by John Mack, M.D.
Summary: An overview published in Noetic Sciences Review, Autumn 1992, two years prior to the publication of “Abduction: Human Encounters with Aliens” Even though over the past 25 years thousands of individuals throughout the United States and in other countries have reported abduction experiences to UFO investigators and mental health professionals, the phenomenon appears to be more widespread than anyone might have expected. The fact that a phenomenon defies conventional explanation, or even challenges our notions of reality, should not permit us to ignore its existence or prevent us from exploring its dimensions and significance.In this article I describe the basic features of the UFO abduction experience, the impact these experiences have on the abductees, and the implications of the phenomenon for our profession and society.
Autumn ’92 Noetic Sciences Review
Even though over the past 25 years thousands of individuals throughout the United States and in other countries have reported abduction experiences to UFO investigators and mental health pro-fessionals, the phenomenon appears to be more widespread than anyone might have expected. A Roper poll of “unusual events”, for example, conducted between July and September, 1991, suggested that hundreds of thousands if not millions of individuals in the United States may have undergone abduction or abduction-related experiences (1). The fact that a phenomenon defies conventional explanation, or even challenges our notions of reality, should not permit us to ignore its existence or prevent us from exploring its dimensions and significance. At the very least, mental health clinicians should be familiar with a condition that causes so much anguish among their potential patients or clients. Furthermore, the sheer extent of the phenomenon, and its unusual psychological and physical features, indicate that the problem may be of considerable socio-cultural, scientific and philosophical importance.
In this article I describe the basic features of the UFO abduction experience, the impact these experiences have on the abductees, and the implications of the phenomenon for our profession and society. There are other investigators who have had longer experience with abductees, but because of the unusual or controversial nature of this material, I will depend whenever possible upon my own work so that I may take personal responsibility for the observations and experiences reported. In light of the uncertain ontological or “reality” status of what abductees report has “happened” to them, there is an issue of what might be called the narrator’s attitude or point of view. Rather than using quotation marks to indicate that something is what an abductee believes happened, I have related abductee accounts “straight”, without quotation marks if, to the experiencer, what is being related really occurred. This does not presume a viewpoint on my part regarding the reality status of the event, only agreement that the abductee is sincere and that to him or her what is reported really happened.
When a psychologist friend and colleague in the fall of 1989 offered to introduce me to Budd Hopkins (whose name and work were unfamiliar to me), describing him as an artist who took the reports of abductees seriously*, I dismissed the idea, assuming that both he and his clients must share some sort of delusion or other mental aberration. When out of curiosity I visited Hopkins on January 10, 1990, I was impressed with his sincerity, depth of knowledge, and deep concern for the abductees, who had often been incorrectly diagnosed and inappropriately served by mental health professionals.
But what affected me even more was the internal consistency of the detailed accounts by different individuals from various parts of the country who would have had no way to communicate with one another and whose stories had emerged only with difficulty, accompanied by distressing emotions.
[* It has been the pioneering research of New York artist and sculptor Budd Hopkins, over two decades with hundreds of abductees, which has established the essential consistency of the abduction phenomenon. Hopkins’ first book, Missing Time (2), published in 1981, documented the unaccounted-for time periods and associated symptoms which may indicate that abduction experiences have taken place and their characteristic details. In his second book, Intruders (3), published in 1987, Hopkins defined the sexual and reproductive features that have come to be associated with the abduction phenomenon.]
Soon after this initial encounter I met with several abductees in Hopkins’ home and again was impressed by the consistency of the narratives, and also with the absence of any obvious mental illness or emotional disturbance other than the traumatic sequelae of the abductions themselves. No obvious explanation that could account for the abduction reports was apparent then, nor has any emerged in the subsequent two years.
I felt that this group of people was in need of understanding and help and reflected a mystery of more than purely clinical interest. I determined, therefore, to work with abduction experiencers myself. By the beginning of June, 1992, I had seen more than 56 possible abductees. Of these, 41 fulfilled the basic criteria of full-fledged abduction experiences: recollections, with or without hypnosis, of being taken against the subject’s will into some sort of non-normal enclosure by small humanoid creatures where medical and surgical-like procedures were performed. Although I offer support and counseling to abductees, my role has been as much that of a co-investigator as a therapist.
