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The Believer is the weird and chilling true story of Dr. John Mack. This eminent Harvard psychiatrist and Pulitzer Prize–winning biographer risked his career to investigate the phenomenon of human encounters with aliens and to give credibility to the stupefying tales shared by people who were utterly convinced they had happened.
Nothing in Mack’s four decades of psychiatry had prepared him for the otherworldly accounts of a cross-section of humanity including young children who reported being taken against their wills by alien beings. Over the course of his career his interest in alien abduction grew from curiosity to wonder, ultimately developing into a limitless, unwavering passion.
Based on exclusive access to Mack’s archives, journals, and psychiatric notes and interviews with his family and closest associates, The Believer reveals the life and work of a man who explored the deepest of scientific conundrums and further leads us to the hidden dimensions and alternate realities that captivated Mack until the end of his life.
“This extraordinary biography reads like a fast-paced thriller. It deftly weaves the detailed richness of John Mack’s genius and complex life through the historical backdrop of the alien-abduction phenomena. Ralph Blumenthal has so beautifully captured the essence of Mack’s soul and his relentless curiosity that by the end of the book I mourned that Mack is no longer with us.”
— Trish MacGregor, coauthor of Aliens in the Backyard: UFO Encounters, Abductions, and Synchronicity
“As a person sane enough to hold a driver’s license, I say, what are we to make of Mack’s findings? Read this gripping, factual account of a mental-health pioneer and truth-seeker by a soundly accredited successful author, veteran New York Times foreign correspondent, and reporter. Decide for yourselves and then tell me!”
— Dan Aykroyd
“Anyone who is intrigued by the involvement of John Mack, a psychiatrist on the faculty of Harvard, or by the interest of psychiatrists in the anomalous in general and UFOs in particular, should not miss reading this book! It is filled with details on the topic, both pro and con, that are not publicly available in any other place that I know.”
— David J. Hufford, author of The Terror that Comes in the Night: An Experience-Centered Study of Supernatural Assault Traditions
“John Mack was one of the few prominent American intellectuals who saw and said what was, and still is, really at stake in the UFO phenomenon—reality itself. And Ralph Blumenthal is the perfect biographer to take up Mack and bring him to life, in all his humanity and complexity, on the page. A major achievement.”
— Jeffrey J. Kripal, author of The Flip: Epiphanies of Mind and the Future of Knowledge
always and forever
my faithful believer
I never said it was possible, I only said it was true.
Sir William Crookes · 1874
Compared to the obstinate mystery he was chasing, John Mack was an open book, compiling a voluminous record of his formative thoughts, feelings, ideas, and presentations, a good part helpfully preserved in audio and video recordings retained by the family. No words or thoughts ascribed to Mack or anyone else in this book are the author’s speculation or invention; all come from interviews, articles, recordings, emails, letters, or other documentary accounts by Mack and other principals. I am deeply grateful to Danny, Kenny, and Tony Mack for making the material available through Mack’s devoted archivist and adviser, Will Bueché, and for providing their recollections and encouraging others to be forthcoming as well.
I was exceptionally fortunate to have spent time with Mack’s wife, Sally, at the end of her life. Despite their split, Sally remained a faithful and loving supporter of her husband and his work. Others particularly close to Mack who generously shared their recollections and insights included Dominique Callimanopulos, Karin Austin, Pat Carr, Roz Zander, David Ingbar, and Budd Hopkins, whom I was privileged to interview also shortly before his untimely death, along with Temple professor David Jacobs, the third of their triumvirate, whose academic standing, like Mack’s, also took a beating.
Mack’s cousins, Walter Henry (Terry) Liebman and his sister, Susan Butler, were vital sources of family history. Wes Boyd and Stan Grof opened the door to transformative chapters in Mack’s story. Gurucharan Singh Khalsa and Rick Tarnas, Mack’s confessors, who were party to his taped therapy sessions and other personal consultations, gave away no confidences that Mack himself hadn’t already recorded for posterity, but they helpfully provided context.
Robert Jay Lifton, Bernard Lown, Daniel Ellsberg, Vivienne Simon, Anne Cuvelier, Leslie Kean, Roberta Colasanti, and David Pritchard also offered valuable perspectives.
Randall Nickerson, one of Mack’s first experiencers, generously shared his memories of Mack and his extensive research into the child-witnessed 1994 UFO landing in Ruwa, Zimbabwe—the subject of a documentary film, Ariel Phenomenon, that he had been working on for years.
Professional photographer Stuart Conway took some of the most atmospheric photos of Mack and generously allowed their use in this book.
