An Interview With Rochelle Jewel Shapiro

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1) Like your protagonist Miriam – your grandmother was a Russian-born psychic. When and how did you learn about her gift? When did you learn that you had inherited it?

In Miriam The Medium, Miriam’s mother was hostile to her mother-in-law’s psychic gift, but my mother was awed by my grandmother’s gift and raved about it to anyone who would listen, and I was my mother’s best audience. I listened intently as my mother told me how my grandmother had looked into her eyes and said, “You’ve got a baby girl inside you.” It was so early that my mother hadn’t known she was pregnant and, nine months later, my big sister was born. My mother also told me that my grandmother could look at someone’s fingertips and tell what diseases they were prone to. Several years ago, I was shocked and gratified when I read in the New York Times that the whorls on someone’s fingertips did indeed show whether they were prone to heart conditions or Alzheimer’s and other diseases. (I wish I had saved the article.) My grandmother knew how to non-surgically repair a baby’s hernia by pushing the muscles back in place and taping them until they were strong again. She oiled her hands and massaged baby’s knock-knees and ankles that turned inward, causing pigeon-toes, until the limbs were straight, and even improved the shape of lop-sided heads. She made salves and herbal teas to cure people. Her homemade eye drops, prepared from the urine of someone prepubertal—she usually used mine—was terrific for conjunctivitis. In one of her paeans to my grandmother, my mother swore, “Your grandmother was so ahead of her time with those drops. Murine must really be urine, but they put a ‘M’ in front or people wouldn’t buy it.”When I was four, my grandmother took my face in her hands and said, “You have my gift. God help you.” Over the years, I wondered whether she’d meant—God help you to use it in the best possible manner or God help you, because you’re going to need it with a gift like this.

2) What is the difference between a psychic and a medium?

A medium receives all his or her messages from a spirit. You will often hear a medium say, “Your father is telling me that…” A regular psychic picks up information without necessarily knowing who delivered it. Although my novel is called Miriam The Medium and I do the work of a medium, I think of myself as a regular psychic. Recently, as I was doing a phone reading of a woman, picking up highly detailed items about her health, her romantic life, etc., I said, “I’m getting a message about something major that happened when your daughter was nine.” “No,” my client insisted, “nothing important happened when my daughter was nine.” I went on to talk about my client’s romantic issues, her health, etc., but I kept hearing “Nine.Daughter. Nine,” so I brought it up again, and once again my client told me I was wrong. When the reading was almost over, I was seeing nines and well as hearing them, and, despite my embarrassment, I pursued the topic. “Oh, my God!” my client exclaimed. “I just remembered that my father died when my daughter was nine weeks old. And every time I tell about his death, I preface it by saying, “When my daughter was nine weeks old, my father died.”At that point, information about her father began coming through easily. The “nine” was like his calling card, a way for him to make contact. Yet, sometimes the dead are waiting to speak, hardly letting me get a word in about anything else. Other times, nothing about the dead will come through unless the client requests it. What does this all mean? As Bubbie, my grandmother would say, “Ver vaist?” Who knows? People invent all sorts of explanations for these phenomenon, and if I would offer up one, I’d say the gift is simply a brain function, often inherited, like musical or mathematical talent. But really, for now, all of this has to be filed in a folder marked, “Mysteries.”

3) Also like Miriam, today you make your living as a phone psychic. You have said that you have honed your gift to read people over the phone, and not in person, to avoid awkward face-to-face interactions where you might know too much about someone in a social situation. How exactly did you train yourself to do this? Does this “filter” always work?

Before I began doing psychic readings over the phone, I used to pick up psychic information all the time and it often made me depressed or anxious in situations where I should have been having a ball.. Take me to a nice restaurant, and right away, I’d see a scene in my mind of my waiter as a child, being beaten by his father, and I’d get such a lump in my throat that I couldn’t eat. At a party, I’d see a “D” or a broken wedding ring over the heads of the host and hostess and I’d know, way before they did, that they’d be getting divorced, and I’d start to feel sorry for their children, and there went the evening. And I couldn’t say anything to people about the information that I’d gleaned, even if it was helpful to them. It’s a contradiction the way people will often hound me for psychic information, but if I tell them something without being asked, they become upset and offended. Once, in a coffee shop, a woman who knew I was psychic, pressured me into answering the ubiquitous question, “So what do you see for me?”I was determined to only tell her something light and be done with it. In my mind, I saw a house with a sign that read, “Sold.” “You’re either going to sell or have sold your house,” I said.“Yes, my husband has always dreamed of his own business, so we’re selling the house to finance it.” She seemed satisfied and went on to talk about what other psychics had told her and psychic experiences she herself had had, but I could hardly hear her. I kept seeing red, not for anger, but for debt. “Don’t sell the house!” I blurted out. “The business will fail. You’ll lose all your money.”She got up so quickly that her chair clattered to the floor. “How dare you!” she’d spat, and walked out. Through a mutual acquaintance, I later heard that my prediction came true. Within a year, after her husband left his job for his own business, the couple went bankrupt. She probably thought I’d put a curse on her. Maybe the woman was right to be distressed. We have so little privacy that our own minds and our own destinies should be carefully guarded. For my own sake as well as others, I began to seriously think about how I could contain my gift. I noticed that when strangers phoned, collecting for charities or trying to sell me something, I would spontaneously pick up things about them, and often feel so sorry for them that I’d buy things I didn’t need and donate to causes I didn’t care about. But these calls showed me that I could work over the phone, thereby removing myself further from people when my gift was involved. That helped, but what helped even more was working by “appointment only,” and not doing a reading right away, even if I was available. I began to meditate and pray before each reading so that there was a mental signal, a kind of permission granted, before I gave out psychic information. It worked. I can now go to restaurants, parties, anywhere, and not be burdened with things that are none of my business. Now, when people try to collar me into telling them what I see for them, I smile, and tell them truthfully, “I’m not getting anything at all. But if you’d like to make an appointment with me for a reading, well….”

