fortune

One area of hokum into which I’ve not ventured much here on the Cow1 is the murky depths of the profession known as ‘psychic mediumship’ – or, by those at Cow Central as ‘despicable emotional opportunism’. This morning I saw on my friend Dr Rachie‘s Facebook page an ad for a purveyor of this nonsense, one Lisa Williams,2, who is, it would seem, currently plying her wares on my turf. I thought it might be time to turn the eye of the Cow onto things clairvoyant.

According to her advertising, Lisa Williams is apparently ‘TV’s top medium and psychic’, but as I rarely watch tv I can’t speak to that claim. All I can say is that I’ve never heard of her, so she’s obviously not as famous as people like John Edward or Sylvia Brown. A Search™ for ‘tv’s top medium and psychic’ also tends to throw a little doubt on the assertion since people like Michelle Whitedove, June Field, Carla Baron, Colin Fry and Sally Morgan – along with numerous others – purport to hold similarly lofty distinctions. In fact, the search returned so many names that the full scope of this industry put me on the back foot slightly. Psychic mediums are astonishingly big business it would seem.

Perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised by that – it just confounds me that, here at the cusp of the 21st Century, people are still being sucked in by the same sort of flimsy trickery that has been around for millennia.

Lisa Williams’ website is a veritable library-full of addled waffling and nutty feel-good advice. I will allow here that there is a vanishingly small chance that Ms Williams actually believes all the stuff she says, but it should be clearly understood that the ‘gift’ she so often talks about in her writing makes her a packet of money. And while I say there is a chance, I’m being very generous. Quite frankly, I think that Lisa Williams, like so many of these so-called spirit mediums, is a fraud.

Ms Williams features on her site a page called ‘Messages From Beyond’ – or, more accurately, ‘Messages from Beyond®’, for it seems that she has successfully registered this fairly common phrase as a legitimate service mark. How this kind of thing gets through the US Trademark office completely boggles my mind. Pretty soon you won’t be able to write an English language sentence without paying royalties.

There are a couple of videos on the this page and these are what make me think that Lisa Williams is less a dizzy self-deluded fruitcake than a cynical opportunist. Watch this one and we’ll talk about it:

Oh boy. Well, the very first thing that happens revealing: “Fantastic, I think this is it,” she says outside a hotel door. As if she’s ‘psychically’ arrived here. This is a small thing, but it sets up the tone of what’s to come. Lisa Williams is already hiding facts (things she previously knows) under the guise of flakey absent-mindedness. It’s so ingrained that it’s a habit.

What follows inside the room is a classic – albeit heavily edited – cold reading (although, for all we know it could have been a ‘hot’ reading – we have no idea what Lisa Williams knew about these people before she arrived. She could have had someone assemble a complete dossier on them).3 This is nothing more than a performance. Personally, I find it so offensively manipulative and cynical that I was almost inclined not to embed it. Taking advantage in this way of bereaved and emotionally fragile people like Joanna, the young woman in the video, is, in my opinion, despicable. Putting the video on your website in order to attract more business is the lowest form of exploitation I can think of.

As I said, this clip is quite obviously edited, and we simply can’t tell what was removed. We can be totally sure that we’re only seeing the things that we’re meant to see – no bad guesses, no flubs, no ‘fishing’ for hits. Even so, there are some telling moments:

“I see a wedding picture on the wall”, says Lisa, a punt which Joanna immediately contradicts. She had a wedding picture, but she took it down. Lisa Williams makes this seem like a hit, but it just plain isn’t. It’s a complete no brainer to guess that a person who has been relatively newly married will have a wedding picture on their wall somewhere, but in this case it’s actually a miss so Ms Williams swings around for “Oh, he [the husband] ‘interfered’ with it”. Whoa. That could mean just about anything – and sure enough, Joanna looks for an explanation. Cold Reading Basics #1: be general and allow the mark to fill in information for you. I’m sure this is what fills up most of the stuff that ended up on the cutting room floor, but for some reason, this one survives – probably because it’s rectified so favourably.

If you think I’m being unfair here, take a look at the second video on that page.

This one features some stuff from a live show, and the major observation I can make is that if this is a portmanteau of Lisa Williams’ best stuff then her usual show must be appallingly transparent. Watch her fish for a rube with this one:

“I see a little girl on a scooter… riding up and down… with a cat in a basket. She’s got one sock rolled up and one rolled down and she’s waving at you…”

All the time she’s scanning the audience… but no-one’s biting.

