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The Medium Has the Message

Psychics Katie Manning-Hilton and Ann Fisher do their best to make believers out of skeptics

by Sarah Sherman on April 11, 2013 · 2 comments


“You’re a fixer,” psychic medium Katie Manning-Hilton says minutes into my private reading.

I want to say “No,” and tell her I don’t fix anything. If I could, I’d fix myself.

I feel disappointed, fearing I am about to experience an hour of false ideas about my life and far-fetched predictions about my future. A few minutes go by and she speaks of my energy—“healer energy,” she says. Again, I find myself wishing this were true. Then she brings up sleep.

“Are you not sleeping? Is there something about interrupted sleep?”

I suppose many people have issues with sleep, but I started having hope that maybe Manning-Hilton was tuning in to my psyche. Next, I hear what I had been hoping for.

“A grandmother figure keeps coming through,” she says.

My grandmother’s passing two years ago is what inspired me to look into the world of psychic mediums.

Quickly, Manning-Hilton says, my grandmother’s presence in the room is becoming strong.

“Is there a “J” connected with this? Also, a large letter “E.”

My grandmother’s name was Eleanor Jean.

Guided by voices: Manning-Hilton often uses photos as tools i her work. Photo by Erin Pihlaja

“They keep showing me the number four, so I don’t know if there’s a connection with the month of April . . .”

My grandmother died on the first of April.

“She did a lot with her hands,” she says.

This doesn’t register, so I interrupt, “Is she showing you her hands?”

“Yes, very busy hands.”

Manning-Hilton pauses, writes down some notes. Then the reading takes an unexpected turn.

“Oh! You have her ring. You have the ring on.”

The hairs on my arm stand up as I twist the gold-and-turquoise ring on my right hand, the ring that belonged to my grandmother.

“She wanted me to make sure I told you about the ring.”

Perhaps I led her by asking if she was showing her hands. Or maybe it was just a good guess. Still, tears fill my eyes.

Afraid that my grandmother’s presence will leave at any moment, I ask Manning-Hilton, “Is she okay? Is she at peace?”

I know what she will say, but am still comforted by hearing it.

“Yes,” she says.” She’s happy.”

She tells me the most common question people ask when trying to connect with the deceased is, “Are they okay?”

What she tells people, and what she tells me, is, “They’re okay in spirit.”

She continues, “It’s easy to pass, it’s easy to go. It’s hard to survive.”

Manning-Hilton continues with specifics about my grandmother, occasionally glancing to her left while saying, “Thank you.” Gratitude to the spirits for providing her with information—information that she seemingly would have no way of knowing.

The psychic industry is a large one, with millions of people all around the globe making a living in the profession. Psychics claim to have a gift, which gives them ability to read into your future, help you deal with events in your past, and sometimes, in the case of mediums, allow you to connect with loved ones who have died. There are those who have been made popular by the media: Sylvia Browne, John Edward, and more currently, Theresa Caputo, “The Long Island Medium.” Some have deemed these as frauds, fakes, even thieves. Critics of the industry tend to focus primarily on the fact that there is no scientific evidence to prove this “ability.”

“In the fields of both psychology and neuroscience, a substantial amount of research has discredited the idea that individuals can communicate with the dead,” says Jari Willing, a senior graduate student, doctoral candidate, and adjunct professor of advanced behavioral neuroscience at the University at Albany.

“The same is true for a variety of other ‘extrasensory’ abilities. This research provides scientific (non-paranormal) explanations for why certain people may think that they have these abilities. Specifically, short-term dysfunction in certain brain regions can induce various forms of hallucinations, which can often be interpreted as a paranormal experience. Additionally, believing in a paranormal connection between a psychic and the deceased is a popular coping mechanism for many who have lost someone close to them. Unfortunately, a number of former ‘psychics’ have clearly explained how they are able to prey on this belief and, in my view, take advantage of people who are susceptible to these types of influences.”

“It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy when you are told something,” adds Alexandra Volkheimer, a New York state licensed marriage and family therapist. “It becomes a part of your subconscious. . . . It becomes true though your own actions.”

Years ago on Larry King Live, celebrity psychic and TV personality John Edward addressed the question of whether it is possible to prove that his avowed psychic abilities are real. “I think that to prove it, is a personal thing,” he told King. “It is like saying, prove God. If you have a belief system and you have faith, then there is nothing really more than that.”

