Last year, I had the chance to sit in on a documentary shoot with SBS at a Sydney psychic school. Here is the long overdue finished piece I wrote about my experience. Note: names have been changed for privacy reasons.
As I round the corner into Ramsay Street in Sydney’s Inner West, I can’t help but picture the famous suburban Melbourne cul de sac, bounded by 1970’s style homes from the long-running television soap opera ‘Neighbours.’ Instead, my iPhone’s GPS leads me to a wide street of Californian bungalows, with hip-height hedges and rustic red brick walls marking their boundaries. I pull up in the driveway of one of these houses bounded by mish-mashed Art Deco/Federation era architecture on one side. I walk down the unlit driveway, amused by the ‘haunted house’ vibe created by the steeply pitched roof, ornamental gooseneck tiles and protruding chimney stacks.
Inside this house lives Franca, a 50-something psychic and energy worker. A former marketing and business manager, Franca traded in her corporate lifestyle in the early 1990’s to practice and teach intuitive development. Today, Franca runs classes from home for trainee psychics looking to refine their skills in working with the invisible.
When I first meet Franca, she greets me with uncertainty, asking me twice about my day after my unconvincing response the first time round. She leads me through the side door and down a hallway to a living room with an adjoining sunroom at the back of the house. The area offers a warm escape from the brisk Autumn air outside, with the glow of lamp lights bouncing off the mustard-coloured walls.
As I take off my coat Franca hands me a multicoloured mohair blanket. “Make yourself comfortable, but you may be needing a blanket later. It tends to get quite cold when we start doing spirit work.”
Despite this, nothing about Franca is ‘stereotypically’ psychic. There are no purple velvet robes, oversized hoop earrings or crystal balls. Instead, her appearance is more closely aligned with that of a conservative, middle-aged school teacher. Her hair is brownish grey, cropped close to the head, and her bare face is adorned with John Lennon-style tortoise shell frames. She is educated and professional looking, but unintimidating.
For the past 16 years, Franca has taught, demonstrated and spoken on energetic phenomena. While her energy work ranges from telepathy to house clearings, it is psychic mentorship that Franca finds most rewarding. Although self-taught, Franca has supplemented her development with a Graduate Diploma in Adult Education and a Certificate IV in Workplace Training. For Franca, psychic development is far removed from the airy fairy work of late-night TV charlatans: it’s a profession. And helping others is at the heart of what Franca does.
I pull out a printed page from the Australian Bureau of Statistics website that categorises the psychic industry and show it to Franca.
“Oh, goodness!” she remarks, reading down the list. “They’ve got us grouped in with pet groomers, cloak room servers and, what’s that? Shoe shiners? No wonder so many people struggle to take our work seriously.”
“What do you think would be a better category for energy workers?” I ask.
“Well we’re not on the same level as a pet groomer, I can assure you! We’re much more than that. We’re teachers, counsellors and healers. We just want to help people.”
I follow Franca into the kitchen and watch as she busies herself cutting lemons. “I’m just making some lemon tea for when the girls arrive. I find the mixture of hot water and lemon allows our auras to open up more for our class.” She pulls an old-style kettle off the stove and places 5 enamel mugs on the bench top. “I tend to avoid electrical goods,” she states as the lemon infuses with the hot water. “I find they emit bad energy. Computers, televisions and mobile phones are especially harmful.”
With the energising aroma of citrus now pervading the back rooms of the house, I wander back to the living room, mug in hand. I struggle to notice any electrical items apart from an old home phone. In lieu of a television sits a bookcase, filled with well-read books on topics ranging from meditation to healing and Hebrew studies. Scattered on the shelves are miniature shells and coloured crystals, with the odd hand-painted picture. Tarot cards, crystal balls and Ouija boards are nowhere to be seen.
Shortly before 6.30pm, the ring of a doorbell echoes through the house. When Franca returns from the front door, she introduces me to Sian and Sara, two students in her intermediate level intuitive development class.
“Sorry we cut it a bit fine time-wise, Franca,” says Sian in a broad voice that slightly whistles through her teeth. “I finally bought a motorbike the other week and got a little caught up looking into licences.” Noticing me on the lounge, Sian reaches over with a firm handshake and crooked smile, her dark, smudged eye makeup framing her piercing hazel eyes. The combination of her stretcher earring and pink highlighted hair make her look deceivingly younger than her 44 years.
Following behind Sian is Sara a 30 year-old Barbara Streisand lookalike, with shoulder length blonde locks. With a grey designer coat draped over her shoulders, Sara excitedly greets me with a jittery hug and a kiss on the cheek. “We’re really grateful to have you here for our class. We can get a bit stuck in a rut when we just do readings for each other all the time.”
