psychotherapist, for about the same going rate. But sometimes people just aren’t ready to hear it.
The movie contrasts a bogus psychic and a licensed therapist, albeit a corrupt one, and shows their different approaches. Is a psychic a healer who can help people overcome grief? When one starts to believe that, to perhaps “reach too high,” ethical issues arise quickly. Another project of Edwards’ was the premiere episode of Penn and Teller’s television series for Showtime called Bullsh*t, where he assists the stage magician team to de-construct other psychics’ readings. Here is Penn & Teller’s take on the question when it applies specifically to mediums who claim they can speak with the dead. (Warning, they use pretty raw language.)
Cold reading can be done accidentally. That doesn’t mean the psychic is a better person. Lying to themselves does not make lying to others OK. It can make intellectually lazy scumbags more convincing and dangerous. Even if these f*cks know they’re just making this sh*t up and pushing people’s buttons, they tell themselves, at least I’m comforting the bereaved. Who the f*ck are they to decide that lying about the universe and a dead loved one is what the bereaved needs? That’s condescending bullsh*t.
Houdini didn’t really go nuts busting these mediums until he lost his mom. Once you’ve felt that pure grief, seeing it exploited can take away your sense of humor. Once a loved one has died, all we have is our memories of them… We don’t give a rat’s ass about the money these bast*rds are taking from the grief-stricken, what we do care about deeply is the desecration of memories.
These performance artists are, in a very real sense, motherf*ckers. That poor guy’s grieving memories of his mother are now all f*cked up by somebody else’s images. All he will ever have left of his mom are memories, and this pig has pissed on those for a buck and a little unearned fame. Sure, these lame f*cks tell themselves that they’re easing the grief, but skits for money cannot replace loving memories. How low do you have to be to exploit someone’s true grief, to sell some bullsh*t book?
Edward is very knowledgeable about all aspects of the industry. He shows how a good psychic must be versatile, from a short stint reading the way people peel bananas to jumping on a gig at Nordstrom’s reading lip blots with no prior experience. Tarot cards, pendulums, palmistry, in the end it’s all about reading people. And some guys just have an extraordinary knack.
Decide for yourself whether or not what I have experienced is “psychic.” Yet we all have our psychic moments, don’t we?
Psychics & Seances: