National Catholic Register


Partying With the Gnostic Mom (Parents: Try This at Home)

BY Jim Cosgrove

March 30-April 5, 2003 Issue | Posted 3/30/03 at 1:00 PM


They all said I was crazy.

It was Christopher's 13th birthday, and 14 boys were staying the night.

My husband and daughter took over the burger and hot-dog detail as I tried to keep up with the burgeoning mess. I put up backpacks, neatly lined up all the shoes — many as big as coal scoops — so these man-children could find them easily in the morning. Last, I set about hanging up all the coats. I had just finished hanging up the last of them when I heard the call of the wild.

“Hey, guys!” a tall boy said. “Let's go outside!”

Half dove for my neat row of shoes, the other half tore through the coat closet, and they were gone. As the stillness settled around us in the wake of the pack, we noticed there was one small, frightened-looking fellow hanging out by the kitchen door. This was Ben, the friend who wasn't sure he wanted to stay all night.

“Mrs. Baxter, can I call my mom?” he said. “I think I want to go home.”

“Sure — but is there anything I can help with?”

“Well ...” he said. “The guys say they're going to watch a scary movie tonight. They say it's a true story. That always keeps me up.”

“I didn't give my consent to scary movies,” I said. “I don't think we'll do that.”

“But Josh likes to tell ghost stories at sleepovers. True ones. I get scared.”

Poor Ben. Terrified in his soul and ashamed of it.

“Ben, I have a little lesson to teach these guys about truth,” I said. “When they get back, we'll scam ‘em. You in?”

Ben nodded tentatively. My husband and daughter rushed to reassure him. They are well acquainted with my act: I purport to read messages the kids write and seal in unmarked envelopes — before the envelope is opened.

My daughter squealed and clapped her hands; my husband began to collect props needed for our hoax on these teens who, according to Ben, knew all about “truth.”

With night falling quickly, we called the rambunctious new teens in. They were, of course, famished. We passed around chips and salsa, and my daughter took up her portion of the “script.”

“Hey you guys, my mom is psychic,” she said.

“Sssh — honey!” I said. “You know I don't like people to know.”

“She is!” Chris speaks up, knowing the ruse. “It runs in her family. Come on, show ‘em, mom. Please.” Ben, in the back, chimed in, and the others followed. I had them where I wanted them. They were begging for it. Rule No. 1: Make them force you to scam them.

I begin with a pity-party; tell them how difficult it was for me in my childhood, how everybody called me weirdo and oddball. (I got that one off one of those talk-to-the dead entertainment shows on TV). They could relate to the bully stuff. Rule No. 2: Create empathy for yourself; if they're emotionally involved, they'll believe.

But, since they've all begged, I go ahead with it. I tell them all to write sentences. The boys grew silent as they began writing their sentences. The boys were instructed to fold their submissions in fours, put them in their blank envelopes and seal them. My husband collected them, called me back in, handed me the envelopes and called for complete silence. I picked up the first envelope. I closed my eyes, rubbed it between my fingers and frowned. Rule No. 3: Act weird.

This is the pivotal part of the scam, this first letter. You make up a note, citing some logical reason why it can't be read aloud.

“Oh, dear,” I said, dissembling. “Somebody didn't believe I could do this — I just can't; no, if I read this aloud, the person who wrote it would be really embarrassed.” I tear open the letter, nodding as though I were reading what I “saw.” I offer it to my husband for confirmation. He nods in agreement.

Only I'm actually reading the first submission from the audience. It says, “God bless America.” So I pick up the next letter, feel it, and say, “Oh, this is much better. It's a blessing — I see the name of the Lord and a country. It's — it's — ‘God bless America!””

“Oh, my gosh!” A kid in the front said. “I wrote that!” The boys are wide-eyed, amazed. Shouts of “Cool!” “Freaky!” etc., well up from the ranks as I continue, reading each boy's contribution “through the envelope” until they were all amazed senseless. At the bottom of the pile, my husband planted a blank, so that everybody's envelope was “read.”

The boys lost their minds. Could I pick lotto numbers? Help solve crimes?

What were they thinking, just right then?

“How many of you truly believe I have special powers?” I asked, at length. Most of the hands went up, even Ben's, who was in on the gag from the beginning.

“Well, you're wrong,” I tell the stunned crowd. Step by step, I take them through the trick. I explained why it was so easy: that I short-circuited their sensibilities, their God-given gifts of perception.

I tell them not to believe everything the culture tells them is “true”: that people can talk to the dead on afternoon TV, that the ghost of bigfoot can terrorize an office building in a small Midwestern town and that sex before marriage is okay. Those things may sound perfectly sensible at the time. They are, however, hooey.

And of course, I can't resist adding: Only God can know what is not seen.

With the God talk, the boys, fearing a lecture, disperse and hit the snacks once more. Chris hugs me and whispers, “Thanks.” Ben calls his mom to let her know he'll stay the night.

I survey the room, full of these overgrown puppies, these toddlers with size 10 shoes. I worry as the specters of war and terrorism cloud their playful horizons. I ask God to make them wise and discerning of anything bearing that holy pedigree, “truth.”

And I pray for all of us, for the whole world, that we are able to one day come before the throne of God — he who is Truth, Way and Life — that we may live with him in gratitude forever.

Susan Baxter writes from

Mishawaka, Indiana.