Spirit in the Material World
Brooklyn medium and seance host Betsy Cohen sees dead people, and likes them
by Catherine Lacey photography Luisa Opalesky
To be at once a psychic medium and a social worker comes with its share of problems. Years ago, when Betsy Cohen was still counseling the surviving families of homicide cases, she learned this the hard way. Her clients’ deceased family members would sometimes appear in the office, asking Cohen to relay messages. “For one thing,” explained the sprightly, tattooed 33-year-old on a recent afternoon in her Williamsburg apartment, “the clients were not expecting a medium; they came in for counseling. I don’t know what people would have thought if they found out a social worker for victims of homicide also happened to talk to dead people.” These days Cohen only relays messages from the dead when everyone is onboard.
“I don’t know what people would have thought if they found out a social worker for victims of homicide also happened to talk to dead people.”
Between speaking engagements, weekly séances, one-on-one readings, classes and writing for various blogs, Cohen's intuitive abilities have led her into a burgeoning career. VICE magazine once flew her to SXSW to do readings for rock stars. At the release of Heidi Julavits’s most recent novel, The Vanishers, Julavits and Cohen staged a live interview about clairvoyance and psychic attacks, a primary subject of the book.
Though Cohen became a go-to psychic for Brooklyn’s creative set through intention, practice and lot of work, her route began with an accident. Her abridged explanation: “I fell on my head.” After a tumble down a staircase led to a CAT scan, she was diagnosed with syringomyelia, a small but dangerous hole in her spinal cord. Without warning, she was told, she could develop a number of symptoms including chronic pain or even paralysis. She took the diagnosis as a call to dive deeper into the spiritual and healing arts. She also had a calling, she explained, “much like a priest or an artist is called to do their work.”
Several years later and Cohen is both a Reiki master and a Reverend in the Spiritualist Church. She’s also been dubbed a “hipster psychic,” a title that seems to amuse Cohen more than anything. After all, she did once release an album of ukulele music and she lives in Williamsburg. But regardless of the slightly neutering modifier of “hipster” hovering in the periphery, any skeptic who meets a young, self-declared psychic will naturally be on alert for evidence of some kind of madness—whether a little twitch of the crazy eye or full-blown, brinkless insanity.
What’s surprising about Cohen, however, are the many ways she subverts expectations of what a psychic should be. She doesn’t hover over a crystal ball, claim to have special powers or deny free will. Instead, her readings tap into the needs and desires of her client. She presents possible outcomes depending on decisions that a person will or will not make. “I’m just using my body and Spirit,” she says of her readings, even admitting that she may sometimes misinterpret messages from Spirit, though her strikeout rate has drastically decreased as the years have gone by.
After all the disclaimers, a client might expect a reading to be something like a gentle, empowering therapy session, but many of her clients are surprised at how Cohen, given no prior information, will begin a reading by recalling specific, recent issues in that person’s life, even precise phrases or images that client has recently used.
If the prevalence of store-front psychics, tarot and palm readers throughout the city is any indication, New Yorkers have a particular desire to know what's going to happen in the future. But isn’t getting comfortable with uncertainty the only way to maturely bear life? Isn’t the message about the future always that there is no certainty? “There is a certainty and the certainty is you,” Cohen says, true to her mission of helping her clients get in touch with their higher selves and guiding principles, not proclaiming the inevitable.
And yet, at a recent séance, when a storm that had been hovering all day started with a clap and flash just as Cohen began, everyone in the room shifted a little in their seats when she said, “I’ve been waiting for this rain all day.” The downpour had completely passed by the time the séance was over.