||In the world
of professional wrestling, fans fall into two categories, known as the Smarts
and the Marks. The Marks believe that they are watching spontaneous contests
of strength and skill. The Smarts know that they are watching a fascinating,
highly plotted, roughly scripted form of dramatic entertainment--a sort of
sweaty soap opera. The Smarts and the Marks have a lot to talk about, though
their conversation sometimes seems at cross-purposes. They have both developed
an enthusiastic appreciation for the phenomenon, but on different levels.
In the world of unidentified flying objects, John E. Mack (or,
as his book jacket labels him, "John E. Mack, M.D., the Pulitzer Prize-winning
Harvard psychiatrist") is a Mark masquerading as a Smart.
Mack believes that little gray aliens have been abducting Americans
in large numbers and subjecting them to various forms of unwilling sex. (Yes,
that again.) Mack also believes that, for a bunch of cosmic rapists, these
aliens are a pretty benign bunch. They're trying to bring us in touch with
our spiritual sides, or trying to remind us how important it is to care about
the planet, or otherwise trying to help our consciousness evolve.
But you already know this--unless you've missed him these past few
weeks on Oprah, in the New York Times Magazine, on 48 Hours, and in supermarket
tabloids, talk shows, and news programs across the country.
Alien-abduction mythology has been one of this country's tawdry belief
manias since the 1960's. It is a leading case of the antirational, antiscience
cults that are flourishing with dismaying vigor in the United States, and
with dismayingly little counterbalance from people who ought to know better--the
Smarts. UFO's in general, paranormals who bend spoons, parapsychologists
who sense spiritual auras, crystal healers, believers in reincarnation, psychic
crime-solvers--all of these natural descendants of Tarot-readers and
crystal-ball-gazers get uncritical television time and newsprint. It's a
dangerous trend. The blurring of distinctions between real knowledge and
phony knowledge leaves all of us more vulnerable to faith healers and
Holocaust-deniers of all sorts.
The new wave of marketing the abduction myth has been grotesquely
effective. The New York Times Book Review chose to give Mack's new book,
Abduction: Human Encounters with Aliens, a major illustrated review
written by another psychiatrist who has spent time interviewing supposed
abductees. This reviewer, James S. Gordon, criticizes some of Mack's methods,
but hails him for giving "visibility to a phenomenon that is ordinarily derided"
and concludes that Mack "has performed a valuable and brave service, enlarging
the domain and generosity of the psychiatric enterprise."
Let's stop right here and
consider, hypothetically, for the first and last time in this article, the
possibility that Americans really are being kidnapped by aliens in vast
All right. We're undergoing a large-scale invasion by gangs
of alien sex abusers. There are millions of victims, according to Mack and
his fellow abduction proponents. To begin with, is this a matter that should
be handled by psychiatrists? Wouldn't astronomers and physicists have some
interest in the matter as well? Shouldn't these kidnappings be reported to
law-enforcement authorities (they virtually never are)? Wouldn't they be
of interest to the FBI, the military, and, say, world leaders?
The publishers, Charles Scribner's Sons, promote the book with
a dust jacket claiming that these are "alien encounters reported in no previous
book on UFOs," that they are "real experiences," that Mack's book is "above
all authoritative." Do they believe this, individually? According to their
hype, one in fifty of their own friends and relatives have been abducted
by these little gray rapists--are they, in real life, worrying about this?
Similarly, do the editors of the Times Book Review, or the television news
directors who are helping promote this book with equal foolishness, seriously
believe these claims? No, they do not. All these people are Smarts, at heart.
Their news departments aren't wasting any time investigating this story,
though surely a galactic sex crime of this magnitude would be worth assigning
at least as many reporters as the question of whether the President's wife
once made a killing in commodities.
"Statistics show that 4 million Americans have been abducted
. . ." began a Fox TV news item about the Mack book the other day. (It continued
with unidentified footage of realistic-looking aliens, from a science-fiction
movie.. There are no standards left, it seems, in the world of television
We'll all be hearing this statistic incessantly in the next
few weeks, so it's worth showing once and for all where it comes from. It
is the product of a 1991 study conducted by the Roper Organization under
the sponsorship of abduction buffs, who mailed their interpretation of the
results--titled Unusual Personal Experiences: An Analysis of the Data
from Three National Surveys--to tens of thousands of mental-health
The Roper pollers read a list of experiences to 6,000 people
and asked them whether they had undergone these experiences, as a child or
an adult, more than twice, once or twice, or never (a construction that routinely
generates more positive responses than the straightforward ever or never).
