A Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe

Carry $4,500 in my underwear? Well, if you say so . . .

I WAS BORN A SKEPTIC-a genuine hard sell. My astrological sign is Virgo: practical, grounded, skeptical. Not that I ever put much stock in astrology. Psychic phenomena, metaphysics, auras and teenaged gurus have always been foreign to my very being. The universe held few mysteries for me. I was here with everybody else and it was out there- somewhere. So why now, at age 35, in the waning years of my youth, was I magnetically attracted to the unanswered questions of the cosmos? Carl Sagan had nothing to do with it. I was groomed to be a lawyer, schooled in the religion of reason, hard facts and cold cash. Like any self-respecting criminal lawyer, I looked for reasonable doubt everywhere, all in the name of saving my clients from the slammer. But after seven years of reputable lawyering, my reasonable doubts centered on why I became a lawyer in the first place. I was conflicted, torn. I wanted out. And my doubts refused to isolate themselves in my professional life, bleeding into my personal life as well. Divorce clouds were gathering. Could I be having a full-blown midlife crisis? Therapy was not the answer. It wasn’t fast enough to suit my needs-or my pocketbook. What I sought was some quick, fairly inexpensive information. From someone who would hand me answers without forcing me to blame my mother or father. After all, who was paying for my therapy?

A friend talked to me about going to a psychic, but the lawyer in me rebelled. I figured psychic mumbo jumbo had to be a hoax, the result of guesswork or coincidence at best. I had read somewhere that most people claim to have at least one psychic experience in their lives. The only “psychic” experience I could claim was the time the Cowboys played the Redskins in Washington and won-I beat the point spread. As for metaphysical thoughts, I identified with Woody Allen, who considers himself to be “two with the universe.” This seemed to be a key joke for my life as well. How could I be one with the universe when I was so at odds with myself?

Then one day, I found myself in Houston, trying a particularly disturbing murder trial. During the noon recess, I went for a long drive. I saw a sign promoting Madame Claire, a reader-advisor. For no apparent reason, I decided to investigate. Madame Claire was definitely clairvoyant-she could see me coming a mile away. As this gypsy woman gingerly held my palm, she professed concern that bad karma was sabotaging my path to success. She said she would go into deep meditation for me. I was to call her by the following Thursday, at which time my karmic problems would be revealed at no extra charge.

When I phoned Madame Claire at the appointed time, the news was bad: Seems I had committed suicide over money problems in a previous life. Uh-oh. But chin up; with her help, we’d beat this thing. I would have to change my habits a bit-shampoo my hair with vinegar for six days, carry around five ribbons of different colors, each exactly nine inches in length, that sort of thing. Oh, and I’d need to withdraw $4,500 in $100 bills from my bank account and carry the cash around in my underwear for 10 days.

I had expected the road to psychic truth to be paved with oddities, but this was going too far. My criminal lawyer’s mind woke from its slumber, smelling trouble. I had visions of some bearded gypsy approaching me on the street, gun in hand, while I, the perfect pigeon, handed over my hard-earned money. I decided, nonpsychically, that Madam Claire did not belong in my future.

My next encounter with psychic phenomenon was born out of more professional interests-I needed material to feed my new career as a writer. Several friends recommended I go see a Dallas psychic who channeled a spirit named Jeremy “from the other side.” But instead of someone out of The Exorcist or Omen Part II, I found a pleasant woman who appeared as suspicious of me as I was of her. We withdrew into her inner sanctuary, a bedroom that also housed her IBM personal computer. As she began to ask me questions about my personal life, I was guarded with my responses, remembering my near-burn with Madame Claire.

Jeremy’s spiritual arrival was unorthodox, to say the least. “He” was issued forth as the psychic proceeded to convulse her body in a rapid-fire succession of what can only be called burps, the whole procedure lasting some 50 to 60 seconds. It was her way of “clearing her channel,” she explained. Amazingly, the information from Beyond the Burps was mysteriously accurate. He/she sensed all the pain I’d been living with and came to a strange understanding of it. I was told that we incarnate in this life have to learn certain painful lessons that result in spiritual growth, enabling us to move on to the next incarnation. I had no belief in reincarnation, but there was comfort in her cosmic justice.