Since October, 1990, I have also been holding monthly group support meetings in my home, which have been attended by 15-30 individuals. My first cases were referred by Hopkins. Later I was referred people through the network of individuals interested in UFOs or the abduction phenomenon, or people called me self-referred who learned of my interest in the subject by word of mouth or saw me on television programs about UFOs or abductions. Of the 41 I am calling abductees, there are 24 women and 17 men. Two are children under eight. I have done one to five hypnotic regression sessions with 20 of the 41 and have been present during hypnosis sessions with three others. The adults range in age from 19 to 57.
Who are the Abductees?
Psychopathology and Personality
Few generalizations can be made at this time about this important question because of a paucity of research data and the unusual nature of the phenomenon. None of the abductees with whom I have worked have revealed obvious psychopathology, such as schizophrenic psychosis, severe depression, or other major psychiatric disturbances. Indeed, what has struck me most has been the “ordinariness” of the population, including in my sample, for example, a restaurant owner, secretaries, a prison guard, college students, and several housewives. Several demonstrated resentment, slight suspiciousness, a sense of victimization, and other post-traumatic symptomatology. Most seemed burdened in their lives by their abduction experiences.
Some, though not all, of the abductees I have seen report troubled relationships in childhood with one or both parents, alcoholism in the family, and childhood or adolescent abuse. Several report personal isolation, troubled adult relationships, and problems related to conceiving and bearing children and to parenting. But in other cases these disturbances are not present. In some cases, attitudes toward sexuality and decisions relating to having or not having children seemed to be affected by the abduction history. In no case so far have I found a way of tying the non-abduction aspects of these individuals’ histories to their abduction stories, nor have I found convincing psychodynamic links between the specific narratives of the reported abduction experiences and other aspects of the personal histories or emotional lives of the abductees.
Alerting Symptoms, Signs and Memories
There are a number of symptoms, signs and memories found in my cases and also reported by Hopkins, David Jacobs (4), and eleven other abduction investigators, including six physicians and mental health professionals whom I consulted in preparing this report, that suggest an abduction incident or case. By history likely abductees tell of having seen “little men” or other beings, or feeling a “presence” in their room as a child. They have often felt they were “different” or have led a “double life”. They may have had close-up sightings of strange craft or objects in the sky during the day or night, or have seen unexplained intense or bizarre bright lights in their living or bedrooms. In association with a UFO sighting, and at times independent of it, they report unexplained time lapses of an hour or two or more, or have found themselves dislocated to a place yards, or even miles, from home and cannot explain how they got there.
Abductees may not have been interested in UFOs, but some have been strangely drawn to abduction-related books, react with terror to their content, especially to pictures of aliens (“I saw that face on the book and I almost fainted,” one experiencer said to me), cannot finish them and often seek help as a consequence. They may recall awakening during the night feeling a dread, “numb” or paralyzed with the sense of a physical presence, or even seeing small beings with large black eyes in their room. Other symptoms include a strong sense of vulnerability, generalized anxiety, fear of hospitals, flying, elevators, animals and insects, and sexual contact.
Sounds, smells, images, or activities that are disturbing for no apparent reason may later prove to be associated with the abduction experience. Insomnia, fear of the dark and of being alone at night, covering windows against intruders, sleeping with the light on (as an adult), disturbing dreams and nightmares, especially associated with flying craft or “alien ships” taking the person away, are common. Odd rashes, marks, cuts, or scars may appear overnight, or unexplained bleeding from the nose, ear, or rectum, which by itself might not draw attention, but attains significance in association with the other phenomena. Other symptoms include uro-gyn complaints, including unexplained pregnancy changes, and persistent gastro-intestinal symptoms.
The physical features which accompany UFO sightings and landings (5,6), and, in relation to this report, alien abductions, are among the most interesting and compelling aspects of the phenomenon. They provide a seemingly objective corroboration of reports that are otherwise so bizarre as to defy our credulity. With or without accompanying physical manifestation, as a psychiatrist, I credit as valid psychological data that abductees provide if I find them to be reliable as informants or suffering from no evident mental illness, other discoverable historical trauma or motive for distortion that could account for what they say happened to them, even if this leaves me mystified as to what, indeed, did actually occur. However, it is clear that such physical evidence would, if corroborated, relieve abductees of the burden of persuading themselves and others of the actuality of events which are so powerfully real yet defy accepted notions of reality, and would focus attention and resources on the needs of abductees and the meaning of the abduction phenomenon.