Jerome Clark’s magisterial 2018 The UFO Encyclopedia is a treasure, and so, for anyone studying the phenomenon, is he. I am indebted, too, to Leon Friedman, Barbara Lamb, Whitley Strieber, Rudolph Schild, Christopher Green, Linda Napolitano, Will Maney, David Gotlib, Mike Briggs, Jeffrey Kripal, Diana Pasulka, Ann Druyan, Luise White, Susan Lepselter, Margaret Meese, David Cherniack, Phil Isenberg, Lester Grinspoon, Edward Khantzian, Artemis Joukowsky III, Amy Anglin, Eric MacLeish, Dan Sheehan, Carl Sapers, David Hufford, Jeffrey Rediger, Russell Targ, Jane Katra, Shawn Randall, Carol Rainey, Leslie Hansen, Jill Neimark, James Willwerth, Donna Bassett, Victor Gurewich, the Rockefeller Archive Center, Elizabeth Robinson, Susan Manewich, Judy Einzig, Rachael Donalds, Cheryl Costa, Linda Miller Costa, Michael and Trish Mannion, Michael Murphy, Norie Huddle, Terry Hunt, and Amy and Elliot Lawrence.
My agent, Al Zuckerman of Writer’s House, was an unfailing champion and savvy guide through the literary wilderness. James Ayers of the University of New Mexico Press was a scrupulous and sensitive copy editor, an author’s prayer answered. Stephen P. Hull, director of the University of New Mexico Press, was an enthusiastic and supportive publisher, and I thank his legendary author and dean of western writers, Ol’ Max Evans, for pointing me his way and for regaling me with the absolutely best cowboy-UFO stories. As always, my greatest debt is to my closest friend and shrewdest critic and editor, my wife, Deborah, who has been, as John Mack might say, not only witness but cocreator.
|“They Are Telling the Truth”
Terror in the Night
This Budd’s For You
The Mystery of Anomalous Experience
“Have We Visitors from Space?”
The Sources of Suffering
Mack the Knife
A Prince of Our Disorder
“The Interrupted Journey”
“More Activist than the Movement”
“They Put a Hole in My Psyche”
The Turquoise Maiden
“Sane Citizen Sees UFO in New Jersey”
“He’s Got This Glass Jar …”
“The Abduction Syndrome”
Aliens at Harvard
“You Cannot Go Ahead!”
Aliens at MIT
“Good Evening, Doctor”
“The Whole Bloody Snowsuit”
Aliens in Brazil
The Time Bomb
“The Man from Outer Space”
“A Review of Your Work”
Not an Inquisition
“What if You’re Wrong?”
Aliens in Africa
“Have Good Manners!”
“We Watch The X-Files”
Abduction and Divinity
“Passport to the Cosmos”
A Cosmic Marriage
The Holy Grail
The Rune of Doom
“I Never Knew It Would Be So Easy”
“John Mack Now Knows Everything”
Ralph Blumenthal was a reporter for The New York Times from 1964 to 2009, serving as a foreign correspondent in West Germany, South Vietnam, and Cambodia; a national bureau chief in the Southwest; and an investigative reporter and arts writer. He was a member of the metro desk team that won the Pulitzer Prize for breaking news coverage of the 1992 truck bombing of the World Trade Center. In 2017 he and two colleagues broke the story of a secret Pentagon program to track UFOs, with videos of encounters between the objects and Navy pilots. He is the recipient of a Guggenheim fellowship, the author of six nonfiction books, based on investigative crime reporting and cultural history, and is a distinguished lecturer at Baruch College of the City University of New York.
His latest book The Believer: Alien Encounters, Hard Science, and the Passion of John Mack was published by High Road Books of the University of New Mexico Press on March 15, 2021. It’s the first biography of Pulitzer Prize-winning Harvard Psychiatrist John E. Mack (1929-2004) who risked an esteemed career to investigate stupefying accounts of human abductions by aliens. Vanity Fair excerpted the work-in-progress in 2013.
He lives in Manhattan with his wife, Deborah, a children’s book author.
Because John Mack’s personal archive, much of it digitized by Will Bueché for the family and John Mack Institute, is not—or is not yet—open to scholars, it will be of limited use to detail where in Mack’s voluminous files any particular material was located, particularly since it may well be reorganized once the collection is professionally processed. Some of Mack’s articles and links to Abduction, Passport, and other material are posted on the John E. Mack Institute website, johnemackinstitute.org.
Owing to Mack’s celebrity, much more can be found on the web. These notes should provide as full an accounting of my sources as possible, along with the provenance of other material in the public domain. When citations are given in the text, there may be no need for additional data in the notes.
Note to Epigraph: Crookes, Sir William, “Researches in the Phenomena of Spiritualism,” 1874. Mack cites Crookes in Passport to the Cosmos, as noted in chapter 42. Crookes was a decorated British scientist of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, later knighted for his discoveries with cathode rays, radioactivity, and helium, who was sent to debunk a celebrated spiritualist, Daniel Dunglas Home, then astounding Europe with his mediumship. Crookes witnessed Home (pronounced “Hume”) materialize body parts in séances, levitate his body, and play a locked-up accordion without ever touching it, and he returned a believer. When told that what he had seen was impossible, Crookes wrote, “The quotation occurs to me—‘I never said it was possible, I only said it was true.’”
