Beyond Madame Zora

Beyond Madame Zora

Listening to your intuition—or to someone else’s.

As the economy has tipped perilously downward in recent years, psychics from coast to coast have been doing a booming business. Not that people are looking for magical answers, says Sheldon Norberg, an Alameda-based psychic who practices the intuitive arts in the East Bay and across the United States. Rather, Norberg says, “They need help in navigating.” And like psychotherapists or life coaches, “real psychics work to help people understand how they are creating their lives and to make better choices.”

Yet if there’s anything that screams “bogus” (as opposed to “wow, that was money well spent”), it’s the image of a fortune-teller with a crystal ball, spouting silly tales of romance and riches. The Bay Area is thick with psychics, who—not surprisingly—are drawn to the openness of Northern California attitudes, and there’s no shortage of Tarot readers and palm-analyzers advertising in the phone book or online. But where to find the genuine article? How to avoid a scam? And just what do psychics do, anyway?

A funny feeling

Many ordinary people have a weird story that they tell from time to time, a seemingly implausible tale about an unexplained feeling, a sense that something was not right or that someone was watching or thinking of them. An uncanny intuition of the presence of a dead parent. A mother’s sixth sense that a child was in danger or up to no good. Knowing who was calling before the phone even rang. All of these experiences, experts say, lie somewhere in the logic-defying land of intuition and psychic awareness.

“We’re all clairvoyant or have intuitive capabilities,” says Norberg, who specializes in cleansing homes and buildings of negative energy—otherwise known as ghosts. But a professional psychic trains for years to hone the ability. “It’s a developed practice,” says Norberg, who has studied hypnotherapy, intuitive medicine, psycho-spiritual healing, and meditation techniques. A pleasant-looking, suburban father of two, he didn’t set out to be a “ghostbuster,” nor is he the seventh son of a seventh son. Somehow, though, he “stumbled into working on houses, to clear their spaces of all the encroachments of other people’s energy,” and found the work fulfilling.

Phyllis King, 51, bills herself as the “Common Sense Psychic” on her radio program on KTLK AM 1150. After a career in mental health, King says, “I got to a point where I couldn’t not do it”—that is, work as psychic professionally. “It’s really where I fit.” On the air, she takes calls from listeners seeking advice on relationships, finances, and so on; she also sees private clients. But her real job, King says, is to “put people in a position of power” in their own lives.

“The Bay Area is the epicenter of spiritual training institutes,” says Jodi MacMillan, 41, a Celtic shaman, seer, and healer who lives and practices in Berkeley. She moved in 1991 from New Hampshire, drawn by the Bay Area’s reputation for tolerance, spiritual openness, and the many religious seminaries and centers here. MacMillan learned the occult arts from her grandmother and father. “Seership,” she says, “is a practice and heritage in my family.”

There’s nothing “magical,” MacMillan adds in a calm, rational voice, about what she does. “I’m more of a mechanic,” she says, “more in the realm of alternative or complementary medicine. We practice under a spiritual path [but] the result is often physical.” In fact, she says, being a psychic wasn’t her first career choice—she worked in publishing as an editor and graphic artist, and is interested in the green building movement—“but this is where I’m needed.”

Private practice

Psychics, like therapists, may see certain clients regularly for years. “I talk with some clients two or three times a week, some twice a month, some twice a year, some once every couple of years,” says Stacy Appel, a Lafayette-based psychic and medium. “Some call a psychic for a tune-up sort of reading, [while] others are hungry for accurate reflection which is not available from friends, family, or colleagues.”

A single psychic consultation can run from as little as $20 for a quick reading at the mall to several hundred dollars in a tonier establishment. “Paying an outrageous sum of money does not mean that you are getting a better or more accurate reading,” cautions Sally Headding of Concord, who charges $340 for a 90-minute consultation (including a recording of the session), but works pro bono on crime cases. “I’d beware of the $2,000 reader just as much as I’d avoid the $20 reader.”

