A few days ago, I went to see a performance by “channeler” Roland Comtois, when he appeared locally before a group of about forty parents who’ve lost children. I like to “suss” things out, as my son’s former nanny, a lovely woman from Derry, Northern Ireland, used to say.

I’ll admit up front that I’m very interested in this sort of thing, but highly skeptical.  My novels, including the two I wrote before I lost Michael, employ supernatural elements.  My heightened ambivalence in this case stemmed from factors over and above my usual skepticism about all things supernatural, spiritual and/or religious.  First, I’ve done quite a bit of research on psychic phenemona, originally in 1988 for my novel, A Reasonable Madness, and more recently and specifically for American Psychic, the novel on which I most recently worked, which took its title from one of its characters, a television psychic and channeler.

As a result of my research, I am well acquainted with the methods people like Comtois and John Edwards use.  One such trick from the many in their remarkably similar bags: They fill the air with a lot of general talk with a few specifics thrown in, then carefully watch the audience for positive reactions to the specifics, and zoom in on the reactors who have freely offered directional cues.

This strategy is very effective with people who want to believe and don’t realize or care that they’re providing cues, and no doubt would be particularly effective with a group of people so hurt and full of need to “see” their children again. Which brings me to my second ambivalence.  On the one hand, as someone who lost a child myself, I certainly can’t object to anything that brings relief to such pain.  On the other hand, if channelers like Comtois are consciously using tricks such as the one I describe above, I simply can’t justify exploitation for money.

Comtois impressed me somewhat by announcing that he wouldn’t keep the $25 per person everyone had paid to see him, but rather return it to be put back into the sponsoring organization’s fund. (This is a modest fee anyway; some of these people change hundreds of dollars.)  On the other hand, I’m sure he charges for most other performances, since this is apparently how he makes his living (along with writing books).  He may have been to some degree humbled by the level of loss in the room.

As for his performance, it looked–at least to me, although certainly not to the other parents in the room–like standard issue generalizations made somewhat more specific using audience cues, as described above, and I found his filler, a steady stream of reassurance to parents that their deceased children were “settled,” and/or “happy” — basically telling people what they want to hear.  The session was enlivened by Comtois’s odd mannerisms and by constant references to his mother, whom he admitted several times thinks he’s “crazy.”  Hmmm.  Which is worse: crazy or charlatan?

To all this, Comtois added what is apparently his signature technique.  Prior to the performance, he writes “messages” in magic marker on lilac paper printed with the words “Channeled Message for the Soul” along with his name, number and website. The messages, which include crudely drawn pictures, are dated anywhere from several years ago to as recently as the day of the performance.

For this part of the performance he does the same thing described above, finds someone in the group who reacts to his carefully chosen generalizations, zooms in, makes some educated guesses using cues provided, and then says something like, “Yes, I have a message for you.”  At which point one of his two assistants “finds” the message he’s already written from within the pile.  The pile is thick, and judging from the papers he waved around before handing them to the parents for whom they were “intended,” were mostly general scenarios one would expect to fit the horrific, emotional stories of any group of parents who’ve lost children, like a pool or an ambulance.  Ugh.

On the other hand, as far as I could tell, he did convince most of the folks in the room, and judging from the reactions, comforted, reassured and impressed nearly all of them, even if I thought most of his comments were laughably general.

On the other hand, I’ve done write-to-heal sessions with some of this same group and knew quite a few of the loss stories of the parents in the room, and there were a few specifics that did impress me, like the woman to whom he said something about seeing her son polishing cars (her son restored old cars), and a few other “manner of death” stories I don’t feel comfortable naming here.

So what do I make of a performance that I thought was chock full of generalities with a few impressive hits, a performance that, as one parent told me, “blew him away because it was so spot on?” I think I’d have to say what I would have said before I saw Mr. Comtois. It’s certainly possibly some people can “channel” psychic energy, or even messages from the dead; I’ve had moments of what I’d call “transcendence” myself, although these are not moments I’d ever try to convince anyone else about.

But NO ONE can do this reliably and consistently enough to fill two hours, over and over, and so performing channelers must count on being able to exploit audience gullibility and psychological desperation using fillers, tricks, and bait-and-switch techniques to supplement the occasional “real message,” random hit, educated or audience-assisted guess.

So do I think Mr. Comtois is crazy, as his mother apparently does, or do I think he’s a charlatan?  He may not be a charlatan. People can convince themselves of all kinds of things.  I’ve seen this in my psychotherapy practice and everywhere in life.  As a psychotherapist, I’d resist calling him crazy, although generally speaking we diagnose people who hear and see things we don’t (ie with auditory and visual hallucinations) as schizophrenic.  Then again, I don’t know him like his mother does.

On the other hand, here’s what happened when he finally came to me.  I tried to hide my skepticism, but apparently he picked up on it and avoided me.  Sensitivity in this regard is certainly not surprising, and is probably a requirement for the job.

He didn’t come to me until the end, when he was forced to, as he was going around the room, receiving photos of people’s children, making comments, and calling for last questions. I said I didn’t have any questions, and he said, “Are you sure?” or something like that.  I said that I too had lost a child, but that I didn’t have any questions.  He asked if I had a photo.  I said I didn’t. He asked what my child’s name was.  “Michael,” I said.  “How did he die?”he asked.  “A seizure,” I said. “How old was he?” Roland Comtois asked.  I said, “Three and a half.”  He said, “Talk to me at the end, I have a message for you.”

When I approached him after the performance, he asked me if I was a believer, and I admitted I was a skeptic.  He leafed through his pile of lilac papers, picked one, folded it and handed it to me, saying “This is a message from your son. Don’t open it now, open it later.”  (Likely he didn’t want me, a skeptic, to renounce or deny his message in front of the believers.)

The purple paper said, “I SENT YOU ALL THE BUTTERFLIES.”

Fifteen years ago, after our son died, we released butterflies during a service for him.  I wore a butterfly pin for years, as a tribute to Michael. Butterflies are, of course, a commonly used symbol of death and rebirth that might have meaning for anyone suffering from loss.  On the other hand, one day early in the spring of 2008, and then again in 2009, HUNDREDS and HUNDREDS of monarch butterflies landed all at once on a tree in front of our house. I came out to watch them every day, to marvel at my tree so beautiful in full orange and black bloom. And then one day a few weeks later, the monarch’s left to continue their annual migration south.

Do I find Comtois’s butterfly message amazing?  Not amazing.  Interesting, I’d say.

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Fran Dorf

Fran Dorf, MA, MSW, is a poet, essayist, and author of three acclaimed novels, including Saving Elijah (Putnam), which was inspired by the 1994 death of Fran's son, Michael. Fran blogs on life, grief, culture, arts, etc. at www.bruisedmuse.com and is currently working on a memoir of survival stories. Fran is also a psychotherapist and conducts “write to heal” workshops to help people cope with grief, loss, illness, and trauma. In 1999, Fran and her husband, Bob, started Jumpstart, an educational program for toddlers with special needs in their small city. Fran appeared on the radio show “Healing the Grieving Heart” with Dr. Gloria & Dr. Heidi Horsley to discuss “Writing to Heal.” To hear Fran being interviewed on this show, click on the following link: www.voiceamericapd.com/health/010157/horsley082808.mp3

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