High Road Books is an imprint
of the University of New Mexico Press
© 2021 by Ralph Blumenthal
All rights reserved. Published 2021
Printed in the United States of America
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Names: Blumenthal, Ralph, author.
Title: The believer: alien encounters, hard science,
and the passion of John Mack / Ralph Blumenthal.
Description: Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2021. |
Includes bibliographical references and index.
Identifiers: LCCN 2020038248 (print) | LCCN 2020038249 (e-book) |
ISBN 9780826362315 (cloth) | ISBN 9780826362322 (e-book)
Subjects: LCSH: Mack, John E., 1929-2004. | Psychiatrists—United States—
Biography. | Alien abduction—United States.
Classification: LCC RC438.6.M33 B58 2021 (print) |
LCC RC438.6.M33 (e-book) | DDC 616.890092 [B]—dc23
LC record available at https://lccn.loc.gov/2020038248
LC e-book record available at https://lccn.loc.gov/2020038249
starry sky | Rastan | istockphoto.com
flying saucer in sky | George J. Stock | public domain
Designed by Mindy Basinger Hill
The Massachusetts Institute of Technology sprawls along the southern coast of Cambridge, facing patrician Back Bay Boston across a wide spot of the Charles River. On its northwest shoulder, around a bend in the river, hunkers Harvard University. But MIT alone “never really had an outdoors, not one that anyone uses,” writes architecture critic Robert Campbell of the Boston Globe. Its 166 acres are pocketed with quadrangles of greenery and classical courts carved with the names of Newton, Aristotle, and Copernicus, but they seem superfluous. “The nearest thing to a public space, a place of social and cultural gathering, is the so-called Infinite Corridor indoors.” Here MIT’s scientists labor on their studies, which, to date, have been honored with ninety-five Nobel Prizes.
In this inquiring spirit, on an unseasonably hot Saturday in June 1992, an unlikely assembly convened for five days of secretive conferencing. Filling the steeply banked seats of lecture hall 6-120 in the Eastman Laboratories—where a lobby plaque pays homage to the storied MIT benefactor, Kodak photo pioneer George Eastman—were dozens of doctors, psychologists, therapists, physicists, folklorists, historians, theologians, and other specialists; a handful of trusted journalists; and sixteen otherwise seemingly ordinary folk with extraordinary experiences. All had signed nondisclosure agreements for the event that would remain under wraps for two more years—until the publication of a thick, oversize volume called Alien Discussions: Proceedings of the Abduction Study Conference.1
The conference was a professional forum about humans who believed they were, at a minimum, (1) taken against their will by nonhuman beings, (2) brought to an apparent spacecraft or other enclosed space, (3) examined or subjected to telepathic communication, and (4) could recall the experience consciously or under hypnosis. Some further recounted astral travels, ecstatic bonding with a deity or Source, apocalyptic warnings of planetary doom, and the forcible harvesting of their eggs or sperm for human-alien hybrid reproduction.
It was hardly MIT’s regular fare (although the school’s fabled Science Fiction Society hosted the world’s largest open-shelf library of more than sixty thousand science-fiction and fantasy books and magazines), and, to be sure, MIT was not a sponsor. Rather, in the spirit of academic freedom, it only granted use of its facilities after a distinguished MIT atomic physicist, David E. Pritchard, pointed out how bad censorship would look. Renowned for his pioneering research in the wavelike properties of beams of atoms and forces of light on atoms, Pritchard, a prize-winning mentor of Nobelists, had long been intrigued by the abduction narratives, which he saw as more amenable to scientific investigation than sightings of what were long called flying saucers or, more accurately, unidentified flying objects—UFOs. He had been reading up on the subject and used his travels in physics to consult with leading investigators of the phenomenon.
At first, Pritchard thought of writing a book, but he later decided that a critical analysis of all the possibilities really demanded a conference. With a sabbatical at hand, Pritchard devoted the semester to planning it, ignoring the hostility of MIT administrators and enlisting as his partner a noted Harvard psychiatrist named John E. Mack, who had begun his own abduction investigations. Given the evident psychological dimensions of the phenomenon, Pritchard said, “I would not have had the courage to run this without a prominent psychiatrist.”
Mack was a Harvard star, a heralded founder of community mental-health services in once-downtrodden Cambridge, and the author of a groundbreaking psychological biography of Lawrence of Arabia that had won a Pulitzer Prize. Commandingly tall at sixty-two years of age and with crystalline-blue eyes and a face stretched tight over his skull like the leathery mask of some totemic figure, he packed lecture halls and seminars, attracted disciples (particularly women), published prolifically, mobilized colleagues against nuclear weapons, and traveled the world on missions of peace. He had met with Yasir Arafat and been arrested at a nuclear test site in Nevada. And he was just back from the Himalayas, where he had joined a select group of professionals discussing aliens with His Holiness the fourteenth Dalai Lama.
