The woman with a bushy ponytail and a strong Boston accent who I have paid $40 to see suddenly puts her hands around her throat and rushes to where I’m sitting in a row of folding chairs alongside 20 other women.
“I’m seeing someone behind you. A man with dark hair. Did someone close to you hang himself?” she asks, winded from her frenzied approach.
She is a medium, a woman who claims that she can channel “Spirit” (yes, singular ― she never refers to them as “spirits”) and up until that very second, with only 10 minutes left in a two-hour group reading, I wholeheartedly believed that she and everyone else who claims to speak to the dead are nothing but con artists.
Like most people, I’d seen video clips of world-famous channelers whose “talents” made people crumble to their knees in fits of happy sobs. I’ve always been suspicious of exactly what was happening in those moments and was convinced that these individuals were merely preying on the vulnerable ― people who were desperate to know that their loved ones are at peace in the afterlife. I’ve heard that these psychics wore earpieces that allowed producers to feed them information about particular audience members — details gathered by a member of the medium’s staff before the reading that could then be spun into the act. So, when a highly intelligent woman who I absolutely adore bought me a ticket to a reading ― even though everything within me told me this medium with a soft-focus glamor shot on her website was a fraud ― I agreed to go.
There were seven of us in our social group who attended the reading and all of us were, in one way or another, directly affected by the current opioid crisis ravaging the United States. Some of us had lost children to an overdose, some of us had children who were currently using and others, like me, worked in the field and had lost countless young men and women to the insidiousness of addiction. Though we weren’t all believers in the supernatural, I think we all went into the experience with a part of us ― however small ― hoping that something truly miraculous might happen to change our minds and that maybe, just maybe, someone we lost would “come through.”
Once we had all taken our seats in the room located in a vast office park where the medium held her readings, she started the evening by making some horrible jokes about the cookies and coffee she laid out, saying we had better eat them before “Spirit” did. She then briefly explained how the next two hours would go. With the formalities out of the way, she then invited “Spirit” into the room by very subtly changing her speech pattern and body rhythm, and then with a whoosh and a swirl, she was off and running. I watched with great skepticism that bordered on disdain as she told a petite and buttoned up woman in her 70s that she sensed “Spirit” of a short, conservative woman standing behind her.
“I looked around the room to see if I could catch a judgmental look passing over anyone else’s face ― I’m sure I had one on mine ― and then internally chastised myself for being such a bitch.”
“Did a woman in your life like tea?” she asked. “I’m sensing something about tea.”
“My mother liked tea!” the older woman replied breathlessly.
“I see someone else with her laying out a tea set on a lace tablecloth.” The woman paused, thinking deeply, and said, “That was her sister, my aunt Linda!”
As I rolled my eyes at how painfully nonspecific — and totally unconvincing —the medium had been in her first reading of the evening, she approached a pair of sisters in their 30s sitting in the back row on the opposite side of the room and began to describe a jovial man of medium height with sandy hair and a bit of a paunch. They looked at each other and said in unison, “Oh my God, that’s Uncle Ed!” I couldn’t help but think that description covers about 50 percent of dead Uncle Eds.
I looked around the room to see if I could catch a judgmental look passing over anyone else’s face ― I’m sure I had one on mine ― and then internally chastised myself for being such a bitch.
The night before the reading my husband and I discussed tactics for putting on my best poker face and sniffing out any leading questions the medium might toss my way. Still, despite all of my preparation, there was one thing I wasn’t prepared for: She somehow appeared to know that my best friend, Craig ― his brain jumbled and destroyed by a five-year crystal meth addiction ― hung himself two years ago at the age of 53. Oh, and not only that ― she also claimed he was somewhere in the room with us, although, according to her, he didn’t want to be there.
When I heard this my poker face vanished and she knew she had struck spirit gold.
“Is this making sense to you?” she asked.
Without offering her any details, I said yes.
“I’m sensing that he was found by a woman and he is very sorry for putting her through that.” Craig was found in a hotel room in Los Angeles by a female member of the housekeeping staff. The only note he left was an apology that simply said, “I’m sorry you had to find me like this.”
