The seven Washington professionals sat in the elegant Northwest living room, raptly watching the woman in the high-back chair.
"Your mind can get the things you need and want," the woman said, "if you let your mind work for you. We are so afraid we might see something we don't like, so we are afraid to stretch our minds."
The silence was one of a resigned congregation settling in for the sermon. Then the speaker, long black hair framing her expressive face, asked: "Sometimes you are thinking of someone and you get a letter or a phone call from them? Well, you have used your mind." She clicked with her seven listeners. The silence broke into smiles of agreement. "Learn how to use your mind. Let's change our attitude," continued the speaker. "This is not voodoo, witchcraft or superstition. We are learning to use our minds."
That's the way a recent "Mental Magic party" started, a gathering where professional Washingtonians met professional psychic. Lillian Cosby, one of the country's better-known psychics, was explaining what a psychic does, urging members of her audience to think for themselves and to listen to her, answering questions and making predictions about money, jobs and love.
Though the psychic has been a practical, mystical and sometimes bogus part of many societies, the changes of the early 1980s have given psychic consultations a new respectability. Generally looking for an operable view of life, people appear to be anxious enough about their status to consult in groups. Alex Haley, author of "Roots," speaks of his openness toward a reading in terms of a tradition. "My spirit was, 'What have I got to lose?' " said Haley, adding that he was primed by "a heavy childhood tradition of fortunetellers and conja ladies."
After a half-hour of conversation, Lillian Cosby began to flip through index cards with the names, addresses and birth dates of all the participants, staring at the cards for almost a minute. Then she spoke very slowly. Some guests were holding their breath, visibly edgy.
A woman who had consulted Cosby before asked the psychic to describe one characteristic of a friend who had hurt her. Cosby said, "Someone who has a problem in the chest area. Do you understand?" The woman said yes and then asked in a whisper, "Can I help them?" Cosby shook her head no.
She looked closely at one card, asking, "Is this a Mrs. -------?" A woman shook her head no. "Then you will be, soon," predicted Cosby. The woman laughed. "Is there a legacy coming to you?" The woman said no. "Well, something is; it's not much to write home about." The woman looked puzzled. One guest, who had met Cosby before, said, "I have found her to be incredibly accurate. One time she asked me, 'Do you know anyone in Florida? You will take a trip soon.' Two weeks later I won a trip."
In the 1970s, many people turned to self-improvement and spiritual movements after the social change movements of the 1960s withered. Now, in the 1980s, the renewed interest in psychic phenomena seems to be a relief from the high-pressure life styles and economic worries.
Where people have gathered to swap clothes, sweat out immobile calories and select Tupperware, some now select a psychic. Cosby has traveled from her base in Philadelphia for 20 Mental Magic parties in Washington in the last year, and the participants have been black and white, male and female, ranging from corporate lawyer to administrative secretary. The Mental Magic parties, says Cosby, are a "lighthearted way to introduce people who might be squeamish or afraid."
June Gatlin, another nationally known psychic with addresses in New York and Los Angeles, has had salons in New York and in the living rooms of Prince George's County and Northwest Washington. In addition, Washington is having a boom in study groups for meditation, dream interpretation, healing, mind control and the Bible. "The city is alive with interest in consciousness and self-discovery techniques," says Ann Kahalas of the Siddha Meditation Center of Washington.
Both Cosby and Gatlin are black women and among many blacks interest in spiritual phenomena seems to be increasing. Cosby recently did two sessions in her home town of Philadelphia for the members of Delta Sigma Theta, a black service sorority. A Howard University administrator had 20 persons at his home to meet a psychic from Liberia. The participants, most of whom feel public discussion of their interest would jeopardize their jobs, consult psychics for advice on social pressures, the economic crisis and job opportunities.
"I just think it is fascinating to see how accurate a psychic can be in a public place just by knowing a person's name," said Gayle Perkins, editorial director of WRC-TV, who has attended a Mental Magic party. "Lillian Cosby said I had an interest in law. In the back of my mind I have always wanted to go to law school. Now how would she have known that just by looking at me?"
Rosetta Carrington, an instructor of nursing at the University of the District of Columbia, the hostess for the Cosby party and a recent gathering for a black healer, feels the attraction is the need for positive reinforcement. "People want something to hold onto. You can find it in yourself but it's especially good hearing someone else say it."
For many blacks, psychic science is part of ethnic lore and reality. The advertising shingle of the palm reader or spiritual adviser is as familiar a motif of the black community as the storefront church. In literature by black American writers the references abound: Zora Neal Hurston and Ishmael Reed rely on the root man and his herbal potions for texture; "The Salt Eaters," Toni Cade Bambara's last novel, was centered around a healing. Many blacks can delve into a personal or collective memory bank and talk about someone "born with a veil," or being "gifted."
