The day after the Monterey County SkepiCamp event this January, I received a phone call from a local woman named Sue. Apparently she had read about our skeptics group in one of the local newspapers and had learned about my personal interest in psychics, or as I like to call them: grief vampires. Sue wanted to let me know that channel E! started advertising a new TV show featuring a young psychic named Tyler Henry. She explained that he had recently moved to Hollywood from a small town in order to be among the celebrities. It seems that E! has really been pushing Henry’s program by showing him performing psychic readings for the regular celebrities that they cover. Although I had never heard of this person, Sue assured me that E! presents him as the “real deal,” and is marketing him as such. Sue appeared to be skeptical of these claims, but she was not confident in her Internet research skills, so she asked me to investigate for her.
Of course I agreed, because I was really curious as to how I could have missed hearing that we now have evidence of the afterlife. I know what you’re thinking (and no, I’m not psychic…). This is Hollywood we are talking about, and it’s E! after all, not usually known for its impartial coverage of scientific breakthroughs. Isn’t there an assumed disclaimer, when you see a psychic on E!, that it is all for entertainment purposes only? He communicates with the dead, wink wink, nudge nudge. And of course it is very possible that this is exactly what is going on. Psychic entertainment is called “mentalism.” When it is performed by an actor openly playing a part, or in a venue that is clearly for fun and isn’t deceiving its patrons, then I’m all for it. It’s a terrific skill, and like any well practiced magician’s performance, it is very entertaining.
But before we give Henry and E! the benefit of the doubt, let’s do some investigating. I know nothing about this person, so for me it seems like a perfect case study on which to hone my skills in evaluating such claims. Keep in mind, however, that while I’ve been involved in the skeptic movement for many years and have worked on many anti-psychic investigations, I would still love to find evidence that we can communicate with deceased family members. This would be one of the most astounding, awesome, fantastic discoveries ever. I can’t imagine anything more outstanding. Not even finding evidence of life on other planets would compare to finding out for sure that we live on after death and can communicate with the living. Maybe E! is on to something. Maybe I missed the press release and the Nobel Prize in Physics being awarded to Henry for breaking the natural laws of the known universe. Possibly the smoke from the burning of all the textbooks that now need to be rewritten has polluted the atmosphere to the point that I forgot when this discovery was announced.
I apologize for coming across as closed-minded and mean-spirited. While my hopes for this kind of evidence have been dashed so many times before, and I do not actually think there is any truth to the claims, I do continue to hope and to maintain that possibility that one day I might see something that will convince me I was wrong. But that is a high bench mark to reach. The fact is that any believable and convincing evidence that communication with the dead actually happens is necessarily going to have to be pretty darn incredible. But the only way to be sure, as scientific skeptics, is to investigate. So let’s get started.
Where is the most obvious place to start? Google “Tyler Henry.” But the trick is to start without the word psychic. See if you can find anything about a career before this one. Maybe he has a past where he was a mentalist or an actor playing a psychic character. Let’s see what we turn up: as it turns out, a lot of photos and a link to Benjamin Tyler Henry who lived from 1821–1898 and was the inventor of the Henry rifle. Is this a possible ancestor of our young psychic? I don’t know, but it’s fascinating what you dig up when you start to look around.
The first URL is to an article from Out magazine titled “Gay Hollywood Medium Tyler Henry Opens up about his Psychic Abilities,” and it shows a photo of him reading for musician Boy George. The caption above this article does say that it is in the “Entertainment/TV” section of Out. According to the article, Henry’s earliest experience was when he “just knew” that this grandmother who was ill with cancer was going to die. He told his mother that they needed to say goodbye, but then moments later they got a call saying she had died. Well I don’t know about you, but if this really happened in this way and I was ten years old with no understanding of confirmation bias or general probability, I’m sure I would be thinking something was odd. Later in his young life, another psychic told him that when he was nineteen he would have his own TV show and write books. He was training to be a hospice nurse and now—voila!—he has his own TV show. He thinks of himself as a skeptic (good job, Tyler) and understands that not everyone believes in his “gift,” which is okay with him as everyone is entitled to their own beliefs. He says he does not Google people before readings looking for information to pretend came from the spirit world. He only gives information that no one but the family could know: inside jokes or sentimental stories, never anything general (this seems like it would be easy to test).
Okay, I’m looking at his photo now, and he is young and quite handsome, very photogenic. He looks like the kind of sweet kid that bags your groceries at the store and that you hope will go on to do great things in life. Mentalist Mark Edward, an expert on psychics, thinks that we are seeing a new wave of “psychic next door” types. He calls them the “fuzzy sweater” psychics. Medium Maureen Handcock is often photographed wearing a beautiful blue shirt that matches her beautiful blue eyes, sitting on her porch steps with a border collie at her side and a white picket fence in the foreground. Even John Edward and James Von Praagh are faithfully photographed trying to appear warm and friendly, just like someone’s favorite uncle. Chip Coffey’s trademark fuzzy scarf is always worn on stage, and often auctioned off at his shows with proceeds going to animal rights organizations. And of course don’t forget The Long Island Medium, Theresa Caputo, whose reality show invited viewers into her life, introduced everyone to her family, and showed us how difficult it is to be just a regular gal trying to get her hair done and suddenly some dead person starts talking to her. “Aaaaargh!” Henry seems to fit this new psychic model quite well.
