The phone rang, and as usual I grabbed it as fast as I could. "Thank you for calling the psychic network," I said, mixing my normal "come on kids do the dishes NOW!" voice with a breathy attempt to sound otherworldly. "I'm Deborah." (Deborah sounds more mysterious than Debbie.) "Can I have your name and your birth date?"
"Teneecia, July 3," a small voice answered, and when she added the year, I saw she was 18 -- the minimum age you must be to have your fortune read on the phone. I went into my spiel, which is designed to put the client in a credible mood and rack up valuable minutes of 900-telemarketing time. "Teneecia," I started my singsong, "I'm a Tarot reader. First I'll choose a card to represent you, then do a general reading. I'm shuffling now; tell me when it feels right to stop. While I do the general reading you be thinking of specific questions to ask later on." As usual, I made riffling noises with the cards without bothering to shuffle, much less deal. I heard a baby crying in the background. "Ready?" I asked.
But Teneecia (her name and month of birth have been changed to conceal her identity) didn't want a general reading. "Please!" she begged. "My boyfriend got killed. My little boy's father. We had words, and he left the house and got caught in a shootout. I never saw him conscious again. I need to tell him I love him. I need to know he don't blame me for him leaving the house and getting killed. I need some last words. Can you hear him in the cards? Can you tell me what he's saying? Otherwise I'm going to kill myself so I can talk to him."
I was brooding in a motel room in a strange city the first time I saw a psychic infomercial. I wasn't as interested in the incongruously glamorous celebrity flaks -- Dionne Warwick, Billy Dee Williams and others -- as I was in ordinary people testifying to their life-transforming psychic interventions. An office manager said that her psychic told her if she went to a Christmas party, the first man she talked to would become her husband; now they're married and expecting a child. A housewife who lost her cat found it in the exact place predicted. "She knew EVERYTHING about me!" gushed another customer about the reader who correctly told her she wanted to attend computer school. The satisfied customers -- mostly women -- didn't look like they could afford to shell out $4.99 a minute, especially not for entertainment.
Afterward I learned that the biggest company, Psychic Friends, was taking in $150 million a year before it was bankrupted last year by competition from numerous smaller companies like Psychic Readers, Kenny Kingston and LaToya Jackson. By the late 1990s, these businesses had jacked the industry's earnings up to at least $300 million annually. For this we can thank the Reagan administration; in 1984, the Federal Communications Commission lifted its 16-minute-an-hour restriction on TV advertising, paving the way for monster hourlong infomercials. Add to this a dramatic proliferation of 800- and 900-number marketing and computerized billing technologies. The result was an enormous "futures" market.
At the time, I was a struggling freelance journalist, so I decided to write about the industry after working in it. As someone who's so skeptical of the paranormal that half the time I can't remember my astrological sign, I thought it would be revealing if someone like myself could do a good job as a dial-a-clairvoyant. Besides, my preliminary research revealed that the work paid $15 an hour and it was steady. That's a lot more than you can say for freelance writing. After years of cranking out articles for starvation pay, I'd gotten an agent and received assignments from slick national magazines. But by the late 1990s, journalism was as crazy as the telephone-psychic business; people were buying and selling magazines the way the rich used to speculate in pork bellies. Amid the wheeling and dealing, editors would come on staff, buy pieces from writers like me, then move to other magazines, leaving unedited articles behind -- which languished in new editors' desks and never got published. I was sick of the business, and beneath my psychic-industry muckraker bravado, I was fantasizing a change of trade.
To get my career as a psychic jumpstarted, I signed up for a nine-hour class with Grace, a bulky, fast-talking blonde who has had three husbands and five kids and makes a good living reading cards at psychic fairs. The Tarot deck harks back to the Renaissance, when Tarot was a game with no more spiritual significance than the modern pastime of bridge. During the 1960s, when Tarot first became mainstream, the Emperor card suggested will power. The Empress connected you with maternal forces. And there were the four suits: swords, representing conflict; wands, for work and competition; pentacles -- or coins -- for material affairs; and cups for emotions.
