Psychics like Jeanette Wilson are moving into the wellness industry and it’s posing a risk to everyone’s health. Noel O’Hare investigates.
It all proved great publicity for the New Zealand psychic’s national tour, and I went along to a Wellington show in the hopes of witnessing a genuine demonstration of spirit mediumship. Wilson promised the audience her spirit guides would “provide information that I could not possibly know and which is unique to the individual”. But as I wrote later in the NZ Listener, there was nothing the spirits passed on that would stand any scrutiny. Like all psychics, Wilson was short on specifics. It was cold reading, pure and simple, a mix of high-probability guessing and linguistic tricks.
In the 15 years since, I hadn’t given psychics much thought. Then I received an email from a reader alarmed by Wilson’s current practices. She’d attended a show in Dunedin recently at which Wilson claimed the “psychic surgeons” she summoned were healing people. The session was also used to promote a very expensive healing powder.
The email prompted me to take another look at the world of psychics. What had changed since 2004? Everything, it turned out. In the era of social media, alternative facts and fake news, psychics were thriving as never before. Psychics could reach out to prospects across the globe, broadcast themselves on YouTube, offer personal consultations via Skype and deploy e-commerce to sell their crystals and magic trinkets.
In the new era, too, they were becoming uncannily accurate in their readings. California sceptic Susan Gerbic thought she knew why. She organised a series of stings to expose those she calls the “grief vampires”. In 2015, she began creating fake Facebook pages, aged to look real, and organised friends to attend shows as the bogus characters. Sure enough, the psychics took the bait. Transcripts of the secretly recorded shows matched perfectly with the fake Facebook posts, confirming the psychics had prepped using information from online profiles, rather than from dead people. Gerbic, whose group Guerilla Skeptics still organises similar stings, will be a guest speaker at the NZ Skeptics conference in Christchurch this November.
However, many psychics no longer do stage shows. Recently the New York Times reported: “While psychics have traditionally profited from claiming to predict the future or communicating with deceased relatives, many are now working in the general field of wellness, calling themselves ‘intuitives’ or ‘intuitive healers’, who channel ‘energy’ that helps people discover what they want out of life.”
The newspaper quoted Noora Raj Brown, spokesperson for Gwyneth Paltrow’s New Age conglomerate Goop: “A majority of the mediums that we work with are less interested in the party trick of showing off their psychic abilities and more focused on teaching people, women in particular, how to trust their guts and lean into their intuition.”
John of God is notorious for his hard-to-watch healing sessions: ramming forceps up a patient’s nose, appearing to scrape their eyeballs with a serrated knife or slicing them open with a scalpel and plunging his fingers inside.
Wilson’s healing sessions, many of which are on YouTube, have none of the transfixing horror of her mentor’s. She claims each of her hands is possessed by a different spirit and she waves them vigorously around the patient, often humming loudly, which is purportedly the manifestation of a third spirit. Meanwhile, she says, the rest of the spirits mingle with the audience and may effect cures. After a few minutes, she pronounces her patient healed.
Most agree they are feeling better; those who are doubtful are told it may take time or they may need further sessions ($95 for a consultation or by Skype). From the videos posted online, the majority of the patients suffer from chronic conditions like shoulder, back and knee pain. However, in the podcast mentioned earlier she claims to have treated “lots of people with cancer over the years. People that go into a hospice and then come out.”
Like John of God, Wilson dresses all in white. Otherwise, her origins are considerably less exotic. Born in England, she settled in New Zealand in 1999 and now lives in Orewa, north of Auckland. Originally a Lloyds Bank manager in the UK, she discovered her so-called psychic ability at age 31, which she has said is rather late for a psychic. “My first experience of a spirit was my grandfather. When he died, instead of passing over the spirit stayed with me.” After that, she “was open psychically to the spirit world”.
Currently on tour in England, Wilson is more careful about her claims when in the UK. Under the UK’s Cancer Act 1939, anyone advertising treatment for cancer can be fined and imprisoned for three months. (There is no equivalent legislation in New Zealand.)
“So, I’m not offering to treat cancer,” she tells a patient suffering from both bipolar disorder and breast cancer. However, the video illustrates all that is problematic about psychics straying into the wellness area. The patient has volunteered information that thermal imaging has detected signs of early breast cancer, which she is treating with herbal medicine. To which Wilson responds: “I’m a big fan of thermal imaging. I’m not convinced about mammograms. I’ve had one myself but personally I wouldn’t have another one. That isn’t me telling you not to have them, but I know what it does to me and my body.” It’s a comment that’s potentially harmful as mammograms are the only proven and reliable method of detecting breast cancer.