1. A full account of the conference at MIT is available in Pritchard et al., Alien Discussions. See chapter 24. See also Bryan, Close Encounters of the Fourth Kind. Mack also kept his own files on the conference and his interviews with Bryan. Accounts of the conference also rely on the author’s interviews with David Pritchard and other participants.
Now Mack told the conferees at MIT why he thought the abduction phenomenon was not a psychiatric phenomenon, although that was most people’s snap assumption, including, at first, his own. But any explanation, he said, had to account for five elements: (1) consistency of the reports, (2) physical signs like scars and witness-backed reports of actual absence for a time, (3) accounts from children too young for delusional psychiatric syndromes, (4) an association with witnessed UFOs, and (5) the lack of any consistent psychopathology among abductees.
To the uninformed it appeared like mass hysteria fed by the culture, Mack said. Except this didn’t act like a collective disorder. The experiences were too personal, involving isolated individuals not caught up in any mass movement. And they were risking ostracism and ridicule. “There is no evidence that anything other than what abductees are telling us has happened to them,” Mack said. “The people with whom I have been working, as far as I can tell, are telling the truth, and this has been the impression of other abduction researchers.” It was indeed a profound mystery. “Some sort of intelligence seems to have entered our world, as if from another dimension of reality.”
As for the beings themselves, they were commonly described at the conference as hairless and without ears or noses, although apertures were visible. The cranium was large and bulbous, set on a thin neck like a ball on a stick. The eyes were the most striking feature—huge, opaque, and inky black with no eyebrows, lashes, or lids. The mouth was a lipless, toothless slit, not used for speaking or, apparently, eating or drinking. The chin was pointed, the jaw unhinged with no sign of musculature. The faces bore no lines or wrinkles or other signs of aging. The body, too, was devoid of muscular development, with no sign of skeletal structure, no shoulder blades or ribs. There were no visible breasts or nipples, no bulge of a stomach, no waistline, no hips, no buttocks, and no apparent genitals, just a smooth, rounded area. Nor were there any signs of male-female differentiation. Arms and legs were spindly, without joints, the limbs just bending where a knee or elbow would be. The hands had three or four fingers and an opposable thumb. The feet were covered. The skin was widely described as gray and rubbery, with no visible pores. Were they even biological creatures? Or robots? But if they were robots, they could communicate and think at least as well as humans. They could make decisions and deal with crises.
Word of the conference had leaked out, and many of Mack’s Harvard colleagues were incredulous or appalled. He was lending his professional eminence to this?
Some were less surprised, knowing Mack as a maverick who had taken to heart the lines of the Spanish poet Antonio Machado: “Traveler, there is no path; you make the path by walking.” Years of the psychoanalysis that his profession demanded of practitioners had excavated the childhood trauma that Mack himself believed lay behind his lifelong questing and openness to the anomalous. He had lost his mother at a tender age, leaving him wounded by abandonment. And so he came to tell a Brazilian therapist in a flash of insight that may have come out a little too pat, “The abduction story is a welcoming story because it means that—Ooooo, I’m getting goose pimples as I think of this—I’m not alone. There is life in the universe!”2
2. Mack’s quote, from his hypnosis by Gilda Moura in Brazil, is explained in chapter 29. See chapter 29, note 3.
Behavioral scientist David J. Hufford was inclined to reject his invitation to the Alien Discussions forum at MIT, not because he was skeptical of UFOs or paranormal experiences—he had good reason to be open-minded—but because he was leery of the research methods employed, particularly hypnotic regression.1 Abduction theory, he felt, had gotten way out in front of its data and demanded far more rigorous investigation. It was, at the very least, part of something far bigger and more unruly that could confuse people who were grappling with unresolved traumas, real or imagined. But Hufford, a folklore PhD and a professor at Pennsylvania State’s College of Medicine, joined the conference after all and came to share what he knew, which was the phenomenon of awakening paralyzed in the presence of a malevolent being. He had, to his terror, unaccountably experienced it himself as a student in the 1960s, after which he had gone on to study the experience in Newfoundland, where it was surprisingly prevalent and known as the Old Hag Syndrome—nocturnal visitations by evil presences seemingly bent on strangling or suffocating immobilized victims. There were enough parallels with alien abduction to raise eyebrows. And yet, Hufford lamented, abduction investigators were overlooking connections that pointed to a larger and more complex syndrome, as explored in his groundbreaking 1982 book on supernatural assault traditions, The Terror That Comes in the Night. Hufford had implicated a recognized medical condition known as sleep paralysis—when the highly brain-active and dream-rich sleep stage known as Rapid Eye Movement combines with muscle atony or paralysis as people fall asleep or awaken. When he began his research in 1970, medical literature estimated the prevalence of sleep paralysis in the general population at about 1 percent. He was able to show it was about twenty times higher. In fact, he came to think, sleep paralysis seemed so central to the Old Hag visitations that it clamored for examination in abductions, although not all abductions occurred during sleep. Sleep paralysis didn’t explain the paranormal experiences, but somehow they intersected.
