Twenty-odd years after I left Long Island for good, the prospect of running into someone I know there always fills me with a peculiar mix of excitement and dread.

So when it happened not long ago, at a party in the generic suburban hamlet where I was raised, I just assumed that the woman with the long dark hair whose name escaped me was someone with whom I had gone to high school. Her face was just so familiar. Her manner seemed familiar. Even her voice seemed to ring a bell.

The woman’s name turned out to be Lisa, but she hadn’t gone to school with me after all. I had never been to the restaurant at which she worked. We couldn’t find a single other connection.

So why was I so certain that I knew her?

Finally, tentatively, she offered something up, almost as a throwaway.

“Well…I was just on TV? On a show called Long Island Medium?”

Bingo.

It’s only my favorite show. I had watched the clip in which Lisa appeared, oh, about 20 times. I’d even posted it on Facebook and Twitter.

Lisa was working behind the counter in a Syosset deli when Theresa Caputo, a Hicksville-based psychic medium and star of a TLC reality show, stopped in. While waiting for her iced decaf, Caputo began receiving messages she said were from Lisa’s late grandmother.

“She told me she was a seamstress. What’s with the buttons?” Caputo asks animatedly, decidedly more Jersey Shore than Turn of the Screw. “She wants to tawk about the buttons!”

“It’s not funny,” says Lisa’s mother, clearly rattled, mouth agape. “My mother used to collect buttons. She had jars of buttons.”

It’s a classic Long Island Medium encounter. When she’s not doing paid readings, Caputo traverses Long Island in her white Mercedes SUV, delivering impromptu messages from the great beyond to strangers; her show is set in a series of supermarkets and bowling alleys, mattress stores and bagel shops. “I like to think of myself as a typical Long Island mom,” she says in the opening voiceover. “But I have a very special gift: I talk to the dead.” (Watch Lisa and her mother discuss their reading here.)

I’ve seen every episode of Caputo’s show, which returns for its fourth season May 12 on TLC. I even broke my longstanding self-imposed ban on Halloween costumes to dress up as her last October. And I recently ponied up $78.50 to see Caputo live at Baltimore’s Lyric Opera House, where she wore crystal-encrusted heels so towering I now suspect I know her trick: She can just see directly into heaven.

Did I mention I don’t really believe she can talk to the dead?

My fascination with Caputo begins with the very fact of her over-the-top Long Island-ness. I fled the land of shopping malls and split levels as soon as I could and lit out for college in central Virginia, where I shed my accent, tamped down my hair, and affected a love of Laura Ashley, bourbon, and boys with roman numerals after their names. But Caputo wears her roots — literally —like a badge of honor.

With mile-high bleached blonde hair shellacked to within an inch of its life, talon-like acrylic nails and a Lawn Guyland accent so thick it might actually raise the dead, the pride of Hicksville seems to have come straight from Central Casting’s middle-aged Long Island housewife division. No wonder she was such a perfect target for SNL. (When Kate McKinnon’s Caputo asks, “Who had the grandfather who choked on a meatball parm?” every hand in the room goes up.)

There’s something comforting to me about the characters that people Caputo’s world, the familiar way that their aluminum-sided tract houses are decorated. Watching Caputo’s show brings me powerfully back to a part of my Long Island childhood — the diners with their formica and mirror decor, the strip mall tchotchke boutiques invariably run by women with names like Ricki and Ronni, the industrial park coffee shops where you can still get a buttered roll. I’m continually intrigued by the stark contrast between Caputo, about whom so much seems superficial and fake — the tan, the flashy clothes and jewelry, even her impeccably manicured landscaping — and the raw, dark, messy, and very real human emotion in which she traffics. She bears not so much as a hint of the lugubriousness with which old-school mediums, with their black clothes and mournful mysteriousness, are associated.

As a television presence, Caputo is undeniably irresistible — like Lucy Ricardo crossed with Carmela Soprano. Though her show often sags under the predictable weight of let’s-pretend-we’re-really-doing-this-and-film-it-as-reality tropes, she is utterly, hilariously, compellingly watchable. As my sister-in-law said, “I’d watch the show even if she weren’t a medium.”

But Caputo is indeed a medium, paid top dollar to sit with people in her sage-scented dining room and convey messages from their dead loved ones. The show has spawned an inevitable Theresa Caputo empire: a national multi-city tour, an upcoming book from Simon & Schuster, a gig as a pitchwoman for Priceline, a spate of talk show appearances.

I’ve long maintained a skeptical fascination with the paranormal, but I am trained as a journalist, with a bullshit detector I like to think is pretty finely honed. In fact, one of my proudest moments was unmasking a woman who was attracting a sizable following blogging passionately about the death of a child I immediately suspected wasn’t real. (Second proudest moment? Finding her criminal records online.)

I know that I am supposed to dismiss Caputo as a manipulator, a cookie-cutter charlatan who’s laughing all the way to the bank, lining her pockets with vulnerable people’s naivete. “do u gt msgs 4 ppl who tweet 2 u? jst wndrng if either of my parents com thru w/this tweet? r they proud? LUV U!” reads a typical message in her Twitter feed.

