Inspiring Enchantment & Illumination with Tarot & Intuitive Guidance

Guest Blog: A Response to the Sylvia Browne Debacle

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Today, I am honored to share a guest blog post from my brilliant Tarot colleague, Bri Saussy, of Milagro Roots

For the past several days, a group of professional readers that Bri and I hang out with has been discussing the controversy around celebrity psychic Sylvia Browne’s statements regarding Cleveland kidnap victim Amanda Berry. 

No doubt about it — for years, Browne has reflected very poorly on our profession as readers and intuitives. But this latest episode has had particularly grievous consequences. As practitioners of the esoteric arts, we are all pretty upset about the emotional damage she has done to the families concerned.

Basically what happened was that in November 2004, on the nationally syndicated Montel Williams television show, Ms. Browne flatly told Amanda Berry’s distraught mother that her daughter was definitely dead. Even sent a “psychic message” of goodbye from the other side.

Amanda’s mother died a year later, after a rapid decline that family and friends have characterized as a broken heart. 

Bri wrote this article particularly addressing a post in Jason Pitzl-Waters’ The Wild Hunt that examines how unsavory events like this impact Pagans and all of us who seek to serve the public with our intuitive gifts.

For as one writer at The Huffington Post notes, “Celebrity psychic Sylvia Browne is doing damage control over a prediction made nearly 10 years ago claiming Ohio kidnapping victim Amanda Berry was dead, but her actions may represent a watershed moment in how Americans view psychics.”

Let’s hope not; his assessment is grim indeed. 

Thank you, Bri, for a thoughtful, insightful article, and for yourself providing the public with the high caliber of professionalism that reflects well for all of us that offer such services. 

And thanks again for giving me your blessing to share your words here.
~ Beth

Sylvia’s Mistake and what it means for Professional Intuitives

Sylvia Browne

By now everyone knows about the three women who had been abducted and found in Ohio — and many of my friends and colleagues also know about the Sylvia Browne scandal that was brought up in the wake of discovering that one of the women, whom Browne had quite publicly announced was dead, was actually quite alive.

For those who don’t know about the story, Jason Pitzl-Walters of the Wild Hunt wrote about it here.

Jason ended his excellent article with the following questions:

“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?”

I think this is an excellent question and after perusing the comments tied to the article I felt that it deserved a full response from someone who works as both a professional intuitive and ritualist, and who advocates for the building of sustainable and profitable businesses in the field of Sacred Arts.

WARNING: This is a long article y’all. If you are familiar with the Wild Hunt piece and the comments that accompanied it, then the first two sections will be of interest, otherwise scroll down to the final section titled, The Sylvia Situation. (I won’t judge, I read the end of novels first all the time).

Why should Pagans be concerned about Sylvia?

The first issue that needs to be addressed is relevancy. Why should Pagans be concerned about Sylvia Browne’s “mistake?” The fact of the matter is that in the general public’s opinion working as a tarot reader, practicing any divinatory art, or billing oneself as a “psychic” often equates to being Pagan. This stems from a lack of understanding of both the intuitive arts as well as Paganism but the association is present and it’s strong.

In addition, while it’s true that not all intuitive professionals are Pagan and not all Pagans practice an intuitive art (like cartomancy, tasseomancy, palmistry, scrying, etc.), it is true that many Pagans do have an interest in developing these skills for both personal and religious reasons.

The third reason I believe Pagans should be concerned about this issue is that both intuitive professionals and modern day Pagans share a similar position in society–we are often misrepresented, misunderstood, mocked, marginalized and have to be especially assiduous in asserting and protecting our civil rights.

Because the two groups are closely related in popular imagination, because there are many people who do belong to both groups, and because we experience many of the same social and political challenges, it’s vital that we take an interest in each others’ welfare–especially if we do not want characters like Sylvia Browne to write our stories for us and the general public.

The Business of Intuitive Professionals and Sacred Artists

Another thread of comments attached to the article that I found very disturbing were those voicing the opinion that anyone who asks for money in return for using their intuitive gifts is a de facto charlatan. This is something that I know some of my Pagan brothers and sisters have had to deal with as well, when wanting to be paid for ritual services for instance–I label it the “Spiritual Gifts Should be Free Syndrome.”

