Sylvia Browne is famous for telling distraught parents where their missing children are – but she gets it wrong. A lot. So why does she still have such a massive following? Jon Ronson took a cruise with America’s most controversial psychic to find out.
Day 1: At sea
It is Tuesday evening and I am on a luxury Mediterranean cruise ship called the Westerdam. I’m in the audience in the Vista lounge. A grouchy woman is sitting on a beige and golden throne on the stage. She’s complaining about builders and dispensing dietary advice. Her name is Sylvia Browne and for years I’ve wanted to interview her. She’s America’s most controversial psychic. She’s become famous for telling the parents of missing children what happened to their kids. Distraught parents go to her during her weekly appearance on The Montel Williams Show on CBS television. Montel is like Oprah. Sylvia tells them, “Your child is dead” or “Your child was sold into slavery in Japan.”
She really did once say that, in 1999. A six-year-old, Opal Jo Jennings, had a month earlier been snatched from her grandparents’ front yard in Texas while playing with her cousin. A man pulled up, grabbed her, threw her into his truck, hit her when she screamed and drove off. Her distraught grandmother went on Montel’s show and said, “This is too much for my family and me to handle. We want her back. I need to know where Opal is. I can’t stand this. I need your help, Sylvia. Where is Opal? Where is she?”
Sylvia said, “She’s not dead. But what bothers me – now I’ve never heard of this before – but she was taken and put into some kind of a slavery thing and taken into Japan. The place is Kukouro.”
“Kukouro?” Montel Williams asked, after a moment’s stunned silence.
“So she was taken and put on some kind of a boat or a plane and taken into white slavery,” Sylvia said.
Opal’s grandmother looked drained and confused. Opal’s body was eventually found buried in Fort Worth, Texas. She had, the pathologist concluded, been murdered the night she went missing. A local man – Richard Lee Franks – was convicted.
Montel Williams was once asked in a radio interview why he has Sylvia Browne on his show. He said, “She’s great! She’s a funny character! She’s hysterical!” She doesn’t seem particularly hysterical to me.
Thanks to Montel, Sylvia Browne’s books – such as Adventures Of A Psychic – are forever on the bestseller lists. She is the queen of psychics, but there are scores of pretenders out there.
“It happens every time a child goes missing,” Marc Klaas told me in a telephone conversation shortly before the cruise began. “I call them the second wave of predators. First you lose your child and then these people descend. Every time.” It happened to Marc. In October 1993 his 12-year-old daughter Polly had two friends round for a sleepover at their California home. At 10.30pm she opened her bedroom door to find a man standing there with a knife. He tied up the girls, told them to count to a thousand, and took Polly away. For the next two months, before Polly’s body was eventually found (she’d been raped and strangled), Marc was inundated with offers from psychics. “I was insulated from most of them by family and police,” he said, “but there had to be at least a dozen I personally dealt with. They hope you’ll pay them and they hope they’ll get really, really lucky and make a guess so close to the truth, they can say they solved it.”
Marc – in his desperation – did consult a psychic. He says she got it wrong but none the less later took credit (on a tabloid TV show) for psychically locating Polly’s body. “You become increasingly desperate and afraid,” he said. “Every day the police don’t find your child, you think they’re not doing their job. So you go elsewhere, and psychics put themselves out there as a very viable solution.”
This is why, Marc said, he’s not surprised at reports that Madeleine McCann’s parents are considering consulting a psychic called Gordon Smith. Friends of the family have already contacted Smith, who’s a host on Living TV’s Most Haunted. According to a Daily Mail article on October 2, the McCanns have received 1,000 psychic tip-offs since May. I suppose it feels inevitable they will eventually succumb.
Sylvia Browne doesn’t solicit. Such is her fame, distraught parents go to her. Most famously, Shawn Hornbeck’s parents went to her. On October 6 2002, 11-year-old Shawn disappeared while riding his bike to a friend’s house in Missouri. Four months of frantic and heartbreaking searching later, his parents went on Montel.
