Photo by J. Emilio Flores for The New York Times
Hooked on Online Psychics
By ALEX WILLIAMS
Published: March 5, 2006
Fashion & Style Section
FOR Sarah Lassez — a winsome actress who has appeared in more than 20 movies, alongside actors like Matthew Modine, Rose McGowan and Dennis Hopper — the seemingly inevitable Hollywood bout with addiction she experienced a few years ago was accompanied by the usual handmaidens of a habit: career uncertainty, romantic turbulence and nagging fears of future obscurity. At her darkest moments it cost her $1,000 a month, more than her rent. But perhaps worst of all was the effect her addiction had on those around her.
It made them want to burst out laughing.
“If they didn’t laugh out loud, you could tell they were repressing it,” said Ms. Lassez, who points out that she was addicted not to drugs or alcohol, but to psychics. “It does sound silly.”
Over the last 10 years this graduate of New York University, daughter of two computer scientists and otherwise rational adult in her 30′s found herself spending more money on the services of tarot readers, palmists, clairvoyants and clairaudients (they hear voices) than some young actors spend on their cars. She paid one woman to read the sediment swirls at the bottom of a cup of Greek coffee.
But most costly, she said, were the countless psychics on Web sites like Keen.com, Kasamba.com, and Asknow.com. They are always available, at all hours of the night, utterly anonymous. At her worst, Ms. Lassez would call six in a day. Her life was unraveling at $4.99 a minute.
“I never considered myself to have an addictive personality,” she said. “I never even had a problem with cigarettes or caffeine. But it literally felt like a high.”
Now recovered — sort of — Ms. Lassez has taken on an unlikely second career: patron saint to other “psychic addicts,” who she said are numerous, if largely silent because of shame. She has started an online support group, www.psychicjunkie.net, to help others like herself and has completed “Psychic Junkie: A Memoir,” written with Gian Sardar, chronicling her struggle. Simon Spotlight Entertainment is to publish the book, which was originally written as a self-help book, in July.
But while Ms. Lassez might be the most visible person to go public with her struggle she is not, psychics and self-described addicts say, the only one suffering from it. The impulse to consult the paranormal for guidance in life can, like gambling fever, strike people of any level of education, intelligence or social status. It can become a form of faith healing for people suffering anxiety, particularly in professions like acting, where the swings of fortune can be sudden, mystifying and sometimes cruel.
As Ms. Lassez recounted, the gratification gained by calling psychics —she would find her prophesied dark-eyed man, she would win a Golden Globe — was instant. “You call them, hear what you want to hear,” she said. “I would instantly feel good, for a few minutes, maybe a few hours.”
She added, “I lost my mind,” sounding a bit perplexed herself.
If psychic addiction is a budding epidemic, Ms. Lassez is well out in front of the scientific curve in exploring it, said John W. Welte, a psychologist and senior research scientist at the Research Institute on Addictions at the State University of New York at Buffalo. Dr. Welte said he had never heard of any research on the subject or of the subject itself.
Still, he did not discount the possibility that one could develop the same patterns of emotional dependence on the supernatural as others develop with behavioral addictions like gambling: overpowering urges to chase a brief but powerful high, followed by increasing tolerance, thus the need for the subject to increase the dose continually to get the same effect.
“I’m generally skeptical of weird addictions,” Dr. Welte said, but “if someone is pressing on, even though they suffer from severe negative consequences, that is clearly addictive behavior.”
Others who say they have suffered from the affliction consider the consequences negative. Cheryl Hardy, a corporate communications executive in Austin, Tex., recalls being so overcome with career anxiety on her graduation from the University of Pennsylvania a decade ago that she “maxed out” her credit cards paying telephone psychics for job advice.
“Panic is what makes you pick up the phone,” Ms. Hardy, 33, said. “You go right down the list, calling all the psychics until you find the person who’s going to tell you the magic words.”
Dona Murphy of Lake Bluff, Ill., said she similarly ran up thousands of dollars in debt when working as a corporate personnel executive in 2002, trying to fill a spiritual hole in her life. “Often, what you need is not a reading,” Ms. Murphy, 48, said. “There is something in there you are not getting: intellectually, emotionally, in terms of social stimulation. At that point you’re in trouble.”
