Earlier this week three missing Ohio women were found after one of them, Amanda Berry, managed to gain the attention of a neighbor from the home that had become their prison. Amanda Berry, Gina DeJesus, and Michelle Knight were held for over a decade, and police are now unraveling how it happened, and why the captives weren’t discovered sooner. In the midst of the media frenzy a variety of angles and personalities have emerged, including the involvement of infamous professional psychic Sylvia Browne. In 2004 Browne told Berry’s mother, Louwanna Miller, on The Montel Williams show, that her child was dead.
“She’s not alive, honey,” Sylvia Browne told her matter-of-factly. “Your daughter’s not the kind who wouldn’t call.”
Further, Browne said she saw a jacket with “DNA on it,” implying that Berry was murdered. This is not the first time that Browne, who enjoys a mini-empire built around her psychic predictions and spiritual teachings, has given bad predictions to grieving parents. In 2007, CNN explored the issue, prompting a defensive statement from her publicist.
“She cannot possibly be 100 percent correct in each and every one of her predictions. She has, during a career of over 50 years, helped literally tens of thousands of people.”
However, it’s one thing to be wrong about a new job, or if you’ll find true love this year, it’s another thing entirely to destroy (or lift up) the hopes of desperate parents. Louwanna Miller died of a heart attack in 2007, those who knew her said she was never the same after Browne’s prediction. She died never knowing the truth of what happened to Amanda. With this latest callous prediction proved wrong Greg Taylor at The Daily Grail lashed out at Browne, joining those who say the psychic must be stopped.
“I’m not an easy person to anger, but this list of cases gets my blood boiling, and here’s why: the incorrect calls I could live with, if it was offered privately just as a “I’ve got a feeling, but I could well be wrong”. But to go on TV, and tell these people outright the fate of their children in public – sometimes even rebuking them when they throw doubt on what you’re saying – is just wrong on so many levels. Perhaps some readers of this blog are Browne fans; I can’t apologise for my opinion. If there’s one skill I have, it’s being able to pick a person’s character very quickly, and Browne has always sent a shiver up my spine (for all the wrong reasons). The growing list of cases where she hurt families with misinformation only confirms my gut feeling.”
Browne is hardly alone in handing out these kind of predictions. Marc Klaas, whose daughter was abducted and murdered, said he was inundated with requests from psychics in the immediate aftermath.
“I was insulated from most of them by family and police, but there had to be at least a dozen I personally dealt with. They hope you’ll pay them and they hope they’ll get really, really lucky and make a guess so close to the truth, they can say they solved it.”
So with the near-miraculous return of these three women, we should ask the question of what divination, mediumship, and other predictive arts are for. How should we use them? In our interconnected communities divination is everywhere, as are psychic predictions and other intuitive arts. Should we be having a larger conversation about incidents like this? What moral responsibility do we have if we tell someone something that turns out to be horribly wrong? What do we do if our predictions actually turn out to hurt people instead of help them? Do we simply hold out examples of correct predictions as if they somehow balance the incorrect ones?
Assuming for a moment that Browne is sincere in her beliefs, and not an elaborate con artist, what kind of individual potentially gives thousands of bad predictions with little to no remorse? Were I in Browne’s position I would feel endlessly tormented over the people my predictions have hurt. I think incidents like this should call us collectively to examine how we practice, and in what contexts do we feel comfortable handing out predictions. I have no doubt that most Pagans engaging in psychic work are sincere, which calls me to ask how responsible they feel they are regarding life-or-death predictions, and what recourse do they engage in should a prediction turn tragic? Rather than become defensive, and work to distance ourselves from the hucksterisms of Browne, I think this is a call to introspection. How do we prevent ourselves from becoming the things that Browne now embodies to an outraged public?