“Is he still with us?” asked Pam, Shawn’s mother.
“No,” said Sylvia.
Pam broke down. Sylvia said Shawn was buried beneath two jagged boulders.
Four years later, in January this year, Shawn was found alive and well and living with his alleged abductor, Michael Devlin, in Kirkwood, Missouri. This miraculous happy ending became headline news across the US. Shawn’s parents told journalists that one of their lowest points was when Sylvia Browne told them their boy was dead. “Hearing that,” his father, Craig, told CNN, “was one of the hardest things we ever had to hear.”
Sylvia Browne doesn’t give interviews, especially not since the Shawn Hornbeck incident. She’s turned down CNN’s Anderson Cooper, Larry King, ABC and so on. A few months ago I logged on to her website. “Why won’t you give interviews?” I thought, staring mournfully at her photograph. She looks and sounds like a worldly dame you’d meet in a bar in a Dashiell Hammett novel. Then I noticed an announcement on her news page: Sylvia was to be a guest lecturer on a cruise around the Mediterranean in late September. Fans could sign up for four lectures and a cocktail party.
“She must talk to me if we’re stuck on a ship together,” I thought. And so, impulsively, I booked myself on to the cruise.
It’s our first evening aboard and there she is! She’s sitting on the throne on the stage, unexpectedly giving a rambling, grumpy lecture. “I don’t like tofu,” she growls. “I’d sooner eat a sponge.” And, “Try to get a workman! I’ve always wanted to put a little solarium on the back of my house. You know. Glass. They put it on backwards. People don’t care any more.”
The audience listens politely. For all the times Sylvia gets things psychically wrong (which she does a lot: I sometimes think if she tells you your kid is dead, you should probably presume the child’s alive and vice versa), she still has an enormous following. Hundreds of people have paid thousands of dollars each to be cruising with her this week. This is in part because if you want to pay $750 to have a 30-minute telephone reading with her, there’s a waiting list of four years. Her critics believe her career can’t possibly survive the Shawn Hornbeck debacle, but so far there’s no sign of it diminishing on this cruise.
I don’t have a cover story worked out to explain why I’m here. I haven’t the heart to say that I have a missing child. Perhaps if anyone asks I can say I have a missing mother. I don’t know anything about my fellow travellers. They mainly look like retired Americans in slacks, a typical tourist party. You wouldn’t look twice at them. But then Sylvia draws names out of a hat. If we hear our name called, we are allowed to ask her a single question. Only one.
“Julie Harrison… Joan Smith… Pamela Smith…” says Sylvia. And, one by one, they walk to the microphone in front of the stage.
“Why did my husband decide to take his own life?” asks the first woman.
“What?” Sylvia says. The woman is crying so hard, Sylvia can’t understand her.
“Why did my husband decide to take his own life?” the woman repeats.
“He was bipolar,” Sylvia says.
The next woman walks to the microphone.
“I have a strained relationship with my daughter,” she begins. “And I want to know …”
“Your daughter is strange,” interrupts Sylvia.
Sylvia doesn’t pause. Other psychics will often reach around for some inner voice, but Sylvia answers the question instantly, in a low, smoky growl, sometimes before the person has even finished asking it.
“Your daughter is stubborn,” she says. “She’s selfish, narcissistic. Leave her alone.” The woman reluctantly nods. Tears roll down her cheeks.
“Don’t get too involved with her,” Sylvia says. “She’ll hurt you. Leave her alone. I don’t like her.”
“Thank you, Sylvia,” the woman says.
I want to yell out, “Don’t listen to her! Sylvia doesn’t know anything about your situation! She’s just saying the first thing that comes into her head!” But I don’t.
“Am I ever going to have a better relationship with my father?” another woman asks.
“No,” Sylvia replies. “He’s narcissistic. He has sociopathic tendencies. Forget it. There’s a darkness there.”
“Thank you, Sylvia,” she says.
Sylvia seems to be psychically diagnosing a lot of people with narcissistic personality disorder today.