In the UK, Wilson has attracted the attention of the Good Thinking Society (GTS), a sceptics’ watchdog founded by physicist and science writer Simon Singh. Michael Marshall, GTS’s project director, wrote to venues Wilson had booked advising that the event space would be used “to convince unwell people they are able to cure them of their illness, for money.” Several cancelled her bookings. Marshall also reported her to the British Advertising Standards Authority. On her Facebook page, Wilson wrote that she’d been ordered to comply immediately with UK regulations, and “if I am in breach – the penalties are two years in jail and a seizure of all financial assets plus my computer, plus all my videos. So I have to remove any claims to work with spirit world doctors, any videos that mention any diseases. I am only able to say that I can give people a feeling of well being.” (By contrast, the industry-run Advertising Standards Authority in New Zealand imposes no penalties and is powerless if its decisions are ignored.)
At a hastily rearranged venue near Chester, Wilson blamed the GTS for the small turnout (12 people). At my request, the society planted an observer in the audience. She reported that on arrival people were pressed for their mobile number and email address and given purple powder juice to “down like a shot” to provide more energy for healing. A variety of merchandise was on offer, from a $30 phone guard to protect against microwaves to a $190 necklace that kept electromagnetic forces at bay. Our observer noticed that a mark was placed next to the name of anyone who’d bought an expensive product, presumably to label the person as a good prospect for email sales pitches.
The two-hour show included eight healings, with an interval to buy merchandise. Our observer was unimpressed: “Elderly woman with severe arthritis down one side, clearly in a lot of pain when moving. This healing was very long. Woman eventually said she felt a little better but appeared to be in distress/pain throughout. Said her arm was cracking when she tried to move it. Told this was good and she should take more purple powder because she was old. No difference in her movement to an outside observer. Jeanette had said at the start that she could completely cure all arthritis.”
Wilson presents as a no-nonsense, down-to earth person, as if summoning a healing spirit were no different from getting in a plumber. Her sessions have all the drama and light-heartedness of a party-plan demonstration. Like a party-plan evening, too, there are products to hawk. Star of the show is alfa PXP ROYALE, a black bottle containing 30 five-gram servings of micronised (broken down into very fine particles) purple rice. The bottles retail at $150, which works out at $1000 a kilo. You can pick up a kilo of black rice (which turns purple when cooked) for $5 at the supermarket or buy micronised purple rice online for about $30 a kilo.
Purple rice has the sort of backstory marketers love. According to legend, it was known as “forbidden rice”, only available to emperors and the upper class in ancient China because of its rarity and health benefits. Lately, it has joined the ranks of overhyped superfoods like kale and quinoa (now also popular as baby names). It is true that purple rice has more antioxidants than blueberries, another so-called superfood. But science has long moved away from the view that a surfeit of antioxidants is necessarily health-promoting because they limit damage from free radicals. As Ben Goldacre writes in his quack-busting book Bad Science: “If I had a T-shirt slogan... it would be ‘I think you’ll find it’s a bit more complicated than that.’” In fact, studies suggest antioxidant supplements not only have no benefit but may lead to increased mortality. And that, writes Goldacre, is backed by a Cochrane review of multiple trials of antioxidant vitamin pills. (Cochrane is the gold-standard for evidence-based medicine.)
Wilson describes PXP purple rice as “the most amazing product on the face of the Earth”. “You can’t prove it scientifically, guys, but 23 years being a psychic, it’s good stuff,” she says in the podcast.
However, on Australia’s A Current Affair programme recently, prominent Melbourne surgeon John Cunningham dismissed PXP as “just ground-up rice” being sold to desperate people for profit. “Every doctor has a duty to look after the health of the public; it’s not just our right but it’s our duty to call a spade a spade and to tell people that stuff like PXP is just rubbish.” People, he adds, are “wasting their money, and for this product a large amount of money; and secondly, they may be led to believe they don’t need to take their effective treatments for conditions they may actually have.”
Wilson, though, has good reason to shill for PXP; she “earns in excess of $20,000 a month” from the product, according to fellow PXP promoter and Hastings business woman Janet Dougherty in a recruiting video for Enzacta.
PXP is the flagship product of Enzacta, a multi-level marketing company founded by former Amway executive Russ Hall. The New Zealand Enzacta website lists its address as a PO box in Levin. The New Zealand director, Max Cottle, keeps a low profile but his Facebook page, not updated since 2016, is chock-full of anti-vaccination posts and stories from Natural News, a fake news and conspiracy site.
Multi-level marketing companies are only a legal nicety away from pyramid scams, where the money flows upwards and the people at the bottom make next to nothing or lose money. However, in an Enzacta training video, Dougherty dangles the prospect of big incomes by advising those who pay $330 to sign up as executive independent business operators (IBOs), “your earnings will be capped at $US800 a day.” The Enzacta website holds out promise of even greater earnings: “You will be rewarded for helping and training people. You can earn up to $NZ3300 per day.”
According to one study, though, 99.6% of recruits to such multi-level marketing companies lose money compared to the 97.4% of people who gamble. Most independent business operators quit after they have burned through family and friends to sell to. Bottles of PXP turn up on Trade Me but, unsurprisingly, are not being snapped up at bargain prices. “Selling them at reduced price as I am closing my business. I have 10 to sell,” writes one seller.
