MY TAKE: Butterflies and Bull. Channeling Messages from the Dead?

A few days ago I went to see a performance by “channeler” Roland Comtois, when he appeared locally before a group of about forty parents who’ve lost children.  I’ll admit up front that I’m very interested in this sort of thing, but highly skeptical.  My novels, including the two I wrote before I lost my son, Michael, at the age of three, employ supernatural elements.  My heightened ambivalence in this case stemmed from factors over and above my usual skepticism about all things supernatural, spiritual and/or religious.  First, I’ve done quite a bit of research on psychic phenemona, originally in l988 for my novel, A Reasonable Madness” and more recently and specifically for “American Psychic,” the novel on which I most recently worked (but haven’t finished), which took its title from one of its characters, a television psychic and channeler.  As a result of my research, I am well acquainted with the methods people like Comtois and John Edwards use.  One such trick from the many in their remarkably similar bags: They fill the air with a lot of general talk with a few specifics thrown in, then carefully watch the audience for positive reactions to the specifics, and zoom in on the reactors who have freely offered directional cues. This strategy is very effective with people who want to believe and don’t realize or care that they’re providing cues, and no doubt would be particularly effective with a group of people so hurt and full of need to “see” their children again. Which brings me to my second ambivalence.  On the one hand, as someone who lost a child myself, I certainly can’t object to anything that brings relief to such pain.  On the other hand, if channelers like Comtois are consciously using tricks such as the one I describe above, I simply can’t justify exploitation for money.

Comtois impressed me somewhat by announcing that he wouldn’t keep the $25 per person everyone had paid to see him, but rather return it to be put back into the sponsoring organization’s fund. (This is a modest fee anyway; some of these people changes hundreds of dollars.)  On the other hand, I’m sure he charges for most other performances, since this is apparently how he makes his living (along with writing books).  He may have been to some degree humbled by the level of loss in the room.

As for his performance, it looked–at least to me, although certainly not to the other parents in the room–like standard issue generalizations made somewhat more specific using audience cues, as described above, and I found his filler, a steady stream of reassurance to parents that their deceased children were “settled,” and/or “happy,” just awful–basically telling people what they want to hear.  The session was enlivened by Comtois’s odd mannerisms and by constant references to his mother, whom he admitted several times thinks he’s “crazy.”  Hmmm.  Which is worse: crazy or charlatan?

To all this, Comtois added what is apparently his signature technique.  Prior to the performance, he writes “messages” in magic marker on lilac paper printed with the words “Channeled Message for the Soul” along with his name, number and website. The messages, which include crudely drawn pictures, are dated anywhere from several years ago to as recently as the day of the performance.  For this part of the performance he does the same thing described above, finds someone in the group who reacts to his carefully chosen generalizations, zooms in, makes some educated guesses using cues provided, and then says something like, “Yes, I have a message for you.”  At which point one of his two assistants “finds” the message he’s already written from within the pile.  The pile is thick, and judging from the papers he waved around before handing them to the parents for whom they were “intended,” were mostly general scenarios one would expect to fit the horrific, emotional stories of any group of parents who’ve lost children, like a pool or an ambulance.  Ugh.

On the other hand, as far as I could tell, he did convince most of the folks in the room, and judging from the reactions comforted, reassured and impressed nearly all of them, even if I thought most of his comments were laughably general.

On the other hand, I’ve done write-to-heal sessions with some of this same group and knew quite a few of the loss stories of the parents in the room, and there were a few specifics that did impress me, like the women to whom he said something about seeing her son polishing cars (her son restored old cars), and a few other “manner of death” stories I don’t feel comfortable naming here.

So what do I make of a performance that I thought was chock full of generalities with a few impressive hits, a performance that, as one parent told me, “blew him away?” I think I’d have to say what I would have said before I saw Mr. Comtois. It’s certainly possibly some people can “channel” psychic energy, or even messages from the dead; I’ve had moments of what I’d call “transcendence” myself, although these are not moments I’d ever try to convince anyone else about.  But NO ONE can do this reliably and consistently enough to fill two hours, over and over, and so performing channelers must count on being able to exploit audience gullibility and psychological desperation using fillers, tricks, and bait-and-switch techniques to supplement the occasional “real message,” random hit, educated or audience-assisted guess.  So do I think Mr. Comtois is crazy, as his mother apparently does, or do I think he’s a charlatan?  He may not be a charlatan. People can convince themselves of all kinds of things.  I’ve seen this in my psychotherapy practice and everywhere in life.  As a psychotherapist, I’d resist calling him crazy, although generally speaking we diagnose people who hear and see things we don’t (ie with auditory and visual hallucinations) as schizophrenic.  Then again, I don’t know him like his mother does.

