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Reading: Flying Saucers From Inner Space

Stories about alien abductions tell us more about ourselves than they do about anything out there.



I have never, to my dismay, seen a UFO. Not that I haven't tried. In my preteen years I avidly cultivated my inner alien, racing through the accumulated, um, literature on the Bermuda Triangle, cryptozoology, strange disappearances, the Nazca markings, and so on, in search of something beyond my suburban bedroom. Yet despite my best efforts I failed to bend a single spoon, read my brother's mind, or encounter mysterious lights in the night sky.

In retrospect, these weren't merely the obsessions of an imaginative ten-year-old--what felt personal was really cultural. As the 70s meandered into the 80s, I, like countless others frustrated by scant paranormal payoffs, turned to more everyday horrors, such as slasher movies and Ronald Reagan.

But a lot of us didn't. If pollsters are to be believed, hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions of Americans claim to have seen flying saucers, boarded them, and carried on extensive physical, emotional, and sexual relationships with their inhabitants.

Many of these contactees are easily dismissed as crackpots, publicity hounds, or ordinary people thirsting for distinction--the pathetic specimens of Budd Hopkins's Intruders, for instance, whose multifarious physical and emotional debilities would seem to make them poor choices for aliens seeking to revivify their gene pool.

Some of these people, however, are not so easily dismissed. Consider the furor provoked by Pulitzer Prize winning Harvard psychiatrist John Mack, who lends his considerable prestige to arguments for up-close-and-personal contacts in his recent book, Abduction, 13 long case studies of patients undergoing hypnotic regression buttressed by a learned commentary and exploration of the philosophical implications. The book has been received with the patronizing gentleness usually accorded dotty elderly relatives--a reaction underscored by the fact that Mack's wife, apparently disturbed by his growing belief that what he was studying was real, left him while he was writing it. Yet Abduction isn't the sad, quixotic flameout expected.

Mack admits that he began his study of this phenomenon as a hardheaded skeptic clad in scientific armor, but was gradually converted by the deeply anguished sincerity of the contactees he met. He was intrigued by their seeming normality; these were not wild-eyed devotees of fringe causes--which he claims he verified with batteries of tests--but nervous, unsettled professional men and women who tiptoed through daily life, weighed down by the conviction that something terrifying had happened to them. Soon he was interviewing other contactees, championing their cause on television, delivering papers at scholarly symposia, and even running a support group.

Mack's patients crumbled his faith in scientific "rationality." These successful, highly educated people had often spent years in therapy, but they still adamantly maintained that they'd been abducted. And their convictions could not be explained away by mental illness, family trauma, or sexual abuse. "In short," he concludes, "I was dealing with a phenomenon that I felt could not be explained psychiatrically, yet was simply not possible within the framework of the Western scientific worldview."

Either all of Mack's patients were unbalanced, or Western science had to be overhauled. Throwing his weight behind the second choice, Mack argues that we need a new paradigm that will take into account divergent realities and realms of experience, cosmic interconnections, and ancient truth. With this as the paradigm, "abduction" would go beyond anything so mundane as a trip to Mars; it would become a spiritual odyssey, a terrible and rewarding journey along the paths linking us to the cosmos.

Nearly all of his patients' experiences began in childhood, with incidents that frightened them yet also tantalized them with glimpses of worlds beyond this one. As their lives continued, the encounters became more explicit and disturbing, often involving forcible removal from their bedrooms, probes inserted in the nose or anus, human-alien sex, extraction of bodily fluids, sometimes even hybrid offspring. Though when his patients first began regressing under hypnosis they had fits of screaming and explosions of uncontrollable horror, by the end of the process almost all of them had learned through Mack to trust the aliens and to attain a kind of peace. Accepting that their extraordinary intimacies had thrust a great purpose upon them, they remade themselves as crusaders for universal harmony. Humans, they came to believe, must learn to care for themselves and their planet if they're to survive; we must open our souls to the varieties of paranormal experience and drink in the multitudinous richness of the universe.

But while the power and fury of the contactees' emotions make clear how deeply troubling such experiences are (their fear of mockery is also very real--which eliminates financial gain as a motive), sincerity is not proof. The details Mack provides are so skimpy that the reader must take his word for it that his patients are normal, even though several of them appear to have endured extremely damaging childhoods. Moreover, by too quickly accepting as reliable memories recovered though hypnosis--contrary to his claim, false memories can be created--and by waving away psychiatric diagnoses in a few pages, Mack creates the suspicion that he'd rather forget about science and just get to the good parts. And his argument that the lack of tangible proof and corroborating witnesses is irrelevant isn't likely to convince many: "It may be wrong to expect that a phenomenon . . . one of whose purposes may be to stretch and expand our ways of knowing beyond the purely materialist approaches of Western science, will yield its secrets to an epistemology or methodology that operates at a lower level of consciousness."