“For some reason he keeps yelling, ‘I don’t want to talk about this! I don’t want to talk about this!’” The last time I saw Craig we had a horrible fight while we were driving into Boston for lunch. He had banged his hand repeatedly on the dashboard, the veins popping out of his neck as he screamed, “Why won’t you answer me? Why won’t you TALK about this?” I found a place to pull over and told him to get out of the car. We never spoke again and he was dead a year later.
The medium gently reiterated how much he did not want to be there and claimed that she had to drag him into the room. She said that he was still working on things that he couldn’t fix when he was alive. She never told me that he said he was sorry to me or anyone else. She never told me that he watches over me. She never told me that he was doing fine in the afterlife. I was shaken and very sad. So much about Craig and his life had been tragic and clearly, if this woman was telling the truth, it wasn’t getting any better ― wherever he was.
With only five minutes left until we wrapped up, the medium invited all of our dead pets to join us and people actually looked toward the empty aisles and smiled as she described being able to see them happily run around the room. At that moment, my severe skepticism snapped fully back into place. Then, at precisely 9:00 p.m. ― the exact time we were scheduled to conclude ― she said that Spirit (and our sweet dead pets) had left the room and it was time to conclude the reading.
I couldn’t help but think how convenient it was that all of our ghosts had collectively decided to leave at the same time. Our $40 had purchased us each exactly two hours of the medium’s time — and apparently “Spirit’s” attention — and the abrupt ending reminded me of a pay phone suddenly cutting off when there were no more coins fed into the slot.
A few of the women I was with had also been approached by the medium during the reading and after it was over, we chatted while waiting for the elevator about what had just occurred. We took turns sharing the details we found the most extraordinary ― according to them, she was eerily accurate ― and despite being rattled to my very core by what had just taken place, I still found myself doubting most of what I’d heard.
Three weeks later, I’m still trying to figure out whether I want to pay this medium $250 to have a private reading with her. One the one hand, it would give me the opportunity to further test her — to give her a better chance to prove that she’s not a fraud. But I also can’t help think that it would just be another chance for her to squeeze a little more money out of me.
Still, I’m shocked at myself ― the great, unmovable skeptic ― for even considering it. But I can’t help but ask “what if?” and, like most people, I can’t help but want closure. I badly want Craig to have really been in that room. I also want him to appear again and this time, I want him to be less hesitant about “talking about this.” I want to know that he’s happy or at the very least no longer suffering. But, sadly, I don’t think he is and I certainly don’t believe he’s watching over me, mostly because I don’t even believe in an afterlife but also because he spent his life as a tortured soul. Besides, Craig would have thought that this whole thing was utterly preposterous.
“I badly want Craig to have really been in that room... I want to know that he’s happy or at the very least no longer suffering. But, sadly, I don’t think he is and I certainly don’t believe he’s watching over me...”
So, what if I did call this woman up and asked her to usher in “Spirit” for me a second time. Maybe Craig would pop up again or maybe he’d refuse to show his face. Maybe my mother who also killed herself would show up and tell me that she’s happy and that she watches over me ― that she’s sorry for what she did to me and everyone else she left behind. Maybe the medium would be having an off day and, unable to conjure any spirit, we’d just sit there and stare at each other for an hour.
In the end, with as many questions and doubts as I’m left with, I’m still glad I went. If I never have a private reading with this woman ― or any other medium — even if I never hear from Craig or my mother, even if it was a sham, I have to admit that watching the peace that washed over the other women in the room that night was a beautiful sight.
Maybe that’s enough: paying someone to tell you something you know may not be (and most likely isn’t) true in order to feel a little solace, to hurt just a little less. I’m still on the fence and I haven’t stopped thinking about that night, about that horrible image of the medium with her hands around her neck as she supposedly conjured Craig in his horrific and desperate final moments.
Do I really want to know more than I already do? And is there any reason that I need to know more? The idea of being granted some comfort obviously appeals to me, but at what cost? And is it foolish to look for easy answers to difficult questions? I still don’t know and, much like the very question of whether we can ever reach the ones we’ve loved and lost, I probably never will.
Gayle Saks has written extensively about her work as a substance abuse counselor from the unique perspective of someone who is not in recovery herself. Her blog was voted one of the Top 20 Recovery Blogs for 2016 by AfterParty Magazine. Saks grew up on Long Island, New York, and lives in the Greater Boston area with her husband, daughter, two cats and two dogs ― or as her husband says, “Too many beating hearts.”