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Contacting the Dead? It's Become a Lively Business

April 30, 2002|ROY RIVENBURG | TIMES STAFF WRITER

After 12 years of not hearing from my dad, I was starting to get worried. I mean, just because he's been dead the whole time doesn't mean he can't stay in touch. With so many talented psychics running around, including several who have their own TV shows, the lines of communication should be wide open.

Unfortunately, even though my job as a journalist has required me to interview psychic dogs, psychic humans and the occasional Magic 8 Ball, my father's spirit has never materialized. Until now.

The breakthrough happened earlier this month at a summit of "after-death communicators." Actually, the summit was a flop. At the last minute, well-known medium James Van Praagh backed out because "Entertainment Tonight" needed him to contact actor Robert Blake's slain wife. And a University of Arizona professor who researches psychic phenomena was too ill to fly from Tucson.

Hmm. Guess the spirits didn't see that coming.

But that still left Judy Guggenheim, co-author of "Hello From Heaven!," and George Dalzell, a psychiatric social worker from the L.A. County Department of Mental Health. By day, Dalzell tries to help homeless people get the voices out of their heads, but at night, he tunes into such voices--from the spirit realm.

Dalzell has written a book, "Messages," outlining a string of bizarre encounters with the ghost of his dead lover Michael Keller, who apparently is quite a prankster in the hereafter. Keller's friends and relatives say his ghost disrupts phone calls, flicks lights on and off, arranges rose petals into patterns and sets off alarm clocks at odd hours. About the only thing his spirit hasn't done is phone next-of-kin to ask if their refrigerator is running.

On a recent Friday, I visited Dalzell and Guggenheim at Dalzell's apartment in Larchmont. The purpose of the summit, they said, was to urge scientific research into the possibility of life after death.

Now is the time, they said, noting a harmonic convergence of TV shows and books on the topic, including Arizona professor Gary E. Schwartz's controversial research into the paranormal.

"We have the technology to settle this question once and for all," Guggenheim said. "Let's go to the lab with it."

OK, but first, let's run a little experiment in Larchmont. "Will you give me a reading?" I asked Dalzell. Although caught off guard, he was a good sport and agreed to try his skills on a skeptical reporter.

I used to believe in all of this stuff. Growing up, I was entranced by reports of psychic phenomena. Then, in high school, somebody gave me "Dunninger's Complete Encyclopedia of Magic," which explained how magicians perform similar feats. Some of the stunts were incredibly elaborate, but they were tricks, nonetheless.

That doesn't mean I reject the idea of life after death. Quite the opposite. I just don't think it's possible to chat with someone after they're gone. The few psychics and mediums who've been brave enough to undergo scientific testing have invariably flunked. And the rest probably would flunk.

On a St. Louis radio show a few years ago, a caller asked Van Praagh about a dead brother. After the mustachioed medium conjured up a hospital scene and described how "the cancer came quickly over his body," the caller revealed there was no dead brother. Even when callers aren't setting traps, transcripts of readings by Van Praagh, John Edward and other mediums show a staggering number of misses.

In 1990, I wrote about Harmony Grove, a spiritualist village north of San Diego. A hundred years ago, spiritualist mediums enjoyed a wide following. Then, after prominent practitioners were exposed as fakes, the church fell from grace, but it never died out completely. Today's spiritualists acknowledge some shenanigans in the past, but insist contact with the dead is real.

So I went to a seance. It was a few weeks after my father died and I figured if this stuff were legit, someone would pick up on my dad's departure. Nope. My other journalistic encounters with psychics--both human and canine--have been equally unpersuasive. Therefore, I wasn't expecting much as Dalzell began my reading:

I'm getting a Janice or Janet that you're close to.

No, sorry.

There's a J name.

Hey, that narrows it down: John, Joe, Jennifer, Jim, Jessica, Jean, Jeff, Jill, Jane, Jerry. (Ever notice how talking with the dead is like watching "Wheel of Fortune"? The spirits can only speak in consonants until it's time to deliver the final message and then suddenly they're able to blurt out entire paragraphs: "Your grandmother says she loves you, she's proud of you, she likes your new wallpaper and she's enjoying heaven with your grandpa and your dog Spot.")

I'm getting another Roy.

Yes, there's another Roy. (But that's a pretty safe bet. Parents often name their kids after other people, and Roy is an uncommon first name.)

Are you a Roy Jr.?

Sort of. (My middle name is different, but close enough.)

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