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Washington Lawyer

Legal Spectator: Madam Rosa

From Washington Lawyer, October 2001

By Jacob A. Stein


There is a fortune-teller’s shop on Connecticut Avenue, and when I walk by it several thoughts come to mind. First, my wonderment that people still believe in fortune-telling, clairvoyance, palmistry, psychic powers, and astrology in these days of scorching skepticism.

Second, I think once again of Joseph Duvall (that is not his real name). Joseph looked like he was somebody-tall, well dressed, and he spoke in the authoritative tones of a politician. He had been elected to various offices in his hometown before he decided to practice law here in Washington. When we worked on cases together I learned that Joseph’s main source of business was Madam Rosa, an astrologer-fortune-teller. She sent him more legal work than he could handle. Much of it involved the problems of elderly people proud to say their wealth was based on Madam Rosa’s advice.

If a case Madam Rosa power-steered to Joseph ended up in court, Madam Rosa conducted a pretrial conference-focus group in her chambers. The usual props were there: incense, crystal ball, cards, other bric-a-brac of the trade. I would not have been surprised to see a law book, perhaps Dobbs on Remedies or somebody on Future Interests. Joseph presented the facts and law. Thereafter Madam Rosa asked questions and then gave her opinion on whether to settle or go to trial. She had a good record. The cases she sent to trial were winners. She was especially gifted in predicting the high-low verdict range in cases against target defendants like the transit company.

Joseph said he met Madam Rosa when she appeared in his office one day with a problem concerning her storefront lease. When he asked who recommended him, she said she was recommended by the position of the stars.

Joseph liked to tell this story. He was representing a fortune-teller friend of Madam Rosa’s charged with driving while drunk. A police reporter friend of Joseph’s spotted him in court and asked what his case of the day was all about. Joseph said he was representing a fortune-teller. Joseph then said the judge will knock the case down from driving while under the influence to reckless driving and fine the woman $50. The reporter asked Joseph if that is what the fortune-teller predicted. Not only is that what she predicted, Joseph said, he would bet $10 on it. Joseph appeared with his client, and the judge did reduce the charge to reckless driving, but fined the client only $25. Joseph stood up at his client’s urging and said, "Judge, can you make that $50?"

Joseph divided fortune-tellers into the true believers and the competent frauds. The true believers sincerely believe they have the gift. They take themselves seriously. One of them explained the gift this way.

Evolution gave to the animal kingdom a lot of instinct and little intelligence. A lot of instinct can do things that intelligence can never do. A very small, vulnerable butterfly by instinct finds its way year after year from Canada to an isolated spot in Mexico, a navigational feat beyond human comprehension. In such a flight the butterfly, flying only by instinct, makes thousands of computations concerning weather, wind, smoke, and changes in forestry that human intelligence could never do.

Evolution gave humans a lot of intelligence and little instinct. Intelligence involves comparison, analysis, induction, and deduction. It takes intelligence hours, days, years, to figure out what intuition does in a flash. In rare cases a human is born with animal-like instinct that carries with it knowledge beyond intelligence, beyond cause and effect. It is this that explains the fortune-telling gift.

The true believer can be dangerous. He does not hesitate to predict misfortune or sudden death. The competent fraud does not have the intuitive gift. He picks up clues from the customer that make it appear that he knows things about the customer that could only come through some mysterious power. (I have worked with lawyers who have this talent in selecting jurors and in conducting a cross-examination.)

The competent fraud makes no dire predictions. He gives a balanced view of life’s ups and downs, falling in love, falling out of love, and the possibility of inherited wealth.

Joseph said that the high-profile true believers and the competent frauds have something in common-they vote the straight Republican ticket. Joseph’s political sophistication and the popularity of Jeane Dixon, the well-known astrologer in the 1950s and 1960s, corroborated his statement. Jeane Dixon did a good business during the presidential election years, predicting comfortable margins for Eisenhower and Nixon.

Perhaps the reason why high-profile astrologers tend to vote Republican is that they take their cue from their up-market clientele. It may be that what a Madam Rosa has on offer does not attract liberal intellectuals who contend their beliefs are always entirely high-minded, virtuous, and reasonable, and therefore uninfluenced by abracadabra.

My reaction to fortune-tellers is negative simply because I don’t want to know what’s next. Although most psychics, fortune-tellers, clairvoyants, tarot card readers, and palmists are harmless, I am apprehensive that I may run into a true believer who will predict bad news ahead. Therefore I am never tempted to have a Madam Rosa give me a reading. The French writer Alain says it very well:

I know someone who showed his palm to a fortuneteller in order to know his future. He told me he did it just for fun, and didn’t really believe in it. Even so, I would have advised him against it, if he had asked me, because it is a dangerous way to have fun. It is very easy not to believe, as long as nothing has yet been said; for then there is nothing for you or anyone else to believe. Disbelief is easy at the outset, but soon becomes difficult; fortunetellers know this very well. "If you don’t believe in it," they say, "what are you afraid of?" And thus the trap is set. As for me, I am afraid of believing, for who knows what they will tell me.

     There you have it.

Jacob A. Stein may be reached by e-mail at [email protected].