On the other hand, here’s what happened when he finally came to me.  I tried to hide my skepticism, but apparently he picked up on it and avoided me.  Sensitivity in this regard is certainly not surprising, and is probably a requirement for the job.  He didn’t come to me until the end, when he was forced to, as he was going around the room, receiving photos of people’s children, making comments, and calling for last questions. I said I didn’t have any questions, and he said, “Are you sure?” or something like that.  I said that I too had lost a child, but that I didn’t have any questions.  He asked if I had a photo.  I said I didn’t. He asked what my child’s name was.  “Michael,” I said.  “How did he die?”he asked.  “A seizure,” I said. “How old was he?” Roland Comtois asked.  I said, “Three and a half.”  He said, “Talk to me at the end, I have a message for you.”

When I approached him after the performance, he asked me if I was a believer, and I admitted I was a skeptic.  He leafed through his pile of lilac papers, picked one, folded it and handed it to me, saying “This is a message from your son. Don’t open it now, open it later.”  (Likely he didn’t want me, a skeptic, to renounce or deny his message in front of the believers.)

The purple paper said, “I SENT YOU ALL THE BUTTERFLIES.”

Fifteen years ago, after our son died, we released butterflies during a service for him.  I wore a butterfly pin for years, as a tribute to Michael. Butterflies are, of course, a commonly used symbol of death and rebirth that might have meaning for anyone suffering from loss.  On the other hand, one day early in the spring of 2008, and then again in 2009, HUNDREDS and HUNDREDS of monarch butterflies landed all at once on a tree in front of our house. I came out to watch them every day, to marvel at my tree so beautiful in full bloom of monarchs with their distinctive orange and black markings. And then one day a few weeks later, the monarch’s left to continue their annual migration south. Do I find Comtois’s butterfly message amazing?  Not amazing.  Interesting, I’d say.

On the other hand, here’s a bit of info from a nice website about the INDISPUTABLY amazing natural (rather than supernatural) migration of the monarch butterflies.

Monarch butterflies are the only insect that migrates to a warmer climate that is 2,500 miles away each year. The monarch butterflies can’t stand the freezing winter and will spend their winter hibernation in Mexico and some parts of Southern California where it is warm all year long. If the monarch lives in the Eastern states, usually east of the Rocky Mountains, it will migrate to Mexico and hibernate in oyamel fir trees. If the monarch butterfly lives west of the Rocky Mountains, then it will hibernate in and around Pacific Grove, California in eucalyptus trees. Monarch butterflies use the very same trees each and every year when they migrate, which seems odd because they aren’t the same butterflies that were there last year. These are the new fourth generation of monarch butterflies, so how do they know which trees are the right ones to hibernate in?

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8 thoughts on “MY TAKE: Butterflies and Bull. Channeling Messages from the Dead?

  1. “I sent you all the butterflies…”

    There’s no part of you that believes that may be genuine?

    That gave me chills

  2. Well, Beth, I think some part of me must believe. Otherwise I wouldn’t have made and written about the connection.

    Fran

  3. I am a skeptic too, although I once spoke on the phone with Peter Hurkos, a famous psychic who was on a radio show. He did not know my age or anything about me, but he immediately said emphatically, “you didn’t go in the Army!” Just days earlier, I had taken my Army physical for Vietnam service, and been rejected at the last second for an elbow that had once been broken. There was another direct hit, and then off the phone within a minute. But, there is a well-known $1 million prize waiting for anyone who can prove psychic ability in a controlled situation, and no one has ever been able to claim it. That seems very decisive. Why doesn’t someone, anyone, walk into a room, demonstrate something psychic, and take the money?

