Shattering the Crystal Ball

Investigating the World of Psychic Readers

Published: April, 2014. Verde, Vol. 15.4

About: I wanted to look past the stereotypes surrounding psychic readers. I came in with an extremely open mind (though I also made sure to keep a healthy amount of cynicism) and the end result is a new, more optimistic take on what it means to be a psychic reader.


Though he never graduated from college, Randall Koll still reads at a much higher level than, say, your average Harvard professor. Psychic reads, that is. Sitting cross-legged in the middle of his green-and-purple living room, hair neatly parted, Koll doesn’t look like your stereotypical “neon sign” fortune teller. The only indication that this is the workplace of a thriving psychic and not merely the pad of a sophisticated fashionista is the copy of Bhudhadharmism: Practitioner’s Quarterly on the coffee table.

“I had it all,” says Koll, 45, of his illustrious career as an interior designer. “The fame, television appearances— notoriety. But I wasn’t happy.”

Believing he always had a sixth sense, Koll began training at the Berkeley Psychic Institute 15 years ago, eventually opening up a full-time practice in San Francisco three years ago. Charging from $65 for a half hour to $250 for an hour-and-a-half reading, Koll is one of over 82,000 psychic readers in the United States. Gallup reports that 32 percent of Americans believe that the spirits of the dead can return, and more than half of Americans believe that psychic, spiritual or mind power can heal the human body.

Unlike a psychiatrist or a psychologist — positions which require a degree and a license — anyone can be a psychic reader, or at least say they are, though professional readers like Koll often undergo formal training. Thus, as Koll and others are quick to concede, there is a wide variety of readers with differing levels of ability and sincerity. As a result it is difficult to judge the the industry as a whole based on any one of its readers. The vague knowledge and lack of science surrounding psychic reading make it nearly as hazy and undefined as the spirit world with which psychics claim to communicate. Much of what psychic readers do is shrouded in ambiguity, yet psychics, and their clients, are quite forthcoming in that regard.


Reading Between the Lives

“[When performing a reading] I am in a meditation space, with my eyes closed,” Koll says. “I ask permission to view their [the client’s] energy and then when I am done, I separate, so much so that if I were to see them on the street, it takes me a moment to realize who they are.”

Because psychic readings are “intensely private” and intimate, Koll places paramount importance on maintaining objectivity by not judging his clients in order to be able to offer clear advice.

“I don’t want to bring any of my own emotions into the reading,” Koll says. “I’m purely focused on extracting their information, letting them process and heal on their own. Letting people be who they are is fascinating.”

Psychic readers report seeing images projected from a person’s aura or energy field that serve to provide a snapshot of the person’s internal state or a link to their past; it appears, Koll says, as a picture on a television screen.

“When I first started doing readings, I saw energy like a movie,” Koll says. “And I was like, Whoa! This is great! But as I read more, the effect wore off. It’s like opening a book showing a picture of a mountain and being able to receive instant information about the details of the picture.”

Koll frequently delves into the realm of past lives — energy echoes of previous lives (think on the level of reincarnation) — which continue to reverberate in the soul’s present state, often through recurring fears or emotional states. Koll says that a soul’s energetic information carries over from lifetime to lifetime, essentially operating as an ever-increasing encyclopedia as it stockpiles accumulating knowledge. Sometimes a fear might not be connected to the current life; hence, Koll seeks to find its root.

“Pets, beings in bodies, can bring their essence into the room,” Koll says. “They have the same past lives, though not usually human. For example, there was this dog that was feeling lonely and isolated. I saw it had a snake past life and a cow past life. I kept looking, and there I saw it: the lone cow, the only cow in the pasture. That’s how the past life affected the dog.”

Koll frequently emphasizes the serious nature of his profession, yet acknowledges that for every seemingly legitimate psychic, such as himself, there is a “neon sign,” crystal ball- type psychic, with dubious training and even more dubious abilities.

“Say I’m walking down the street and there is the gypsy on the corner handing out cards offering ‘Free Psychic Readings’. I look at her and I’m like, honey, you don’t even know,” says Koll, laughing and waving his hand dismissively. “But it’s okay, everyone has their own market. It [psychic reading] can be fun, entertainment.”

Koll says that he can’t predict the future, only see the past. His relationship with the future is that of an educated guesser or advisory helping to prepare people for their paths in the future. He worries that, by being too specific with the future, he may mislead clients down errant paths, “programming” them to take certain actions.

“If I tell them that I see a tall, dark, handsome stranger in the future, they begin looking for that,” Koll says. “If I say a red corvette, but they get offered a free grey corvette, they might be like no, the psychic said red.”

Koll stresses that the purpose of a psychic reader is to read a person’s aura, thereby gaining information and clarity into the life of the client.

“I’m not predicting,” Koll says. “It’s more I can see what you’re creating, and here’s how you can change it. These are the doubts and here is why you might be feeling that way.”

