I'm sure it looked really cool in his mind when he was planning it, imagining a full house of screaming fans, and his cheap-looking scarf (copies of which were on sale in the lobby for $20) wafting in the wind during his jog toward a secure place to chill out as we all anxiously awaited his return. But, in a harshly lit meeting room of mostly empty chairs, watching a fey, middle-aged man – in jeans and a black zip-up jacket from North Face, no less – jogging and wheezing his way down the center aisle to the back of the room, where fewer than a hundred people half-heartedly applauded until he finally just walked out (presumably to the men's room) was just sad and depressing.
That feeling of empathy was short lived, however. Undercover and playing the role of “Wade,” I, along with my fellow Operation Bumblebee investigators, felt anger and scorn for what, in our opinion, was obvious charlatanism.
“Operation Bumblebee” was the brainchild of Susan Gerbic, co-founder of the Monterey County Skeptics, and creator of the Guerrilla Skepticism on Wikipedia project. She and several others had been working for months on the project, gathering the funds necessary to purchase tickets, arranging various strategies to control for “hot reading” (online and other research tactics that some psychics use to increase their hit rate), as well as attempting to find people willing to participate. Once I learned about the project, I jumped at the chance to take part. Although I came late to the mission, I also came particularly well suited for the task. I serve on the board of directors for the Bay Area Skeptics, I have a flexible work schedule, I trained as a stage actor in college, and for a number of years in the 1980s and 1990s I was a true believer in all manner of New Age nonsense. My instructions were to devise a character for myself that: a) had lost a loved one; b) wanted to regain contact with that loved one through Chip; and c) totally believed in psychics and otherworldly claptrap. This would be my first foray back into the world of psychics and New Agers since my conversion to rationality and sanity. It was, to put it mildly, a surreal experience. And, much to our delight, the plan went off without a hitch.
Using fake names did, however, help us stay in character as we greeted each other loudly in the room, hugging and expressing not only delight in seeing each other again, but also our shared hope that Chip would be able to contact “your wonderful mother, who I am so sorry to hear passed away last year” (Wade), and “your poor sister who died in one of the towers on 9/11” (Jan), and “your little boy…what’s it been, 20 years now since his death at the age of three?” (Suzanna). Of course, we also loudly exclaimed our certainty that Chip Coffey, unlike some other psychics, was the real deal, and would definitely be able to get through to our loved ones. It wasn’t long before others around us began chiming in, telling us how much they loved Chip, and sharing their very personal stories of loss. One woman told us in detail how her husband needed a liver transplant and had been languishing for years, frequently visiting Stanford Medical Center for treatment and awaiting good news from those who monitor the list of liver donors. During the reading portion of the evening, she would be advised by Chip to take her ailing husband immediately to a hospital in Texas where he would receive the treatment that will keep him alive for at least another 20 years. Oddly, the spirits answered the question of whether he’d survive the transplant with the rather lackadaisical phrase, “Why not?”
Susan attempted to increase her odds of being called upon by anxiously approaching Chip’s assistant before the show began to inquire as to whether Mr. Coffey possessed the power to contact small children who had passed over. After all, she explained, her son had died at the age of three, and didn’t speak much yet; but, if tonight was successful, she would definitely sign up for a private reading ($200-$850 per half hour). That would not be a problem, the assistant assured her. In the past, Chip has even succeeded in contacting stillborn children. Oddly, a somewhat contradictory statement would be made by Chip during his onstage ramblings when he exclaimed, “People sometimes want me to contact babies, or dogs, etc. What are babies going to say? Dogs are gonna say, ‘Ruff! Ruff!’”
