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Quest for Answers Leads Many to Psychics

Times Staff Writer

Squeezed between a tailor’s shop and a shoe repair business on Ventura Boulevard in Woodland Hills is a small storefront with a large sign proclaiming: “Special Grand Opening, Psychic Palm and Tarot Card Reading, 1/2 Price.”

The sight has become a familiar one in the San Fernando Valley. Psychics and fortunetellers are hanging neon signs in chic shopping areas, stretching hand-lettered banners over aging storefronts and tacking flyers to utility polls.

Saying they are disillusioned by traditional religions, disenchanted with the pursuit of material success or simply yearning to return to simpler, less technology-oriented days, more people--particularly young professionals--are turning to fortunetellers for answers.

“Some aspects of the scientific-technological revolution are repugnant and incomprehensible to ordinary people,” said Rex Beaber of Santa Monica, a clinical psychologist and former UCLA Medical School instructor who is critical of psychics and calls them “con people.”

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“I think that one of the attractions to readers, palmists, astrologers, is the notion that there exists a system that is comprehensible, that is relatively simple and that speaks clearly to ordinary questions that real people have: ‘Will I get married?’ ‘Will I get rich?’ ‘Will I become sick?’ ”

Psychic Elaine Sherman of Encino said people live in a world so stressful that they “want to know that good things will come for them, that there is some positive they can latch onto. I think their old religions aren’t working for them.”

Gina Pickering, a 39-year-old bookkeeper who saw Sherman for a reading last week, agreed. “When we have a choice between Swaggart and Bakker,” she said, referring to television evangelists who have fallen from favor, “I guess we sort of give up on religion.”

Ads for ‘Spiritual Consultants’

Although there are no official statistics kept on the number of psychics, there is clear evidence of an increase. Telephone directory Yellow Page advertisements for Valley “spiritual consultants” have increased sevenfold since the early 1980s, with at least 45 now listed. Also, 15 to 20 Valley fortunetellers advertise every week in the “psychic growth” section of the L.A. Weekly, said Judy Jablonski, an advertising executive with the alternative newspaper.

“When I first started 4 years ago, there were only a handful; it’s really the biggest section now,” Jablonski said.

Another indicator is simply a view of the streets. Since the city of Los Angeles lifted a ban on fortunetelling in 1985, signs have popped up all over, particularly in upscale neighborhoods of Studio City, Sherman Oaks and Woodland Hills.

The high-rent locations are understandable since most psychics do not come cheap. They charge, on an average, about $40, with some getting as much as $100 for a single session, Yablonski said.

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“It’s a good way to make money these days,” said Linda Kaye, 37, a Sherman Oaks fortuneteller.

Kaye and other psychics said their blend of advice and predictions has caught on--particularly with a new, seemingly unlikely, clientele.

Two decades ago, self-styled “metaphysical counselor” Jean Solloway, 43, of Sherman Oaks prophesied for mostly “housewives, aunts, grandmothers.” These days, her customers are primarily young, upwardly mobile, unmarried professionals.

“They’re more concerned with personal growth,” she said. “They thought they would be happy when they attained material success, but they’re so unhappy.”

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Steve Walker, 48, an articulate, soft-spoken man trained as a chemical engineer, has studied world religions and sees a psychic because he is seeking “greater awareness and more balance.”

Psychic Sandra Hope-Davis, 69, of Chatsworth also sees customers who qualify as “yuppies.”

‘Trust Their Feelings Less’

“They trust their own feelings less,” Hope-Davis said. “They really don’t want to be blaming themselves if they make a mistake. They choose someone else to do it for them.

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“Many are looking for direction, many are looking for answers, many are depressed and want to know what’s happening in their lives and how long they’re going to be going through their trials and tribulations,” she said.

For them, psychics offer “a bit of melodrama, a bit of magic, a bit of hope,” Beaber said.

“Everything has gotten so massive in our culture that if you want to get a doctor’s attention for a half-hour, you better be dying,” he said. “If you want to get a psychotherapist’s attention, you’d better be rich. If you want to get a priest’s attention, you’d better be on the verge of tremendous moral opprobrium. But for $25, you get a psychic’s attention.

“Instead of telling you, ‘You need 10 more sessions,’ they will give you simple, direct answers. They probably give more for the money than any mental-health professional I know.”

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In fact, several psychics said many of their clients were psychologists and psychiatrists. About 50% of Solloway’s customers are psychologists, she said.

“Because they have a diploma doesn’t make them extra special,” Solloway said of her mental-health clients. “They tell me they don’t have a magic wand for answers. They say to me, ‘I don’t want to be analyzed. I know analytical answers. I want intuitive answers. I want to know what’s ahead’.”

Although there is no way to verify Solloway’s claim, Beaber said he knows of four or five mental-health professionals who have consulted psychics.

“There is no question that psychologists and psychiatrists go because I know a number . . . whom I regard as very prominent who do,” he said.

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Beaber attributes that to an underlying lack of faith in the efficacy of psychology.

“I think they’re as enticed with magic as the layman,” he said of mental-health professionals.

Despite the growing popularity of psychics, many customers say they keep the advice in perspective.

“I don’t think they’re gods or have all the answers,” said manicurist Eve Bronner, 31, of Van Nuys. “If they’re good, I think they just kind of validate a lot of things that you know or may know.”

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Pickering said she began seeing a psychic in April, shortly after her mother died. “I don’t necessarily get a direct answer about some things that are bothering me, it just seems to sort of mellow my vibe out,” she said.

Others turn to psychics for more tangible results. Walker, of Topanga, has signed up to meet a mate with Kaye, who claims to have 200 clients for “psychic matchmaking.”

Kaye, of Sherman Oaks, promises customers a chance to “meet your soul mate and fill your life with all the love and warmth you deserve” for $120 a year.

Kaye said she began applying her proclivity for prognostication to the arena of romance when she introduced two clients who came to her for readings. They later married.

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Worked as Secretary

She said she has always been psychic but did secretarial and office work for 15 years before hanging out her fortuneteller’s shingle. While working in a bank she told her co-workers’ fortunes, and when she began her business, those same people reappeared at her door.

“They still come for readings,” Kaye said. “They pay for them now, though.” She said she has about 100 regular clients and earns about $30,000 a year, “more than I did working in a bank.”

Other prognosticators like Hope-Davis and Solloway say they inherited their psychic abilities and learned to tell fortunes from family members.

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“My grandmother did it and I picked up a lot of knowledge from her,” Solloway said.

Sherman said she can predict the future by handling a client’s personal belongings--jewelry, a piece of clothing or a photograph--and has been doing so for the last 15 years.

Sherman is also a “ghostbuster,” a finder of lost loves and teaches psychic development classes. She often conducts readings over the telephone and said she can foretell the future by “voice vibrations.”

She claims to be 65% accurate and said her clientele is made up of doctors, lawyers, actors, airline pilots and studio executives.

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As the number of seers proliferates, so does the potential for hoaxes. Sherman, Kaye and Solloway separate themselves from more unscrupulous practitioners who, records show, threaten customers with curses and demand hundreds, even thousands, of dollars to ward off evil spirits.

Last year, Sherman Oaks fortuneteller Laura Johns was sentenced to a year in County Jail for swindling four customers out of more than $40,000. She told one man that he would die of cancer if he didn’t give her $27,000 to rid him of an evil curse.

Authorities said countless people have been bilked of money by soothsayers who promise to lift curses and turn their clients’ tide of luck.

“It’s just funny to me,” Solloway said. “Half of the signs are not spelled right anyway. If I was a client going to a person who advertises but can’t spell, I would think, ‘How is she going to read me?’ ”

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