The idea that all tarot readers are con artists out to make a quick buck belies a lineage of predictive readings and oracle casting that goes back to the beginnings of human culture. Traditionally those who possessed the art of seeing were paid–perhaps not in money, but food, gifts, and even offerings were made in return for their predictive powers.

It is true that in the world of “magic for hire” there are many scams and unethical people taking advantage of ill formed superstitions and clients who are often desperate, afraid, and have nowhere else to turn.

But it’s equally true that there are many top of the line professional intuitives who have assisted people in getting out of abusive relationships, finding gainful employment, asking for (and receiving) raises, starting new romantic relationships, having happy and peaceful marriages, and fostering better relationships with children and step children (just to name a few of the situations that I often read for).

These people do their work because they feel Spirit-called, because they have actual talent, and because they want to be of service. They often work in places that are hostile to intuitive arts of all kinds and take on potential danger to themselves and their families (not to say anything of the day to day shame many feel when asked “what they do for a living?”).

Nevertheless they do the work because they are committed, they care, and as Jason said, they are sincere.

Deciding that someone is a scam artist because they ask to be paid for a skill they are employing to your benefit is both foolish and unkind and it reveals a massive double standard that we have in the general population when it comes to those working in the Sacred Arts.

Doctors are not right 100% of the time and often the medications they prescribe can cause terrible side effects that patients were not sufficiently warned about–and in many situations patients are misdiagnosed completely–yet a doctor still must be paid.

The positive effect that a therapist exerts over a situation may or may not be obvious–yet we pay for the time we spend with them regardless of results. A lawyer cannot ever guarantee to win your legal case–yet they too have fees that must be paid, win or lose.  An investment banker requires you to entrust them with a large sum of money on the promise that they may be able to make that money increase for you–they are paid with both the initial investment and often with concurrent fees.

In all four cases the general public does not question the professional’s right to earn a living by their skill.

Why is it then that in the case of an intuitive professional asking to be paid for our services we are seen as suspect at best and charlatans at worst? Is it because the work we engage in is too “fringe,” resistant to measurement, or subjective?

What then of the artist who paints or a the writer who tells stories? Their work is much harder to measure, some indeed might think it strange, and art of course is quite subjective-but most of us would agree that the artist or the author also have a right to earn a living from their work.

I believe that we should be supporting those working in the Sacred Arts field with everything we’ve got.

I champion the rights of my friends and colleagues to charge for their work and to earn a damn good living from it.  I believe that their services are of value and make my community, my town, my state and my country better. I also champion an increased level of professionalism within the Sacred Arts communities–and that includes a critique of why Sylvia Browne’s approach to this work is problematic.

The Sylvia Situation:

I don’t know Sylvia Browne, although I have my personal opinions.  I cannot say what motivates her publicly or privately. Unlike others, I don’t necessarily take issue with her (or any intuitive professional) desiring favorable publicity for their work.

One of the reasons why our field has been rife with scams and cons is because it has remained in the shadows and when it is mentioned in a broader context it is usually couched in sensationalism or criticism.

A lack of transparency can breed corruption and part of being transparent is being publicly seen and available. I think that intuitive professionals who seek to make their work better known and understood by the general public have the potential to do the field as a whole much good.

With that said, I do find that the biggest mistake Browne (or her handlers) made was in the approach they took in this particular case. To use the above examples, when a doctor is interviewed on a daytime talk show they are not asked to make diagnoses.

A therapist is not expected to deliver a radical insight in front of a large studio audience. When a trial lawyer is interviewed they are not asked to demonstrate their courtroom acumen. An investment banker would never be expected to make money appear during the hour between 10am and 11.

Why an intuitive professional is asked to “prove” their skill set and/or why they would agree to such ridiculous terms (given the setting) is beyond me, and this, is where Ms. Browne made her mistake. In his article Jason asked two questions of his readers:

  • How responsible do Pagans who also practice a predictive art feel when making a life or death prediction?
  • What recourse do they engage in if the prediction turns tragic?

The Pagans that I know who practice an intuitive art and the intuitive professionals I know (who may or may not identify as Pagan) feel an incredible weight of responsibility anytime we sit with a querant. If you want to cut through the small talk and get to the issues that are really weighing on someone’s heart and mind then become a tarot reader. People trust you with information that they have not told to anyone else-it’s a privilege and a deep responsibility and not something to be taken lightly-ever.