In fact, Edward added, “I think that you need to approach anything of this nature with a skeptical mind-set.”

A Facebook post asking for thoughts on or experiences with psychics brought a wide variety of responses.

“People who go to see psychics tend to be people who want to believe that there’s a meaningful ability there,” says Brad from Albany. “But, as I’ve heard other people say, there’s a sense that psychics tend to give general statements about things and they tend to use words that aren’t exactly contradictory, but they use words that make it open to fit any kind of personality. . . . They throw out these lines, kind of like fishing lines, and wait for someone to pick at one.”

“I don’t personally believe in all of their skills, but I’m not opposed to believing someone has some sort of existential connection to the paranormal,” says Joe from Cobleskill. “If they could prove it to me in a scientific manner I would believe it, but personally I believe most of it is just hearsay . . . and intuition.”

“I’m skeptical,” says Jeff, Albany. “There may be some truth behind it, but who is to say the person who’s ‘the psychic’ or ‘the medium’ is not just a person who can read someone well? The future stuff freaks me out, because then where’s the surprise?”

“My friend Jesse and I went for a psychic reading,” says Andrea from Albany. “She said two people were going to die that were close to me, one soon and one in the future. Then she said I was going to meet a wonderful man in the late spring/early summer, so that’s how I know it’s bogus. Nobody died and needless to say, I haven’t met any wonderful men. I haven’t met any men at all.”

“I think people’s world views and ideas about how life works determines whether or not they believe in psychics and mediums,” says Jillian, Albany. “Because I believe the Hindu concept of Brahman and in a universal collective consciousness, the possibility of psychic and medium abilities is there. If someone doesn’t believe in life after death, they’re not going to believe in the ability of a medium. And if someone believes that our thoughts are only electrical signals from one part of the brain to another, they’re not going to believe in the possibility of extrasensory perception.”

“The only things that exist are ideas . . . ones you believe to be real and ones you believe to be imaginary,” says Charles from Albany. “It’s all environment. The human mind picks up certain aspects of the environment and if one is adept and skilled at a certain environment they could be a very good psychic. In the correct environment you can get consistent results.”

Schenectady’s Katie Manning-Hilton’s refers to herself as a clairvoyant, a psychic, and a medium. She claims she can see spirits of people’s families, and events coming up in the future, as well as things happening now. She says it is as natural to her as breathing. And that it has been happening her entire life.

Manning-Hilton’s mother, Josephine Manning, recognized something peculiar in her daughter as early as age 3.

“I would notice that things that I was thinking, she’d say, or if I was looking for something, she’d know where it was,” Manning says.

A couple of years later, while watching Saturday morning cartoons, 5-year-old Manning-Hilton said to her mother, “Aunt Frannie and Uncle Arnie are coming today.”

Her mother told her, “No. They’re in Colorado,” and continued on with household chores.

Within half an hour, her dad saw a truck in their driveway.

“It’s Frannie and Arnie,” he said.

“They turned around and looked at me like, you creepy little kid,” she laughs.

As she got older, “and her world changed,” Manning says, her daughter’s clairvoyance began to work in different ways.

“We would be someplace and I might start to see something or hear something and I’d say to my mother, ‘Mom, I’m hearing a man,’” Manning-Hilton says.

Her mother would calmly tell her, “It’s okay. We’re leaving now.”

Her father, on the other hand, was a bit more taken aback by it all.

“It scared the bejesus out of him,” Manning-Hilton says.

Even with her constant clairvoyant distractions, Manning-Hilton managed to move through junior high and high school as a “normal” girl.

“It didn’t impact me being a cheerleader or any of the other things. I was very, very normal,” she says.

The transition from high school to college was difficult, though. While attending the College of Saint Rose, Manning-Hilton says, the environment was very “haunted.”

“That was the first time that I was really impacted by the fact that spirits were actually starting to talk to me,” she says. “I was having more psychic ability than I was ever having before. I could hear more, I could feel more.”

Part of the change she says, was the addition of empathy.

“The empathy part is where I feel what everyone else is feeling. . . . It makes you a hot mess.”

With this newfound empathy, she felt the need to talk to people.

