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Running Hot and Cold: “Psychic Medium” Rebecca Rosen

The Good Word

Karen Stollznow

September 26, 2011

ABC Nightline’s Beyond Belief1 investigated a variety of psychic claims, including palmistry, tarot, and mediumship. “Celebrity” psychic James van Praagh gave a reading to a reporter, and the mentalist Banachek presented a skeptical commentary throughout, with appearances by James Randi and magician Jamy Ian Swiss. A number of street psychics were also tested for JREF’s Million Dollar Challenge, but the prize remains unclaimed.

The segment “Cooking, Cleaning and Communicating with The Dead” featured “Psychic Moms” Allison DuBois and Rebecca Rosen, who gave a reading to reporter David Wright. Amazingly, both psychics mentioned “Deanna,” the name of Wright’s deceased mother. Wright marveled that this information simply doesn’t “pop up on Google.” However, after the show, Banachek discovered an online biography of Wright in which he reveals his daughter’s name, Deanna.2 His daughter was obviously named after his mother, so this was a bonus for the psychics.

It seems the psychics engaged in hot reading; that is, acquiring information about the sitter prior to the reading.

Rosen communicates with her spiritsRosen communicates with her spirits.

Hit and Miss

ABC reporter John Donvan wrote about the filming of Rebecca Rosen’s segment. She gave readings to the film crew, and while he initially construed some common experiences as “hits,” he ultimately wasn’t impressed with her readings.

Then a reporter had a one-on-one session. There were more hits—and some pretty clean ones at that.

“Did you used to work as a pizza boy?”

“Yes.”

“Did you have trouble with the lights in a hotel room recently?”

“Yes.” (A weird question, but we did have exactly that happen a few week back) [sic].

But to be honest, through most of the rest of the conversation—during which Rosen said I was talking with my dad and grandfather—the psychic said a good amount that really didn’t fit terribly well. And then her style was to start exploring. We saw that happen many other times during the week.

“This [is] about your wife’s side of the family as well,” she told one man, David.

“I need to clarify something in terms of wife, I'm not married,” he replied.

“You’re not married. But you have an ex-wife...”

“No,” said David.

To Jennifer: “By any chance is your daughter named after Margaret?” The answer: No.

To Carrie: “I have to start over here, I’m pretty sure this is for you. I have two males that are popping in very strongly, your Dad has passed, correct?” (Carrie: “My Dad, no.”)

To Pamela: “Who’s the rocky road? Like loves Rocky Road? Chocolate? ... Did somebody just give you a box of chocolates?” To which Pamela just shakes her head.3

In the reader comments below the reader “mtgb0809” shares a personal experience of a reading with Rosen.

She is a fraud. The things she "knew” about me could be found out online. The things that she should have known she got completely wrong, like my mom being alive (she is not alive, she is dead, which is why I hired Rebecca in the first place). I would never recommend anyone give her a dime for her services.4

A funny thing happened on the way to the psychic reading…

Rosen charges $275 for a thirty-minute reading and $500 for a sixty-minute reading. She claims, “The wait for a private reading is now approximately three years.”5 She also offers “priority” or “charity” readings that are in no way charitable; these are last-minute cancellations which Rosen resells for $500 for a thirty-minute reading and $1000 for a sixty-minute reading.6 Sitters can bring a friend to participate for an extra $100.7 Public performances cost $50, and I attended a show in Denver, Colorado.

Rosen began with a story. Earlier that day, she decided to have a haircut before her show. On her way there she stopped by a gift shop. This was supposed to be a simple trip to purchase a greeting card, but she felt the compulsion to collect a number of irrelevant items, including a crucifix, a birthday card for “Mom,” and a sticker that read “99.” She suddenly snapped out of her reverie, put down her unnecessary load of items, and left the shop.

Rosen then arrived at the hairdressing salon and her strange shopping adventure was explained! She met her stylist’s mother, who was celebrating her birthday but also mourning her mother’s passing a few days ago. Her mother had been ninety-nine years of age, and was buried with a crucifix placed in her casket. Rosen’s hairdresser was in the audience to verify the story.

Of course, this story was only an anecdote. The hairdresser may have been involved in a stunt, or Rosen might have constructed the story upon meeting her hairdresser’s mother. To the audience, this was a convincing up-front display of her abilities. But it seemed like a dramatic ice breaker; a psychic’s version of the old comedian’s cliché, “A funny thing happened to me on the way to the studio.”

Rosen reads her list of namesRosen reads her list of names.

A Book of Baby’s Names

Rosen said that the spirits had been “showing up all day long. They were in single file out the door.” She had written a list of the names of some of these “spirits”:

“Joe, Robert or Bob, Dan, Jerry, Nick, Chris, Ben, Jesse, Corey, Katherine, Jim, Betty, David, Bill, Dale, Kevin, Julie, Carol, Seymour, Tyler, Taylor, Sherri, Rose, Abe, Ozzy, Joan, Doris, Dorothy, Shirley, Helen, Bernie, Pete, Don, Tom, Ed, John, Al, Scott, and Pauline.”