Hufford knew that some anomalous experiences were conventionally explainable. A 1980s outbreak of sudden nocturnal deaths among healthy Southeast Asian men aged thirty to forty-five had been ascribed by the refugee community to threatening spirits that paralyzed victims as they slept. Hufford found it a condition of sleep paralysis turned fatal by genetically linked cardiac conduction defect, a disruption of the electrical impulses that control the heartbeat. Similarly, Hufford said, a study in the journal Nature of mermen sightings from medieval Norse ships found that the sightings decreased as the height of the ships grew, implicating optical distortions in transformations of walruses and killer whales into magical semihumans.
1. Hufford’s account of the conference at MIT comes from multiple author interviews with him as well as from the Alien Discussions volume. Hufford’s own research into paranormal encounters is described in his book, The Terror That Comes in the Night.
He cautioned against relying on so-called star informants, whose accounts were most alluring. The study of disbelievers or marginal experiencers was crucial as well. Why didn’t they encounter what others had? He saw UFOs as part of contemporary folk belief. Not that they weren’t objectively real. They were as real as other anomalous phenomena dismissed by the prevailing scientific paradigm, which couldn’t, after all, disprove their existence but could only hold that they didn’t fit into any reality that science at the time could recognize. Abduction investigators, even someone as well trained as Mack, as Hufford saw it, were too restrictive in settling on just one manifestation of a far broader and more complex set of core experiences known to humanity since earliest antiquity. He found it curious, in fact, that investigators of alien abduction seemed almost rivalrous with those who studied, say, Bigfoot, or near-death experiences, or religious revelations, as if those were competing phenomena in a zero-sum game and not part of a bigger enveloping mystery. Hufford also distrusted hypnotic regression as a tool to explore abduction experiences or any anomalies, for that matter. It was just unreliable. “If you ask a person to remember something, they will,” he said. “Some memories under hypnosis are valid, some are not.”
Yet he was far from a debunker. Many who shared their experiences with Hufford had never heard of the Old Hag, so they couldn’t be circulating a cultural meme. One young woman recalled waking up to a male figure pinning her to the bed. She remembered its distinctive smell, “sweaty and kind of dusty.” Its face was covered by a white mask with black dots “and a red kind of crooked mouth.” She tried to scream, but no sound would come out. A male college student recalled a “murky presence” like “a blob of nothing” with no real face but two holes that seemed to be eyes. Three young college women shared a Kentucky house rumored to be haunted. They described many frightening encounters including a night when one of them felt overcome with images of mass murder and struggled to resist an evil presence urging her to slaughter her roommates—she actually saw herself chopping them up. Counterintuitively, throughout her terror her dog showed no sign of distress, unlike many pets and farm animals in abduction scenarios. But like abduction narratives, Old Hag experiences often had a sexual component. The bed often rocked. Sufferers felt vibrations or out-of-body sensations of flying up and seeing themselves below. Time seemed out of joint, passing slowly. Some of the creatures seemed to shuffle or walk with a rolling gait reminiscent of aliens in abductee accounts.
Hufford had a personal reason to take the phenomenon seriously. In 1963, as a sophomore at Lycoming College in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, he had completed his final exams for the semester and collapsed into bed in his off-campus room at 6:00 p.m. Two hours later he was awakened by the sound of his door being opened and then footsteps. The room was pitch black. Hufford assumed a friend was looking for him for dinner. He tried to turn on the light but couldn’t move or speak. He felt the mattress sink as something climbed up, knelt on his chest, and proceeded to strangle him. Terrified, he thought he would die. Whatever it was, it reeked with evil, leaving Hufford revolted. He fought his paralysis and then suddenly found he could move. He leapt out of bed and switched on the light. The room was empty. He ran down to the landlord, who was casually sitting and watching TV. “Did someone go past you just now?” Hufford asked. The landlord looked at him strangely and said no. Then Hufford really panicked. He told no one. But in 1970, while studying supernatural belief for his doctorate, he traveled to Newfoundland, where he found that many people had experienced the “Old Hag.” It upended his thinking. He had been taught that supernatural experiences grew out of local traditions—the so-called Cultural Source Hypothesis. But he knew from his own experience that an encounter can occur with no predisposition whatsoever. He didn’t want to share what had happened to him, but he now realized that strange things didn’t happen to people because they believed in strange things. They believed in strange things because strange things happened to them.