Physical manifestations at times frighten abductees, who do not want to believe that their experiences are real, and at other times reassure them of their sanity. For the abductee population, physical manifestations are elusive and inconsistent. Some are not by themselves pathognomonic of an abduction, but gain their significance by appearing in conjunction with, or immediately following, an abduction. Abductees may tell of their surprise on waking on top of the covers or upside down on the bed, in a room of the house other than the bedroom, or sometimes even outside the house. Their clothes may be removed, folded by the bed or nowhere to be found.
Abductees describe their confusion and disbelief on coming to the realization while driving that they are many miles from their location just moments earlier, sometimes finding themselves closer to their destination, at other times completely off their intended path. Abductees sometimes find nosebleeds or fresh cuts on waking or returning from an episode of missing time, which are later traceable to alien interactions. Many abductees display scars that fall into one of two characteristic types: straight-line or scalpel, and depressions or scoop marks.
Human reproductive functioning and sexuality appear to be at the core of the abduction phenomenon (3, 4). Women and men report a great range of experiences related to reproduction and sex which includes gynecological probing, removal and reimplantation of ova, removal or disappearance of fetuses, forced taking of sperm samples, extrauterine incubation of embryos on spacecraft, human nursing of hybrid fetuses with observation by aliens, alien-human sexual intercourse and “bonding”, and human intercourse observed by aliens on and off the spacecraft.
Residual Experiences of Abductees
Painful, Disturbing or Traumatic Sequelae
Whatever may ultimately be found to be its source, for abductees their experience is profound, lasting and inescapable. Abductees may learn, with or without help, to live with, even transform, their experiences. But they have suffered, and sometimes continue to suffer, from the residua or sequelae of their disturbing or traumatic experiences. Psychologically they feel “different”. Nightmares and other disturbing dreams are regular sequelae of abductions. Abductees suffer from a great range of physical pains and fears which seem to correspond anatomically and physiologically to the locus of invasive procedures experienced during abductions.
In addition to sexual / gynecological sequelae, symptoms include headaches, nasal sinus pains, limb pains, gastro-intestinal pain and distress, intense fears of needles and, commonly, of doctors and hospitals. Abductees suffer from a complex traumatic picture. It would be incorrect to call it “post” traumatic, as the threat does not become a matter of the past. There are four dimensions to the trauma:
1) the disturbing experiences themselves;
2) the personal isolation that grows out of the difficulties of talking to others about the experiences;
3) the inconsistency between these experiences and the consensus reality which abductees have learned; and
4) the fact that the experiences can happen again at any time to them and their children.
Other dimensions of the trauma need also to be stressed. A distance often develops when abductees tell their parents or others what they have seen or experienced. They are most frequently told that they have been dreaming, having nightmares, are “lying”, are “too imaginative”, “making up things”, or, as one woman put it, “they just kind of tried to humor me.” But to them the experiences are real and clearly distinct from dreams. They learn not to talk with their parents or siblings (some of whom do not want to hear, despite or because of being experiencers themselves) about these experiences, which creates an intense sense of isolation and alienation that con-tinues in adult life among friends and peers.
Children may feel angry or let down by parents when they fail to protect them from abduction experiences. In addition abductees parents are deeply troubled when their children are involved and anguished that they cannot protect them. Although they may come to accept that their experiences are “real”, at least for them, abductees struggle intensely with what this means for their lives. The problem for them is not only one of ontological threat and confusion. It also means that they are unable to dismiss their experiences as easily as they could a dream or fantasy. Finally, abductees must live with the fact that their experiences, whatever their source, can recur at any time, even after years without “activity”.