The relevant experiences were:
Waking up paralyzed with a sense of a strange person or presence or something
else in the room.
Experiencing a period of time of an hour or more, in which you were
apparently lost, but you could not remember why, or where you had been.
Seeing unusual lights or balls of light in a room without knowing what
was causing them, or where they came from.
Finding puzzling scars on your body and neither you nor anyone else
remembering how you received them or where you got them.
Most healthy people can answer yes to a few of these. I certainly
can. They are all well known feelings and dream types. Even the sinister-sounding
scar question is an easy yes for many people (take a moment to examine your
body carefully and you'll see what I mean).
The answers to these five questions form the entire basis for
the alien-abduction statistic. Are you wondering how a respectable survey
organization could take these and produce a claim that "one out of every
fifty adult Americans may have had UFO abduction experiences"? Easy. The
authors had only to make a single fraudulent assumption:
"Based upon the data we have collected, we decided to regard only
[!] those respondents who answered 'yes' to at least four of our five
key indicator questions as probable abductees."
That was 119 people. Hence--simple arithmetic from here on--4
Perhaps Mack is embarrassed enough by the absurdity of this
exercise not to rely on it heavily. He mentions it only once in his book.
But he did put his Harvard Medical School imprimatur on the original report,
writing the introduction and enclosing a helpful mail-in card for his
The alien-abduction phenomenon began in 1966 with the case of
Betty and Barney Hill. They were a New Hampshire couple who--years after
having got lost one night in the White Mountains--read some UFO literature,
spent a fair amount of time with psychiatrists, finally underwent hypnosis
and "remembered" having been kidnapped by aliens and subjected to various
indignities. Scores of books, movies, and television docudramas followed
as the genre evolved--Barney Hill himself was portrayed by James Earl Jones.
For the entertainment industry, this isn't a cultural nuisance; it's a cash
cow. And every few years some author finds a new way to cash in, as Whitley
Strieber did with his 1987 fiction-posing-as-nonfiction best-seller
Mack has a new angle. "None of this work," he writes, "in my
view, has come to terms with the profound implications of the abduction
phenomenon for the expansion of human consciousness, the opening of perception
to realities beyond the manifest physical world and the necessity of changing
our place in the cosmic order if the earth's living systems are to survive
the human onslaught."
What really makes Mack different from the standard flying-saucer
nut is that he's got authority. "Ordinarily," Oprah declared, "we would not
even put people on television, on our show certainly, who make such bizarre
claims. . . . But we were intrigued by this man. . . . Dr. Mack is a respected
professor who teaches at Harvard University. He is an eminent psychiatrist
. . ." The promotion surrounding his new book, Abduction, leans heavily
on his professional trappings. There is his status as a medical doctor and
psychiatrist. There is his Pulitzer Prize (won not for anything to do with
UFO's, of course, but for a biography of T. E. Lawrence published 17 years
ago). There is Harvard University, where Mack enjoys the comfort of academic
Mack's publicists--besides Scribner's, he uses a New Jersey
firm, PR with a Purpose Inc--are combining and recombining these elements
in sleazy ways. A press release begins: "Abduction by aliens was not a topic
taken seriously at Harvard University, until John E. Mack, a medical doctor
and professor of psychiatry . . ." (Of course, it is still not a topic "taken
seriously" at Harvard, except to the extent that Mack and fellow gulls happen
to be on campus.)
For readers, Abduction will seem a cross between the
Whitley Strieber genre and the Nancy Friday sort of
one-sexual-fantasy-after-another-as-told-to-me genre. Ed has sex in a "pod"
with a silvery-blond alien and finds it "fulfilling" and "great." Catherine
is forced to lie on a table naked and spread her legs while an alien with
cold hands inserts an instrument into her vagina. Eva is fondled by three
"midgets." And so on. It's all excruciatingly unpleasant and incoherent.
Just about everyone gets painful needles in the brain or the leg, and just
about everyone gets a lecture about pollution or global consciousness on
the way out.
The core of Mack's belief is the following cocktail-party syllogism:
People think they were abducted. They don't seem crazy. (And we ought to
know--we're experts on mental illness.)
Therefore people were abducted.