For my part, I attempted to appear as bright and cheerful as possible, wearing a neon green dress shirt and tie, and sitting in an aisle seat in full view of the small stage only two rows in front of me. Although his wide-spaced and somewhat oddly aligned eyes make it difficult to know exactly where he’s looking at any given time, I was fairly certain that Chip made eye contact with me quite a bit throughout the evening. In the first hour, Chip requested that people ask him questions of a general nature, saving psychic readings and mediumship for later in the evening. Prepared with a story that I hoped would cement me in his mind as a true believer, I confidently raised my hand over and over as he droned on about his upcoming projects, his first realization that he had psychic powers, and the like, peppered with occasional shrieks of, “Bitch, please!” and an assortment of other stereotypically campy one-liners that kept his fatuous audience in the palm of his hand. Many seemed to know him quite well, asking about his TV episodes, mentioning topics from his book, etc., providing Chip with just enough fodder for comedy to endear himself to the audience as a bawdy, down-to-earth, “openly gay Southerner” who just happens to be able to contact dead people and predict the future.
Finally, all my hand raising paid off. He called on me, and I introduced myself as instructed earlier, then launched immediately into my prepared story. I told him that I had a weird characteristic that I wanted his opinion on. “You see,” I explained, “I have never been able to wear a watch. When I was young, watches wouldn’t keep proper time when I wore them. Later in life, more expensive watches would just stop working altogether and defied repair.” He nodded in agreement as I continued. “I finally just stopped wearing watches, and like most people today, use my smart phone to tell me the time. But recently, I had a strange experience going through an airport. The scanner they put me in just stopped dead. Everyone working there looked at each other in shock and surprise, and I finally had to get patted down and wanded by airport security. I asked a friend about this, and one of her friends who is psychic told her that it was a very bad sign, and that I most likely have a demon...” At this point, Chip tossed up his head, and rolled his eyes broadly as if to say how ludicrous such a suggestion was. He stopped me and reassured me that 1) this problem was not unheard of, and he has met several people for whom watches and other technology would not work properly, 2) this so-called demon must get around a lot because everyone blames it for everything in the world, and 3) it was simply one of those things that science, and even those who study the paranormal, cannot yet explain. I acted reassured, and nodded and smiled in agreement. He seemed satisfied, and moved on to another person; at this point, I felt sure that I had convinced him I was a believer.
We reconvened at the appointed time, and Chip reentered the room to thunderous applause (or as thunderous as the small number of attendees could provide). He sat on the small stage in a tall chair, and looked out at us. He gave us some instructions about how to properly raise our hands (no flailing about, or pointing to friends). He also warned us to turn off all cell phones, avoid fidgeting or chatting to neighbors, or doing anything else to throw off his concentration. Once the go-ahead was given, a good many of us raised our hands. Questions ranged from the usual career or relationship advice, to predictions about future children and romantic partners. Many, however, wanted to contact the dead.
Chip’s introduction to “how this all works” was as follows. First, the types of readings we would be getting are mini versions of the more complete private readings he offers by telephone (the first of many pitches that night for the more profitable private readings he provides). Second, when he speaks to dead people, it is “an energetic exchange,” that provides you with “a little snippet of memory, information, that will show you that the person that you love is gone, and 99% of the time…have gone to a pain-free, peaceful, loving place. If they were snarky or feisty in this world, they may have mellowed a bit. And sometimes, they’re going to come through with things that you’re not going to understand. That’s okay. Hang onto that information and let it evolve because…you’ll think about what I said, and you’ll have an ‘A-Ha!’ moment. Do not stretch anything too far to make it fit because, if you have to do that, that’s not it.” Although these may seem like simple instructions for experiencing the evening’s events, they’re actually much more. In my opinion, these instructions provide Chip with several “outs” for his misses. For instance, if he seemed to be portraying someone’s dead loved one with a personality that didn’t quite fit, his warning that the person may have “mellowed a bit” since death will allow him a good explanation for the mismatch. Similarly, if he said something that didn’t make sense at all – such as when he told a middle-aged man who had been forced to turn off life support on his brain-dead father, “Is he the one with the change rattling in his pockets?” The man floundered a bit, confused, and then finally decided that that must be his father’s twin brother who always carried change around.