But these days people don't want abstract interpretations; they're seeking quick answers to their $4.99-a-minute questions. So Grace reads the cards in a rivetingly concrete way. In class she slaps down the Emperor and the naked Lovers cards, surrounds them right and left by two "pages" -- cards depicting medieval boys -- and on either side of the pages, the four of swords, showing a person in bed; finally the pope.
"OK!" Grace instructed us. "You've got your old man, two boys and the bed. Check out the Lovers. And the moon, which means secrets. When this comes up in a spread, you know your client's involved with a pedophile!" She taught us combinations indicating that your car's fan belt is on the fritz, your son is dealing drugs and your daughter had an abortion.
At the end of the course I still felt like a hopeless novice. So to get prepared, I offered complimentary readings to my most skeptical friends, including a research psychologist who makes a career of debunking shibboleths like the Rorschach test. By the time I met with him, I'd studied up on the utterly unsupernatural reasons why Tarot cards work. A group of Israeli researchers have suggested the resemblance between Tarot readings and the compelling story lines of the world's popular folk tales and myths. The Israelis are right. The first time I shuffled, I found that by laying out a few cards, you weave a narrative as seductive as the most enduring legend, with your client as the hero.
In any reading, there will always be some swords: conflict. And cups: emotion. There will be money problems, boredom with a relationship or a job. Temptations, weakness, insecurity, lust. Illness. Gambling, not necessarily with money but with someone or something you shouldn't be taking a chance on. You're involved with someone now, right? Well, I'm feeling lust around you. Meaning not necessarily that the sex is hot -- in fact, lots of times it's the opposite, right? -- but that there's an imbalance between your physical relationship and other forms of communication. You're keeping from each other. The unacknowledged feelings add to some of the boredom -- are you feeling bored with each other? Hmmm ... but this card shows you as a very strong, insightful person when you want to be. If you put your mind to it, you can make things better.
People are amazed at your "insight" because most are so narcissistic that they can't imagine how much they have in common with the rest of the population. My psychology professor friend knew all about "cold readings" like this, and he chuckled as I laid out his cards and recited a shtick not unlike the one above. But soon his laughter faded, and later he told me he was so devastated by my "accuracy" that he went home early that day to think about what I'd said to him.
I figured I was ready.
I called a few of the companies, and Fort Lauderdale-based Psychic Readers Network immediately mailed me an application. Soon someone from personnel called and asked for a reading. I recited pretty much what I had given the psychology professor. "Great," she said. "You can start immediately."
Being a telephone psychic subjects you to the grueling pace and sadistic management style of a hamburger-flipping job at McDonald's. My first day on the line, I had to memorize a long list of instructions: Always answer the phone by the second ring. Always say "Thank you for calling the Network, my name is Deborah." Explain that I'm a Tarot reader. Never answer specific questions before doing a "general reading" that's essentially the same for everyone but takes up a lot of time.
If I did all these things, my employer said, the client would get "hooked" and stay on the line past the first two minutes that Psychic Readers offers free. Before automatically cutting off, the call could go on for as long as 55 minutes, which (after subtracting the two free minutes) translates into a phone bill of $264.47. If the conversation started winding down, I was supposed to keep it going by asking for a last name and address "so we can send you coupons for free and discounted readings." And at the end I must never forget to say, "For adults and entertainment only."
All this was reinforced via the recorded "daily message," that I had to listen to each time I logged on to work. The Big Brother of the message is a Psychic Readers Network executive named Steve. He sounds like David Spade, minus the humor. "Come ON, GUYS!!" he would whine. "You've absolutely posiTIVEly got to get FIRST NAME LAST NAME STREET NAME STREET NUMBER CITY NAME STATE AND DON'T FORGET ZIP CODE on EACH call! Otherwise you WILL be terminated! Remember, we have six callers monitoring you."
