Strange but true: This is the golden age of hoaxes
Many hoaxes seem obvious in retrospect. But surely reasonable people can disagree about whether Sylvia Browne and other high-profile psychics qualify as a hoax? Millions of people do seem to believe the improbable notion that these self-proclaimed seers can divine the future and speak with the dead. I caught up with Browne on a lecture tour to see if I could figure out why.
All sorts of deceit is on offer in Atlantic City--I passed up a come-on, several hustles, and a scam on the way to the convention center--but Browne claims to offer the real deal. She's a gracious woman, with a gravelly voice and a knowing, world-weary air, and generously invited me backstage. I introduced myself as a journalist but didn't reveal that my magazine was working on an issue about hoaxes. (This was not in itself a hoax on my part, just a cheap deception.) A few minutes into the interview, Browne started "reading" me. "Watch out for your right ear," she warned. "You could be getting an infection." (Plausible enough--a good, safe opener.) "You've got a problem with your neck and shoulder." (Often true, but what ill-postured reporter, frantically scribbling all this into a notebook, wouldn't have neck and shoulder problems?) She moved on to specifics: "There's a problem with the disk between the fourth and fifth vertebrae in your lower back." Shiver. I had spent the entire preceding week flat on my back with lower-back pain--could she be on to something? Well, maybe statistics. "About 80 percent of herniated disks occur between those vertebrae" or the next disk down, says Scott Boden, a professor of orthopedic surgery at the Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta. Given the prevalence of disk problems, he says, Browne's diagnosis "would be statistically safe."
The reading continued; I'm a perfectionist (my editors would be pleased), and I'll soon move. I confess, I felt another chill, even as she raised a knowing eyebrow. I am moving this month, and given the lousy housing options in Washington D.C., I'll probably keep leapfrogging. The parting shot: "Oh, and your love life sucks." Sheesh. Strictly speaking, my love life doesn't suck, it simply doesn't exist, but close enough. She conjured vague notions of someone short and blond though, with big greenish eyes. (Yowza--finally we get to the "tell 'em what they want to hear" part!) But I don't get out enough, she chided, and can't just sit around waiting for something good to happen.
This final chastisement is central to Browne's appeal--safe predictions and comforting messages combined with tough love. "I don't care if you feel miserable," she tells the audience later that night. "Smile anyway . . . Get over it." Sound advice, and it comes with full theological backing. Think your life is tough? It should be--we're in hell! But don't worry, this life is just a way to test our strength and fortify our spirits before returning to heaven. This is liberation theology for the daytime-TV crowd--the hard times will soon be over and your deceased loved ones are happy, so stop whining, get off the couch, and go help someone.