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I Speak With Sylvia Browne
I attend Browne's Las Vegas show, and words are exchanged.
Published: Jun 25 2008
Billboard for Browne's show at the Excalibur.
From time to time, I receive emails from Browne supporters who ask whether or not I have ever seen her in person.
Some of them say that if I ever saw her in person, it would change my opinion of her and her abilities. Others have gone so far as to say that until I see her in person, I have no right to express an opinion of her or of her abilities.
Whether or not that last statement is true, I decided that I would go to see one of Browne's shows/lectures the next time circumstances permitted.
I was recently able to do so, and this article details what happened when I did.
Once a month or so, Browne does several shows at the Excalibur Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas.
As luck would have it, her shows in June of this year coincided with the time when I would be in Vegas attending the annual conference of the James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF), an organization which promotes critical thinking.
Claus Larsen, a fellow member of the JREF, was eager for me to attend one of Browne's shows, and generously offered to pay for tickets for my wife and I to attend with him. After brief discussion, it was decided that we would attend her 4pm show on Sunday, June 22nd 2008.
I wondered whether I would even be allowed in to see the show. I figured that Browne and her staff knew what I looked like. Not only had I criticized Browne on an episode of CNN's Anderson Cooper 360 show, but she had admitted, in an interview published in the UK Guardian, that she "had a private investigator on Randi and Lancaster", and I would assume that a competent PI report would include a photograph. If they recognized me at the door, would they let me in? I decided that, whether they let me in or not, I would simply write an article on what happened, documenting that I had at least made the attempt to see Browne in person.
Arriving at the Excalibur
Sign above the box office.
A few hours before the show, my wife Susan and I checked out of the Flamingo Hotel (where the JREF conference had been held) and drove to the Excalibur. I was somewhat surprised to see absolutely no mention of Browne on any of the marquees and posters in front of the building, even though many other performers and acts were mentioned, some of them multiple times (in fact, the only mention we had seen of Browne since we had arrived in Vegas the previous Thursday was a billboard which was visible from the Interstate 15 freeway, behind the Excalibur). We left our rental car with the valet, and entered the building.
Neither of us was familiar with the layout of the place, having only been there once each, many years ago. We wandered around for a while, looking for any signs or posters mentioning Browne, but saw none. I had read somewhere on the Internet that Browne's shows were in the same small nightclub/theater where the Thunder From Down Under show - a Chippendale's-style male dancer review - was held, so we followed some signs which took us to the floor where that show was held.
The theater had signs around the door for various acts (Thunder From Down Under, comedian Louie Anderson, ventriloquist Ron Lucas), but still no mention of Browne. We approached a nearby information booth and asked if this was where Browne's show would be, and were informed that it was. What I did not notice, but my wife Susan told me later, was that a man who had been chatting with the information booth worker had given me a very long stare. Later, my wife noticed this man was working inside the theater with Browne's show. Susan is convinced that he recognized me, but we have no way of knowing for certain. We grabbed a quick meal at the buffet, and came back to wait in line for the show.
Before the Show
The show was scheduled to start at 4:00pm, and the doors were to open a half-hour before that. We waited in line, several people away from Claus Larsen. He had given us the tickets in front of the theater, then stood apart from us. The idea was that if my wife and I were refused entrance, he could still get in.
The doors opened, and someone came out with a poster of Browne attached to a posterboard, and leaned it up against the wall next to the door. The rope was taken down, and we all started filing in past the ticket-takers, which is where the first unusual thing occurred.
The tickets had three stubs attached which could be removed by tearing along a perforated line. The first was to be torn off and kept by the theater for bookkeeping purposes. Of the other two stubs, one was to be kept by the ticket-taker, and the other kept by the patron. These stubs had a number stamped on them, which was unique to each ticket, and were to be used when Browne would draw them out of a bowl to determine which audience members got to ask her a question.
I noticed that they were tearing these stubs from the tickets of the people in the line on the left (including Susan), but that they did not tear them from my ticket, nor from Larsen's who was directly in front of me in the line on the right. I wondered if perhaps they had been instructed to not take my ticket stub, to ensure that I would not be allowed to ask a question. Since I was there to observe, and any question I asked would simply be a bonus on top of that, I did not ask why my ticket stub had not been removed, but simply entered the theater with my ticket.
