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Lost & Found: Tonaya Thompson on Sylvia Browne
Tonaya Thomspon proffers a vision of Sylvia Browne, said psychic’s 500-year-old “Aztec/Inca” spirit guide Francine, and her best ghost hunting advice (“NO ALCOHOL OR DRUGS BEFORE OR DURING TRANCE.”) in this Lost & Found from Tin House #47: The Mysterious.
I discovered Sylvia Browne in the early nineties, after dropping out of my first try at community college. When not enduring epic country-transit bus rides from northern Washington to temp agencies in Seattle, I could usually be found in front of the television in my largely absent mother’s split-level house. My brother and I wasted entire nights trying to level in Ninja Gaiden, but daytimes were for talk shows: Jerry Springer, Jenny Jones, Sally Jessy Raphael, and, of course, sensitive, soulful Montel Williams. That’s when, listlessly flipping from channel to channel, fantasizing about my yet-to-exist life, I saw her.
With a voice like Froggy from Our Gang, glossy blond hair, and long, flashy acrylic nails, Browne frequented The Montel Williams Show, eventually becoming a weekly installation. She’d make political, economic, and weather predictions about the world that were generally as positive as they would alter prove to be incorrect. Then there’d be a Q&A with the audience: Browne assures a woman that the double rainbow when leaving the hospital was “absolutely” her daughter’s boyfriend, who passed away there. Browne describes the rainbow: “It was one right…on top of the other.” Emphatic nodding, exit music, but to commercial.
I found Browne incredibly magnetic. It wasn’t just my insatiable need to know what the future held—a need I religiously supplemented with horoscope scrolls from the Safeway checkout line—it was that voice, that hair, those nails, those dark eyes that seemed fixed on some dimension no one else could see. She was every Pall-Mall-smoking, National-Enquirer-reading, kitchen-table-sitting woman I had ever known and loved. In a different life, she could have been my grandmother. Maybe if I asked her, she’d say she was.
Twenty years later, having long since pulled out of that motivational slump—and several others—I came across Browne’s Adventures of a Psychic. I was nostalgic for some supermarket reading, and thought this would fit the bill. It’s an autobiography of sorts, coauthored by Antoinette May and rendered in the third person. In the preface, Browne states two reasons she wanted this book written: first, “to give people an understanding of what a psychic is truly all about,” and second, to tell a “story about a woman…who is perhaps (is this a crime?) too giving, too naïve, too understanding, and too selfless.”
The book opens in the present tense, at a talk show: “The capacity audience is restless, eager. This isn’t just any TV show…they want answers.” Browne then astounds everyone with her incredibly specific details about audience members. They all ooh and ah. Someone asks her what’s in store for herself. She shakes her head and gives her trademark answer: she’s not allowed to see her own future, her own “blueprint.”
We then get the story of Sylvia né Shoemaker’s birth, childhood, and adolescence. Although born with “a gift” she claims she inherited from her maternal grandmother, Browne discovered her real magic through a “spirit guide” named Iena, an “Aztec/Inca” born in northern Columbia in 1500 who began appearing to Browne when she was a child. Browne calls her “Francine.” Francine has information has information about the future, which she delivers to Browne sometimes through the ether and sometimes by entering Browne’s body. As a young adult, Browne marries a local cop, Gary Dufresne. They live a very unhappy life in a home built on top of an Indian burial ground. Browne works as a schoolteacher, and Dufresne takes all her money. She has two sons; one almost dies. Then she almost dies from hepatitis—though how she contracted it isn’t mentioned. Finally, at thirty-five, she walks away from the marriage. As she frequently points out in the book, this is all a surprise to her, since she’s not “allowed” to see her own future.
Cut to chapter 7. Browne has married Dal Brown and is giving a class on the paranormal in their apartment. During the class, she channels Francine, who gives a lengthy presentation—at times highly generalized, at times absurdly specific—about the “Other Side.” According to Francine, the “Other Side” is “another dimension. It’s paradise, it’s heaven, it’s the ultimate reality of existence. It’s the living world; yours is moribund by comparison. The puny lifespan of 100 years is a tiny drop in a great sea of eternity.”
From here the book heads in more of a technical, how-to direction, with testimonials throughout. On ghost hunting: “NO ALCOHOL OR DRUGS BREFORE OR DURING TRANCE.” On “life themes”: forty-four incongruously termed categories, including Activator, Aesthetics, Pursuits, Controller, Emotionality, Humanitarian, Infallibility. If you are ill, surely there’s a psychic reason for it: “Dizzy spells? What’s keeping you off-balance? Back problems? Who’s on your back? Bleeding ulcer? Who can’t you stomach? The possibilities are endless.” All you have to do is find the appropriate pun, and you’re cured. If that doesn’t work, you can use the “Laboratory Technique,” a self-hypnosis in which you imagine yourself in a room with a blue, purple, gold, and green stained-glass window. Eventually, “spiritual helpers” will appear to heal whatever you’ve asked them to. It goes on. And on.
The final chapter describes Browne’s betrayal at the hands of Dal Brown, from who she has distanced herself by adding an e to the end of her name, and her founding of the Novus Spiritus church, which holds to this singularly convenient tenet: “Take what you like and leave the rest behind.”
Outside the pages of Browne’s book, however, there’s a dark side. While Browne and her supporters point to her frequently incorrect predictions as honest human error (without once addressing the very suprahuman nature of “Francine”), some say that Sylvia Browne is an outright fraud. There’s even a website called StopSylvia.com, whose logo is a fake-nailed hand in a stop sign.
In 2003, on Williams’s show, Browne swiftly dealt the parents of the missing Shawn Hornbeck a “no” when they tearfully asked if he was “still with us.” The perpetrator, Browne said, was “uh, dark-skinned, although he wasn’t black, he was more Hispanic…looking. Um, had real long, dark hair…and…strange enough Hispanic, but he had dreadlocks.” She later offered to continue to help them search for their son at her “normal rate”—about $700 an hour. Hornbeck was discovered four years later, held hostage by the Caucasian and short-haired Michael Devlin.
So is that warm, gravel-voiced grandma a fraud? Without a doubt. I had approached Browne’s autobiography with genuine interest and mild bemusement, but by its end had to confront an obvious hack and my own misguided hunger for cheap knowledge. Still, the desire to know what the future holds is irresistible, even if it’s ultimately impossible. To have an answer for everything like Sylvia Browne does: what a dream!
Tonaya Thompson is a former senior editor at Tin House. She earned an MFA from Bennington College and was the managing editor of the Bennington Review. Her poetry has appeared Dos Passos Review.