Sonja Morgan, a cast member on the Real Housewives of New York, sees one. Kim Zolciak, one of the Real Housewives of Atlanta, also goes to one. And in last week's "Modern Love" column in the New York Times, a writer admits that her friend visited one after her long-term relationship ended — feeling hopeless, she wanted to know when she'd meet a new partner (in the spring of 2013, apparently).
No, these women aren't visiting therapists: They're paying just about the same amount of money to talk to psychics, who seem to have become as commonplace among certain women as yoga instructors, dry cleaners, gynecologists. And their friends But since when did psychic readings go from that fun activity in the corner of a cocktail party to an accepted form of, well, therapy?
I'm a non-believer. I don't assume anyone has psychic powers that enable them to see the future or the past or speak to angels or dead people. I would pay for therapy over psychic readings any day. But I saw several therapists before I found one that was actually useful to me. So it's possible that some psychics do more for people with Life Problems than some therapists. If a person has huge psychological issues, treatment should be sought from a licensed mental health professional. But if their issues are more casual — like, "when is my next boyfriend coming?" — a psychic might be able to offer advice or guidance that's just as helpful to a person as that of a therapist. Besides: not everyone is prepared to face their issues in the official capacity that therapy is. It's much easier to start cocktail party conversation with "my psychic says" than "my therapist says."
The nature of psychics and psychic readings vary wildly. "I have a lot of people who come to me and just talk for an hour," says Tarrytown, New York-based Elena Mercantini, a self-proclaimed psychic medium who offers angel card readings, tarot card readings, guided meditation classes, and reiki readings. (I had no idea what angel card readings or reiki readings were, so she explained: "In a tarot card reading any spirit can get in and start talking to you but with an angel card reading it's only messages from angels" — which she says she speaks to. A reiki reading, she says, is a "Japanese healing modality" that Wikipedia explains involves transferring energy through palms.)
"I really help people sort out their present so they can get to a beautiful future. So we talk about the future — I can see the future — but I'd really like to make your present happy and stable and balanced," she says. And sure, living in the present and not stressing out about the future is something that a lot of therapists work on with their clients. Some therapists also teach meditation, though they're probably less likely than Mercantini to incorporate angels. "I just did a mind-clearing meditation this morning with one of my clients. That's a meditation where you go into your mind, which is like a dusty old attic, and you clear it out," she explains. "Archangel Michael — that's probably the one I work with the most — spackles the attic and puts a fresh coat of paint and cleans it out and heals you."
Mercantini says she knew she was psychic when her "psychic break" came a few years ago and she started "seeing spirits all over the place" — apparitions that she's since learned to control.
"I always say to people there's a very fine line between a schizophrenic and a psychic," she says. "Schizophrenics are out of control, but a psychic — they're in control. I can control the energies that are talking to me. I can tell them to go away and come up later." She charges anywhere from $40 to $150 per session, depending on length and services offered.
New York City-based Zenobia Kay, who calls herself an "empath," says she tells clients when they need to seek therapy. "I think my sessions are very therapeutic, but I don't have any training as a therapist," she admits. "If, when I do a reading, I see a number of things from childhood that a client hasn't dealt with that are still affecting them, I encourage them to seek therapy. Or if I'm doing a reading for a couple I might encourage them to seek couple's counseling."
So what is a reading anyway? Kay will have people shuffle Tarot cards and tell them what the symbols that come up on the cards say about a person's life (she doesn't touch the cards herself, so as not to tamper with whatever messages are coming through). She says she can pick up on what's going on in people's lives, what happened in their past and their past lives, and see the future. She also does this in phone sessions. Since we are speaking on the phone, I ask her what she's picking up from me.
"Tell me an area," she says. "I don't want to touch on something or see something that you don't want me to see."
I told her I didn't have any issues I wanted her to work on. If she's a psychic, shouldn't she know?
"I wasn't [picking anything up] because I turned it off. And now I'm turning it on," she says. "It definitely looks like there's a couple things that came up. The first thing is it looks like there's a lot of chaos that is going on." She goes onto explain the chaos has to do with my career, and that she sees recently that I recently "stopped working with somebody." This is true — I've only worked at BuzzFeed for a few months, but I told her in my introductory email requesting an interview that I worked at New York magazine until recently. Kay — who charges $100 for an hour phone session and $150 for an in-person session — tells me I'm going to hear from people at my old job this week, which isn't out of the question since I'm still friends with many of them and talk to them regularly. But I'm not having financial problems, my life doesn't feel chaotic, and my hair and skin haven't been negatively affected by recent stress, as she predicted (unless my patchy sunburn from the weekend counts?).
So while it was fun to hear her predictions, they didn't feel especially useful to me. But I'm lucky enough right now not to have serious problems I feel I need a psychic or therapist to help me fix.
Jonathan Alper, who recently wrote a piece for the New York Times about how bad therapy in this country tends to be, wouldn't recommend any psychics or most therapists. "I think most therapists are not very good so they're probably on par with a psychic," he says. But, he says, the notion that a psychic can predict the future is "just a bunch of hocus pocus nonsense."
People who see psychics, he adds, don't want to take control of their own lives. "I think when one goes to a psychic they sort of assign control to this external entity — this person can give them information or predictions or whatever it is, but everything is sort of out of their control," he says. "Whereas with therapy, when it's done right, there's a lot of work involved. You have to acknowledge things about your personality and try to make changes that will influence your future."
Alper thinks psychics are "preying on people's weaknesses. When people are desperate for answers they'll do anything — they'll pay bad therapists a lot of money for a decade, so why wouldn't they pay a psychic $100 or whatever it is for spiritual guidance?" He continues, "I think psychics prey on vulnerability or desperation that people have. I don't know how one becomes a psychic. Maybe they're a little delusional. Maybe they think hearing voices is something that it isn't."
But many people find getting in touch with their spiritual side useful. They might do this through meditating in yoga class or going to church. If a psychic helps them tap into an abstract aspect of their psyches and they feel more at ease with their problems as a result, so what? At the end of the day, advice is just advice: some of it's good, some of it's bad, and you can take it or leave it, whether you paid a licensed therapist or self-proclaimed future seer for it or not.