  4. I have a world view that allows for (but does not mandate) spirit communication but, like yourself, I tend to be pretty skeptical when it comes to specific claims and cases. However, I’m equally skeptical of the claims of other skeptics. I’ve noted that much alleged debunking is every bit as unscientific as the alleged psychic’s claims, being based on unwarranted, not to mention unproven, assumptions. What’s uncomfortable about this two-edged skepticism is that it makes any degree of intellectual certainty extremely difficult, if not impossible. This entry offers a perfect example.

    You observed about many channelers, “They fill the air with a lot of general talk with a few specifics thrown in, then carefully watch the audience for positive reactions to the specifics, and zoom in on the reactors who have freely offered directional cues.”

    That is quite true. But if the channeling is absolutely real, if the psychic is truly doing exactly what he claims to be doing, how would it look different? I suspect that it would still look exactly the same.

    I’m sure you’ve seen televised videos of soldiers overseas as they’re given the opportunity to send messages back to friends and family — or similar things. Other than the names involved, a huge percentage of those messages is interchangeable. Almost everybody is saying pretty much the same thing, with an occasional specific comment adding a tiny amount of variety. If the deceased could send brief messages back through a channeler, isn’t it likely that the situation would be much the same?

    In that case, the channeler could be receiving a message, but may not know for sure which member of the audience it was for. He would be stating the general information and the one or two specifics and watching for the person(s) who responded, exactly as a fraud would do with made-up and guessed information. In fact, if we were to watch two performers in action, a really good fraud and a competent legitimate channeler, I doubt very much that we would be able to tell them apart by observation alone.

    In short, while Comtois’ successes (including the note about the butterflies) fall short of proving that he’s “for real,” the pattern of his performance falls equally shy of proving that he isn’t.

    I have a suspicion that, even if spirit communication is real, intellectual uncertainty is built into the system. There are times, I suppose, when we simply have to decide what to believe, or decide to remain undecided.

  5. I have been to see Roland Comtois after both of my brothers deaths. The first time was 6 years ago, my twin brother had passed 2 weeks prior. Roland had no idea how he died nor that he was a twin. He nailed a final conversation I had with my brother and the fact that growing up, me being the older twin always joked to my brother that ‘I was older’ therefore he had to do as I say, as typical kids do. As we got older, my brother would always joke to me that I was older, I’ll always be older, he’d always be younger. Roland said my brother said that my brother told him, I should see how good he looks, I look so young. This in no way is a ‘generalization’ nor a coincidence.

    My 2nd brother passed away just this past February. He passed after a very difficult few years of diabetes and alcoholism. My fear was that he committed suicide, there was really no way of knowing if he did it intentionally or not. The first words out of Roland was that it happened so fast that he couldn’t go back but he didn’t do it intentionally, it was an accident, I can’t believe I’m here, I didn’t mean for this to happen. My brother and I had also grown very close over the last few years and I was the only one who was really supportive of him, working to get him some help and getting his life back. Roland mentioned how thankful my brother was for all of the support I gave him when no one else would.
    Then Roland said ‘who’s Steven’, Steven is my brothers name. Roland would have no way of knowing my brothers name.

    Roland Comtois is very, very good at what he does, he’s helped a lot of people and is a good soul with nothing but good intentions. He certainly didn’t deserve the negative review you gave him.
    You need to do more research on channeling before writing a review about it.

  6. I have been to see Roland on several occasions and he has been right on many times. Things that in no way he would have any knowledge off. These were not just generalizations but specific. The very first time I saw him I just showed up to an event. He didn’t even know my name and he said that there was a spirit with me who didn’t speak English well but she was saying her name was Maria Grazia and she was talking about my mother’s difficulty with her legs and walking. This was absolutely true. My maternal grandmother’s name was Maria Grazia and she spoke Italian. He told my husband that his grandmother says that she sees him when he gets to work and sits in his car for a while before going in and praying the rosary with beads that she gave him. This is absolutely true. No way would he have known this. There are definitely some charlatans out there but Roland is not one of them.

    • Dear Virginia,
      I’m happy you felt felt Roland spoke about your maternal grandmother in a way that proved his authenticity to you, and that I assume gave you comfort. This is “my take.”

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