By Vanessa Le
For Entertainment Purposes Only
In a world with so much yet to be discovered, it’s easy to attribute many things to the unknown. Fortune telling, both as a business and an art, is one such example. However, there is an overlooked purpose for a trip to a mystic—something beyond spiritual therapy or metaphysical advice. Something both non-believers and believers alike can enjoy, and that purpose is entertainment.
I come five minutes late to Spiritual Awakenings, a shop offering fortune telling services on Southwest Broadway Street, one of the most famous streets for entertainment in Portland, Oregon, but the psychic doesn’t seem to mind. Although I expect the session to go much like a doctor’s appointment—with a regimented time and procedure—the psychic doesn’t seem to remember the reading I’d scheduled with her a few days before. In fact, she is outside chattering on her cellphone, though I don’t recognize her as a psychic at first. It is an easy mistake to make, as her casual clothing—a red knit shawl wrapped twice around her neck, dark skinny jeans, and loose white crocheted shirt—doesn’t fit a fortune teller’s stereotypes, but a downtown Portlander’s. As soon as she sees me, she cancels her call and welcomes me into her shop with a soft and melodic voice.
The shop has two rooms, but that’s a generous description. Her reception area is only three or four meters on either side, with a door in the back to where her sessions take place. A mural of the Spiritual Awakening’s logo, a silhouette of a woman meditating on a multi-colored lotus with her chakras marked in gold paint, takes up the wall opposite me. The cushioned bamboo chairs lining the walls, the bamboo plant nestled in the corner, the bronze elephants sculptures, the twisted bamboo ceiling fixture, and the sweet incense of lotus bloom that thickens the air all melds into a Southern Asian atmosphere.
Before even asking my name or telling me hers, she hands me a menu of services and takes me to her back room. Her reading office is half the size of her reception area, with no windows and twice the incense. On one end is a wooden desk cluttered with colored pencils, stacks of paper, and tarot cards, and Athena—I discover her name from the blocky gold letters printed beneath the Spiritual Awakenings’ logo—sits behind the desk
As I peruse the menu of services, I notice “For Entertainment Purposes Only” written in white fine print at the bottom. The need for this disclaimer arose from the recent charges of grand larceny against many fraudulent psychics who offered their services in exorcising demons, selling false charms, and even attempting to unite a man with his deceased loved one in one case, for payments beyond reason (“Seeing Freedom in Their Future, Psychics Reveal All: ‘It’s a Scam, Sir’”). The viewpoint on a fortune telling ban teetered between fair and unfair, mostly due to issues of ambiguity in the definition of fortune telling and the impediment of free speech such a ban would imply (George-Parkin). However, New York has old legislature classifying it as an offense punishable by 90 days in jail or a $500 fine (“Telling Fortunes, And, From Time to Time, Also Taking Them”) for pretending to possess occult powers, tell fortunes, exorcise, or affect evil spirits. However, this penal law has a loophole in that the law doesn’t apply to those soliciting their services as purely entertainment (“Article 165 Fortune Telling”). While such legislature does not yet exist in Oregon, the disclaimer keeps a fortune teller safe from potential prosecution. For those psychics who believe wholly in their services, it can be demeaning to sell themselves as amusement, but it outskirts the law.
Although fortune telling now is not a revered art, when it existed in China, Egypt, Chaldea, Babylonia, and other parts of the ancient world in 4000 BCE, it possessed a different form. Clairvoyance held cultural importance back then, when famed oracles and prophets would have holy dreams (“Fortune-telling”). At that time, fortune telling had a strong connection to religion, in which practices included astrology, salt, dice, fire, water, and other methods (“Fortune-telling”).
