I was a telephone psychic.

Humiliating myself for fun and profit.
June 5 2003 12:30 PM

My Life as a Phone Psychic

Callers are paying $2 a minute for a supernatural adviser. They're getting me instead.

Illustration by Nina Frenkel

Not that I believe in this psychic stuff, but at one point in my life I was spending so much money having my tarot cards read at occult bookstores that I decided to do it myself. I bought a deck and discovered I had the gift. Each time I posed a question about my life, the cards so unerringly forecast frustration and disappointment that I finally stuck them in the bottom of a trunk.

Emily Yoffe Emily Yoffe

Emily Yoffe is a regular Slate contributor. She writes the Dear Prudence column. You can reach her at prudence@slate.com.

I dug them out again this spring for a foray into a career as a phone psychic—the latest installment of "Human Guinea Pig," a column in which I am supposed to explore intriguing corners of life, but in which, so far, I mostly humiliate myself. (Like here, for example.) Locating openings for my extrasensory services was easy. I went to an online job site and typed "psychic" into the search engine. I sent e-mails to the three companies listed, and two—I'll call them ESP Net and Chakra Con—sent me back contracts to fill out.

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ESP Net's online "guidance site" asserts that it is an "unrealistic expectation" for callers to assume psychics are psychic. But its contract is more ambiguous about occult powers. While it stated I could not claim a call was "anything more than entertainment," on the next page, awaiting my signature, was this sentence: "It is my personal feeling or understanding that I possess psychic or clairvoyant abilities." How could I sign this? Then I thought of my supernatural ability to read my husband's mind. Take the other morning when the dog, suffering from diarrhea, started whining at 4:45 a.m. I looked over at my husband, and despite the darkness I could see this sentence forming in his brain: "If I pretend I'm still asleep, she'll walk the dog." I signed.

I quickly got back responses from both companies saying I would soon hear from them about getting approved for the job. ESP Net invited me to join its online chat site. The theme of the chats was that while psychics are operating in the spiritual realm, they have not relinquished their material needs. That is how I interpreted such posts as:

"I still haven't gotten paid yet. I would love to take more calls but I haven't gotten paid."

"[H]ow long did it take to receive your first check?"

"When will there be a paycheck?"

"Has ANYONE gotten paid???"

After two months of me sending and resending my contract and ESP Net misplacing it, the psychic hot line announced via e-mail that it was accepting me as a reader, pending a phone interview. (Chakra Con had stopped communicating with me altogether.) The contract had warned that I had to be "tested extensively"—at least five sample readings before I would get my own log-in number. I spent another week leaving voice mail messages trying to schedule my first test when "Sandy," the manager of ESP Net, called me back. As soon as she spoke, I sensed an aura around her of a person who had smoked one or maybe two hundred thousand cigarettes. " 'Debbie' normally does the interview to see if you're serious," Sandy said. "But she's had family problems, so you're not going to get a call from her. We've been short-handed, so log on as soon as you can. It's been particularly thin in the mornings from 8 to noon, so if you can work mornings, that's good. Any questions?"

I realized I'd just completed my testing. Although she sounded eager to get off the phone, I did have a couple of questions.

"What if someone sounds suicidal?" I asked.

"Try to talk calmly. Give them some suicide hot line numbers and whatnot."

"I'm just going to read tarot cards. What if they want something else?" I ask.