The Sun-Herald (Australia), Jan. 14, 2003
Just after nightfall in Uniondale, New York, a sleepy, suburban town far from the clamour and glamour of Manhattan, the temperature plunges well below zero, an icy rain blankets the landscape, and the lobby of the Long Island Marriott Hotel & Conference Center emits an almost malevolent glow. In other words, it’s the perfect night for raising the dead. Nearly 100 people have assembled in one of the hotel’s ballrooms to watch as the renowned psychic and medium John Edward channels spirits from the other side. The upshot, in case you didn’t realise, is that there is life beyond the grave.
To begin, the medium paces around the room feeling the crackling energy. “I’m getting a Jack or a J, and a Will in this back section,” he says, a wireless microphone in his clasp. The audience has no choice in which spirit might come through – it could be Aunt Selma or Fifi the poodle. “It’s a father figure, a connection to October and there’s a reference to a construction boot.” Edward speaks so swiftly it’s hard to keep up with his genealogical wanderings and phantasmic spoutings.
Though the room is freighted with expectation, no-one claims this story as their own. Whittling down the crowd to a single woman, Edward asks, “Has your father passed?” She replies that her uncle has and that he was a shoemaker. “That could be it,” says Edward as a gasp goes up.
With its flocked wallpaper, florid maroon carpet and lurid green chairs, the location of the seance is reminiscent of the 1980 horror flick The Shining. The mood, though, is not creepy; it is upbeat, hopeful and joyful. Much of the information Edward proffers is amorphous, but occasionally he nails it. The most startling exchange comes when he relays a message to a man with an arthritic finger (they, as in the man’s late relatives, want to know if he’s OK) and a belated congratulations on meeting John Lennon. “I’m a guitarist and I played with Lennon in 1970,” says the man, taken aback. “They’re showing me a caution, something in the urinary,” adds Edwards. Man: “Well, I have to go to the bathroom right now.” The group erupts in laughter.
It has taken just two years for John Edward to stunningly transmogrify into America’s leading clairvoyant, with two confessional books, audio and video tapes, sold-out seminars, and an astonishing television program, Crossing Over With John Edward, played on 200 stations across the US, as well as in England and Canada.
In Australia, Crossing Over made its debut on Foxtel’s Arena network in August 2001, and now screens an extraordinary 21 times a week. What’s more, Edward is credited with igniting an entirely new genre, the psychic talk show. With this in mind The New York Times dubbed him “the Oprah of the other side”.
Clad in jeans, white sneakers and a hooded sweater from Gap, the one-time ballroom dance teacher and hospital employee doesn’t much resemble a messianic figure. Baby-faced with slicked-back hair and a stocky build, he looks more like a delivery man or a bank teller who relishes his baked ziti a little too much. Yet Edward, who’s 33, boasts a reservoir of ambition, tenacity and charisma, and it’s these non-psychic abilities that have elevated him to the top of his field. Just don’t expect him to switch it on for the edification of a journalist.
Asked if spirits are hovering as we sit down for a chat, he says, with a defiant glare, “I’m not even ready to open up yet.” How foolish of me. For the moment the cosmic chatterbox is at rest in a sealed room adjacent to the one in which he will perform; lasting more than three hours, the show is an electric performance. His security guard watches the heavy door, and an assistant floats outside. You half expect that Edward’s first words will be “I’ve been waiting for you” – as a child, he often predicted who was on the phone or about to walk through the door – but instead he drills the visitor about Australia, his first tour outside America.
Normally Edward doesn’t grant interviews prior to a reading but he has made an exception on this occasion. No doubt because his spirit guides (there are five, including a young boy named Mikey who drowned in a pool in 1993) gave him the green light. Their counsel must have influenced his decision to suddenly tour Australia. “I was at lunch with my Australian book publisher when he said, ‘We want to book you for a tour for Australia” and I heard myself say, ‘Yes.’ And then I stopped and said, ‘Wait a minute, I don’t like to fly.’”
Yes, it’s true. Edward, the man who discovered astral travelling as a child, is afraid of getting on aeroplanes. “It’s a control thing because I have the same reaction when I’m on a train. When we go on the road, I drive.” Strangely, he also suffers from ichthyophobia, fear of fish. Despite these various phobias, something is pulling Edward to Australia. It could be money. He stands to pocket a lot on this month’s three-city tour. If ticket sales are any indication, the medium has an enormous local following. All 4,000 tickets for his first Sydney show were snapped up at $75 each in just one day (two more shows were added), while those for his Melbourne and Brisbane shows sold out days later. “I’m very excited about coming. I think I’m more popular in Australia than I am here. The thing I’m freaked about is the slang.”
