On the Southside of Indianapolis, nestled at the far end of a strip mall on Madison Avenue, there is a little shop with a peculiar camera. The sign attached claims it can take a picture of one’s aura.
The store is called World of Wisdom, and many of the books on its shelves claim to instruct readers in spell-casting, meditation and reading tarot cards. The main counter is a glass case full of jewelry, most of which bears the pentagram, a symbol of the Wiccan religion.
In the front window, there are signs advertising psychic readings.
Myrna K. Cooke, 49, manager of the store, is a slim woman who speaks with a deep, raspy voice. She teaches classes on tarot and meditation, but one of her main duties is conducting psychic readings for customers.
“I think I first realized I was psychic when I was about 10 years old,” Cooke said. “I used to see things in the clouds other people didn’t see, and I actually had a vision at that age of another lifetime. There was a feeling of knowing things that other people didn’t know.”
Molly A. Lenarduzzi, 34, is Cooke’s sister and also a psychic reader at the store. Like Cooke, Lenarduzzi claims her psychic abilities also began when she was a child.
“I had experiences when I was very young,” Lenarduzzi said. “I knew what was going on with kids at school and things, but I didn’t know what to call it. I just thought everyone knew things like that.”
Cooke explained that she receives information for her clients from her spirit guides.
“I ask my guides for their assistance in guiding the querent,” Cooke said. “And then, through feelings and words that I receive from them, that’s how I get the answers.”
Lenarduzzi said she receives information in much the same way, but it is different with every reading, and the tarot cards she uses are often an essential guide.
“Sometimes it will come through pictures, feelings or numbers,” Lenarduzzi said. “The tarot will sometimes trigger a frame of reference, and then my spirit guide will help me put it into words in a way the client will understand.”
A skeptic’s view
Dr. Michael Shermer, author and founder of The Skeptics Society, is well-known for his endeavors to debunk psychics, ghosts and other paranormal activity. Shermer once sat for a reading with psychic James Van Praagh.
“I was nervous that I would be found out as someone who does not have a dead brother, to which Van Praagh claimed he was speaking,” Shermer said. “Until I remembered that it was he who was claiming to be psychic, not me, so I had nothing to fear. The reading was terrible. He was wrong about almost everything.”
In Shermer’s opinion, trickery is involved on more than one level where psychic readings are concerned.
“I think there is both deception and self-deception going on,” Shermer said. “That is, I think most of the so-called psychics believe they have some psychic powers. Plus, they are also aware that sometimes they have to use trickery, which they consider to be techniques. The better the deception, the better the feedback, which increases their confidence, and so on in a self-reinforcing feedback loop.”
In January 2003, Shermer conducted an experiment where he pretended to be a psychic for a day. His clients had no idea, and he nearly reduced one woman to sobs with his insight.
“My tactics were rather primitive and simple,” Shermer said of the experiment. “I basically just gave a similar reading for everyone, but tweaked it here and there to personalize it for each person depending on my hunch about each of them sitting there in front of me. That is, I could size them up based on age, clothing, jewelry, etcetera.”
Cooke and Lenarduzzi said they believe people come to them for guidance and answers, but Shermer offered quite a different opinion regarding the reasons people get psychic readings.
“The same reason people get suckered by get-rich schemes and other scams,” Shermer said. “They want a quick fix without working for it.”
Are you cursed?
According to Lenarduzzi, there are signs someone can learn to recognize when looking for a good psychic.
“Word of mouth is probably the most reliable source to finding a good psychic,” Lenarduzzi said. “Beware of someone who may get you in for a lower price and then discover that you have a curse and try to get more money.
“If you sit down with a psychic and you feel uncomfortable, or they start asking a lot of questions, then you should definitely stop the reading. I’m not saying no psychic should ever ask a question, but if they can’t just start laying down cards and telling you about your life, that’s a red flag.”
What about price?
Most expensive does not always equal the best, and least expensive does not always equal the worst. Readings start at $5 and go up from there. The most expensive are those offered by more well-known psychics.
Psychic medium Sylvia Browne charges $700 for a half-hour reading.
Lenarduzzi said anywhere from $20 to $40 for a half-hour reading is a fair price, depending on the psychic and their reputation, and paying a psychic for their work is warranted.
“If I didn’t charge for my services, there would be nothing left of me,” Lenarduzzi said. “There is not a service out there people want or need they are not charged for. If the day ever comes that I feel I am not helping people, that they are paying too much for what I provide, then I won’t do this anymore.”
Shermer’s opinion, however, is quite the opposite.
“There is nothing wrong with charging for one’s services,” Shermer said. “Unless one is defrauding one’s customers, which is what these people are doing.”
Psychics offer a service that, scientifically, has yet to be proven actually exists, and that is just one aspect of proof it would take to convince Shermer.
“Controlled experiments, replicated by different scientists in different labs, over many trials,” Shermer said. “Plus, a mechanism to explain how it works.”
While several young girls try on rings at the front of the store, Cooke helps a customer find a tarot deck she is looking for, and returns to the counter. She has encountered skeptics often in her work, and when asked how she responds to them, she pauses for a moment.
“I just smile in knowing,” Cooke said. “Because they haven’t reached the place of open-mindedness that’s necessary to believe there is something else out there.”
World of Wisdom bookstore is located at 5142 Madison Ave. For more information on Dr. Michael Shermer, visit The Skeptics Society Web site at www.skeptic.com.