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To Believe or Not To Believe

That's on ly one of the questions as a open-minded skeptic visits area psychics

by Janet Tate

Come on, admit it: you've either been to a psychic or you've been tempted to go.

Maybe one morning, while risking a near-death experience on Alcoa Highway, you passed Madam Renee's nearly irresistible storefront marquee ("Palms Read While U Wait") and succumbed. Or perhaps during an evening of unproductive channel-surfing you reached for the phone and dialed up a psychic hotline.

Maybe you've sought a psychic by flipping through the colorful business cards, almost always adorned with butterflies or celestial logos, tacked to bulletin boards in health-food stores and shops that specialize in crystals and wind chimes: "Tarot Readings." "Past-Life Regressions." "What Color Is Your Aura?" "Palms Read; Futures Told!" Or maybe you have to know someone who knows someone if you want to find a psychic worth his or her salt, because you won't be able to book an appointment by looking under "Psychics" in the Yellow Pages.

Yet thousands of us seek them out and pay them--sometimes on a regular basis, much like a psychotherapist--for their services.

Empaths, intuitives, perceptives, and spiritual counselors--psychics, to you and me--aren't just for California anymore. Our East Tennessee hills are full of them, which at first blush may seem a bit strange. How can a region built on the bedrock of fundamentalist Christianity produce and nurture those who are often associated in the public mind with the occult or the dark side?

But many are deeply spiritual individuals who modestly attribute their gifts to none other than the good Lord. It's religious insecurity that brings out hostility and skepticism in some people, says Bobby Drinnon, East Tennessee's premier psychic counselor.

He says he was threatened with lawsuits a few years ago should he appear on a Knoxville radio show. "Those are just insecure religious people," says Drinnon. "I like to think of myself as a free-thinking Christian."

Skepticism about the supernatural is common, I suppose. But why do psychics seem to elicit particularly vicious skepticism in some quarters? There's the scam-artist aura that hovers over what they do, of course. They don't belong to a dues-paying professional organization; there are no licensing requirements. But maybe the fact that there's no scientific way to verify their work is precisely the reason many of us in this jaded, cynical world hunger more than ever for something beyond.

Let those who have never been tempted to consult a psychic cast the first doubt, but I maintain that we all occasionally feel the urge to get a little supernatural insight into our love lives, our careers, our loved ones, our health--the things that really matter.

I set out on a spiritual quest to seek some answers of my own. Will I be famous? Will I be rich? Here's what area psychics told me.

"For a Psychic Time, Call..."

Looking under "Psychics and Mediums" in the Yellow Pages, I pass over Brigitte Nielsen's Witches of Salem, LaToya Jackson's Psychic Network, and Mother Love's Love Psychics, and settle instead on the Yellow Pages Psychic Network, a service of Zodiac Group, Inc., of Boca Raton.

From the various clairvoyants offered I select "Star." Her free two-minute reading quickly turns into $95.76 (24 minutes at $3.99 per minute) as the fascinating process of hearing all about myself from a complete--but psychic!--stranger unfolds.

Working only with my first name, hometown, and date of birth, Star "reads my aura"--a procedure to determine what kind of energy I emanate. Star tells me my aura is blazing white: "Very bright and forceful, very creative, with lots of wonderful energy around you." She observes that I am not fulfilled in my current work and that I require constant stimulation and movement to nurture my creativity. Yeah, she probably says that to all the white-auras.

We chat like long-lost girlfriends. She confides that she's always had a gift, even as a child, and that she used to do tarot card readings for a living before she joined the Network.

"It was a pretty good living. Not a lot of money, but I did okay," she says. "I can just help so many more people this way."

How can she read my aura over the phone? "I just get these pictures in my head," Star explains. "I just get the sensations, and I see things. Like I see that you've got two children, and that one maybe is having school difficulties. You should have his vision checked."

Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately) the Yellow Pages Psychic Network cuts off at a certain point (probably as you approach the $100 mark), so I'll never know what Star would recommend my daughter major in at college next year.

Color Me Psychic

"Your aura has three colors: green, blue and gold," Pat Sisson assures me. We're sitting on folding chairs in her north Knoxville basement den. Sisson, a cheerful, youthful, grandmotherly woman, has just returned from a trip to Tokyo, where she was featured in a documentary on psychic phenomena for Japanese television. She says she's helped the police find missing persons and otherwise aided them in solving cases.

"Actually, I'm more a sensitive than a psychic," she explains. "By the way, I also channel. You should come to a session and meet Flemon, my channeler. But I feel the colors of an aura, I don't really see them.

"For example, you have a band of green which goes from forest green to a mint green, and you have a band of blue that goes from royal blue almost to purple," she says.

"Then you have over all of that a golden aura. The green stands for growing things, nurturing and knowledge. It also signifies money, and I'm not saying you're materialistic but you'd be a damn fool if money wasn't important to you," she laughs. "The sky blue means spirituality and lofty thoughts. You're very caring and sensitive. The royal blue stands for being faithful and true; you're a good, loyal friend. Purple stands for royalty and power. Believing in reincarnation as I do, I believe you have spent maybe a couple of lifetimes, one, for sure, in the French court. Maybe Louis XIV. And the gold stands for laughter, joy and sunlight. Gold also means you have great perceptive, intuitive powers."