For those who develop an unhealthy dependency on mediums, Ms. Lassez said, important decisions are changed, and fundamental assumptions of self are altered. Take the time that a psychic foresaw Ms. Lassez’s marrying the star of a popular television show, which she declined to name out of tact. (She found that actor “particularly unattractive and untalented.”) Undaunted, Ms. Lassez set about studying pictures of him and watching him on television to nudge her destiny along.
But while the problem is rarely discussed, it is common in psychic circles, several psychic readers and their clients said.
“The addiction problem is huge, and it’s getting worse,” said Pamela Fletcher, an aura reader in Abita Springs, La., who runs her business through six Web sites.
Online is where the real action is. Few sites require any proof of qualification, Ms. Fletcher said. With a splashy home page and a few grandiose promises — “I will help you with all problems,” promises Psychic Troy, a reader listed on Keen.com — psychics can build a national clientele.
Ms. Lassez’s first taste of the paranormal came a decade ago on location for a film in Detroit, when — on a whim — she dropped in on a tarot reader to get her mind off a breakup and an argument on the set. The psychic spread out 10 cards on the kitchen table in a Celtic cross, a standard tarot pattern. The 10th card, which supposedly augurs the subject’s future, was the Star. To any young actress the meaning would be clear. By the time she left Detroit, she had her own tarot deck.
Ms. Lassez acknowledged that most people’s embarrassment about the behavior keeps them even from disclosing it, let alone seeking help. She said she found it absurd that a belief system so at odds with critical thinking could gain so strong a pull in her life. “I really believed in it, even though most of the predictions weren’t coming true,” she said.
In her willingness to suspend disbelief Ms. Lassez is not alone, even among educated and intelligent people, psychologists said. James Alcock, a psychology professor at York University in Toronto, who has studied the belief in the paranormal, considers himself a confirmed skeptic but pointed out, “If you look at the Gallup polls, the majority of people believe in the paranormal.”
Most people, he explained, particularly those with any religious training at all, are raised to live under two different belief systems: the rational, which governs most decisions in life, and the transcendental, which guides matters of spirituality and faith. Therefore for some people it is only a small leap to let their transcendental impulses creep into their daily affairs, especially when anxiety over career, finances or romance is involved. Faith, in whatever form it takes, Dr. Alcock said, can provide great comfort, even a sense of empowerment. People who feel they have the stars on their side often feel an edge over mere mortals.
“We all have pockets of irrationality,” he said, “and those pockets tend to be activated at times we’re motivated by greed or fear.”
Greed and fear pretty much describe the state of mind within the entertainment business. So just as there are no atheists in foxholes, there would appear to be few skeptics in Hollywood.
“It’s the level of uncertainty,” said Jusstine Kenzer, a clairvoyant in Hollywood, who charges $200 for a session. She said that actors tend to be heavy users of psychic services. “Becoming an actor is like playing the lottery.”
Kenzer said she had done readings for more than one cast member of “Desperate Housewives,” including Eva Longoria, and that consulting psychics is something of an open secret in Hollywood.
“L.A. is full of control freaks,” she said. “Everyone just wants to know how their thing is going to turn out.”
For Ms. Lassez her reliance on clairvoyants only increased as she evolved from being a potential next-big-thing ingénue with a William Morris agent into a struggling actress and then at one point to a low-level marketing employee at an Internet company. Eventually she hit bottom and went to a therapist, who suggested she attend a 12-step program. “The problem was there weren’t any 12-step programs that were appropriate,” she said.
Ms. Lassez finally made the decision to get clean, she said, when she stumbled onto a message board on Yahoo moderated by devotees of psychics. There she read tales of dozens of people who had troubles like hers. She began reaching out to them, mostly online, sharing stories. Those stories involved tens of thousands of dollars of debt and postponement of career and romantic decisions, waiting on predictions that were never going to come true.
So after a long and painful recovery she now wants to spread the word. “It’s not like I’m proud of it,” she said of her addiction, but “if I can stand here and laugh at myself about it, it has to help.”
Besides, things in her life are much better now. She has been reborn as a something of an indie-movie queen. She has three films pending release, including “Mad Cowgirl,” a surrealist slasher cum kung fu movie, in which she stars.
Still, Hollywood being Hollywood, she never knows when the winning streak will end. Speaking from her home in the Silver Lake section of Los Angeles, she admitted to the occasional relapse. She never did throw away her tarot cards. “Those cards,” she said, “are probably sitting on my bed right now.”