To use the local argot then, is John Edward a shonk? Is the man who claims to speak to dead people deadset?
His supporters call him inspirational, insightful and prophetic. His detractors describe him as a charlatan who exploits those grieving after their dead relatives. Edward’s most nettlesome critic is sceptic and former magician James Randi, who has a standing offer of $US1 million ($1.8 million) to anyone who can prove psychic ability. “Many people have attained great wealth and recognition from claims of communicating with the dead, but John Edward surprises even myself,” writes Randi. “Why? Because he is, in my opinion, only a moderately talented performer with no original methods, profiting from grief.”
To be sure Edward is getting wealthy – crossing over and cashing in. Both his non-fiction books are bestsellers (he’s also written a novel). He can generate megabucks on a single tour. And he charges $600 for a private sitting; the waiting list is three years. For this he has incurred the wrath of such groups as the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal. They argue he’s a huckster using chicanery known as “cold reading”, in which he makes informed guesses about a person based on their responses, posture and expressions. In a hot reading the medium takes advantage of information surreptitiously gathered in advance (which Edward was accused of doing during a reading on US current affairs show Dateline).
Edward denies all the accusations of complicity, and they hardly seem to dent his reputation. Asked if he feels powerful, given the reach of his empire, he expertly deflects the question. “It has nothing to do with me. It has to do with the fact these people lost somebody and they want to connect with them.”
But there does appear to be a cult of personality swirling around him. The website johnedwardfriends.org, for instance, has a fawning discussion group with more than 1,000 members. People on the street stop him for his autograph, or sometimes they just want to touch him. He says that celebrity hasn’t altered him a whit. He still goes to the same gym. He still lives in suburban Long Island with his wife, Sandra, and their newborn baby and two dogs.
Changing gears, Edward asks, “Do people think that you would know Nicole Kidman because she’s Australian?” It is the only vaguely psychic thing he says to me – and far more earnest than extrasensory. As it happens, I did interview Kidman some years back. “I got that!” he says jokingly. He is the Seinfeld of psychics. In his opinion, there are three types of people: the 20 per cent who believe outright, the 20 per cent who will never believe, and the 60 per cent who remain undecided but can be swayed. Though he claims to be in favour of healthy scepticism, Edward bristles at criticism. In his second book, Crossing Over: The Stories Behind The Stories, he lashed back at Time magazine for suggesting his show is rigged. No, they don’t use mikes to eavesdrop on people, he says. Yes, they edit the show but for time, not content. “We’ve had something like 16,000 people coming through the show and if there was hanky-panky, people would know about it.”
Controversy aside, Edward does contradict himself at times. He tells me that what he does is more an art than a science but claims elsewhere that he regards his energy reading as scientific. Then, despite taking part in scientific tests on paranormal activity orchestrated by an Arizona university, he told the CNN interviewer Larry King that evidence of spirit contact might well turn out to be elusive. As the magician Harry Houdini once stated, “It is not for us to prove the mediums are dishonest, it is for them to prove that they are honest.”
His supporters include authors Deepak Chopra and Elisabeth Kubler-Ross and Sun-Herald Sunday Life astrologer Jessica Adams. “John Edward is the greatest TV medium since the two Dorises – Doris Stokes and Doris Collins,” says Adams, who claims to be a medium herself and is the author of I’m A Believer, a novel about a sceptic who communicates with his dead girlfriend. “Telepathy with people who have passed over is hard enough, but John does it at great speed, and at high volume. He makes it look easy, and it’s not. We’re all switching on to life after death in the 21st century, and he’ll certainly go down in history as one of the bravest pioneers.”
Growing up in the New York borough of Queens and suburban Long Island, Edward’s Italian mother was open to the metaphysical sphere (she hosted psychic house parties), yet his Irish police officer father was not. The couple divorced when Edward was 11, and he has since lost contact with his father. During his early years he saw blue auras around people and experienced prophetic dreams and out-of-body travelling. At 15, a psychic foretold his career and he thought her deranged. As some of her predictions transpired, he began studying the paranormal. His early dalliances stretched to reading people at fairs and in private, but it was always treated as an avocation. At 18, he met his master guide, an Indian chief, who appeared to him in a photograph. “I would be lying if I said I understood how we are matched with our spirit guides,” he writes in his first book, One Last Time.