Personal Growth and Transformation
But there is more to the abduction experience than trauma, pathological sequelae and victimization, especially when the experiencers investigate their experience, struggle with its meaning for them and their worlds and try to come to terms with it. Confronting their terror and helplessness has been an important aspect of the personal growth they have experienced. Many abductees seem to become more intuitive or “psychic”, and develop philosophical interests which they believe are an outgrowth of the abduction phenomenon. One of the most striking results of the abduction experience for many abductees, especially those who work actively to integrate their experiences, is a strong sensitivity to environmental desecration that sometimes leads to various forms of ecological activism. On the ships, abductees are frequently shown visions of nuclear and, especially, ecological destruction, sometimes as if on a television screen. Sometimes abductees feel they have been given a special mission – for example, to commit oneself to leadership in environmental responsibility. Even the “breeding” phenomena, some abductees feel, may in some way be serving a life-preserving function.
Whether the spiritual growth and ecological commitment that is observable among the abductees I have studied is a secondary byproduct of their experiences – the expanded consciousness that follows the stretching of the consciousness that may follow any extended painful or traumatic experiences – or is a more intrinsic aspect of the whole process is a question that needs further exploration. One abductee believes that the aliens “have been sent as engineers of evolution to do repair work, come to show our consciousness has moved down the wrong track… It’s like the butterflies have come back to stop the caterpillars from denuding the bushes of food.”
Phenomena That Need to be Explained
Any adequate theory of alien abductions, even a useful hypothesis, must account for a broad range of puzzling phenomena. These include at the least:
1) Narrative consistency. The stories which abductees tell vary in their details, but they have a hard edge of narrative consistency. It is sometimes argued that abductees influence one another, that is, they “get” their experiences from what others tell them, visual media or reading. My impression, however, is that what more often happens is that when abductees communicate with each other about their abductions or watch television or film versions of abductions, they find support from one another or fill in details of what they have already experienced or are trying to clarify. “Modern communications,” as folklorist Thomas Bullard has written, certainly spread folklore widely and with speed, but they are not the agents of homogenization that folklorists once feared. The media serve as just one more voice in the transmission of folklore. As soon as the next narrator repeats an item, he usually begins the process of variation” (7).
2) The absence of diagnosed mental illness. The majority of abductees do not appear to be deluded, confabulating, lying, self-dramatizing or suffering from a clear mental illness. This does not mean that abductees cannot also be psychotic. I have encountered, though not worked directly with, at least one probable experiencer who was clearly psychotically decompensated.
3) Association with UFOs. Even though many abductions seem to occur independent of UFO sightings by the abductee or other witnesses, a close association between UFO encounters and abductions has been consistently observed.
4) Bizarre physical effects. Whatever may prove to be the ontological status of such accounts, a convincing theory needs to account for the more unusual or difficult to believe physical effects described above.
5) The reports of young children. Parents can, of course, influence their children’s experience. Nevertheless, for a theory of the abduction phenomenon to be complete we must find a way to account for the emotionally intense and seemingly authentic, detailed experiences of even very young children whose exposure to outside sources of information has been limited.
What’s Going On?
Current theories include psychiatric, psychosocial/cultural, extraterrestrial explanations, and what might be called the hypothesis of “other dimensions of consciousness”.
Psychiatric: No clear pattern of mental illness has emerged, though psychiatric disturbances may exist among abductees, related or unrelated to the abduction history. I have been struck by how little mental illness manifests among abductees, considering the often lifelong nature of the abduction phenomenon and its disturbing intensity. Many abductees suffer from the symptoms of a post-trau-matic stress syndrome, but it is not clear, other than what abductees report, what the traumatizing event might be. It is difficult to conceive of a post-traumatic clinical picture which arises entirely from within the psyche. Child abuse, including sexual abuse, has been considered as a possible source, but does not appear to account for the syndrome in any of my own or other researchers’ cases.
Psychosocial/Cultural: Initial confrontation with stories of abductions onto UFOs by alien beings raises in many listeners’ minds the idea that this is a form of mass hysteria or collective madness. Arguing against this idea, however, is the fact that abductees are rarely in communication with one another before they are brought together by support groups or somehow find one another because of their common experiences. It has also been suggested that abductees pick up the details of their experiences from the larger culture, especially the mass media. This is an appealing possibility, but does not hold up to careful scrutiny. UFO phenomena have been reported in the mass media at least since 1947, and abductions have been on the scene since the Barney and Betty Hill case (8) was widely reported in 1966. But most media depictions, like Close Encounters of the Third Kind and ET, are general, inaccurate, superficial, and crude, and do not provide the intricate, consistent detail that is found in so many abduction narratives. Even the 1975 documentary film of the Hill case, Interrupted Journey, lacks the level of detail of most of the cases I have seen. A few recent documentaries have been more faithful to the realities of the abduction experience, but many abduction reports have preceded them and these films too are quite general and lack the richness of the accounts that abductees provide.
