The Psychic Tests, the debut book by The Sentinel‘s editor-at-large Gary Nunn, missed out on a live launch last year due to Covid-19. As he prepares to launch it in person in Sydney this Wednesday night, The Sentinel publishes an edited extract from the book.
By GARY NUNN
In a humid basement of a Lanzarote villa, my sister Taren and I sat having our chat. It was the longest Taren and I had ever discussed Dad’s death. We get onto the subject of psychics and grief.
‘Psychics helped me through the grieving process,’ Taren says.
I had to tread carefully. Sometimes, I’d worry about Taren’s grieving process: worried that she went on a cycle, asking herself questions that can never be answered: why did he do it? Why didn’t he accept help? Was it our fault? There was occasionally anger towards him, then towards the situation, then just a very sad depression. My main concern was that this circular process had frozen Taren at the ‘bargaining’ stage of grief.
But I know Taren also worried about the way I grieved. You’re not dealing with it, Taren texted once. We all deal with things in our own way, I typed back. I now know what I should’ve written. Just two words. You’re right. But just like Taren wasn’t ready to let Dad go, I wasn’t ready to deal with my own emotions. I’d accepted he was gone; I just wasn’t prepared to feel down about it. Probably from fear of drowning.
Taren was spending her time behind someone else’s net curtain, in the lounge rooms of various mediums – entering into their spiritual world, another realm. My other realm was hedonism in this world. Sooner or later, both of us needed to crash back into reality and accept our grief, not fight it.
Nobody can infuriate you quicker or without much reason at all than your sibling. They’ve known you the longest; they know all your triggers and childhood shames and humiliations. But equally, and overridingly, nothing compares to sibling love, when – as for Taren and me – you’re fortunate enough for it to go well. Unlike parental love, it’s constantly equal, and it trumps and informs all minor irritations.
And in the context of this, I felt I could challenge Taren. So in the basement I did, trepidatiously. ‘Can I suggest something to you?’ I asked. ‘Can I suggest that, while the mediums kept bringing him through for you, Dad wasn’t dead. They’re saying to you, he’s here in this room with you now. The truth is, he’s gone. Would you say they suspended you in that space, where it was like, he’s still here?’
Was there a point she had to accept that wasn’t the case?
‘Yes, but not right away,’ she said. ‘I needed time to grieve and think that, no matter what, he’s at peace. And if he had gone somewhere else I wouldn’t want to keep bringing him back by going to psychics and pulling him back to this world that he didn’t want to be in.’
‘You only go to see one when you want something,’ she reflected, ‘and that something is always reassurance. Someone to come through that’s passed away so badly it’s a desperation kinda thing.’
If Taren was only at one stage of the grieving process and by turning to psychics she was suspended in that stage, then it wasn’t allowing her to move forwards with her own life.
As a journalist, my intrigue in this area began with the story of the biggest stockbroking firm collapse since the global financial crisis as a result of its chairman making pivotal decisions on psychic advice.
As a brother, my intrigue came from a grieving sister who searched high and low for that one medium who could offer one last conversation, one final reassurance to a loved one.
This colliding of professional and personal worlds led me to write my first book, The Psychic Tests, to investigate how psychics can play an important role in our lives and in society.
One of the many people I spoke to was Felicity Carter, a lapsed psychic and former astrologer, who’d worked in the attic of a shop in The Rocks in Sydney and now lives in Germany. She describes astrology as a ‘pseudoscience which invites you into a really attractive magical world’.
The thing that first attracted Felicity to the work was the promise of self-knowledge, and it was tragedy that led her into making a living out of it: ‘I was a student and my brother died,’ she says. ‘My life was in chaos. I was looking for something fun, then discovered I was really good at it.’
‘None of the people I saw were gullible or stupid,’ she says, adding that, due to the shop’s proximity to Australia’s stockbroking firms and the state parliament, she saw very professional people – stockbrokers, advertising executives, politicians, retiring academics wondering what was next for them.
‘There were no barriers to what they’d tell you next – infidelities, sex lives, minor crimes,’ she says.
Then something alarming started happening, which led to her throwing in the hat: ‘People who said I was accurate were claiming I’d said things that I hadn’t. That really bothered me. People were adding their own interpretation to what I was saying.’ It made her uncomfortable: ‘They feel like you have a phone line to god,’ she says.
So what does she make of it all today? ‘Was I living a lie?’ she asks herself out loud, and there’s a pause before she answers her own question. ‘I think I was wrong. I was living a lie.’
But she’s careful not to trash the validity and value of the profession altogether – because of the opportunities it can offer to a very important group of people too often denied them throughout history: women.
‘Women throughout history have been excluded from prestige spiritual stuff – rabbis, priests,’ she says. ‘Then they’re derided for taking up a different form of spirituality.’
The long history of the tenuous definition of a witch, her brutal hunting and punishment, and the established (male) order being threatened by an audacious female interloper does seem to cast the female-dominated psychic-medium industry in a context informed by history and misogyny.
I think back to my sister. How would it have gone if, instead of consulting psychics ad infinitum after Dad died, she’d taken up Catholicism, a religion that tells her she is sinful if she uses contraception or has agency over her own body by getting an abortion, or chooses a dignified death through euthanasia if she gets a devastating degenerative disease that left her in daily agony and misery, or tells her that her own gay brother or divorced mother are sinners. And with that, I sigh with relief that she chose psychics.
My two-year investigation has evoked the biggest questions of all. Why are we here? How can we make sense of it? What is the meaning of life – and of death?
Humans are obsessed with meaning. We learn best through story. Believers will say that anecdotal evidence should be enough to prove the value of psychic consultations. Repeated stories of foretold predictions coming true, or knowing stuff about the dead that ‘there is no way they could ever have known’ should be enough. Alas, they are not enough to create a peer-reviewed evidence base to say there’s something in this. That test has failed every time.
I know exactly what my late dad would say about all this. He’d say it was all utter rubbish. And I’d counter that there’s value in the psychological aspect; in being heard. In being seen. And he’d listen politely and then say he thought that was codswallop, too.
The very day after our intense, tear-soaked chat, Taren and I had a day together, just the two of us, at the beach. We did that wonderful thing siblings do – be in each other’s company but in complete silence for hours, perfectly content.
We were lying on sunbeds with umbrellas shielding us from the heat of the afternoon. She had a magazine; I had my Kindle.
After a couple of hours I look over to her. She’s completely engrossed. I’m intrigued. ‘What are you reading?’ I ask her. She looks at me then back to the magazine and a cheeky smile invades her face. Somewhat reluctantly, she turns the cover my way so I can read the title: PSYCHICS WEEKLY MAGAZINE.
We both laugh for about five minutes. I guess some habits die hard.
The relaunch of The Psychic Tests will be held from 6pm Wednesday, 4 May, 2022 at Gingers, Oxford Hotel, 134 Oxford Street, Darlinghurst. Tickets ($20 per person) include a limited number of drinks and nibbles. Psychic readings by Katie Little, Melanie Obeid and Sharina Star will start at 6pm and continue until 9pm. For tickets, visit https://events.humanitix.com/booklaunch.
Gary Nunn is editor-at-large of the Sydney Sentinel. Twitter: @garynunn1.
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