Today, although it has shifted from religious practice to occult superstition, the various methods of divining the future remain—dominoes, numerology, astrology, runes, tea leaves, ouija board, and others (Yalsovac 3-19)—but palmistry is especially prevalent in modern day psychism. Palmistry, also known as chiromancy, palm reading, or chirosophy, is the use of the lines in the palm to discern the future of hidden aspects of the client. Palmistry began as early as ancient India and Egypt, although recognition of the individuality of a fingerprint dated back to third century BC China (Frazier 200). Traditional palmistry, the precursor of what we know today, is predicted to have become more globally popular in the mid-twelfth century, when Latin translations of the Arabic fortune-telling studies arose (Matheson 144).
In modern practice, a palmist will identify and examine various features of the hand and determine the related property (Frazier 200). It may seem as though palmistry is a recitation of different hand features, but there is an interpretive aspect involved. The palmist cannot simply list the attributes of the hand and the related meaning, but must synthesize a prediction using the relationship of all those characteristics (201).
In my particular palmistry session, Athena starts by asking me to keep two questions in mind at the beginning of the reading I’d want answered by the end. When I sit down, she has me hold out my palms with hers hovering just above, all the while muttering some mantra to herself. Athena then plucks a peach colored pencil from a plastic cup on her messy desk and traces my right hand’s life line, the line that extends from below the index finger to the base of the palm.
“You have a double life line,” is her conclusion. “That means you’ve lived before, and you were a queen in your past life. That’s why you’re so mature.” The life line, heart line, and head line are the main flexion creases, folds made prominent when the hand flexes (Frazier 200). Palmists will consider the lines’ lengths, creases, starts, ends, forks, depth, whether or not the line appears chained, and other factors. The lines in the palm are not the only indicator of fate, however, as palmists will also use hand shape, size, finger length, nail shape, nail color, length of pinky, and various finger phalange sizes to add to their knowledge (Frazier 200).
Athena continues my reading by asking me to think of two questions she would later answer with what I wanted to hear. Yes, you will go to your dream college. Yes you will publish a book. While looking far-off over my shoulder, she prophesizes that I would live a long life, dying peacefully in my sleep in my late eighties, all without glancing back down at my palms. Despite her absolute surety, she says nothing I can disprove. The session ends in twenty minutes and she asks me to put down my name, email address, and birthday in a green composition notebook. Athena then ushers a flustered me out of the warm cocoon of her shop and back into the chilly Portland air just as two more girls arrive, ogling at the shopfront, two more potential clients.
Even though I visited for the first-hand experience without expecting the entertaining afternoon I received, there are those who visit only for that sole purpose. Colesie Tharp is a Pre-K teacher who, with her distinct speech, keen eyes, and straight-backed posture, comes off as a educated and mentally sound woman. Both of these qualities are seldom found together in an individual who visits fortune tellers from time to time, but Tharp isn’t afraid to admit that she does (Tharp). “You know,” she says after inviting me into her Pre-K classroom and taking a seat in the reading corner. “I think that when you’re in your twenties, there’s so much unknown, and things can feel hard, and you’re just looking for some sort of… I don’t know if you could call it a sign. But you’re just wanting some affirmation about your life and the journey that you take” (Tharp).
My lifelong journey wasn’t necessarily at the forefront of my worries during my visit to Spiritual Awakenings. I came in with the mind of a non-believer, with the mind of a journalist. My head was in a solely technical gear, and not the immersive one that many who visit psychics share. But Tharp says her belief is, “there’s always something on your mind, just as humans, that we want to know more about, whether it be love or career or getting in touch with people who’ve passed away.” So whether or not one consciously enters a session with questions in mind, there are always questions a psychic can glean from one’s disposition.
Each fortune teller distills his or her own interpretation from the related features of a palm, making each palm reading unique (Frazier 201). That’s why Tharp doesn’t often revisit the same fortune teller, but finds different psychics each time, usually by word-of-mouth. “Each reading that I valued, anyway, were very unique,” she tells me. “I mean, I think the more generic you hear, ‘Oh you’re going to live a long life, you’re a very creative person.’ But those are the ones I don’t necessary value. I mean, it’s nice to tell people they’re going to live a long life, and you can maybe tell I’m creative by the way I dress.” This is true. Within moments of entering Tharp’s classroom I could already tell that Tharp had a colorful personality based on how she gesticulated meaningfully while talking and the artistic splash prevalent all around her classroom, aided by children’s artwork and her sharp eye for color—an arrangement only a teacher could make possible.
