Some Thoughts on John Edward, Crossing Over, and Talking to the Dead

I have become intrigued with John Edward. This is a strange thing for me to be saying. To see how strange it is, you should know that from about the age of twelve until I was in my late thirties, I was a confirmed atheist. Some might have called me a militant atheist. When I had to fill out a form that inquired about my religion (back in the days when they still included that question), I always wrote down ATHEIST in uncompromising, carefully printed letters. I remember reading an essay in a political magazine in which the writer started talking about heaven and hell, and I was floored. Did this guy really believe this stuff? How could an educated person writing for a national magazine entertain such a superstitious view?

In my late thirties, my outlook began to change, and I went from feeling scorn for religion to having a rather intellectualized respect for it. Some of the arguments that moved me are put forward in Patrick Glynn’s excellent book, God: The Evidence. But I was still pretty skeptical. I used to describe myself as being “just barely more than an agnostic” when it came to having any religious beliefs.

And now I am writing about John Edward, a “psychic medium” who claims to communicate with the dead. How in the world did this happen?

Well, for one thing, I spend part of each year in Arizona, and it was at the University of Arizona that Edward and some other mediums were tested by psychology professor Gary Schwartz. I read about these tests in Schwartz’s book The Afterlife Experiments and I found them intriguing. So one night I tuned in to Crossing Over on the Sci-Fi Channel – which, skeptics say, is exactly where it belongs.

Before we continue, let’s acknowledge a few caveats. Crossing Over is pretaped and heavily edited. Obviously the best readings are included, while the bad ones end up on the cutting room floor. Even the good readings are shortened, with at least some dead-end avenues of inquiry omitted. And in even the best readings, a great deal of what Edward says is sufficiently general or ambiguous to apply to many people. As skeptics point out, many audience members want desperately to believe that they are in communication with their loved ones, so they will accept any statement that even remotely fits their family circumstances. They will ignore or forget the "misses" and remember only the "hits." They will unconsciously supply details that the medium himself has not divulged.

New York Times writer Chris Ballard captured both the objections to Crossing Over and the reasons for its appeal in a piece that appeared in the Times’ July 29, 2001, edition. Here’s an excerpt.

Much of the information is fuzzy -- Edward may get only ''a J or a G'' sound for a name or see ''blackness in the chest,'' which may be lung cancer. But occasionally he says something startlingly specific, mentioning a peculiar family nickname like ''Miss Piggy'' or a long-forgotten keepsake. On this afternoon, such a moment occurs when Edward is relaying information to a young woman who has recently lost her father.

''Is there a joke between them with the celery or something?'' Edward asks her, looking puzzled.

She gasps, then laughs and corrects him. ''It's onions.''

''The chopping of it?''

''No, they have a nickname in Italy,'' she explains, smiling. ''It means like a running onion.''

''So if they show me the vegetable joke, you know what it means?''

She nods, grinning. Edward moves on. ''He's telling me to acknowledge the wedding, do you understand this?'' At this, the woman crumbles, breaking into tears and nodding in jerky time to the sobs.

It is an impressive display, like watching a gambler who keeps doubling down and keeps hitting, but it is also the best reading of the afternoon. Twice during the tapings, Edward spends upward of 20 minutes stuck on one person, shooting blanks but not accepting the negative responses -- Do not not honor him!'' he says at one point, staring down a bewildered man. On other readings, his statements have a throw-it-all-against-the-wall-and-see-what-sticks flavor, and he clearly struggles to get a rhythm going, hitting well below 50 percent for the day. Later, when the edited version of the taping is produced (all episodes are edited for entertainment purposes), it includes only the onion woman and the second-best reading of the show.

 So there is no way of evaluating Edward’s taped and edited performances by tallying hits and misses, because most of the misses have been cut out. This makes for better TV, of course, and it is doubtful if anyone would watch a show that included a high number of unsatisfying exchanges. Still, it makes things difficult for those of us who want to assess Edward’s ability objectively.

