“The power of the encounters comes from acknowledging your helplessness and keeping the whole matter in question, because the deeper the question goes, the more you attempt to come to some kind of resolution. If you keep asking them [the beings] questions, they keep reforming the thing in such a way that the questions get more provocative but can’t quite be answered. … If you start saying, “Well, they are aliens and they’re from this planet,” you’re lost. . . . I’ve often been in situations where the question has been impossible to live with. You can’t not answer it, and you can’t answer it either. And there you have it. You sit in a situation where you can’t bear to be—and you grow.”
~ Whitley Strieber
Interview with author Wagner,
South Dakota June 16, 1996
In the years since the publication of Abduction (Mack 1994), I have worked with more than one hundred additional people in the United States and other countries who report encounters with strange beings. These individuals are called “abductees,” “experiencers” or “anomalous experiencers”—ﬁnding appropriate language, as we shall see, has become an increasingly diﬃcult problem.
The alien abduction phenomenon can be deﬁned as the experience of being taken by humanoid beings, usually but not always against the person’s will, into some sort of enclosure where a variety of procedures and communications occur. Not all of the encounters described in this book are typical or classical in the sense of being intrusive and/or traumatic. As you will see, the experiences of Carlos Diaz, Jean, Sequoyah and Gary, for example, are not typical, and I do not have evidence that Bernardo or the children at the Ariel School were actually abducted by the beings they saw, although their encounters aﬀected them profoundly. I believe that including a somewhat wider range of experiences is likely to add to our understanding. In this book I will tell what I have learned from my further explorations. My understanding of the meaning and power of this extraordinary phenomenon, especially its relationship to the planet’s ecological crisis, is continuously evolving. I will set forth the consistent patterns that seem to be emerging as well as the contradictions and paradoxes that persist. The implications of these experiences for our understanding of ourselves in this universe will, I think, be reﬂected in each chapter of the book.
Before telling of the ﬁndings that have led me to my present viewpoint, I thought it might be useful to share with the reader where I have arrived, or have been taken, philosophically speaking, by my immersion in this fascinating and compelling work. There has been a continuing evolution of my perspective regarding the data itself, the most eﬀective method of bringing it forth, and the most useful way of interpreting the material. I have tried to be scrupulous in my observations and analysis, but I recognize that in the end what I have done will always to some degree remain idiosyncratic; that is, it is the product of the interplay of my own psyche or consciousness with the experiences of others.
I was raised in a secular American family of German Jewish heritage. The idea of a great bearded ﬁgure suspended somehow in the heavens was the only representation of God I remember being taught, and my logical, rational mind rejected this notion as impossible and absurd. Spirituality was a vaguely pleasant but unrealistic concept. My father, a professor of English at New York’s City College, read the Bible to my sister and me as culture and literature. In medical school any thought that the complex life-forms we were studying were created by purpose or intelligent design rather than simply through Darwinian selection was disparagingly labeled “teleology,” a kind of academic expletive. The experiences of native peoples with spirits, and the religious beliefs of the faithful, I looked upon, with Freud (another secular Jewish rationalist), as animism, primitivism, and illusion. Psychoanalysis and psychiatry, while expressly addressing the inner life, at the same time, ﬁt well into my materialist worldview, oﬀering mechanistic explanations for human behavior, feelings, and experiences.
When I ﬁrst heard of the alien abduction phenomenon, I tried to ﬁt it into my knowledge of psychopathology. But no consistent psychiatric disturbance has been found that could account for these reports, nor has a major psychological study of this population demonstrated more psychopathology than a matched comparison group (McLeod et al. forthcoming). I soon realized, therefore, that no plausible ﬁt was emerging. A purely intrapsychic or psychosocial explanation—that is, one that did not include the possibility of another intelligence or force entering the experiencers’ lives, as if from outside—was not consistent with my diagnostic assessment of what these clients were presenting.
I was then faced with the choice of either trying to ﬁt these individuals’ reports into a framework that ﬁt my worldview—they were having fantasies, strange dreams, delusions, or some other distortion of reality—or of modifying my worldview to include the possibility that entities, beings, energies—something—could be reaching my clients from another realm. The ﬁrst choice was compatible with my worldview but did not ﬁt the clinical data. The second was inconsistent with my philosophical grounding, and with conventional assumptions about reality, but appeared to ﬁt better what I was ﬁnding. It seemed to me to be more logical, and intellectually more honest, to modify my cosmology than to continue trying to force my clients into molds that clearly did not suit them.
In 1995 a close friend, a psychologist who is herself a pioneer in working with non-ordinary states of consciousness, challenged me with the question, “John, where do you think you are on the weakest ground in this work?” I assumed correctly that what she had in mind was my crediting the possibility that beings, spirits, or anything at all could “cross over” from the unseen or “other” world into our material reality. This crossover seems to be regarded as a regular occurrence in many if not most indigenous cultures, but in our Western or scientiﬁc/materialist society, the domains of spirit and matter have been kept separate and distinct, and the possibility of traﬃc between them is looked upon as doubtful if not altogether impossible. When I pointed out to her that in other cultures in which I have tried to investigate the abduction phenomenon, such interchange is “no big deal,” she replied that in our culture it is indeed a big deal.
Worldviews and Other Cultures
Just how deeply held is the worldview that separates radically the material world from the realms of spirit, unseen agency, “daimonic reality” in the words of English writer Patrick Harpur (1994, p. 37), or what are called the subtle realms in Eastern spiritual traditions, was brought home to me a few weeks after the publication of my book in the spring of 1994, when one of the deans at the Harvard Medical School handed me a letter that called for the establishment of a small committee to investigate my work.