“Look for a minimum of 10 years in practice,” suggests MacMillan. Others recommend an even longer apprenticeship: As in many professions, age equals experience and ability. “I wasn’t any good till my 50s,” jokes Headding, who is nearing 70.

MacMillan also advises seekers to set up an initial consultation with a psychic they want to work with long-term—and to be prepared for as much as a two- to three-month wait. “Often, very good readers are almost impossible to get,” she says. Like most of the psychics interviewed for this article, MacMillan works only through referrals, and does no advertising.

Headding—a chatty, upbeat woman who laughs frequently—points to arrogance as a red flag. “A psychic should never tell you, ‘I’m going to always be right,’” she says. With twin Ph.D.s in psychology and parapsychology, Headding has spent decades helping law enforcement agencies around the world, from the Bay Area to Interpol, solve murders and missing person cases. Owing to her portfolio of well-documented body finds, she has been the subject of numerous television programs as well as university research. Yet, says Headding, who liberally peppers her conversation with salty language, she’s far from infallible. “I’m a psychic who loses her keys,” she quips.

No woo woo: Forensic psychic Sally Headding says that destiny isn’t written in the stars. “We all have self-will,” she says. Photo courtesy Sally Heading.

She’s also a psychic who sometimes finds her job grueling. And after the detailed forensic visions that sometimes come to her, she is done in. “Doing the work is like focusing on the point of a needle for two hours—exhausting!” says Headding. Later, she may have graphic visions of children whose bodies she has helped recover. “I’ve never found a live one,” she confesses with deep chagrin. In her opinion, psychics wear their experience in their bodies like scars; many, she says, suffer from autoimmune diseases and other forms of poor health.

On a happier note, Headding says she once helped a childless woman achieve her dream of motherhood. “I had her read me the list of fertility specialists from her phone book—she lives in Pennsylvania—and I selected a new specialist for her. I advised her that she had two sons coming and that both would require in-vitro surgical procedures prior to delivery, but not to [worry], as the outcome of each surgery would be great. All I had said came to pass and both sons are healthy.” Headding adds that the client’s prior doctor had told her to give up hope, as she would never conceive a child. The psychic says she didn’t “make” her client conceive, but rather sensed that there was indeed something to hope for, and that a different doctor could help.

Future in progress

“A real psychic is like a lighthouse—she doesn’t go looking for the boat,” says Appel, whose clients (among them corporate giants like Holiday Inn, Whole Foods, and Chevron) find her through word of mouth. With a background in bereavement and hospice care, Appel believes that counseling expertise is essential for those in her field. While “a party psychic” doesn’t have to deal with deep issues, she says, “important emotional stuff is going to come up” for clients in the course of a quality reading.

Appel says that her work “can feel magical.” However, she adds, “it’s very grounded in reality, in the natural way things work. Like a good musician, I hear things that other people don’t hear.”

The sensitive type: Sheldon Norberg scopes out a seemingly empty hall. Photo by Pat Mazzera.

“The biggest misconception,” she continues, “is that one’s life is written out somewhere in stone, and if we could just get the proper information we’d go in the right direction.” But in fact, she says, “the future is much more wide open than anyone would like to think. A true psychic looks at probabilities, not certainties. Some probabilities are stronger than others, which makes clairvoyance possible—but they are still [just] probabilities.”

For example, she says, “A woman I’d never met came to see me at a fair, and asked about an extramarital affair she was considering, wondering if it was worth jeopardizing her marriage. I looked at her marriage—meaning I looked with psychic senses—which I noted was in big trouble anyway, frankly not worth saving, though I would never have reported what I saw so bluntly. Then I looked at the man, ‘Ted,’ whom she was intrigued with. He also came through as less than impressive to me. As diplomatically as I could, I told her the problems I saw him wrestling with behind his facade. Then I said, ‘One problem is that you’re a lot smarter than Ted. It’s as if you’re Jane Austen, and he’s like a professor at the local community college.’”

The woman gasped, according to Appel.