It sounds more respectable in psychiatrist talk, naturally:
"Efforts to establish a pattern of psychopathology other than disturbances
associated with a traumatic event have been unsuccessful. Psychological testing
of abductees has not revealed evidence of mental or emotional disturbance
that could account for their reported experiences." Ergo . . .
No one remembers their abductions right away. These aliens,
clumsy as they are about anaesthesia and scars, have a way of making the
experience vanish from the conscious minds of all 4 million of their American
victims. (Why is abduction such a peculiarly American phenomenon, by the
way? Our national borders aren't visible through the portholes of those
spaceships. Mack has an answer: abductions are global, but it's only in the
United States that we are lucky enough to have large numbers of UFO-obsessed
therapists to help people uncover their suppressed experiences.) Abduction
psychiatrists like Mack need a method of helping people remember, and that
method is hypnosis.
You are getting sleepy . . . when you awake you will remember
. . . Hypnosis is all about suggestion. It has always been a fringe practice,
as useful to carnival magicians and movie-makers as to clinical psychiatrists,
and for every genuine buried memory unearthed by a hypnotists, many more
false memories have been implanted. At its best, the process is a conspiracy
between hypnotist and willing subject. Time magazine has quoted one of Mack's
subjects as saying that she was given UFO literature to read in preparation
for her sessions and was asked obvious leading questions. Garry Trudeau has
shined his own form of common sense on the process in a Doonesbury sequence
that has a hypnotized subject saying "Now I see a . . . a blinding light."
"It's a vehicle, isn't it? Some sort of space vehicle?" the
"I . . . I can't tell. It has Nevada plates."
From a scientific point of
new, Mack's anecdotes are grossly lacking in respectable methodology. He
doesn't provide information about his hypnotic techniques, though he does
give the impression that there's a lot of breathing involved. He provides
no data from psychological tests. These are "time-consuming and expensive,"
he notes--gosh, right, in that case, why bother? There is nothing remotely
resembling a control or a negative case. There is no explanation of how he
selected Abduction's 13 case studies from his total caseload of 76, except
for the following: " . . . there are abductees I have know longer or worked
with in greater depth. If I have chosen not to tell their stories here it
is because I could not do justice to the richness of their experiences in
a sufficiently clear and concise manner." (In other words, there's even better
stuff in his files--he just couldn't squeeze them into these 422 pages.)
It's never clear where Mack finds his subjects or who they are.
They seem to be shuttled to him by the UFO/abduction network, and particularly
by Budd Hopkins, author of two 1980's best-sellers on the phenomenon. It
was Hopkins who introduced Mack in 1990 to his first four supposed victims
and then began a regular series of referrals. Mack's anecdotal descriptions
give only a cardboard sense of who they are--despite the torturous physical
detail, there is little to flesh out his sweeping claim that "they seem to
come, as if at random, from all parts of society." It seems safe to say that
there's one kind of patient that Mack never sees: a person suffering from
vague and unexplained feelings of anxiety or trauma who, without any familiarity
with UFO books or movies and without any suggestion whatsoever on the part
of psychiatrist or hypnotist, then remembers an abduction experience. If
he had any of those, it would be interesting to see the transcripts. In reality,
though, by the time Mack sees them, his patients know very well what they're
in for and have been well prepped.
As for his own biases, Mack claims he began as a skeptic, but
this he is clearly not. He's a firm believer, for example, in auras--"the
energy fields around us that some especially sensitive people can see" He
is certainly (much like his aliens) one of the many people who began talking
a lot over the past decade or two about saving the planet, protecting the
environment, understanding spirituality, and so forth. Mack seems to have
been a sixties late-bloomer, falling belatedly and hard for Werner Erhard,
Carlos Casteneda, est, Esalen, and so forth. It's really no wonder his abductees
find themselves getting such a warm dose of mind expansion along with the
extraterrestrial sex abuse.
Mack never manages to discuss the world's most widely shown
piece of popular entertainment on his subject, Close Encounters of the
Third Kind, though surely many, if not all, of his patients saw Steven
Spielberg's lovable little bug-eyed aliens long before they came up with
their own memories of virtually identical aliens. In fact Mack's whole new
mood about abductions isn't new at all--it's all there in Close Encounters:
the Eastern mysticism, the spiritual save-the-planet denouement. (Remember
the closing sound-track of the original version? "When you wish upon a
star,/Makes no difference who you are,/Anything your heart desires will come
. . . to . . . you.")