“Will you tell me exactly the time and place my father died?” the next woman asks.
“Ten years ago in Iowa,” Sylvia says.
“Iowa?” says the woman, surprised.
“I’m the psychic,” Sylvia snaps. “I’m telling you. Iowa.”
“Thank you, Sylvia,” the woman says, cowed.
The next woman asks, “What happened to my dog? Is she still alive?”
“No, honey,” Sylvia says.
The woman bursts into tears. There are no parents of missing children on this cruise, but every other human tragedy is well represented.
“My son …” the next woman says. She stops, choking on her words. “My son met a violent death,” she says.
“I’m sorry, honey,” Sylvia says.
“Is he around me?” she asks.
“Yes, he does come around you,” Sylvia says. “In fact, he rings the phone. He also drops coins around you. When the phone rings and no one’s there, that’s him. People have said to me, ‘That’s telemarketers.’ Have you ever heard of a telemarketer that didn’t talk? No.” (Actually telemarketing companies use an auto-dialling machine called the Amcat. When your phone rings and there’s nobody there, it’s because the Amcat has inadvertently dialled your number on behalf of a cold caller who’s still pitching to someone else. I feel bad mentioning it here, but it’s the truth.)
“He’s around you,” Sylvia says. “He has beautiful eyes, an oval face. Why is he holding his head?”
“He was shot in the head,” the woman says.
“That’s why he’s holding his head,” Sylvia says.
Sylvia says this to the mother but also to us, as if to say, “See, everyone! That’s my psychic gift!”
It is an impressive moment.
It’s dinnertime in the Vista restaurant. I sit with others from the group. Sylvia is nowhere to be seen.
“Those stories were really sad,” I say.
“That’s nothing,” says a woman in her 70s whom I’ll call Evelyn. “Three years ago I saw Sylvia give a talk in Tampa. A girl in her 30s stood up, really young. She said, ‘I haven’t been feeling well. What do you think is wrong with me?’ And Sylvia replied, ‘Do you want the truth, honey? You’ll be dead in two years.'”
Everyone around the table gasps.
“The girl had to be helped from the room in tears,” Evelyn says.
“I wonder if I should try to track the girl down,” I think out loud.
Evelyn looks at me as if I’m an idiot. “She’ll probably be dead,” she says.
Day 2: Dubrovnik
Sylvia is having the day off and so her co-psychic, Colette Baron-Reid, entertains us in the Vista lounge. She’s not grouchy and monosyllabic like Sylvia. She’s bouncy and eager to please. She makes us do a “get to know the group” exercise. We have to turn to our neighbour and tell them a lie about ourselves. My neighbour is Evelyn. I really like her: she’s a funny and kind old lady from New York who does amateur dramatics. She’s looking forward to directing a big musical next year.
I say, “My lie is that I don’t have any children.”
Evelyn replies, “My lie is that I don’t have really bad stomach cramps and I’m not scheduled for a colonoscopy when I get home from this cruise.” Evelyn looks scared. “If Sylvia calls my name out tomorrow,” she says, “I’m going to ask her about the stomach cramps. They’re really bad. They shouldn’t be this painful.”
Later, in the Jacuzzi near the dolphin sculpture on the lido deck, I bump into the woman whose husband committed suicide.
“Did Sylvia help you last night?” I ask.
She smiles sadly and shakes her head. “No,” she says. “He wasn’t bipolar. He had excruciating physical pain in his legs.” She falls silent. “Sylvia didn’t help,” she says.
She’d been too polite to say anything at the time. I think Sylvia survives in part because her audiences are often too polite to say anything.
I feel the need to escape the group. I sneak off to the ship’s casino and pump money into a slot machine. From the corner of my eye I see a flash of red and gold approach in a wheelchair. It is Sylvia. Her golden hair cascades down her red dress. She starts pushing money into the machine next to me. I momentarily overhear her conversation.