John Mack had come late to the UFO/abduction game, which was a stupefying enigma any way you looked at it—newly resurfaced and yet, some said, timelessly archetypal. The phenomenon may indeed have been ageless, but the involvement of a laureled Harvard professor of psychiatry was a fresh sensation. Grappling with psychological issues from the traumatic loss of his mother in infancy, he had been studying a relaxation technique called Holotropic Breathwork—a technique in which breathing is regulated by rhythmic music with the aim of inducing altered states of consciousness. Holotropic Breathwork was developed by a charismatic Czech-born psychiatrist, Stanislav Grof, and his wife, Christina, and it opened Mack up to a range of spiritual experiences.1 Years later he would say everything went back to the Grofs. “They put a hole in my psyche and the UFOs flew in.”2
At a Grof training module in California in late 1989, Mack had met a fellow psychotherapist from New York who shared with Mack the story of a patient who had written an operetta set in an institution where inmates received head implants so they could be tracked. The psychotherapist, Blanche Chavoustie, who came to believe she was a victim of the CIA’s Project MKUltra, the sinister Cold War mind-control experiments later devastatingly exposed by Congress, had read about abductions.3 The composer’s case offered some eerie parallels, and Chavoustie had consulted an artist friend, Budd Hopkins, who after a UFO sighting of his own had become a noted writer on abductions. Hopkins asked Chavoustie to bring her patient to his townhouse art studio in Manhattan’s Chelsea section. And then, Chavoustie said, Hopkins used hypnosis to retrieve the woman’s history of alien encounters. Would Mack like to meet Hopkins? Chavoustie asked.
Mack scoffed. It sounded crazy. But Chavoustie persisted. She told Hopkins about Mack and followed up with a postcard saying Mack would be in New York in January, and asking could Hopkins meet with him?
Mack forgot about it. But on a cold and blustery Wednesday, on January 10, 1990—“one of the dates … when … your life changes,” Mack said later4—he was in Manhattan visiting his old Harvard friend and fellow psychoanalyst Robert J. Lifton. Now Mack remembered Hopkins and, somewhat to his own surprise, called him after all. Hopkins invited him over, and Mack asked if Lifton wanted to come along. Lifton and Hopkins were neighbors on Cape Cod. Hopkins had a studio in Truro, not far from Wellfleet where Lifton and his wife Betty Jean, known as BJ, summered.
BJ spoke up for her husband. “No,” she said, like a Cassandra. “Bob has a choice about getting involved in this, and you don’t.”5
Hopkins, affable and bushy-browed with a shag of lanky, graying hair, greeted Mack in his West 16th Street townhouse, which was hung with his flat, knife-bladed geometric sculptures in bright primary colors—his “Guardians,” as Hopkins called them.6 He told Mack a haunting story. A troubled woman had come to see him and spotted a drawing of an alien face—teardrop-shaped with huge, black, wraparound insect eyes. How did he know? she gasped. Know what? “My experience,” she said. The picture was from someone else, Hopkins said. That really jolted her. She had been telling herself she’d suffered a nightmare. If she wasn’t alone, maybe it was real after all. There were many like her, Hopkins told Mack. He had letters from his readers all over the country detailing the most unearthly encounters, too unimaginably bizarre to make up. Mack could read them for himself. Hopkins sent him off with a batch and one of Hopkins’s books, inscribed in the artist’s near-spastic scrawl,
with every good wish
to a future—I hope—colleague
1. A fuller account of Mack’s introduction to Grof’s Holotropic Breathwork is in chapter 14.
2. Interview of Mack by his friend Andrew Beath of Earthways Foundation, July 2001 (day not specified in transcript): Beath: Well did the holographic breath work and the psychedelic experiences and other things like that expand your awareness too? Mack: They primed me. I often teasingly said they put a hole in my psyche and the UFOs flew in you know through the space but I would not have been even anything but dismissive of the whole notion of the abduction phenomena had I not had several years of working in transpersonal psychology and being able to see that psyche could travel and identify with entities and beings that were not physical …
3. Mack’s files describe his meetings with Chavoustie and, from Hopkins’s files courtesy of Hopkins’s last partner, Leslie Kean, I have the mailing Chavoustie sent Hopkins on December 30, 1989, asking him to meet with Mack. The picture postcard from the Metropolitan Museum of Art (depicting “The Bodmer Oak, Fontainebleau Forest” by Claude Monet) read, “Dear Bud [sic], I’m not sure if you received the message I left for you—John, my friend the psychiatrist will be here on Jan. 10th. Could you meet with him in the afternoon? Look forward to seeing you—Blanche.” Chapter 18 offers more details of Chavoustie’s allegations against MKUltra. The CIA subsequently made public much historic material on MKUltra, without, of course, mentioning Chavoustie. Her MKUltra story never fully emerged before her death in 2016, but Mack had grown sufficiently uneasy about Chavoustie to ask reporter Stephen Rae, writing a magazine article on Mack for the New York Times, to keep her name out of his piece. “You don’t want that name in there for complicated reasons,” Mack said on December 7, 1993. But he credited her in the acknowledgements to Abduction—despite misspelling her name as “Chavonstie.”
4. Mack, Abduction, 1.
5. Mack recalled this at his first public talk on abduction at Grof’s Hollyhock Farms on August 29, 1990.
6. I interviewed Hopkins in his townhouse at 246 West 16 St. on December 17, 2010, eight months before his death of cancer at age eighty on August 21, 2011.