But the existence of a culture that places credence in ancestor worship and mystic religions does not immunize black psychic followers or practitioners against skepticism. Some feel the term "Mental Magic" is putting a serious matter into a frivolous context; others that this group energy should be put to a better effort.
June Gatlin, a minuscule bolt of determination and action, rejects the banner of Mental Magic parties. "I don't get into commercial things. You can't deal with energies on a group level," says Gatlin. "I don't want to be involved in a novelty."
Instead, she is often invited to salons where she sings the gospel songs that once were her paycheck. She started out as an entertainer, but in 1971 Gatlin retired from the partying and auditioning. But she didn't leave entirely. She says she became a psychic to black celebrities including the White family of the musical group Earth, Wind & Fire; actress Michele Shay and her husband, Ed Lewis, publisher of Essence; Kenny Gamble, the chief of Philadelphia International records, and film director Michael Schultz. Shay was told by Gatlin to "get my passport in order." "I knew I was going to be in Bermuda, so I didn't give it much thought. But by January I was in the Far East, which wasn't planned.[Talking to her has made me]bolder in my career. She gives me confidence," says Shay.
Marianne Spraggins, a New York investment banker, invited Gatlin to sing at a brunch attended by writers, lawyers, art dealers and diplomats. "Her second set became group participation, and she made them sing. It was like a revival," said Spraggins, who admired Gatlin because of her accuracy in pinpointing details of Spraggins' past. "Then she saw two people and joined their hands; she didn't know them. Now they are getting married."
Love & Washing Machines
Everyone is born with some sort of feeling, but few know how to reach it, says Hazel Cassell, an emphatic woman who has a regular hour on Washington radio station WPFW every Monday afternoon and writes a weekly column for a local black newspaper, The New Observer. A licensed spiritualist, Cassell, 39, is a former teacher who is also an ordained minister in the Universal Church of Psychic Science and has headed her own church and residential care home in Arlington for nearly 10 years.
She has her own classes but hasn't yet gotten into salons or Mental Magic parties. Her many clients, who occasionally bring pictures of their family or a lock of hair or garments, come to her comfortable house in the suburbs. Her main financial support comes from her residential home and she charges her clients $20 per half-hour. One client, who first called Cassell at a radio station and found her to be accurate, went in person to find out why her son was having nightmares. "He had jumped out of the window and broke his arm. She told me to burn a blue light in his room, and to look for a silver dollar with real silver. She told me what to do with it and he hasn't had a nightmare since," explains the woman.
Though Cassell notes that her clients over the last decade generally have altered their requests from spells to investments, people still want to know about love. Cassell looks fairly annoyed: "Am I getting married, is he faithful to me, how long will my potency last, do you see me getting a better job?"
But she has had more challenging moments, a request for a resurrection, an exorcism of snakes from a person, and purification of homes, cars and washing machines. The washing machines bring a faint smile. "I have had two cases with washing machines, both were unplugged but they kept on going. One was an automatic, one a ringer. Even when they put them on the porch they kept on going."
Fame & Fortune
The originator of the phrase "Mental Magic party," Cosby advises both the famous and the unknown. Her clientele has reportedly included the late John Lennon and such entertainers as Dick Gregory and Sammy and Altovese Davis. Her clients have sent for her from as far away as Japan and her appearances on Phil Donahue's and Tony Brown's syndicated shows ushered her into thousands of living rooms.
For the Mental Magic parties, Cosby collects $20 from each participant; half the fee of her private half-hour reading. When she is predicting, both privately and publicly, she tends to be very general. Six months before Jack Benny died, she predicted the death of "a very famous comedian." But then she was more specific about Richard Nixon. Months before the Democratic National Committee offices were burglarized in 1972 she described her dream about Nixon in a hall of mirrors, without any doors or windows, from which she said he couldn't escape.
Among the disappointments of the Mental Magic party, said several of her guests, were that her predictions had been too general -- "you will need a lawyer in 1982" -- and that there weren't enough sparks. When the hour of conversation was over, the guests were either satisfied or confused, but apparently no one felt used.
Some psychics claim to get answers from the outerworld and underworld, and some psychics claim to give practical A-B-C answers to problems. At her party here, Cosby chatted with her guests about a psychic's credibility gap by describing her personal faults and adding, "I am glad I have them because I know I'm human and some people don't think I am."
One woman recalled the excitement of a previous session when Cosby had guessed the career pattern of a woman. "She told one woman that she saw two uniforms, one black and one white. She asked the woman if she was a nurse. The woman said no. Then she asked her if she worked around doctors. The woman kept saying no. Finally the woman admitted she was 52 years old and was entering medical school and she was embarrassed to tell people.
"Then Cosby told me I would have to find a place for my uncle. I said I had already. She said, 'You will have to find another in 30 days,' " the woman said. "It was true."
Cosby herself was disappointed at the lack of electricity at that particular Mental Magic party but encouraged by the psychic energy in Washington.
"Here people have more ability to use their minds, they are more in step with their spirits."