‘The Psychic Tests: An Adventure into the World of Believers and Sceptics’ is a new book by award-winning journalist, Gary Nunn. He investigates psychics, mediums and astrologers to understand their uncanny, under-investigated and unregulated power.
I was lucky enough to read Gary’s book when it was in manuscript form. And I was surprised by many things, including how feminist the work is! Why you ask? Well that’s exactly what you’re about to find out. I hit Gary up with a few questions of my own…
What’s your book about? How do you respond to people who think it’s “oogie boogie”?
It’s a two-year investigation into the world of believers and sceptics: part gonzo, part investigative, part memoir, part historical, part analysis of the post-truth world we’re living in, and the dangers of being seduced by pseudoscience and misinformation.
Whether you believe in them or not, psychics, mediums and astrologers are likely to at some point impact who will date you, who will trust you, who will hire you and even who will fire you. You’ll read fascinating and staggering case studies for each of these scenarios in the book. But you’ll also read about the nuance, the value and the humanity in this realm.
Up until this point, books on this subject either focused solely on ‘believer’ or ‘sceptic.’ Most books which sold well spoke to those towards the believer end of the spectrum by teasing their curiosity.
For the sceptics, there’s always just been just one test: is this real? Can psychics see into the future? Can mediums speak to the dead? Does your star-sign denote your personality traits and compatibility with others?
In fact, to this day, you can win $100,000 from the Australian Sceptics if you can prove you have psychic or paranormal powers. The $100k has been on offer since 1980; nobody has passed that test!
No one, though, has focused on the manifold other tests within this mystical world. That’s why each chapter is a different test. Can psychics boost confidence, stroke egos, alleviate loneliness, decode mysteries, unstick catch 22s, create lifelong romance, harm, heal, help or hinder?
(The answer to every question is yes.)
What inspired you to write it?
Two people: my sister, and the Chairman of Australia’s biggest stockbroking firm, BBY.
My younger sister Taren was really into psychics and I used to poke fun at her about it. In the book we step into each other’s worlds. She’s the voice of the believer in the book and I’m the voice of the sceptic.
We found our middle ground through grief, and the very different worlds in which we retreated to process it. Our dad died suddenly in 2015. For a long time I refused to allow myself to feel sad. About 10 months later I started behaving irrationally then just broke down and cried for three days solid. It was pretty scary, I thought I might drown in my own trauma. I now understand this as the unseating of a form of denial, the very first phase of grief.
My sister was ahead of me. She was at phase two: bargaining. She sought out the services of several different mediums. Each time she’d tell me they brought dad through, and she’d remark on the things she believed were accurate. It’s like he wasn’t dead. She was still speaking to him.
It creeped me out. I grew concerned her vulnerability and perhaps her gullibility were being exploited by grief vultures.
Then, a year later, I reported for the Sydney Morning Herald on a story that floored me.
Glenn Rosewall, the Chairman of Australia’s biggest stockbroking firm, BBY, had hired a psychic, Nevine Rottinger, to advise him. She counselled him on where to invest, who to hire and even who to fire. This went on for four years till the firm went bust: the biggest stockbroking firm collapse since the Global Financial Crisis. $61million was owed to the clients.
It gave me a new hunch. Maybe those who hire psychics aren’t vulnerable or naive. Maybe they’re like Glenn Rosewall: powerful, authoritative and responsible for hundreds of people and millions of dollars.
After all the research you’ve done, what don’t people understand about psychics and healers (and this world in general)?
How high up this goes. Psychics advise powerful people in secret: world leaders from Ronald Reagan to Hitler; CEOs from Glenn Rosewall to (former Australia Post CEO) Christine Holgate.
People genuinely believe supernatural miracles will save us from eternal damnation, the perils of uncertainty and, very possibly, the destruction of climate change.
Public money gets spent on charlatans and pseudoscience. My FOI request showed the NSW police used psychics at least 19 times between 2003 and 2019. They’ve even paid their expenses.
But bodies remain missing and our biggest stockbroking firm has collapsed.
It’s a very feminist book. Can you explain to me?
This is one of the world’s oldest professions, historically dominated by women.
In World War One and Two, there was a fear psychic mediums would impede national morale, with so much death around. Police – mainly or exclusively men – would operate clandestine raids on psychics then arrest them. In response, many psychics banned male clients, and that hangover effect has led to this being, to this day, a female dominated industry.
Academic Alana Piper has done some fascinating work in this area, showing the gender differences. Men, according to Piper, sought advice on investment opportunities or locating lost property. Women, on the other hand, were mostly preoccupied with romance and gossip.
Then there were the fears about their power and influence.
“It was joked that housemaids would quit their jobs on the basis of prophecies of rich husbands soon to come. Marriages were said to be breaking down as clairvoyants confirmed wives’ suspicions about their husbands’ infidelity, or counselled them that separation would bring brighter prospects.”
Piper also highlighted how it was an innovative way for uneducated widows to earn money in a world which denied them the same opportunities as men.
“It was an occupation that women could embark upon with few business costs while working from home. Deserted wives and widows with children to support featured disproportionately in those prosecuted for fortune-telling. So did older women, particularly those with ailments that meant they could no longer undertake more physically taxing work in factories or domestic service. Newspapers voiced resentment that women – particularly working-class women – should be earning good money at a trade that was technically illegal.”
All this informed my chat with Felicity Carter, a former astrologer who used to give tarot readings in The Rocks in Sydney. She has since revoked it and said she made it all up.
Carter was the first to discourage me from laughing at psychics and their believers.
She framed it as a spiritual realm in which women – so often shut out from positions of authority in the hierarchies of major religions – can empower themselves, have agency, feel seen and feel listened to. I’d previously underestimated the power of that.
You make it clear that psychics and healers are often dismissed BECAUSE it’s seen as a female activity. Why do you think this is?
The stubborn stereotypes of men being rational and women being irrational persists. It is dispelled, though, by the leading female sceptic activists and the male psychic practitioners.
However, the very human anxieties and need for reassurance and fear of uncertainty plague us all.
I think Rosewall for example was feeling imposter syndrome, often associated as a toxic side effect of patriarchy. When you have nobody above you except for the divine, and it’s left wanting, you want someone to validate your juggernaut decisions. All these men doing it in private – Rosewall, Reagan, Hitler, senior police sergeants – are terrified of their leadership skills being questioned. Perhaps some women are more open and honest and own their uncertainty and vulnerability, which creates solidarity, intimacy, trust and ultimately, strength and success.
- The Psychic Tests: An Adventure In The World Of Sceptics And Believers by Gary Nunn (Pantera Press) is out now.
Feature image: Gary receives a tarot reading. Picture: Supplied
Ginger Gorman is a fearless and multi award-winning social justice journalist and feminist. Ginger’s bestselling book, Troll Hunting, came out in 2019. Since then, she’s been in demand both nationally and globally as an expert on cyberhate and the real-life harm predator trolling can do. She's also the editor of BroadAgenda and gender editor at HerCanberra. Ginger hosts the popular "Seriously Social" podcast for the Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia. Follow her on Twitter.