From Skeptic  magazine (Vol. 6  No. 1  1998)

Talking to the
Living Loved Ones
of the
Dearly Departed

by Gary P. Posner

James Van Praagh's Talking to Heaven,  the New York Times #1 nonfiction best seller, may just be the most clearly written, entertaining, comprehensive and persuasive book yet published on any paranormal theme. Wouldn't know. Haven't read it. Doubt it, though.

Having seen this "spirit medium" work several audiences, I am persuaded of this much: Packaging the essence of James Van Praagh's "gift" into book form must necessarily cause lots to be lost in the translation. No, there is only one medium that does justice to this medium's conversations with the dead: the boob tube.

A well-done spirit-medium performance is rare -- especially in the opinion of conjurers (and others) well versed in the sleight-of-mind branch of magic known as "mentalism." In talking to the deceased and relaying their messages back to their appreciative loved ones, as Van Praagh has ostensibly been doing for the past 14 years, his primary technique seems indistinguishable from that of a magician/mentalist or, for that matter, the typical "psychic." In fact, he peppers his clients with such a non-stop barrage of questions that enough feedback is obtained to satiate an Ethiopian family of fourteen. His physical features and mannerisms remind me of comedian Rip Taylor who, during my formative years, would instantly win over his audiences by showering them not with questions, but with confetti and a grab bag of gag items.

In any event, one might have hoped that the November 20, 1997, edition of CBS-TV's "48 Hours," whose skeptical profile of Van Praagh featured James Randi, would have resulted in a cooling down of the "talking to the dead" craze. Not on your life. Despite Randi's instructive commentary as to the easily spotted "mentalism" techniques, Talking to Heaven  would spiral on to far greater heights.

As Van Praagh explains, when we die, we merely transfer into another energy form inhabiting a "different dimension." Our "thoughts" continue uninterrupted, though they are now communicated on a "higher frequency" or "vibration" than before. Fortunately for Van Praagh, his physiology allows him to pick up these "higher frequency" waves. He then requests that the departed spirit "lower" its thought-wave frequency back down to our normal level, thus enabling Van Praagh to carry on a brisk conversation with the spirit. Even at the "normal/lower" frequency, his mediumship is still required because he hears "pure thoughts," not sounds.

My cathode-ray-tube research of Van Praagh might never have commenced had I not been asked by Tampa Tribune  religion reporter Michelle Bearden to review a tape of the December 10, 1997, "Larry King Live" show (CNN) and to then provide her with a synopsis of my impressions for use in her March 15, 1998, article. Here is what I sent to her:

Van Praagh's methods are similar to those of the other superstars in the field such as Rosemary Altea (author of books like Proud Spirit ) and George Anderson (We Don't Die ).

His technique of obtaining information from the client, and then claiming to have received it from the "departed," was apparent. In one of many examples, he asked King if his deceased father had been a smoker. After  King said yes, only then  did Van Praagh claim to vividly see the father puffing away on a cigarette. In another, a caller volunteered that her sister had been murdered. Van Praagh only then  said that, yes, he could see that the death was very violent.

His other primary technique is to offer facts supposedly obtained from the "departed" and then ask the client, "Does that make sense to you?" If the client is able to make some sense of the reading, it is considered a "success." If not, it may still  be a "success" -- perhaps the client needs to consult with family or friends to figure out what the "departed" meant.

A "departed" mother told Van Praagh that someone in the caller/daughter's family had breast cancer and needed to see a doctor. The daughter said she didn't know who this could be. Rather than taking a few seconds to get that potentially life-saving information from the "departed," Van Praagh simply moved on. That spoke volumes to me about whether his act is genuine, or just a game.

I was initially impressed with one eerie "hit" during the show, until I replayed the segment and realized how Van Praagh did it. A woman called about her baby daughter's grandmother who had died. Larry King interrupted to ask the caller whether the deceased was the caller's  mother or the father's  mother. Before the caller could even answer, Van Praagh forcefully announced that, no, it was not the caller's mother, but the paternal grandmother -- and he was right! How did he do it? Had it been the caller's  mother, the caller would likely have inquired about her mother  rather than her daughter's grandmother!

Van Praagh could convince me of his genuineness within 5 minutes, or I could expose him just as quickly, with the simplest test imaginable. Have a series of strangers ask him to communicate with a departed relative, such as a father, and simply ask him to come up with the relatives' names. If he can hear the spirits speaking about all sorts of other matters, he certainly ought to be able to hear their names clearly enough. Only a genuine  "medium" could correctly get the names without client feedback or doing prior research.

My next viewing of Van Praagh was on the February 23, 1998, edition of "Oprah," during which she tactfully expressed her own skepticism and also played a few pre-recorded observations by Skeptics Society founder Michael Shermer. (Shermer was impeccable on the April 3 edition of ABC-TV's "20/20." On both shows he pointed out that Van Praagh scores far more misses than hits, but that audiences conveniently remember the hits and forget the misses.)

And Van Praagh was the focus of attention on the March 5 installment of "Charles Grodin" (CNBC), whose interview I found to be the most disappointing, by far, of the lot. Before acquiring his talk show, Grodin was a deadpan comedic actor of some renown. He has since distinguished himself as a sharp-minded host who, for instance, proved capable (during the O.J. days) of squaring off with the likes of Alan Dershowitz and landing more than his fair share of left hooks to the kidney.

Grodin took a few calls that night (I wanted to call, but the telephone number was never given!), but much of the hour was devoted to Van Praagh doing readings for several members of a small studio audience. Sometimes he didn't even need to ask a particular question of a client -- the information would be eagerly volunteered. At one point a reading about a deceased daughter moved an unrelated audience member to tears.

Despite the effusive praise heaped upon Van Praagh by the host, Grodin did chime in on a few occasions with pointed questions that appeared intended to test his guest's ability to come up with something specific  (e.g., a name or career) without relying upon feedback from the client. On each such occasion, Van Praagh either attempted to do so and failed, or simply offered a comment such as, "Sometimes it's hard for them to formulate the thought and send it to me in a correct way." Not until I read the article about Van Praagh in the March 16 issue of Time  magazine did I learn that one of Grodin's pre-arranged calls was from the son of a fabled actor. From Time:  "What Grodin knew, but didn't share with his audience, was that if Van Praagh really saw and spoke to the caller's father, he somehow failed to recognize the spirit of... John Wayne." But rather than finally expressing some degree of skepticism, as one audience member had bravely done, Grodin, who had no trouble seeing right through the "Dream Team," remained spellbound throughout.

I guess Grodin, like most adults, believes himself too sophisticated to be fooled by a performance such as was witnessed that evening. Certainly Van Praagh must be doing something more than merely talking to the living loved ones of the dearly departed, pumping them for information, and feeding it back to them (along with a few interspersed educated guesses -- and maybe even some information obtained surreptitiously), all the while pretending (or imagining) that he is speaking with the dead. [Indeed, he was caught cheating -- inquiring of a client beforehand as to whom she was there to contact -- during what he thought was a break in the taping of the "20/20" program.] But how can Grodin, and so many others, in spite of their intense desire to "believe," fail to appreciate the obvious similarities between a Van Praagh peppering session and the party games of "Hot and Cold" and "Twenty Questions"?

On the other hand, who am I to pass judgment? Grodin may have been dead right when he compared Van Praagh's "gift" to that of Jesus Christ, thus implying that Talking to Heaven  deserves a revered place on the bookshelf or mantelpiece alongside the New Testament. Wouldn't know. Haven't read them. Doubt it, though.

Read about fellow "psychic mediums" John Edward and George Anderson

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