Elissa Nelson

Today I talk to Denise, who tells me she has been trying to leave her boyfriend for a year now. They fight a lot, she says. He doesn’t like her to go out with her friends—he goes out and expects her to stay home. He’s really jealous. And he’s violent.

“Does he hit you?” I ask.

“Yeah,” she says. “Sometimes. He hits me.”

“Well, Denise, the cards are showing me that you’re clearly a very strong woman. It looks like you know what you want for yourself, and you have a plan for how to get it. Would you say that’s true?”

“Yeah,” she says. “I’m going back to school, I want to be a teacher.”

“That’s great. I can tell from the cards that you’re just too good for him, Denise. It looks like you have a lot of things figured out, but he’s lacking self-confidence and direction, so he’s really threatened by you and what you’re doing with your life. That’s why he’s trying to keep you down.” Sometimes this job is all about the pop psychology.

“It is very clear to me that his hitting you has nothing to do with what you’re doing, no matter what he’s telling you. It’s about his own problems, and his need to feel powerful. You don’t have to stick around for that.” I am sure Denise will leave her boyfriend, no matter what I tell her. Like many callers, Denise knew what she was going to do before she ever called me; she just wants me to confirm that what her decision is right.

Denise doesn’t say anything, but I can hear her there, on the other end of the line. I say, “I can see in the cards, it’s going to be hard to do this. You’re going to have to be really strong and brave, and you’ll need to use all the resources you have available: your friends, your family. And there are special resources for women leaving violent relationships.”

“What resources?” she asks. She’s in rural Louisiana—she’s never heard about any resources. The psychic line advertises on late-night television, but I guess the free hotlines don’t. Mia has put a list of hotline numbers by each call station, so I am able to give Denise the number for a national domestic-violence hotline.

Denise’s last question is the worst one. “If I leave him, am I going to get hurt?”

I hesitate. “You mean like physically hurt, is he going to hurt you?”


I say carefully, honestly, “Well, I have to say, I don’t see that here in the cards for you. I can see that this is going to be hard, but it looks like things might get a lot better for you once you’ve left him. I definitely think you need to do everything you can to protect yourself, to take care of yourself—make a plan for how you’ll leave him, where you’ll stay and that sort of thing.” We talk about that a little bit—where she can go, who she trusts. I tell her that I am not an expert on this sort of thing, but the people at the domestic violence hotline are. I just hope she calls them.

Every time I leave the call center, I wonder if I will ever go back. Working as a phone psychic has given me a unique insight into people’s private lives, and I have been intrigued and moved by many who have called me. As a writer, I am fascinated by their stories, and by the strange relationship between phone psychic and caller. But it is sad work, and of course, as a friend said, “Once I did the math and realized these people were paying $300 an hour to talk to me, I just couldn’t go back.”

I keep thinking about an article I read in the Portland paper several weeks ago, about a man in Eugene, Ore., who has started a free listening business. He donates his time and simply listens to anyone who comes to him wanting to talk. I know firsthand the need for listeners; in addition to my work on the psychic line, I volunteer on a renters’ rights hotline. The hotline is so short on volunteers and funding that they have had to cut back on publicizing their services, because they get more calls than they can handle. When I volunteer there, I never have the time to listen to my callers and hear their whole stories; I simply answer their questions, give them the appropriate referrals, and get off the phone as fast as I can, so I can help someone else. But I often talk to lonely people who try to keep me on the line as long as they can. I know that I might be the only person who’s called them all day, the only one who asks for any details about their lives.

Other friends volunteer on different hotlines—for rape survivors, for gay and lesbian youth—and many of the hotlines have “chronic callers,” people who call so often that the hotline staff has been forced to set a time limit; the caller might be allowed just one 10-minute call per night, so that the lines can be kept open for others in crisis. But when their 10 minutes are up, what else is there for these chronic callers? My friend Megan described the psychic-hotline industry as the “privatization of friendship,” and for many callers, the term is sadly accurate: Imagine that the telephone psychic is the only person in your life who never has to get off the phone, the only person who never cuts you off because she is too busy to listen to your problems. In fact, instead of cutting you off, she encourages you to keep talking by asking you questions about yourself—all the questions that no one else bothers to ask.