This is What a Celebrity Psychic’s Obituary Should Look Like

The New York Times, yesterday, published an obituary of “psychic” Sylvia Browne that is strikingly accurate without giving her more credit than she’s due.

What makes it worth reading aren’t the descriptions of the major details of her life, but how the reporter suggests that her claim to fame was suspect all along.

This is how William Yardley puts it:

Sylvia Browne, a self-proclaimed psychic…

Right from the start, an important disclaimer, considering that there was no proof she had any supernatural powers.

Her misses were included in the piece along with her few lucky hits:

She often took credit for accurately predicting that the government intern Chandra Levy would be found dead in Rock Creek Park in Washington — though law enforcement officials had been searching that area since shortly after she was reported missing in May 2001.

More than once, with the television cameras rolling, Ms. Browne told the parents of a missing child that their son or daughter was dead — sometimes she would say precisely where — only for the child to be found alive later

And the piece doesn’t gloss over her primary source of cash:

much of her income came from customers who paid $700 to ask her questions over the telephone for 30 minutes.

The obituary doesn’t flat-out say she was a con-artist but we’re able to infer as much with little work on our part.

And the final paragraphs just set us up for a laugh at her expense:

… In 2012, she made a brief video that she said was intended to put at ease people who were concerned that the world would end on Dec. 12.

“Although I do believe that the world will sustain itself, I don’t believe we’re going to be here after about 95 years,” she said. “People get very concerned about that, but it’s not going to be some type of horrible monster coming out of the sea and eating you or tearing your flesh off and throwing people down into a pit of hell. A loving God would not do that to anybody. You have to think logically.

Of all the things Browne was known for, thinking logically wasn’t one of them.

Is the article disrespectful? I’m inclined to say no. It’s honest. Browne was notable as much for the criticism she drew as she was for her books and talk show appearances.

The question we should be asking is why all articles written about people who make supernatural claims don’t include these sorts of disclaimers, that their claims have no basis in evidence. All too often, we see the media talk about psychics and near-death-experiencers and pastors as if they have some kind of special beyond-this-world power. The truth is far less interesting, yet you rarely see objective analyses of their beliefs in the mainstream media.

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the chair of Foundation Beyond Belief and a high school math teacher in the suburbs of Chicago. He began writing the Friendly Atheist blog in 2006. His latest book is called The Young Atheist's Survival Guide.

  • Intelligent Donkey

    Disrespectful? It’s not as if she deserved any respect.

  • Mark

    Now if only the NYT would refer to the founder of any religion as a “self-proclaimed prophet”

    • Peter_FairMarket

      What if the religion disclaims any prophecy? Bokononism comes to mind.

  • Donna

    It was truthful and accurate.

  • Paul Reed

    “Is the article disrespectful? I’m inclined to say no. It’s honest.”

    Sometimes honesty is, by it’s very nature, disrespectful.
    Or, rather, irreverent.

  • Jim T

    Silly psychic, tricks are for…….oh wait.

    • Sam C

      Stupid people!

  • http://www.autodidactic.biz/ Nashville Kat

    A refreshing piece about a person making fantastic claims that had no fantastic proof. A blind person in a shooting gallery will eventually hit a target if there is enough ammunition.It was not disrespectful. Would that all pieces about such people be as candid.

    • Lando

      Especially if that blind shooter were paid $700 for every shot…hit, or miss.

      • http://www.autodidactic.biz/ Nashville Kat

        Lando–I completely overlooked that aspect. Excuse me, but I’m getting a vision. Yes, that’s it. The world will end–someday!

  • Bob Becker

    Love the final line of the obit. Nicely done.

  • unclemike

    She once predicted that she would live until she was 88 years old.

    Only off by eleven years. ;)

    • Sam C

      Yeah, yeah, who cares? You people are acting like you’re surprised she was a fraud.

      • unclemike

        Hmm. And I thought we were acting like we’re surprised her fraud isn’t mentioned more often in her obits.

    • Schizont

      That is 87.5% accurate, much better than her other guesses…oops predictions.

  • Ida Know

    “The truth is far less interesting, yet therefore you rarely see objective analyses of their beliefs in the mainstream media.”

    FTFY

  • http://youtu.be/fCNvZqpa-7Q Kevin_Of_Bangor

    700 dollars for 30 minutes. Holy shit!!!

    • Sue Blue

      Yeah, apparently all of us who do an honest day’s work for our pay are in the wrong business. That this woman could get rich spouting pure, unadulterated bullshit for $700 a pop indicates the breadth and depth of the gullible idiot market.

      • Sam C

        Yeah, we’re not running out of stupid people anytime soon, not too late to get in on it lol.

    • http://squeakysoapbox.com/ Rich Wilson

      Yes, she’d probably sell her shit too.

  • ORAXX

    Prophets, tend to be for profit.

