The Nation June 27, 1994 pp. 904-6 Spaced Out - and Other Delusions by Anne Bernays Some y

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The Nation June 27, 1994 pp. 904-6 Spaced Out -- and Other Delusions by Anne Bernays Some years ago, at the height of the antinuclear movement, John Mack, a psychiatrist and professor at Harvard Medical School, chained himself to a fence surrounding the testing grounds in Nevada. This gesture was altogether in character. Dr. Mack is a binary sort of fellow, an enthusiast searching for inspiring answers to big questions. The Harvard-affiliated department of psychiatry at Cambridge City Hospital is his creation; he's also the founder of the Center for Psychology and Social Change. Over time Mack has made some of his more conventional colleagues uncomfortable by endorsing Werner Erhardt's EST and, more recently, "breathworks," a method of breating under supervision meant to help a patient recollect nasty things long kept under wraps. It's hard to imagine how he found the time, but in 1978 he published a biography of agitated iconoclast T.E. Lawrence; it won him a Pulitzer Prize. John Mack has magnetic eyes and a reassuring personality. These days psychiatrist Mack has moved on to other worlds, spending a good deal of time interviewing, hypnotizing and "treating" men and women who claim to be victims of alien abduction. They say that during their several hours of captivity inside hovering space vehicles they are physically invaded in various ways, including sperm and egg removal and implantation of odd matter, usually in an arm or leg muscle. When their space odysseys are over, the abductees are returned to earth, thoroughly fartootst. This is where Dr. Mack takes over, assuring them that it's O.K. to be temporarily upset but not to worry: Their small gray kidnappers mean well and have come from outer space only in order to keep our planet from self-destructing. I saw Dr. Mack on Oprah. He said that while he's aware all this sounds farfetched, the abductees he's talked to are neither psychotic nor neurotic in any conventional way. Their stories sound authentic and are amazingly similar to one another, even when related by people who have had no chance to meet and compare notes. While unwilling to go all the way and say they are telling the truth, Mack is far more convinced by tales of extraterrestrial abduction than he is skeptical. If John Mack were the local chiropractor or small-town dentist, few would pay much attention to him or the ideas contained in his book, just published and now orbiting its author on the nation's airwaves. But this man is a Harvard professor; surely a man on the faculty of the Big H knows what he's talking about. His credentials alone give his narrative the wings it needs to fly; as a result, thousands, perhaps millions, believe it. It seems we'll believe almost anything, and the more of us there are, the more likely we are to embrace total nonsense, a phenomenon known as mass hysteria. You're ashamed to admit you saw Elvis twiddling the knobs on the gas grill, but as soon as a couple of the neighbors say they too saw him in their backyards, you figure it's O.K. to go ahead and call the folks at The National Enquirer. I see nothing to distinguish alien abduction--in its high moonshine content--from such other foolishness as astrology, Silva Mind Control (we once had a babysitter who swore she could find a parking space in Harvard Square by focusing her mind), pyramid power, numerology, the orgone box, phlogiston, Scientology, alchemy and the presence of witchcraft in Salem, Massachusetts--all of them wacko responses to the normal anxieties of everyday life. Moreover, John Mack and his fellow believers want it both ways. On the one hand they charge us to open our closed, "Western," "rationalist" sensibilities to other systems of "knowing" and accept the "unacceptable." On the other hand, they claim to have "scientific" (that is, physical) evidence that scores of abductions have taken place--although they have yet to produce a single producing item. But one either buys the whole ball of wax through absolute faith, as a Christian does the Resurrection, or, as in the case of fluoridation, through concrete proof that children who brush with Crest have fewer cavities than those who don't. Are we supposed to believe in aliens in our midst because we need to believe _or_ because space cadets have left behind a pair of peculiar footwgear or half-eaten metal-filing sandwiches? One way or the other, please. An analogy to the belief in extraterrestrial kidnapping is the conviction that the Holocaust never happened. When confronted by hard evidence--documentation, mass graves, camps and ovens, the number of disappearances corresponding to the shrinkage of Europe's Jewish population, and the word of eyewitnesses--the deniers persist: The Holocaust didn't happen. Punkt. And so we have a phenomenon with two heads. Defying--or, at the very least, ignoring--reason, common sense and logic, the one head believes without evidence, while the other believes _in spite_ of evidence. Not that our age is unique: Historians of religion call this kind of superstitious thinking-by-the-gut "animism," and it's been around since the first caveperson bored a hole through a mammoth's tooth and wore it around his, or her, neck on a length of bull's intestine. The specious and irrational, a huge slavering dog with fangs, has pushed the sweet purring pussycat of sanity and reason off her bed, taken her place at the hearth. Impatient with rational thought, we'd rather "feel" or "believe in" or "relate to." No one appreciates the imagination more than a novelist, a person who spends at least half her waking life making up stories and writing them down. And that's why she's aware of the risks of letting fact and fiction blur into each other. John Mack is a man of undeniable talent and energy, so I'm baffled by his eagerness to groom and breed gullibility. But I guess he's not out of step with the animism parade. The next thing we'll be told is that Richard Nixon has made yet another spectacular comeback. How many will not believe it? ============================================================================== Anne Bernays, who teaches at Holy Cross College, is the author of, most recently, _Professor Romeo_ (Penguin)


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