The inside of the theater was dimly lit. The small stage was dark, with the silhouette of a stuffed chair visible, with a small table and floral arrangement next to it. The words "Sylvia Browne" were projected onto either side of the stage, and New Age-style music played over the sound system (I believe it was the singer Enya). The area where the audience was to sit was lit with bluish lights from above, and we walked over to them to find our assigned seats.
Had I not already heard about the seating arrangement from an email correspondent who had attended the show back in February, I would have been surprised at how small the place was, and how few people it seated. The stage was perhaps thirty feet wide, and was raised about three feet from the floor. Directly in front of the stage were eight long, narrow tables, each with a narrow end facing the stage. Each of these eight tables had twelve chairs, six on either long side. Beyond these eight tables was an empty walkway a few feet wide, then another set of eight tables, similarly laid out.
There were some booths around the edges of the area, which were not used, and further back in the darkness there appeared to be some rows of chairs, but the area containing them appeared to be blocked off. Perhaps it is used in some of the other shows. So, if I counted the tables correctly, this would mean that the place seated only 192 patrons. Since Browne generally appears for her lectures in much larger venues, I wondered whether this was a step down for her, income-wise. That would depend on what her take of the box office was at the Excalibur, and what it was at her lectures.
The tables directly in front of the stage were numbered one through eight, with table number one being to the far right as you faced the stage, and table eight being to the far left. The seats at each table were numbered one through twelve, with seats one and two being the closest to the stage, eleven and twelve the furthest from it. Our seats were at Table Number Two, Seats 9, 10 and 11. We sat, with me at seat 11. I, like several others in the audience, turned my seat to face the stage, so I would not be craning my neck the entire show.
Flyers advertising the show, Browne's local Church,
Not long after we were seated, a woman from the Las Vegas branch of Browne's Church of Novus Spiritus went from table to table, offering a flyer which advertised the Las Vegas branch of Browne's Church of Novus Spiritus, and another advertising the Sylvia Browne Hypnosis Training Center. I took one of each (pictured above, with a show card available at the ticket booth).
Seated, I began to observe some of the others in the audience as they filed in and took their seats. The front eight tables were mostly full, though not totally. And only perhaps twenty of the seats in the back row of tables were used, meaning that there were somewhere between 100-120 patrons, roughly 90% of whom were women.
Seated behind me at table one (or, to my right, once I had turned my chair) were two women who were quite obviously excited to be there. A couple of seats down from them were a man and woman. The man was talking about some woman he thought was a fraud, but I did not hear enough of the conversation to know whether or not he was talking about Browne. Over at (I believe) table four, a couple of men were (probably jokingly) offering to "sell their Sylvia questions" to a woman seated not far from them.
At this point, the two ticket-takers and a third person came over to our table and informed me that they had neglected to take my ticket stub. They then took it, and did the same with Larsen's ticket. Why it took three of them to do this was unclear. I did not see them do it with anyone else, but perhaps they did. Had it simply been a mistake that they did not take the stubs? Or was there more to it? There was no way of knowing.
A few minutes later, a voice over the loudspeaker introduced Sylvia Browne. I got my pen and notepad out, and proceeded to take notes.
IMPORTANT: It should be understood that all that follows is from my notes and memory. I was tempted to bring in a recording device to unobtrusively record the audio, but that would have been prohibited by the Excalibur (as it is in most places), and I did not want to give them an excuse to kick me out, should they be looking for an excuse to do so. Since I do not know shorthand, I could only jot down notes to later jog my memory. So I will be paraphrasing what was said, and only using quotation marks around those words and phrases which I am fairly certain of.
A light came up on the stage, and Browne sat in the chair center stage. The show was billed as "Astounding Insights and Live Readings," so I guess this first part was the Astounding Insights.
She started off by saying that it was 4:01, and that the show was supposed to have started at 4:00. She said "Don't you hate it when people say they will start at a certain time, and they don't?" She said she would have to have a talk with the tech people about this. If she was joking, she didn't look like it. My wife later told me that Browne had been standing in the stage wings for a minute or so prior to being announced. Since Browne goes nowhere (other than on stage) without her wheelchair, due to what she says is a hip injury, perhaps she was not kidding, but was indeed angry at having to stand for that minute.