Mack also seems unaware of how thoroughly our culture is saturated with UFO lore. He claims that his patients's memories are not contaminated by mass-culture depictions of alien abductions, but such depictions would have been hard to avoid in the past couple of decades, when we've seen everything from Whitley Strieber's best-selling Communion, to the ensuing TV miniseries to The Twilight Zone, to Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

Perhaps most damagingly, Mack relies on reported UFO activity in the vicinity of his patients' abductions as proof that they occurred. But as Curtis Peebles demonstrates in his recent book, Watch the Skies! A Chronicle of the Flying Saucer Myth, there's no evidence that anyone has ever sighted an alien craft. (When the air force closed down its celebrated 22-year study of such sightings, Project Blue Book, in 1969, it concluded that not one of them involved advanced technology or extraterrestrial materials.) Making good use of recently declassified government memoranda and reports, Peebles unveils the panicky official reaction to the first wave of sightings after World War II--a reaction that soon cooled--and carefully tracks down the truth behind the most celebrated cases, including the 1896 Texas airships (a hoax), the 1947 crash in Roswell, New Mexico (a weather balloon), and the 1961 story of Barney and Betty Hill, the first famous abductee case (entirely typical dream logic, their psychiatrist was convinced).

Writing with a scientist's blunt functionality, Peebles is a sensible guide through the thicket of rumor, hysteria, and plain deception. Those believers who weren't credulous, he reveals, tended to be out-and-out con artists, like George Adamski, the first known contactee, who'd amassed a fortune in the early 1930s selling wine to southern Californians from a monastery fancifully labeled the "Royal Order of Tibet." After his "experience," he opened a center for UFO believers. But later he complained that if it hadn't been for the end of prohibition, he wouldn't have had to get into this saucer crap." Another 50s contactee, a technician at the White Sands nuclear testing facility in New Mexico, reported that alien mentors, who'd apparently flown in from Brooklyn, warned him, "Better not touch the hull, pal, it's still hot!"

Peebles makes a compelling case for seeing the UFO phenomenon as a consequence of cold-war paranoia; as he notes, alien warnings about imminent self-destruction and the need to safeguard the future of the planet date to the first contactee stories in the late 40s. (No doubt the recent upswing in transformational abduction experiences is the result of the lessening of international tensions.) Yet his argument falters in the particulars, because his attempts to link sightings to larger social conditions are crushingly simplistic.

Arguing that "vague, poorly defined crises" are responsible for sightings, he seems to yearn for a formula by which crises can be clearly seen to produce saucer hysteria. He plausibly offers Watergate as a prime cause of the suspiciousness that led people to believe that a shadowy cabal of government agencies and aliens was behind cattle mutilations, but what are we to make of his idea that the Korean war led to multiple flying-saucer sightings in 1952? Particularly given that the issues during the war were hardly poorly defined. Perhaps the two are related somehow, but what kinds of UFOs people see against the stars can't be derived mechanically from the workings of culture.

Peebles wants to show that darkness is gradually being banished by light, medieval superstition by modern truth, but much of his book provides proof that superstition is entrenched. (For that matter, Peebles prefaces each chapter with a quotation from that exemplar of stern reason, Sherlock Holmes, apparently unaware that Arthur Conan Doyle eagerly subscribed to the notions of every fraudulent spiritualist who came his way.) In large part the government records Peebles sifted through testify to a will to believe that animates even (especially?) highly trained, strictly regimented military men. the board of governors of the National Investigation Committee on Aerial Phenomena, a group formed in 1956 to lobby for more serious study of UFOs, numbered among its believers airline pilots, a retired rear admiral, and a former director of the CIA. A decade later most of the younger scientists staffing a prestigious federally funded study of flying saucers at the University of Colorado began as believers and for the most part stayed believers. John Mack is far from the first to throw over skepticism for the romance of galactic possibility--he's only the latest in a long, distinguished procession.

The larger debate between believers and skeptics has raged for centuries, but as David Hess points out in his illuminating and careful recent study, Science in the New Age: The Paranormal, Its Defenders and Debunkers, and American Culture, the noise of this conflict masks the fact that both groups generally talk past each other. Indeed, UFO skeptics and believers constantly paint themselves as embattled minorities in search of an elusive, stigmatized truth, and both construct boundaries around their own versions of that truth. The skeptics, Hess notes, are heavily male and generally adopt the macho rhetoric of empiricism; the believers prefer a feminized openness to the world that promotes change--change that radiates outward from the individual.

Hess steadfastly refuses to declare his sympathies, but it's clear that the weight of logic lies firmly on Peebles's side. Still, it seems unnecessarily harsh to consign contactees to the madhouse, if for no other reason than that they all seem comfortable with themselves and their surroundings. Forced to choose between Mack's humane generosity and Peebles's poverty of spirit, I'd prefer Mark's stance. Studies of people who describe being abducted while under hypnosis reveal that the tenor of their memories is most strongly determined by the character of the hypnotist; judging from his patients' experiences, Mack is someone worth admiring. At least he's seeking to change himself, to help his fellow men and women, to make the world a more peaceful and harmonious place. There are, it seems to me, many worse things and many worse ways in which to exploit the potential of the human race.

Abduction: Human Encounters With Aliens by John E. Mack, Scribners, $22

Watch the Skies! A Chronicle of the Flying Saucer Myth by Curtis Peebles, Smithsonian Institution Press, $24.95

Science in the New Age: The Paranormal, Its Defenders and Debunkers, and American Culture by David J. Hess, University of Wisconsin, $17.95.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Russ Ando.

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