Mind games

We spoke to a fake psychic about how they get away with it

12th September 2019

“You couldn’t do what I do by fucking around with tarot cards and pretending to read auras.”

This confession comes from a 43-year-old psychic medium who, for this article, wishes to be known as Sandra*.

If you’re one of her clients, Sandra appears as a gifted clairvoyant who has been practising for almost 15 years and whose grandmother possessed the “second sight”.

But to those who know her best, she confesses much of her art is a mixture of social media research, clever decoration, and sizing people up. Or, what harsher critics would deem, a scam.

As a friend-of-a-friend, Sandra has agreed to chat about the most sinister of her dark arts and even perform a reading  — promising to reveal any tricks she employs along the way.

I’m intrigued, but spend the days before our meeting feeling slightly terrified and consider cancelling as I fear the murky truths she might uncover.

But wimping out would go against the grain of investigative journalism and so, at 3pm on Bank Holiday Monday, I knock on the door of her Huddersfield home — a three-bed ex-council semi she shares with husband, Kevin*.

I don’t want anyone thinking I get rich from what I do. My clients need to know we’re a normal family struggling to make ends meet

Standing on the porch, I think I smell incense coming from the house and wonder if this is one of the tools she uses to contact the spirits, but soon recognise it as the stench of weed emanating from God-knows-where.

Sandra answers almost immediately. She’s friendly but insists her builder husband will be home early and she needs to get tea on. I take this as code for: “I’ll answer your questions, but try to hurry things along.”

From the moment she escorts me to the backroom in which she performs her readings, which she jokingly refers to as her “psychic emporium”, the performance begins.

You never expected her to fuck you over

The setting is far more low-key than I expected. There’s a vague odour of primary school dinners and the stained carpet reminds me of something from The Royle Family. Yet, despite the apparent mess, every item has its place.

“I don’t want anyone thinking I get rich from what I do. My clients need to know we’re a normal family struggling to make ends meet,” says Sandra, who charges £30 for an hour’s reading.

“I want people to think of their auntie’s house. When you went round to visit her as a kid, you never expected her to fuck you over.” Indeed I did not.

Even her choice of outfit is surprisingly everyday. She’s wearing a top I recognise from the sale in Dorothy Perkins and has dark roots peeping out from her bleach-blonde choppy bob. Somewhere in the back of my mind, I think I’d expected Madam Zelda adorned in gold chains and rubbing her crystal ball.

Look, I’m not saying I don’t get a sense about people… but there are ways to help things along

Now, the pleasantries are over, Sandra gets down to business. She asks if I’d lost a parent at a young age and whether this coincided with a “major event” in my life.

This cuts. My dad did indeed die when I was 18, with this funeral three days before my Oxbridge interview.

Was this a message from the spirit world? “Look, I’m not saying I don’t get a sense about people and there’s definitely a sadness about you, but there are ways to help things along.”

All she’d needed to do to find this information was enter my name into Google and voila, she came across an article I’d written on this very subject.

Sometimes people just want to believe a fantasy and I give them that

“You’re an open book. I could find your age, profession and personality within five minutes. There’s always one. That person who can’t help revealing everything on Twitter.”

She isn’t wrong. Friends often rebuke me for oversharing and making virtual strangers uncomfortable in cyberspace.  Feeling uneasy, I ask Sandra if she has any moral qualms over capitalising on people’s grief for profit.

She looks vacant. “Sometimes people just want to believe a fantasy and I give them that. Besides, I never told you had lost a parent or that this information came from the spirits. I just asked if you had.” Forget psychic, Sandra’s true vocation is clearly as a barrister.

The modern-day crystal ball

“There are people in this game who would tell you they had a message from your dad. I’d never sink that low”.

I ask Sandra whether she believes these technicalities make a difference. This is the only point at which she gets defensive.

“You wanted to see the sinister side of the business so I’m not pulling any punches.” This is starting to feel like a fucked-up mind game and there’s no doubt she’s winning.

~ Similar in features: Wicca is being used as a tool for sexual predators and paedophiles

“I’m pretty good at getting into people’s heads,” she says, and she’s clearly in mine. “Most of the time, people come to me for a laugh so I avoid the darker stuff.”

