Book Review - Aping Mankind: Neuromania, Darwinitis and the Misrepresentation of Humanity, by Raymond Tallis
Paranormal Aesthetics

Sylvia Browne in Two Worlds

I was delighted when HarperOne in San Francisco offered to send me a review copy of Steve Volk's Fringe-ology. As journalists sympathetic to parapsychology we already have a lot in common. But that was a month ago and the book only showed up this morning.

(I had the same experience sending copies of my book to American contacts; they took weeks to arrive and some never arrived at all. What gives? Perhaps I should sacrifice to the postal deities.)

Still, better late than never. I'll review Fringe-ology here shortly.

In the meantime, perhaps by way of consolation, the publisher sent me two other recent books by American mediums: Growing Up in Heaven by James Van Praagh: and Psychic: My Life in Two Worlds by Sylvia Browne. Neither has much exposure in the UK, so I'm not familiar with them, although sceptics complain loudly about them in print.

Browne especially seems to be what is politely termed a 'polarizing figure'. She has a large following in America, thanks to a high profile in the media, but also a reputation for unreliability, vagueness, and claiming successes that really aren't. Few of her predictions come true, according to Michael Prescott here, and her conviction of financial fraud doesn't help.

So I read her book with curiosity. As a human story of a down-to-earth, gutsy woman making her way in the world, I found it engaging and sympathetic. It helps that it's penned by a professional writer, but the wit, sensitivity and passion are obviously hers.

Some negatives: I gather from comments on Amazon that Browne has told the story of her life several times already, so it's unlikely there's much here that's new. In fact it's similar to any number of other biogs by professional psychics that I've read over the years. Even the title 'My Life in Two Worlds' is familiar, used by Gladys Osborne Leonard who was the subject of a number of weighty research papers by the Society for Psychical Research.

As with all such books I found myself rebelling against the sheer literalism of the whole psychic thing. It's easier to believe when it's a family talking about something that happened to them once or twice, that they can describe but can't explain. But it's much harder to take at face value someone who claims to have these experiences all the time, especially when she's on the telly all the time. Even if you accept that there is such a thing as psychic perception you've no way of knowing if any given event she descibes is real, or if she's making it up to get attention and fill up space.

I also feel uneasy about the intimate knowledge that mediums claim of the the geography and demographics of the next world. Browne is big on angels, which she says are 'their own species, God's divine legion of messengers and protectors', and have wings of varying hues that indicate their level of power. Why did mediums of earlier generations never talk about angels? Or perhaps they did, and I just wasn't paying attention.

Allowing for the self-congratulation and exaggeration that's inevitable in celebrity memoirs it's an engaging story well told. Fortunately there's little of the defensiveness or settling scores with naysayers that quite often mar these sorts of books. She might have indulged in self-pity over her financial woes and failed marriages, but doesn't. There's little detail of the case for which she was charged and convicted: her story is that it was a failed venture by her then husband and former business manager who was signing cheques in her name, and she only found out when the shit hit the fan. Well, it's possible.

I'm guessing Browne is a genuine psychic who has overreached her abilities with constant high-profile public appearances that create a demand for results she can't possibly satisfy. But she doesn't care, because she knows she can depend on key friends in the media and an adoring and uncritical public, who all fall for her self-assurance and charisma. It wouldn't be the first time.

There's a paradox here. High-profile psychics like Browne certainly do a great deal to convince large numbers of people - the ones who are easily convinced - about the reality of survival of consciousness. They do good in spreading ideas about spirituality, bringing consolation to the bereaved and helping people find meaning in life. At the same time, their high profiles, and the short-cuts and fudging they are bound to fall into, make them an easy target for sceptics, who only have to point to them to carry their case with their more critical audience. That makes it harder for people like me to insist that psi is real, and not just a way for hucksters to make a killing. Polarizing indeed.


