Selected articles from
VOL. 11  NO. 1  SUMMER 1998

Book cover & head

Talking to the living loved ones of the dearly departed

by Gary P. Posner

James Van Praagh's Talking to Heaven,  the New York Times #1 nonfiction best seller, may just be the most clearly written, entertaining, comprehensive and persuasive book yet published on any paranormal theme. Wouldn't know. Haven't read it. Doubt it, though.

Having seen this "spirit medium" work several audiences, I am persuaded of this much: Packaging the essence of James Van Praagh's "gift" into book form must necessarily cause lots to be lost in the translation. No, there is only one medium that does justice to this medium's conversations with the dead: the boob tube.

A well-done spirit-medium performance is rare -- especially in the opinion of conjurers (and others) well versed in the sleight-of-mind branch of magic known as "mentalism." In talking to the deceased and relaying their messages back to their appreciative loved ones, as Van Praagh has ostensibly been doing for the past 14 years, his primary technique seems indistinguishable from that of a magician/mentalist or, for that matter, the typical "psychic." In fact, he peppers his clients with such a non-stop barrage of questions that enough feedback is obtained to satiate an Ethiopian family of fourteen. His physical features and mannerisms remind me of comedian Rip Taylor who, during my formative years, would instantly win over his audiences by showering them not with questions, but with confetti and a grab bag of gag items.

In any event, one might have hoped that the November 20, 1997, edition of CBS-TV's "48 Hours," whose skeptical profile of Van Praagh featured James Randi, would have resulted in a cooling down of the "talking to the dead" craze. Not on your life. Despite Randi's instructive commentary as to the easily spotted "mentalism" techniques, Talking to Heaven  would spiral on to far greater heights.

As Van Praagh explains, when we die, we merely transfer into another energy form inhabiting a "different dimension." Our "thoughts" continue uninterrupted, though they are now communicated on a "higher frequency" or "vibration" than before. Fortunately for Van Praagh, his physiology allows him to pick up these "higher frequency" thought (not sound) waves. Van Praagh then requests that the departed spirit "lower" its thought-wave frequency back down to our normal level, enabling him to carry on a brisk conversation with the spirit. Even at the "normal/lower" frequency, his mediumship is still required because he hears "pure thoughts," not sounds.

My cathode-ray-tube research of Van Praagh might never have commenced had I not been asked by Tampa Tribune religion reporter Michelle Bearden to review a tape of the December 10, 1997, "Larry King Live" show (CNN) and to then provide her with a synopsis of my impressions for use in her March 15 article. Here is what I sent to her:

Van Praagh's methods are similar to those of the other superstars in the field such as Rosemary Altea (author of books like Proud Spirit ) and George Anderson (We Don't Die ).

His technique of obtaining information from the client, and then claiming to have received it from the "departed," was apparent. In one of many examples, he asked King if his deceased father had been a smoker. After  King said yes, only then  did Van Praagh claim to vividly see the father puffing away on a cigarette. In another, a caller volunteered that her sister had been murdered. Van Praagh only then  said that, yes, he could see that the death was very violent.

His other primary technique is to offer facts supposedly obtained from the "departed" and then ask the client, "Does that make sense to you?" If the client is able to make some sense of the reading, it is considered a "success." If not, it may still  be a "success" -- perhaps the client needs to consult with family or friends to figure out what the "departed" meant.

A "departed" mother told Van Praagh that someone in the caller/daughter's family had breast cancer and needed to see a doctor. The daughter said she didn't know who this could be. Rather than taking a few seconds to get that potentially life-saving information from the "departed," Van Praagh simply moved on. That spoke volumes to me about whether his act is genuine, or just a game.

I was initially impressed with one eerie "hit" during the show, until I replayed the segment and realized how Van Praagh did it. A woman called about her baby daughter's grandmother who had died. Larry King interrupted to ask the caller whether the deceased was the caller's  mother or the father's  mother. Before the caller could even answer, Van Praagh forcefully announced that, no, it was not the caller's mother, but the paternal grandmother -- and he was right! How did he do it? Had it been the caller's  mother, the caller would likely have inquired about her mother  rather than her daughter's grandmother!

Van Praagh could convince me of his genuineness within 5 minutes, or I could expose him just as quickly, with the simplest test imaginable. Have a series of strangers ask him to communicate with a departed relative, such as a father, and simply ask him to come up with the relatives' names. If he can hear the spirits speaking about all sorts of other matters, he certainly ought to be able to hear their names clearly enough. Only a genuine  "medium" could correctly get the names without client feedback or doing prior research.

My next viewing of Van Praagh was on the February 23, 1998, edition of "Oprah," during which she tactfully expressed her own skepticism and also played a few pre-recorded observations by Skeptics Society founder Michael Shermer. (Shermer was impeccable on the April 3 edition of ABC-TV's "20/20." On both shows he pointed out that Van Praagh scores far more misses than hits, but that audiences conveniently remember the hits and forget the misses.)