She then proceeded to spend a few minutes complaining about the weather in Vegas, and said that the dryness was what made her voice sound the way it did (which sounded to me just like her voice always sounds), and complained that she woke up in the morning hacking and coughing just like a smoker.
She then proceeded to give what was, in effect, a commercial for her upcoming cruises, including ones to the Caribbean, Ireland and Egypt. She then proceeded to give a plug for her "Farewell Lecture Tour", and assured us that she would not be like Cher, and have "fifteen of them." She then went on to plug her upcoming book, End of Days.
She then talked for a few minutes about the differences between angels, spirits, ghosts and spirit guides (she mentioned that evil people never had spirit guides, saying that she had never seen one around Charles Manson or Saddam).
She talked about surrounding yourself with outward-facing mirrors to ward off evil, because "darkness cannot face itself."
She talked about how she liked churches, but didn't go very often, saying that Buddha and Mohammed were never in a church, and that the Bible only talks of Jesus going twice, and that one of those times was when he "kicked some ass."
She mentioned - I forget why - that her son Chris turned blue when he was born, and so she baptized him, after which a priest would not baptize him, since she had already done so.
My two copies of "My Guide, My Self".
She mentioned that she had written some 45 books, and that when someone tells her that they have all of her books, she says "Oh, really?" because she figures they don't know she has written that many. She also mentioned that if anyone had a hardback copy of her book My Guide, My Self, that they should hold onto it, because one recently sold on eBay for two thousand dollars. (As a side note: I have two copies of the book (one of them signed "Much love, Sylvia C. Brown"), both of which I obtained some months ago on eBay for around $20 each. If anyone wants to purchase one of them for $2,000, please let me know).
She mentioned that Montel Williams will soon have another show called Living Well, which will film on Fairfax (a street in Los Angeles), and on which she will appear often.
She talked about how she was on her "last life," and that most people were these days, as most spirits just don't want to come back to earth any more. And she said, as she says in some of her books, that she will live until she is eighty-eight years old, which is sixteen years from now.
These were the "Astounding Insights," which lasted around twenty-five minutes.
"Live Readings" - VIP Tickets
At this point, Browne said that the audience questions would begin. She said that she didn't mind answering the questions that Montel made fun of, such as "When will I meet Mr./Ms. Right?", but said not to ask whether someone who had "crossed over" was happy, because the answer was always "Yes," and not to ask if that person misses you, because the answer was always "No" (since they know they will see us soon).
She then asked that everyone seated at the center tables (three through six in the front, as well as the few people seated at tables eleven through fourteen in the back), to stand and wait in line at one of the two microphones so that they could each ask a question. These people had paid for the more expensive ($137.50) "VIP" tickets, which guaranteed the ticket holder to be able to ask Browne one question.
Browne introduced Nancy, a Deacon with her church in Las Vegas, and Michael, also from the church. Nancy stood off to our left, down by the stage, holding a microphone. Michael did the same over on the right. The VIP ticket holders lined up behind them, and, one at a time, asked their questions.
(Browne also mentioned at this point that her churches were the only schools in the USA which were licensed to train hypnotherapists. I find this difficult to believe, and a Google search for the phrase "train hypnotherapist" seems to indicate otherwise, but I have not researched it in any depth.)
These people generally asked the same types of questions that the audience members on the Montel Williams Show do:
There were others who asked less frequently-asked questions, such as a woman who said "My mother passed away two days ago, does she have any message for me?" Browne replied with something very generic (I believe it was "She wants you to know that she loves you"), but, as the woman started back towards her seat, Browne added "Oh, and she wants you to know that she loved the service."
Another woman stated that doctors had given her a very short time to live, and that she had survived beyond that by many years. Browne assured her that she was a survivor, then launched into an odd story wherein she said that she (Browne) had major surgery when she was twenty-six, and the doctors had given her two years to live. She then said that she has now outlived all of those doctors, and that, when the last of those doctors was dying, she went to visit him and said "See?" This got a small laugh out of a few in the audience, but it struck me as being made up for humorous effect, and, whether true or not, seemed rather heartless.
