‘Foretold’ podcast Episode 9: ‘This Was Foretold’
In the final episode of “Foretold,” Paulina makes a career choice and starts figuring out her place in the world. And Paulina and Bobby’s custody battle culminates in a decision about their daughters’ future.
Listen to the episode and read the transcript below.
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Faith E. Pinho: After months of court proceedings and waiting and tears, after a new home, a new marriage and a new connection to a journalist from the L.A. Times, it had all finally come to a head: a final showdown in court over whether Paulina or Bobby would get to keep the girls. It was culture versus culture. Which, if you ask Bobby’s lawyer, was sort of bulls—.
Richard Sullivan: Again, I think she’s using it as a shield, saying that she’s, “Woe is me because I’m Romani and I escaped the boogeyman and they’re still after me, perhaps.” I don’t see that to be the case.
Faith E. Pinho: As long as I’ve known Paulina and the longer I’ve reported on her story, the clearer it’s become that everything she did led up to this. To the decision of whether or not she could retain custody of her kids. And to Paulina, this decision wasn’t just about who would put the girls to bed at night or get them ready for school in the morning. It was about what kind of world they’d grow up in.
Paulina Stevens: I don’t want them to have an arranged marriage, and I don’t want them to be taken out of school or to go to school and not be taken seriously.
Faith E. Pinho: And in the summer of 2021, the court handed down its decision.
Paulina Stevens: So the judge agreed that the girls will be with me.
Faith E. Pinho: It was decided Paulina would keep the girls a majority of the time, about 75%, and that included every school day. Paulina was more than content with that ruling.
Paulina Stevens: I want them to still spend time with their dad and their family. I didn’t mind them being fully immersed in the culture as long as the other things like education was prioritized.
Faith E. Pinho: And so her daughters could have what Paulina had wanted for herself: a life full of possibilities, of choice. They could grow up to be a ballerina or a mathematician. Or a veterinarian, like Paulina had wanted to be when she was little. In fact, Paulina was going to school at the same time as her daughters. They were all getting their education, all working toward a future where they could be anything they wanted to be.
So Paulina won. This was the moment she’d been waiting for.
So, of course, I kept following up with her. Just because — what happens now? What happens when you get everything you want? But not too long after Paulina had gotten everything, things took a turn.
Paulina Stevens: I had some mixed feelings going back to school, I guess. I felt like this is definitely what I wanted to do, was go back to school. But I also felt like I’m too old or have too much going on. Like I won’t be able to succeed.
Faith E. Pinho: Paulina had stopped taking classes. She was no longer in school, which, honestly, kind of surprised me. She had gone through all of this work, all this struggle, but once she had gotten what she’d been fighting for, she gave this part of it up. Even if she explained it away as just a break or a pause, I got the feeling she might not go back.
Paulina Stevens: I did take a break. I’m on a break right now because my life has gotten extremely busy in my business.
Faith E. Pinho: And as I would find out, the business Paulina got into seemed to undermine absolutely everything Paulina had fought for — in a lot of ways, to a lot of people. And not just Bobby’s lawyer.
Richard Sullivan: And that’s kind of disingenuous because she’s still living that culture.
Faith E. Pinho: In some ways, to some people, Paulina got her victory and then reversed course.
This is “Foretold.”
In the months after she left her community, as she was finding her footing, Paulina needed money.
Paulina Stevens: Because I have to live and survive, and I have a lot of attorney bills to pay off.
Faith E. Pinho: So she tried various ways to scrape together cash. She spent some time working at her husband Matt’s recruiting company. Sometimes she did wellness work for them, doing life coaching and saging the office. Other times she did operations there: desk job stuff, a typical 9-to-5 with co-workers who probably said stuff like “case of the Mondays.”
Paulina Stevens: I was doing my regular computer office day job, and I was just thinking, “This is so boring.”
Faith E. Pinho: So she tried finding new work, something more aligned with the biotech or neuroscience job she had started taking classes for. But finding a job like that was hard.
Paulina Stevens: Every time I’m in an interview, I have to explain to people why I don’t have an education and why I don’t even have a high school diploma.
Faith E. Pinho: And explaining herself meant explaining her whole life.
Paulina Stevens: I try to make a small thing like, “Oh, well, I don’t usually say this, but I was in an arranged marriage. When I was younger, I was taken out of elementary school. I am currently going to school now. But this is why I don’t have an education.”
Faith E. Pinho: Paulina said she’d been in countless job interviews that went this way.