And yet, as the Times writer points out, there are those moments when “he says something startlingly specific, mentioning a peculiar family nickname like ‘Miss Piggy’ or a long-forgotten keepsake.” And to the extent that I can judge from the show, such moments are not quite as “occasional” as the Times would have us think. In the short time that I’ve watched Crossing Over, I’ve seen a large number of these impressive hits. What explains them?

The most common explanation offered by skeptics is that Edward is engaged in “cold reading” – a ruse in which a fake psychic plays off the reactions of his subject. A standard cold reading would go something like this:

Fake Psychic: Has your father passed?

Subject: Yes.

Fake Psychic: I see your father. Did he pass suddenly?

Subject: Not really.

Fake Psychic: Right, I’m seeing that it was drawn-out. Painful?

Subject: Yes.

Fake Psychic: He’s saying there was pain. But not at the end?

Subject: At the end, no.

Fake Psychic: He says it was peaceful at the end.

Here the fake psychic elicits responses from the subject and merely repeats what the subject has just said. Critical to this approach is the fake’s ability to quickly follow wherever the subject leads. Often the fake must rely on subtle cues unconsciously supplied by his subject – a nod, a shake of the head, a tightening of the shoulders – and instantly adjust course.

Now, one thing I’m sure of is that John Edward is not engaged in cold reading. To indicate why I say this, I’ll present some examples of Edward’s interactions with audience members.

Please be aware that while I’ve taken notes on the show, I have not made a transcript. Therefore all the exchanges that follow are paraphrases, not direct quotations, and are intended only to capture the flavor of the exchanges. And, as mentioned above, not every reading by Edward yields results that are this dramatic. I have selected some of the more noteworthy moments – the “startlingly specific” hits – from the shows I’ve watched.

With that in mind, see if the following exchanges can be explained by cold reading.

* * *

Edward: Did someone  here study with Bob Ross, the TV artist? ... I’m getting Bob Ross. I’m also seeing a picture of a tree, shrunken down. It was big, now it’s small.

Man: My mom took lessons from Bob Ross. One of her paintings was of a tree. It was too big for the album, so I had it reduced.

* * *

Edward: Someone in your family went to a farm and drank milk straight from the cow?

Man: That was me. When I was a kid.

* * *

Edward: When they marked her skin for the IV, she said it was the closest she’d ever get to having a tattoo?

Man: That’s what she said, exactly.

Edward: And you had to be sort of the “air traffic control” for her passing?

Man: The doc told us that I would be her air traffic controller. That’s the phrase he used.

* * *

Edward: Somebody dressed up as a tree?

Man: My dad dressed up as a Christmas tree.

* * *

Edward: They’re laughing, sort of teasing you about your leg, your knee.

Woman: I took a hayride, and I fell and twisted my knee a couple of months ago.

* * *

Edward: Was there a baby’s toy buried with him [an elderly man]?

Woman: A stuffed bunny. My daughter’s.

* * *

Edward: I’m getting the name Maynard.

Man: That’s my girlfriend’s last name. I don’t know how you got that. It’s an unusual name.

* * *

Edward isn’t eliciting information from the audience members in these instances. He’s presenting specific information that is verified only after he says it.

Sometimes the verification takes place much later.

* * *

Edward: Someone had a glass eye? Lost his sight when he was young?

Woman: I don’t know about that.

Edward: I’m seeing a glass eye. And maybe an eye patch.

Woman: I don’t know.

(Two weeks later, the woman reports having learned that her sister-in-law’s grandfather lost an eye when he was young and a wore a patch, then a glass eye.)

* * *

Edward: Something about buying sheets for the bed – not a bedspread, definitely sheets – but they didn’t fit.

Woman: I don’t know what that’s about.

Edward: It’s for your mom, I think. You should ask your mom about it.

(After the show, the woman calls her mother, who says that she bought a set of bed sheets for the deceased – one of her last gifts – but the sheets didn’t fit.)

* * *

In neither of these cases could Edward have used the subject’s reactions as cues, since the subjects didn’t know what he was talking about.

So maybe Edward is just a very good guesser? Take a look at a few more exchanges.

* * *

Edward: Was someone in your family a shepherd?

