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HOWARD ROSENBERG

Medium-Hot Walk on the Far 'Side'

November 14, 1994|HOWARD ROSENBERG

Talking to the dead. . . .

At 8 a.m. last Wednesday, I rang the doorbell at the West Hollywood residence of James Van Praagh, 36, the spiritualist medium I anticipated exposing as a fraud after seeing him several times on "The Other Side," a new NBC daytime program that explores "out-of-the-ordinary experiences of everyday people."

Yet I was curious, having no previous experience communicating with the dead myself, unless you count the calls I get from some of the people commenting on my column.

Van Praagh's intermittent appearances are the main sizzle in "The Other Side." The man is spectacular. Even while thinking that he was nothing more than a slick showman, I felt my skepticism softening as he appeared to converse with the dead on TV, relaying information from the spiritual world that the show's host, Will Miller, insisted Van Praagh had no previous knowledge about.

In one of his most memorable chats with a dead man, Van Praagh confirmed a widow's suspicion that her husband had been murdered by strangers and had not taken his own life, as the police had claimed. Van Praagh even correctly identified the location of the wound.

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The people for whom he contacts the dead appear convinced. What makes Van Praagh especially persuasive is that these people appear credible themselves. These are not people who see a UFO behind every cloud or believe everything mailed to them by Publisher's Clearinghouse brings them the house on the hill. These are intelligent, thoughtful, sophisticated people.

People like me.

Could Van Praagh be on the level? I wanted to believe he was. In case he wasn't, though, I brought along my weapons of ridicule--a notebook, a pen and a tape recorder.

When the door opened, I was greeted warmly by a smiling man whom I had never met. "You look just like I thought you'd look," Van Praagh said.

Yeah, sure, like I was really going to fall for that .

Van Praagh's place was sparsely furnished, the walls nearly bare. No ghostly artifacts or other weird stuff. They were probably still packed away. He'd moved in just two days ago. "Come back in a month and I'll have some ghouls for you," he said.

A self-mocking medium. I liked that.

Reared a Catholic, Van Praagh says that when it comes to the dead, he's clairsentient (feeling their presence and hearing their thoughts) and, to some extent, clairvoyant (able to see them). He believes the spiritual world is directly above ours. He says his first contact with a spirit came when he was 8, when he saw a hand materialize in his bedroom. He has been giving readings for a number of years, full time for four.

"Sometimes spirits will show me visions of things," he said. "I get these slides, like film in my face, very, very fast."

I told him I was skeptical but open to the possibility that he was legitimate, and wanted to test him by having him contact my stepfather, Getz Magady, to whom I was very close. (I didn't tell Van Praagh my stepfather's name, however, or that he had died in 1988, or any other details about him or my family.)

"I can try," Van Praagh said. "He has to have a strong need of being in contact. Mediumship is not something you can always guarantee." You can, though, when he does it on TV.

Before we began on my stepfather, I asked Van Praagh if he could contact Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Lyle Goldman to find out who had murdered them, just as he had chatted on TV with the murder victim who had been ruled a suicide. "I could do that," he said. "But I would need a family member around, because I link in with the relatives. You need a link."

I was the link for my stepfather. Eyes closed, body still, Van Praagh began by praying ("Dear spirit friends, draw close to me . . . ").

"The man you want to talk to is here," he said a little later.

During our 55 minutes together, Van Praagh at times spoke directly to Getz ("I understand that . . . Gotcha . . . Right. I understand. Thank you very much"), told me at one point that Getz was "laughing his head off" and, as a bonus, contacted my natural father, Sherman Rosenberg, who died a decade ago.

The results were mixed.

Van Praagh has a talent for drawing tiny bits of information from you during a reading and embellishing them in ways that might make you think he received them independently from the dead person he says he's contacting. In fits and jerks, he relays incomplete thoughts and feelings he claims are coming from the dead.

At times he was either getting a lot of erroneous information or misinterpreting what he was hearing. No, I didn't have a sister, knew nothing about Palm Springs, knew nothing about someone wanting to play a round of golf. No, Getz was not bland. No, my natural dad was not poor with money. And so on and so on.

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