  • Brent Rivera

    “Disrespectful”? Claims of magic don’t warrant respect.

  • DawnellC

    My obituary for her would have read: Ding dong, that crazy bitch is dead.

  • NoWayOut99

    The last line of her obit should read, “She was 77, eleven years younger than her predicted death at 88.”

  • Carlos M. Morales

    She is NOT dead.. she just went to tell ” Casper the friendly ghost ” that he is dead….in person ( or ” in ghost ?)

  • LesterBallard

    I bet her believers are going apeshit over that obit.

  • cag

    30 minutes of talk $700, information – worthless.

  • JaneRenee

    You ask why all articles aren’t as honest? You said it in the last paragraph – “the truth is far less interesting.”

  • Karl Goldsmith

    Here lays a charlatan.

    • amsterdamsel

      Would that not be ‘lies’??? (pun intended) :-)

  • AmandaM

    I was never a fan of her’s, and never took her seriously, since I am a rationalist. I always viewed her as an entertainer of sorts. What a terrible mistake it was to inaccurately describe a death that never occurred. I tend to like to take a big step back, and view the whole picture. If it weren’t for those who seek out these people, Sylvia Browne and others wouldn’t have careers. I don’t see the point in the verbal attacks toward someone who is now dead. I’d hate to say what particular group this reminds me of.

    • Sam C

      Yeah really. Take advantage of gullible people, easy way to get rich. She was nothing more than a talented actor. But anyone skilled at reading body language would be able to see that, and therefore would not be stupid enough to give her money lol.

      • AmandaM

        That’s my point. I don’t think its right to do it. But as long as there is a market, there will always be profit in the industry. And people willing to reep the rewards.

  • AmandaM

    Nobody is forced to buy books, pay for “psychics”, watch Montel, etc. They do it on their own. I’m not making excuses for her, but these people get rich because there is a market for it. Who’s fault is that? Throwing insults at a dead woman won’t change the problem.

    • http://gamesgirlsgods.blogspot.com/ Feminerd

      Just because there are gullible people out there still means that if you take advantage of them, you’re not a good person. Lying to desperate people for money is unethical even if people are willing to pay you for your lies.

      • AmandaM

        Agreed, and like I said, I’m not making excuses for her. I’m just pointing out that there is a bigger problem at hand. And since she is now dead, insulting her and calling her a witch, isn’t going to solve any problems. I can guarantee the people who bought into her, are now searching elsewhere. I also know quite a few people who go to psychics, and for the most part, for entertainment. Again, I’m not coming to her rescue, but to me the anger directed at her, should actually go towards the industry.

        • http://gamesgirlsgods.blogspot.com/ Feminerd

          Yes. And sometimes, that anger sharpens and targets individuals who are the face of the industry, using the personification to also indict the industry. It’s a very human reaction, and a fairly effective one.

          • AmandaM

            Ok, so why not just go directly to the source? I’m sure in most cities, you can find local psychics and mediums in the yellow pages, taking money directly out of the community. Have you voiced your concerns with local psychics in your community lately? If the point here is concern for gullible, naive people. Are you actually doing something about it?

            • http://gamesgirlsgods.blogspot.com/ Feminerd

              Nope! I don’t care enough to do anything about it. It’s just not that high up on my priority list. Doesn’t mean I think any of the psychics are anything but frauds, and I’ll so inform any of my friends who wanted to use one, but I just don’t think it’s important enough to do much more than write comments on a blog about.

              On the other hand, blogs raise awareness, and high comment counts even moreso, so maybe this counts as doing a very tiny bit of something? Not likely, though.

              • AmandaM

                Then it must not be that big of an issue. People spending their own money on a service, that doesn’t happen to be illegal. There are a ton of internet scams by the way, which make promises and take your money, only to never even deliver the service you paid for. Google relationship advice. You can’t tell people how to spend their money. And if it isn’t important to actually want to do something more than just talk and complain, it isn’t much of an issue.

                • http://gamesgirlsgods.blogspot.com/ Feminerd

                  It’s not a big issue. That doesn’t make it not worth talking about, nor pointing out that scamming people makes you a bad person.

      • AmandaM

        And on a smaller scale, how many people have been lied to by mechanics? Politics? Real Estate agents, attorneys, etc, etc, etc. So since Sylvia Browne is dead, this is going to stop all the unethical people doing business. One liar is no better than any other. Just my opinion, of course its unpopular. I think we should let the woman have her funeral first.

        • http://gamesgirlsgods.blogspot.com/ Feminerd

          Your point? Because other people also lie, we can’t say anything about a person who literally made her living off only lying? Sure, one liar is no better than any other, but she’s an exceptionally egregious example. Should we condemn no liars, letting them all lie with impunity, because one is no better than any other?

          We use her as an example of what not to do.