And Van Praagh was the focus of attention on the March 5 installment of "Charles Grodin" (CNBC), whose interview I found to be the most disappointing, by far, of the lot. Before acquiring his talk show, Grodin was a deadpan comedic actor of some renown. He has since distinguished himself as a sharp-minded host who, for instance, proved capable (during the O.J. days) of squaring off with the likes of Alan Dershowitz and landing more than his fair share of left hooks to the kidney.

Grodin took a few calls that night (I wanted to call, but the telephone number was never given!), but much of the hour was devoted to Van Praagh doing readings for several members of a small studio audience. Sometimes he didn't even need to ask a particular question of a client -- the information would be eagerly volunteered. At one point a reading about a deceased daughter moved an unrelated audience member to tears.

Despite the effusive praise heaped upon Van Praagh by the host, Grodin did chime in on a few occasions with pointed questions that appeared intended to test his guest's ability to come up with something specific  (e.g., a name or career) without relying upon feedback from the client. On each such occasion, Van Praagh either attempted to do so and failed, or simply offered a comment such as, "Sometimes it's hard for them to formulate the thought and send it to me in a correct way." Not until I read the article about Van Praagh in the March 16 issue of Time  magazine did I learn that one of Grodin's pre-arranged calls was from the son of a fabled actor. From Time:  "What Grodin knew, but didn't share with his audience, was that if Van Praagh really saw and spoke to the caller's father, he somehow failed to recognize the spirit of... John Wayne." But rather than finally expressing some degree of skepticism, as one audience member had bravely done, Grodin, who had no trouble seeing right through the "Dream Team," remained spellbound throughout.

I guess Grodin, like most adults, believes himself too sophisticated to be fooled by a performance such as was witnessed that evening. Certainly Van Praagh must be doing something more than merely talking to the living loved ones of the dearly departed, pumping them for information, and feeding it back to them (along with a few interspersed educated guesses -- and maybe even some information obtained surreptitiously), all the while pretending (or imagining) that he is speaking with the dead. [Indeed, he was caught cheating -- inquiring of a client beforehand as to whom she was there to contact -- during what he thought was a break in the taping of the "20/20" program.] But how can Grodin, and so many others, in spite of their intense desire to "believe," fail to appreciate the obvious similarities between a Van Praagh peppering session and the party games of "Hot and Cold" and "Twenty Questions"?

On the other hand, who am I to pass judgment? Grodin may have been dead right when he compared Van Praagh's "gift" to that of Jesus Christ and, by so doing, implied that Talking to Heaven  deserves a revered place on the bookshelf or mantelpiece alongside the New Testament. Wouldn't know. Haven't read them. Doubt it, though.

Notes: This article also appears as a "Commentary" in the current issue of Skeptic  magazine (Vol. 6 No. 1). CNBC has cancelled Charles Grodin's show as of early June 1998.

Hypnosis Featured at TBS Meeting

by Valerie Grey

Family legend has it that long before I was born, in the dead of pre-air-conditioned summer, my father hypnotized a woman at a Miami party into thinking that she was cold, and that she went around the rest of the evening wearing a heavy coat. I can't ask him about it because he's now dead, but I remember that, even as a small child, while he still talked enthusiastically about hypnosis, he refused to demonstrate it for us children. "It's not a game!" he would say. Apparently this party incident had given him a very serious respect for the potential for harming people through hypnosis.

With all the media reports about repressed memories being allegedly recovered through hypnosis -- and lawsuits  about the alleged recovery of repressed memories -- I thought it would be very interesting to have a professional psychologist and trained hypnotherapist come to speak at a TBS meeting, to help us try to separate hypnosis fact from fiction.

TBS Vice Chairman Miles Hardy arranged for a former student of his, P. Rhonne Sanderson, Ph.D., who practices hypnotherapy in Tampa, to speak at our March meeting. Dr. Sanderson gave a very interesting lecture on the colorful history of hypnosis. Of particular interest to me was his definition of hypnosis: a state of controlled day-dreaming, an altered state of consciousness (not un consciousness), a heightened state of awareness where acceptable suggestions become more acceptable.

Dr. Sanderson stressed that hypnosis is not "mind control" and that you can break out of the hypnotic state or talk or move your muscles at any time. While he said that we all experience hypnotic-like states frequently (e.g., when thoroughly absorbed in a book or movie; or when driving down a long, boring section of road and your mind wanders off -- and suddenly you "come to" with no memory whatsoever of having driven for the past 20 minutes), he said that you can't be formally hypnotized if you don't want to be, or be made to do things that go against your basic values.

I volunteered to be the subject for the hypnosis demonstration at the end of the lecture. I have to say at the outset that it wasn't exactly a fair trial of hypnosis, as I get stage fright under the best of circumstances. Although I had my eyes closed and everyone was very quiet, I was constantly aware of the existence of the audience, and it was difficult for me to relax completely and even, at times, to focus on what Dr. Sanderson was saying.

At lunch at the Village Inn afterward, several people asked me about my reactions and experiences during the demonstration. At no point did I feel any loss of personal volitional control, and I can't say that I really felt  "hypnotized" (but then -- how is that supposed  to feel?). Certainly there was a desire on my part to cooperate with the hypnotist. But I also felt a sense of trust -- going hand in hand with Dr. Sanderson's definition of the "acceptable becoming more acceptable." I can see that someone going to a hypnotherapist to stop smoking or drinking, or for weight control, would certainly have that same sense of trust and desire to be fully cooperative.

