The Price of Psychic Guidance

Sometimes you only hear the things you already know when they come out of someone else’s mouth.

Photo credit: Kelly Hunter, CC BY 2.0.

I like to think of myself as a rational person—especially when I do irrational things. I squirrel away coupons from CVS even though I know I’ll never buy a family-size bottle of Flintstones vitamins. I buy yeast at the grocery store even though I know I’ll never make bread. I slip a good luck charm into my suitcase every time I get on an airplane, even though all it usually ever does is get lodged in my shoes — as far as I know.

Maybe it isn’t a surprise, then, that at points in my life when I’m either crossing my fingers for change or fearing it, I’ve been known to indulge in a psychic reading or two. I know in my heart that most, if not all of it, is bullshit (to use a technical term). There’s even a psychological term called “the Barnum effect” that gets at the absurdity of it all: when people hear vague descriptions that could be true of anyone, they’re likely to find those descriptions pretty accurate.

That hasn’t stopped me — yet. Here’s a cross-section of my recent experiences:

Palm reading: $25

One fall day a few years ago, I was at your classic New England county fair — cider donuts, “biggest pumpkin” contests, and aging hippies selling Grateful Dead stickers — when I noticed a fortune-telling booth run by one “Mrs. Helen.” The name didn’t exactly inspire confidence, but at the time I was languishing in the painful ecstasy of unrequited love and wanted some clarity. As a carnival games whirred outside her velvet-draped trailer, Mrs. Helen took my palm into her hands and gazed at me seriously. The exchange went a little like this:

MRS. HELEN: You…have a boyfriend.

ME: No…

MRS. HELEN: You…are in medical school.

ME: No.

MRS. HELEN: You…are searching for something…

ME: …

By the end of it, Mrs. Helen’s cosmic wisdom had put me out $25, which I remember distinctly because I had assumed a $20 bill would cover it. That’s when I learned a valuable lesson: until you become a psychic yourself, always ask for the price up front.

Online horoscope: $0

If you’re familiar with “the internet” then you don’t need me to tell you that, when it comes to free horoscopes, there are a lot of options available to you. My personal favorite has always been Indastro because they offer monthly and yearly readings, and I like to plan ahead. In my last weeks of college, I was waiting for a phone call from my internship boss to tell me whether I had a job or not. That meant, in between drinking entire bottles of peach Andre in one sitting and clicking the Online Magic 8 Ball over and over again, I checked Indastro the way sane people check the weather. Finally, on a day it told me I was about to have a career change, I got a call from my boss. I got the job.

A few years later I found myself agonizing over the questions 25-year-olds annoyingly tend to: Was I living with purpose? Had I played it too safe? Should I become a lighthouse keeper? I opened up Indastro again. Since my last visit, the site had become overloaded with pop-ups. Windows explaining the difference between moon signs and sun signs would appear every time you clicked anything. I furiously closed them all. “Who do they think I am, some kind of amateur?” I thought to myself, indignantly.

That’s when I realized: I had been reading the wrong horoscope all along. Turns out, even though my sun sign is Leo, my moon sign is Capricorn. Did that mean that job change horoscope wasn’t actually meant for me? Does it matter because I got the job anyway? Should I still become a lighthouse keeper?

Tarot card reading, full deck: $35

As you may recall from a few sentences ago, I’ve recently found myself wallowing in that special brand of navel-gazing known as a “quarter-life crisis.” After hearing a coworker casually drop that her mother had a tarot deck blessed by the High Priest of Satan himself, I thought to myself: I need to get a tarot reading. Maybe from a different deck, though.

Then the election happened. Suddenly it became painfully clear how trivial it was to stake one’s faith on a glorified pack of Uno cards — and, let’s not mince words here, it is trivial. But I was hungry for any diversion, any calming salve, any wise finger (preferably one a little gnarled and warty, for authenticity) pointing me in the direction I should go. Besides, as we’ve established, I’m not exactly rational about these things.

I trudged to a psychic’s office a few minutes from my house. She was kind and pretty, she wore Ugg boots, and her office included a picture of Jesus tucked above the light switch and a crib on the floor for her toddler to play in. I trusted her immediately. As she handed the cards over to me to shuffle, I had trouble articulating exactly what I wanted to know. I blurted: “I’m wondering if I can find fulfillment in my work.” “Amen!” she said brightly. Apparently psychics have identity crises too.

I closed my eyes, and imagined her laying out the cards to spell “MAYBE YOU SHOULD HAVE GONE TO LAW SCHOOL” or “AMERICA R.I.P.” Instead, picking up on my terse and evasive answers about my family, she told me that I had utterly failed to work through some problems in my personal life (accurate) and it was making me see the negative side of everything (also accurate, but also maybe just my personality). She said I was stunting my own growth because I hadn’t confronted my feelings, but that better things were around the corner. She also said I would be neither very rich nor very poor — but I knew that already. I work in public radio.

As I wiped rivulets of tears and snow off my nose and chin (I’m a sucker, remember?) she told me she could work with me to realign my chakras, program some crystals for me, the whole deal. I took her card.

On the walk home, I thought about what she said. Had the reading answered any of my questions? Specifically, no. Everything had felt right, but that’s exactly the way it’s supposed to feel. Did it take $35 for me to realize I should stop being a Negative Nancy, work through some stuff, take an Uber home from my pity party? No — but also, maybe, yes. Sometimes you only hear the things you already know when they come out of someone else’s mouth. On the other hand, when it came to more important things, things larger than myself, I knew a psychic reading sure as hell wasn’t going make a difference. That would take hard work.

I’m not sure I could promise myself that I’ll never get a reading again. As for the crystals, though — I think I’ll take that money and donate to ProPublica instead.

Amanda McGowan is a writer and radio producer in Boston. She spends a lot of time reading on the bus.

This story is part of The Billfold’s Change Series.

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