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 question:
“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 a really good 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 we 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 sacred art, or billing oneself as a “psychic” often equates to being Pagan — whether sacred art practitioners identify as Pagan or not. This stems from a lack of understanding of both the sacrred arts as well as Paganism but the association is present and it is strong.
In addition, while its true that not all professional intuitives are Pagan and not all Pagans practice an intuitive art (like cartomancy, tasseomany, 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 professional intuitives 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 is 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 de facto a 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, and paid quite well — perhaps not in money, but food, gifts, and other 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 is 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 sacred 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 its 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 a professional intuitive 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 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 did not know Sylvia Browne, although I have my personal opinions, I cannot say what motivated her publicly or privately. Unlike others, I don’t necessarily take issue with her (or any professional intuitive) 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 either sensationalism, criticism, or both. A lack of transparency can breed corruption and part of being transparent is being publicly seen and available. I think that professional intuitives 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 infront 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 professional intuitives 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 us 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 was 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 professional intuitives 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 T.V. 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 querant.
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, prospective clients, and students 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 that 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-its 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 experts.
- 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 do not be afraid to tell them-with kindness and firmness.
- Know who you can help and who you can’t. My experience of the intuitive field is that its 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.