The Aliens in our Midst: A Look into Modern-Day Psychics
by The Milton Measure on Friday, March 31st, 2017
By Chloë LeStage ’17
Ten minutes late to my 1:30pm reading, I race from my parking spot three blocks down to the front door of “Boston’s Best Psychic.” This psychic is a local of suburbian Marlboro, a half-hour from where I live in Boston (yet there still isn’t any parking here). When I timidly knock on the front door of the rather ordinary house, a scruffy voice through the open window five feet away says, “You’re late…come in.”
I found Boston’s Best Psychic on Yelp, not exactly a reputable source, though I learned later that there aren’t many reputable sources for psychics; seeing and understanding the future seems to warrant only Yelp or a cheap make-your-own-website page. It turns out there are at least five different psychics with a title that’s some variation of “Best Psychic in Boston.” At the beginning of my curiosity about psychics and intuitives, I google “Boston psychic” and quickly glance through reviews for Tarek no-last-name, the first person who comes up. At this point, I’m not looking for anything fancy. His reviews all sound something like, “He’s so spot on, I’m in shock!” and “He’s truly the real deal!” I’m satisfied, so I sign up online for a half-hour, in-person, intuitive reading. With essentially no expectations, I prepare for this reading by thinking up some questions that I imagine would be appropriate for a regular client, rather than an undercover journalist, of sorts.
I step out of the mild, November fall and into the immediately sweltering heat of Tarek’s make-shift office. It’s really a long, skinny indoor porch-turned-foyer, half of which is curtained off by deep purple fabric, much like fabric that drapes over a fortune teller’s table as she reads your fate in the crystal ball. Dark haired, bearded Tarek in a denim collared shirt with the sleeves rolled up appears as he pushes the curtain to the side. He looks like he’s in his late twenties, much younger than I was expecting. Behind him is a wall covered entirely with shelves of slender, hexagonal crystals, colored rocks, crystal balls, and shimmery fabric. Combined with the heat, these sparkly objects certainly set a weird mood for the next thirty minutes. Tarek introduces himself after reminding me that I’m late for the second time (I hope there aren’t otherworldly repercussions for pissing him off), and he invites me to sit down in a kitchen chair at a small glass table, also covered with crystals and a large rock with fibonacci-esque markings.
After aggressively starting a kitchen timer for thirty minutes, Tarek asks, “Why are you here?” And so my dive into the mysterious world of the sixth sense begins.
* * *
What, exactly, is a psychic? And what does it mean to have your fortune told? A month ago I would have imagined a Romani woman with an ethereal voice, dressed in billowing pants and a jingly head scarf, holding a crystal ball and foretelling of a dark storm brewing. It turns out that the contemporary psychic has slightly diverged from my Hollywood imagination, but the actual job hasn’t changed in over one thousand years. In nearly every established ancient culture is evidence of a “divine one” who knows and speaks of the future, someone who has access to knowledge that others don’t. They have existed under many names throughout history like prophet, oracle, divine, and witch. Proof of their prophecies go back as far as written history.
A psychic is someone who can access or know “phenomena that are apparently inexplicable by natural laws, especially involving telepathy or clairvoyance,” according to Google’s dictionary. They are people who can access the greater pot of consciousness and knowing, that grey area where spirits of the dead exist and where all knowledge of the past, present, and future sits. Intuitives are basically the same as psychics, though they are less focused on the future and more focused on answering questions you cannot answer on your own (i.e. how does my husband really feel about my new job?).