The entire issue of contaminating influences is constantly being
swept under Mack's rug. He writes at one point, "Eva had written in her journal
that she had started to read Whitley Strieber's Communion, but
discontinued it so as not to be 'influenced by anyone or anything.' " Oh,
sure. Anyway, all this scientific, methodological criticism rolls off believers
like water off a duck. It's merely "rational" or "empirical" or, worst of
all, "Western" (generic terms of dismissal). Mack knows his hypnotism sessions
are a collaboration, and he's unrepentant:
"I cannot avoid the fact that a co-creative process such as
this may yield information that is in some sense the product of the intermingling
or flowing together of the consciousnesses of the two (or more) people in
the room," he says. "Something may be brought forth that was not there before
in exactly the same form. Stated differently, the information gained in the
sessions is not simply a remembered 'item,' lifted out of the experiencer's
consciousness like a stone from a kidney. It may represent instead a developed
or evolved perception, enriched by the connection that the experiencer and
the investigator have made.
"From a Western perspective this might be called 'distortion';
from a transpersonal point of view the experiencer and I may be participating
in an evolution of consciousness."
Arguing with someone who uses language in this blousy manner
is like dancing with smoke. It is useless to find errors in reasoning or
logic. Logic? What an beggarly, earthbound affair. There are moments when
you find yourself wondering whether even Mack knows what he's claiming. With
all his harrowing descriptions of rapes and torture, he's still capable of
retreating to, " . . . we do not know what an abduction really is--the extent,
for example, to which it represents an event in the physical world or to
which it is an unusual subjective experience with physical manifestations."
This sounds almost sane. I would translate it into my boring kind of English
as "we don't know whether abductions are real events or fantasies." And
physical manifestations is a nice little addendum--it glides right
past the fact that there are no physical manifestations, if this means tangible
evidence the aliens might have left behind. They're wonderfully tidy about
their needles and handcuffs.
Mack continues: "A still greater problem resides in the fact
that memory in relation to abduction experiences behaves rather strangely."
Why, yes! " . . . the memory of an abduction may be outside of
consciousness"--translation: nonexistent--"until triggered"--translation:
created-- "many years later by another experience or situation that
becomes associated with the original event." Such as, maybe, going to the
drive-in and watching Close Encounters? Mack continues (and by the way, does
Harvard offer its professors any course in remedial English?): "The experiencer
in a situation such as this could be counted on the negative side of the
ledger before the triggering experience and on the positive side
after it." In plain language: it's hard to count the people who have
been abducted, because if someone says he hasn't been abducted, he may just
Though he is in all the machinery surrounding his book as true
a believer as can be, still, in the actual text, he engages in a slippery
form of rhetoric--as if somehow he still wanted to hedge his bets. He writes
of "the actual experience (whatever the source of these experience may ultimately
prove to be)." What does John Mack really believe (assuming that the whole
thing isn't just a calculated scam)? Does he have any curiosity about the
technology of this species, on the one hand capable of passing through walls
and beaming people about on rays of light, and on the other hand, sometimes
reduced to flagging down cars? Does he believe that creatures from another
planet are grabbing our fellow humans, pinning them down, and engaging in
weird sex with them? Literally?
Well, yes--and no. Certainly he writes as though he does, but
he also manages to avoid answering such tacky direct questions. Sometimes
he switches over to writing in terms of "the abduction phenomenon" (Smartspeak)
instead of "abductions" (Markspeak). Mack says, "Our use of familiar words
like 'happening,' 'occurred,' and 'real' will themselves have to be thought
of differently, less literally perhaps"--it's a sickeningly corrupt style
of hiding behind language. His writing is full of phrases drained of all
meaning: "the collapse of space/time"; "the alien being opened Ed's
consciousness." And there is always the ultimate hedge: "the problem of defining
in what reality the abductions occur."
We know some realities they aren't occurring in. They aren't
occurring in the reality Mack calls "the ontological framework of modern
science." This is the reality where we might be tripped up by things like
"accepted laws of physics and principles of biology." They aren't occurring
in "the Judeo-Christian tradition"--Jews and Christians have become such
stick-in-the-muds compared to (no surprise here) "Eastern religions, such
as Tibetan Buddhism, which have always recognized a vast range of spirit
entities in the cosmos . . ." Things that, after all, could not have really
happened, are constantly happening in "converging time frames" or "another
dimension." The game of let's-find-another-reality turns someone like me
into such a party-pooper, having to fall back on the common-sense idea that
reality is in fact . . . reality.