Woman: My dad used to joke about being a shepherd. He’d say that when he retired, he wanted to be a shepherd so he could say, “Get the flock outta here!”

* * *

Edward: I’m seeing a clam, a big clamshell, opening up.

Man: I work underwater. My friend [the deceased] used to say I went clamming. It’s not really clamming, but that’s what he called it.

* * *

Edward: Someone in the family would read coffee grinds – like, for predictions? Like reading tea leaves?

Woman: My grandmother did that.

Edward: With coffee grinds?

Woman: Yes.

* * *

Edward: Did someone bail someone else out of jail?

Man: My sister’s boyfriend. My dad had to bail him out. Oh, my God.

* * *

This goes beyond good guesswork. If you had been the subject, would references to a shepherd, a clamshell, reading coffee grounds, or bailing someone out of jail mean anything to you?

Skeptics say Edward knows that certain facts apply to many people and so can be safely assumed. This is called “warm reading.” For instance, most people who’ve lost a loved one have had a dream about that person, or wear or carry something belonging to or connected with the deceased, so guesses along these lines are likely to be scored as hits. But consider these exchanges.

* * *

Edward: He bought you jewelry – an anklet or something like that – on an island?

Woman: A bracelet. I’m wearing it now.

Edward: He bought it on an island?

Woman: Yes. The last trip we took together.

* * *

Edward: I see a tattoo of a cross, bleeding.

Woman: I have a tattoo like that [under her clothes; not visible].

Edward: Bleeding? Blood on it?

Woman: No.

Edward: I’m seeing blood.

Woman: I got it in memory of him.

Edward: There are three things around the cross?

Woman: Three angels, yes.

Edward: The tattoo – it matches? Like there are two, and they match?

Woman; My daughter and I got matching tattoos.

* * *

These are very specific facts – an item of jewelry purchased not just anywhere, but on an island; a pair of matching tattoos in memory of the departed.

Skeptics also say that there are only a half dozen ways that most people die – heart failure, cancer, auto accident, etc. – so Edward can quickly guess the cause of death.

As in these instances?

* * *

Edward: Someone was thrown off a horse? Thrown off a pony or a horse?

Man: My nephew died being thrown from a horse.

* * *

Edward: Two people passed with a sudden impact. Might have been shot ...

Woman: I had two friends in high school who were shot.

Edward: And you moved, around then?

Woman: No.

Edward: You didn’t? Because I’m seeing a Mayflower moving van.

Woman: They were shot on Mayflower Avenue.

* * *

How many people do you know who died from being thrown off a horse? Or who were shot to death, as a couple, on Mayflower Avenue?

To explain hits like these, skeptics say that Edward relies on a technique of yet another temperature – “hot reading.” This means using investigators to dig up info on audience members in advance, or eavesdropping on them while they stand in line or while they wait between breaks in the taping. Presumably hot reading explains the following exchanges:

* * *

Edward: There was a bird outside, and someone thought it would be a good idea to bring it inside and give it a bath? But it turned out not to be a good idea?

Woman: We had some baby ducks in the yard. We brought them in and put them in the bathtub. But they got too big. They bit my husband [the deceased].

* * *

Edward: You were playing around a hutch, there were German collectibles in it, and you knocked over a statue or a dish … It broke, but you glued it back together. Your mom found out, but you didn’t admit you’d done it.

Woman: It was a cup – we tried gluing it, but she saw it was broken. We never said a word, but she knew we’d done it.

* * *

Edward: Someone in the family worked with ice – like, packing up ice?

Woman: Our grandfather worked in an icehouse.

Edward: There was an attack on a woman – a violent attack.

Woman: He was accused of that.

Edward: A body on ice … Like, a murder, and the body was left on ice …

Woman (uneasy): There may have been.

* * *

Edward: There’s a connection with a dolphin. Swimming with dolphins?

Woman: We took a trip last year where we went swimming with dolphins.

Edward: There’s a bug. A bug in the bathroom.

Woman: There was a big bee in our house once –

Edward: That’s not it. This is a bug, a big bug in a bathtub, and someone pulls back the shower curtain and – eek!