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i have observed the American psychic and medium community for over 40 years. As a psychologist, I have always had an interest in trance channeling. I visited my first medium at age 19 in 1968 in the small upstate New York psychic community of Lilydale. it was then and remains today frozen in 19th century architecture and 19th and early 20th century Spiritualism. it attracts and trains mediums, psychics, eccentrics and Sylvia Browne type psychics and mediums from all over the world. At 19 I was impressed with the accuracy of the medium William Turner, who living in his grandmother's(or maybe his mother's) Victorian house, would close his eyes, put on her glasses, and channel a vaguely Victorian voice that actually proved remarkably accurate and prescient as my life story unfolded over the next 4 decades. i was able to write it all down at the time and referred to it from time to time over the decades dumbfounded by something he said that became remarkably accurate 20 years later. These were not vague details and "cold reading hits" but actual names, events, trends in my life that i had no idea of what he meant when he said them in 1968.

Having said that, I think tat the long deceased William Turner was an exceptional psychic and not part of the rule, even in Lilydale. Mr Turner told me that he was in a study with McGill University Professor and well known Psychologist Hans Selye who wrote about stress. This was a good 6 years before I went into graduate training in psychology and Turner accurately predicted my future profession well before i truly thought about becoming a psychologist. it wasn't until I was taking a graduate course in psyhcophysiology that I heard Selye's half forgotten name mentioned and found my old notes from the reading in 1978. The notes continued to play out my life with uncanny accuracy for the next several decades. I was and continue to be impressed with that personal experience.

Having said this, I find Lilydale style spiritual readings somewhat trite. A recent trip there only confirmed my impressions. There just doesn't seem to be much real talent or spiritual depth in this "community stuck in a time warp". I say this in relation to psychics like Browne and Van Praagh. Browne shoots herself in the foot with her televised predictions that have led to gleeful websites dedicated solely to debunking Sylvia Browne. I have no interest in Browne and other Angelcentric psychics who see dead grandmothers, uncles, pets....whatever.

I agree that she may have some natural psychic ability but she is in way over her head. I know that many gifted psyhcics in the past and present have more than a little Trickster in them and get caught in hamfisted amateurish cheating for no good reason. You mention Eusapia Palladino in your book Randi's Prize. I think that Uri Geller and Ted Serios may also have or had genuine psychic abilities but the media and hubris got in the way. I currently have a patient who knows nothing about psychic phenomena describe poltergeist activities in his apartment and has moved several times thinking it was the apartment but electrical appliances turn on and off,his bedsheets are often ripped of his bed while he is at work, pictures and crosses constantly fall or move around, loose change flies around his living room and he describes being visited by "people who just died" who seem to want him to communicate something to someone. He describes the communication as telepathic and he has no idea why they show up or what he is supposed to do. He once wnt into a spontaneous trance in my office and downloaded packets of metaphysical information to me. The material was of an advanced metaphysical knowledge beyond his normal egoic understanding.As a psychologist, I can discern paranormal material from manifestations symptomatic of Axis I DSM IV-R criteria for psychoses,manias, delusions,auditory,olfactory, visual and tactile hallucinations,and people who try to fake these various psychopathologies.

The point I'm making is that while mediumship and channeled material such as Jane Robert's Seth and William James Afterlife channelings,the nature of Consciousness,lucid dreaming, remote viewing, NDE's and OBE's, psychokinesis are all of interest to me, Sylvia Browne, Van Praagh and others, and mediocre Lilydale 19th century spiritualism no longer are of interest to me. They also become convenient straw men for lazy debunkers .

There used to be a website called stopsylviabrown which exposed some of her more egregious activities. Personally I think she is a disgrace.

I couldn't agree more, Paul.

Yeah Browne is an icon of all that is wrong with New-Age fuzzywuzzyness - hucksterism, gullibility, dumbed downness and wishful thinking. Skeptics focus on her because she is such an easy target and then all serious psi researchers get tarred with the same brush.