As Sian and Sara settle in on the lounge, Franca covers their legs with an assortment of woollen blankets and places their mugs of hot lemon tea next to plates of dried apricot, mixed nuts and biscuits. The doorbell is then heard for a second time, with a third student, Leah, making her way into the living room shortly after. Trailing behind Leah is her rescue dog, Autumn, a timid miniature Irish wolfhound. Leah glances over at me with an anxious smile as she hastily places her gangly self down on the lounge next to Sara. She unwraps the bright orange scarf from around her neck and pats down her windswept fringe before tucking herself in under some blankets. Franca brings a plastic Chinese food container filled with water and puts it down next to Autumn, who is now curled between Leah’s feet.
Sian, Sara and Leah are now in their sixth month of psychic training. They attend classes with Franca in her home every 3 weeks, practicing readings with close friends and family, free of charge, between classes. Sara and Leah, who met through work, both hold management positions at the NSW Health. Along with business development manager, Sian, the women all approached Franca at the start of the year to learn how to channel the energy forces they have long felt sensitive to. But unlike their university degrees, this isn’t a course they’ll openly talk about with everyone.
“It’s something I’ve always had an interest in. But I’ve kept putting it off. It’s something I want to explore more in my fifties when I have more life experience under my belt. Besides my partner, Stef, I haven’t told many people,” admits Sian.
“Yeah, you don’t want people thinking you’re, well, a freak when you tell them you moonlight as a psychic,” jokes Sara.
When I ask these psychics in training why they decided to take an intuitive development course, their responses are surprisingly similar: it’s not about the money.
“I’ve always been really approachable,” confesses Sara. “My whole life I’ve had random people come up to me on trains and like, tell me really deep, personal things about themselves. It’s kinda bizarre! I think people can sense something in me, and Franca has been able to teach me to use that ‘something’ to help people.”
Fidgeting with her gold ‘wish’ necklace, Leah nods in agreement. “I think…” she stutters, “I think…I’m really receptive to people’s emotions. I’m just…very sensitive, I guess. I pick up on things. I just can deal with it better now.”
Franca, listening in from the corner, interjects the conversation. “I tend to have a lot of emotionally ‘lost’ people come to me for intuitive development. There are cases of people who have struggled with their thoughts and emotions their whole lives, thinking there’s something wrong with them when all they needed was to open their mind to their psychic sensibilities.”
Around the room, there’s an obvious sense of deep respect for Franca. Not only is she their teacher, but a counsellor and a friend.
The class begins as a casual, friendly conversation. With the students wrapped in woollen blankets, sipping on hot tea, it’s unlike a typical classroom setting. There are no books, no pens, no desks. Their only textbook is the energy surrounding them, which they reverently refer to as the ‘Source’.
“So it’s been about 3 weeks since I’ve seen you all. Tell me, what’s been happening? Is there anything we need to work through this evening?” asks Franca.
Sara and Leah turn to each other, their faces both grimacing.
“Leah and I did a double reading the other day…” reveals Sara, shaking her head in embarrassment.
“And?” questions Franca.
“And…it was terrible! I came away from the reading feeling worse than I did before it. And the client didn’t offer much. I was still feeling the effects of it a few days later.”
Leah, tightly gripping her mug of hot tea, stares down at the wooden floorboards searching for a response. “Yeah,” she says, fumbling on her words. “I had a man…a man come through as we were doing the reading. He was loud. He was yelling, yelling in my ear. It made it really hard for me to continue.” Distressed, Leah hunches her shoulders and covers her ears with shaking palms.
“Did you manage to use the skills we’ve been working on to get through it, though?” enquires Franca, in an increasingly authoritative tone.
“We eventually…moved him on,” replies Leah.
“Were you scared?” I ask, without thinking.
“No…he wasn’t, scary. Just, unwelcomed. I think he must have been…I don’t know…ignored in life? He just wanted to be heard.”
The debriefing session continues for another 20 minutes, with Franca offering advice to Leah and Sara for future readings. Unsurprisingly, double readings are not exactly recommended. But throughout, Franca remains calm and supportive, each response an offering of reassurance. She never blames or reprimands.
“A psychic is never wrong,” she asserts. “You may not understand everything that comes through in a reading, but never doubt yourself. I had a client once who I envisioned with a young family, but it didn’t make sense to me. From what I knew, she had grown-up children. But when I finally got the words out, it all came together. She was pregnant.”
Before the practical aspect of the class commences, Franca instructs the women to begin their ‘tuning in’ process. For every psychic, this stage is different. I observe Sian in the corner as she sits upright in her chair, her legs slightly spread apart. Her body is stiff and rigid with deep concentration, but also loose and relaxed. Her eyes are clamped tightly shut, her lips are pursed. I turn to Sara and Leah beside me. They too, sit deep in thought. Five minutes pass, and the tuning in is complete.
Eerily, there is a sudden drop in temperature in the room. With a shiver, I reach out for my coat and wrap it over my chest. But just as I expect to witness sorcery and magical happenings, the conversation continues as normal.
“We’re not tapping into anything bad or evil,” reassures Franca. “The invisible is nothing to be afraid of. We just want to understand it. Let’s see what we can understand tonight.”