“I have to address what you’re feeling,” she says. “If I saw you, like in a CVS or an antique show, and I started to hear things around you. . . . I would be walking up to total strangers.”

She would give these people a reading, right there on the spot, and then continue with her shopping.

After college, Manning-Hilton married and had children. After a few years, she began to work at the Schenectady County Chamber of Commerce.

“My job all day, in economic development, was shaking hands,” she says.

As a result, she was reading people all day long. During meetings she found herself taking more notes on the people in the room than the matter being discussed. After the meetings, she would walk up to people and tell them the messages she claimed to have received from her guides.

“People started to find out there was a girl at the Chamber of Commerce that did this. As a result of that, they started to stop in my office, close the door, and be like, ‘Listen. We’re going to have a merger next week. What are you getting on this?’ So, it was a funny thing.”

The word was spreading. Manning-Hilton was contacted by the sheriff’s department in Scotia to assist in a missing-person case. (She says she is not at liberty to discuss details, but that she has continued to work with various law-enforcement agencies on subsequent cases.) From there, it “snowballed,” she says, as more and more people found out about her. Soon she decided to leave the corporate world and become a professional psychic. Today, people add themselves to a yearlong waiting list for a chance to meet with her.

Katie Manning-Hilton writes down everything as messages come to her. Everything she hears, smells, tastes. She goes through at least 10 pages of her notebook by the end of the my hourlong reading.

She tells me a lot of things. Some make sense, some don’t. I’m skeptical about her future premonitions, like the man I’ll one day marry.

“I keep seeing someone who is very tall, very lanky . . . around the same age, might be a tad bit older,” she says.

Who knows what will happen; I’m not convinced by this, and her description could be adjusted to fit quite a few men. But in terms of what’s happening in my life now, Manning-Hilton seems on target.

“You’re a heavy thinker. You overprocess everything, so you’re in here [she points to her head] a lot. It actually kind of gets in the way of things for you because you do overprocess or overstress. There’s a lot of anxiety that hangs on to you. Does that make sense to you?”

Yes, it makes perfect sense. These are the struggles of my life. For some, this statement may be too general; it would do nothing to convince the skeptic. I understand; they are the struggles of many people.

Destined: Fisher has turned her psychic calling into a life-long career. Photo by Erin Pihlaja

Ann Fisher studied psychology at Hartwick College before she decided to devote her life to being a psychic. One day after graduating college, Fisher decided to go to a spiritualist church. A big believer in astrology, she went seeking advice from a medium on a Scorpio she was dating. She says, “I was in love with him and wanted to know if he would be the one.”

She didn’t get any advice on the Scorpio, but the medium told Fisher she had been a psychic in a past life and was meant to work in this field. Fisher said, “I don’t think so. I don’t know anything about it.”

Three months later, at a Sunday service, 23-year-old Fisher was told by that same medium, “Make sure you come next Sunday. You’re going to work.”

Fisher responded, “Are you sure about this?”

The following Sunday, the medium told the congregation that Fisher would be giving some of the messages.

“I remember my knees were knocking. I took three deep breaths and I started to say things. I didn’t give them a lot that first Sunday, maybe a color or a word.”

After about a month, people started to tell her that things she had predicted were happening. She says, “Within two years I was well known. It was my destiny.”

Like Manning-Hilton, Fisher has her own practice and also has worked with various police departments on homicides and missing-person cases.

“I like to help people feel better,” she says. “I feel that I’m guiding people. I’m being like the psychologist with psychic ability. I’m helping them, whatever I happen to get. It’s quick therapy.”

I feel cold in Fisher’s office on Albany’s Willett Street, but don’t say anything. Within a few minutes, Fisher tells me she’s cold as well.

“When a spirit is around they take your heat, they make you cold,” she says.

The skeptic in me wonders what her thermostat is set to.

During my reading with Fisher, like Manning-Hilton’s, my grandmother comes through.

“She preferred to be Jean,” she says.

No one called her Eleanor, her first name. She didn’t like it.

“At times when you need help you’ll think of her because you were very close to her. She is one of your guides on the other side. She is watching over you.”

True or not, it provides me with a sense of comfort.

Fisher brings up my mother and says, “Your mother hangs on to things too long. She goes over things too many times.”