In Ms. Browne’s case she was asked whether a specific individual who had gone missing was still living.

Who was asking the question?
The missing woman’s mother.

And what was the setting?
A nationally televised talk show.

Many of the intuitive professionals I know would not read on this question at all—too much rides on the answer and seeing clearly and with objectivity is difficult to begin with — our work is about nothing if not clarity. To answer the question though for the missing woman’s mother is a different thing entirely–in that case the woman’s own hopes and fears would weigh so heavily on the reading that no matter its outcome I would question its veracity.

Finally, the setting is wrong. Publicity for one’s work is well and good, but attempting to deliver an intuitive reading–an occasion that should be a personal and private exploration of a meaningful question between two people on daytime TV sets one up for failure.  If Sylvia Browne truly thought that, given these parameters, she could deliver an authentic intuitive reading then I have to question her skills as well as her motives.

Generally speaking as I wrote earlier, most of my colleagues would not read on this type of a question at all–and those that would usually come out of spiritual traditions that have a very specific approach and ritual parameters for what can be asked, who might ask it, and what type of information might be conveyed back to the querent.

The second question is one that all intuitives should ask themselves: what recourse do we engage in if a prediction turns tragic? I believe we should all ask ourselves this question because as we meet and encounter people throughout the years we will brush up against terrible events. Predictions, once uttered, can turn tragic as many a Greek Tragedy warns us, and intuitives need to consider what options are available to us professionally to deal with these events.

Here are a few I have found helpful:
Be honest and admit it if you have made a mistake.

Do not make guarantees. I train my clients and prospective clients to be wary of anyone who works in the intuitive or magical fields and makes 100% satisfaction or your money back guarantees. Serious practitioners know when it comes to intuition and magic, mystery is part of the process and no one can say exactly how a situation will turn out. Even if a client does not want to work with me, I steer them clear of people offering such guarantees–it’s part of my educational outreach. 

Associate with ethical professionals in your field. This is vital for so many reasons. When you are associated with ethical people who work in the same or similar field you can refer clients to them (when you are unable or unwilling to work with them) and you can also discuss issues (like this one) with them and get other points of view that are trustworthy.

Be clear in your terms. How do you work? What do you do? What are your rates? What happens if a client is not satisfied? What can you be held accountable for? What can you not be held accountable for? Being clear about these terms in your literature and on your website cuts through a lot of potential confusion.

Call in reinforcements. Are you working with someone who needs to see a medical doctor, who requires legal advice or who needs to undergo psychological evaluation? If so, as an intuitive professional it is your duty to tell the client this and to work with them on the understanding (and in some cases with actual proof) that they are receiving the help they need from other areas.

Know when to stop.  There are people who will seek out reading after reading because they aren’t getting the answers they want or there are those who seek intuitive services for life altering decisions that require more input than your neighborhood tarot reader can possibly provide. Know when a client needs to stop seeking out readings and don

Know who you can help and who you can’t. My experience of the intuitive field is that it’s full of people who genuinely want to help. But we cannot help everyone. Develop an understanding of what you do well and what you are not as gifted at–serve the people you are meant to serve and if someone comes to you wanting something that you cannot provide–be honest about that.

As in any other field, tragedies can and do happen. Ms. Browne made a series of decisions that has now led to a loss of face and to the knowledge that she has caused a family who has already gone through hell, even more deep pain.

It is my sincere hope that those of us working in the intuitive field can learn from this and allow the event to shine light on our practices and our professionalism.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • May 14, 2013, 7:41 am Mareena

    Notice, however, that only part of Ms. Browne’s insight was false. She also said that Amanda’s mother would not see her again until they met again in the afterlife. And that prediction was correct. Just sayin’.

  • May 14, 2013, 9:27 am Alice

    Very thoughtful post- thanks.

  • May 14, 2013, 2:39 pm Phaedra Bonewits

    I think the “spiritual gifts should be free” comes as much from 19th century spiritualism than anything else. I recently saw a comment on FB where a person declared that if the “gifts” were used for personal gain, the gifts would be taken away.

