I See a Small Digit, 1 to 10 . . . a Thumb!

By David Segal
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 4, 2007

NEW YORK, June 3 -- The ordinary observer might assume that the thoughts of Rainen Solomon, a burbling 17-month-old in powder-blue shorts, hew to basics, like "hungry" and " very hungry." Derek Ogilvie, a.k.a. the Baby Mind Reader, is picking up more complicated signals.

"He's telling me he had a problem with his tummy around 2 1/2 months ago," Ogilvie says, jotting down notes on a pad and staring at the boy.

Ogilvie is sitting on the floor of an apartment on the Upper West Side, where he has come to demonstrate what he modestly calls his gift: the ability to commune telepathically with young folk, specifically those from 1 to 3 years old.

A native of Scotland, Ogilvie is a minor phenomenon in England, where he was the star last year of a four-part TV series called "The Baby Mind Reader," and where he performs as a medium in theaters around the country. He is scheduled to make his debut in the United States this morning on the "Today" show.

On Saturday he agreed to attempt a psychic connection in the homes of two families he'd never met. First up: Rainen, whose mother, Jenny, is sitting on a sofa, eagerly awaiting the first-ever bulletin from inside her son's noggin. The problem is that little of the information that Ogilvie is conveying makes sense to her.

"I don't remember anything with his tummy," she says, genuinely mystified.

"Do you not remember him touching his tummy here?" Ogilvie says, tapping his own stomach. He is a slight man, with thinning, blondish hair, and speaks with a heavy Scottish accent, turning "toe" into "too." "It was around the time he was having trouble lacing up his shoes."

Jenny thinks about that one for a moment. "He doesn't have any shoes with laces," she shrugs.

"Let me give you more information," Ogilvie replies, the first hint of exasperation creeping into his voice.

It's a tricky business, this baby whispering. As Ogilvie explains, he gets images from inside the minds of kiddies, and he can't control the images he's sent. He says he has helped dozens of parents understand what is troubling their little ones -- solving sleep issues, eating problems, you name it. But some tots are more "open" than others, and Rainen seems shut down. Or maybe he's a prankster. "Mmmm gllaaaaaaaa," he says, popping a plastic bottle in and out of his mouth.

"For some reason, he's showing me the stove, the left side of the stove, and the left burner on the stove," Ogilvie continues. "Is there something wrong with that part of the stove?"

"There's nothing wrong with the stove," Jenny says. "Maybe it's my mother-in-law's stove. She lives next door."

"Can we call her?" Ogilvie asks.

"She'll be here any minute," Jenny says.

Arlene Solomon arrives, a formidable woman who looks understandably surprised to find herself grilled by a stranger who says he is conversing with her pre-verbal grandson.

"I'm a little overwhelmed," she says, taking a seat. "Who are you?"

When Ogilvie is finished with the backstory, he asks about the stove next door. Rainen keeps "showing" it to him. Is there something wrong with the burners?

"Nothing wrong with the burners," she says.

"Was the door not closing properly?" Ogilvie presses on.

The door is fine, says Arlene, trying to be helpful. But she can't imagine how Rainen would have any idea what her oven looks like -- because he's never seen it.

"Kitchens and bathrooms are dangerous places, and I habitually close the bathroom door and I have a barrier to keep Rainen out of the kitchen," she says. Ogilvie starts to look a little deflated. Apparently he's never encountered the most safety-conscious of all God's creatures, the Jewish grandmother.

The phone rings, a neighbor stops by and Rainen hurts his finger on a door, precipitating a solid minute of loud crying. Ogilvie sits on the sofa, silent and pensive.

"I don't like waving the white flag," he murmurs after a minute.

"I'm so sorry," says Jenny.

She's disappointed, it turns out, because Rainen is lagging a bit, and has been attending physical therapy and speech therapy five days a week. She was hoping Ogilvie could offer some insight into what, if anything, is impeding the lad.

This takes Ogilvie by surprise, which is a little surprising in itself: One of his more startling assertions is that all babies are psychic and that when he reads their minds, he is reading what they have picked up from the minds of their parents. This often includes memories of events that occurred before birth, because, as Ogilvie tells it, memory is one of the many nutrients that babies absorb in the womb.

Let's just leave aside the medical dimension of this and assume for a moment that Ogilvie is right. You'd figure that if Jenny is wondering about Rainen's development, and the tyke were reading his mom's mind, he would pick up that anxiety and relay it to Ogilvie. Instead, Ogilvie offers minutiae about stoves, shoes and carpets.

"I'm at the mercy of the child," says Ogilvie, sounding resigned. "What's relevant to them might not be relevant to you."

Ogilvie's experience suggests that babies have a rather rich mental life, a notion expanded upon in "The Baby Mind Reader," an autobiography published in England last year. The book includes not just accounts of his finest psychic moments, but his life story: the melancholic youth in Glasgow, the son of a British Airways engineer; his decision to come out in 1994 as a gay man; his boom years as an entrepreneur, investing in bars and earning a fortune, which he then lost on a nightclub that failed. In 2001, he was living on welfare and was visited by his deceased grandmother, who told him to use the psychic powers he'd had since he was 8 years old.

He landed a radio show on a small station in Scotland, working as a medium for people who call in and want to communicate with the dead. The baby specialty came later and immediately proved a superb niche. Parents who have tried everything are often willing to try him. His services are free, he says, but they build his reputation for theater shows for adults, where he charges about $30 a ticket. "I don't work with babies in those theater shows," he says. "That would be crazy."

Not that working with babies in their homes seems sane. That's glaringly clear during visit number two, with Lily Reingold, an 18-month-old just roused from a nap. She rubs her face and smiles. Her mother, Anne, sits on the bed. Ogilvie sits next to Anne. "She's telling me she's got a little bit of a throat infection," he says.

"Not that I know of," Anne says.

"Did you have a little scare about her when you were seven months pregnant?"

No. Nor did Anne have a problem with her right breast, or fall off a rope swing, or have a relative on her dad's side with a missing digit, or go back to school at the age of 27, or hurt a knuckle -- all information that Ogilvie says he learned from Lily.

"Lily!" Anne mock-scolds at one point, "are you making this stuff up?"

The low point comes when Ogilvie declares that Anne's husband, Randy, drives a white car and calls Randy to verify that fact. Randy has never driven a white car. Randy has never had a driver's license. Randy has never driven.

Ogilvie fishes long enough to land a couple of modest nibbles -- yes, a long-discarded sofa did have a faulty arm -- and when he does, he says "Wow," as though he has amazed himself with his own clairvoyance. What's far more amazing, though, is that he refuses to offer any faux-comfort to mothers. He seems unaware that comfort is what they're looking for.

"I was hoping you'd tell me why she doesn't walk yet," Anne says. Ogilvie falls back on his blame-the-baby defense and declares victory.

But even as he puts this performance in the win column, the bummed-out Ogilvie says this wasn't a typical day. Eighty percent of his readings are successful, he says, and when he establishes a solid link with a youngster the results can blow people's minds. His TV appearances, he says, have left moms spluttering in awe.

Anne, however, is not one of those moms.

"Did I freak you out?" he asks Anne as he leaves.

"Not really," she says, chuckling. "Do you want me to be freaked out?"

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