These were not the only names Rosen mentioned that night; throughout the show she also referred to: Alice, Jeffrey, Sam, Max, Ruby, Ryan, Josephine, Joanne, Laurie, Ron, Randy, Lilly, Beth, Thomas, Michael, Charles, Rebecca, Tony, Anthony, George, Anne, Annie, Ian, Barb, Bella, Henry, Mary, Richard, Rusty, Ross, Jim, James, and Jonathan. If it is possible that none of these names resonated with individual members of the audience, “Mom,” “Dad,” “Grandma,” and “Grandpa” probably did. Everyone at a reading has alive and deceased relatives and friends, and everyone has or has had parents, grandparents, siblings, cousins, unless, aunts, and friends.

Rosen absolved herself of disappointing the audience by saying we wouldn’t all “hear” from our deceased loved ones. “There are a few thousand spirits trying to get through, but I read who needs to be read.” Those who didn’t receive readings probably felt they had still been addressed personally by way of the numerous common names Rosen mentioned.

Hot Readings?

Rosen started her reading by saying, “The spirits brought you here, and the spirits sat you where you needed to sit.” No doubt the ticketing agency sat us where we sat, but did Rosen take advantage of the personal information provided at the time of purchase?

“The spirits told me to start here,” she began, and then proceeded to give readings to people at two tables conveniently located in the front row. The readings were non-specific, but she had some minor hits with names and hobbies. She even presented a gift to one of these people; a novelty poster for a recently deceased golf fan; to “put on his grave.” Like the hairdresser anecdote above, this was a clever gimmick that further earned her the audience’s confidence.

seating chart

But was Rosen giving hot readings? Tickets were purchased online and the names of all attendees were provided.8 Attendees could pick their own seats or select from the “best available”; wherever they sat, the seats were assigned a number. Therefore, Rosen likely had access to the name of every attendee, and where they sat in the room.

Like the possible googling of “Deanna,” had Rosen conducted online searches of her audience members? At one point, she mentioned a celebrity photograph. When this didn’t elicit a response she named actor Richard Gere. A woman at the table directly in front of her cried out, “I have a photo of me and Cindy Crawford! I just posted it on Facebook the other day!”

The ready availability and prevalence of personal blogs, photo albums, public records, background check tools, obituary pages, and networking sites allow us all to become amateur online detectives, and could allow psychics to gather information about their audiences.

Possible earpiece

Moreover, in addition to a microphone wrapped around her jaw, Rosen wore an earpiece (see enlarged photograph). Was Rosen being fed real-time information about her audience members, á là Peter Popoff?

Cold Readings

Following are some of the techniques Rosen used in her reading, and some of her “hits” and misses. Rosen had some peculiar theories; she claimed a fly traveled in her car all afternoon, and that it was the spirit of someone’s father trying to “get through.” Another woman’s father was now a grasshopper living in her garden, and other people had spirits of loved ones who hide car keys and smash windows to get their attention.

Naming is the major component of her readings. Like other public psychic mediums, Rosen lists a plethora of popular names in an attempt to get a “hit” with the audience. There were 320 people in the room; this was an audience large enough for each name to be construed as “correct.” If a name wasn’t acknowledged, Rosen had some additional tricks. In one example, Joe, a male, became Jo, a female, and failing that, became Joanne and then Josephine to achieve a strike. Because people were desperate to contact their loved ones, the connections they made were often tenuous. In one instance, the initials “GR” became George, and were then reinterpreted as “Grandpa” by one audience member. Unlike Rosen, who may have had access to the full names of the audience members, the “spirits” could only provide first names, parts of first names, or first initials.

To broaden the playing field, these names or part names could apparently refer to either living or dead people. For someone who claims to communicate with the dead, Rosen never seemed to know if the names she mentioned referred to someone alive or deceased, and she had to ask questions to elicit that information. These included, “Has she passed?” (She had passed); “Is your brother living?” (No, he wasn’t); “She’s up there?” (No, she wasn’t); and “Was she buried?” (No, she was cremated). The audience would fill in the blanks, and often make the fails fit; for example, “Your husband died?” was responded to with, “No, but he almost died!” She wouldn’t have been as successful if the audience hadn’t been so willing to assist her.

At one stage Rosen said, “I’m getting the number eleven,” and a woman nearby kept trying to make the reading fit. She blurted out a story: “It was my eleventh wedding anniversary just before my second husband died. I’d been with my first husband for ten years and my second husband said, ‘Well, I guess I’ve got him beat. We’ll be together forever.’ Then he passed away.” In deep grief she started sobbing.

Rosen searches for a hitRosen searches for a hit.

Rosen reworked misses into “hits,” and acquired additional information this way. “Do you have a daughter?” was taken as a hit and expanded upon with “I have two daughters,” and “You have two kids?” was taken as a partial hit with the answer, “Just one girl.” Grammatical tense provided further information: “He was your Dad?” became, “No, he is my husband.” Misses were even turned into comedy, e.g., “Are you pregnant?” was answered with “I sure hope not!” and followed by audience laughter.

