Date: Mon May 23 1994 21:30:02
From: Sheppard Gordon
Subj: Mack (TNR)
The Doctor's Plot
Byline: James Gleick
THE NEW REPUBLIC
ABDUCTION: Human Encounters with Aliens
by John E. Mack, M.D.
Charles Scribner's Sons, 432pp., $22
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 both have 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 1960s. It is a leading case of the anti-rational, anti-science cults
that are flourishing with dismaying vigor in the United States, and with
dismayingly little counterbalance from people who ought to know better. UFOs in
general, paranormals who bend spoons, parapsychologists who sense spiritual
auras, crystal healers, believers in reincarnation, psychic crimesolvers -- 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 book a major illustrated
review 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 piece, the possibility that Americans really are being kidnapped by
aliens in vast numbers. All right. We're undergoing a large-scale invasion by
gangs of alien sex abusers. There are hundreds of thousands or 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 this 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
The publisher, Charles Scribner's Sons, promotes 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 the editors believe this?
According to the hype they are pushing on the public, one in fifty of their own
friends and family has been abducted by these little gray rapists. Are they, in
real life, worrying about it? Similarly, do the editors of "The New York 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 the alien onslaught, though surely a galactic sex crime
of this magnitude would be worth assigning at least as many reporters to 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, of course.
There are no standards left, it seems, in the world of television news.) 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 professionals.
The Roper pollsters 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 of 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
-- feeling that you were actually flying through the air
although you didn't know why or how.
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 this data
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 out of
our five indicator questions as probable abductees." That was 119 people. Hence
-- simple arithmetic from here on -- 4 million Americans.
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 readers.
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 gotten lost
one night in the White Mountains -- read some UFO literature (the flying saucer
craze was already two decades old), 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, "Communion."
Mack has a new angle. "None of this works" 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.
Of course, 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 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 UFOs, of course, but for a
biography of T.E. Lawrence published seventeen years ago). There is Harvard
University, where Mack enjoys the comfort of academic tenure.
Mack's publicists -- besides Scribner's, he uses a New Jersey firm, P.R. with a
Purpose Inc. -- are combining and recombining these elements in sleazy ways. A
press release begins: "Abduction by aliens was a topic not 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
For readers, ABDUCTION will seem a cross between the 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.
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 experience." Ergo...
No one, of course, remembers their abductions right away. These aliens, clumsy
as they are about anesthesia 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, of course, has an answer: abductions are global, but it's only in the
United States that we are lucky enough to have 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 moviemakers as to clinical psychiatrists, and for every genuine
buried memory unearthed by hypnosis, many more false memories have been
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... blinding light." "It's a vehicle, isn't it? Some sort of space
vehicle?" the hypnotist prompts. "I... I can't tell. It has Nevada plates."
From a scientific point of view, 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 negative case. There is no
explanation of how he selected ABDUCTION's thirteen case studies from his total
caseload of seventy-six, except for the following: "... there are abductees I
have known 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 1980s 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 tortuous 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) among 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 '60s 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 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 intuitive
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.
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
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 a
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
almost sounds 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 not remember -- yet.
Though Mack in 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 experiences may ultimately prove to
What does John Mack really believe (assuming, of course, 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 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?
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 in which they aren't occurring. 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 stuck-in-the-muds compared to (no surprise here) "Eastern
religions, such as Tibetan Buddhism, which have always recognized a vast
range of spirit entities is the cosmos...."
Things that, after all, could 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" being abducted, raped (not Mack's word) and lectured to about "the
way humans are conducting themselves here in terms of international politics,
our environment, out violence toward each other, our food and all that" -- all
this having supposedly occurred thirty-one years earlier, in 1961, though Ed
didn't begin to recall in 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?
If Mack has any particular therapeutic goals for his patients -- apart, that
is, from raising his own consciousness -- it's hard to see what they are. He's
obviously the wrong person to help someone come to grips with the underlying
causes of UFO fantasies and hallucinations, so what kind of therapy can he
Does he want to help patients adjust to the aftershock of a trauma akin to
rape? Maybe, but he has bigger things in mind -- "personal growth" and
"transformation," meaning becoming a better citizen of the planet, getting in
touch with one's transcendent spiritual nature, etc.
And why stop there? He finds that "abductees seem, especially once they
confront and integrate their experiences, to be especially intuitive; they
sometimes demonstrate strong psychic abilities, including clairvoyance or the
ability to perceive at a distance."
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 funded by abduction devotees are
spending money to persuade these professionals that there is something
clinically respectable about looking for UFOs 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 telltale 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, of course, and it's worth studying.
Cultural historians might think fruitfully about the shared details of the
mythology, at least to the extent that they can be disentangled from the
influences of the self-referential movies and books to which victims have been
Carl Sagan has pointed out similarities with old (pre-space-age) stories of
incubi and succubi, witches and fairies. It is possible, he wrote,
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 out 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 eye-blink 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 bad consequences.
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 ben kidnapped by aliens, and this needs
to be understood. There is an explanation.
And 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
professors of psychiatry.
JAMES GLEICK, the author of "Chaos: Making a New Science" (Penguin Books) and
"Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman" (Vintage), is founder of The
Pipeline, a new gateway to the Internet.