10 October 2010

Cold Reading: a Personal Encounter

I first encountered cold-reading as a young teenager, during a series of 'revival' services starring an evangelist named Steve Grimsley.  Grimsley was tall, thin, and appropriately grim: he wore dark suits and maintained a dour look upon his face at all times. He was a gifted performer, possessing a richly compelling voice and using elegant movements (particularly his hands) to maintain attention upon himself -- ensuring that our eyes were on his jet-black hair, wrinkled face, and riveting stare.

At the time I did not know he was a cold-reader. I regarded him as a genuine Man of God, a prophet. My religion rarely felt real to me, and I count that first revival with him as one of THE times that it did. He seemed to know things that no one could know -- without having done research. A professional, he started every service by ensuring that everyone in the congregation "knew" he hadn't done any research. He would ask if he or his wife had ever spoken with his volunteers  before,  and would ask the pastor if they had ever discussed the volunteers' affairs.  The pastor would solemnly shake his head no.

Then, touching the volunteer's forehead with the index and middle fingers of one hand and raising the others to the heavens, he would pray for a few seconds before beginning his "act".  He addressed the volunteer by name, then told them things about their life. He would say he saw people or things around them, and eventually started telling them what they should do to stay on-course.

The first and most vivid example of his abilities came when he told a woman he saw a fence around her home, and she nodded yes. He then guessed that it was high, and she nodded again.  Pentecostal services are highly emotional, and so it is not surprising to me in retrospect that a congregation of people wound up and willing to believe saw in these pedestrian predictions a miracle.  The woman did indeed have a fence "around" her home: she lived at the base of a short hill, at the top of which was a tennis court with a high fence. The fence cast shadows on her lawn.

To us, the believers, he seemed to be describing her house, and we imagined he saw it in all its detail. He offered abstractions, and we filled in the blanks. To the skeptic,  his brassiness is incredible. He expected people to be impressed by the fact that he figured there was a fence near her home? Fences are commonplace. There is a fence across the street from where I lived at the time, and a fence across the street from where I live now, and when I babysat during the summer and stayed at someone's house, by golly there was a fence near there, too.

The art of cold reading is to start off making broad statements, then narrow them down based on the person's responses, or manipulating their responses to give the reader new leads. Two of his other "readings" involved a prophecy that the pastor's daughter would play the piano,  and that another girl was rebellious against her father.

The pastor's wife --  the first girls' mother -- was the church pianist, and the girl herself was interested in music. She sometimes practiced at church. It was not a hazardous guess for him that she would one day play the piano. (Ten years later: she does not play the piano, nor does she play any of the other musical instruments she was interested in at the time.) As for the other girl -- well! It's certainly risky to guess that a teenager is feeling rebellious, isn't it?

At the time, I was as willing to believe as the rest. There were others who kept themselves outside the church on purpose (one older teenager would frighten adults and scare younger kids by telling them he didn't want be to saved)  who scoffed. "Break out the tarot cards," one said to me, "Here comes the Magician!".   Later, when I left religion for freethought and humanism, I looked back at Steve Grimsley and laughed. Having compared him to other 'mentalists', I realized that he was painfully transparent, but with Pentecostal congregations he had a captive audience ready to be amazed by trivialities.

Incidentally, I was never 'read'. He terrified me, and I stayed away from him.  I shook visibly in my seat, causing the chairs I gripped to vibrate, but when he approached me he only attempted to 'pray me through to the Holy Ghost'.  I have mentioned that encounter previously.

If you are interested in  learning how to recognize a cold-reading, here are some resources.


Volly said...

Thank you for this! My 15 years as a Christian owe much to a co-worker who belonged to a full-gospel church. This lady grew up in rural Ohio; she didn't even have indoor plumbing until well into her teens. She married very young and never got much education. The church she and her husband belonged to had one of those charismatic pastors who mysteriously "knew stuff" that was going on in the congregation. "The Lord has placed a burden on my heart -- someone in this room is struggling with parenting a teenager!" And then you'd hear a sob and the real show would begin. I only attended once with them, but heard the stories week after week at lunchtime. During that period of my life (late 20s) I longed for a supernatural "magic" experience in my life. Having just moved to the deep south, it's little wonder that evangelical Christianity appeared first to offer this. It took awhile, but as soon as my need for that external "magic" thing went away, so did my belief in God, the Bible, prayer and Christian self-identity. My deconversion was as sudden and irrevocable as the process that made me a believer in the first place. I feel SO sorry for people who still need this sort of thing, and sometimes idly wonder what it would take for them to shake loose of it.

smellincoffee said...

Hi, Volly!

From all the exit stories I've read, the only way I know for a person to be able to leave religion is for it to stop meeting their needs, whether they be rational or emotional. Sometimes people will twist religion to meet their needs, sometimes they'll switch religions...but it always come down to need.

For me, the unmet need was justice: I thought Hell spoke terribly of its maker's character and decided I wanted nothing to do with it.

Thanks for dropping by. :)

Tyler Parsons said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
smellincoffee said...


Hello there! I remember Grimsley as tall because when I met him, I was just a middle-school squirt. ;)

I would be interesting in knowing what kind of arcane knowledge Grimsley revealed to you: we had at least three revivals with him, and several more with his son-in-law who practiced the same shtick, though not nearly as well. Grimsley had a theatric presence, a gift for the dramatic.

At the very least, wouldn't his more amateur peddlings (the three I recounted here) discount his reputation as being professional? After all, those who have the real thing shouldn't need to resort to cold reading.

- Stephen / smellincoffee

BobbyMann said...

I visited a Pentecostal church in Orlando because I had heard stories of the things God was doing there through Steve Grimsley. I was raised Baptist and didn't believe in prophecy, healing, etc. The day before we went to the service, I told my brother, who would be going with me, ”These stories are cool, but I don't know if they're true. But if it is real, then I want it!”

The next day we visited the service and Mr. Grimsley walked around and ministered to people as expected. He landed at the person sitting next to me and began to talk to this person. To this day, I honestly cannot remember what he was saying to that person, but I remember the man was visibly touched by the accuracy of Grimsley's statements. I looked down toward the floor and prayed to God, just as I'd said the day before, ”God, if this is real, then I want it.”

No sooner had I prayed that silently, then Mr. Grimsley stopped mid-sentence with the other man and pointed a bony finger at me. He said loudly, ” If this is real, then I want it!. You just prayed that to God, just now, didn't you?” He then went on to tell me that I was a student in college studying to be a minister, which was true, but he should have had no idea of that. There is also no way to gather that from a cold reading.

I don't know anything about the man other than what I experienced that day, but it was certainly no act. No way he could have known that about me.

Unknown said...

I also had an experience with him a few yrs ago and no he isn't tall but a man of God yes he is in my opinion. He also told me things only God could had known about me and God used him to heal me during that service. So to me you can't say he isn't of God because what I saw he sure was and I thank Jesus for the touch and the word he gave me during that service and I will never forget it .