Like someone in a generic office job, psychics have many skills. Instead of proficiency in Excel, Powerpoint, and social media marketing, psychics have proficiency in things like palm reading and astrology. Here is a full, compiled list of services most psychics provide:
Psychometry, the ability to discover facts about someone by touching an inanimate object associated with them;
Astrology, the study of star and planet positioning and its influence on the natural world;
Channelling, the ability to channel the spirit of a dead person so he or she may make contact with a client — someone who channels is called a medium;
Tea reading, the interpretations of symbols and shapes created by loose-leaf tea;
Palm reading, telling the future of someone’s life through study of lines and patterns on the palm;
Reiki, a form of energy channelling to heal body and mind;
Tarot cards, using a deck of 78 cards with symbols representing forces, characters, virtues, and vices, that, when chosen by the client and laid out in a specific order, foresee the future and answer questions;
Space clearing, ability to clean and energize a space, associated with Feng Shui;
Crystal healing, placing crystals around the body to construct an energy grid, a method of enhancing energy healing.
* * *
When I spoke with Tarek, I had no idea what techniques or methods he used to base his predictions on, though most of the above were on his website. Aside from only making eye contact with the set of crystals on the table, I didn’t recognize any specific behavior. Tarek opened the reading with the statement, “You’re a born performer.” He was spot on (I don’t know about the “born” part, but I perform a lot outside of school in bands and a cappella). I immediately thought he had googled my name beforehand. It seemed a little too good to be true that he had guessed that right off the bat without even speaking to me — or was he legitimate? I wish I hadn’t been so cynical from the start. My mind wasn’t open to the idea of Tarek actually being psychic because the whole experience felt ridiculous from the moment I walked into his foyer.
After the first five minutes of Tarek testing me out, far from answering my prepared questions, he told me that my boyfriend is too dependent on me and that I have a self-deprecating inner rhetoric. My boyfriend isn’t clingy, and I’m many things (loud, fiery, nosy…), but not hard on myself. Tarek’s comments took me off guard in the moment, but on the drive home I realized how likely it was that those comments would apply to me. A lot of high school couples have insecurities — we’re teenagers, it’s only natural. The same goes for self esteem. The probability that Tarek would hit a nerve on those points is pretty high, considering what I was sharing with him about my life. My conclusion that night, however, was that Tarek was a phoney. Whether or not his answers had a high probability of being right considering my age and basic profile, he still got them wrong.
Since my experience with Tarek left me unconvinced of psychics’ legitimacy, I was eager to speak with someone who was entirely convinced — someone who was completely indulged in this world. Bob Sinicrope, the stout, balding, fast-walking Milton jazz teacher who loves wearing all denim, is no stranger to psychics and intuitives. In fact, his first dip into the spiritual world occurred in his mid-twenties as a “recovering catholic,” and he never went back. After Mr. Sinicrope hinted at his spiritual life during Jazz class one October morning, I knew I had to hear more of his story. I actually spent most of that period, surrounded jazz albums, instruments, and musical equipment, trying to deter him from continuing class to tell us more about his encounters with psychic miracles. His enthusiasm and passion for spirituality was infectious that day. So infectious, believe it or not, that he pricked my non-fictions nerve, begging me to write an article about the world he has belonged to for nearly fifty years.
* * *
Weeks after that jazz class, I sit with Mr. Sinicrope behind his desk cluttered with photos of his wife and foot-tall piles of sheet music. I’m slightly uncomfortable on this side of the room, unprotected by a music stand, but I do my best to relax as Mr. Sinicrope dives right into the interview. He tells me he has spent pretty much all of his vacations for decades going to spirituality workshops on everything from lucid dreaming, sound healing, and channelling, to strengthening intuitiveness and meditation, or, in his words, “Lots of stuff a lot of people would think is pretty weird.”
It takes some probing to learn that Mr. Sinicrope was raised very catholic, a religion he then promptly left in his twenties after realizing how much of his faith was based on fear. “I still get the willies when I walk in a church,” he recalls, eyes wide behind his rimless glasses. “I still believe in the life and teachings of Jesus,” he reassures me, “But I left the church to find something more.” He found psychics and intuitives a couple years into his search, though he didn’t tell me how. What they know and feel “is deeper than intuition. It’s knowing,” and that knowing filled the void in his life that catholicism could not.