AND SO I began to wonder. I wondered what the psychic experience was really like, and how the mystic’s information was seemingly acquired by violating the physical laws of time and space. Was it an extra sense, a spiritual experience or just plain hoax? And what did science have to say about it?

I quickly learned that an entire branch of science (or pseudoscience, for the skeptical) called parapsychology has been dedicated to the study of psychic phenomenon. In 1935, Dr. J.B. Rhine of Duke University set up the first American laboratory for the study of psychic (“psi”) function. Rhine sought to prove what many suspect; everyone is psychic to some degree. The phone rings and it’s a friend you’ve been thinking of; the doorbell rings and you instantly know who it is.

Rhine found that psychic activity manifests itself more frequently in dreams than at any other time. Altered states of consciousness induced by meditation, relaxation or drugs also activate the psychic side.

Fired by curiosity, I began my search by interviewing several of the more notable psychics in the Dallas area. One of them was booked solid for three months in advance. A psychic in Dallas, Texas, booked three months in advance? Each claimed a different path to psychic “oneness”-palms, charts, tarot cards. I tried to avoid the frauds and charlatans who still make up a disconcerting segment of any psychic community, a task made easier by local psychic John Catchings, who serves as president of the North Texas Parapsychology Association. This group of 50 Dallas area psychics, who promote and police their profession, has adopted a code of ethics which governs good behavior, 18 points that can be boiled down into one transcendental thought: Don’t let anybody talk you into putting money in your underwear.

Fan Benno

The Guru of University Park

Fan Benno uses no crystal ball, no tarot cards, no metaphysical musings. She simply holds your hand. She doesn’t read it, doesn’t heal it; she just touches it. And by her touch, Benno believes she becomes “one” with you. “I don’t just see your face,” she says. “I see what’s inside you. I see your hurts and your heartaches. Your fears and frustrations.”

Fan Benno is the grande dame of the Dallas psychic community. She has been plying her perception in this city for over 30 years. Originally a commercial real estate broker, she had trouble repressing her psychic side. “I’d go to parties, get introduced to people, shake their hand and say ’now you’re really going to think I’m crazy but.. .’ ” Today, people pay $60 a session to reap the benefits of her “craziness.” And her clients run the demographic gamut-housewives, business people, children, lawyers; people who are in crises or “just plain curious.” Some people want information about their love lives-or the absence of it. Others want revelations about money, health, happiness. Ninety-five percent of her clients come back for more.

Benno greets you at her University Park home, barefoot and wearing a white Mexican wedding dress. She offers you a cup of tea, often Red Zinger, which she finds particularly “energizing.” She demurely escorts you upstairs to her reading room, sitting next to you on a cozy sofa. After some preliminary dialogue during which she gauges your anxiety and tries to calm you, she takes your hand and instantly goes “in state.”

Benno describes her psychic state as an almost weightless, timeless feeling. “Everything slows down in front of me. Then I move out of myself and into you. You become my sending station. I know everything about everybody you know.” For Benno, it’s simply a question of energy. “As a sensitive, I can extend my energy out to you. My energy then feeds into yours and comes back to me charged up with all your thoughts and feelings: past, present and future. It’s a completed circle.”

Benno is convinced that everything that has ever lived, ever been said or thought is somehow still in the universe (including the 10 pounds you lost last year). “There is no death-it’s all energy.” Yet Benno feels an ethical responsibility not to predict what we unenlightened types call death. “I can see several paths, several possible alternatives. Nothing is preordained because there is free will.”

She tells the story of a reading she did for an SMU coed. The girl was going home to Lubbock for Christmas vacation. Benno got a bad feeling about a red car; told her to stay away from it. The girl didn’t know anybody with a red car, but decided to fly home instead of drive as originally planned. Several of the girl’s friends made the drive to Lubbock. They were killed on the highway by someone driving a red car.

Benno is sensitive not only to future but past events and to information that may not exist within the conscious minds of her clients. Once during a reading, she got a strong sense that her client’s name was Mary or Margaret; the client claimed her name was Janet. The information came in very strong and Benno was troubled by the discrepancy. Janet had no knowledge of any Mary or Margaret; she had certainly never used those names herself. Several weeks later Benno heard from Janet. When she confronted her parents about the results of the reading, they admitted to her that she was adopted. The name on her original birth certificate was Margaret.

