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. 

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.

"Just tell them tarot is your specialty. They just want help and advice," she said, adding, "Keep them on as long as you can. I think that's it."

Sandy gave me the main number to call and the four-digit extension I needed in order to get callers routed my way. I followed the prompts and found I'd already been entered into the system as an expert on "love"—they were psychic! I recorded a message for callers in which I explained I was "Natalie" and that I would use tarot to answer all their relationship questions. ESP Net's online guidance site had a page-and-a-half-long, exceptionally sincere opening we could use on our callers: " … as soon as I heard your voice I saw the most beautiful aura around you … I felt immediately that you are one of the world's very special people … This is one of the most exciting readings I've done in a long time … I am the one person you needed to talk to, to receive the answers and the help you need in your life at this critical time. …" The true beauty of the introduction was that it would eat up the caller's three free minutes and get us on our way to meeting the company's 15-minute-per-call minimum.

Forty-five minutes after I logged on, my psychic line rang.

Illustration by Nina Frenkel

"Hi, this is Natalie. How can I help you?" I asked, unable to give the recommended opening for fear it would be held against me in my next life. "Hi Natalie," the caller said. "I want to see what's going on in my relationship in general." I asked "Cindy" to think about her boyfriend while I shuffled the cards and did the spread. Things looked bleak—among her cards were the devil and death, and the final outcome card was the 10 of swords, described in my deck as the card of "ruin." I wondered how to break this to Cindy, particularly since I hadn't a clue as to what was really going on in her relationship. I blithered for a few minutes about her concerns that she was investing a lot in a relationship she was worried was going to eventually hurt her. Then Cindy started talking. She said her relationship was very good, and they've been talking about marriage for two years, but according to her boyfriend, the time was never right. It soon became clear that she didn't care what the cards said; she just wanted someone to talk to.

After about 15 minutes, our call was interrupted with a recording saying she had one minute left. Then a recording said she had added more time to her call. I had done some Web searching to see how much my potential callers were paying for my advice, and my best guess was that it was about $1.99 a minute. Cindy came back on, and we talked for 15 more minutes. For her $59.70 I told her that she had conceded all the power in the relationship to her boyfriend, and she had to find a way to make the decision whether they would marry more mutual. I realized that she wanted confidence from me—I remembered how much I disliked wishy-washy psychics.

Not long afterward, I got a call from "Claudia." She wanted to know if things were really over with "Tom." She explained that she and Tom had been together on and off; he had been abusive in the past, but he came back this time promising that she was the one. They were supposed to go out that night, but when they were talking about their plans, Claudia asked Tom if he was really committing to the relationship. He responded by saying he didn't want to see her anymore. From the way she recounted the story, I could tell that as soon as she hung up with Tom, she had called me. Claudia wanted to know if she and Tom were really kaput.

When she mentioned that there had been abuse, I decided I didn't care if every love card in the deck turned up—the answer was going to be that the relationship was over. Fortunately, the reading was stink-o except for the last card, the ace of disks. That card meant the beginning of good fortune, usually related to finance or work. I told her that Tom was going to bring her nothing but misery, that she had to completely free herself from this relationship because there was a happier future for her if she did. After 10 minutes, we got the signal that her time was almost up, so Claudia re-upped for another 10. After I finished putting a stake into Tom, she asked about someone at work, "Phil," who seemed smitten with her. That could explain the ace of disks, I realized! But I was worried that Claudia would hop into the sack with Phil if I told her things looked promising. I just said I couldn't tell if Phil was the one, but that freeing herself from Tom would allow her to slowly find someone better.

After Claudia hung up, I waited fruitlessly during the next hour for another call, then finally disconnected. For the next few days, I logged on at least two hours a day. Often I would have no calls, but sometimes there would be a spate of them. "Roxanne" wanted to know if she should ditch her boyfriend and go to a new guy. The cards said "No." "Helaine" wanted to know if the guy who broke up with her five months ago was going to come back. The cards said "No." "Nina" wanted to know if the guy who dumped her three weeks ago might change his mind. The cards said he might, but it would just cause her more pain. "Darla" wanted to know if the guy she had been seeing on and off for 40 (yes, 40) years was going to get serious this time. The cards said he wasn't capable of being serious.

Then I got a call from "Denise," wanting to know if she is going to get enough money from the insurance company for being rear-ended because she needs the money desperately. I wanted to say, "In that case, hang up the phone!" as well as explain to her that I was an expert on love, not claims adjustment. I laid out the cards anyway. I realized I really didn't want to give this woman advice, so I hemmed and hawed, and she let her time run out at five minutes.

Finally, a man called. "Carl" wanted to know if his former girlfriend of eight years, who was now involved with another guy, was going to come back to him. I told him the reading said no.

"I don't understand," he said. "I call a lot, and I've heard all sorts of things. The last time I called I was told we were going to get married and have a kid."

Oh, dear. I explained to him these were just tarot cards and that no one who reads cards for him has the answer. I asked if he had any reason to think his former girlfriend was interested in getting back together.

"Sometimes she gives insinuendos like that," he said, coming up with an inspired neologism.

After he explained the situation a little more, I suggested that maybe she liked stringing him along while she saw whether her new relationship worked out. He sighed and answered with a small voice, "Yeah, that could be." Then he said, "I don't want to get cut off without saying thank you."

I knew the company had taken him for $59.70; for that money I hoped I'd done him some good.

Later I talked to a friend about my guilt over participating in this scam when most of my callers would be better served by seeing an actual therapist. "Not necessarily," she said. "Sometimes you just want someone to give you an answer. Therapists don't give you an answer. Haven't you ever been to a psychic?" When I confessed that I have, she said she had, too.

The next day I was about to go back to my phone re-inspired when I checked my e-mail and found one from ESP Net. "I am sorry to inform you that your Psychic extension will be deleted … as you have not been logging in and/or not working the required amount of hours to keep your extension." I had been working for the company for four days.

My third eye popped open, and I realized that while I had been worrying about exploiting callers, ESP was exploiting me. I was just someone churning through the system, generating hundreds of dollars in calls for them while never being able to meet the various minimum "talk time" requirements that would result in getting paid.

During our interview, ESP's manager "Sandy" told me I would make $7 an hour. (The contract indicated I could make as much as $12 an hour.) But it turned out the "per hour" meant not how much time I was logged on but how much time I had callers on the line. Various places in the contract and the guidance site indicated that during a "pay period" of uncertain length, I had to have talked for 30, 120, or 600 minutes in order to qualify for a paycheck. I realized I could make more money if I set up a card table in front of my house and asked for donations for readings.

It turns out, however, that the company is so disorganized that as of this writing, I can still log on and take calls—it would be volunteer work, of course. So if you want an earnest adviser who can tell you whether that special someone who just dumped you is going to come crawling back, start calling psychic hot lines and asking for "Natalie."

******

Is there something you've always wanted to do but were too scared or embarrassed to try? Ask the Human Guinea Pig to do it for you. E-mail me your ideas at guineapig@slate.com.

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