Now, Mr. Sinicrope is in his groove. He’s leaning forward in his swivel office chair, brimming with stories to tell me about his experiences with intuition. He tells me of a time he was in England many years ago. He had lent his sister his car while away. In the first days of his trip, he felt something wasn’t right. “I had this deep, gut feeling that something was really wrong,” and, sure enough, there was an accident. “I don’t know how I knew that I had to call her, but I finally said to myself I’m not going to stop calling until someone picks up. She picked up, finally. She was okay, but my car was totaled.” Mr. Sinicrope is recounting this story glassy-eyed; it’s clear to me that, through the many years of trusting his intuition, this feeling was powerful and scary — scary enough to make him buy a ticket home before his sister even picked up the phone.
Mr. Sinicrope plunges into another story: one summer, he and his wife went on a vision quest to Machu Picchu with a guide who had one of the most clarified intuitions they had ever interacted with (both Mr. Sinicrope and his wife are into these kind of retreats — in fact, they met on one). While standing among ancient ruins, the guide told them of the pure feminine energy within the Andes mountains. Mr. Sinicrope looks at me again with wide eyes and says, “The guide looked at my wife and said the energy is so strong that she would get her period. She hadn’t gotten her period for two years — completely menopausal. Yet, that night, she got it.”
I left Mr. Sinicrope’s classroom that day, aside from being pretty blown away by his seemingly inexplicable stories and his utter allegiance to psychic power, wanting to define pure or clarified intuition. Is that different than the intuition advertized by Tarek? How does one know if his or her intuition is unfiltered and flawless? We all have intuition, but some, it seems, have a much deeper knowing. It just so happens (or maybe not so coincidentally) that Mr. Sinicrope’s daughter, Alicia, is a psychic. Impatient to get an interview with someone who makes a living telling people’s fortunes, I call Alicia around 5:30pm on a rainy Thursday while sitting in my car.
* * *
In a high, joyful voice, Alicia Sinicrope picks up the phone and says “Is this Chloë? I’m so excited to talk to you.” Alicia is a professional psychic, intuitive, medium, and belly dancer. Belly dancing is now her day-job, though she acts as psychic entertainment for parties twice a week and takes regular calls from clients. In her photos online, I see that she’s a darker-haired, female version of Mr. Sinicrope with a bright smile and wide-set eyes. She’s wearing what I assume to be traditional belly dancing attire in all of her pictures: colorful tops and matching long, flowing skirts. I imagine she is not wearing this while on the phone with me, but I did not ask to be sure.
“I always felt I had a special knowing ability,” Alicia fondly remembers. “Even as a little girl, I had a degree of certainty that others didn’t. And I loved to play with it.” I ask her what she means by that, and she says that she has always loved to play games like guessing someone’s zodiac sign or mother’s name. I want to see if she can guess that I’m a gemini or that my mom’s name is Julia, but grudgingly stop myself in order to keep our conversation about her. Alicia began studying astrology and palm reading before she turned ten: “My mom had books on both and we’d read them together.” She reassures me in her giggly voice that astrology and palm reading are, indeed, sciences. “They are tried and practiced methods. You can learn how to read palms in a book, but then put your own intuitive energy into it, and it brings a whole other dimension in being able to read somebody.”
After detailing a regular week to me (3-4 belly dancing gigs, 1-2 parties as the psychic entertainment, and 3-4 client calls), she tells me about what working parties is like. “For parties, I have to set a strict timer for each session because people at the wedding or graduation party or whatever are all wanting to talk to me. I ask for a name, birthday, sign, and then do a quick palm reading. People are usually pretty happy with that.” And the skeptics at parties don’t bother her: “The readings stay pretty light, and I only share the best, most playful information in that moment, so the client and I can both have fun even if they don’t believe a word I’m saying.”
Like her dad, Alicia loves to tell me stories. The previous week, Alicia was asked by a young girl at a party if Alicia is also a medium (able to channel a dead spirit) — the girl wanted to speak with her father who had passed. “I’m always weary of channelling at a party because sometimes it can get dark. But I agreed.”