Whether they seek to learn about their past, prepare for the future, or simply gain advice, Koll says that everyone has an underlying motive for speaking with a psychic.

“People need validation,” Koll says. “They want to know that what they’re doing has a purpose, that it matters, that they belong here. I think it’s important for people to know they were meant to be here.”


Benson Wong

For nearly 40 years, Benson Wong, 62, has provided psychic readings from his San Francisco home in Presidio Heights, attracting glamorous clientele (such as the late jazz artist Stan Getz) and a wide variety of entrepreneurs and professionals; in all, Wong estimates he has done over 100,000 readings.

Wong first discovered his psychic abilities at age eight, after his sister — eleven months his junior — died from asthma.

“My heart was open, pouring in emotion,” Wong says. “I spent many nights crying. One night, I looked out the window. I saw bright energy: it was my sister. I said, ‘Hello Jennifer, I love you.’ She told me: ‘I love you too, Benson.”

From then on, at eight years old, Wong could feel and see auras, or energy, when people around him experienced strong emotions.

Doing no prior background research on his clients (though he has many regulars), Wong only asks someone to pronounce his full name aloud before beginning the reading. As the person says his name, Wong sits across from them with his eyes closed, totally aware, focused on the 20 inch bubble of space surrounding his body. Then Wong begins to study the energy surrounding a person, which he equates to reading a book, with each new person having a different energy field.

“Everyone has the ability to do it [psychic readings],” says Wong, who also works as a baker for Noah’s Bagels. “We all come in as spirits. If you start using it when you are young, you won’t lose it. We aren’t trained to do this; through our educations and careers, we stop using our spiritual abilities.”

Therefore, Wong urges his clients and those wishing to explore their psychic abilities to “go back to kindergarten,” essentially to let go of their stress in order to better connect with their intrinsic psychic within.

Raised in a Baptist family — both his great grandfathers were ministers — Wong did not like Church because of the emphasis it placed on fear and the bible.

“My family doesn’t understand,” Wong says. “They still see me as Benson, the little boy, the little cousin. My sister and mother know what I do, but don’t really talk about it. At Thanksgiving or any sort of family gathering, I’ve noticed that everyone tiptoes around it [my psychic abilities], afraid of what I’ll say or what I’ll see.”

Like Koll, Wong says psychics should provide validation for what people are going through.

“I shift their energy, get them to a gold space, a place where they want to be,” Wong says. “I identify the person’s challenges, and show them how they can get better. I say: ‘It’s up to you, but here are the ways the paths lead. This is what will happen when you do this’.”

Wong says that a responsible psychic does not encourage his clients to return; at most, he will see a client once every few months. Following the old saying, Wong is of the “teach a man to fish” philosophy.

“I don’t want to be anyone’s guru,” Wong says. “It’s not about getting them to come back, but getting them to be able to go off on their own. I don’t want people hanging on to me, I want to teach them how they can use energy for themselves, and improve their lives, and teach others around them so they can feel good too. I give them the tools, hopefully they can use them.”


“…Who Happens to See Dead People.”

Unlike Wong and Koll, Leanne Thomas does not work as a psychic; she instead leads a relatively modest life as a “normal wife and school teacher who happens to see dead people”.

Thomas remembers seeing her first angels at four, though she suspects she has been seeing them since birth. As she recalls, they were biblical, feminine, with white flowing dresses and blond hair, however, as she grew older, she came to realize this was merely the way they appeared to her, having been raised in a strong Catholic family.

“Angels don’t have a form,” Thomas says. “They project an image, an energy, in order to come across without giving fear.”

Thomas says that every person is capable of reading energy and intuition, of experiencing a flash of knowing in some way, like the gut instinct that prompts a feeling of unease or tells you to go a certain direction.

“Being a psychic is like being a singer,” Thomas says. “Everyone can do it, but to varying abilities. Some people are like Celine Dion and their voice reaches millions, while others should only sing in church or the shower.

Thomas is a medium, meaning that she says she can communicate with the spirits of the deceased. She says that, while all mediums are psychics, not all psychics are mediums, the difference being that psychics gather information from reading the energy of their client while a medium collects information from a third-party, a spirit.

Thomas says attempting to understand what a particular spirit is trying to convey through the sounds or mental images they send to her can require quite a bit of conjecture, like playing a game of charades. Except with ghosts.

“Spirits communicate not in full sentences but in words,” says Thomas, who also works as a reading aid in the Santa Clara School District. “I might hear, ‘heart attack’. I’ll have to ask: ‘Did your mother have a heart attack?’ [The spirit] didn’t say that, but that’s what I am guessing. You have to check in and get validation from the person: Why am I getting what I am getting?”

Mixed Messages From Mass Media

While Thomas practices her mediumship as a sort of hobby, others, such as James Van Praagh, have gained international fame and recognition by commercializing their psychic abilities through books and television shows.