During his lecture, Dr. Sanderson mentioned that hypnosis has been used successfully in place of standard anesthesia for surgical procedures. TBS Executive Director Gary Posner, a physician, expressed his skepticism of this claim, pointing out that one of the most famous of such anecdotes, concerning the late New York Times reporter James Reston's emergency appendectomy in China, turned out to have been highly exaggerated. Dr. Sanderson agreed to provide us with documentary evidence to support his assertion, but as we go to press nearly three months later, the evidence has yet to arrive.

Nevertheless, undergoing hypnosis was definitely a very interesting experience that I would like to try again someday, and I hope that our members and guests also found both the lecture and demonstration worthwhile.


Therapeutic Touch" (TT), the new-age "healing" technique sweeping the nursing profession in North America, seems so transparently ridiculous that even a child ought to be able to see right through it. Well, that's exactly what happened -- sort of -- when Emily Rosa's fourth-grade science-fair project demonstrated that none of the 21 TT practitioners she tested was able to feel the "human energy field" with their hands, as they claim to be able to do. The study ultimately made its way to publication in the April 1 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA).  It turns out that Emily's mother Linda, the article's principal author, was the driving force behind Emily's selection of TT as a topic for study. Initially as a member of the Rocky Mountain Skeptics, and later as a leader of a breakaway skeptics group, Linda Rosa, a registered nurse, has been a vocal critic of TT for years. But had it not been for the participation of a child, such a study would most likely never have been accomplished. James Randi (and others) have been offering more than $1-million for the first successful demonstration of TT, and still there have been only a couple of aspirants -- all unsuccessful, of course.

(Scripps Howard News Service  via St. Petersburg Times, JAMA,  AP via the internet, L.A. Times,  Apr. 1; Time,  Apr. 13)

The "Amazing" Kreskin (not to be confused with James "The Amazing" Randi) has apparently offered his services gratis to Attorney General Janet Reno, to help ascertain who is telling the truth and who is not with regard to the Clinton White House scandals. A magician specializing in "mentalism," Kreskin, referred to in the article as a "seer and psychic," purportedly claimed in his letter to Reno that he has the ability to "determine [the] actual thoughts" of the principals. The Justice Department was so impressed with Kreskin's claim that it felt no need to reply to his letter. Said spokesman Bert Brandenburg, "He knows our response."

(San Francisco Chronicle  via Tampa Tribune,  Mar. 21)

According to a study published in the April issue of the journal Pediatrics,  81% of children who die as a result of faith healing would almost certainly survive were they to instead receive conventional medical care. The study examined the circumstances surrounding the deaths, between 1975 and 1995, of 172 children whose parents had opted for miracles over proven remedies. An additional 10% of the dead children would have had a greater than 50% chance of survival had they been allowed to receive medical treatment.

(St. Pete. Times,  Apr. 7)

Clearwater City Attorney Pam Akin has recommended to the City Commission that fortune tellers once again be permitted to operate legally within the city limits. Banned since 1971 (along with ice cream trucks until last year), some commissioners still want to keep out these "psychics," or at least limit where they can open shop. Commissioner J.B. Johnson considers them to be "undesirables" who dupe their customers. Says Commissioner Ed Hooper, "I don't think this is part of the redevelopment we want to encourage."

(St. Pete. Times,  May 5)

TBS in the Media

Terry Smiljanich appeared on the Ch. 8 11:00 News on Friday the 13th (of March) to offer a skeptical view on -- guess what.

Miles Hardy's input was featured on Ch. 13's 10:00 News on April 24, during a report on the alleged "healing" powers of dolphins (also see TBS Report, Fall 1997).

Gary Posner was quoted in Michelle Bearden's March 15 Tampa Tribune article on James Van Praagh (see our lead article). Posner was also quoted in a March 23 Asheville (NC) Citizen-Times story about Dr. Larry Dossey (author of Healing Words ) called "The Power of Prayer." The writer, John Boyle, was referred to Posner by Dossey himself, who considers Posner one of his leading critics (Posner's review of Healing Words  was published in the Summer 1994 issues of TBS Report  and Skeptical Inquirer ). And he was interviewed for Jeanne Malmgren's April 14 St. Pete. Times article on James Randi.

Letters to the Editor / Readers' Forum

Editor: I enjoyed your presentation on TBS that you gave at the St. Pete. Bayfront Hilton last November during Paul Kurtz's visit.

The reason I am writing, though, is because I'm especially impressed by the Tampa Bay Skeptics Report,  not only for its content (which is certainly praiseworthy in itself), but also for the excellent printing quality. Moreover, your newsletter's emphasis on inquiry combined with critical thinking makes it a perfect resource for a new children's enrichment program that I am coordinating.

I hope to see you again at an upcoming TBS meeting. For the time being, please accept my enclosed check for membership.

Robert Curry
St. Petersburg

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