Paulina Stevens: I notice some of the interviewers are probably like, “OK, that sounds like a little, like, you know, but it’s a great excuse not to have an education.” And so it’s a hard thing.
Faith E. Pinho: It seemed so fruitless that Paulina eventually stopped trying. She stopped going to school. She stopped looking for jobs. And she found herself missing the one job she knew for a fact she was really good at.
Paulina Stevens: Yeah, I felt like when I took space away from it, everything in my body was calling me back to just this practice, I guess.
Faith E. Pinho: The practice of fortunetelling.
Paulina Stevens: And I still love it. Meeting people and talking to them and intimately having these conversations.
Faith E. Pinho: Paulina was sliding back into her fate.
Paulina Stevens: And I actually am more closer to my practice now than I feel like I ever was in my whole life.
Faith E. Pinho: Except this time, she felt she was choosing it, deciding to do the thing she had been raised to do since she was a kid.
And I have to admit, that at first this sort of made intuitive sense to me. I was like, “Huh, OK, I mean, that’s sort of ironic, but whatever.”
But it didn’t take me long to realize that the implications of this are huge. Because this was just a few weeks after getting her kids. Right after that trial that made it so dramatically obvious that she was looking for a new life, she opened up another fortunetelling shop.
Faith E. Pinho: I am on my way to visit Paulina at her shop.
Faith E. Pinho: I parked my car near her store. It’s tucked into the back of a little cluster of boutiques and businesses on a busy street.
Faith E. Pinho: Oh my God. This looks amazing.
Faith E. Pinho: This tiny shop is one room — no more than 400 square feet, maybe. Paulina had just gotten the keys a couple days before. She had big plans for the space.
Paulina Stevens: It’s going to be super dark but inviting. There’s going to be prints and patterns everywhere and just old cultural elements to it, I guess.
Faith E. Pinho: Paulina was still going to be doing traditional readings with palms and tarot cards. And she was also going to be doing meditation and chakra bowls; selling crystals, soaps, candles, even teabags.
Paulina Stevens: We’re going to have those Turkish teacups that people can buy, as well as hookahs. I want to sell some of those.
Faith E. Pinho: Like a wellness shop with hookahs. So it was a bit of a cultural hodgepodge. But it was clear to me that this was Paulina doing her own thing, combining her tradition with other tools and influences, kind of like what she used to do in her last shop. But this time it’s different. Because now she had spent time in Matt’s business.
Paulina Stevens: And it’s interesting how I’m learning about the sales world and marketing in a totally weird corporate way. And I’m thinking, “Whoa, we’ve been, I’ve been doing this for like 20 years,” you know what I mean? And now I feel like I am a salesperson.
Faith E. Pinho: After spending some time in the outside world, she realized that persuasion and sales weren’t anything to be ashamed about.
Paulina Stevens: Now that I’m more educated, I guess, I don’t resent my practices and I don’t feel like I was a, you know — hmm. Do I? I don’t feel like I was a born and bred scam artist.
Faith E. Pinho: So this time, in this shop, Paulina said she wanted to be completely honest about who she is. She wouldn’t hide her identity from her clients. Or from anyone.
Paulina Stevens: Yeah. I’m not hiding my culture anymore because these are our practices. These are our cultural practices.
Faith E. Pinho: And that’s why she called her new business …
Paulina Stevens: Romani Holistic Healing. Yes.
Faith E. Pinho: How did you come to that name?
Paulina Stevens: Nothing else sounded right. And I also want people to know that this is a real culture and these are practices and these are from us. We carried these traditions, especially the fortunetelling traditions.
Faith E. Pinho: “We.” Listening back, I can hear Paulina really leaning into the “we” in that sentence. For someone who had distanced herself from her community, she sure seemed to be selling herself as a part of it. But the people she’d grown up with were not buying it.
Faith E. Pinho: OK, Paulina, are you there?
Paulina Stevens: Yep.
Faith E. Pinho: A few days after I met Paulina in her new fortunetelling shop, she told me she was getting threatening calls. That a family member had begged her to leave her shop.
Paulina Stevens: And he said that he wanted to warn me. And he said also that he’s afraid, he’s afraid something will happen to me. I don’t know for sure what their intentions are, but I know that my whole family is freaking the f— out over it.
I’m not concerned that they’ll hurt my babies, but they may do something to me. I’m afraid, but I can’t always live in fear. The reality is I’m going to be where I want to be.
Faith E. Pinho: Even if that place was the very same town that she’d worked in before she left.
If you remember, Romani fortunetellers have to buy a territory in order to practice in certain neighborhoods because it ensures that Romani families don’t compete with one another for the same client pool. Among Romani psychics, it’s understood that you respect the space by staying on your own turf. But Paulina was not doing that.