After moving to Los Angeles in his early twenties to pursue a career as a situational comedy writer, he was invited to visit a psychic medium, who informed a dubious Van Praagh that within two years he would become the voice of the spirit world. Despite his doubts, Van Praagh began meditating for one hour every Tuesday night for the next seven years. Over time, he became more sensitive to the physical and emotional states of those around him, eventually getting to the point where he says he would notice individual auras and see energy in colors. After he started conducting readings for friends, Van Praagh claims he began to receive detailed messages from the dead.

Much of the criticism towards psychics has been aimed at television shows like Van Praagh’s short-lived “Beyond: With James Van Praagh,” a reality show in which he conducted televised readings of audience members.

“[TV psychics] throw stuff out to the audience, and follow the trail,” says Leonard Tramiel, a prominent skeptic of psychics and the coordinator for the San Francisco Center of Inquiry, an organization which actively seeks to disprove the supernatural. “Due to the emotionally salient nature of the topic [deceased friends or family], the person will react strongly and when edited together, it looks astonishing to the viewer.”

Tramiel believes that psychic readers have a legitimate, albeit mistaken, interest in helping others and a genuine belief in their own abilities. Through remembering the correct insights and forgetting the misses, Tramiel says that psychics come to believe they are endowed with special powers, when really what they are doing is getting lucky with an educated guess every now and then.

Van Praagh looks to particular phenomena that occur during his readings as adequate proof of his abilities.

“The evidential details that come through, like, ‘You have a birth certificate in your right-hand drawer’ — how do you explain that?” he says.

“It’s chance. Pure chance,” Tramiel says. “If I say you have a particular document in the upper right drawer of your desk, well, the average desk has four to six drawers, and if the document was in your desk — lets say one in 100 people have that document in their desk — then the odds of guessing the right drawer, is one in 600. If you do 1000 readings, you’re going to get it right a few times.”


Psyched about Psychics

Whether or not the effect of psychics is based on the spiritual world, intuition, or even lucky guesses, it is evident that the benefits  many derive from psychics are real.

Elizabeth Kumari first went to a psychic when she was 19, with a friend. Now, 21 years later, she has readings every few months. After her old psychic retired, she found Randall Koll through a friend and has been going to him for the past year and a half. Kumari likens a psychic to a life coach, therapist, mentor and spiritual guide.

“They do their work on a different plane of existence,” says Kumari, a chef and yoga teacher from Saratoga Springs, New York. “They help bring me closer to my true nature, my being in this body, on this Earth, to be aligned with the ultimate plan.”

Kumari contends that most people who visit psychics have a genuine need for personal growth and development, as well as a desire to understand how they can achieve their goals and motivations.

“I have a sense of feeling clearer about my options and which is the right one to take,” says Kumari, of the benefits of a reading. “It helps me with relationships with important people in my life. Randall [Koll] helps me to take a step back, to view things from 30,000 feet rather than from right in my face.”

Kumari hopes that, in the future, visiting psychics will become a more acceptable practice, similar to the meditative yoga sessions she runs. However, in the mean time, Kumar is happy to follow Koll’s advice, regardless of how others view him.

Anthony Zamudio, Ph.D., the Director of Behavioral Sciences at the California Hospital Family Medicine-Keck USC School of Medicine, went to see his first psychic in 1996, at the age of 42, in the midst of a particularly difficult four year period of his life in which his father passed away.

“There are all these things around us that we ignore,” says Zamudio, who has gone to ten different psychics since his initial reading in ‘96. “[Visiting a psychic] is another form of opening us up — our minds, taking advantage of the moment, getting a different understanding of life. We can get paralyzed with anger or grief, and psychics are one way of getting a start up, whether through allowing us to overcome our fear or giving us calm in our lives.

Zamudio says that a good reader injects clarity into one’s life, as opposed to raising more questions or confusion. After his visit with Benson Wong, five years ago, Zamudio kept his audio recording of the reading, which he found still helped him to understand things about his life even a year later.

“It’s similar to visiting a psychologist or a pastor,” Zamudio says. “The pastor uses the bible, the psychologist uses education, and the psychic uses very strong intuition.  They all come up with similar answers, using different words.”

Zamudio compares believing in the power of psychics to believing in God: it is often through personal experiences that someone will begin to have faith, to believe in something intangible and essentially unprovable, at least scientifically. If a person has never had the experience of visiting a psychic, says Zamudio, they are much less likely to believe in them. Through his own unique and profound experiences with psychics, Zamudio has come to appreciate the value of psychic reading.

“There is such a range of what people do [as psychics], what they say they do,” Zamudio says. “I see it like religion, where there is a need for freedom, because so many people work in different ways. For me, my gauge of a psychic is this: If what I’m hearing is helpful, if it clarifies things, if it makes me feel better inside, then that’s great.”

Perhaps Kumari, the yoga teacher, sums it up best.

“True clairvoyants offer a way to become more good, more sensitive, more spiritual,” she says. “And how can that be bad?”


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