          • AmandaM

            Well, my point is targeting just one liar, who can no longer lie because she is dead, isn’t exactly going to accomplish anything good. There are many professions that are based on lies, that probably actually take more advantage of every day people than a celebrity psychic. If you have 700 dollars to blow frivolously, I don’t think that deserves any pity. Between the time it takes to pick up the phone, dial the hotline, whip out your wallet, and provide your credit card number, there was plenty of time to hang up the phone and not be a complete moron. Those people concern me more than the now dead Sylvia Browne.

            • http://squeakysoapbox.com/ Rich Wilson

              I think you get more benefit for your cost exposing a well known fraud like Sylvia Browne than your local corner psychic.

              I’m not sure that’s changed now that she’s dead, although it is perhaps a bit harder to debunk her.

              I’d like to see something done about ‘California Psychics’. Did you know they screen their psychics? So that way you can be sure of getting real psychics, not frauds.

              Our team of psychic managers carefully screens all of our psychics before they are hired. They continue to monitor all psychics during the time they are with California Psychics. This process helps to verify that each psychic has an authentic gift and a positive, caring approach to your future. Our evaluation team rigorously tests each applicant for acute psychic ability, dedication to ethical standards and customer care skills. If the applicant receives an excellent assessment, the information is then forwarded to the Psychic Management team for review.

              http://www.californiapsychics.com/about/psychic-quality.aspx

          • AmandaM

            There is always two sides to every problem. If the goal is to take it down, you have to target both sides. People willing to finance it, is a big problem. Sylvia Browne was just one psychic out of many. She’s gone, but there are many others in her place. And many more seeking it out. It’s called supply and demand. If there is no demand, then there is no supply. And, just for the record. I agree she wasn’t a good person. I just see it from all angles, and think attacking her obituary is tacktless,and certainly pointless.

            • http://gamesgirlsgods.blogspot.com/ Feminerd

              A lot of her clients didn’t have $700 to blow frivolously. They were desperate, and she promised to help. She took advantage of scared, grieving parents with missing children. That is nothing but despicable, and she deserves harsh remonstrance for it, even after she’s dead. Let her serve as an example of how not to be, as I said before.

      • Sam C

        So what, and what is going to happen to her now that she’s dead? She got rich, and people are stupid. Hey, when you become an adult, you’re accountable for your own actions. So if you’re stupid enough to believe she talks to the dead, and are willing to pay for it, then you lost your money and you’re going to have to deal with it like an adult. If anything, people like her are geniuses. They know how to lie with a straight face, she should have tried her hand at poker. Some people are taking this too personally.

        • Grizzly Adams

          Believing you can talk to the dead is about ignorance than stupidity

        • http://gamesgirlsgods.blogspot.com/ Feminerd

          Again: taking advantage of gullible people does not make you a good person. It actually pretty much precludes you from being a good person.

          How are we taking this personally? I am not exactly thrilled that you are defending a conwoman, since it means I live in a world in which people glorify lying and taking advantage, but at the end of the day it’s your dice. Sylvia Browne doesn’t affect me at all now that she’s dead. You, on the other hand, are not, and your opinions on this matter tell me what your opinions on a lot of other matters are. They are pernicious and harmful.

  • Kenneth Polit

    One should never speak of the dead unless it’s good. Sylvia Browne is dead…good.

  • Nancy

    It’s fine for the journalist to be so frank about his subject, particularly given her self proclamations. What I take umbrage with is his use of the children’s names. Not cool at all. I cannot imagine the kind of shit she may have pulled with them over the years, and so there was no need of this writer making sure a newly riled-up public could google the offspring and their offspring. Nice?

    “Survivors include her husband, Michael Ulery; two sons from a previous marriage, named and named; three grandchildren; and a sister, named.”

    • Mario Strada

      I think that’s a pretty standard format for Obituaries.

    • JohnnieCanuck

      There’s also the part where they were in on her depredations. One of those sons, Christopher Dufresne, was touted by her as the second best psychic in the world. You can tell, because he only charged $500 per half hour.

      Wonder how many of her surviving family are going to refuse to accept the tainted money from her estate.

  • HeraSentMe

    I’ve never wished a person dead, but I have read many obituaries with great relish.

    (Thanks to Mark Twain.)

  • Drakk

    I think she ought to write her own obituary. After all, being a “medium” herself, she can obviously work through someone like herself very easily.

  • Sam C

    I think if you’re dumb enough to buy b.s, you deserve to lose 700 bucks just for your stupidity. Stupid people are abundant, it doesn’t bother me she got rich. Just like all the dumb people who give money to evangelical tv ministers. Hey, if you’re too stupid to ask questions, you lost your money fair and square.

    • alfaretta

      Fraud isn’t okay whether you get away with it or not.

  • CATMAN

    He also resisted the temptation to say she died of an unforeseen illness


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