"Live Readings" - Preferred Tickets
After all of the "VIP" ticket holders had each asked one question and returned to their seats, Browne announced that she would now draw the ticket stubs to see which people from the remaining tables (the less expensive, $82.50 "Preferred" tickets) could come up to the microphones and ask a question. She reached down next to the chair and picked up a clear container of some sort (it looked like perhaps a glass vase) containing the stubs, and started drawing stubs out of it and calling out numbers.
My wife's number was one of the very first numbers called. Before the show, I had told her the question I would ask if I got the chance, and we agreed that if her number was called and mine was not, that she would ask it for me. She stood up and got in line.
Browne continued calling numbers, and more and more people got in line. Larsen's number was called, and he got in line. More numbers were called, until Browne read the very last number - mine. As I stood there, I noticed that everyone from the "Preferred" seats was now waiting in line. It seemed quite a coincidence that I was the last person called, and I wondered what that might mean. What did not occur to me at the moment was: If she was going to call ALL of the numbers out, why draw them out of the bowl at all? Why not simply say "Everyone from the other tables go to the microphones" like she did for the VIP tickets?
More questions were asked, mostly along the same lines as those asked earlier. When it was Susan's turn, she had decided not to ask my question, since I was now in line, but instead asked a very general question, and got a very general answer.
When Larsen, the skeptic who had come with us - got to the microphone, it went like this:
And he headed back to his seat as Browne went on to the next person, never even acknowledging that she had been wrong.
Larsen had asked a question which no amount of cold reading or guessing would answer correctly. And, if Browne could do what she claims to do, she could have answered it correctly. But the fact is, Larsen is Danish, born and raised in Denmark. His paternal grandfather's first name was Flodin (pronounced flo-deen), a name an American would be highly unlikely to have even heard of, let alone guess.
I must confess that I did not hear many of the questions asked during this second round, as I was busy going over my question in my mind, making sure I phrased it correctly.
Back when I first knew that I would be attending the show, I considered what question I should ask, given the opportunity. I had decided that I was going as an observer, and was not there to be confrontational. I knew that most of the others in the audience were likely to be fans and supporters of Browne, all of whom would have paid good money to see her. I didn't think it would be fair to them to disrupt the show with a confrontational question which might make Browne lose her temper, such as "can you name a single missing person you have helped find, or a single murder you have solved?"
I also considered asking a question similar to the one Larsen had ended up asking, something I knew the answer to, but which would not be easily guessed. I decided that might be a bit confrontational as well, so I dropped the idea.
I finally decided on a question which the audience might be surprised by, but which Browne would have no legitimate reason for refusing to answer. And, if she did answer, it would give me something to research.
I finally was at the microphone, standing about ten or twelve feet from Browne. Everyone else was back in their seat. Here is how it went (and note that it all was said, by both Browne and myself, in conversational tones. There was no raising of voices, no shouting.):
At this point, I started walking back to my seat. I had only taken a couple of steps when Browne said...
It was now obvious that she knew who I was, or at least that she was pretty sure of it. I stepped back to the microphone.
I started back towards my seat.
I turned and stepped back to the microphone.
I started back to my seat, wondering if that last statement had been as clear as I'd hoped. I meant that if the site was nasty, it was because the truth about Browne is nasty. Whether that came across or not, I don't know.
I turned and stepped back to the microphone.
Once again, I headed towards my seat.
I then walked to my seat and sat down, the eyes of the rest of the audience on me. I believe that a couple of them said a rather half-hearted "boo," but not many.
If Browne said a few words to wrap it up, I do not recall them. I was busy replaying in my mind what had just happened, wondering if I could have said anything better than I did. As we all stood up to leave, I wondered how the rest of the audience would react as we all left the theater. Would they yell at me? Spit on me? Congratulate me? I had no idea.
As we walked through the small lobby, past the table with Browne's books for sale, someone in the lobby told the crowd where to stand to have their picture taken with Browne (for a fee). I wondered for a split second what the reaction would be if I got in that line, but decided it would not be a very good idea.
We walked back out the front doors of the theater.
Talk With Other Patrons
Entrance to the "Thunder Theater".