We discuss my past and future for about an hour and a half, while Sisson reads my palms and deals me some tarot cards. Peering at my hands, she assures me of a long, healthy life and other glad tidings. She's studying the wrinkles on the edge of my right hand when she looks up and says, "You have two children--no, you've had three, right?"--something not many people know about me. I'm impressed.

But something's bothering me. All I'm hearing is wonderful stuff. What if she saw something foreboding? Would she tell me?

"I tell people what I see, good or bad," she says. "I've seen gray around people, which means illness. I've read for three different people through the years who were subsequently murdered. I'd tell them what I was getting. One of them hugged me before he left and said 'Thank you so much.' At the door I said 'Please be careful,' and he said 'I will.' He said, 'You'll never know how much this has meant to me.' It was something in the reading that just put him at peace, somehow. Three weeks later he was found murdered.

"If I see something I'll tell you exactly what I'm getting. It's up to you to do the interpretation. I believe we create our own reality by our thoughts and the way we react to things. We are in charge of our own destiny, and there's rhyme and reason for everything."

As I leave, Sisson presses a copy of her book, The Royal Path: A Layman's Look at the Tarot, into my freshly read palm. She also gives me a recorded cassette tape of our session. Its label reads: "From Pat and Flemon."

Finding Truth in the Crawl Space

Kakie Baillee doesn't do palms or tarot cards, although she does sign (her young twin sons are hearing-impaired). Tanned and blonde, maybe in her mid-30s, Baillee shoos her dogs, Jake and Elwood, away from the front door of her Maryville split-level home and ushers me into the kitchen. We sit and she gazes out the window at the swing set and plastic toys in her backyard. Now and then she places her fingers lightly against her temples.

"Your aura is gold, with some green and purple," she says. "Gold means you have psychic ability. The purple means you're a very empathic person. I see some green around your midsection--you may be prone to kidney infections.

"Memories from a past life are weighing you down in this life. Maybe you left a past life unexpectedly, and you're having a hard time letting go. This is why you're drawn to antique furniture and old houses, things from the late 1800s, early 1900s You live in an old house, right?"

She is uncannily correct. Baillee also tells me to check out a leaking pipe in the crawl space. It's near some ductwork with loose insulation.

"And there's a two-way light switch, somewhere upstairs." She squints at the floor like she's trying to get a better look.

"There's a wiring problem of some sort, a short in the wall, perhaps. Maybe about six or seven inches above the lower switch. That's just what I'm getting." (As soon as I get home I call the electrician about the hallway light that's been shorting out for months.)

Baillee's a bit reluctant to be in this story. She's from homegrown Baptist stock, many of whom are ordained ministers and many of whom would prefer she keep her gifts private. It's really nothing more than a highly developed intuitive/perceptive ability, she shrugs. Everyone has it to some degree.

"Sometimes we get strong feelings about things we should do or not do. It's up to us to decide to listen to that intuitive voice or to ignore it."

Another way of looking at it, she says, is that the intuitive voice comes from our guardian angels, or guides--little spirits who try to help us out. In my case, the guide or guardian angel is "someone closely related to you, who died when you were a very young child. You may not even remember this person or know about her. I'm definitely getting that it was a female. Maybe a younger sibling who died, maybe a miscarriage or something."

A phone call to my mother confirms that Baillee's theory does indeed have basis in fact. A couple of days later I wriggle through the basement crawl space with a flashlight and find a rather moist plumbing cut-off valve. I know where it is because it's right behind the aluminum-wrapped pink insulation dangling from our heating system's ductwork.

Traveling Through the Past

"People tell me I've got a special gift," says Lawrence Allison, who looks a bit like Wilford Brimley and conducts past-life regressions in his Maryville home. "It's not that special. You could do this. You just have to be tuned in to the Man Upstairs," he grins, pointing toward the ceiling.

Allison seats you in a comfortable recliner and turns on a recording of a simulated heartbeat. As the heartbeat slows and then fades, you reach a relaxed, semi-hypnotic level of consciousness--not quite asleep but not really awake, either. He then guides you back through your childhood: to the first grade, to your first steps, your birth; and then back even further, into your previous life. With suggestions and questions he gently evokes historical details and attempts to have you relive key moments of the past life, as well as your past death.

Allison has helped hundreds of locals explore living in the past--a process, he (and others) claim, which can explain problems occurring in the present.

"I had one guy, he was supposed to teach a course to some high-school boys at a local school," Allison recalls. "Every time he went into the classroom, though, he just about flipped out, got real upset. He couldn't understand why. Well, we did a session, and halfway through he jumped up and started yelling, 'Look out, look out, they're going to kill us all!'" Seems the man had once died a terrible death in combat; the rows of young male students summoned up the terror of that ordeal.

As with hypnosis, not everyone is a good candidate for past-life regression.