Alicia speaks more tentatively now, remembering the client’s yearning to hear from her father. “I close my eyes and feel myself float into the gray area — it’s hard to explain — between living and dead. And out of my mouth comes a deep, harsh, and gravelly ‘hey kid, get off your ass and get to work.’” This takes me off guard not only because of how high-pitched Alicia’s natural voice is, but because she has one of the loveliest demeanors (from what I can tell over the phone) that I’ve heard in a long time. “The girl immediately burst into tears and I overly apologized for sounding rude — I don’t have control over what comes out of my mouth, but the girl told me, ‘No, no, no, it’s okay. I’m crying because that’s what my dad used to say to me every morning.’” There’s silence on both ends of the phone. How the hell did Alicia know that?
My hour-long talk with Alicia convinced me that Tarek does not represent all psychics. Alicia has experience and natural ability. Everything I knew about Tarek told me that he does not. So, Alicia recommended a couple sites to peruse (aside from Yelp) to find a better intuitive, but reminded me that receiving another reading does not give me a complete view of the psychic world. A complete view with months-worth of readings would get extremely expensive, considering the price range for psychics around Boston is $60-$150 for a thirty minute reading.
I found Marylee Trettenero on a more official-looking list of “Boston’s Best ______” (intuitive, psychic, clairvoyant….). On her website, she advertises: “Psychic Intuitive Counseling & Coaching, Insightful Career & Business Consulting, Spiritual Counseling, Compassionate Mediumship, Energy Healing, and Tarot Guidance”
Marylee doesn’t limit herself to just one aspect of the job. She is a certified Reiki healer, master, and teacher, she graduated from the Advanced Energy Healing program, and she studied at The Energy Healing Institute in Boston. She is certified, is educated, and has experience. Just what I needed. Despite her many talents, however, my reading with her was based entirely on Tarot cards.
* * *
I happen to be ten minutes late to this reading, too, so I run up to the blue front entrance of Marylee’s Charleston home on a Thursday afternoon in November. After opening the main entrance, I knock on Marylee’s door and step into the middle hallway of the condos. A tall woman with fair skin, a white bob above her shoulders, and a pinched face welcomes me into her living room. Marylee’s house is nothing like Tarek’s ‘office’. I see no crystals, shimmery fabrics, or stained glass. A large, stone Buddha on the mantel is the only thing that catches my eye in the otherwise ordinary room. She sits me down after condescendingly telling me that I’m late (is this a thing with psychics?) and sets a timer for twenty minutes before reaching out her hands and asking for my own. Suddenly noticing how sweaty I am, I allow her to rest my hands in her palms. “This is how I connect with you,” she says in an unearthly tone.
She closes her wrinkly eyes for an awkwardly long time, then sharply breathes in through her nose. She tells me to pick ten cards randomly from a spread out deck of intricately designed Tarot cards on the table. I comply, and Marylee proceeds to organize the cards I chose in a pattern, face up. The top card goes in the middle, then the next four go on each edge of the card in a cross shape. She puts the remaining five cards right next to each of the five already on the table. If a card troubles her while she’s setting up, she removes it and puts it between her palms, listening to it with eyes closed, just like she did to me when we held hands. After she’s content with each card, she breathes in sharply through her nose again.
“I just heard you’re going to make a lot of money when you get out of college,” she recounts. “You’re almost like an adult. You’ve been asking a lot of important questions. Now’s the time to make sure everything’s in good shape. Make sure you live in the moment, you get ahead of yourself, you do a lot of thinking.” Marylee begins to list vague generalization after generalization while pointing at the supposedly corresponding cards that are telling her this information. I don’t get a word in edgewise. “Have an inspiration and start it. Take things all the way to the end.” I just sit in the corner of her brown, faux-suede couch and keep my mouth shut, thinking this’ll be good.