These sorts of exchanges (some mundane, some quite emotional and heartbreaking) went on for about 20 minutes before Chip looked over toward our side of the room and somberly asked that everyone put their hands down. He was quiet for a moment, and then announced that he was going to do a “hop, skip, and jump kind of thing around here because there’s an older woman bringing through a child.” At that moment, my heart did its own hop, skip, and jump, and I thought to myself, “We got him!” After an entire evening of telling anyone within earshot that I was hoping to contact my dead mother, and Susan saying that she wanted to communicate with her dead three-year old, Chip Coffey seemed to be repeating back to us verbatim the stories we’d been planting.
He did a bit of digging around and struggled at first, attributing the aforementioned old woman to a young woman behind me for a time. He then pointed to Susan, and next to Jan, who stated loudly that she was there to contact her dead sister, Linda, who had died in one of the Twin Towers on 9/11. He finally pegged Susan as the one who wanted to talk to a small child, and looked quite self-assured when she confirmed his prediction. Of course, the fact that she’d been sitting with large color photos of a small child in full view since he began “reading” our side of the room may have been more responsible for Chip’s deduction than any connection to the spirit world, but I’ll leave that to my readers to decide.
Chip soon brought his attention back to me and, after I fed him the information that he needed (the woman was my mother, her name was Ella, and she died one year ago), launched into a flattering description of her as an Auntie Mame, someone who encourages everybody to reach their full potential, the ring leader, the one who would bring others through and say, “Come on! Let’s go do this!” She was Rosalind Russell! Angela Lansbury! He then stopped to ask whether I knew what he meant, and I said that I definitely knew who Auntie Mame was. “An amazing woman!” he continued. He heard music around her, she was always singing. I agreed with all of this, and acted shocked and emotional. He continued, asking if I was involved in musical theater, and I said no. “Because, you know what she just said to me? Sing out, Louise! Sing out, Louise!” (a reference to a line from the 1962 film, “Gypsy” starring Rosalind Russell).
Assuring me that my mother was fine and very proud of me, he then focused his attention on Susan. She provided her name, her dead child’s name (holding up the pictures yet again), and said that he died 20 years ago. “This was quick,” he said immediately. Susan confirmed that it had been. He assured her that his death had been painless, and then suggested that there had been “a thing with the feet…the kind of thing, with his feet always moving.” Susan replied that he ran into the street, and that’s how he died. Oddly, Chip then ignored this softball and replied, “And you have Restless Leg Syndrome, don’t you?” Susan agreed that, yes, she did. He took credit for that one, and snarkily replied, “I’m psychic and shit,” to uproarious laughter from the crowd. “Your kid is fine,” he said repeatedly, then stated emphatically that she had a little shrine (probably not uncommon for a parent who has lost such a young child). She agreed, holding up her pictures once again. Chip then assured her that her son, Matthew, was telling him he’s fine. Susan responded, “But he was only three,” and the audience let out a collective “Aaaaaahhhh…” to which Chip replied sarcastically with his own “Aaaaaaahhhh….but how old was his soul? TA-DA!!” It was a bizarre way to interact with a tearful woman – by now, Susan was dabbing her eyes with tissues and really playing up the grieving mother act – and a rather heartless way to offer reassurance.
Without taking a breath, Chip pointed at Jan and said, “9/11!” as if the idea had just come to him. It had, in fact, been plainly stated in the discussion at the beginning of this “hop, skip, and jump” reading. Chip assured Jan that her sister was fine. “Whip, I’m gone! Fuck this, I’m outta here! Did it hurt? Ya, it hurt a little bit, but ya know what? I’m okay.” Although that may be reassuring to some degree, it’s certainly not anything that’s falsifiable so it can’t really be considered a hit or a miss. But, after having been explicitly told only a few minutes earlier, “I’m here for my sister who died on 9/11,” Chip’s next response was, “What’s the person’s name? Is it a man?” This was surprisingly sloppy, and caught me off guard. Jan, however, didn’t miss a beat. She reminded him that she was trying to contact her sister, Linda, to which Chip replied, “She walked through with a man!” apparently attempting to make a miss into a hit. He further attempted to explain this mistake by claiming that, while visiting the World Trade Center site a few years after the terrorist attack of 9/11, he met a spirit who’d died there named Aaron. This Aaron, he claimed, was the man who had just walked through with Linda, and was reassuring her. “I hear her with music,” he said. “Rockin’ with music. The Beatles.” Given Jan’s age group, it would make sense that her generation (as well as that of the fictional Linda) would have listened to the Beatles, so that was an easy guess. I would have been very surprised if he’d guessed a generation-mismatch like Big Band, or some obscure genre like Slowcore.