Tharp, being something of an expert in the field, gave me some tips to weed out a fake psychic. If the psychic asks too many personal questions before the session even begins, the reading might be going in a wrong direction. Alternatively, they might give vague answers that are neither provable nor disprovable. She tells me of times where she’s had to pay more or buy a token or candle just to continue a reading she’s already begun. “You’re giving them money and it feels funny to do that, you know?” she says, then adds a shrug. “But you’re also taking the chance and gambling.” During my psychic visit, Athena told me close to nothing I could verify immediately, and even encouraged me to pay for one of the most expensive services on her menu, Soulmate Reading, by telling me she sensed my true love in this life. Although I’d expected a traditional palmistry reading, where my creases would be inspected, Athena had her own unique method in which she seemed to read my hands’ aura with hers. However, despite my shock at the briefness and ambiguity of the reading, in the end I left feeling as though I’d checked off a novel experience on my bucket list.
While Tharp admits fraudulent psychics aren’t uncommon, she tells me of various instances where sessions have hit the bull’s-eye, such as when one psychic described every detail of the interior of her house with unnerving accuracy (Tharp). Another psychic told her she would have a significant relationship with a man with a fantastic sense of humor and wild hair. Little did Tharp know, three years later she would meet her future husband, Peter Buonincontro, in a play in which he was the petty villain. Tharp now reminisces that, while she’d completely forgotten the reading at the time, Buonincontro had the predicted sense of humor and, between scenes of the play, he would morph his hair into different shapes with hair gel. Despite being forewarned of Buonincontro’s appearance in her life, Tharp never let the reading affect her choices in romance, but recalls that it was a fun, epiphanic moment when the reading came true (Tharp).
In another reading, the psychic stopped her on her way out the door, saying, “Wait, I see sirens. I see them right now. Who’s the alcoholic?” He warned her that there was a young man in her life currently in trouble from drug abuse, but Tharp disregarded this as there were many such men fitting that description (Tharp). She’d only walked two blocks from the shop when she received a call from a friend of her ex-boyfriend, who said her ex-boyfriend had just been rushed to the emergency room for alcohol abuse. It seemed to her that, while she never took any of the readings deeply to heart, there are times when she couldn’t simply discredit them (Tharp). She tells me that, with all of these accurate readings, “[she’s] had enough things ring true that it does reaffirm sort of my feeling that there’s something out there that can’t be explained and that there’s a sixth sense that some people have, and some are better at tapping into it than others.”
In my reading, Athena had foretold I would become a healer of some kind, a doctor. While this could’ve been a relatively safe assumption based on my ethnicity, I do plan to go into the medical field later in life. My parents are also doctors, and perhaps Athena had caught onto this when she said she sensed a long line of healers in my family.
Many psychics, such as both Athena and a few of Tharp’s experience, attribute their abilities to the spirits, the voices in their head, or a magical aura (Tharp). However, mysticism aside, there exists a field of science called parapsychology that seeks to theorize that ‘sixth sense’ Tharp believes in. In parapsychology, known as PSI, there are two main categories: the cognitive and the physical, both of which are utilized in modern day fortune telling (“Parapsychological phenomenon”). Cognitive psychics use methods such as clairvoyance, precognition, and ethereal senses known as ESP to glean facts about a client. Physical psychics tend towards dice and tarot cards to enlighten them. Modern psychics today often merge both cognitive and physical PSI to determine the fate of a client (“Parapsychological phenomenon”).