Paulina Stevens: The ex-family, I’m sure if you ask them, they would say, “She’s not supposed to be here.” I got word from someone that said, “She’s not allowed to ever step foot in these towns again.”
Faith E. Pinho: It turns out that nothing came of those threats. And Paulina remained unfazed.
Paulina Stevens: I like that clientele, and I want to be there.
Faith E. Pinho: And it wasn’t because this location was convenient. It was nearly 50 miles from her new home in San Diego County. She had to drive an hour every day to get there. This was an active decision. By being in this territory, Paulina was putting herself in direct competition with Bobby’s family, who had taken over her old shop.
Paulina Stevens: And they can’t mess with me, too, because I’m out of the culture, you know?
Faith E. Pinho: It was like she was playing the old game but not using the same rules anymore.
Paulina Stevens: I don’t believe in the territorial laws. I feel like I’m reclaiming my right as an American citizen to have a business wherever I want. You know what I’m saying? That’s what I’m doing.
Faith E. Pinho: What she was doing was setting up a business called Romani Holistic Healing and claiming her rights as an American citizen. These two things are at odds, according to many people — and not just her old community. Paulina was also alienating someone close to her. Someone who had stood by her side as she left and had put her own reputation on the line to help Paulina.
Gina Merino: This is not what I wanted when I said I wanted to help people. This is bulls—, is what this is.
Faith E. Pinho: Paulina had been leaning on Gina, relying on her for support, for a few years at this point. Gina had always offered Paulina advice and a shoulder to cry on. But in the spring of 2022, Gina was pissed.
Gina Merino: Yes, pissed.
Faith E. Pinho: Gina and I had been texting, and I suggested we hop on a call because she wanted to vent about Paulina, who, again, she calls Nina.
Gina Merino: I don’t know what she believes in, and that’s what bothers me the most.
Faith E. Pinho: Yeah.
Gina Merino: But now I know that Nina doesn’t really know what she wants. It’s not her fault. It’s just part of growing up. I get it. But she won’t — she’s not listening to anyone. She’s not listening to me.
Faith E. Pinho: This is what had really set Gina off: A few days before, Paulina was having a hard time and had called Gina for support.
Gina Merino: She was in a really bad way one day, and I said, “Just get in your car and come here.”
Faith E. Pinho: Gina offered for Paulina to come stay with her up in San Jose. Gina said she could help Paulina set up her life there — hook her up with an apartment. She volunteered to babysit the girls while Paulina was at work. Gina even reached out to a friend to get Paulina a job. Gina said they had talked about it seriously, thinking through logistics and details.
And then, a few hours later, Paulina called to say she was backing out. She wasn’t going to come anymore. Which would be fine if this had just happened once.
Gina Merino: It wasn’t the first time. It was probably the third or fourth in the last year.
Faith E. Pinho: Gina was fed up.
Gina Merino: One minute she’s calling me telling me she’s having an emergency. Five seconds later, she’s posting, “I got this new puppy.” I’m like, “OK, so five days ago, you needed to come and have an emergency visit to my house.” At this point, I’m not offering her to come over here again.
Faith E. Pinho: And it wasn’t just that Gina was fed up. Associating with Paulina had caused Gina a lot of trouble. There were tangible repercussions. Because all the work Gina had put into slowly and carefully mending her relationship with her family went straight out the window. Gina couldn’t go to her nephew’s engagement party, which was happening that night.
Gina Merino: I asked my sister, “Is it because I’m married outside the culture?” She said, “Nope, they don’t care. It was because you helped Nina.” And I’m pissed off because I don’t get to go to an engagement party because I helped her do nothing, basically.
Faith E. Pinho: Oh, wow.
Gina Merino: Yeah, exactly. I helped her do nothing.
Faith E. Pinho: Gina had assumed they were on the same page. And she was realizing that she had assumed incorrectly.
Gina Merino: But it’s really the way she’s making money that bothers me the most.
Faith E. Pinho: To Gina, Paulina just seemed to be reverting back to her old life by opening a psychic shop. For her, there is no mainstream-American-style life that also involves fortunetelling.
Gina Merino: See, and that’s what makes me go, “Well, then maybe she doesn’t want to leave the culture.” It would have been easier for me right now, today, if I knew I helped her and there was a reason for me helping her. I don’t feel like there was a reason.
Faith E. Pinho: Gina wondered if Paulina just wanted the superficial trappings of outsider life, the easy freedoms.