As I said at the beginning of this article, the general lameness of the entire event, and the fact that we had (in my estimation) duped Chip Coffey into portraying our invented stories as paranormal events, made me feel a little sorry for him. If this was the best he could do, I really didn’t perceive him as a significant threat. The reading that happened next, however, drained me of any empathy I might have developed during our encounter. A young girl who looked to be in her early 20s had been part of the “confusion” at the beginning of the readings in our area. She had already shared that she was there to seek out a young man who’d died in a car accident. Finished with Jan, Chip quickly asked that the microphone be given to this young girl, and began pumping her for more details. “What’s your friend’s name,” he asked. She answered. “And how long has it been since you saw him?” To our horror, she replied in a shaky voice, “He…passed on Saturday.” This young woman had lost her boyfriend in a car accident a mere five days before, and had spent $150 on a VIP ticket to ask Chip Coffey to contact his spirit. I was sickened. Some readers may be aware that I am a psychology professor; I have seen firsthand, the effects of disrupting the grieving process for people, and they are horrible. I often tell my students that the worst harm that psychic charlatans can do is to prevent people from doing their Grief Homework. There is a process that we need to go through when we suffer a loss. It involves stages of varying degrees of strong emotions, and over time, can settle into states that range from full acceptance, a sort of standoff between them and their emotions, all the way to complete inability to function. The last thing someone in grief needs is someone derailing this process with fantasies of the deceased person communicating with them through a channeler…and for a price.
At first, Chip claimed that the young man’s energy was trying to get through, “but they won’t let him…because it’s too soon.” The girl began to cry. Apparently regretting this decision, Chip then pulled back a bit on his statement and claimed that a spirit guide of his named Rachel was telling him, “No, no, no…it’s too soon. You’re not going to connect with him,” but then assured the girl that the young man was insisting and was “pushing through.” “I got him, and he’s okay,” Chip explained, “but he is sooooo mad.” The girl began weeping audibly into the microphone. Chip repeated, “So mad,” then exclaimed, “This was quick, correct?” (Apparently he needed to differentiate it from all those other car accidents that happen slowly?) “Was this an accident,” Chip then asked. (She had already said twice that it was a car accident, which made me wonder how many in the audience would walk away remembering incorrectly that Chip had divined that information psychically.) Then, cruelly, he said, “It did hurt.” There was silence in the room. To twist the knife in this way was beyond cruel. Listening to this girl already weeping uncontrollably, it was all I could do to not jump from my seat and storm out of the room. Apparently feeling similarly, Susan gripped my leg tightly in a signal of shared anger and disgust. To make matters worse, Chip then asked, “You know that old saying, ‘Live fast, die young, and leave a beautiful corpse’? He’s saying, ‘By god, I did that.’” You know, because corpse is a completely appropriate word to use when talking to someone whose young boyfriend died in a tragic car accident only a few days ago!
A bit more general nonsense about how he was a good person, how he was strong-willed, and his wonderful personality, finally culminated in, of all things, and apparition! And the only one all night! As he was summing up, Chip finally said, “Son of a bitch! He’s tall and dark haired, isn’t he?!” The girl replied awkwardly, “Um, he…wishes he were tall. But he was dark haired.” “He was just at the back of the room,” Chip stated emphatically, with the promise, “You’ll get more later. You’ll get more later…so, if you want to do a private reading, call me at some point in time, but I’d give him a little while to complete that transition.”By this point, I’d had my fill. The readings went on for another twenty minutes or so, but I was so angry and upset that I tuned it all out.
So get out there, join up with your fellow skeptics – not just online, but in “meat space” – and DO SOMETHING!