“Do you think they liked it?” she asks one of the four large and quite frightening looking men who are always around her. They look like the Sopranos.
“What?” he replies.
“The thing,” Sylvia says .
“You mean the lecture?” he says. He sounds surprised, as if this isn’t a conversation they have very often.
“Yeah,” Sylvia says. She sounds quite sweet and anxious. “Do you think they enjoyed it?”
“They loved it,” he says.
“Good,” Sylvia says. She catches my eye and smiles warmly. In this moment, she seems likable, though a suspicious part of me wonders whether she knew I was overhearing and said something sweet for my benefit.
There’s a website called stopsylviabrowne.com. A computer programmer called Robert Lancaster created it as a hobby. He does it because, he writes, “I found her work with missing children to be incredibly offensive.” The site assiduously details many of the notable occasions she’s got it wrong. In the FAQ section, Lancaster asks:
Q: Do you think Sylvia believes she is psychic?
A: No, I do not.
Famous sceptics such as James Randi say Sylvia is not a silly, deluded person who believes herself to be psychic. They say she’s a callous fraud. She’s just a good cold reader.
Cold reading is the stage art of convincing a stranger you know more about them than you actually do. Good cold readers are brilliant observers. They make high-probability guesses about their subject based on their clothes, race, age, etc. They quickly pick up on signals as to whether or not their guesses are in the right direction, and alter their spiel accordingly. Of course, cold reading is easiest to spot when the psychic does it badly. This morning, Colette, Sylvia’s co-psychic, seemed to be cold reading badly. She said to a man in the audience, “Why do I see a hospital around you?”
“I’m a doctor,” he replied.
“That’s why I see a hospital!” Colette exclaimed to the crowd.
“I’m a chiropractor,” he added. “I work out of an office. I stay away from hospitals.”
“I meant medical … uh … lab,” Colette said. “You know the expression, to ‘lab’ something? To research something? That’s what I meant. Are you researching anything at the moment?”
“Yes,” he said.
And so on. My guess is that Colette genuinely believes herself to be psychic and doesn’t realise she’s actually dabbling in the dodgy art of cold reading. I think she thinks she’s tapping into her psychic impulses when she picks up on her audience’s inadvertent clues.
But then, perplexingly, Colette had a moment of seeming psychic brilliance. Apropos of nothing, she told a woman called Jean that her recently deceased husband loved to ride around on his all-terrain bike and enjoyed eating tuna sandwiches. Jean practically shrieked that the bike and tuna were indeed her dead husband’s two very favourite things. Colette looked thrilled and you should have seen the smile on Jean’s face. It lifted everyone’s spirits.
Now I watch Sylvia playing the slots. She is a truly enigmatic person. I am reminded of the Shakespeare lines: “Who is Silvia? What is she, that all our swains commend her?” Actually, I’m only partly reminded of it because I’m not sure what “all our swains commend her” means. It might mean “all men love her”. If so, there’s one swain in particular who doesn’t commend her – her former husband, Gary Dufresne. They were married in 1959, when she was 23. (She was born in Kansas City, Missouri, in 1936, to a salesman father, and has been a professional psychic for 53 years.) She and Dufresne divorced in 1972. A few months ago he gave an interview to Robert Lancaster of stopsylviabrowne.com. He said he couldn’t remain silent any more after hearing about the Shawn Hornbeck incident: “I try to get her out of my mind as much as possible, but the damage she does to unsuspecting people in crisis situations is just atrocious.”
Then Dufresne said something extraordinary. He said that one evening back in the early 70s, Sylvia held a tarot party at their home in San Francisco: “I said to her as we were washing dishes and she was wiping, I said, ‘Sylvia, how can you tell people this kind of stuff? You know it’s not true, and some of these people actually are probably going to believe it.’ And she said, ‘Screw ’em. Anybody who believes this stuff oughtta be taken.'”
In return, Sylvia has called him “a liar and dark soul entity, but at least the asshole gave me children”.
