November 24, 2014

Features | March 19, 2012
The Visions of Robert Lindblad
Written by Timothy Lem-Smith | Visual by Sam Slotnick

Corrections appended

Robert Lindblad is not a conventional career man. For one thing, he doesn’t carry a business card, despite having worked the same job for over twenty years. He used to busk on Montreal street corners but he gave that up to focus on more lucrative pursuits. Some days, when he needs extra cash to pay his phone bill, he’ll go around knocking on strangers’ doors, trying to sell a five-dollar CD of instrumental music he recorded. (He calls it a mix of New Age and techno and has submitted it to the Junos this year. To me, it sounds like the music that plays in planetariums while solar systems project onto the ceiling, or the soundtrack of a sperm whale’s life played in slow motion.)

It was during one of these entrepreneurial jaunts that I met him. He didn’t have to knock; I was on the way out of my Plateau apartment and opened the door to find him standing directly in front of me. He was holding the CD out like he knew I was coming, though that might just be retrospective conjecture on my part.

“Jesus!” I exclaimed. After apologizing quickly, Lindblad began his pitch. Looking back, I probably couldn’t have been less prepared for what he was about to say.

Lindblad is not physically imposing: he’s short, probably about five-foot-four, and smiles at strangers. He has been semi-paralyzed since being hit by a car in 1969, which gives him a limp and curved back. His introduction was so casual that I had to ask him to repeat it. For a second time, he said, “I’m a psychic who finds missing children.”

Later, after having heard him say it ten or so times, I realized that the phrase was an important signifier for Lindblad. It has been his means of self-identification since he was struck by a strange epiphany more than two decades ago. He repeats it almost compulsively as he tells stories about himself. Those stories are full of holes, elisions, and likely exaggerations – they’re self-mythology. But they have an internal, narrative logic, too. The gospel according to Lindblad.

***

Linblad says he’s not sure if he was born a psychic. He grew up in Dorval, a small city on the island of Montreal, in the sixties. His childhood was pretty typical – his mother was a hospital receptionist and his father was a computer scientist who worked, he recalls, “on those big, big computers” that looked like HAL’s motherboard in 2001: A Space Odyssey but were cutting edge back then. He also had two siblings.

He claims that in the years before his car accident he was a petulant kid, whose youthful vigour occasionally degenerated into violence. His close friend Gilbert Girio is more blunt: “He told me the kids thought he was an asshole.” Once, when he was in kindergarten, he says he threw a desk at a teacher who had dared to keep him in detention after class.

Then, one day, when Lindblad was seven, two kids beckoned him to cross Cardinal Ave. in Dorval to see a bunch of tadpoles swimming in a ditch. As he ran across the road, he was struck by a speeding car. The car dragged him a dozen feet before launching his small body through the air. He landed in the ditch on the other side of the road, next to the tadpoles.

“I was in a coma for a month and dead for one minute,” Lindblad recalls. He says his mother stayed by his side throughout that long month, singing to him day and night. The doctors thought he might not make it.

“I woke up to nurses in miniskirts,” he says. “That was so great. You know you want to live when you wake up to that. Remember, that was the sixties.”

He remembers one of the nurses giving him the Meet the Monkees EP and a Flinstones record. And he remembers a feeling of change coming over him – the crisis fading and the epiphany setting in. He was only a boy, but he had almost died, and he never wanted to hurt anyone again.

Pacifism has no place in an elementary school playground. The fists and insults of the less enlightened kids stung just as much. As he recalls in his online Psychic Autobiography he remained resolute even as several assailants beat him at once. He claims he cried only because the idea of “punching them out” was so upsetting.

This was the first of several crises that threatened to derail Lindblad’s life, which were each followed and redeemed by life-changing epiphanies.

***

After graduating from St. Thomas High School, Lindblad moved to Pierrefonds, a borough on the northwest tip of the island, where crisis found him again. He says that one afternoon in 1982, almost a decade before he became aware of his psychic power, he was troubled by spontaneous visions of green flames. That night his apartment complex burned to the ground.