My personal experience with Fan Benno was somewhat unnerving. When she took my hand, she told me that she sensed my midlife crisis; she saw my career change, my divorce. She knew my son’s name was Adam; she felt that he was five or six years old, then said he was younger, but older than his years. Oddly enough, the fact that this woman knew me so well made me feel closer to her. At the front door, she hugged me, then looked me in the eye and said, “Don’t worry, you and your son will always be close.” How did she know that was my unspoken concern?

Sheryl Sterrett

The Whole World in Her Hands?

On perusing Sheryl Sterrett’s apartment, you feel you’re at some metaphysical juncture between East and West; Eastern artifacts, the smell of burning incense and dozens of lit candles mix with numerous photographs of her father, Judge Lew Sterrett. The judge, who died four years ago, was a Dallas political patriarch for 37 years.

Sterrett was her father’s favorite child. Working as an executive secretary with a political public relations firm, she lived with Judge Sterrett until the time of his death. Her father was well-acquainted with her psychic abilities, but Sterrett never dreamed of turning professional while he was alive, “although I do think he would respect me for doing it today. He always respected people for doing what they believed in.” Perhaps Judge Sterrett’s political longevity might be attributable to the psychic strain running through his family. “He was psychic, too-but he didn’t call it that,” she insists. “We’d be sitting in the car on the way to the courthouse, and he would tell me what I was thinking before I could even say it.”

Although Sterrett bears some resemblance to her father, her dark features and piercing, deep-set eyes lend her an air of mystery, helping create that certain mystical quality that many psychics strive for through gimmicky regalia. Yet Sterrett is not without her sense of theater. During her readings she prefers to illuminate her University Park apartment with candlelight. Crystals of every size, shape and color adorn all available table space. Her readings are conducted around a small dining room table; she tapes the session so that you may reflect on her message.

As her reading begins, Sterrett examines your palm with exacting precision, highlighting its different aspects with a small, pencil-shaped flashlight. Although many people have a vague notion about the length of their life lines or love lines, Sterrett is convinced that the palm is similar to the exterior of the brain: “What is registered in the brain is recorded in the palm… All emotional and physical traumas that scar the brain show up in the hand.” Palmists believe that the lines in the palm as well as the shape of the hand change as the person changes. Says Sterrett, “The dominant hand is where you are in the present; it’s also your masculine, conscious self.. . The less dominant hand is your past and what you come into this life with-it’s also your conscious, female self.”

To set the mood, she plays what she jokingly calls “a little traveling music,” a strange, almost hypnotic combination of Indian sitar music and beach sounds. Then she goes into a trancelike state which she calls “alpha.” There, she feels a merging of her energy with yours, a fusing of her mind with your mind, “almost as if it were one mind.” She raises her hands to her forehead; she nods and says “okay.” Then she delivers her information.

In the alpha state, her readings take a turn for the spiritual. She speaks of spirit guides or guardian angels that guide us all down our life’s path. “We all have them; their energies just vibrate at a higher frequency than ours do.” While in her psychic state, Sterrett believes she can communicate with these guides.

Rather than allow Sheryl Sterrett to read my own palm, I persuaded an actress friend of mine to lend a hand. Maybe the skeptic in me wanted independent validation, someone to help me figure out whether I was kidding myself. Besides, I’d interviewed five psychics in two days and I was tired-which made me wonder: If we are “all energy,” why was I so exhausted?

When Sterrett began poking at my friend’s hand, she instantly saw her career in drama: “You could be a fabulous actress.” Sterrett saw a writer’s fork in her palm showing “talent at the written word”; my friend has authored two plays, both produced at local theaters. Sterrett saw emotional trauma about some parent or relative that was not being dealt with; she was vague about its exact nature. My friend volunteered that her mother had recently passed away and that she was still having trouble believing it. Sterrett felt a chill in her left arm-confirmation, she said, of the truth of what was being said. Much of what Sterrett told her was subjective, about my friend’s creativity, her dependability; feedback difficult to quantify for accuracy but comforting nonetheless. She likened the encounter to a very intimate, very special form of accelerated therapy. In her words, “They don’t call it parapsychology for nothing.”