Reading more, I stop and hold my breath. Here it is. The part that makes it clear whether he is a psychic entertainer who is up-front about his act or just another grief vampire. Henry tells the interviewer his goal for the future. It is to work with parents who have lost their children to suicide. I can feel my blood pressure increasing and the hackles on the back of my neck starting to rise. He isn’t just a grief vampire; he is aspiring to be one of the most despicable types of grief vampires, tying for first place with those who work as psychic detectives. These are the people who prey on families when they are the most desperate and vulnerable. I’m appalled that he thinks this is something to aspire to. Something to be proud of!
The next URL hit that Google brought up was to his Twitter account with 7,130 followers, then to his website. Hmm, I wonder why his Wikipedia page is not in the top hits? The next links are to E! online, Entertainment Weekly, Heavy.com, and The Daily Mail where I learn that Khloe Kardashian was given a reading and she got to talk to her father, Robert Kardashian. Henry was getting the smell of a man’s tie, and Khloe connected right away by saying that she had kept some of her father’s clothes and they still smelled like him. WOW! </sarcastic font>. The next link Google gave me was to Henry’s Facebook account with 10,046 likes. I scrolled through many, many posts, and most were just him offering people free readings and plugging the show, which is due to air at the end of January. There were a lot of “Bless You, Tyler” comments from Henry’s fans, for the amazingly positive readings they have all received.
I looked all over his website and Facebook page for a “for entertainment purposes only” statement but I could not find one. I did find a photo of Henry with a very charming smile holding a wiggly curly-haired sheep dog with his tongue hanging out (the dog’s tongue that is, not Henry’s). The website is very sparse, giving the same information that we learned earlier and providing a phone number so we can arrange a personal reading from him.
Just to be fair, let me take a few more minutes to see if possibly there is some notable journalistic site that could have more information….
Okay, I’m back. I checked all the news sites I could think of that would have picked up a story as groundbreaking as the discovery of evidence of life after death. I checked, CNN, ABC, NBC, CBS, NPR, FOX, USA Today and even Scientific American. Their headlines were about Obama, gun laws, politics, and trapped miners. (Remember the Sago Miners was one of Sylvia Browne’s biggest blunders. I remember the good ol’ days of live radio.) I used the search function on each site hoping that maybe they had done something in the past about Henry. The result was the same every time: zilch, nothing, nada, zip, zero. A search on Wikipedia only gives me the results of Benjamin Tyler Henry.
A few years ago, Mark Edward and I came up with an idea to head-off an up-and-coming psychic star. The idea was to sniff around gathering all we could find about someone who had the potential to make it big in the immediate future and start their own TV show. We would hang onto that information, follow their career, and release it once the rest of the world had started to really Google their name. We called this Project Honeybadger. We weren’t looking to release gossip but instead tangible, verifiable facts that the public could sink their teeth into. We were working on one specific individual for several months, gathering information from people who had worked with her and from the people she had given readings to. The trailer for her show made it seem as if she had just wandered into a building and suddenly started receiving messages. But we uncovered the truth. We found at least one of her known friends appearing on camera, posing as a stranger. We sat on this information for months, but her show was not picked up, and she has since faded back into doing group readings at a local hotel. We couldn’t get interest in this project from our community. It obviously was quite time consuming, and I still think it is a great idea to have something ready for publication, to be proactive, not reactive.
With Tyler Henry we were taken by surprise. He already has a show; he is already on his way to becoming a star. We have become complacent and dropped the ball.
What now? Should this new grief vampire be ignored? Should we turn our backs on the knowledge that one more “fuzzy sweater” medium is being added to the hundreds that already exist. Will the skeptic community sit by and just watch this happen? The show is being aired on a clearly entertainment channel, so should we even care? He states that his goal in life is to someday work with parents who have children that committed suicide. Is he going to corrupt these parents’ memories of their lost children for his own self-promotion and profit? Or is he sincerely convinced of his “powers,” truly believing he will be helping these parents? But he has not reached this goal yet. Is this a “buyers beware” situation where the victims are responsible for doing their own background checks? My new friend Sue didn’t think she had the skills necessary.
I’m not sure that I have answers to these questions. These people come and go fame-wise. His flame might be bright for the moment, but it could quickly fade into obscurity, or it could ignite a fire that will burn the memories and interrupt and corrupt the grieving process for parents who go to him in desperation and loss. I know that I now have a lot more to tell Sue when I call her tomorrow. I’ll thank her for inspiring this investigation, and I’ll have a good long think. What can we do about it?