Mack was about to leave the country, so he didn’t immediately study the material. But when he did, he was indeed intrigued. He quickly collected his own circle of experiencers, a term he and others preferred as more neutral than abductee. When he heard their accounts and evaluated them as a psychiatrist, he found nothing inherently wrong with them. They harbored certain resentments, suspiciousness, feelings of victimization, and tendencies to challenge authority, and they came from homes with troubled parental relationships, alcoholism, and varied forms of abuse—that is, Mack said, they reflected a typical cross-section of humanity. In other words, they were normal. Where there was disturbance, it seemed caused by the abduction experiences, not vice versa. And with his psychiatric experience, shouldn’t he know? “That’s my job,” he was to tell his Sikh guru, Gurucharan Singh Khalsa, a bushy-bearded Kundalini yoga expert and a disciple of the Indian yogic master Yogi Bhajan. Khalsa had been Mack’s friend, counselor, and psychotherapist since they had met in Cambridge in the 1980s and bonded over a shared interest in mind-body interactions.7 “If you’re an art dealer your job would be to tell the real thing from the copy,” Mack said. Anyway, he said, “what’s the payoff?” Why in the world, or out of it, would anyone make this up?
“It would be wrong to say this was a sort of gradually dawning realization,” Mack would later tell an interviewer.8 He could see where it was going the moment he met Hopkins.
Mack soon introduced two women with abduction encounters to an “Affect Seminar” he was running at Harvard to explore feelings in the face of traumatic experiences. He had been cautioned by an old family friend, Thomas Kuhn, to stay skeptical. Kuhn had taught the history of science at Harvard before joining the University of California, Berkeley, and writing The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, his classic study on the resistance of established science to unconventional breakthroughs. “Hold on to the null hypothesis as long as possible,” Kuhn urged Mack. View any hypothesis as something to be disproved. Gather evidence, but postpone conclusions “until 3 smoking guns.”
Yet in early 1991, barely a year after meeting Hopkins, Mack was discussing his own abduction research at a Shop Club, a Harvard dinner forum for works in progress, and he was provoking consternation.9 Wasn’t this just witchcraft? Mass delusion? Hysteria? Someone raised the dubious reincarnation claims of a Colorado housewife who had conjured a previous life as an eighteenth-century Irishwoman, Bridey Murphy. Thrown on the defensive, Mack cited the scraps of elusive physical evidence and the abductee’s deep distress that to him, as a psychiatrist, had the authentic affect of a real experience and not a fantasy. Willard Van Orman Quine, an eighty-two-year-old Harvard philosopher and theoretician of abstruse mathematical formulations, had listened, stumped. How was it possible? Another listener, the philosopher, ethicist and psychologist Sissela Bok, wife of Harvard’s president Derek Bok and daughter of the Nobel Prize winners Gunnar and Alva Myrdal, was also intrigued. But she objected to Mack’s certainties and impatience with critics, especially since no one had the slightest idea what this was all about. Mack shrugged off her concern. In fact, he thought, it might soon be time to lay it all out more publicly.
7. Author’s multiple interviews with Gurucharan Singh Khalsa and Mack’s tape-recorded therapy sessions with Khalsa, available in Mack’s archives.
8. Stephen Rae’s article on Mack in the New York Times; see chapter 27.
9. See also chapter 20. Mack gave an account of his Shop Club talk on February 21, 1990, at an Affect Seminar he was leading at Harvard on March 12, 1991: So I presented the whole story that I know, from beginning to end, and then proceeded to withstand a bombardment of reductionistic remarks and questions So I had to respond to each of these. I’d say “yes but that leaves out all of the physical phenomenon or the deep distress or the fact that the people don’t know each other,” or that “to me it has an authentic quality of an experience and not a fantasy or imagination.” … I received a letter from the wife of the president of the university a couple days afterwards, who was very excited about the evening, very moved by it, very provoked. But she in a subtle way point[ed] out that I did seem to become impatient at certain points … she was supportive but she noted that I become impatient at certain points, which was correct So I think I “survived” it. Now what they’re saying behind my back I don’t know. There’s another meeting in a week or so of the group and I’ll go there just to see what they say to me and get more feedback. But I think that as far as my engagement with this work is concerned I am completely out of the closet, I have no cover whatever in this community a[n]y more, which is both exhilarating and terrifying. It means that I am free.