Others have applied Jung’s idea of the collective unconscious and “psychoid” phenomena to the shared experiences of abductees (9,10,11). Jacques Vallee linked modern UFO abductions to historical and mythic accounts of visitation by small beings, contact with flying craft, and kidnappings or abduction onto space vehicles (12,13). As Bullard (14) has written, “The search for parallels is dear to the hearts of folklorists. This is a complex question, leading us deeply into the nature of reality as perceived by particular cultures.” In a discussion of my work with historian of science Thomas Kuhn and his wife Jehane, she asked, “How could a rich stereotype coagulate out of a shared soup of affectively laden imagery without being directly passed on?” This question presses us to stretch or reformulate our notions of the collective unconscious. She is posing the same basic question which philosopher W. V. Quine asked at Harvard a few days later when I presented this material, namely, how could a complex, detailed and traumatic set of ideas and events, some of which lie outside of our notions of reality, that are experienced by otherwise sane people as literally happening, arise spontaneously in thousands of minds of human beings geographically separated and not, as far as one can tell, in contact with one another? An explanation based on such an expression of the collective unconscious would surely stretch our notions of the psyche or how the mind works. Again, the physical phenomena associated with UFOs themselves and the experiences of young children are not accounted for in any such explanation.
Abduction research does have a shattering impact on one’s views of the nature of the cosmos. In an attempt to explain the phenomena some have turned to alternative notions of the nature of the cosmos, more familiar to Eastern religions and philosophy, that depict the universe and all its realities as a vast play of consciousness with physical manifestations. We in the West seem, for reasons perhaps as mysterious as the abduction phenomenon itself, to have cut ourselves off almost totally from awareness of any form of higher intelligence or an anima mundi.
Extraterrestrial Hypothesis: Almost as if by a process of elimination many investigators, at least in the United States, have come to the conclusion that UFOs are spacecraft navigated by extraterrestrials and that these beings exist in our material reality and perform the abductions. As Bullard has written, this hypothesis squares with shared experience better than with personal fantasy or cultural learning… Never mind the whys and wherefores, the extraterrestrial explanation works. It satisfies believers with a systematic, internally rational account of the abduction phenomenon all for the price of buying a single premise: alien origins” (15). Jacobs seems to be correct when he states “no significant body of thought has come about that presents strong evidence that anything else is happening other than what abductees have stated” (16). Yet there are problems with the extraterrestrial hypothesis as well, especially as literally formulated. Professor of Natural Sciences Michael Swords explores some of these in his article “UFOs as Time Travelers” (17). Why have we not seen better photographs of UFOs landing, for instance, in populated areas, and none of the beings themselves? Why, with the possible exception of the controversial Roswell incident (18, 19), do we have no artifacts that confirm an alien presence?
Penetration of Other Dimensions: Any theory, then, faces virtually irreconcilable contradictions. If the abduction phenomenon is considered from the standpoint of the psyche, we are faced with extremely bizarre material reported sincerely by otherwise sane people, and we cannot account thereby for the accompanying physical manifestations. On the other hand, a literal extraterrestrial hypothesis stretches our notions of the physical universe and its properties to and beyond conventionally accepted limits of reality. Faced with this dilemma some ufologists, especially Jacques Vallee and Karl Brunstein, are writing of the penetration into our reality of parallel worlds, even other universes (20, 21, 22). Vallee, for example, now states, “I believe that the UFO phenomenon represents evidence for other dimensions beyond spacetime; the UFOs may not come from ordinary space, but from a multiverse which is all around us. “(23). Interestingly, the abductees themselves, who are often scientifically unsophisticated and largely unfamiliar with such writings, speak, including under hypnosis, of the sense that they have of the penetration into their consciousness of other dimensions beyond our familiar space/time reality.
