Thomas John and the Believers

Susan Gerbic

Faking questions?

I highly doubt it.

These people overwhelming believe Thomas John is in contact with their dearly departed. It’s extremely sad to watch people preyed on by these grief vampires who are trying to get a hook into their desperation and trust. As someone who has lived in this skeptic universe for years, I’ve seen three camps when it comes to how we talk about those who are the victims. One group feels that the sitters are credulous idiots who will not see what is in front of their eyes, are not capable of using common sense, and probably we should give them no consideration because if they weren’t falling for this con, it would just be another one. The second camp are those people who can’t see the harm in pacifying grieving people by lying to them; it’s just money, and if it gives them peace of mind then we should leave them alone. The third camp believes that someone should step in and help if possible, even if we know that by doing so we may cause the victims to circle the cognitive dissidence wagons and strengthen their belief. What’s a skeptical activist to do?

According to the excellent book Psychic Mafia, many psychics refer to those who believe as shut-eyes. This very derogatory term means that some people will continue to believe even if you show them evidence of the con. They have reasons of their own for why they prefer to be lied to. Possibly they think that the psychic might be fudging a bit here and there but not always, and it is still possible to contact their loved family member. It’s better not to be skeptical because they don’t want to upset the “energy.”

I remember a story told by Ray Hyman (or was it James Randi?) about one of the first times he understood the power of needing to believe. He was attending one of those psychic shows where the psychic stands on stage and draws out pieces of paper that the audience had written questions they wanted asked of the departed. The psychic places the piece of paper on his forehead and then “gets” the question. On this day, the psychic pulled out his reading glasses and started reading the paper slips before putting them on his forehead; obviously he wasn’t getting messages psychically. Seeing this Hyman (or Randi) nudged the woman he was sitting next to and said, “Did you see that?” she replied that she hadn’t and he should keep quite otherwise the spirits would not come forward. The spirits disliked being challenged, apparently. He looked around the room and noticed that no one was looking at the psychic when he had his reading glasses on. They turned their heads to not see how the trick was done. These people wanted to believe so strongly that they refused to acknowledge the fraud in front of their own eyes.

In conversations with P.I. Bob Nygaard, fellow Skeptical Inquirer online columnist Rob Palmer has discussed how many police officers will not take fraud by a psychic seriously. The attitude seems to be that if victims lost money that is their own fault and they should have known better. Nygaard spends a lot of his time trying to get police on the case to understand it is just as important as any other fraud.

As an activist who specializes in those who claim to be communicating with the dead, I’ve run into all kinds of excuses for not looking at what I would think is conclusive evidence of fraud. It is frustrating as well as fascinating, and probably whole PhDs could be written on the subject (and possibly have been).

Reading the NZ Skeptics Journal (Number 127, Winter 2019) I came across an article written by my friend and NZ Skeptics secretary, Sheree McNatty. Titled “Ghosts, Pareidolia, and Why I’m now a Skeptic,” McNatty’s article recounts a time when someone she knew well told her that he had spent $100 on a psychic because he needed advice to find employment. I reached out to McNatty and asked her to expand on that interaction. She offered to do a reading for the man for only 40 cents, thinking that he understood that she was just funning. She proceeded to close her eyes and make a couple Barnum statements about his health and life in general. She opened her eyes to see her friend crying. He thought that his dead father had come through to give him needed guidance. McNatty tried to explain what she had done, but he was still very upset. McNatty suggested a simple way to test the psychic by saying he had a brother that he did not have and see what the psychic said. Apparently he tried that and now believes the psychic he first went to is a fraud. However, now McNatty and this friend have a standoffish relationship. She felt like she had just taken his dad away from him again, and it was an awful experience for her. But even though their relationship is now strained, she felt he had a giant TAKE ADVANTAGE OF ME sign on his back, and now hopefully it is less-so.