But try as I might, I cannot help but love Theresa Caputo. Why? Because I honestly think Caputo is as genuine as they come. I think she truly believes in the therapeutic value of what she does. You can see it in the unmistakably heartfelt anguish with which certain readings leave her, and the lip-biting anxiety she displays when she believes “spirit” is present—emotions skeptics dismiss as a calculated part of the act. People go to Caputo seeking closure about the death of loved ones, and they inevitably get it from her, as she assures them the dead are at peace and unburdens them of guilt and second-guessing. Does it really matter whether we can prove that she elicits that relief by actually conversing with her clients’ dead children and grandmas? I find it easier to appreciate Theresa Caputo not so much as a psychic medium but as an extremely charismatic and effective, if unorthodox, grief counselor.

Though I’ve read the angry exposes that claim Caputo is a knowing fraud, just like centuries of so-called psychics before her, I have a hard time casting her as a money-grubbing villainess. If you pay a quack doctor who claims his homemade elixirs will cure you of cancer, he is guilty of violating the codified principles of his profession, and of eroding the foundation of medicine. There’s a known, scientific standard against which his work can be measured. But if you knowingly pay a woman to talk to your dead loved ones, and you believe that she does exactly that, who exactly has been victimized? What “real” service is she pretending to provide that she has not? What “real” science is she falsely claiming to practice? Unlike a fake cancer treatment, which can actually be detrimental, where’s the harm in what Caputo does, especially if it makes grieving people feel better? If you really don’t believe it’s possible to talk to dead people, then don’t pay anyone to talk to dead people for you, and don’t watch a show about a woman who claims to talk to dead people. Logic, reason, and the scientific method remain intact. Problem solved.

That said, while Caputo is a gifted, magnetic performer, I don’t believe her abilities are as uncanny or otherworldly as they may first appear. Though it makes me no less fervent a fan, and while she may genuinely believe that she is guided by spirit, I think she is practicing some form of what’s known as cold reading, relying in large part on cues collected through nothing more mysterious than her five senses and a healthy dose of perceptiveness or intuition. Like all great practitioners of her craft, she often throws out generic references that would probably have specific meaning to virtually anyone; cast a wide enough net, and you’re almost certain to get what appears to be a “hit.” Watch enough of her readings and the same familiar things will pop up over and over again: mentions of family recipes, photo albums, pieces of jewelry, burial clothes, and graduations, for instance. “Did you write something for him/her?” she’ll often ask, a question that those who’ve recently mourned are almost sure to answer in the affirmative. How is it that “spirits” are capable of delivering long, detailed messages like “I need my little girl to know that I have never left her and that I am so proud of the woman that she has become,” but never confirm their identities with the simplest of things like full names or addresses? (Watch a funny collection of some of Caputo’s most egregious fishing here.)

Caputo asks questions more often than she makes declarative statements, and then uses the answers she’s given to elaborate, so that the person being read often unwittingly provides much of the so-called “reading.” Sometimes, she shoots fish in a barrel, as when she asks the parents of a dead child whether the death was “unexpected or tragic,” or the widow of a fallen police officer if “something had been named after him.” In a particularly cringeworthy 2011 reading of a New York City firefighter, she asks, “Did something happen — I want to say like ten years ago —where you were like, ‘Somebody was really watching over me that day’?” (Really, Theresa? You’re better than that.)

But sometimes? I have absolutely no idea how Caputo gets the information she apparently has about total strangers. How could she have known that a random woman doing her grocery shopping had trained for the Olympics? How did she come up with an unusual name like “Mildred,” the woman’s late grandmother? And why was “ring” the first thing Caputo wrote down when reading a woman who had privately decided that it should be the “signal” word from her dead husband to let her know he was there? (“Holy shit,” the woman replied, her hand reflexively covering her mouth.) How did she know to mention a pocket watch to a woman who had deliberately hid one under a sofa cushion to “test” Caputo’s skills? Are there simple, logical explanations for these things, or is it something far eerier?

For a long time, the answer to that question was fascinating in a wholly impersonal way. I watched Long Island Medium with the same kind of dishy enthusiasm I have for other guilty reality TV pleasures like The Bachelor and Say Yes to the Dress; it was fun to try to explain away the Sixth Sense element of the show, all the while being charmed by Caputo’s outsized ebullience. Until last April, when my father died unexpectedly after a stroke. Suddenly, I came to see the show in an entirely new light. I now see the pathos and desperation that underlie Caputo’s success. I finally understand why people often say they can’t make it through an episode without weeping. I confess I’m now one of them.

I probably would have gone to see Caputo in person last month even if my father were still alive, watching a Mets game in his favorite chair while doing the New York Times crossword puzzle. I’ve long been curious how Caputo might “read” me, just as I’d be curious to see the rendering a caricaturist at a party might make of my face. But as I sat in the same room with the Long Island Medium, I finally felt what it is that draws people so powerfully to her. I knew how reassuring and electrifying it would have been to hear something — anything — that could have been even remotely construed as coming from my father, even as I knew with every fiber in my being that that’s not possible. It’s the same way I’d be pleased to be told I had a long “life line” on my palm, even though I know it’s meaningless, or the way I used to stroke a brightly colored rabbit’s foot for luck as a kid. It’s precisely that momentary falter in logic, that “You never know…what could it hurt?” that makes Caputo’s messages so appealing. It’s the reason I’m still on the waiting list for a private reading with her, although I think I mostly just want to have the chance to reminisce about Long Island high school life in the eighties. Besides, as my brother pointed out, even if my atheistic, rigidly logical, mathematician father really did make an appearance, he would probably keep his mouth shut just to spite her.