Gina Merino: My reason for leaving was not so I could date whoever I wanted. My reason for leaving was not so I could wear pants and go to the gym. My reason for leaving was stability.
Faith E. Pinho: According to Gina, Paulina said she wanted stability. But whenever Gina offered her that stability, offered her an apartment and a job, she said Paulina wouldn’t take it.
Gina Merino: She’s young, you know. She’s growing. I love her. I just don’t think she’s stable. She doesn’t want stability. You have two children, and you’re not living with your people anymore. You’re now on your own without your family backing you up. So I don’t know what her priorities are. And I don’t agree with them at this point.
I can understand if you want to be Gypsy. I don’t have a problem with that. But you’re riding the fence so hard and you want every good piece from every part. Life doesn’t work like that. What do you want? Do you want the American lifestyle or do you want the Gypsy lifestyle? Choose.
Faith E. Pinho: But Paulina refused to choose. She still won’t choose one life or the other. This has baffled almost everyone close to Paulina. No one could understand what she wanted.
Paulina Stevens: I feel like I’m kind of fulfilling a bigger purpose. I think I’m doing something a little bit more meaningful by just focusing on my culture and hopefully trying to change the narrative.
Faith E. Pinho: And so Paulina soon found a community of people who understood exactly what she wanted. She found her way into the international community of Romani activists.
[Clip from “Romanistan”: Jessica Reidy: Welcome to “Romanistan” podcast.
Paulina Stevens: We’re your friendly neighborhood Gypsies.]
Faith E. Pinho: In early 2021, Paulina met a Romani educator, fortuneteller and activist online, Jessica Reidy, who also goes by Jezmina Von Thiele. Together they launched their own podcast, “Romanistan,” which Jess explained in their first episode.
[Clip from “Romanistan”: Jessica Reidy: Romanistan was a country proposed by Romani activists in the ’50s, where Roma were imagined to live in peace, away from the outside world.]
Faith E. Pinho: “Romanistan” nods to the idea of a Romani nation. An imagined home for the Romani diaspora flung across the world. A utopia of sorts.
[Clip from “Romanistan”: Jessica Reidy: And some topics we’re excited to cover in the future are fortunetelling, misrepresentation of Gypsies on TV and how we’re countering that, LGBTQIA community and activism inside and outside the Romani community.]
Faith E. Pinho: Paulina and Jess’ podcast explores what it means to be Romani and what that imagined nation home could be like. A sort of love letter to the community that celebrates the parts of Romani culture they love, while talking candidly about the parts they want to see change.
[Clip from “Romanistan”: Paulina Stevens: Also, celebrating Romani culture and achievements. How we can stop the practice of child marriage. Romani art, activism, science.]
Faith E. Pinho: With the launch of “Romanistan,” Paulina has become a sort of public figure in the last couple of years. She and Jess were invited to speak on a panel for Columbia University’s Roma Peoples Project. Paulina said they also have provided cultural sensitivity editing and consulting. And, you know, Paulina has continued to talk to me on “Foretold.”
Paulina Stevens: I grappled with needing to tell my story by telling the audience, “I’m still learning and getting to know everything too. Sometimes I’m just as clueless as you are, even though it’s my life.” And I think really just telling the truth and being honest has been a difficult process.
Faith E. Pinho: And so this woman who says she left her community has become something of a representative for it.
But for some folks that I’ve spoken to who watched her burn everything to the ground, seeing Paulina turn around and become a spokesperson must feel like a sick joke. I can only imagine what Bobby and his family might think.
Richard Sullivan: I think that Paulina likes her culture.
Faith E. Pinho: Here’s Richard Sullivan again. Bobby’s lawyer.
Richard Sullivan: Well, I understand that she’s still reading palms. And so she’s demonizing the culture, yet this is what she’s doing for a living, still being part and parcel of that culture.
Faith E. Pinho: I can see what Richard is saying. But also — I mean, Paulina is no longer doing a lot of what she was expected to do. If she’s not attending Romani funerals or weddings, not married to a Romani man, not upholding the traditions, then what does it mean to be Romani? Is culture something an individual can pick and choose for herself?
I think of some of the people I spoke to for this podcast: Professor Hancock, the linguist. Dr. Matache at Harvard. George Eli with his documentary and his TV appearances. I think about Gina and her continued love of hosting and hospitality. Or Brenda and how she still wears long, modest skirts even as she’s questioning her own Romani tradition. And I think about many others I’ve talked to, people who have different upbringings and jobs than Paulina. And yet they’re still very much Romani. They all share the history and value system and that connective tissue that gives meaning to their lives and their families and their children.