"Some people are just too hyper," Allison says. "People who drink a lot of coffee, for example. I had one lady in here who was on diet pills. Whooeee! No way." Relaxation is key, he explains.

Maybe I'm the hyper type, but I'm not sure I accurately accessed the late 1800s life that Baillee had alluded to. What came to me was dying during childbirth and leaving two sons behind in an old farmhouse. But I had the nagging feeling that it was all no more than some subconscious vestige of an old episode of "Little House on the Prairie." Maybe I should have revisited the court of Louis XIV instead.

Lessons from a Spiritual Counselor

"Aura colors are just vibrations of the spirits," explains Bobby Drinnon. "I don't see them every day of my life, and I can only see them in this kind of low light." He gestures about the dimly lit inner downstairs office of his picturesque, gated farm in Jefferson City, where he conducts his highly successful calling of spiritual counseling and publishes a monthly newsletter called "The Rainbow Crest: News for the Spiritually Hungry."

Drinnon was raised by good churchgoing folks in and around Jefferson City, but "people always thought I was crazy," he says. "I went to lots of psychiatrists before I was 10 years old. I'd just see people's auras, I couldn't help it, and I didn't know what it meant. I couldn't stand to be in the same room with violent people. My parents thought I was making it all up."

A milestone in the Bobby Drinnon folklore was his meeting at age six with a black fortuneteller who lived across the street from his grandmother. "I wanted to know about her, but everyone said she was a witch. But I went up to her, and she looked down at me and said, 'You've got a gift, boy.' Scared me to death. I ran like crazy."

Bobby reads my aura colors--white, he says, and a very complex combination of cream and burnt orange. As he unravels the secrets of my soul, he doodles and scribbles incessantly on white notebook paper, writing down some of the words he says, then going back over them again and again.

Within 10 minutes I have to remind myself that I just met this man who's explaining my life, from dysfunctional childhood to career-conflicted adulthood, with more insight than two years' worth of psychotherapy.

Drinnon prefers to be called a spiritual counselor rather than a psychic, and he supplements what he feels and sees about you with "lessons," spiritually driven recommendations for leading your life. It's a distinction he was forced to sue the state of Tennessee over a few years ago, when the Department of Revenue decided what Drinnon did fell under the heading of "entertainment" and tried to retroactively apply the state's amusement tax to his practice.

"It would have ruined us financially," says Drinnon, whose attorney argued convincingly that if his client's work was amusement, then so was that of televangelists and Sunday-morning radio preachers.

Actually, Drinnon claims, you can be an agnostic or atheist and still be a spiritually inclined psychic.

"I happen to believe in God, but I don't think it's necessary to do what I do," he says.

What about past lives?

"I don't really deal with reincarnation. I think present life is hard enough," he says, laughing. "It's never been proven to me, and I personally don't see it relating to present life."

I tell him other psychics have seen different colors in my aura than he has. He shrugs: "We all see colors differently."

These days, Drinnon says, he values his privacy more than publicity: "I was offered a great deal of money to do one of those psychic networks, but I turned it down. I just want to do the work I'm doing here. I quit doing interviews. I'm just booked up so far (through the year 2000, he says), and it's frustrating to do an article and then people call and you can't help them."

For days after my session with Drinnon I shamelessly bore friends, family, and chance acquaintances with selected bits and pieces of What Bobby Said: Bobby said I need to exercise more or I'll get arthritis; Bobby said when he was a child he read Red Skelton's aura; Bobby said I would be a famous writer someday. At dinner parties I compare my aura colors with those of other cognoscenti. I am dumbfounded to discover that nearly everyone I know has either been to see Bobby (some are regulars and have been for years) or knows someone who has.

Skepticism Revisited

It's entirely possible, I suppose, that once a psychic hangs up the phone from making your appointment he or she turns directly to a computer and logs into one of the huge repositories of medical, financial, and other personal information that exist to provide banks and insurance companies with reasons to reject you. The logistical likelihood of this still seems remote to me; but all these things and even more, my more cynical of my friends insist, are what people like Bobby Drinnon do prior to a reading.

"Of course he's booked up for years in advance," snorted one. "He's got to have time to research your life first."

I don't know about that. What would be the point? With the possible exception of Drinnon, I didn't see a whole lot of money being made by those who are called to use their psychic abilities.

Although I tried to keep a poker face at all times, I got the feeling on occasion that some of the psychics I talked to were reading my expression, veering away from a subject when they perceived disagreement on my part. When I didn't react one way or another, they would say, "That's something to watch for. See what that turns into." But they also were able to tell me things no one else could possibly know--and in some instances things I didn't even know--which turned out to be true

Maybe you're either prone to believe there's something there, or you're not, but it seems the best of psychic experiences are ones where there's true give and take involved. As do all the intuitives I spoke with, Pat Sisson insists most people have the gift to one degree or another. It's just a matter of recognizing the ability and cultivating it.

"I've been doing this for 30 years," she says, "and I've often said Lord, don't let anyone come to me that I cannot help--and learn from."