After 30 minutes of being bombarded with phrases that belong in a self-help book, I leave Marylee’s house and drive home in commuter traffic, feeling more confused than educated about my future. Did she even tell me anything of substance? Was any of it specific to me?
The vagueness of Tarot cards, astrology, palm reading, and many tools psychics use are often not wrong in the strict sense, they’re just not specific. And that’s where the line gets fuzzy. Everyone questions themselves, everyone wants to live in the moment, and a reminder of that can go a long way. However, I would not consider reading Tarot cards a magical talent or heighten intuition — it comes from practice. I interview Dr. Sarah Richards, a science teacher at Milton with a neuroscience doctorate, to get a better sense of the scientifically-studied abilities of the brain to tell the future.
* * *
I sit across from Dr. Richards in the science building, her pointed nose and bright eyes face me as she starts the interview with “this is a load of hooey.” Her bobbed blond hair frames her cheeks while she sucks in, she clearly has thought about psychics and done some research prior to our meeting. “They have skills, though — especially very good psychics — in interpreting behavior and micro-cues that you don’t even know that you do.” She references a Fox Network TV show, “Lie to Me,” about an investigator who uses applied psychology through interpreting microexpressions, the Facial Action Coding System (FACS), and body language, to catch criminals. Long-practicing psychics have essentially the same skills as the fictional lead of this show.
FACS has a code of 49 different facial ‘actions’ that can be interpreted. These actions include anything from sucking in your cheeks to flaring your nostrils. And that’s just for your facial muscles. There are also codes for head movements, eye movements (upward rolling or eyes positioned to look at other person, for example), visibility (whether or not a part of the face is being covered), and behavior (like swallowing, or a “fast up-down look”). These codes are studied and internalized by anyone who wishes to learn them by going to workshops, reading manuals, and getting certified. Wikipedia, however, does not detail the meanings of each code — each one can stand on its own, but in combination with others, there isn’t much your face doesn’t say about you.
Practice makes perfect. So, psychics who are both well-practiced and good at reading cues can learn about your personality, your past, and your worries from just how you sit on the couch and smirk at Buddha. “It’s a skill that all of us have,” Mr. Sinicrope told me, back in his classroom. “It’s a muscle, you can develop it and practice. You can ask yourself all sorts of questions that seem really trivial like, ‘how many seconds before the red light turns green?’ Guess ahead of time, then count. You probably won’t be very good at it at first, but you’ll get better.” How do you think you know what your sister or father or partner is feeling just by seeing their scrunched eyebrows or pursed lips? From years of living with them, then analyzing and reacting to their emotions, of course.
It’s not of Milton’s greater popular opinion to believe in clairvoyant powers outside the human ability to read emotion. In a survey I sent out to all Upper School Milton students and faculty with 192 total respondents, nearly 50% didn’t believe in psychic or intuitive powers outright, for reasons like, “It’s against my religion” and, “No human can read minds” to, “No scientific evidence” and, “If I did, my palm says I’d be dead at 45.” Many respondents said that people who call themselves intuitives or psychics have a heightened ability to trust their intuition, or their “gut feelings,” but that doesn’t mean they have some special power most of us do not. Essentially, most respondents believe that these people are really good at guessing.
CBS did a national poll on how many people believe in psychics’ powers, coming out with 57% believing in clairvoyant phenomena. Very few official polls have been done because this topic is so hard to measure. Some people may not believe in an ability to tell the future, but could believe in heightened intuition. Some may believe in the power of Tarot cards, but not in the power of the alleged psychic who reads them. Research Digest says that people with a higher life satisfaction are more likely to believe in superhuman powers and intuitiveness. Good faith and happiness from the beginning is key.
