Alive

05.10.13

What Psychic Sylvia Brown Didn’t See

The famous clairvoyant’s certainty caught up with her in the Cleveland kidnapping case—she said Amanda Berry was dead. Other mediums saw trouble coming. So why didn’t she?

Sylvia Browne doesn’t hedge.

It’s part of what makes the world-famous psychic so famous—her unflappable confidence. Check out this YouTube video from her 2009 appearance at Universal Studios with Montel Williams, where she takes questions from the crowd. One guy asks what career path he should take. “Design,” Brown says flatly.

“Design,” the guy repeats. “OK, thank you.” A woman asks who “she” is with on the other side, without even saying who this person is. “She’s with, a, uh, balding male, she’s with a large dog, and with a little bitty woman.” Another man, a skeptic, sent there to haze Browne, to “punk” her, asks Browne how old his father was when he passed away. At first she says, “Well he was young,” without hesitation. The man lunges: “What do you mean by young?” Williams jumps in and says “Wait,” about 12 times, before Browne finally backpedals: “I think he thought he was young. See I’m 73, and I think I’m young.”

Browne answers every question without pause, hesitation, doubt. This man will get a job at the Postal Service, “pretty high up.” This woman will be in a relationship in two and a half years. This man’s friend died of a drug overdose. Mystery solved. She’s always sure. Right away.

So it went on Williams’s nationally televised talk show, back in 2004, 19 months after a 16-year-old girl from Cleveland named Amanda Berry went missing. Here was Berry’s mother, Louwanna Miller, devastated, desperate for any news, any leads, any closure.

“She’s not alive honey,” the gravelly voiced psychic said.

“So you don’t think I’ll ever see her again,” Miller replied.

“Yeah in heaven on the other side. I’m sorry.”

After the show, Miller described herself as “devastated.” When the news broke this week that Berry was alive, her mom wasn’t around to rejoice. She died two years after that taping of the Montel Williams show.

The errant psychic, on the other hand, is alive, well, and continuing to rake in untold millions of dollars a year with her conviction-borne predictions. She charges $850 for an individual 30-minute session. Her international speaking fees range from $75,000 to $150,000. She’s one of the world’s most recognizable psychics, she was wrong about Amanda Berry, and she has been wrong before that, too. Many times.

Wrong about a missing person being dead, even. In 2003, she insisted 11-year-old Shawn Hornbeck’s body could be found by some boulders in Missouri. The boy turned up alive, four years later. 

Video screenshot

Psychic Sylvia Browne hasn't always gotten things right.

Psychics rely on luck, by gathering information in leading questions, by reading people and by offering up revelations that are statistically more likely to be true than not.

Browne’s Facebook page has been inundated with searing, hateful comments calling her a “soulless beast” and a “grief vampire” over the past few days, and it was there she offered her first response:

“I am so relieved that Amanda Berry and the other women have been found and are safe with their families. Of course I do feel very bad telling Amanda’s mother on the show that I believed her daughter was not alive, and I’m so so glad that I was wrong. I had a vision of her being held underwater, but I had interpreted it to have a different meaning. She was not being held under water but was being held down.”

She added: “Only God is right all the time but of course I’m wrong,” Browne responded. “But after 50 years of doing this work, I’d better be more right than wrong. I always say I hope I’m wrong. When it comes to this, I hope I’m wrong.”

To her critics, the non-apology was a hollow one and par for the psychic’s 50-year course. Hey, psychics are people. Sometimes they get it wrong.

But what makes Sylvia Browne’s haters so vitriolic isn’t that she’s occasionally wrong; it’s that she’s colossally wrong, about huge, important things like whether a mother should give up hope in the search for her missing daughter. This, say several psychics and mediums interviewed by The Daily Beast on Thursday, is what makes Browne’s work different from the garden variety mind-readers of the world, if not downright despicable.

Sloan Bella is another well-known psychic who has appeared on several national television shows throughout her 25-year career. Once, when she was first starting out, Bella met Browne on the NBC series The Other Side, she said. It didn’t take Bella long to figure out that Browne had “staged her reading,” she told The Daily Beast. Her son had worked through the crowd before the show began, gathering information she could use to appear more psychic.