During an after-lecture food spree in Eugene, Oregon, a small group of us discussed the power of belief especially in the psychic world. We all agreed that to remove all belief in the paranormal in one fell swoop is cruel. To wipe out it all without replacing it with something can lead to serious problems. I suppose it would be like showing irrefutable evidence that your significant other was cheating on you when you had no inclination that anything was amiss, and you thought you had the perfect monogamous relationship. It’s like hitting a brick wall. We thought that to remove it slowly or to ease into it, letting the believer do some of the work, is best. To be told that you are a fool for believing something isn’t going to go well. They will shut down and not hear anything else you have to say. But if they can hear something about it, maybe not directly related to their case, it will allow them some time to work it out for themselves. You have allowed them to save face, and they are more likely to be open to more conversations.

From time to time, people will comment in frustration that researching mediums will have no effect because people will continue to believe and mediums will have no shortage of people to prey on. They wonder if the work we are doing is having any effect; I wonder that also.

The answer is that we do hear from people from time to time who have said they were helped. I’m averaging about one person a day asking me questions about mediumship, sharing their experiences, and even giving me audio from their readings. As I’m able to ask the sitter questions about the situation they were in, we are learning a lot. Most people write to me about Thomas John, but I do hear about other mediums as well. Each are individuals and have developed their own style. For example, check out the On No Ross and Carrie two-part episode on their investigation of Evidential Medium Cindy Kaza. Cold-reading at its worst. And while you are at it, check out Mark Edward and me discussing Operation Pizza Roll with Ross and Carrie.

I’d like to share one encounter I’ve had recently. Ken posted a YouTube video of a reading with Thomas John (TJ) that has attracted very few viewers. In the comments he was asked if he felt that TJ was accurate. His response was that he was. Ken had shared a video with names and statements, and we knew his full name so by that means we can investigate if it was possible for TJ to have found these details from other than spiritual communication. Keep in mind that if we were able to show that the content was available on social media, it does not necessarily mean that TJ is not in contact with the dead. It is possible that the dead also follow Ken on social media and are repeating what they read to TJ. Right?

According to Ken, we learn that he had planned the funeral for his roommate Judy’s father. Ken also was involved in getting military recognition and some medals for this man. Judy had sold her father’s car and TJ said that her father was fine with that. There was an “Anna” mentioned as a wife that had also passed over. And then Ken’s father also came through, and he was dancing in heaven with his wife. Generally, this was the entire seven-minute reading we found on YouTube.

My team found that Judy (the roommate who had recently lost her father) was mentioned all over Ken’s Facebook page. Also, the medals. There was a post on Ken’s Facebook page for a car Judy was selling for her dad, and then we found two obituaries for both Judy’s dad and Ken’s dad. All kinds of names are mentioned, including Anna as a wife who had died years ago.

So, I did what I usually do and reached out for comment from Ken. I wanted to see if after some time had passed since his reading and he has had some time to think about it, does he still think it was real communication with the dead. He agreed to talk to me. I explained that I was interested in hot-reading and briefly explained what that means. He insisted that he could not have been hot-read as there was no way that TJ could have known he was going to attend the show. He did not give his name at the door, he did not share anything on Facebook or other social media, and his foster sister is the one who paid for the tickets.

I showed Ken screenshots of the car for sale on his own Facebook page, and Ken threw that aside as irrelevant because Ken claims that TJ really understood the dilemma that Judy was struggling with when trying to decide if she should sell the car or not. That confused me, so I went back and listened to that part of the reading again and said that all TJ had said was that her dad was fine with the car being sold. Ken said that he had interpreted that to set Judy’s mind at ease.

I explained that his parents dancing in heaven was one of those general statements that everyone wants to think is true, but we can’t test that statement. But we can test other statements such as the medals (which was a post on Ken’s Facebook page). Again, Ken said that I didn’t understand. TJ knew that Judy’s father didn’t want the fuss of a big military funeral, but now he is telling TJ that he is happy with how wonderful the funeral was. I explained that this was also a general statement that is true with many men of the WWII generation. They don’t think there is any need of a fuss and a big funeral is a waste of money. Even in my own personal life, all of the men of that generation have wanted small, no fuss funerals. I told Ken that it is probably rare for men of that era to say they want a big expensive military funeral. Ken wasn’t buying this and just continued to say that TJ was correct and I was wrong.

Then I asked Ken which statement from TJ would convince me he was really communicating with the dead. Ken said the statement about the wife Anna because they were married only a short time before she died and it was over ten years ago. So, I shared with Ken an obituary for the man that mentions his wife Anna who had pre-deceased him. I explained as I shared it that if my team could find the obituary and the name Anna, then so could TJ.