But there’s some further circumstantial evidence that she might not be trustworthy. In 1992, she was indicted on several charges of investment fraud and grand theft. She pleaded no contest to “sale of security without permit” – a felony – and was given 200 hours’ community service.
Famous anti-psychics, such as Richard Dawkins, are often criticised for using a sledgehammer to crack a nut. Dawkins’ last television series, The Enemies Of Reason, was roundly condemned for making silly, harmless psychics seem too villainous. This criticism might be true were it not for the fact that, when the likes of Sylvia Browne make pronouncements, the police and desperate parents sometimes spend serious time and money investigating their claims.
In 2002, for instance, the parents of missing Holly Krewson turned their lives upside down in response to one of Sylvia’s visions. Holly vanished in April 1995. Seven years later her mother, Gwen, went on Montel, where Sylvia told her Holly was alive and well and working as a stripper in a lap-dancing club on Hollywood and Vine. Gwen immediately flew to Los Angeles and frantically scoured the strip clubs, interviewing dancers and club owners and punters, and handing out flyers, and all the while Holly was lying dead and unidentified in San Diego.
I telephone Clarence Mitchell, the spokesman for Kate and Gerry McCann. “The Portuguese and Leicestershire police have had over 1,000 psychic tip-offs,” he tells me, “and they’ve followed up between 10% and 15% of them.”
“What do you mean when you say ‘followed up’?” I ask.
“If there’s anything demonstrably checkable,” he says, “an address, a car registration, a flight number, they check.” He gives me an example: “One psychic telephoned Leicestershire police to say she’d had a vision of Madeleine playing with other children in a named farm in Seville. The Leicestershire police called the Spanish police who went and kicked a few doors in.”
Clarence says that none of this should come as a great surprise. “Some forces in England use psychics,” he points out. “They were used on the Milly Dowler case.” Thirteen-year-old Milly Dowler vanished on her way home from school in Walton-on-Thames in March 2002. Her body was discovered six months later.
“It was quite strange, actually,” Clarence goes on. “The psychic said that Milly would be found in woodland and she was.” He pauses. “Even the Met occasionally uses psychics as an active line of inquiry.”
I once asked Dr Ray Hyman, a CIA-contracted psychologist, why the agency employed a team of psychics. “People are basically nutty,” he shrugged. “Which means there are just as many nutty people within our government and our law enforcement agencies as there are outside them.”
Day 3: Corfu
Cruises are depressing places. They’re like lots of old people floating around waiting to die. Twenty years ago, I’d have looked at my fellow passengers and thought, “You’re all so old.” Now I think, “That’s me soon.” Sylvia’s fans aren’t nuts. They’re just weighed down by life’s sudden, inexplicable tragedies and they’ve got it into their heads that Sylvia might offer some explanation. We are a tragic lot.
I’m sitting next to Evelyn, the woman with the stomach cramps. “My heart’s racing to see if she calls out my name,” she whispers. Evelyn has come on this cruise specifically to ask Sylvia about the pain.
“Evelyn,” Sylvia calls.
The blood drains from Evelyn’s face. She looks at me, scared and vulnerable, like a child, and walks unsurely to the microphone.
“Uh,” she stammers.
“Speak up, honey,” Sylvia says.
“Um,” Evelyn says.
Sylvia looks impatient.
“I – uh – think I’ve got a poltergeist in my house because things keep moving in my dishwasher,” Evelyn says, quickly. “Can you tell me the poltergeist’s name?”
“The poltergeist is an older relative called Doug,” Sylvia says.
“Thank you, Sylvia,” Evelyn says.
She sits back down. I look sympathetically at her. She shrugs.
“I don’t have any dead older relative called Doug,” she whispers.
It’s the evening of the cocktail party. We all put on formal wear and bustle around the Queen’s lounge, excited about our opportunity to mingle with Sylvia. But she doesn’t show up. We wait for an hour, then disperse, a bit confused and disappointed. I bump into Evelyn on the way out. She’s looking maudlin.
“What’s wrong?” I ask.