Anyone familiar with my mother would know this about her. Whether it’s forgetting to put out dinner rolls on Thanksgiving or regretting actions she chose toward the end of my grandmother’s life, she doesn’t let go of things easily. She worries constantly.

Fisher says my grandmother has a message for her, “Tell her to loosen her mind up, that everything is alright. I’m doing fine. I’m with the ones that are over here and I’m happy. It was my time to go and I went.”

I ask both Manning-Hilton and Fisher how they do what they do. Some answers are similar, some are very different. Manning-Hilton focuses mostly on her medium capabilities, whereas Fisher talks about her general psychic abilities.

I start by asking them how they begin a reading.

“I take your name and your birthdate and start to tune in,” Fisher says.

Manning-Hilton says, “I see your energy and who’s around you. . . . Sometimes I don’t even need to do that—it literally will be like someone’s walking in the room behind you.”

I bring up the subject of death, what it means, where we go.

Fisher says, “You lose your physical body, you disconnect and you have the spirit body, which is probably the soul and the mind together. And it goes into another dimension.”

Manning-Hilton says, “I call it Heaven. You can call it universe, the kitchen, you can call it whatever you want.”

Outside of their psychic worlds, both women insist they are just like everyone else.

Manning-Hilton says, “I’m the mom that is neurotic for her kids . . . trying to fill out FAFSA [Free Application for Federal Student Aid]. I’m the arts-and-crafts mom. I’m a funny wife, not a cooking wife.”

Fisher says, “I live a normal life. I’m not always tuned in. I turn it on and off when I want to. If you met me some other place and you didn’t know who I was you wouldn’t think I was a psychic. I’m just an average person.”

I ask them how they make it stop.

Fisher says, “It’s like a switch. I can turn it on and off.”

Manning-Hilton, referring to the spirits that talk to her, says, “I tell them I’m off the clock.”

With the insight she says she gains into people’s lives, sometimes Fisher is able to help by pinpointing a current life struggle. Other times, she takes a different approach. She is big believer in past lives and reincarnation. She thinks people may have undergone trauma in a past life and never recovered. She thinks this creates obstacles for people in their current lives. For people with this problem, she suggests a past-life regression, which she does by hypnosis. She claims she has changed people’s lives.

“Sometimes a problem can be a past life . . . problems lodged in their self-conscious. I can have them leave it there and they won’t have the problem anymore. I have turned people around.”

Fisher suggests I try this and I agree. I’ve never been hypnotized before, and even though I am open to trying, I don’t think it will work.

It’s hard to describe what happens, but I do know that I am experiencing something completely unfamiliar to me—perhaps what people call an “out of body experience.” In this state, images and information come to me that I had never thought or imagined before. I respond immediately to questions she asks me. Questions I didn’t know I had the answers to.

“A year will jump into your mind. A year that you lived before. As you’re looking back in time, the number of a year will jump out at you. Have you got a year?”

Instantly, I tell her, “1844.”

“Where are you?” she asks.

Without pause, I say, “Inside a barn.”

She asks, “How do you feel?”

I respond, “Scared.”

The questions continue and I answer quickly. Before I come out of the hypnotic state, I get a final image. I see a house burning and tell Fisher that my family died inside.

I open my eyes, confused and disturbed. Where did all this come from? Fisher tells me that I haven’t been able to get over this past life, that it has stayed with me, and it’s prevented me from being completely happy. She insists that by leaving that traumatic event in the past, I will be able to live a happier life.

I was hesitant to share this experience, and I have no problem acknowledging the strangeness of it. I can’t explain what happened, but know that the images that came to my mind were ones I never pictured before; 1844 was not a year I had ever thought about.

I didn’t leave Fisher’s office feeling free of any burden, as she suggested. I simply left confused.

With the hour almost up, Manning-Hilton asks, “Who’s military? Was someone in the military that crossed over? World War II?”

I tell her, “My grandfather served in World War II.”

“Did he own his own business? A restaurant?”

“Yes,” I say, “He owned the Ambassador. It was a restaurant in downtown Albany.”

She smiles, tells me he’s quite the character. And he was.

The hairs on my arm stand up again, as I say, “Wow.”

She laughs and says, “I must be psychic.”