At this point, Susan and I were simply going to get our car from the valet and hit the road for home. It had been a long four days in the JREF conference with little sleep, and we still had a four-hour drive home. But we stopped about twenty feet outside the theater (about where I was standing when I had taken the above picture before the show) to thank Larsen for buying the tickets, and to tell him (and another JREF member who was waiting outside to see what had happened) that we were tired and were heading out.
We had not even finished that when someone tapped me on the shoulder, and I turned to see a woman. What follows is as close an approximation to our conversation as I can muster. The words will not be precise, but the gist of the conversation is pretty accurate.
I told her about the emails I get from Browne supporters who tell me that I had no right to say anything about Browne unless I had seen her in person, etc., and that I had come to the show to eliminate that criticism.
At this point, the woman started offering what she felt were reasons why Browne was truly psychic, and I (as well as Susan, Larsen and others) replied to them. I hope to document some of that conversation in a separate article, as I think it was very instructive as to how and why some people believe in Browne's "abilities," regardless of the actual evidence.
(I want to stress that this woman, obviously a Browne fan/supporter, was very polite to me. While we disagreed about Browne, the conversation was very respectful in both directions. I certainly hope that I gave her some food for thought, and, if she reads this, I would encourage her to contact me if she is interested in continuing our conversation.)
By this point, three other women who had been in the audience had joined us.
The woman had told Browne that she had been seeing a man for a few years now, and I believe she had asked where Browne saw the relationship going. Browne had said "You need to tell him to you-know-what or get off the pot."
Everyone other than Woman #1 agreed.
She went on to discuss a reading she and some friends had gotten from John Edward, which had impressed her. While I was talking with her, Susan and some of the others were talking with the fourth woman who had been listening to all of this.
Since I did not hear any of it, I have asked Susan to write up her recollection of that conversation. Here it is:
It was along about this time that I heard something and looked over to see Browne, in her wheelchair, about six feet from me, glaring straight at me. (Larsen would say later, "Man, if looks could kill, you'd be cinders by now!").
The following exchange took place:
At that point, her assistant quickly turned the wheelchair and wheeled Browne away.
Everyone turned and looked at each other, wondering what she meant. To my wife and I, it definitely sounded like a threat.
A few minutes later, someone tapped on my right shoulder, and I turned to see two uniformed security guards.
At this point, I realized that this was what Browne had meant by her comment. She had called the hotel's Security on me, or had asked someone else to do so.
Here is an approximation of the conversation as I remember it. Both guards were very polite throughout.
At this point, we had already checked out of the Flamingo, and were not "staying" anywhere. I could have answered the guard's question, but I chose not to. In hindsight, I wonder if he was trying to determine if I was staying at any of the other hotels - such as the Luxor and Mandalay Bay - owned by the same company.
I briefly described what had happened from the time I had asked my question until the time the people outside started asking me questions. I told him that the people standing with us had been in the show. I asked them if I had described it accurately, and they all agreed.
He went on to give an even briefer version of events than I had given him, then clicked off his microphone.
I had made the mistake of eating not long before the show. That, combined with the excitement of what had just happened, had given me heartburn. Sitting down would help. The only place to sit nearby was a bar which had not yet opened, and so had a rope across the entrance. The guards apologized for not having the authority to let me move the rope, but assured me that their supervisor had that authority.
We waited for a few minutes, and their supervisor showed up. A stocky man in a business suit, he agreed that we could step into the bar area and sit. He and I, along with the two guards, stepped in, and I sat down. They did not.
He reached into his coat pocket and pulled out a leather case, which he flipped open to reveal a badge and a card, from which he proceeded to read. At first, I thought he was going to read me some version of the Miranda rights, but instead, he was officially telling me that I was trespassing (per some statute), that I needed to leave the premises immediately, and that I was not to return. He closed his badge case and put it back in his pocket.
I don't recall what his response was to that, if any.
I still don't know what he meant by that.
We shook hands, and he instructed the guards to make certain I got into my car. The guards asked where our car was parked, and I told them that we had valet parked it. My wife and I (with Larsen and the other skeptic following) followed the guards into an elevator, and out the front door, where two other guards on bicycles were instructed to make sure we got into our car when it came. I thanked the first two guards for their time, and apologized for any trouble we had caused them. Our car was brought by the valet a few minutes later, and we left, waving to the bicycle-riding guards on our way out.