Even this wasn’t enough for Ken. He insisted that there was no way TJ could have done this research because he didn’t know Ken was going to be attending this show. I explained that I didn’t know how either, but that I did believe TJ knew. And Ken and I left it there.

A day passed, and one of my team members posted that he had figured it out. He shared the screenshot with the team that shows that Ken himself posted on the event page for the reading two weeks prior that he was really excited because he had the tickets but had messed up his email when he purchased the tickets. TJ responded saying to send them an email and they would sort it all out. So, BINGO right?

Wrong. I shared this screenshot with Ken who said he had forgotten that he was the one who had purchased the tickets and that he had posted on the event page saying he was attending and that he sent them an email.

He said that even after he knew that TJ had full access to his Facebook page for two weeks—and I showed him all the screenshots of the obituaries from his Facebook page—he still believes that TJ is communicating with the dead. And he has gone to see him again since that first reading.

I asked, “Why would you still believe when I have shown you how easy this was to do?” Ken responded saying, “Just a good feeling for me that I choose to follow. I am close to death myself and I very much want to feel good.” Ken told me that he has multiple medical issues that are leaving him with “very bad thoughts.”

So that was where we left it. TJ in my opinion has found a desperate victim to prey on, sucking precious time and money from a dying man who is looking for some comfort and knowledge of another world. I find that very sad.

So, what camp do I fall into when it comes to how to look at these sitters? They are adults and have chosen to attend a psychic reading, and who am I to tell them what to do? I would hope that sitters would understand the risks and would understand what hot and cold reading is and know what to look for. I would hope they would understand that the medium is attempting to manipulate their emotions in order to keep them coming, buy their book, get a private reading, and share their belief of their ability to communicate with the world.

I think that the scientific skeptic community should have more sympathy for sitters and understand that it is not necessarily their fault. Hot and cold reading, when done with skill, can appear natural and amazing. With cold reading it can come at you so fast that you can barely process what is being said to you. When you slow it down, only then can you see the word play. Mediums have done thousands of readings; they are very good at what they do. The sitter may have very little experience with this patter. The human brain is a complicated, amazing computer of sorts; we are still learning about it. And as humans we are a very social species that wants to relate to the person who is very engaged in talking to you about yourself. A sitter is going to be forgiving. Remember they have given the psychic money, so they are going to forget the misses and remember the hits, even if they have to stretch a bit to make what the medium is saying fit. That’s just how we are wired.

We can get all high and mighty and say that they should educate themselves and not allow themselves to be taken advantage of. I don’t know about you, but I wasn’t raised to be a critical thinker. I was raised to believe in life-after-death, and it’s only a tiny step to think that it is possible to communicate with the dead when you believe in angels. We are all on this journey to learn as much about ourselves and the world as possible. Not all are concerned with the things we think they should be concerned about. Grief vampires interact with people at all stages of life, but the hook sinks deeper when the sitter is in a fragile time of life, when things are overwhelming and they just want a bit of peace and comfort.

Let’s hold off judging the sitter who has just been preyed on. Even when we point it out to them as I did in multiple articles, they have not all reacted well. So, if it isn’t clear, I’m in the camp that we should not rush to judge people who have been fooled. Maybe we should not take away in one fell swoop their belief in the afterlife. Instead we should concentrate on that one specific reading or that specific medium. Explain it in a way that allows the sitter to save face somewhat, lead them in the right direction, and let them figure it out. Then they will be much more open to hearing more, doing more research, and maybe filling in the gaps of knowledge they lack.

But am I still going to look into these grief vampires? Oh yeah. And when we hear “There is NO WAY the psychic could have known…” then that is going to pique my interest, and we may just start looking into it. Stay tuned.

Susan Gerbic

Affectionately called the Wikipediatrician, Susan Gerbic is the cofounder of Monterey County Skeptics and a self-proclaimed skeptical junkie. Susan is also founder of the Guerrilla Skepticism on Wikipedia (GSoW) project. She is a Fellow of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, and writes for her column, Guerilla Skepticism, often. You can contact her through her website.