Many of the abductees I have met with have the sense of the operation of some other intelligence beyond our own which they feel is responsible for breeding new life forms, changing their own consciousness and affecting basic human notions of reality. One man, for example, says, “When we witness their coming it is like scrim [a piece of fabric used in a theater to create the illusion of a solid wall or backdrop], or a movie screen. When they arrive you are looking at ordinary reality as a movie screen in the optic nerve. When they come it is like someone shines a bright light behind the movie screen and obliterates the scene. What we perceive as the movie screen, what we call reality, they burn through, proving it’s only a construct, a version of reality.”
Summary and Conclusions
The abduction phenomenon confronts us with an authentic and disturbing mystery. But perhaps, as Edmund Bolles has written, “it is important to confess when something is mysterious” (24). For there is no way, I believe, that we can even make sense, let alone provide a convincing explanation, of this matter within the framework of our existing views of what is real or possible. Our psychological theories do not include a way of accounting for the simultaneous occurrence among thousands of people, unacquainted with one another, including small children, of complex, elaborate, and sometimes overwhelmingly powerful experiences that resemble one another in minute detail, accompanied by a variety of equally peculiar physical phenomena.
At the same time our understanding of physical reality cannot explain the technology whereby a population of beings from some other space/time realm can enter our world with such limited detection and affect so many people. Yet it may be precisely from those phenomena which do not fit into our established scientific categories, like near-death experiences or the “old Hag” (or nightmare) as described by David Hufford (25), from which we may learn most, even if it forces us to change our views of reality. These individuals -the abductees themselves- are deeply affected by their experiences, which may be emotionally and physically disturbing and traumatic.
They need empathic, intelligent diagnostic and therapeutic interventions by individuals who are familiar with the details of the phenomenon and willing to suspend belief about its source or cause. In fact, a little help often goes a long way in these cases. For these are generally not deeply disturbed individuals in need of extensive psychotherapy. When they encounter someone who listens, takes their accounts seriously and does not, as has so often happened to them in the past, try to fit their stories into familiar diagnostic categories, there is usually great relief and improvement in their mental status, although they are troubled initially to have to face the actuality of experiences they have preferred to dismiss as dream, fantasy, or even delusion.
Some abductees wish to explore more deeply through hypnosis or other means the buried memories of their abductions. More intensive work of this kind re-quires the development of standards of care, which some abduction researchers, especially internist David Gotlib in Toronto, are seeking to establish (26). Also proving to be of great value for this population are support groups, led by someone who does abduction treatment and research, through which abductees can meet each other and share their histories and experiences. For, as has been noted, abductees often live in a kind of self-enforced isolation, fearing, with justification, that they will meet, as in the past, not only disbelief but ridicule or dismissal as “crazy” if they talk about this aspect of their lives.
In summary, the abduction phenomenon is of considerable clinical and scientific interest. No convincing explanation of the experiences abductees report is currently evident. We may learn from further research a great deal about the nature of the human psyche and expand our notions of psychological and physical reality. The phenomenon may deliver to us a kind of fourth blow to our collective egoism, following those of Copernicus, Darwin and Freud. For we may be led to realize that not only are we not physically at the center of the universe, transcending other life forms and rational masters of our psyches, we are not even the preeminent or dominant intelligence in the cosmos, in control of our psychological and physical existences. It appears that we can be “invaded” or taken over, if not literally by other creatures, then by some other form of being or consciousness that seems able to do with us what it will for a purpose we cannot yet fathom.
John E. Mack is Professor of Psychiatry at The Cambridge Hospital, Harvard Medical School, and Founding Director of the Center for Psychology and Social Change. His publications include A Prince of Our Disorder, a Pulitzer Prize winning biography of T. E. Lawrence.
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25 D. J. Hufford: The Terror That Comes in the Night: An Experience-Centered Study of Supernatural Assault Traditions. University of Pennsylvania Press, 1982
26 D. Gotlib: “Who Speaks for the Witness? Medical and Ethical Issues in Abduction Research“. In W. Andrus (ed): MUFON 1990 International UFO Symposium Proceedings. Seguin, Texas, Mutual UFO Network, Inc., 1990, pages 24-35
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