“—Tarek was his name? Yes, I’m sure phoneys like him aren’t unusual at all, but in your second reading [with Marylee], if you had walked into her living room with a bounce in your step and a bit more faith than you did, she might have really pulled you in,” Dr. Richards continues over the science building din. Let’s say I had walked into my reading with Marylee or Tarek already with a tingling belief in their advertized abilities. Maybe my body language or responses would show that I’m more receptive to vague questions, and from there, more responsive to vague answers.
Dr. Richards begins to hypothetically draw up this situation: “‘I’m sensing a grandmother…’ but then they see you crinkle your nose, so they back off. ‘No, no, I’m sensing a relative,’ and then you think well, I have relatives… and then you think of your most worrisome or relevant relative and think what does this psychic know.” Dr. Richards explains how she believes they use a sort of flow-chart method. If you react to the mentioning of a relative, they probe. If not, they back off and try another angle. Depending on your reaction, he or she could guess what emotion is associated with that relative and go from there.
A similar scenario could be a client asking about problems in his or her marriage. The psychic could ask about children, money, or work, all things that are relevant to nearly every modern marriage. The probability that the psychic would hit home on one of them is very high, and this is where good guessing comes in. “That’s a serious skill, and some people are very, very, very good at it,” laughs Dr. Richards. “But, it’s not scientifically proven to be a neurological power at all.”
On the other side of the coin, we know so little about the capabilities of the brain, just as Dr. Richards later described to me over the chatter of lab partners. Every brain is different, that we know for sure. So, what if the brains of “true” psychics are programmed differently, somewhere coding for heightened intuition? Mr. Sinicrope spoke of indigenous people, like the aborigines in Australia and the Native Americans, whose minds, he said, are not cluttered by technology, and are therefore more open and aware of the collective conscious. Similarly, people on the autism spectrum can have unimaginable brain power with numbers or music, doing things like calculations faster than a calculator and perfectly tuning instruments to any note by ear. Someone with hyperthymesia, a disorder causing an enlarged temporal lobe and connection to the hippocampus, can remember each detail from almost every day of his or her life. Certainly, these powers seem superhuman, but, as most sites on savants say, “relatively little is known about the processes governing these superior abilities.” The more I dig, the less I’m sure I can make a definitive statement about the brainpower of “true” psychics, nor is there a way to distinguish what a “true” psychic really is. As Dr. Richards rightly put it, “It’s like life on other planets. What if you say there isn’t and then it comes out later that there is?”
* * *
At the beginning of this article’s journey, I was close-minded and cynical. As much as I wanted to believe in magic and prophecy, I couldn’t convince myself — the mind is so powerful and intricate, it’s hard for me to attribute its ability to something otherworldly. It made more sense to me to think of psychics as people who fuel human need to know the future, something ever-changing and unpinnable. We have this obsession with wanting to be certain about everything, whether it’s to prepare or to prevent. Someone might work out and eat kale to prevent unnecessary weight gain. Most of us get annual shots to prevent the flu. My father takes fish oil every morning to reduce the risk of cancer. My little sister wears mascara to walk the dog in case she runs into someone she knows. We fear the unknown because it’s unknown. We cannot fully prepare for, nor fully prevent anything, so a chance to possibly know what we cannot know is rare and exciting.
As the weeks went by, whether it was through Marylee, Alicia, or Mr. Sinicrope, I realized the validity of psychics cannot come down to a simple “yes, I believe,” or “no, I do not.” What is unproven and unknown is truly that, no matter how I feel about it. This conclusion even made me ponder my atheism, something that has always been steadfast.
I recall the one moment from the past couple months that I was utterly immersed in the world of psychics. Back in Charlestown with Marylee Trettenero, I asked her if I was going to get into my top choice college (I know, not the most creative question). She stared at her Tarot cards, breathed in sharply through her nose before telling me that I would, indeed, get in. I felt a rush of relief and excitement with her answer, and it truly startled me — did I suddenly believe? In that brief moment, I had forgotten about all of the other vague nonsense she told me about my future and I focused on that one answer I wanted to hear. And therein lies the magic of a psychic. After all, what if she turns out to be right?
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