Hi, my name is Kelsey, and I am a skeptic.
Let’s make that clear now, because it’s going to come out in all sorts of ways -- both subtle and un- -- throughout this essay, which describes my visit to the Weekly Williamsburg Spirit Séance hosted by one Reverend Betsy Cohen.
I haven’t always been a skeptic. Soon after I denounced organized religion some time during the second grade, I read "Matilda" for the umpteenth time and then traveled to Salem, Massachusetts on a family vacation. The combination of the two proved too intoxicating, and before long, I was educating my classmates on the teachings of Nostradamus and leading them behind the playground during recess to be hypnotized and tell me of their past lives. (An extraordinary number had either been in the Holocaust or at Woodstock, which I suppose to a third grade girl are two of the most important events in history.)
I grew out of my occult phase, though, and learned to worship at the altar of other things (teenage angst, Leonardo DiCaprio in "Titanic," and other things too embarrassing to mention) and at this point in my life have theologically rested comfortably somewhere between secular humanism and quasi-Judaism.
It is with some trepidation, then, that I found myself waiting for Reverend Betsy, a psychic medium and inspirational speaker, at Cheers Thai restaurant in Williamsburg before her regularly-held séance.
Betsy is almost impossibly pixie-ish –– at a hair below 5’1’’ myself, I tower over her 4’10’’ (maybe 4’10.5’’ when she has on kitten heels) frame. She’s wearing a cute spring dress that reveals a few tattooed cherry blossoms on her upper arm and dragging a granny shopping cart behind her. When she speaks, I note that even her voice is adorable.
She apologizes to me for being late but I’m so nervous I barely even noticed. Part of this is some inexplicable stomach trouble I’d been experiencing the four days prior –– I figured I had eaten something so bad it caused an unprecedented production of stomach acid–– and part of it is that even a skeptic like me occasionally feels naked in front of someone who purports to see things on a higher level. Even though she gives no indication of such, Betsy Cohen knows, I am positive, all my many neuroses, my deep fear of seeming or being inauthentic, my Wicked Child self. She sees each flaw like a scar I’ve hastily covered with pancake makeup.
“As a psychic medium, I would tell you to pay attention to when your stomach hurts the most, and think about how you’re feeling and what is happening at that moment,” she says when I express some anxiety over what I can eat that won’t make my GI tract act up. Sound advice, and just the amount of holistic I can handle, I think.
We begin by talking about Betsy’s childhood. She describes her family as “very liberal but very Catholic,” an odd yet telling combination, and her childhood as one marred by illness. No Bernadette Soubirous, she didn’t have many clairvoyant experiences as a youngster, or at least not overt ones. In college, she majored in psychology.
“I knew I was put here to help people,” she says.
Her training led to ten years as a social worker mainly counseling the developmentally disabled and then, later in her career, families affected by homicide. During the course of her time as a social worker, she began to naturally tune in more to her psychic abilities. Sometimes, she told me, the victims of the homicide would visit her while she was having a session with their bereaving families.
“I’d have to almost have two conversations at once, and tell the spirit, ‘I can’t talk to you right now!’”
She describes this time of sixth sensory awakening –– it was paralleled by a harrowing brain condition called syringomyelia, which is as of this moment in a remission-type stage –– as one rife with stress. She struggled with whether or not it was unethical to use her burgeoning abilities in the social work context. In hindsight, Betsy says, she realizes her colleagues and clients would have been accepting of it.
After some soul searching and a visit to the Spiritualist Church of New York City, in which she is now ordained as a reverend, she decided to pursue mediumship full time, and began her studies at the Holistic Studies Institute. Now she conducts the weekly séance, hosts her own radio show (“The Power of Intuition”) and takes up speaking engagements.
The bulk of her practice, though, is still reading for individuals, introducing them to their spirit guides and helping them to become “their best selves.” Though she no longer is a practicing social worker, her education in the field informs her practice in ways that were readily apparent to me as a therapy veteran. Betsy speaks clearly and looks me in the eye, and there is something soothing and unhurried about her voice. (Even later, when she discourages certain members of the séance circle from trying to make objects move using psychic energy, she does so in such a sweet yet knowing tone that they had no choice but to recognize that she was correct. I see some very fruitful group counseling sessions in her past.)
It is this part that interests me the most, maybe –– the ways in which, in terms of communication, her job is similar to a therapist’s, and how many classically trained psychologists could probably improve their practices by learning to tap into their own intuition –– but we cannot dive into this topic. It’s almost time for the séance to begin.
The séance is across Metropolitan Avenue in the living room of a fellow medium and Spiritualist Church member named Steve (the crux of the Church’s dogma, by the way, is “proving life after death"). Present that evening are two college students with blasé attitudes toting Martinelli apple juices and wearing flannel shirts; one hip young girl with half a shaved head who immediately asked Betsy about her time at SXSW doing readings for Andrew WK, among other musicians; aforementioned hipster’s quiet friend; an ex-Chasid; and of course, Steve and myself.
The Weekly Williamsburg Spirit Séance is designed, as Betsy puts it, to “educate strangers off the street,” so she gives a short intro to séances: anyone who receives a message or “psychic impression” (this could be auditory input, as Betsy often receives, or a brief flashing picture in your mind’s eye, or an odd physical sensation –– anything, really) can relay that message to another member of the group as he or she interprets it unless that message is one of “doom and gloom.” Ergo, no telling other people in the circle that they’re about to meet a violent end.
“If you’re going to learn to do this from me, you’re going to learn to do it with integrity,” Betsy says, sounding perfectly nurturing-authoritative.
Before the séance there is the ubiquitous burning of sage and placing of a gemstone on the table, and then the lights are shut off and Betsy says a short prayer, which, aside from inserting “Divine Parent” where God would go in a Judeo-Christian missive, is pretty typically prayer-y. Then, as a guided meditation, Steve leads us in his thick Brooklyn "Goodfellas" accent through some woods, toward a waterfall, and back out again.
What follows is about an hour of messages received and given, the “appearance” of several apparitional guides, and a surprisingly successful metaphor that equated the universe with a three year-old child.
Something about sharing the specifics of people’s messages leaves me feeling uneasy, akin to sharing what occurs in a therapy session in which all are the therapists and all are the patients. I’ll share this, though: Steve, probably seventeen times my size, told me that the spirits’ message for me was that I had a “very strong law of attraction” and my immediate reaction was, “Is this guy hitting on me via séance?”
When the light went on at the end, while I was by no means a total convert, something about the fuzziness emanating from the overhead lamp and the slight soreness of my idle limbs made me feel as if I had just woken up.
And would you believe it? I think I did let go of some needless anxiety, and two days later, my stomach felt just fine.