I am mystified at how anyone in the mainstream press or entertainment industry that is honestly interested in the paranormal,can easily come over here and have a dialogue with Robert McLuhan. Or, they can go online elsewhere to contact Michael Prescott, Alex Tsakiris, Jime (of Subversive Thinking), Bruce Greyson, Dean Radin, Jim Tucker, Chris Carter, anyone at IANDS or The Society for Psychical Research, TDG, etc.. for credible information validating various paranormal phenomena. But what do they do? They go to the Sylvia Browns of the world.

Tell ya what Robert. Go take some lessons in cold reading, put on a saffron robe, change your name, make a lot of cash, then bust the whole thing wide open using credible evidence.
Better save your money though. 'cause once that happens, you'll go broke faster than you can say "Rupert Sheldrake".

I read one of her books. She discussed various aspects of the afterlife that didn't seem to agree with many other books I've read so I am skeptical about what she says in general.

I've seen James Van Praagh on tv and read one of his books. He seems genuine to me. I don't know why people are lumping him with Browne. There were lots of specific issues about her mentioned abouve but nothing specific abour Praagh. Why are folks dumping on him without giving any reasons?

"They do good in spreading ideas about spirituality, bringing consolation to the bereaved and helping people find meaning in life."

But can also harm people with bogus proclamations -

Browne also offers a lesson in how NOT to respond to sceptical (or "sceptikal") criticism...

Rabitt, where can you contact Bruce Greyson? So far as I know you can send in your NDE, provided you've had one, to the department he works in.

Im asking 'cause id like to contact him.. but I would have always thought that would be somewhat diffculy, if not entirely impossible.

Kinda off-topic but I guess this place is as good as any to ask the question. Im looking for places to discuss paranormal phenomena and its implications, rather than duking it out with skeptics, to determine, for example, if mediumship, while paranormal, is communication with desceased and conscious beings or the embodiement of the footprint left by living minds on the unconscious. Im aware of some NDE forums where this kind of discussion is going on.. but Id be interested to know if its going on elsewhere.



Well you can discuss it here of course. Plus you may also try Michael Prescott's blog.

I think I screwed the hyperlink up but you get the idea.

"Rabitt, where can you contact Bruce Greyson? So far as I know you can send in your NDE, provided you've had one, to the department he works in."

It looks like you already know, but an email to The Virginia School of Medicine Division of Perceptual Studies might work.
I imagine that a journalist, published author or credentialed entertainment industry type would not have much of a problem getting a response. I'm sure Dr. Greyson would get hammered with all kinds of emails that he wouldn't have time to respond to if they didn't get screened for him.
The only other way I know is to join IANDS as a 'professional member' ($125.00 U.S.). No professional papers are required to join, but it's a little pricey, unless you look at it (as I do) as a means of supporting IANDS.
You then have access to tons of email contacts with folks in the paranormal research community. 'course, even that doesn't guarantee a response. They ask you not to overwhelm their contacts.
Oh yeah, and you get copies of their quarterly newsletter and a separate professional journal, too. That in itself is worth it to me.

"I'm looking for places to discuss paranormal phenomena and its implications, rather than duking it out with skeptics..."
There is a forum where they love to bandy about theories and debate just about anything paranormal. I used to go there a lot, but I grew weary of the religion flaming. It's pretty much 'anything goes', and IMHO, it's poorly moderated. But they do have a few heavy-hitters over there that can make you think more deeply about paranormal issues. Try

Good luck! :-)

Thank you both, Paul and Rabbit.

I have come across this forum before as well. I think Kaitei's stance on the subject is one of the strongest alternatives to survival, although I find that his views are not incompatible with survival.. and I dont know if he realizes that his MU is precisely the landscape a 'mind' could inhabit.

Yeah, I have problems with Kaitei's Morphic Unconsciousness (MU) model too.

I see where Michael Prescott's blog was suggested. Come to think of it, that would be a better place. It's moderated with fairness, with more informative posts and a reasonable breed of intelligent commenter's.
Kinda like the stuff you find over here at Paranormalia.