After explaining vaguely that concerns had been expressed to the university about what I was doing (although he told of no speciﬁc complaint, nor was any oﬀered in the letter), he added pleasantly—for he had been a friend and colleague—that I would not have gotten into trouble if I had not suggested in the book that my ﬁndings might require a change in our view of reality rather than saying that I had found a new psychiatric syndrome whose cause had not yet been established.
Some of the subjects of my recent interviews have come from indigenous cultures in the United States and other countries. Frequently these informants will tell me that, according to tribal legends, their people came from the sky and that their cultures were founded by “star people,” arriving sometimes in what they call UFOs or something like them. I have found it diﬃcult to interpret such communications, primarily because of the diﬀerent relationship between the spirit or unseen and the material worlds in native cultures. For example, according to Bernardo Peixoto, a shaman who was raised by the Ipixuma tribe of the Brazilian rain forest, our legends say that a long time ago a ﬂying saucer landed in the Amazon basin and that men emerged from this spaceship. He said there were even cave drawings, made hundreds if not thousands of years ago, that showed some kind of craft. These beings were makuras, or spirits that came from high up in the sky. When I asked him if among his people this legend was to be regarded literally as referring to the material world, or should be seen rather as metaphoric, or a crossing over from the unseen or spirit realms into the material world, he replied succinctly that among his people this makes no diﬀerence.
Similarly, Malidoma Somé, a shaman of the Dagara people of Burkina Faso in West Africa, with advanced degrees from the Sorbonne and Brandeis University, has written, “In Western reality, there is a clear split between the spiritual and the material, between religious life and secular life. This concept is alien to the Dagara. For us, as for many indigenous cultures, the supernatural is part of our everyday lives. To a Dagara man or woman, the material is just the spiritual taking on form” (Somé 1995, p. 8). I have heard similar statements frequently from native people in North America. Sequoyah Trueblood (see Chapter 9), for example, says that for him whether the physical body is taken during an abduction is not important, for “we are spirit.” Native people, he adds, live in a world of “spirit and meaning,” while whites live in a world of “science and facts” (personal communication to author, May 6, 1998).
Among native peoples, at least those who have maintained a connection with the traditional ways, direct communication with the Creator may be part of everyday life, and UFOs, or something like them, seem to play a part in this contact. Wallace Black Elk, an esteemed Lakota elder and shaman, has said, “We don’t need a piece of paper to contact the spirits.” . . . We send a voice to the Creator—‘Yo-ho’—and somebody responds and comes in. Someone might say, ‘ Yo-ho, I’m lost. I need help.’ Then a spirit comes and takes me some place. They’ll ﬂy you there. They’ll take you any place. If you want to visit the moon, they’ll take you up there. They’ll put you in one of those little ﬂying saucers, and they’ll zoom you up there in no time. Then, they’ll bring you back” (Black Elk and Lyon 1991, p. 32).
It is hard to know how the scientiﬁcally raised mind could regard this passage. I have since spoken with Black Elk, and he appears to mean it quite literally (among other meanings), in spite of the fact that what he describes is absurd from a materialist point of view. I am sometimes told that my interviewees tend to tell me this sort of thing because they know I am with them to talk of UFOs, abductions, and such matters. So this passage from the story of Black Elk’s life is interesting, as it records words told—rather casually, it would appear—in the 1980s to anthropologist William Lyon several years before I was studying these things. Lyon seems to have had no particular interest in UFOs.
If one is to communicate eﬀectively about something so controversial and complex as the alien abduction phenomenon, then it is important to be as clear and speciﬁc as possible about one’s own worldview and how it may have changed. Failing to do so can result in leaving the reader at the post, philosophically speaking, wondering just how the author is regarding the reality of what is being described. For example, a reader who is generally open-minded but whose worldview cannot accept literally the possibility of alien abductions in a purely material sense might say something like Well, something is going on here. The question is what? A less ontologically— “ontology” refers in philosophy to the nature of being, reality or existence— open-minded person might reject the whole matter out of hand. I cannot, of course, ask anyone to share the philosophical perspective at which I have arrived, but I believe the chance of having my observations and arguments taken seriously is greater if this point of view is made clear.
In the world in which I was raised and schooled, the idea of life, beings, energy—really anything at all—emanating from an unseen reality and manifesting materially was just not possible. Yet something precisely like this seems to be what is occurring in the case of the alien abduction phenomenon. I have been repeatedly reminded of the story Patrick Harpur tells of the British scientist Sir William Crookes, who was sent by his colleagues to debunk the nineteenth-century star spiritualist D. D. Home. When instead he was himself “converted” and reported this to his colleagues, they were outraged and told him that what Home was doing was impossible. Crookes said, “I never said it was possible. I said it was true” (Harpur 1994, p. 64). What I have been ﬁnding has been, according to my own background, not “possible.” Yet from the standpoint of my clinical experience and judgment, it does indeed appear in some way to be true. In that sense the phenomenon might be described as an anomaly—that is, an occurrence that is—as the bizarre reports of rocks we now call meteorites falling from the sky seemed in the eighteenth century (Westrum 1978)— not possible according to the science of the times but may nevertheless turn out to be real in some way that we do not yet understand.
“Abduction: The Next Generation” is an extract from Passport to the Cosmos by John E. Mack published by White Crow Books