Despite what they believe, or how they may view themselves, what is the appropriate response to psychics who take advantage of the vulnerable bereaved by claiming to communicate with their loved ones?
That’s a question I had to confront directly when I met Michael and Marti Parry at a party last night. Now I’m usually on my best behavior at parties, since people are not there to talk philosophy or re-examine their beliefs. At many parties and events in southern California, there’s a kind of pervasive and fashionable new-age patina. People casually swap their latest musings on astrology, Tarot, or maybe the newest guru-impresario or fad belief system making the rounds. For the most part, it’s harmless entertainment, and I just smile and nod. Nothing pours a bucket of ice-water on a party like a dose of reality. For parties, it’s best to keep the ice in the drinks where it belongs, and the critical thinking under wraps. But last night–that was not to be.
I was introduced first to Michael by my friend who was hosting the party. She happened to mention to him that I was Elizabeth Clare Prophet’s son. Michael, a soft-spoken man who looked to be in his late forties with an English accent, acknowledged that he knew of her and said, “But you don’t believe in her any more.” I said, “No.” He said he was sure she believed in what she was doing. I said I knew she believed in it. “Some people are just self-deluded,” he concluded. We then exchanged a few words about my mom’s Alzheimer’s. “I wish I’d had more time to resolve things with her,” I said. Then I asked Michael what he did. “I’m a medium,” he said. Then, pointing to his wife, “we both are.” I shook her hand, smiled and made a lame joke about it being “rare to meet a medium, let alone two.” Everyone laughed. “I don’t talk to ascended masters, though,” he quipped. Michael explained that he contacted the dead person “on the other side” and his wife drew sketches, which were immediately recognized as authentic by relatives. I nodded and managed a half-smile. I was not going to say anything negative. It was not my place–this was my friend’s party.
But it was not so easy to remain aloof. I think Michael could smell my skepticism. We talked a little about my TV promo business, and they talked about their appearances on Ghost Hunters. I tried to keep it light. We were fellow entertainers–I could deal with that.
Then Michael went in for the “close.” I could tell this was a staple of his business. It had to be. These guys were somewhat famous, and doing public “psychic readings” they must get challenged all the time. Neutralizing skeptics and hecklers is probably the most crucial prerequisite for that kind of career. Here’s a nearly verbatim account of his futile attempt to “close” me:
Michael Parry: “You don’t believe me, do you.”
BlackSun: “Well, I’d have to see evidence. These kinds of shows are fun, but they aren’t exactly scientific.”
Michael Parry: “What would you consider evidence?”
BlackSun: “Some facts that you’d have no way of knowing, some kind of controlled trial that could be confirmed by multiple observers with no interest in the outcome.”
Michael Parry: “What if I put myself in a closed room, and my wife in another room, and we both came up with facts about the deceased, time of death, place of death, what the weather was like, cause of death?”
BlackSun: “Sounds interesting, but I wouldn’t take your word for it. I’d have to have independent corroboration. Maybe you could convince James Randi.”
Michael Parry: “James Randi is a DICK!”
Michael Parry: “He doesn’t even have the money he’s offering [the million dollar paranormal challenge], it’s just bonds and paper.”
BlackSun: “I think he does in fact have the money. But that’s kind of beside the point. No one has ever claimed it. But OK, it wouldn’t have to be James Randi, any skeptic or credible scientist would do.”
Michael Parry: “I’m so sorry you’ve been ruined by your mother. She’s turned you into a jaded materialist.”
BlackSun: “This has nothing to do with her. Frankly, I think you’re fucking victimizing vulnerable people by claiming to speak to their dead relatives, pardon my French.”
Michael Parry: “You should ask our clients if they feel victimized.”
BlackSun: “They might very well believe you, but that still doesn’t make it real.”
Michael Parry: “Oh Sean, I feel sorry for you.”
BlackSun: “Don’t condescend to me, I don’t need your pity.”
Michael Parry: “Sean, you need to open your mind, you just don’t understand.”
BlackSun: “I understand perfectly what you are doing. You’re entertainers. Why don’t you let it go at that?”
Michael Parry: “We’re a lot more than entertainers, we work on the level of the spirit.”
BlackSun: “You have no proof of that. No one’s ever provided any convincing proof of the spirit world. I know all about how cold reading is done, and mediums have been making these claims for centuries. It’s the oldest bag of tricks there is. Your drawings are undoubtedly vague enough that people latch on to them. And that’s an easy sell when people are so desperate to talk to their loved ones.”
Michael Parry: “You don’t believe in spirit or the afterlife?”
BlackSun: “No, for the second time. When your brain ceases to function, your personality disappears forever. There is no afterlife.”
Michael Parry: “I am not my brain.”
BlackSun: “I’m afraid that’s exactly what you are. And don’t sell it short, you’re brain’s a pretty amazing thing. Of course it’s not perfect, it’s got you convinced you’re talking to dead people.”
Michael Parry: “I really feel sorry for you.”
At this point, a bystander who overheard the conversation began to ask me about my business, and I became distracted from the Parrys, who began making preparations to leave the party. About 3 minutes later, they headed for the door. Marti Parry, who’d been listening the whole time, turned to me and said “You really should open your mind, Sean. And check out our website at spiritart.com.” “Oh, I will,” I said.
“Some people are just self-deluded.” Hmmm. I’m not sure Michael Parry has ever said anything more clarifying.