4) Twenty seven years ago, a clairvoyant predicted that you would publish a novel with Simon & Schuster. How did this novel come about?

Like all my clients, I dismissed the psychic’s prediction because, at the time, it sounded so preposterous. I wasn’t even writing. I had never even entertained the though of being a writer. How could I ever write a novel and be published by Simon & Schuster, no less! I put it out of my mind. A few years later, I began to keep a daily journal, not because I was planning to write a novel, but because I was flooded with feelings about my life, and the few times I tried to go to therapy, I picked up far too much about the therapist and began worrying about how to save her. Soon, journaling became a source of stability for me, a deep relationship, and I looked forward to writing in it each night as an escape from my psychic practice.Slowly, I felt a need to share what I was writing, and took a poetry workshop. Poetry collared me. I read everything in the 811 stacks of the library and subscribed to stacks of poetry magazines. Never having been a rhymer, my poems began to grow into short stories. Even though I was writing to get away from my psychic work, when I put pen to page (I still write the old fashioned way) what came out was what I knew from my life) a story about a middle-aged suburban phone psychic who lives in Great Neck. Even when my agent was sending my novel around, I didn’t take the psychic’s prediction seriously, because he’d said that the novel I’d be publishing with Simon & Schuster would be a “love story,” and that wasn’t how I thought of my book. But when my agent and I had a meeting with my editor, Marysue Rucci, and assistant editor, Tara Parsons, and others from Simon & Schuster, it felt like déjà vu, and there was such a feeling of love in that room that I realized that my novel was about love after all—both the love between the characters, and the feeling I hoped to share with readers, and I knew, just knew that Simon & Schuster was going to buy my novel as Vincent Ragone, the psychic, had predicted.

5) Because she is clairvoyant, Miriam is often confronted with skepticism and disapproval by various individuals (for example, her nosy and unfriendly neighbor Iris Gruber). Does this reflect your own experience?

Over twenty-five years ago, when I began working as a psychic, the kind of people who phoned me were often people who spent most of their time looking through telescopes to spot UFO’s or outpatients from various psychiatric clinics. But within the last decade, my clients are largely high-functioning mainstream people. It seems that everyone of note these days has his psychotherapist, his personal trainer, and his psychic. However, there is a simultaneous awe and disdain for psychics. “How are you getting this information?” a client who had been totally impressed with me might suddenly ask suspiciously, as I’ve installed surveillance equipment in his home or run some kind of elaborate search on him.Also, there are so many stories about psychics bilking people out of their life savings, that even if a person has been highly recommended to me by a friend of his who has used me for years, he might say, “I’d rather not give you my credit card number.” As for my neighbors, most of them didn’t know how I earned my living until I “came out” in an essay called “Psychic In Hiding” in Newsweek on February 20th, 2,004 where my picture appeared. I noticed that most of my neighbors didn’t say a word about the article. Either they didn’t recognize me with makeup or they were being polite by remaining silent, as if someone near them had passed gas. But those who did remark on it, all wished me the greatest joy and success.

6) When Miriam goes public with her gift on television, she is made to look like a “quack” – claiming she is psychic for profit without any real talent to back her up. What are your feelings about psychics that are visible in society today through television or print advertising? Are they guilty of exploiting their gifts for money– what Miriam’s grandmother would call “doing it for the gelt” – or are they making an honest living?

My grandmother never charged anyone for her predictions or cures. If they paid her at all, it was in baking her a pan of cinnamon rugelach or bringing her potted Chinese ferns. But my grandmother’s world was different. For one thing, she had no mortgage to pay because she lived with her daughter and son-in-law. If she needed to use a telephone, she went right downstairs to my father’s grocery store and used his. She didn’t have health insurance premiums and almost never went to a doctor. “The doctors and the undertakers are partners,” she always said. She had nothing to save money for. It was her children’s children who needed college tuition and summer camps. She didn’t have to buy car, insure it, maintain it. Everything she needed was either within walking distance or was brought to her door by peddlers. And she didn’t have to put away for her old age. My Bubbie died in her own bed right in her daughter’s home. Life is totally different for all of us today.I greatly admire James Van Praag, Sylvia Brown, John Edward, and all the rest of the psychics who have the courage to appear in the media and and feel that they should be paid as well as any other person with great talent.

7) Writing a novel seems like a huge transition from your other job. What gave you the idea to write a novel?

Although Vincent Ragone, the brilliant clairvoyant, had predicted that I’d write a novel, as I said, it seemed too preposterous at the time when I’d never written or even thought about writing. But after writing for fifteen years, my filing cabinets full of poems and stories, I developed a need to work at one larger piece instead of this and that. And the novel came to me almost like a scientific problem. In most books I’ve read about psychics, the mother and daughter are both psychic and the daughter rejects her gift and has to go through great trials before she accepts it. I said to myself, What if the mother is psychic, but the daughter isn’t? And, after seven years of working at it, out came Miriam the Medium.Another similarity between doing psychic readings and writing is that I never know if either has hit the mark until someone else tells me. My clients are constantly telling me whether I’m right or wrong. With Miriam The Medium, I’m just going to have to wait patiently for the reviews.The act of writing is very similar to doing readings. There are times, after very hard groundwork, that some scenes feel channeled to me, as if they are being written through me, but not by me. There is a kind of trance state that I get into with both my writing and my readings, a spell that must not be broken. At ten, my son answered the phone when a prospective client asked about my readings. “Which?” my son asked. “Her poetry or her psychic?” The answer is still in the ethers.

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