Dead of 911 still speak!
By David Andreatta
State Island Advance
Mankind has pondered the existence of an afterlife for millennia. The question has saddled philosophers, spawned religions and started wars.
For some relatives of those killed in the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, the answer comes not from a theologian or a therapist, but from a 62-year-old New Springville homemaker who says she can contact the dead.
Since two hijacked airliners erased the Twin Towers and 2,813 innocent lives on Sept. 11, Camille Walsh claims she has reunited as many as 20 victims with family members who never had the chance to say goodbye.
"It's hard to believe there's communication, but there is," Mrs. Walsh said. "If there were no way to [communicate with the dead], there would be no reason for them to talk to me."
Mediums have become wildly popular in recent years, appearing on reputable television shows such as "Larry King Live," and even hosting programs of their own like "Crossing Over With John Edward." But whether these psychics are channeling the dead or exploiting the living is debatable.
In October, John Edward drew ire after announcing plans to connect those who perished in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks with living relatives for his Sci-Fi Channel show. Television executives axed the idea after advertisers complained the ethics of the pitch were as murky as a witch's cauldron.
Mrs. Walsh, who works from a tranquil room in her basement wall-papered with blue skies and clouds, argues that lesser-known mediums like her offer hope and comfort to the bereaved at a reasonable price. The "sitters" who visit her agree.
Not surprisingly, there are plenty of people who scoff at such claims.
"These people are vultures looking to feed off the grieved people of Sept. 11," said James Randi, an internationally known critic of paranormal claims. "They're not providing answers. They're providing temporary Band-Aids that will peel off in the rain."
Randi said his James Randi Education Foundation in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., has debunked upwards of 40 alleged clairvoyants offering to contact victims of the terrorist attacks.
Still, the number of Americans who believe in the supernatural is growing steadily. A Gallup poll released in June 2001 found that 28 percent believe contact with the dead is possible, up 10 percent from a similar study in 1990.
"People are becoming more and more comfortable with saying 'I'm going to see a psychic,'" said Mary Ochino, a telephone psychic from Mastic, L.I., who said 40 percent of her clients are from Staten Island, including families of Sept. 11 terror victims.
Skeptics attribute the increase to the onslaught of media attention given to psychics. They say heavily edited national and local television shows featuring mediums in action add legitimacy to an otherwise bogus profession.
"These people claim they can talk to dead people and there's no proof they can do it," said James R. Corey, a Long Island University psychology professor and head investigator for the New York Area Skeptics.
"They're playing the probabilities, and the good ones are very clever," Dr. Corey said. "A correct guess every once in a while will often keep a sitter going, just like a hit on a slot machine will keep a gambler gambling."
Psychics glean clues about what their sitters want to hear with techniques called "hot," "warm" and "cold" readings, Dr. Corey said. Hot readings occur when the medium has researched the sitter. They hold an ace from the start, for example, by knowing that the people who seek them out want to contact a dead loved one.
Warm readings thrive on body language, while verbal responses to cold-reading questions determine the direction a psychic will take. For instance, a medium might ask a sitter what common names like "Michael" or "Mary" mean to them.
But not all mediums subscribe to those methods, says Steve Grenard, an author and director of research at the Sleep Apnea Center of Staten Island University Hospital, who is currently conducting a study on the success rate of well-known psychics.
Grenard said the most effective psychics are "deep trance mediums" who don't ask probing questions of their sitters, but rather fall into a trance-like state and allow the dead to speak through them.
Mrs. Walsh qualifies as a deep trance medium, according to Grenard, who said he secretly tested her during a visit in October.
"No cold reader could do what she does," Grenard said. "I got the feeling that the deceased person I was interested in contacting was talking through her."
Working with Grenard on the study is University of Arizona scientist Gary Schwartz, whose book "The Afterlife Experiments" asserts some mediums under controlled conditions have successfully contacted the dead. Grenard has publicly supported Dr. Schwartz's data, but said more research needs to be conducted.
As Mrs. Walsh sees it, there are those who will always believe, the skeptics who can never be won over, and those who wade into the paranormal with an open mind.
Nancy Tzemis is the latter. The Great Kills woman visited Mrs. Walsh in February with the hope of contacting her 26-year-old daughter, Jennifer, who died in the World Trade Center.
"I had never experienced anything like it," Mrs. Tzemis said in a recent interview. "One of the first things she told me was that Jennifer said I was supposed to take her shopping and wanted to know what happened."
Mrs. Tzemis said she had canceled a day of shopping to see Mrs. Walsh.
"[The dead] have very important messages, usually about family," Mrs. Walsh said. "They usually tell their loved ones that they're fine. They often tell them about a family member being ill or that there's something wrong with the house."
In Mrs. Tzemis' case, she said Mrs. Walsh told her that Jennifer asked about the backyard deck, the front door and the garage door, all of which were slated for repairs.
Mrs. Walsh grew up in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, and moved to Staten Island with her husband and two sons 28 years ago. She said she was always aware of her gift but unsure of how to use it.
It wasn't until she agreed to be read by a psychic in the early 1980s that she said she discovered the extent of her powers. "I walked in the room and she screamed," Mrs. Walsh said. "She told me I was better than her. I ended up giving her a reading."
Mrs. Walsh turned her "calling" into a profession about seven years ago, and maintains a consistent client base through word-of-mouth. She would not discuss her rates, but said she has refused offers of more than $1,000 because accepting exorbitant sums is exploitation. Grenard said he paid $70 for his session with Mrs. Walsh.
A devout Catholic, her work space is adorned with religious symbols, from a crucifix to a statue of the Virgin Mary. Mrs. Walsh said she reconciles her "gift" with a religion that frowns on the supernatural by knowing she is helping others.
"Under certain conditions, certain people could get some help" from a psychic, said Dr. Larry Arann, vice president of behavioral sciences at Staten Island University Hospital. "It has value for some people, because at a time when they have no answers seeing a psychic is a way to communicate their thoughts."
Dr. Arann said it is critical not to become immersed in skepticism, but to examine the situation of the sitter. Many of them are grieving and have not been able to assuage their suffering with traditional forms of therapy, such as support groups or religion.
"You have to ask, if these people really are clairvoyant, then why are they in storefronts and not some giant psychic center," Dr. Arann said. "The answer to that is that the service they provide is not a long-term solution to the way a person should lead their life."