As Lindblad recalls, he woke up in the middle of the night to discover that the empty apartment across from his was on fire. He ran through the halls waking people up and getting them out of the building. Later, he stood outside and watched helplessly as flames consumed the complex – the water in the hydrants was frozen solid.

Lindblad told Girio about incidents like these in which he experienced preternatural visions that seemed to foreshadow the future with strange accuracy. Girio, who already had an interest in “that esoteric stuff,” eventually decided that Lindblad would make a good dowser.

Dowsing is a form of divination (from the Latin divinare: “to foresee, to be inspired by god”) that involves the use of a stick or pendulum to read energy or radiation emanating from people, places, and inanimate objects. It’s a particularly popular brand of pseudoscience, or “woo-woo,” to use the terminology of prominent skeptic and author James Randi. Randi’s foundation, the JREF, is currently offering US$1 million to anyone who can show “under proper observing conditions, evidence of any paranormal, supernatural, or occult power or event.” So far, no one has walked away with the money.

The history of dowsing and its siblings is full of charismatic cranks. A practitioner of “radionics” named Dr. Albert Abrams claimed that he could use a machine he invented called The Dynomizer to cure any disease with a drop of a patient’s blood. A British antiquarian named T.C. Lethbridge maintained that he used a pendulum to discover three massive ancient chalk engravings on the side of some hills near Cambridge, England. One of them, a human-looking figure, looks like it’s been defiled by an English schoolboy: the chalk outline depicts a giant curve-tipped erection and two perfectly round chalk testicles.

Girio had been experimenting with these techniques himself with little success. Lindblad, on the other hand, was a natural. The first night he experimented with dowsing, nine years after his apartment had burned to the ground, he says he used a pendulum to find quarters Girio had hidden under books while he was out of the room. They did this over and over again until four or five in the morning. “The chances of him finding something like that was [sic] just astronomical,” Girio reflects. “It started to become pretty obvious that this was something that seemed to transcend space, at least.”

Girio still occasionally calls Lindblad to ask him help find things he’s lost around his house. He says Lindblad isn’t always right about these things, but his opinion is “worthwhile.”

Back in 1991, on that fateful night when Lindblad found coins for hours on end, he had another epiphany. This one would change his life for good. It would be more useful to him than the Political Science B.A. he earned from Concordia that same year. The thought came to him automatically: “I’ve got to find missing children.”

***

Lindblad has been running Child Search, his own not-for-profit business, ever since. He says he solved a triple murder in Vancouver on his first day on the job. That, he claims, was the first of over 2000 missing children cases he’s solved, many of which involved kidnapping, torture, sexual assault, and murder. He approaches these abject cases as more than the collection of menial tasks that make up other jobs; they constitute the bulk – even the meaning – of his life.

On a typical day, Lindblad will sit down in front of a computer for ten hours, often more, and often well into the night, googling Amber Alerts for recently abducted children. When he finds a worthwhile case (the criteria are pretty broad – missing child? Check. Somewhere on Earth? Check.), he says he channels his psychic visions to locate the missing child. The routine is only broken by eating, sleeping, making music, and spending time with his girlfriend. Occasionally he takes the night off and goes to Foufounes Électrique, which he calls “the Foufe.”

His visions, as he describes them, are not spontaneous – he consciously channels them through feats of concentration, occasionally with the help of a pendulum, map, or a photo of the missing person. When the visions come, he says he has a bird’s eye view of the crime, the scene, and the perpetrator or the victim. (“It’s like you’re on top looking down at a movie.”) Apparently, he can learn various facts about the crime in an instant – from a victim’s location to a killer’s age, eye colour, and weight.

When he’s collected this information, he calls the police. In 1998, he was interviewed on the Québecois news show Journalistes Enquêtères, after he told two parents where to find the body of their son, who had been missing for over a month. During the case, twenty psychics contacted the parents with information about the boy, Samuel Maynard. Each of the psychics claimed to have “seen” him in a variety of places (in a truck…or an invisible clay house…or somewhere in Ontario). Lindblad was the only one to say the boy had drowned in the Rivière Sauvage in Lambton, QC. An article in the Journal de Montréal the next day reported that Maynard’s body was found three kilometers from the spot Lindblad had described.