A recent research paper, “Feeling the Future: Experimental Evidence for Anomalous Retroactive Influences on Cognition and Affect”, by Daryl J. Bem, continues to support the existence of some innate intuitive ability in humans. The experiment used a variety of tests on a wide range of subjects to test for the absence or presence of precognition. One test had a series of images showed in a random order, with emotionally arousing images interspersed between emotionally neutral images (Bem 4). Researchers began noticing that, with this particular test, subjects started having the respective cerebral response to the emotionally arousing images, but usually before the image had appeared or even before the computer had randomly selected which type of image to display (4). Even if these slight precognitive abilities don’t occupy a psychic’s conscious thought, they could work to explain how some readings are correct. With this chance, visiting can become an entertaining game to see how much of your reading comes true, as it was for me and, often times, Tharp as well (Tharp).
Even though parapsychological research arises to try to justify the phenomena of fortune tellers and clairvoyance, those who visit don’t necessarily enter with a knowledge of the science, but they do enter with a knowledge of something supernatural. “I believe in people having a certain sense, and um, and I have had dreams that have come true myself, so I do think there’s something untapped in our world,” Tharp says, nodding sagely. “I think, as human beings, there is so much to ourselves that we have no idea about, we have no idea how to access, and I don’t know what you’d call that, necessarily. So I’ve always felt that that is true, so I believe that some people would be better in tune with these abilities.” As a child, Tharp had always had a strong bond with the mystic and unexplainable, rooting from her spirituality and Catholic upbringing (Tharp). Though her home life never emphasized the miraculous aspect of the religion, she made it her duty to make a shrine near her bed and pray nightly to Mary and the saints at age six (Tharp).
As she grew, this firm belief did not waver. When life got rough in her twenties, between struggling to understand her inner self and battling outer obstacles, Tharp turned to fortune tellers for a second, unconventional point of view (Tharp). “But I would always do it with a sense of humor,” she adds. Tharp explains how she would tuck the psychic’s readings in the back of her mind and let them sit there without affecting her day-to-day life. “I think I just started because I wanted to hear something. It’s a little of a soul searching thing, but it was also—I think it would be an entertainment thing as well as a soul searching, sort of like this nice package.”
Although she is aware of the stigma surrounding psychic visitation by those who see the practice as unintelligent or fake, she doesn’t let those people shake her trust in the things that cannot be explained (Tharp). “I think it’s fine if they don’t believe in it,” she tells me. “Cuz it’s not super… it’s not viewed as something that’s, you know, extremely intelligent. It’s not revered, necessarily.”
Despite the reputation surrounding psychics and their believers, still many visit—not just for advice from the mystic, but also for a host of other reasons. When I came in for my session, I came in purely for the experience. As Tharp approached her mid-twenties, her visits tapered out and became purely entertainment-driven decisions (Tharp). “I think I was always having questions the first times I went in. Now, there’s not as much pressure. I’m just interested in what they will say,” Tharp says, talking about a recent session in which she visited a tarot card reader, who came to the school at which she worked. Even in her earlier years, Tharp’s visits have always been about the entertainment aspect, with the spiritual-wandering part taking a backseat (Tharp). “I’m not expecting them to tell me anything that’s gonna change my life or help me,” she says. “I think it’s the story, it’s more about the story. I like the story of it all. I like being around people, and yeah, so it’s like the person—the one-on-one interaction—the story, and this idea that I know that there’s something we don’t tap into as human beings. So all of that mixed together makes for a really enjoyable experience, really.”
I share this sentiment as I cross the road after the session. With one last glance back at the small psychic shop tucked between a salon and a sit-down restaurant, I notice it looks even smaller from the outside. A multi-colored neon sign spans the window that says, “Psychic Readings” around a crystal ball. Above it, in the single clerestory window, is a glowing red sign that read, “OPEN”, the type of sign you could find only in the entertainment business.
The visit was no life-changing experience, but despite my skepticism, Athena’s predictions filled me with relief in a separate sense. With life so full of distractions and tension,
the different atmosphere of the psychic’s shop became a respite from the busy streets, if only for half an hour. In the end, whether one visits for the new experience or for the enlightenment, it’s undoubtedly an enjoyable experience for all, both skeptics and believers alike.
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