I lived in low-grade terror, and I was only part time. Imagine people trying to make a real living at this job. I met several of them at psychic fairs and in Grace's classes. The vast majority were women, and few had more than high school or a year or so of college. They were working 30 or 40 hours a week on the phone, often trying to care for small children at the same time. ("ABSOLUTELY NO PUTTING CLIENTS ON HOLD TO CHANGE DIAPERS!!" Steve warned.) For the $4.99 these women earned each minute for the company, they kept only 25 cents -- with no benefits.
The easiest way to make money as a phone psychic is by talking to callers who don't require much attention. The lotto players who want numbers, for instance. I obliged them by counting swords or cups on the cards, always warning them that if I could guarantee the numbers, I'd be in Vegas, not on the phone. Or teen-age girls on three-way extensions, inquiring about who on a list of boys would be asking them out. And men -- good-natured "Home Improvement" types -- wanting to know where they'd meet their next girlfriend: a bowling alley or a bar? These people were watching their clocks, and if they didn't hang up by the time their two minutes expired, they seldom stayed on much longer.
But the company makes you hate such callers' thriftiness. Each week while I was working, a computer tatted up the average length of my calls, and if it dropped below 14 minutes, I was in trouble.
You also learn to cultivate another kind of caller: the ones who jack up your average as they take you through a wringer of crisis and loneliness. They start phoning in the morning, when the kids are in school and the breakfast dishes done. The despair sets in then, and the balm is TV soap operas, with their strategically positioned psychic commercials. From 10 a.m. to early afternoon, my phone rang off the hook.
Darlene, from Alabama, was a typical caller. She lives eight miles from the nearest town, thinks she's pregnant and has a drinking problem. She's worried about its effects on a baby but can't figure out what to do because she's so isolated and her live-in boyfriend is also alcoholic. I asked Darlene if she'd been to the doctor to see if she was really pregnant. No, she'd rather have the cards tell her. "Well," I said, "the cards show that very soon you'll be going to a drugstore and buying a pregnancy test. I also see a car here -- do you have one? No? Oh, you have a truck but it's not running? Gee, I see the Chariot card. It means you're going to be asking your boyfriend to help you fix the truck. Because I see you doing regular traveling into town. I also see you seeking counsel there in dealing with temptation. Is an Alcoholics Anonymous nearby?"
But calls like Darlene's are nothing compared to the midnight to 4 a.m. shift, when people all over America toss and turn with desperation.
Florinda, in Spokane, hemmed and hawed about her boyfriend not letting her see her friends. When I told her I saw violence around her, she broke into wracking sobs and confessed that the boyfriend was beating her regularly and savagely. Bobby, a tough, macho-sounding black man, had just found out who his real father was and was going crazy deciding if he should try to establish contact. "Please ma'am," he said softly. "Can you write a love letter for me to my daddy?" I won't tell you what I said to these people; it's pretty much what any person with a modicum of perspective would have said. But I will say that after I mailed my letter to Bobby's dad, I knew I was getting addicted to being a phone psychic.
I was utterly seduced by the chance to talk so intimately and tenderly to people whose lives are segregated from mine by sex, class and race. There were nasty ironies to this beauty, however. African-Americans, for example, comprised one in four of my callers, while they make up only one in eight of the national population. Is this any surprise, given that Dionne Warwick and LaToya Jackson act as psychic figureheads in exchange for royalties on each call? It's just like how cigarette companies market tobacco to minorities.
But here I was, a middle-class white woman bonding with people I'd never have a chance to talk to in everyday life. I felt brave and sensitive. Cheap shot, my friends said: I was hearing such confidences only because I was passing myself off as a spirit with supernatural powers. No matter; I was hooked. I found myself thinking of becoming a full-time seer. Maybe getting some other women together, setting up our own 900 number, dispensing with the cards and renaming ourselves The Non-Psychic Advice Ladies. Meanwhile, I got an assignment from a slick women's magazine to do a story about my new work. Soon after, I got my first call from Teneecia, a day after her boyfriend was killed in the shootout.
