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Psychic Capital: Tech and Silicon Valley Turn to Mystics for Advice 

Wednesday, Jul 15 2015
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For her regular phone clients, the transactions are essentially automated. "Investment questions are really simple and can often be answered with one card over the telephone," Talley says. She and the client put their feet flat on the floor and take deep breaths together over the phone. Then Talley deals her deck of tarot cards one at a time, enjoining the client to imagine his investment clearly. Once he has it in mind, Talley deals cards until Yahweh or Gaia or Ganesh, or the client's deity of choice, compels him to say "stop." Whatever card he landed on is the measure of his fate.

Talley has become something of a den mother to Bay Area women interested in Wicca. In the backyard of her Fairfax duplex, hemmed by a rustic board fence and lush greenery, she emcees monthly moon rituals during which she and a handful of female clients chant into a cauldron, fall in and out of trances, and eat a vegetarian potluck. Men aren't welcome. "I used to invite men but they were just there to get laid," Talley tells me. "They had no interest in goddess worship, and that's very annoying when you're trying to reach the divinity."

The exception is her husband, a frontman for local reggae and New Orleans funk bands. Joyce Van Horn, a friend and occasional client of Talley, claims that Mr. Talley is an angel investor, but Reverend Joey is mum about her husband's alleged riches. "We live in Marin County, and I got a sports car, and we have a great life," is what she says.

A great life in San Francisco's psychic industry is rare. The city is rife with fortunetellers — hole-in-the-wall shops where you can get your palm read or your aura cleaned for $30. Such places cater to tourists and curiosity-seekers jonesing for a cheap thrill. Some aren't even listed on Yelp; like the city's more unsavory massage parlors, they seem to exist in their own illicit underworld.

A lot of them, Sally Faubion says of these psychics, "take advantage of old people and people who don't know any better."

You could chalk this up as a businesswoman's slur against her competitors, except Faubion has a point. In June, The New York Times reported on psychics in Manhattan who prey on people in crisis. In exchange for cash, psychics promise miracles they can never deliver: reunions with jilted lovers, career upgrades, sexual conquests. Sometimes they claim to cleanse customers' money — but clean them out instead.

"The psychic community is close knit, often including members of large families that trace their roots to Roma families, also known as Gypsies," the Times reported. "They compare notes ... There are rules. For example, a 'three-block rule' establishes turf boundaries ... Disputes are taken up by a tribunal known as a kris."

In 2003, San Francisco passed a law requiring psychics to register with the city, submit to fingerprinting, publicly post rate sheets, and pay a $500 permit fee. The legislation sought to protect consumers from psychics who sold dubious services such as curse-breaking; it was the first law of its kind in a major American city. As the Los Angeles Times reported a week after the law passed, there was an uproar among several psychics of Romany descent in San Francisco who felt the new ordinance persecuted them on religious and cultural grounds. (The SFPD noted it had received 60 consumer complaints about psychics in the city between mid-2001 and July 2003.)

The legislation was notable not only for its breadth — the umbrella term "fortunetelling" designated readings based on "cartomancy, psychometry, phrenology, spirits, tea leaves, tarot cards, scrying, coins, sticks, dice, sand, coffee grounds, crystal gazing ... mediumship, seership, prophecy, augury, astrology, palmistry, necromancy, mind reading, [and] telepathy" — but also for its liberality. The definition of fortuneteller under the San Francisco Municipal Code includes anyone "pretending to perform these actions," thus effectively licensing the sale of occult services even when those services are known to be bogus.

Sheldon Helms, vice chair of Bay Area Skeptics and an associate professor of psychology at Ohlone College in Fremont, dismisses the psychic industry but isn't surprised that it attracts tech clients. In an email to SF Weekly, Helms wrote that astrologers routinely fail to make testable predictions, while numerologists cherry-pick statements whose vagueness is broadly applicable. Clients do much of the interpretive work themselves, particularly around financial readings. "Psychologists have seen that belief in, and reliance upon, superstition and the paranormal increases in areas of our lives where there is randomness and uncertainty," Helms wrote. "In the past, we've used professional baseball players and their fans as poster children for the tendency to rely upon such superstitions. I suppose now, we'll be more likely to use investors."

While there is reason to be wary of palm readers with crystals in the window, Jessica Lanyadoo sees some of the shops as holdovers from San Francisco's earlier, more idealistic astrologer wave. "This city used to be the place where people came because they were interested in astrology or alternative forms of spirituality. I don't think that's true anymore," she says.

Lanyadoo came to San Francisco from Montreal in 1994. She was 19 at the time, and looking to set up shop in a city that could support a small astrology business. San Francisco's reputation as a haven for bohemians and misfits was legendary, and its spiritual pedigree was nothing if not alternative. After all, this was where Anton LaVey founded the Church of Satan and where astrologer Joan Quigley held an open invitation to the Reagan White House.


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Jeremy Lybarger

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