Debbie Ritchey

Beam me up, Scotty

In May 1979, something happened to Debbie Ritchey that changed her life. She was driving her car in Dallas, “veg-ging out,” as she calls it, preoccupied with thoughts of her father’s recent illness. According to his doctors, his cancer was in remission, but something told her that this was not the case. There was a knowing, genderless voice vibrating in her head; her father would die on June 8, a Friday, at 11:50. Her information proved accurate; her father died as foretold. Ritchey was prepared. His death seemed less a tragedy and more a journey. His physical pain had ended; for Ritchey, his soul energy continued.

Debbie Ritchey considers herself clairau-dient; in the psychic’s parlance she has “clear hearing.” But she is only psychic on a part-time basis. Many of her waking hours are spent in the real world as a graphic artist for a Dallas architectural firm. For Ritchey, the balance is essential: “I like to give my psychic muscle a rest.” She spends much of her day in what she calls her “everyday, get up and go to work, go buy cat food at Safeway world.” Problems do arise when her psychic side intrudes into the world of the practical. “Not many guys want to date you because you know what they’re up to.. .even if it happens in another city.”

Ritchey describes her psychic process in terms of metaphysical ritual and television trivia. She gets her information from her higher self, a voice she whimsically calls Scotty after the character taken from the TV series Star Trek who was constantly beaming Captain Kirk up to the Starship Enterprise. But that’s where the television metaphor ends.

When a client engages her psychic services, she asks permission of Scotty to receive information that “will be of the greatest and highest good.” Fortunately for Ritchey, permission has never been denied. As she begins your reading, she envisions a pyramid of white light surrounding and sealing the energy field around the table where she displays her tarot cards. She moves into her higher self, where she says her energies merge with your energies. For Ritchey, there exists a plane of knowledge where there are no secrets, where there is no earth time. She envisions this plane in the form of a marble temple. Her higher self goes into the temple, where highly evolved “masters,” spirits no longer of this earth, await her arrival. It is from these masters that Ritchey receives her information about you.

Rather than deliver this information in the poetic style of some great Eastern mystic, Ritchey prefers a street-talk approach. Mild profanity often flavors her readings. (Ritchie blames it on that naughty Scotty. Hey, she just repeats it the way she receives it.) During one reading, a woman kept bemoaning the fact that she was overly giving in all her primary love relationships. Scotty replied, “Honey, you may very well be the cosmic tit of the universe.”

Ritchey claims to be accurate approximately 80 percent of the time: a boast that’s tricky for a skeptic to swallow-or verify. Most people who go to psychics demand and receive confidentiality-they’re afraid they’ll be viewed as kooks-so it’s hard to double-check these “revelations.”

But in my reading with Ritchey, her information proved to be quite accurate. She was able to tell me that my mother was out of town, and that she had arthritis. My mother was in Italy seeking treatment for that very ailment. She also told me that within two or three weeks my grandmother would be hospitalized. Within 10 days my grandmother had broken her hip and was taken to the hospital for surgery.

My interview with Ritchey ran an hour late-well into my next appointment with M.E. Grundman, a psychotherapist who employs her psychic abilities as a therapeutic tool in her practice. As I left, I told Ritchey only that I was late to an interview. She told me that the interview was at 2:00 and that it was at the house of M.E. Grundman. Amazing! Surely this was proof positive of psychic powers! I asked her how she could possibly acquire information that specific. By telephone, as it turned out. She had spoken to Grundman earlier in the day.



Diane Eichenbaum

Good Vibrations

When Diane Eichenbaum was a fashion illustrator, she went to visit a local Dallas psychic. The psychic predicted that on May 1,1976, Eichenbaum would be offered a freelance job that would enable her to make enough money to pursue her passion: astrology. She didn’t get the job on May 1, but she got it two weeks later. The psychic was Fan Benno. Today, Eichenbaum reads Fan Ben-no’s charts; her usual $100 fee is generally waived as a professional courtesy.

Although astrology came to Eichenbaum somewhat late in life, she has always had an unexplainable sense of knowing that she attributed to “women’s intuition.” When she was 21, she recalls going with her boyfriend to an art museum in Tulsa. Several paintings were being raffled as door prizes. Eichenbaum not only knew her ticket had a winning vibration, but showed her boyfriend the exact painting she would win. Her prediction proved accurate; she won the painting, but she lost the boyfriend. “I must have scared him off somehow,” she says.