Hers was the most profound crisis I'd ever confronted on the line, and at first I was terrified. Then, without thinking rationally, I sprang into action. "Teneecia! Your boyfriend's in the cards! He's saying he's in a wonderful, peaceful place and that he knows how very much you love him. But Teneecia, he's saying he wants you to STAY where you are, ALIVE, and be a mother to his baby. OK, are there people in the house with you? His family? You're real close to them? Good. He wants you to stay with them all day. And spend the night with them. Understand? And I want you to call me anytime; here's my home phone. Forget the psychic line, it's way too expensive. "REALLY?" Teneecia responded. "Oh, thank you, you're my psychic friend." I hung up and wept.
She called many times in the next few weeks. Always, she wanted to communicate with her dead boyfriend. At first I obliged, telling her over and over that her lover hoped she would pick up with her life. But when she called late one night in terror that her boyfriend's ghost was lurking at her bedside, I realized I needed to wean her from the cards and from me.
I called the hospital where the boyfriend died. A social worker said Teneecia could come in anytime for counseling. But Teneecia didn't want to, she told me; she preferred the Tarot. "The cards aren't picking him up so well anymore," I demurred. "He's getting farther away. But I do hear him saying he wants you to work on getting a job."
In fact, Teneecia disliked being on welfare. But she said that decent-paying jobs in her hometown, Grand Rapids, Mich., are far away from her house and she didn't have a car. There was little to do, she said, except hang around the house and grieve for her dead lover.
I found out what she meant after the women's magazine bankrolled a trip to meet Teneecia in person. Grand Rapids is heavily Dutch, highly prosperous, and the international headquarters of that icon of self-reliance, the Amway Corporation. Yet amid this heartland spic and span, Teneecia lived in a ghetto. In her neighborhood, a third of the predominantly African-American residents live in poverty, and the unemployment rate is more than four times higher than in the city as a whole.
Teneecia was light-skinned and still losing her baby fat. Her boy, now five months old, was a bundle of smiles and activity. Teneecia spent ages upstairs, putting on makeup and her best dress for a visit to the cemetery. I waited in a living room bravely furnished with cheap brass knickknacks. I stared at "The Young and the Restless." A telephone psychic ad came on the screen.
I'd brought a Tarot deck, thinking Teneecia could solve her unemployment by working at home as a phone psychic. It turned out, though, that she was raised in a fundamentalist Baptist family who think fortune telling is Satanic. "I don't mind having you read for me long distance, but I can't have this in my house," she said.
She also lost interest in me -- now a real person with a face, age, race and a tangible as well as decidedly earthly persona. Now we weren't psychic buddies; she was a poor, unschooled black adolescent, and I was an assured, middle-age white woman. I started feeling uneasy.
After the third day I figured it was time to go: time to get the Devil card out of the house, Teneecia out of the cemetery and me back on an airplane. The mailman came that afternoon with a letter telling Teneecia that Social Security would be sending the baby money from his deceased father's account. Finally she was getting something real. "My psychic friend," she said as she hugged me. "You've helped me so much." Still, I hoped she'd never again call a psychic line.
I dialed Psychic Readers Network when I got home. I wanted to talk to them about their business and about people like Teneecia. Nobody got back to me. I sent a note informing them I was resigning.
So I went back to journalism. Even though the women's magazine got bought by a magnate, my editor quit, and my story never got published.
Since then, fate has frowned on my old boss. Last year, Psychic Readers Network almost went belly-up, after some big long-distance companies started refusing to carry the psychic firm's phone charges because of customer complaints about phony and inflated bills. As well, the Federal Trade Commission began investigating Psychic Readers for deceptive advertising.
Recently I ran into some of my former colleagues at a psychic fair. They told me the psychic talk field is depressed, so they've gone into another form of 900-telemarketing: phone sex. Same money, slightly different spiel. And the work, my friends say, is much easier.