A Word From Larsen
Claus Larsen, the man who paid for my wife and I to attend the show, has some comments he wanted to make, and I am happy to add them here:
There was a lot to analyze, and this article is already very lengthy, but here is a summary of some of the main points
Seeing her in person
To those people who have sent me emails, saying that if only I saw Browne in person, I would believe in her "psychic abilities," I have to say: Sorry, no. If anything, I am more convinced than ever that Browne is doing nothing more than cold reading, and very amateurish cold reading at that.
Browne states, in many of her books, that she encourages her followers to read all sides of something, and not to take her word for it. If she truly wanted people to make up their own minds, if she felt that what was on this site was incorrect, she would encourage people to read it, so that they could see how right she is by comparison. But when confronted with this site, which shows many of the holes in her claims, and the contradictions and falsehoods in her writings, she simply calls it "nasty."
It also seems to me that, were she truly psychic, she could simply have said something to me about my past, which would be impossible for anyone but me to know, which would have absolutely floored me. But she did not, and I see no reason to believe it was for any other reason than the obvious: she is not psychic.
Why was mine the last number drawn?
I find it hard to believe that my number being drawn last was a simple coincidence.
Between my ticket stub not being taken at the door, to it taking three people to come over later to get it, to the fact that it was totally unnecessary for the tickets to be drawn at all (since everyone was going to get a turn anyway), it just seems that it was done in order that Browne could be certain that I was the last person in line.
By the way, a woman emailed me back in March, describing one of Browne's Excalibur shows she had seen in February. Interestingly enough, she had said that the theater was about half-full then too, and so, after the VIP tickets had asked their questions, all of the Preferred ticket holders got to ask one as well. Yesterday I emailed her and asked if Browne had drawn the numbers out of a bowl, or if she had just invited all of the Preferred ticket holders to get in line. The woman replied, and said that they were all simply asked to get in line.
So, if Browne wanted me to be the last in line, why?
My opinion - and that is all it is - is that Browne thought that I was going to "cause a scene." So, she made sure it would be at the end of the show. However, when I did not cause a scene, but headed back to my seat after asking her a simple question, she called me back, and engaged in the "nasty" comments. Why? Perhaps she was hoping that I would cause a scene, giving her an excuse to call security. When I disappointed her by being polite, I think that she tried to goad me and/or the crowd into a scene. And when that didn't work, she called security anyway.
It's all guesswork on my part, but it fits the evidence.
University of San Francisco
When Browne answered the first part of my question, I thought that she said "San Francisco University," but my wife, who was under less pressure at the moment, insists that she said "University of San Francisco."
She also insists that Browne said that she graduated in "Nineteen eighty...something," while I remember her saying "Nineteen eighty...two or something.".
Either way, I will be investigating this claim to see whether or not there is any evidence to support it.
As I mentioned earlier, my memory is not perfect. I have tried to recreate the afternoon, and some of the dialog from it, as best I could from that memory. My description of the show is, as I said, from notes I jotted down at the time. My dialog with Browne is from notes I wrote down at a gas station right after we left the Excalibur parking lot, so they would be as fresh in my mind as possible. The dialog with the patrons after the show, and with the security people, were simply from memory. And mine, like everyone else's, is fallible.
If anyone else who was at the show that afternoon - including Browne herself - disagrees with my description of events, I invite you to email me your description of events, and I will place them on the site.
My thanks to Claus Larsen for purchasing the show tickets. Without him, there would be no article.
I would also like to thank my wife Susan for being there with me that day (and always), for supporting me in what I try to do with this web site, for catching several things I got wrong in this article, and for writing about the woman whose mother had recently died.
Thanks also to Kochanski for being a witness, and to Mr. O. for the photograph of the billboard at the top of this article. I had meant to take one on our way out of town, but forgot to amidst all the drama.
Update: Jul 02 2008
Two artuicles have now gone up on the site, containing email correspondence from two people who were in attendance at Browne's show that day:
Also, on the humorous side:
Clicking on any of these links will load a separate browser window for viewing the linked page.
StopSylviaBrowne.com is not responsible for the content of any of these linked pages.