Growing up, I knew Sylvia Browne as one of the more colorful friends of my father, who knew her brother in the army. She visited from Kansas City every year or so, and her claims of psychic powers never came up, perhaps because my father didn’t believe in such things. My first inkling of “Aunt” Sylvia’s other life was when she pulled me aside in the fall of 1966, after hearing me bemoan the low state to which my beloved Boston Red Sox had fallen. They were going to finish the season in last place, the team’s vaunted youth movement was a flop, and I was disconsolate. “Don’t tell anyone I said this, ” she told me, “but the Red Sox will be in the pennant race next year to the very end. It will come down to the last two games.”
This seemed incredible to me, but what the heck: when the 1967 season tickets went on sale that winter, I sent in an order for two seats on the third base side for the next-to-last game of the season, against the Minnesota Twins. Baseball fans will recall that the ’67 season featured the closest race in American League history, with four teams, including the underdog Red Sox, staying essentially tied for months, with the pennant decided in the last two days at Fenway Park. Sure enough, Boston swept the Twins twice to make up a one game deficit and go the World Series. Sylvia called it.
During college and law school, Sylvia Browne fell out of my family’s life, but our paths intersected again when she showed up for a surprise visit at our home while I was studying for the Massachusetts bar exam in 1975. My job with the Mass Defenders had fallen through, and I had received an unexpected job offer from my law school to work for the new Dean. It would mean moving to D.C., which I didn’t want to do, and I was torn. This was the big topic of discussion while Sylvia was having dinner with us; my mother was emphatic that I should turn the offer down. For the second time, Sylvia pulled me aside for an unsolicited consultation. “Go to D.C.,” she said. “Your future wife is waiting for you.” I naturally assumed that she meant my current girl friend from law school, who was still in the District. “Not her,” Sylvia said. “Another. This job will bring you together, for good.”
I did take the job, although Sylvia’s advice played no part in it. Indeed, I forgot about the conversation completely until it came back to me right before I proposed to my wife, now my wife of 33 years, who was a work colleague of mine at the law school. Sylvia was two for two, at least where I was concerned.
Why I only had dealings with Sylvia Browne when the Red Sox were destined to go to the World Series I can’t imagine (Boston played Cincinnati in the 1975 classic), but the next time I heard from her was in 2004, the year they finally won it. She called me in my ProEthics office on November 17 of that year, and she was distraught. She was calling me, it turned out, not to give advice, but to receive it.
After some catching up, she got to the reason for her call. “I am second-guessing myself regarding something I did today that may be very wrong,” she began. “I know you work in the ethics field now, and I thought perhaps you would give me the benefit of your expertise.”
“I’ll pay you,” she added. I told her not be ridiculous; she was a family friend. Then she told me about the appearance on the “The Montel Williams Show” that is haunting her today, in which she told the mother of Amanda Berry, who had been missing for 19 months, that Sylvia’s psychic intuitions indicated that Amanda was dead. I had not heard of the case, and didn’t watch the program.
“I lied,” she said to me. “Her daughter’s alive, but in a horrible place, and she’s going to remain where she is for a very long time…years. And she will be abused terribly. I don’t know if she will be rescued, but if she is it won’t be soon, and her mother doesn’t have long to live herself…maybe a year or two.”
“Jack,” she said, crying now, “I saw that poor woman, and saw what her daughter was enduring, and couldn’t tell her something so awful. So I told her that her daughter was dead, because that has to be kinder than letting her end her life knowing that Amanda is in the power of a monster, and that no one may be able to help her.”
“Did I do the wrong thing? Please tell me what you think,” she begged.
What would you say? I told her it was all too alien for me to analyze conventionally. Yes, what she said may have been kinder, but I think when people seek you out to tell them the truth, you are obligated to do that, not substitute your judgment for theirs. On the other hand, despite Sylvia’s two predictions for me, I didn’t, and don’t, believe in psychic phenomenon, though I am quite certain that Sylvia believes. Whatever she said to Louwanna Miller, Amanda Berry’s mother, would be in essence a misrepresentation, because Miller would believe it was a genuine psychic vision, when in fact it was, like all Sylvia’s predictions, just a guess. How unethical was it for Sylvia to substitute one phony tragic vision (though one she fervently believed herself) for another one? Not very. I just told Sylvia that she made a defensible decision in a difficult situation, and that she shouldn’t feel guilty.
I hadn’t thought about that strange phone call until this week, when I learned that the social media, radio personalities and others were attacking Sylvia Browne because her psychic message to Louwanna Miller, who did die less than two years later, was untrue. Amanda was alive, and now is free. I have been wondering what they would think if they knew the whole story, and now they do.
But this isn’t the story, of course.
I don’t know Sylvia Browne, and never was aware of her before she became the object of ridicule and condemnation. If she were a real psychic, in some parallel universe where there were such individuals, with real powers of precognition (which she doesn’t have in this reality), that scenario might have occurred. If that happened, and she did lie about her vision to spare Amanda Berry’s mother, she would certainly not deserve the vicious characterizations that are being hurled at her now. She would have had a difficult ethical choice to make, and would have made it, with good intentions and a reasonable analysis. Her critics, in that case, would be both unfair and irrational.
What about the actual case, in the real universe? The actual case shows just how illogical and unfair consequentialism—the practice of judging acts ethical or not according to subsequent events outside the control of the actor— is. Critics are furious, ten years after Sylvia’s appearance on Montel Williams’ show, because she said Amanda Berry was dead, and she wasn’t…but why? Did anyone sane and reasonable really think she was able to discern such things? Is it because she turned out to be wrong? Why would she be expected to be right? She had no idea one way or the other (whatever she might have thought), because she doesn’t have psychic powers! She might have been wrong and she might have been right, but it was beyond her control in either eventuality. Would she be less of a fake psychic if she happened to be correct? No. Does the fact that her prediction to Miller was incorrect make her a more unethical fake psychic? No! What is her horrible offense, then, that justifies all the abuse? It is that she isn’t a psychic, because there are no psychics...and the time to make that objection was in 2004.
By all means, be critical of any psychic who presumes to counsel the victims of tragedy, regardless of whether their imaginary “second sight” lucks out. Be critical of Montel, too, and his producer, and anyone who puts these false prognosticators in the company of desperate, vulnerable, gullible people. Criticizing the psychic because she didn’t really see into the future accurately, however, is as senseless as it is ethically ignorant. Psychic Sylvia Browne is not, as one overwrought Facebook attacker put it, “evil, evil!” She’s just not an accurate psychic, because there are no accurate psychics…because there are no psychics.
And we knew that long before 2004.