    No one thinks a musician’s “gifts” will be taken away if they are used for gain. No one thinks (not even in the 19th century) that an orator’s “gifts” will be taken away if used for gain. But psychic talents are not talents but “gifts” that can be bestowed or removed by…by…well not sure by what or whom, but they can be snatched away because of some sort of monetary transgression.

    Unlike some I don’t think Tarot or divination in general is a religious activity, although my religion does support the development of psychic skills. Thus, I don’t think my skills, such as they are, are gifts that can be given or taken away by some undefined spiritual ethics committee.

    There is also a difference between the pure intuitive psychic or medium such as Sylvia Browne presents herself to be and the diviner. An intuitive (I do not consider myself one, so I can only give my observations on them) listens to something inside and reports. A diviner, such as a Tarot or rune reader, interprets external signs. Very different skill sets, although certainly there are overlaps and certainly some do both. For me (I am speaking for me, anecdotaly) the work of an intuitive is more slippery. I don’t feel I’m an intuitive because I have had insights that I found out later were quite wrong. I trust what I see in the cards more. I’ve also heard readings from pure intuitives (one who was very well-known with a large following) that were just spectacularly off base. Listening to a tape later, it was just plain wrong on every point. Well, no one bats a thousand, that’s for sure. But none the less, with cards, I usually get something right in the course of any given reading!

    It’s very hard to quantify any of this, I think, because psychic insight and divination are much more arts than sciences. You can make bad art, and popular art can be bad, but we still don’t say you shouldn’t take money for your art or that bad art proves that all art is illegitimate. (Although if I ever hear another person say they don’t like “modern art” when looking at something that is a century old or more, I don’t know if I can keep from screaming.) Yet errors by psychics and diviners “prove” that nothing they do is legitimate. You can’t argue with ideas that are already that ossified.

  • May 14, 2013, 3:08 pm Kelley

    In my shamanic work, I find that answering questions about life or death are erroneous. In my work there’s no difference, no dividing line, just a continuum. From that standpoint, trying to answer if someone is alive or dead, or will soon die, etc, is like saying the sky will soon be blue. It’s relative. It’s just not a spin on waking reality that I relate to, or that I incorporate into my work.

    I don’t think Browne has done the greater intuitive or Pagan communities an injustice. At least in my circles, she was already seen as unreliable. The philosophies her actions have probed are dialogues that I engaged in ongoing with a great group of professional spiritual healers, etc. I’m glad this dialogue has been opened to a wider, perhaps less-informed audience.

    And I <3 Beth O.

  • May 14, 2013, 4:32 pm Beth

    Thank you ALL — great, thought-provoking insights and comments! Yes! Yes! Yes!

  • May 14, 2013, 7:45 pm Joyce

    I do believe that Sylvia Browne has done a lot of people a lot of good, but also, she has seriously profited from her ‘gift’. (check the prices for an hour phone reading with her) She runs (and probably financial supports) a church(s), travels, tours, appears on TV and radio so she does have a lot that goes on in her life. As far as her accuracy… she must have been pretty good at one point to have become so famous, but she is also 76 years old (66 at the time of that prediction) now too. Not that that is necessarily old by todays standards, but for a intuitive psychic or medium, maybe her ‘gifts’ are simply fading. Even with wrong predictions, she has helped to bring psychics’ or mediums’ some level of acceptance and respectability, even with this well publicized ‘fail’. I actually went to see her in Las Vegas, and she was wrong on my question too, but it was a nice show.

  • May 14, 2013, 7:53 pm Mary Dean

    Additionally, Ms Browne did say that the kidnaper was a “heavy-set Cuban appearing guy,” or something to that effect. He is hispanic and last name is Castro. So, there were some aspects of the reading that appear to be accurate.

    Aside from that, though, I do think readers and psychics have an ethical responsibility to not let ego get in the way a prediction. I am very skeptical of any reading stating an intuition as if it is absolute fact. When I read, I am careful to state what I am picking up as something that I am sensing or feeling about a topic. I would never say “this is a fact” or ” this is the absolute truth.” Sometimes things can come through, but it is open to interpretation. For example, if it seems like someone has passed, it may just be that their spirit is so dampened, that they don’t seem alive. It can be very subjective, so great care must be taken to convey this to the client.