In the early days, his job description entailed being a psychic. The medium part came later as more phantoms flew into his headlights. “If you saw me for an appointment in 1987 or 1988, you would have got the following speech: ‘I know you’re here because you want to talk about what’s coming up for you, but I’m going to have to get your dead relatives out of the way first.’” The turning point for being a medium was the death of his uncle and mother in the late 1980s. “Once that happened, my world changed, because then I was the person sitting in that chair.” As it happens, Edward can’t communicate directly with his own dead family members; he likens it to a surgeon operating on himself. His mother has appeared to him in dreams and, working with other mediums, Edward has received numerous messages from her, including three symbols they agreed upon before she died.
In 1995, the same year he met Sandra, a ballroom dancing teacher, he decided to leave his hospital job and focus on readings. “John is so down-to-earth,” Sandra told US People magazine last year, adding that the rogue spirits who regularly contact her husband took some getting used to. When she told her family she was dating a psychic, they were hardly delighted, labelling him “that witch guy”. Edward, the charmed charmer, won them over with an emotional reading. After writing his autobiography, he hustled his way on to radio shows, out of which stemmed his own TV program. Movies such as M Night Shyamalan’s The Sixth Sense, about a child who converses with wayward spirits, demonstrated there might be an audience.
Anyone who’s watched Crossing Over knows that Edward’s ministrations are akin to a game of charades. He sees and feels symbols that he interprets for the audience who have brought the ghosts along with them. As to why certain spirits show up on his radar and others don’t, Edward says, “It’s all about the bonds of love that we have here that make this possible, and sometimes those are unspoken. Otherwise, why wouldn’t Elvis show up tonight? Or why wouldn’t Frank Sinatra come and do ‘New York, New York’?” Or Nefertiti, I propose, kind of hoping she might appear. “Exactly.”
Rarely do the deceased impart useful advice, or apologise for cutting their relatives out of a will, or admit to lusting after their best friend all those years. Instead, they discourse on subjects as prosaic as renovations or an old television program. When Edward connected the American journalist Lynn Darling with her late husband, Lee Lescaze, a former editor at The Washington Post who died of lung cancer, she was more irritated than relieved. “He comes back and says he’s OK,” she said. “I mean, he’s dead. How OK is that?”
Edward says people are searching for validation. If you strip his message back, it is a positive one. That life is precious, that we should tell the people around us that we love them. And, perhaps the hardest point to swallow, that there is an accessible afterlife. Australian medium Trudie Moore recently equated channelling to counselling, but while Edward doesn’t doubt the therapeutic value, he doesn’t claim to heal people. As he instructs the Marriott gathering, “My job as a medium is not to tell you that your family love you. My job is to let you know that your family and friends have survived physical death as we know it, that they’re still a part of your life, they’re still there.”
A psychic provocateur, he delivers the message even if the recipient isn’t interested in hearing it. Few things tick him off more than when “somebody disrespects their family on the other side”. The archetype of the brazen New Yorker, Edward is likely to become incensed should that occur. There was the time he ranted at a woman, “Sit up, uncross your arms and pay attention to what’s happening!” Sandra was a little embarrassed by that outburst; as a thank you, Edward was reading staff at the hospital at which she had given birth. Fortunately, he knows to soften his brusqueness with humour and a quick wit.
If Edward is a fraud, and his spectral visions are the ravings of a madman, there’s no denying that his myth-making would make a sensational movie. On the flipside, if he can provide closure for someone mourning a loved one’s death, is that so bad? “You’re given two options,” he says, speaking about the bad press. “Either you’re this disgusting, heinous person who’s preying on grieving people. Or you’re delusional if you think you can do this. So I’m going to opt for delusional.”
Sitting up briskly, he gestures at the wall. “But there’s 100 delusional people sitting in that room, and there’s a lot of delusional people who watch Crossing Over and the reason is because it’s striking a note of truth.”
It might well be the ultimate accolade. In the US John Edward has been lampooned by the likes of actor Ellen DeGeneres and talk-show host Jay Leno and on Saturday Night Live in comedy sketches. Typical is the following exchange from a cartoon. An Edward-like character: “I’m sensing someone who once had a job, or knew someone with a job. Anyone? Someone who ate food, and slept in a bed … possibly a man or a woman. Someone who had hair. Long or maybe short.” At that point, a gasp comes from the audience and someone says, “My dad had short hair and ate food.”