Worse than losing money for many IBOs is the loss of friendships and the shame of having acted unethically by abusing trust and affection to flog unproven products at outrageous prices and a “business opportunity” that offers a lower return than gambling.
Under the guise of empowerment, multi-level marketing companies exploit women. The internet is rife with stories like HuffPost’s expose, “MLMs Are a Nightmare for Women and Everyone They Know”. Enzacta also peddles the fiction that women can make the world a better place while earning piles of cash. As Wilson puts it, “I’m helping people be the healthiest they’ve ever been and I’m helping women find other women who love helping people and together we’re making people well and together we’re transforming lives.”
In their desperation to shift product, some of these IBOs have been making misleading claims that may, as Cunningham says, cause sick people to avoid effective treatment. The US watchdog Truth in Advertising (TINA) has identified 43 unsubstantiated health claims made by Enzacta sellers, including cures for liver cancer and kidney failure. However, like all MLMs, Enzacta distances itself legally from its IBOs. The company takes no responsibility for any false claims IBOs make for the product. Yet in an official brochure for Alfa PXP Forte, a previous version of the product, it asks, “Are you struggling with metabolic disorders like: autism… cancer… cardiovascular disease… impotence… Parkinson’s [and more]. Alfa PXP Forte is the answer to premature ageing and metabolic diseases.”
It’s always easier to believe the hype when it’s in your own self-interest. In 2014, Enzacta IBO Jean Douglas contacted her local paper, the Kapiti News, to announce she was raising funds from the public so she could supply PXP to a local teenager recovering from leukaemia. The octogenarian told the paper that this “complete super food” hastened recovery.
“There are many known cases and testimonials of people going through the treatment of chemotherapy and without losing their hair, not feeling sick, and regaining their health much sooner than expected. Being part of the Enzacta family I am able to supply at cost, which is another way I feel I can help Rhiannon and her family while going through this terrible experience. I thank everyone who has already given to the cause.”
One might have expected the newspaper to exercise caution in allowing an appeal for public funds through its pages. Noting that Douglas claims on her website to channel an entity called White Buffalo and is in regular contact with “A Visitor from Outer Space” would have added context for its readers.
The Kapiti News story is an example of how internet misinformation and quackery seeps like effluent runoff into mainstream media. However, Jeanette Wilson, psychic healer and Enzacta IBO, prefers to operate away from public scrutiny. In addition to her Facebook page, she also runs a closed Facebook group and an online inner circle that costs $50 to join. As well as showcasing her healing sessions, she posts scare stories about vaccinations and 5G technology, and cancer “cures” suppressed by Big Pharma and the media. It all feeds into the narrative that authorities are not to be trusted. “Doctors don’t know how you feel. You know how you feel,” she says.
Quackery has always thrived on two phenomena: the placebo effect and the testimonials it generates. As the great scientist Benjamin Franklin once remarked, “Quacks are the greatest liars in the world except their patients.” It’s not intentional. Bogus therapies sometimes appear to work because many diseases are self-limiting, symptoms of chronic diseases come and go, and conditions are sometimes misdiagnosed. Quacks themselves may come to believe they have the power to heal.
But watching Jeanette Wilson “heal” an 81-year-old man called Michael at a show in Hamilton in May, it’s hard not to conclude she understands exactly what she’s doing in fooling the sick and vulnerable.
In the video, Michael walks unsteadily with a stick to the healing chair. He says he suffers from pain in his legs and knees and lack of balance. Wilson puts on some loud, portentous New Age music “to open the heart centre” and begins circling with her familiar hand-whisking routine, then ducks behind him and claps loudly. She moves to one side shaking her arms and stamping her feet like a petulant toddler. Michael is becoming upset, shaking and in tears. Someone comes forward and puts a tissue in his hand. Wilson places her hands on his shoulders, which seems to calm him. The music stops.
“Can you feel that, isn’t it amazing?” Wilson says to the audience. “Imagine being able to open up everybody’s heart centre. We don’t need any more wars. We don’t need any more vaccines. We don’t need any more 5G.”
Later, Michael beams at the camera. “I’ve never felt so well in my life. I’ve got my balance back and I’m back to normal. I’m a very happy man.”
However, among the congratulatory feedback, when the video was posted on Facebook, one sad comment stands out. Nadene writes: “This is my dad and we were so excited, but sad to say he woke up today feeling very down and the pain had come back. Urged him to call Jeanette…”.
Wilson replies: “He requested healing for his feet and legs so that’s what the spirit surgeons worked on releasing. Overnight his consciousness/wisdom will have decided that now his feet and legs are less congested with toxins… they can move toxins from other vital organs… our bodies move toxins to our extremities to protect more vital organs. He needs to drink plenty of water and take the purple powder as prescribed… I have spoken to him twice since his healing and I am sending distant healing to assist in this process.”