***

Apart from the Maynard case, Lindblad makes it difficult to check many of his stories, most of which lack basic details. He was evasive when I asked him about ongoing cases, citing his desire not to upset the parents of missing children. He didn’t want me to watch him work because, he said, he only gives information to families and the police. He often tells stories of past cases almost verbatim off of his online autobiography. The words sound scripted and have none of the nonchalance that Lindblad exudes when he’s not talking about work.

Generally, when he recalls past cases he doesn’t give specific names of people or places, and his memory is vague. He also says he worries that if he gives information that’s too specific, or divulges the name of a criminal, he might be putting his own safety at risk.

The whole thing just doesn’t pass the most basic smell test. To see if my instincts were right, I called the Service de police de la Ville de Montréal (SPVM). Sergeant Ian Lafrenière, one of their press flacks, told me that the police don’t elicit help from psychics. If they receive information from a psychic, they’ll look into it, but it’s usually a waste of time. When I asked him if this information ever helped with investigations, he took a contemplative pause. Maybe, for a split-second, he was imagining a world where policing could be that easy — another pleasant delusion. But then he sighed and said, “Honestly, no.”

***

It’s hard to deny (no matter how hard you try – and I have tried, hard) that Lindblad’s self-image is nothing more than the construction of a compulsively self-deluding man.

Of course, there’s another moral dimension to what Lindblad does. He doesn’t just mislead himself; he misleads others, too. He tells vulnerable parents who have lost children that by some supernatural revelation he knows where their son or daughter is. That he’s convinced it’s true makes it hard to accuse him of bad faith, but the morbid facts stick to your throat if you think about them for too long.

And yet, despite everything, I find it hard to condemn Lindblad. Maybe it’s how familiar his self-invention feels. I recently watched a 1973 interview with Marlon Brando on The Dick Cavett Show. There’s a great moment in the interview when Brando, himself an infamous self-deluder, begins to preach the merits of acting to Cavett: “We wouldn’t survive a second if we weren’t able to act. Acting is a survival mechanism. It’s a social unguent, a lubricant. People lie constantly, every day.”

Cavett is perturbed by the conflation of daily performance and acting, but Brando’s point (if we don’t lie, we die) is salient. We all have to tell ourselves little lies in order to deal with the absurdity, monotony, horror, or meaninglessness of life. I’m still not entirely convinced that I won’t grow up to be a professional basketball player and poet who bridges the gap between thug lyricist and literati. Like I said, we all choose our own imaginative ways to be deluded. Sometimes our imaginations need to go a bit further, usually when life’s horror or absurdity is a bit stronger, a bit more relentless. Sometimes inordinate dedication to a massive delusion – no matter its implications – is the only way to keep going.

In 2005, Lindblad had a curious, brief burst of international celebrity, when he flew to Japan to appear on the television show S.O.S. The episode is blessedly preserved on YouTube. It begins with an excited Japanese voiceover yelling about “Robotu Lindoblatto,” like he’s the latest must-have Japanese super-product that could be yours for four easy payments. Then a square image of Lindblad floats over a starry outer-space background, before shattering into a dozen fragments as he jams his dowsing staff through it. “In Japan,” he told me, “they said I’m the fastest, best, and coolest psychic on earth.”

Later in the show, Linblad is shown with his back to a table with a map on it, his dowsing staff pointing up to better channel his powers. A dramatic action-movie song reaches its climax, and he whips around and stabs a point on the map. There are supposedly missing people there – they’re pictured elsewhere on the screen. In the top left corner, there suddenly appears a yellow phone number for viewers to call.

In an earlier version of this article it was incorrectly stated that Robert Lindblad was once a black belt in karate. It was also incorrectly stated that psychics other than Lindblad predicted that Samuel Maynard, a missing child, had died. Further, in the final paragraph, the photos referred to as “black and white” were in fact in colour. The Daily regrets the errors.

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