“She’s showing me that she’s, like, your grandmother, or your mother, or…

OK, she’s now expanded the possibilities from ‘little girl’ to include ‘mother’ and ‘grandmother’ and ‘or’. Remember here that a large number of people that make up Lisa Williams’ audiences have come to hear their dearly departed make contact, so in this case we’ve cast the net so wide that really the only females not specifically included in that kind of description are young women who haven’t had children – the least likely part of the female population to have recently died, and, of course, they were little girls once, so that’s covered too. And there’s the hugely all-encompassing ‘or…’. That little girl could be ANY female. I’m sure that with some deft footwork Lisa Williams could get transgender folks in there too.

…it’s like a red scooter… And I want to say there’s a connection to the name Mary. And her feet blew up.”4

Nothing.

“Come on, help me out here,” pleads Lisa Williams to an audience frantically trying to find relevance in their own lives to her vague fishing. The happy little girl on the red scooter means bugger-all to them.

When she does get a response, you get the distinct feeling that it’s more out of sympathy than for even a small shade of accuracy. It’s a young woman who obligingly feeds our ‘clairvoyant’ more information to be recycled as ‘psychic’ insight. Once Lisa Williams cottons onto the fact that the mark is Eastern European (the woman has a pronounced accent) all manner of opportunity presents itself. It appears that the ‘departed’ in question is the woman’s grandmother. Ms Williams runs with it using lots of hand gestures to help make generalised visual impressions. The grandmother wears ‘some kinds of rags and mismatched clothing’ which apparently explains the socks from the first fishing expedition. There’s ‘something about vinegar’. Oh please – there’s probably also ‘something about’ potatoes and pickled fish. This stuff is banal and offensive. Somewhere along the line the little girl riding a scooter with a cat in the basket goes by the way. Somewhere along the line the name ‘Mary’ is completely forgotten. In fact, that picturesque image first conjured up by Lisa Williams – a feisty little girl called Mary with odd socks and a happy wave, riding on a red scooter, has been deftly supplanted by a manky European babushka with bad teeth and appalling table manners. It’s truly audacious swindling.

I won’t go on. Watching the two videos above is so distasteful to me, that I almost abandoned this post several times. I find it terribly hard going to see people being hoodwinked so blatantly and so callously – and, more troublingly, so easily and transparently.

The main content on the Lisa Williams’ Messages from Beyond® page features another riff on the Law of Large Numbers. It is in fact a psychic win/win scenario. Here, Ms Williams features from time-to-time a ‘message from the other side’ that has come to her while on the toilet or picking her nose. It’s a great con. She can put any old shit here – being 100% wrong has no negative consequences whatsoever. All the lame waffling will go unnoticed for the most part, but should anything happen to ring true with someone who reads her website – Bingo! She’s a psychic! And you can bet that Ms Williams will make sure everyone knows about it.

It’s truly shameful.

And, if nothing else, the awful faux Comic Sans-style font in which all these revelations are proffered is embarrassingly childish. As is the appalling spelling. For the record, Ms Williams, ‘purserver’ is actually spelled ‘persevere’, it’s ‘feisty’ not ‘fistey’ and ‘hypercondriac’ is usually penned as ‘hypochondriac’. But I suppose it’s really the ‘spirits’ who can’t spell, right?

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Fortune teller image from Vintage Blog.

  1. Well, excluding our interludes with Sister Veronica, that is. But I’m fairly sure you understand that as just silliness. []
  2. Dr Rachie wasn’t advertising it, you understand – she was holding it up to scrutiny. []
  3. Just to clarify, in case people don’t know these two terms: a ‘cold’ reading is where the supposed psychic fishes for evidence from the victim using vague catch-all language, and builds on any hits by emphasising the stuff that fits and de-emphasising or ignoring stuff that doesn’t. A cold reading also involves scrutinizing the mark’s body language and other physical signs such as accents, type of clothing being worn and so forth. A hot reading, on the other hand, is built on knowledge that the psychic has already gathered in some manner, and which is known to be true. This kind of information is often accumulated by accomplices who mingle with the audience before the show begins, pretending to be punters themselves and asking questions like ‘Ooh, have you lost someone too dear? I lost my old Uncle Gilbert – who did you lose? Was it long ago?’ etc. It’s a technique that is widely used by stage psychics and faith healers such as Peter Popoff. It can be astonishingly effective if you’re not aware of it. []
  4. This kind of language – ‘her feet blew up’ – is enormously useful in cold readings. This could mean the ‘departed’s’ feet could be swollen. It could also mean an accident, like a land mine. The first one is very general – I defy you to find a grandmother who hasn’t had, at some stage, swollen feet – but the second meaning might pay off on the very odd occasion, making it seem like a totally astonishing hit. If you are clever and do this kind of thing often enough, eventually you’ll get a very powerful payoff. []