Woman: I don’t know …

Edward: On your trip?

Woman and Daughter: Oh, the bug!

* * *

In the last example, notice that the two audience members did not even recall the bug episode until Edward linked it to the trip he’d already brought up. Notice also that Edward rejected the plausible suggestion of the “big bee in the house” and insisted on the bug in the bathroom. A cold reader wouldn’t do this. He follows his subject’s lead.

As for hot reading, what private investigator could dig up the bug story? And if the two women had been chatting about the bug incident while waiting on line or in the studio, how did they manage to forget it completely until they were reminded of it in detail?

Maybe, just maybe, a topnotch investigator could have learned about the mysterious icehouse incident. But no investigator could know about the baby ducks from years earlier, or the broken cup from fifty or sixty years ago. And it seems unlikely in the extreme that audience members would be talking about these obscure details before the show.

Sometimes issues are raised that the subjects clearly did not discuss among themselves.

* * *

Edward: I don’t know how to say this, but did you and your husband do something involving … handcuffs?

Woman (very embarrassed): Yes.

* * *

Edward: There was a neighbor’s dog … I don’t want to use the word torture, but you … abused this dog.

Man (shamefaced): Yes.

* * *

These people weren’t gabbing about handcuff games and animal abuse in a roomful of strangers.

Skeptics, perhaps in some desperation, suggest that all kinds of information are available on the Internet these days. Maybe that’s where Edward gets his inside knowledge.

But where on the Internet would Edward find the story of a boy drinking milk straight from the cow? The “air traffic control” comment? The stuffed bunny? The family joke, “Get the flock outta here”?

Yes, some people have “blog” sites where they record every detail of their lives. Most people don’t. The grandmothers who are frequent studio guests on Crossing Overdon’t look like bloggers to me.

Having done some research on Internet snooping for my books The Shadow Hunter and Last Breath, I know that addresses, phone numbers, real estate holdings, and records of legal disputes and tax liens are readily available on the Web. Unscrupulous searchers can track down social security numbers and probably some (not all) medical records.

But a sister-in-law’s grandfather’s glass eye? A nephew thrown from a horse? A father who dressed up as a Christmas tree? A woman who took painting lessons from TV artist Bob Ross?

With all respect to the debunkers, I am too much of a skeptic myself to believe in the omniscience of private investigators or Web surfers who can unearth information of that kind.

The last line of defense for the skeptics is that the entire show is a fraud. The audience members – at least those who participate in readings – are shills, ringers. They are actors following a script. This would be believable if Edward were traveling from one small town to another, using the same shills over and over. On TV, he could not risk using the same actors more than once, so he would have to hire at least five or six actors per show. How many shows has he done? Fifty? One hundred? How many actors is that? Two-hundred-fifty? Five hundred? Can even one hundred people keep a secret this big?

Not likely. Nor is it likely that Edward’s various radio and TV appearances over the years, in which he’s done readings for callers on studio phone lines, were all faked. This would require a massive conspiracy involving hundreds, if not thousands, of actors, technicians, and radio and TV hosts. It would make the game show scandals of the 1950s look like child’s play.

But why won’t these mediums submit to scientific testing? ask some skeptics. Edward has. Remember those tests at the University of Arizona, with results detailed in Gary Schwartz’s book The Afterlife Experiments and online here? Oh, but Schwartz is flaky, say the skeptics. Well, flaky or not, he appears to have run some well-designed experiments on Edward and other mediums, with persuasive results.

Now, it’s always possible that tomorrow an expose' will reveal Edward as a fraud who uses some brand of brilliant legerdemain to fool millions of viewers. In the absence of said expose', however, the burden of proof is on the skeptics to explain the exchanges listed above – and many others you can observe for yourself onCrossing Over.

Though it astonishes me to say it, I have come to think this guy is for real. I think something genuinely spooky is happening. I cannot see any plausible prosaic explanation for the apparent faculty that John Edward possesses.

If I’m wrong, I’ll be happy to be shown where I’ve gone astray. In the meantime, I have to side with Hamlet against the debunkers – and against my former, skeptical self:

There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,

Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.

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