Eichenbaum began to play with astrology in 1972, and says she was a natural. “I could read charts from the very beginning-I just had a knack for it.” She now caters to the Dallas rich and famous, mostly highly educated professionals who can afford her big price tag and don’t mind waiting the six weeks it takes to see her.

Eichenbaum maintains that Dallas is a new spiritual center for a new “Aquarian” age. “Just look at all the people attracted to Dallas’ energy. This is a tremendous city [in which] to explore human potential.” But, she says, “This is not a good city for relationships. Aquarian energy is so individualistic-just look at the Dallas divorce rate.” But sometimes Eichenbaum hastens a love pairing, as in the case of a Dallas woman who came to her in January 1979. Eichenbaum told her that she would meet an older man the following September somewhere outside of Dallas, a man who might be a likely candidate for marriage. In the summer of 1979, Eichenbaum read the chart of a Dallas man; she saw him becoming emotionally involved with a woman while on a business trip in late September. The man and woman, John and Diane Hirsch, met at a fashion show in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 29,1979. They were married a year later.



Carla Gordén

The Medium and her Message

When the voice of George takes over the consciousness of Carla Gordén, she slips into an unconscious state. Gordén is what some psychics call a “medium.” She has no memory of the message or the voice that calls itself “George,” but she claims that George claims he hasn’t been on the earth in 400 years. According to Gordén, George says that after the soul leaves the earthly plane, it travels to Summerland, a place where it can rest, renew and choose who it will become in the next life.

Before George rather ceremoniously entered her life, Gordén had little faith in reincarnation, a concept contrary to the teachings of her good Catholic mother, who was often heard to say, “I certainly have no desire to be recycled.”

But Gordén did know she was psychic- and she thought everyone else was, too. As a five-year-old, she says, she could see auras, colorful energy fields emanating from our bodies, noticeable only to those who are sensitive to them. “I would instantly know if I liked somebody. If they had a blue or pink aura around them, I had nothing to fear-I just knew they’d be a loving person.”

Today Gordén travels around the country, teaching people how to realize their spiritual sides: “You cannot emotionally heal without a spiritual experience.” In her four-day inten-sive workshops, Gordén and George show people the benefits of meditation “by lifting ourselves out of the mundane belief that only things that are solid are real-then going into the right side of the brain and tapping into creativity.” Gordén explains that if people can learn to release their fears, they will become more sensitive, more intuitive: “With heightened sensitivity, we become more psychic about things-being psychic is just a natural result of any spiritual search.” Gorden believes that we are at the dawning of a new age, “the age of self-aggrandizement, an age when there will be no masters like Jesus or Buddha. . .an age where we will be masters of ourselves.”

Gordén has cut back on her private readings, although she keeps two Dallas psychics gainfully employed from her overflow. She usually sees a dove before George’s arrival, but there was one time when they both failed to show: “I was quite embarrassed at the time. The man left without his reading.” (And without paying?) “Later George disclosed that the man was going to ask him if his wife was going to die. George didn’t think the man should hear the news from him.”

When I went to see her, Gordén first meditated to summon the dove. Within seconds, George arrived with his usual opening line: “We are here in this present.” George speaks briskly and occasionally incoherently, with something resembling an Oriental accent. George informed me that I had lived in ancient China, then in the lost continent of Atlantis. When I was a priest in ancient Egypt I developed my psychic abilities. (Interesting. I’m Jewish in the here and now.) But I lost my clairvoyance when I committed suicide as the leader of an American Indian tribe.

Now this is weird.

The day before, I had interviewed a psychic psychotherapist who uses past life regression in her practice. She hypnotized me, taking me back to some primitive setting where I was-get this-the leader of an American Indian tribe. I thought I was dreaming-now I’m not so sure.



I THINK IT was Carl Jung, one of the fathers of modern psychoanalysis and a certifiable mystic in his own right, who said, “Man in the second half of his life is always concerned with his spiritual nature.” I guess my premature midlife crisis qualifies me. Little did I know when I began my adventure into psychic phenomenon that I would entangle myself in the secrets of the universe. I guess I should have predicted this, though. The very day that I began to wonder whether there was a better way of acquiring information than through the five senses, I lost my glasses. Jung had a name for this type of coincidence. He called it synchronicity. He said that two unrelated events often present themselves as meaningful coincidence when there is a strong inner, psychic need to know. For me the message seemed clear. But I couldn’t read it without my glasses.

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