“He asked everyone in the audience what they were there for. Someone’s mother died, and I noticed she repeated it verbatim,” Bella said. “I’ve not known her to use her gift. I’ve known her to script. I don’t know that she’s authentic in her gift at this point in her life. Maybe she’s trying to keep the money coming in, or something.”

Most psychics won’t come out and make the kinds of bold statements like “Your daughter is dead,” Bella added. “I would never say that to someone unless I knew it to be true.”

Neither would Belinda Bentley, the L.A.-based psychic told The Daily Beast; not with that level of assuredness, anyway.

“What bothers me is the delivery,” Bentley said. “I like to leave room for doubt, that I’m not 100 percent. When Sylvia Browne gives her delivery, there’s 100 percent no doubt in her voice. No room for ‘maybe he or she is alive.’”

Browne’s wrongness did irreparable damage, said George Kresge, aka “The Amazing Kreskin.” Her prediction about Berry was an “abuse,” he told The Daily Beast, “of the image and the position they have. Her credibility as a psychic is zero, which I think is too high a level to give her.”

Kreskin calls himself a “mentalist” and claims to be able to do no more than read people’s thoughts — not speak to the dead, which he doesn’t believe is possible.

“If a person can communicate with the dead, why in all these years have none of those people simply contacted someone and asked them: ‘You were murdered? Who murdered you? A crime was committed in which you died? Give us the details.’ Wouldn’t it be a great gift of their powers to help solve a murder?”

Browne and her staff members claim that they have “helped” law enforcement in dozens or hundreds of cases without accepting a dime for it. But the many who nip at her heels via websites such as Stopsylvia.com insist not a single criminal case has been solved by her or any other psychic. It’s all a clever con, using tricks like “cold reading.”

Sharon Hill edits Doubtful News. What makes Browne able to weather being so wrong is that people’s memories are short, she said. The Hornbeck guess “didn’t seem to affect her TV show appearances or book sales. She came out of that pretty unscathed.”

Psychics rely on luck, by gathering information in leading questions, by reading people and by offering up revelations that are statistically more likely to be true than not. Your missing loved one is “near water.”

After a girl’s been missing for more than a year, for example, she’s probably dead. It would seem a safe bet.

“Belief is a very strong thing,” Hill said. “Her fans are very invested in the idea that she has helped them and that she is right. They’re very forgiving. The public tends to forget the bad things, if they’re invested in it.”

Plus, psychics are relentless, and ubiquitous. After 12-year-old Polly Klaas was kidnapped at knifepoint from her mother’s home in Petaluma, Calif., in 1993, her father, Marc, found himself “descended upon” by psychics. Not right away, but after a few days; when they know the cops haven’t found anything; when they know the parents are increasingly desperate. Psychics would walk up to him and hand him hand-drawn maps, he told The Daily Beast.

At first, Klaas listened. He turned down psychics who asked to be flown to California and put up in hotel rooms, but he let others into his house, who’d tell him “I need to get a feel for your daughter by doing through her belongings,” Klaas said. “Then they snatch something.”

Once, based on a tip from a psychic, Klaas took a search party out to someone’s private property, he said.

“The guy came out with a shotgun and wanted to know who the hell we were,” Klaas said. “That could have ended really badly.”

Browne is a “hideous creature, she really is,” Klaas said. But they’re all the same. “The best a psychic will do is, in California, they will say ‘I see rolling hills. I see pine trees. I see water, and a road.’ You just described California. If you’re in Arizona, they’ll substitute for cactus, desert. They have no insight. They’ve never helped.” 

And still, people flock to them, hungry for some truth hidden in the beyond. This time around, Browne may not survive the backlash, Hill ventured, at age 76 and with a recent history of health problems. She may retire soon, Hill said.

“She’s grooming her son and another family member to take over,” Hill said. “I think she’s going to try to pull out of this. I wish she would stop. She’s really hurting people.”

Michael Shermer, founder of the Skeptics Society, hopes the effect of Browne’s blunder is more widespread.

“I hope it really does expose the whole profession, not just Sylvia Browne,” he told The Daily Beast. “They’re all despicable.”

Bella says she’s not worried about a broader impact. She doesn’t operate like Browne does for a reason, and her clients stay with her because she’s right, often enough.

“I would ask Montel what he was thinking when he hired her,” Bella said.

Williams’s publicist declined to comment.