For Paulina, it’s teaching her daughters what she thinks it means to be Romani. And that includes fortunetelling.
Paulina Stevens: I’m not teaching them anything serious yet, but my 7-year-old — I don’t think I practice with her as much as my mom practiced with me, but I still did practice with her.
Faith E. Pinho: To Paulina, it’s clear that the girls possess the same gift their mom has. The same natural, intuitive clairvoyance that puts people at ease and the same powerful force of will. It’s just in them.
Paulina Stevens: My oldest one, she’s like, “Mom, I went to school and one of my friends — I don’t know why; she wasn’t crying or anything — but at recess I gave her a hug and I said, “I think that you’re really sad, and I love you.” And her little friend was like, “My grandma just passed away.” Maybe her friend was giving off these social cues that she’s sad. But even then, I feel like this practice has still allowed her to be confident in her intuition enough so that she can then approach another person and make them feel better.
Faith E. Pinho: The girls are learning to read the cards and trace each other’s palms, just like how Paulina learned from her mom when she was a kid. I remember when I was first learning about how Paulina was raised. Tarot cards and fortunetelling was part of her everyday life — as natural as eating cereal, she said. And here she was years later, raising her girls to do the exact same thing.
Paulina Stevens: So I actually took the girls to a fair and together they made over $100. They made like $140 or $150. And my little one is such a hustler. It’s insane.
But that’s similar to how it was when I was younger. I would go and bring someone a flier, and then my mom was like, “Whoever you bring in for a reading, then you can have a few dollars of that and go get yourself something.” But I feel like my kids kind of embraced it on a different level.
So if I even wanted to take them away from the culture, I don’t think I could.
Faith E. Pinho: Now that she has the girls the majority of the time, Paulina believes she has the opportunity to show them what Romani culture can mean for them. Paulina and the girls could create their Romanistan. Their ideal world, made from the best of both worlds.
Paulina Stevens: And when I say the best of both worlds, I feel like my expectations are low. I don’t get to go to parties and I don’t get to go to funerals and weddings. It’s hard. I did have to leave the community. And I don’t say that I left my culture, but I do say that I left my community.
Faith E. Pinho: I didn’t know you made that distinction. I feel like I’ve heard you say a lot of times, “When I left the culture.”
Paulina Stevens: And I do say that because I feel like when I first left, I was like, “It’s the culture,” you know? And now I’m a little more educated, and time has passed, and I realized you can take the girl out of the Gypsies but you can’t take the Gypsy out of the girl.
Faith E. Pinho: Do you ever regret leaving?
Paulina Stevens: Huh. Do I ever regret? I think it’s not one of those questions that’s yes or no. It’s sometimes.
Faith E. Pinho: Sometimes.
Paulina Stevens: I don’t know. I think I do, sometimes, just because I miss everyone. I miss partying. I miss the atmosphere. I miss always having a community for support. And then I remember that that’s not an option, and I’m happy, and I have so much opportunity now that I’m gone.
And I’m super thankful for my life because there’s absolutely no way that my kids would have been able to excel in school. And I wouldn’t have been able to support them the way that I want to support them and do the things I want to do for them. So in reality, no, I don’t regret leaving. But sometimes I think about it.
Faith E. Pinho: Looking back on this story, on 3½ years of reporting, the best way I know how to describe the process is that it felt like watching a pendulum swing.
It’s natural, I think, to go from one extreme to the other. And over time, I’ve seen that pendulum continue to swing back and forth — just a little less every time.
Sometimes Paulina was laughing and smoking hookah with her family. Right now, they don’t want anything to do with her. Sometimes Paulina and Gina still chat and talk over each other like sisters. Sometimes they resent each other. Sometimes Paulina is glad her daughters get the childhood she never had. Sometimes she thinks she got a better education without being stuck at school all day. Sometimes she feels like fortunetelling is the only thing she knows how to do. Sometimes she feels it’s the only thing she wants to do.
Each swing brings her a little closer to the place that feels the most right to her. To a place where her choice and her destiny begin to overlap.
This was “Foretold.”
Theme music by seven-string guitarist and composer Vadim Kolpakov and composer Alex PGSV. Additional original music by Vadim Kolpakov and Alex PGSV, as well as Alex Higgins. Fact checking by Lauren Raab, Asal Ehsanipour and Faith E. Pinho. Additional research by Scott Wilson.
Thanks to Shani Hilton, Kevin Merida, Brandon Sides, Dylan Harris, Carrie Shemanski and Kayla Bell.