“This whole Doug business has really knocked me for a loop,” she replies. “Who’s Doug? I don’t know anyone remotely like that.” She pauses. “I used to idolise Sylvia but now I’m kind of off her. And those one- and two-word answers she gives …” Evelyn screws up her face. “She’s so cold. And why didn’t she turn up to the cocktail party?”
I spot Nancy, Sylvia’s nice-looking assistant – I decide to tell her I’m a journalist and I’m on this cruise because I want to interview Sylvia.
“Sylvia doesn’t like to give interviews,” Nancy replies. “She says, ‘Journalists can go to hell. I’m famous enough. All they do is turn on me.’ ” Still, Nancy says, she’ll give it a go.
In the Explorations coffee bar I find Cassie (not her real name), a very likable young German woman and huge Sylvia fan. I had sat next to her on the transfer bus from Rome airport. She looks ashen.
“The most bizarre thing just happened,” she says.
She and two others from the group were just in the shopping arcade when they spotted Sylvia.
“Look! There’s Sylvia!” Cassie had said.
“When I said it, Sylvia looked up with a start,” Cassie says. “Her face immediately contorted into a kind of horrified grimace that she’d been spotted by some fans. Honestly! She looked like a vampire looks when a shaft of light hits them. She hissed ‘Go!’ to the man pushing her wheelchair. And – whoosh – she was gone. He spun her around and pushed her away really fast. It was nasty. Something is not sitting right with me any more. She’s not a friendly person. Did she think I was going to jump on her?”
Cassie’s story resigns me to the obvious: there isn’t a chance in hell Sylvia will grant me an interview.
Day 4: Some other Greek island
Sylvia’s assistant, Nancy, rushes up to me in the Lido restaurant. Amazingly, Sylvia has agreed to an interview: 5pm, the Neptune lounge. It’s time for our next two-hour lecture with Sylvia. She seems in a far better mood today.
“I want to know if my son will come back safely,” one woman at the microphone asks.
“Yes, honey,” Sylvia replies.
“I’m having cardiology work done soon,” asks the next. “Am I going to get better?”
“Yes, you are.” Sylvia smiles.
“Will my daughter live past 25?” asks the third.
“At least into her 50s,” Sylvia says.
And so on. All this is in stark contrast to the other grouchy evening when it seemed that nobody’s sick relative was going to make it past 2009. I can’t help wondering whether, if Shawn Hornbeck’s parents had gone to Sylvia today, she would have told them that their son was alive and well?
At 5pm, I knock on the door of the Neptune lounge. It is swanky and invitation-only – reserved for guests staying on the rarefied seventh floor. Sylvia is there to greet me, along with one of the four men who seem always to surround her. I tell her what Cassie had said about her being rude in the shopping arcade. It’s a relatively trivial allegation, but I’m curious to see how she’ll respond.
She denies it. “You can approach me anywhere, any time,” she says. “I’ve never, ever been rude to anyone, anywhere. No one could ever accuse me – when I’m eating dinner and they come to me, or if I’m in the casino – I have never, ever been hateful. Never! That’s one thing I’ve been so much against. These people put you there! To be rude to them is just terrible.”
The thing is, just before the interview, I’d bumped into Cassie’s two companions from the shopping arcade. They both told me Sylvia had been startlingly rude to them and now they’re really off her.
I’ve wanted to interview Sylvia for years, but I suddenly wonder if the exercise is pointless. I think she’s a consummate pro who puts up an impregnable wall between herself and her critics, and will just say anything.
“There are times,” I say, “when you’ve got it wrong in a very bad way with missing …”
“The kid,” interrupts Sylvia. She means Shawn Hornbeck. “Yeah, I believed the kid was dead.” She shrugs. “What I found out later – Larry King wanted me to come on and explain but I said I’m not going to explain anything – is there were three children missing. I think what I did was I got my wires crossed. There was a blonde and two boys who are dead. I think I picked up the wrong kid.”
