Wednesday 17 October 2018

Is 'Psychic Sally' a fraud -- or the victim of a witchhunt?

Following her Irish controversy, Judith Woods watches Morgan in action

Judith Woods

The most controversial woman in Britain is perkily clip-clipping across the stage quickly in high heels, M&S trousers and a midnight blue spangly top, urgently sharing her vision with the audience.

"Look!" she cries, pushing back her beautifully styled blonde mane. "I've changed my hairdo so you can see I haven't got earphones on; what I'm wearing is a head mic so you can hear me. I'm not preying on people, I'm not deceiving anyone," she says, with the hint of a tremor in her voice.

"I'm just being me, and although I might seem mental, I feel very privileged to have this gift even though I don't understand it. Mad as it sounds, it brings comfort. I'm proud to be a medium."

A cry goes up from the stalls, "We love you, Sally!", and Sally Morgan glows with affirmation. Morgan, a 59-year-old mother of three, was the psychic to Princess Diana (and yes, we've all heard the "shouldn't she have warned her to wear a seat belt?" quip).

George Michael, Uma Thurman and Katie Price have also consulted her. She is also the author of Life After Death, a DVD star -- of Psychic Sally on the Road and Psychic Sally's Big Fat Operation, documenting how she lost 14 stone after surgery -- runs a Tarot hotline and is a satellite television regular.

Her fans are legion and her shows a sell-out. But the colourful clairvoyant, who claims to see dead people, has just endured the 21st-century equivalent of a ducking stool in the village pond.

Hers was a thoroughly modern witch hunt by the media in which she was accused of charlatanism and cynical manipulation of the vulnerable and the bereaved.

An audience member sitting in the back row of Dublin's Grand Canal Theatre earlier this month claimed that she overheard a man relaying information to Morgan.

An internal window to an adjoining room had been left ajar and, inside, an employee was allegedly disclosing details of people's lives, which were then repeated by the clairvoyant moments later.

The woman went on to telephone RTÉ to complain. From every quarter, scorn poured on Morgan.

Unbowed and unapologetic, she has clearly survived her immersion in vitriol. But that outcome, as every Witchfinder General knows, is merely proof that she is guilty. But of what, exactly?

Tonight, in Dartford, she addresses the subject of her press mauling, telling the packed auditorium that it has been the most horrible week imaginable but that she will not be cowed by the negativity. "I don't hear anything through my ears. It's like trying to say I receive messages through the soles of my feet!" She puts her hands on her hips in a gesture of exasperation and a cheer goes up.

The audience tonight is overwhelmingly female: older, dressed to the nines and, at the risk of sounding politically incorrect, sporting a great many more tattoos than you would see at a theatre production of Uncle Vanya.

Morgan gesticulates, squeals and emotes: one moment she's gasping with throat cancer, the next, trilling away in the high-pitched voice of a little girl who turns out to be someone's stillborn twin daughter.

The woman who has stood up is weeping at the memory of the baby she lost. The spirit child is the same age as her surviving daughter. Morgan correctly names the mother and surviving twin.

There are no takers for Ian, who died in a plane crash, so Morgan moves on.

Her utterances do range from vague observations anyone could flag up -- a great number of the audience are older women, who will certainly have lost parents, and indeed husbands -- to the weirdly specific.

She asks one woman if she recently took off her wedding ring and threw it on to some grass, joking "Don't worry sweetheart, we've all done it!" The woman gasps and says that her husband did just that last Friday. Morgan asks if she'd like to know where it fell, because it landed near an upright stake in the garden. The woman nods and says that's where it was found.

So how is Morgan pulling this off? There are almost as many misses as hits, because, as she admits herself: "I used to try really hard to make things fit and please people, but I have enough confidence now just to tell it like it is."

By and large the audience remains tight-lipped, far from the guileless stooges one might imagine. It is rare for anyone to volunteer details that might help Morgan embellish her insights; instead they tend to agree or disagree monosyllabically.

Given the roar of noise in the foyer before the show, it's also difficult to imagine any "plants" mingling with the crowd to listen in on conversations. Passing on relevant snippets would be like Chinese whispers.

But, crucially, over by the merchandise desk, there are two large glass bowls and piles of little paper slips bearing the title "Sally's Love Letters". Audience members are encouraged to write a brief message or question, along with their name, in the hope that Sally might pick the card out from her Psychic Orb during the show.

It would be possible for someone to rifle through the bowls and collect information, albeit of the sketchiest sort: "Are you free from pain, Nana Jean?" or "Can you give me advice about Mick?". These cards would not be drawn, but the names could still be called out.

As the performance comes to a close, the applause isn't as wild as I would have expected and there are murmurs that Morgan isn't on top form. But the people she spoke to appear shocked and gratified in equal measure.

As for me, I found the performance ghoulishly entertaining, although I have no idea how she does it. My gut instinct is that you can no more go along and carp about a medium "misleading" people than you can about a magician's "deceitful legerdemain" or a congregation being "duped" by a priest in vestments.

As Freud once pointed out, just as no one can be forced into belief, so no one can be forced into unbelief. And, regardless of accusations of trickery, the fact remains that as long as there are believers, there will be psychics.

Irish Independent

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