But it's not just a game. Mack is a practicing psychiatrist,
and he's toying with real people. There is "Ed," who first got in touch with
Mack in 1992 and "recalled" having been abducted, raped (not Mack's word),
and lectured to about "the way humans are conducting themselves here in terms
of international politics, our environment, our violence to each other, our
food, and all that"--all this having supposedly occurred 31 years earlier,
in 1961, though Ed didn't begin to recall it until 1989.
In a chilling aside, Mack writes that Ed and his wife, "Lynn,"
have had "a number of fertility problems, which may or may not be
abduction-related, including three or four spontaneous terminations of Lynn's
pregnancies." It's a reminder: This man is practicing medicine. He is telling
patients that their miscarriages may be due to imaginary aliens. Why do the
medical licensing boards permit this?
Mack represents the most visible
agent of an especially disturbing trend in the UFO landscape: mailings and
publicity targeted specifically at psychologists and psychiatrists. Private
organizations financed by abduction devotees are spending money to persuade
these professionals that there is something clinically respectable about
looking for UFO's along with, say, child abuse in their patients' troubled
histories. Mack's own tax-exempt funding source is his Center for Psychology
and Social Change. He also has a Program for Extraordinary Experience Research.
These organizations want clinicians to look for abduction cases whenever
they encounter such tell-tale symptoms as (I'm quoting from a 1992 Mack mailing
to mental-health professionals) "fears of the dark and of nightfall."
Sadly, in the age of depth psychology and transpersonal psychology,
hypnotherapy and psychic healing, willing professional dupes are in ready
supply. It seems that anything goes these days in the mental-health business.
Even more sadly, psychiatrists are exactly the people who should be treating
the scores of people who think they have been abducted by aliens and who
should be trying to understand the phenomenon.
For there is an abduction phenomenon, and it's worth
studying. Cultural historians might think fruitfully about the shared details
of the abduction mythology, at least to the extent that they can be disentangled
from the influences of the self-referential movies and books that victims
have been exposed to. Carl Sagan has pointed out similarities with old
(pre-space-age) stories of incubi and succubi, witches and fairies.
"Is it possible," he wrote last year, "that people in all times
and places occasionally experience vivid, realistic hallucinations, often
with sexual content--with the details filled in by the prevailing cultural
idioms, sucked out of the Zeitgeist. When everyone knows that gods
regularly come down to Earth, we hallucinate gods; when everyone knows about
demons, it's incubi and succubi; when fairies are widely believed, we see
fairies; when the old myths fade and we begin thinking that alien beings
are plausible, then that's where our hypnagogic imagery tends."
The problem is that, by and large, the Smarts aren't interested
in arguing with the Marks. It seems unprofitable, when no amount of rational
discourse can change the mind of a believer. A few worthy organizations devote
themselves to this sort of thing, most notably the
Committee for the Scientific
Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal, publishers of the
Skeptical Inquirer. But most astronomers,
physicists, and paleontologists have better things to do, though they are
the sorts of people best equipped to explain just how infinitely unlikely
it is that our corner of the universe should be receiving alien visitors
in such strikingly near--human form at just the eyeblink of history when
we have discovered space travel. Outside of hard science, all too many academics
have fallen into the literary conceit that anyone's version of reality is
as valid as anyone else's, and here in the real world, it's a conceit with
Not that mental-health workers have nothing to contribute to
understanding phenomena like the abduction myth. On the contrary--scores
or perhaps even hundreds of people do "remember" having been kidnapped by
aliens, and this needs to be understood. There is an explanation. As with
so many belief manias, the explanation is unwelcome to many people:
We are not fully rational creatures.
Our minds are not computers. We see people, we hear voices,
we sense presences that are not really there. If you have never seen the
face of someone you know, in broad daylight, clear as truth, when in reality
that person was a continent away or years dead, then you are unusual.
Our memories cannot be trusted--not our five-minute-old memories,
and certainly not our decades-old memories. They are weakened, distorted,
rearranged, and sometimes created from wishes or dreams. With or without
hypnosis, we are susceptible to suggestion.
The painful irony is that of all the people--the Smarts--who
should know these lessons and articulate them for the rest of us, none are
better placed than professors of