“‘You couldn’t have known this,’ she said, ‘but he is a professor at the local community college. And I make my living as an expert on Jane Austen . . . I revere Jane Austen.’ We both had a laugh, but it underscores the fact that I never know what I’m going to see when I take a look.”

Do you read me?

Professional psychics often work independently, and without a trusted referral, new clients have little to go on other than their intuition—and their common sense.

Scammers prey on people who are emotionally needy, who are vulnerable and easily taken advantage of, says Norberg. He suggests steering clear of any practitioner with “too many flowers and bells, white robes, an affected presence.” Also no good, in his book: flashing neon signs, or blatant advertising next to porn or pot ads in the backs of magazines. “It’s a profession—can [the psychic] communicate effectively what they do? Are they grounded?” he asks.

Headding frowns on consulting a psychic for advice about frivolous romantic matters. “Anyone who promises you everything is gonna give you nothing,” she says. Also taboo: the voodoo and black magic of a faux fortune-teller who foretells doom. “There is no curse, no darkness, no evil—that is B.S.! There is no such thing,” Headding says. “We all have self-will.” And one word sums up her view of those who consult via an 800 number, advertise on televised programs, or offer email readings: “Ludicrous.”

“A lot of people have reported having had a bad reading,” Appel says. “A good psychic reading should actually resonate somewhere inside you. . . . There’s a real feeling of comfort and pleasure . . . a real opening of your horizons, a reminder that there’s more to life than the material world.”

An initial reading should feel safe, according to MacMillan. “You may feel nothing. You may feel tingling. There may be a very quick response, or maybe a delayed response [of a few days or weeks]. Trust whatever you feel or see or think in the moment,” she says. And above all, MacMillan cautions, “You should never give someone power over you.”

Psychic ability might be likened to a very sensitive skin. Most people can, for example, wear raw wool or roll in newly cut grass without noticing any particular physical effects. But a small percentage of humans are equipped, for whatever reason, with the kind of epidermis that develops a rash at the slightest irritation. Similarly, psychics are those rare individuals whose intuition is turned up to 11, hearing sounds or sensing vibrations that the rest of us miss, or choose not to see. And at its most basic level, Headding says, no matter what a practitioner calls it, “All you’re doing is interpreting energy. It’s not any more complicated than that.”

Julia Park Tracey wonders what’s in her future. Check out her past at or her present at and

The Psychic is In

The following is a partial list of local psychics and related organizations.


Stacy Appel (psychic and medium, animal readings), (925) 295-0244;

Sally Headding (forensic psychic, psychotherapist);

Phyllis King (psychic aka The Common Sense Psychic), (925) 362-3083;

Jodi MacMillan (clairvoyant, meditation teacher, ordained priestess/healer), (510) 883-0600;

Sheldon Norberg (psychic, hypnotherapist, author), (510) 595-4699;

Charles Peden (animal-spirit communicator), (925) 360-7469;

Psychic Reality (professional readings and healings), (510) 251-6560;


Aesclepion Intuitive Center (center for clairvoyant training and readings in Marin County), 1314 Lincoln Ave., San Rafael, (800) 318-8784;

Belladonna (nonprofit organization for women’s pagan spirituality and environmental issues), P.O. Box 2378, Berkeley;

Berkeley Psychic Institute (classes, workshops, and readings for clairvoyants and general public), 1288 Ninth St., Berkeley, (510) 558-9450;


Do Dead People Watch You Shower?: And Other Questions You’ve Been All But Dying to Ask a Medium, by Concetta Bertoldi (Harper Paperbacks, 2007).

Healing Houses: My Work as a Psychic House Cleaner, by Sheldon Norberg (North Mountain Publishing, 2010).

A Psychic Perspective: 10 Steps to More Love, Wealth & Personal Happiness, by Phyllis King (Cambia Publishing, 1999).

A Psychic Perspective: Insights on Love, Wealth & Personal Happiness, by Phyllis King (Cambia Publishing, 2009).

Faces of the East Bay