The summer of 2013, I fell in love with the show “Long Island Medium.” Starring Teresa Caputo, the TLC show focuses on her life as an Italian-American Long Island housewife and a psychic medium.
Like most successful reality TV, the show is incredibly formulaic. In the first 12 minutes, she goes on some kind of social outing with one of her family members or friends. This happens a lot throughout the show, and could be an outing anywhere from a nail salon to a bakery. We are meant to believe we are just watching her normal life. While out of the house, she claims she has been contacted by spirit to confront someone with the information that their dead loved one wants to send them a message. In each episode, the encounter ends with someone saying something to the effect of: I never believed in mediums, but now I do.
The second half of the show features Caputo meeting with usually one or two people who have been waiting for years to consult with her. Always, they are individuals who suffer horribly from grief; often, there is some kind of event surrounding the loved one’s death making it particularly difficult to accept. These people seek Teresa out searching for answers. Their stories are gut-wrenching. At the start, they all express their doubts that Teresa will be able to connect with their dead relative. By the end of basically every episode, they are in tears. And so am I.
If you Google Teresa Caputo, after her own promotional websites, you’ll find manifold first person rants testifying to the fact that “SHE IS A FAKE.”
As a WIRED magazine article described Caputo’s work, “Such performances seem to prey on people at their most vulnerable moments – those who have suffered the loss of loved ones – and these mediums use such grief to make a buck.” This crowd labels Teresa Caputo and others like her as immoral hucksters, exploiting those suffering the most.
When I read the critiques of Teresa Caputo after falling in love with her I immediately felt ashamed. I am a dreamworker, meaning I practice a one-on-one method of exploring people’s dreams for healing and psychological exploration. Telling people this, I have received critiques along the same lines — “You’re selling snake oil,” “That sounds like bullshit,” and my personal favorite, “But Kezia, you’re so smart!”
Dealing with the negative reactions hasn’t been terribly difficult. I didn’t set out to walk an alternative path; I just wanted to be as honest with myself as I could be, and ended I up here. I have personally had powerful healing experiences working with my own dreams. These experiences were so profound that if I doubted the reality of them, there would be a whole lot of other things thrown into doubt. It would be destabilizing. So when people doubt my integrity, I can never waver for long, because it’s really disorienting.
Not to say the critiques don’t hit home. Dreams are very vulnerable and tender for an individual to open up about. It’s easy to manipulate and harm people who are in a vulnerable state. Am I just another Teresa, exploiting people’s dreams rather than their grief?
And yet, the people who visit with Teresa one-on-one appear to genuinely receive a tremendous experience of comfort and release. If they didn’t, “Long Island Medium” would be really boring to watch. Teresa offers a strong confirmation of basic beliefs about the afterlife that many people already instinctively have. Again and again, she stresses how vital it is that the individual release any guilt they might feel about the circumstances of the death or their relationship to the deceased. She reminds them that their loved ones are always with them — and that the waves of grief they experience can be understood as reminders of their loved one’s presence.
My question is, if we can never really know for sure know whether she is communicating with dead people or not, what difference does it make if the people she works feel like they receive the healing they’ve been looking for?
The WIRED article says, “Psychologists tell us this keeps the grieving stuck in their grief, rather than going through the natural stages of acceptance that are healthy.”
But to me this isn’t convincing. Most people who come to Teresa have been waiting for a very long time, and have also tried a lot of other methods to heal from their grief. They often come to Teresa in a state of desperation. They have been urged by well-meaning friends and family to “get over it” but they just can’t. I’m not saying people shouldn’t undergo the standard treatments for grief. What I’m saying is perhaps obvious — the standard method may really work for some and not for others.
It’s pretty harmful to even purport that there is a uniform set of beliefs people “should” have about the afterlife in order to be healthy. It implies that if someone isn’t conforming to that pattern, they are grieving poorly, and thus are bad people. Grieving is a mysterious and wholly individual journey and there are as many different paths as there are people. Asserting that psychologists have figured out the beliefs and experiences you must hold to grieve “healthily” is the same logic that asserts there is no life after death and no way to feel the presence of your loved ones after they have died.
This logic dominates a lot of our media, creating a materialist paradigm that feigns to be based in science but is actually based in beliefs. The problem is, there is no recognition or acknowledgment of mysteries. There are mysteries about our world that science will never be able to figure out. The afterlife is one of these mysteries. When we come to a mystery, we develop a belief about what we think is true in order to try to solve it. Our truth can be important and powerful for us, but since it is based in belief, one must not judge others for holding beliefs that are different from one’s own.
When I come across a mystery, like the afterlife, I try to feel my way into my answer instead of reason about it. It sometimes makes my beliefs fuzzy and malleable and not easy to talk about. But that doesn’t mean they’re wrong. I don’t think it is the kind of thing that you can really be right or wrong about.
I was recently listening to WTF with Marc Maron talking to Chris Hayes. As they both described their struggles with anxiety, they lamented how “nice” it would be if they could have some belief in an afterlife. They talked about it in the condescending way it is acceptable to talk about such idiotic ideas as that — namely, with the air of conviction that they know the “truth” and everyone else who believes otherwise is maintaining a ridiculous, albeit comforting, lie.
This struck me as very funny. What does it mean to want to believe in the afterlife? Anything you believe about it is just that — a belief. We can’t know the truth about what happens after a person dies. If you want to believe that you turn into a cloud and float above the head of the person you love the most until they die, and then you both become clouds and float off into the universe for eternity — well — you can. No one could ever prove you wrong.
So, after bouts of shame, I returned to my consumption of Teresa Caputo with confidence. I have no way to know whether Teresa actually communicates with dead people or not. All I know is that she absolutely appears to believe that she does, and most of the people who have direct interaction with her develop that belief as well. And that is just enough reality (TV) for me.
Kezia Kamenetz is a teacher, dreamworker, and writer living in New Orleans. She is interested in the intersections of spirituality, science, and society as well as all the ways humanity could bring its dreams to life. You can learn more about her work by visiting her website.