She’s also quick to point out I have written extensively about my personal life and asks whether I ought to “get my knickers in a twist” when people read those articles. “It’s like inviting someone to a party and then telling them to fuck off as soon as they arrive.”

I’m not sure I agree, but it’s an interesting take on the situation. As a journalist, it’s sometimes my job to willingly write about my experience, but that isn’t the same for members of the public, that information isn’t necessarily offered up in the same way.

Most people give away far more than they realise

Perhaps in an attempt to lighten the mood, her next revelation is that my birthday is coming up. Also true and also information I gave away easily on Twitter — this time, by announcing a wish list of presents.

Surely, I’m an exception, a naturally needy person who makes something approaching a living revealing personal details online?

“You’re an easy case, but most people give away far more than they realise,” says Sandra, who asks clients for their email addresses when they book. “I tell them it’s so I can send directions to my house, but every now and again, I do a little research.

“If someone doesn’t use Twitter, LinkedIn can be a goldmine. Say a person often moves jobs, it’s hardly a reach to say they’re probably craving stability.”

I really wanted to tell this beautiful young woman to run and never look back. Wankers never change

Does she have a typical client? According to Sandra, most of her business comes from women in their mid-thirties seeking reassurance about a major life decision.

One of her most recent readings was with a woman who was about to get married. Her fiance had previously cheated and she was desperate to know if he could be trusted. “She wanted to know he would be faithful so that’s what I told her. I really wanted to tell this beautiful young woman to run and never look back. Wankers never change.

~ More by Katy Ward: How I became a homeless Oxbridge graduate

“More often than not, the person coming for the reading does most of the work themselves. If a psychic makes some vague comment about getting hurt in a previous relationship, they make the connection to an evil ex.”

Before our meeting, I’d Googled this phenomenon. Apparently, it’s a form of cognitive bias psychologists refer to “subjective validation” in which people make a personal connection to a generalised statement in a desperate need to believe it to be true.

Sandra hasn’t heard this term but isn’t surprised. “Christ, I encounter just about every aspect of human behaviour with what I do.”

Does that mean I have extrasensory perception? Who is to say?

Next, I ask if she worries about the legal ramifications of her activities since her business is covered under the EU’s Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations, which are designed to protect consumers from unfair trading practices.

Personally, I’d like to see any industry relying on the emotions of potentially vulnerable people thoroughly scrutinised, but Sandra points out the ambiguities in this area.

“I don’t disagree, but how could the police investigate this?” asks Sandra. “The whole business of psychics is based on something that can’t be proved.

“I’m a highly intuitive person and often pick up on things others miss. Does that mean I have extrasensory perception? Who is to say?”

Two hundred and fifty years ago, I would have been burned at the stake and now I have half my working life stalking people like you on Twitter?

I point out to Sandra that, since this is an EU directive, it could theoretically become invalid if Britain does indeed leave the EU on 31 October or Halloween. The coincidence of these dates isn’t lost on her.

“Fucking brilliant,” she says. Maybe the spirits have more power than my meeting with Sandra would have us believe.

This article circa 1671 📷 Wellcome Library, London

What I found most interesting when researching psychics is that the earliest legislation relating to mediums in the UK can be found in the Witchcraft Act of 1755.

Sandra, perhaps appropriately, cackles when I tell her this. ”So two hundred and fifty years ago, I would have been burned at the stake and now I have half my working life stalking people like you on Twitter?”

Once her laughter subsides, she turns sombre. “I can tell you disapprove of the psychic industry, but it’s not like I have so many options myself.

“I can’t tell you how many red letters we get and I’ve answered the door to bailiffs more than once.”

At this, I have far more sympathy for her than I imagined I would in the first few minutes of our interview.

It’s almost four o’clock and time for me to leave and let Sandra get her husband’s tea on, but I have one final question. How would she predict my future if this were a genuine reading?

“I’d tell you that the problems of your past are no guarantee of what is to come and you’ll experience great success within your career.”

Sounds great, and my meeting with Sandra hasn’t eroded my belief in the world of psychics, but it has certainly been one of the most bizarre, most fucked-hours I have ever spent and I leave feeling emotionally exhausted.

 

*Names have been changed

12th September 2019