“Shawn Hornbeck,” I say. “Were the other kids missing from the same area?”
“Absolutely,” Sylvia says.
“At the same time?” I ask.
“Yes,” Sylvia says. “I have a tiny newspaper cutting about them back in my office.”
(I later realise that, of course, “three children missing” in the “same area” is annoyingly too vague to be checkable.)
“Then there was Opal Jo Jennings,” I say.
Sylvia looks blankly at me.
“Back in 1999,” I say.
Sylvia still looks blank.
“You said she was sold into white slavery in Japan but actually she was dead,” I prompt.
“I don’t remember that case at all,” Sylvia says.
“Little girl,” I say. “She’d been killed but you said she’d been sold into white slavery in Japan.”
“No,” Sylvia says. She shakes her head. “Don’t remember that. Not at all. All I remember was that kid Van.”
“Shawn,” I say.
“Van Hornwell?” Sylvia says.
“Shawn Hornbeck,” I say.
“Yeah. Hornbeck,” Sylvia says. “I don’t remember the Japanese girl at all.” She pauses. “Look,” she says, “no psychic – and this is what they don’t understand – can ever be 100%. That’s God.”
By “they” she’s referring to her two biggest critics, James Randi and Robert Lancaster. She says she doesn’t care what they say about her: “The whole thing about my job … ” She pauses and corrects herself, “… God-given career is if you’re right, you’re right. If you’re wrong, you’re wrong. And the people that are gonna love you will love you and the people that won’t, won’t.”
Then, just as I think how self-assured she must be not to let their attacks eat her up, she says, “I’ve had a private investigator on Randi and Lancaster, and I know enough on them to hang ’em.” She reels off a few defamatory allegations, then adds, “But I’m not going to play that game. That’s vengeance, see? Who cares? Randi is an evil little man. When I told him he was going to have a heart attack, and then he did – ha! – he wouldn’t give me any kudos.”
In the end it is a short interview, just half an hour. What was I thinking? That she would admit to being a fraud? I will give her this, though: I believe that she is genuinely passionate and knowledgable about spiritual things. The only times during the interview when she becomes really animated are when she talks about Mother Goddess this and that. So I don’t believe that part is fake. But there is no doubt that she makes a fortune saying very serious, cruel, show-stopping things to people in distress, especially, it seems, when she’s in a grumpy mood.
“I don’t think people should go to a psychic to hear a fairy story,” she says. “It might be nice for a time, but what about the validity in the future?”
“But when you’re dealing with missing kids and you’re wrong,” I say, “it’s very, very bad.”
“Right.” She shrugs.
“What do you say to people who say you’re a fraud?” I ask.
“My years,” she replies. “My years of validation save me.” She pauses. “If after 53 years I was a fraud, don’t you think they would have found out?”
Day 5: Disembarkation
I jump ship in Athens, two days early. I miss Sylvia’s final lecture. The next day I receive an email from Cassie, the German fan who went off her after she was rude in the shopping arcade. “Please call me!” she writes. “Sylvia talked so harsh about you! I wrote everything down she said!”
I phone her.
“You have no idea what that woman said about you yesterday!” Cassie says. “She got up on stage and said to the audience, ‘Are you guys enjoying the trip?’ And everyone yelled, ‘Yeah! Whooh!’ And then she said, ‘Because I heard that some of you aren’t enjoying the trip.’ And she launched into this huge attack on you! She said, ‘I had an interview with this pale little man and he said I was rude to some of you in the shopping arcade. You must have seen him around. He’s a creepy little worm …’ She said you were a worm and a creep and a dark soul entity. She just went on and on about you. It lasted for about 20 minutes!”
“How did the audience respond?” I ask.
“People didn’t know where the hell this was coming from,” Cassie says. “A few of them said to me afterwards, ‘I didn’t pay 4,000 euros to listen to someone go on like that.’ ”
All this proves one thing to me. Now I know for sure that Sylvia isn’t psychic, because I don’t have a dark soul at all. I have a very light soul.