For psychic Barbara Mackey, being a Medium is no small feat.
If you're wondering about the authenticity of that new NBC show "Medium," look no further than Barbara Mackey. The Ocean County-based psychic scrutinizes every episode, which stars Patricia Arquette as a character based on real-life psychic Allison Dubois.
"Watching the (pilot), I threw my hands up in exasperation and thought, 'They're going to muck it up, because they did a few things that just wouldn't happen,' " she says. "But since then, the show's gotten much better. There was a moment in which she touched a man's hand and saw him die of a heart attack -- that's happened to me. You also see Patricia Arquette struggle with the gift she's been given, and that's definitely been a part of my life."
Indeed, when you talk to Mackey, you get a sense of the burden that comes with being a psychic, of knowing things that sometimes the rest of us mere mortals shouldn't. Twenty years ago, for example, there was the boyfriend who Mackey dreamed would die of a heart attack -- he did, less than three months later. She also consults with and offers tips to police on various murder and missing-person cases.
"I'm pretty sure I know what happened, but I can't talk about it yet," she says.
With that in mind, the divorced mother of three tries to concentrate on the joys that accompany her chosen profession. "I love telling a woman, 'Did you know that you're pregnant?' And she'll say to me, 'That's impossible. I can't get pregnant.' Then she'll call me the next day, ecstatically telling me she is," she says.
Mackey, 60, has been an active psychic since that fateful episode with the boyfriend, though she later realized she's had the gift since age 4.
"Back then, we lived in an apartment house in Newark, and one afternoon I was sitting on the fire escape watching my mother in our back yard," Mackey remembers. "Our neighbor was sweeping, and in my mind I imagined her picking up the broom and beating my mother. All of a sudden, that's exactly what she did. Turned out she suffered from postpartum depression."
Such premonitions were commonplace in Mackey's life while growing up, and even though she was the product of a Hungarian grandmother who did readings for the neighborhood -- "something we never talked about, because there was an element of shame about it" -- Mackey says she never put two and two together.
"I saw things before they happened, but I thought that's how everyone's thought process worked," she says. "But my family used to say I was a very old soul; I was one of those kids who always just stood back and watched."
Maybe that's why you'll often see Mackey wearing sunglasses when she's out in public. There are times, she says, when she just doesn't want to look in someone's eyes, because to her they can reveal too much about the future.
"I was at the dry cleaner, and the woman standing next to me was all excited, talking about her wedding. I looked in her eyes, and I saw her dying of cancer," Mackey recalls. "I was glad I had my sunglasses on, because I just started crying."
She's also assisted police on some tough cases, such as the 2001 abduction and murder of Jennifer Pammer: Mackey told Brick police that she pictured Pammer trapped in an enclosed space in a wooded area. Pammer was found weeks later in the trunk of a car that had been hidden in nearby woods.
All of which isn't to say that Mackey leads a tortured life. In fact, she says she ultimately enjoys her work and is sought after by both police agencies.
"It's hard to get them to admit they work with (psychics), because it's an ego thing with them" -- as well as celebrities such as Barbara Walters and David Letterman, she says.
Mackey hosts workshops on awakening psychic awareness -- "because every one of us has some ability, it's just how we channel it" -- and conducts readings by telephone during her monthly radio appearances on the Ocean County Breakfast Show on WOBM (92.7) and in New York City on WNEW's morning show (102.7).
Mackey also is shopping around the idea for a reality show in which she'd travel to historic areas, "any place in the universe that's a spiritual haven, to get in touch with what happened there," she says.
For now, the bulk of Mackey's business remains rooted in personal clients. Several missing-pet cases come her way because of the publicity she garnered from a missing iguana on Long Beach Island about five years ago. Most of her clients, not surprisingly, are women, who typically ask when they're going to get married, or whether their husbands or boyfriends are cheating on them.
"In those cases, sometimes I can't blatantly come out and tell someone -- you have to be discreet, especially when a woman is sitting in front of you talking about how happy she and her husband are," she says. "This isn't just about blurting out the truth; it's about holding someone's hand and helping them."
Sure, Mackey knows what you're thinking: If she can see the future, why can't she predict, say, the Mega Millions numbers?
"God didn't give me this gift to make money like that," she says. "If I didn't care, sure, I'd be in Acapulco right now. I do things with the purest of intentions; lottery numbers have nothing to do with spirituality and guiding you down the right path."
It's the same reason there's one other question Mackey will never answer. "Don't ask me how you're going to die; ask how you're going to live," she says.
"You know, I've walked through the fires of hell in my personal life. When I do my lectures, I tell people, 'You're nobody until you've been evicted, unable to pay your bills, had your lights turned off, widowed and divorced. I know now I went through all of that so I could counsel people, so I could help them figure out what to do with their lives that will make a difference."
Mackey thinks for a moment. "After all, I may be the keeper of the secrets," she adds, "but when someone walks through that door, we're kindred spirits."
JOSEPH J. DELCONZO/Special to the Press Ocean County-based psychic Barbara Mackey says she became aware of her gift after a premonition of her boyfriend's death.