I would like to recommend a fascinating book on the subject of "who are we really speaking to through channeled mediums". I have a lot of experience in direct contact with channeling mediums and spirit and if these "entities" are ontological separate entities from the channneler (an old,old, question) but also if these "entities" are who they claim to be (also an old question). I know that something is happening but make little claim to know exactly what it is .I try to maintain an interested, engaged but open minded skepticism and I find this book riveting.

Robert, I know that you have read it and may agree with me regarding potential pitfalls.

Can I make a totally off-topic film recommendation? I think Paranormalia readers (and writer) would enjoy The Magician.

I, along with about 75 other people, once sat through a channeling session with a fellow who channeled a 5000 year old Chinese wise man/philosopher. I have to admit that I had a really difficult time not laughing. It was just sooooo hokey.

Later, as I was a volunteer at the facility, I was able to attend a small group lunch with the gentleman as the guest of honor. There were many questions and like Sylvia, his answers were often trite and spoken with great authority. Eventually my turn came and I asked my question, which was about sorting out "spirits" during psychic readings. (I do a bit of that myself) He turned to me and gave me an answer that literally almost knocked me to the floor. He mentioned a private session I had participated in, with names and circumstances. I had never told anyone, ANYONE, about this episode.

So did he acutally channel a 5000 year old Chinese guy? Maybe, maybe not. But he certainly had something going on. As the Spiritual Journey goes; I learned a great lesson that day.

Hi Kathy
I guess the problem with 5000 year old Chinese men is verification - who could vouch for them? Having said that, Neville Whymant's apparent conversations with Confucious are most intriguing and, if true, very evidential.

I suppose if the advice is good it doesn't really matter. Although the fact that there may be some deception would make me a little wary (why assume a persona?).

Where there is an element showing some evidence of access to information the medium is unlikely to have known or could not have known, this makes the communication more interesting. As you rightly point out though it doesn't establish the veracity of the purported communicator.

An interesting experience though - thank you.

She is a fraud, a fake. Do some research on her, it is there to see.

I'm reading that James Van Pragh book, Growing up in Heaven right now. I enjoy the stories but they will bring you to tears. The stories are insightful and touching. Van Pragh definitely reached deep for this one. Its like chicken soup for the psychology grieving/new age reincarnation crowd.

I find Van Praagh a bit cloying to be honest and although I haven't researched him in any depth (though I did read one of his books) on the few occasions I have watched, I didn't see anything evidential. On the other hand he seems like a lot of high-profile 'mediums' to me.

Perhaps I am being cynical but autobiographies talking about how good a medium is leave me a bit cold - I am not saying the tales aren't true, I'd just prefer to hear it from someone independent.

I had a client that use to play BINGO with Sylvia Brown in Campbell, California before she became famous. That client suggested that Sylvia was known to be a liar.

Likewise, some Mountain View, California firemen I know also told me that they knew Sylvia because her ex-husband was fireman from near by Palo Alto. They also suggested that Sylvia was "spinning" things.

I suspect her mediumship is based on Bingo.

To the best of my knowledge, Van Praagh first came on the scene in the early 90's when he appeared as a frequent guest on that great show, "The Other Side." Anybody remember that show?

At the time, I myself was just opening up to the possibility of psi and survival through my reading of NDE books. But the thing is, Van Praagh was AMAZING on those shows.

I don't know whether it was good editing or what, but he just seemed to come up with one incredible hit after another. And I remember thinking that he was one of my own personal "strongest pieces of evidence for psi."

Also, about that time, a friend told me about his private reading with Van Praagh that he described as very evidential. And when my friend told me what Van Praagh said to him, I had to agree.

Then, years later, I saw Van Praagh on another TV show, and couldn't believe how UNimpressive he was. Just one wishy-washy comment after another, and many inaccuracies. It seemed to me like pure cold-reading.

And further exposures to him seemed to show the same thing.

So I don't know whether (as I said) the editing on "The Other Side" was deceptive, or whether Van Praagh lost it over the years. But it was an important lesson to me.

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