Generality was also taken as a “hit.” For example, asking about a pet was construed as a strike, even if the species was named inaccurately: “Do you have a cat?” “No, I have a dog.” “Okay, then this message is for you.” Similarly, “Do you have a son?” was answered with “No, I have a daughter,” and Rosen followed with “Then this is for you.”

To “verify” that she was in contact with the relevant spirit, Rosen would reference trigger terms in connection with the name. These included a range of common, everyday objects and hobbies: sports, music, balloons, motorcycle, cars, wedding rings and other jewelry, shoebox, perfume, men’s cologne, travel, children’s toys, books, religion, smoking, gambling, drinking, cooking, and hunting.

Ian Rowland’s The Full Facts Book of Cold Reading relies on “Stat Facts,” demographics and statistical information, to produce convincing cold readings.9 Similarly, Rosen listed common names, common deaths and common experiences. She mentioned the common causes of death, including cancer and heart disease, and some specific-sounding fatalities such as car accidents and suicide. She told one woman whose mother had suffered from breast cancer and survived, “You will have a cancer scare.” The woman panicked and Rosen realized she’d touched a raw nerve, assuring her, “You will be okay! You won’t die of it, not that your Mom did!”

To give the illusion of accuracy, Rosen would mention non-specific items that gave the appearance of specificity. She mentioned a number of objects and occurrences that could apply to most people: a ring with a reset stone, a necklace with a broken clasp, a broken zipper, trouble with someone’s toilet (similar to the ABC reporter’s trouble with hotel lights), a rainbow (also mentioned in the ABC reporter’s reading) a broken microwave, a broken phone, carrying spare change, and seeing a bear, coyote or deer in someone’s backyard or garage (Not uncommon in Colorado). However, some bold attempts went amusingly wrong: “She’s saying something about nude photographs?” received an offended “No!” Rosen reinterpreted her “vision” as “family photographs.”

When Rosen established that she’d “contacted” a spirit via common triggers, the messages were simplistic rather than profound. For example, “It’s beautiful over there”; “Your dad is extremely proud of you”; “They are looking out for you”; “He says ‘I love you, I’m happy”; and “She loves flowers and heaven is like a garden.”

When Rosen was blatantly inaccurate, she had a number of stock “outs.” She would dismiss the audience member’s denial with “look into it,” or reprimand them into making it fit with, “Make the connection”; “You have to own it”; and “You have to honor what’s coming through.”

If Rosen hit a complete dead end she wouldn’t acknowledge she was wrong. Instead she would move on. She darted across the room, constantly keeping up a fast pace. But she had lots of misses; thinking people were dead when they were alive and alive when they were dead. I had a notebook full of guesses and crosses.

Hot and Cold Flashes

Evidently, Rosen is trying to set herself up to become a noted psychic. Like James van Praagh, John Edward, Sylvia Browne, and many others before her, Rebecca Rosen has her own techniques for cold reading, and possibly hot reading. However, Rosen’s skills are far less impressive than those of cold reading experts Ray Hyman, Ian Rowland, and Lynne Kelly. As usual, the skeptics are more skilled at cold reading, but skeptics perform without the deception or delusion of psychics.

References

1. Primetime Nightline: Beyond Belief explores the realm of the extra-sensory, the spiritual, and the experiences many call “beyond belief.” Available online at http://abcnews.go.com/Nightline/beyondbelief/. Accessed 08/28/2011.

2. David Wright. ABC News. Available online at http://abcnews.go.com/Politics/story?id=127805. Accessed 08/28/2011.

3. John Donvan and Danielle Atkin. Mommy Psychic Raises Kids, Communes With Dead. Available online at http://abcnews.go.com/Nightline/psychic-mom-communes-dead/story?id=9720848&page=3.

4. Ibid.

5. Rebecca Rosen. Readings. Available online at http://www.rebeccarosen.com/readings.html. Accessed 08/31/2011.

6. Rebecca Rosen. Priority Appointment Request. Available online at http://www.jotform.com/form/81534713925. Accessed 08/31/2011.

7. Rebecca Rosen. Private Readings. Available online at http://rebeccarosen.com/private_readings.html. Accessed 08/31/2011.

8. Vendini. Available online at http://www.vendini.com/. Accessed 09/01/2011.

9. Rowland, Ian. 2008. The Full Facts Book of Cold Reading: A Comprehensive Guide to the Most Persuasive Psychological Manipulation Technique in the World. 4th Revised Edition. Full Facts Books.

Karen Stollznow

Karen Stollznow's photo

Karen Stollznow is an author and skeptical investigator with a doctorate in linguistics and a background in history and anthropology. She is an associate researcher at the University of California, Berkeley, and a director of the San Francisco Bay Area Skeptics. A prolific skeptical writer for many sites and publications, she is the “Good Word” Web columnist for the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, the “Bad Language” columnist for Skeptic magazine, a frequent contributor to Skeptical Inquirer, and managing editor of CSI’s Scientific Review of Mental Health Practice. Dr. Stollznow is a host of the Monster Talk podcast and writer for the Skepbitch and Skepchick blogs, as well as for the James Randi Educational Foundation’s Swift. She can be reached via email at kstollznow[at]centerforinquiry.net.