Wesley Boyd, six-foot-three with a beard and ponytail, was in his final months of medical school at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill while also completing a doctorate in religion and culture.1 The elemental duality: science and soul, the mirror and the lamp. Now, at the end of 1991, with Boyd considering a residency in psychiatry, his professor at UNC, Jeffry Andresen, had a strong recommendation: the Cambridge Hospital, run by Harvard Medical School. That’s where his favorite psychiatry teacher at Massachusetts Mental Health Center—Mass Mental, once known as Boston Psychopathic Hospital, or “The Psycho”—was teaching now. John Mack, Andresen said, was “brilliant.” Tall and restless with cobalt eyes and a spiritual, intellectual, and sexual chemistry, he had been Andresen’s idol. At a time when Cambridge was a blue-collar health-care wasteland where the only mental-illness problem was considered Harvard, Mack, bursting with enthusiasm, had convinced the chairman of the Harvard Department of Psychiatry in Boston to leap the Charles River and adopt the forlorn hospital. Soon under Mack the struggling community was blessed with mental-health clinics and addiction treatment centers and counseling for poor children, and the Cambridge Hospital began winning awards. Mack continued his ascent through the Harvard firmament while toiling a dozen years in England and the Middle East on a groundbreaking psychological biography of T. E. Lawrence. Even he was surprised when it won a 1977 Pulitzer Prize. Now, he said, “they’ll expect me to keep it up.”2 But he did, churning out more books and scholarly articles, anointing himself an ambassador of peace to the embattled Israelis and Palestinians, and championing a physicians’ movement against nuclear weapons, all the while growing in stature in American psychiatry.
Boyd applied to Cambridge but was told he was too late; there were no interview slots left. He informed Andresen, who said not to worry—he’d call his friend Leston Havens. Havens and Mack had shared the same psychiatry teacher, the legendary Elvin Semrad, who liked to tell new residency students that they would no longer be able to rely heavily on instruments and tests—the principal tools for understanding their patients would be … themselves. The next day Boyd got a call from Cambridge. He could come for an interview whenever he liked. He picked a day when his wife, Theonia, who was also a physician, would be interviewing for a fellowship at Boston’s Children’s Hospital.
Two weeks before Christmas in 1991, Boyd and Theonia drove up from Chapel Hill to check out the residency possibilities at Cambridge for the middle of the following year. Snow was lashing Boston. TV monitors were flashing images from Moscow, where Mikhail Gorbachev’s teetering Soviet empire was suffering the abrupt defection of breakaway republics. Boyd was rushing to appointments in the hospital when a tacked-up leaflet of an upcoming lecture had him halt, squinting through his spectacles. He read it several times, with mounting amazement.
The synchronicity of it! John Mack had drawn Boyd to Harvard, and here, on the very date of Boyd’s arrival, Mack was delivering an astonishing talk. Residents were expected to attend grand rounds—lectures held twice a month for the hospital community and visitors—but Boyd didn’t need convincing. For a twenty-eight-year-old medical student pulled between science and faith, any hospital that would host an eminent psychiatrist’s talk on aliens was the place to be. Plus, he already knew UFOs existed. He had seen one.
1. Author’s multiple interviews with Wesley Boyd, who is now on the faculty at the Center for Bioethics and an associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.
2. Interview with Sally, February 22, 2016; see chapter 8.
Flying saucers had been all the rage for almost half a century, starting, by common reckoning, on June 24, 1947. Shortly before 3:00 in the afternoon, the pilot of a small single-engine plane over southwestern Washington spotted a “tremendously bright flash” and then “a chain of nine peculiar looking aircraft” approaching Mt. Rainier.1 Kenneth Arnold, a thirty-two-year-old fire-control engineer with his own fire-fighting equipment company in Boise, Idaho, had been flying on business from Chehalis, Washington, to Yakima when he heard that a C-46 Marine transport had gone down around the southwest side of Rainier in the rugged Cascades east of Seattle, with a posted reward of five thousand dollars for finding the wreckage. Arnold was an experienced pilot with up to one hundred hours of airtime a month. He had taken his first flying lessons as a boy in Minot, North Dakota, he earned his license in 1943, and the following year he bought his own plane. He replaced that plane in January 1946 with a new three-seater CallAir, which was designed for high-altitude takeoffs and rough field use, including landing in cow pastures—something he had done, by his count, exactly 823 times. On the afternoon of June 24, as he was detouring to search for the crashed aircraft, Arnold climbed to 9,500 feet and spent an hour circling over the corrugated ridges and canyons. Not spotting anything, he turned above the old mining town of Mineral, trimming out for Yakima, the atmosphere so glassy the little plane all but flew itself. “The sky and air was as clear as crystal,” he recalled. He saw a Douglas DC-4 four-engine airliner about fifteen miles away and then a sudden flash. Fearing a possible collision, he spun around looking for the source but saw nothing. And then, to the left, the nine objects: a formation of four and then five others, speeding south from the direction of Mt. Baker toward Mt. Rainier. According to the report he later gave to the US Army Air Force, Arnold assumed they were jets, but he couldn’t find their tails. He watched them “flip and flash in the sun,” swerving in and out of the high peaks, and as the last craft passed the snowy crest of Mt. Adams, he calculated it had flown about 1,700 miles an hour—almost three times the existing world speed record, which Arnold dismissed as impossible. He guessed they had formed a chain about five miles long and had been under view for about two and a half minutes.
Arnold had an “eerie feeling,” but he continued his fruitless search for the C-46 wreckage before continuing on to Yakima, where his sighting was attributed to guided missiles. He flew on to Pendleton, Oregon, where word of his strange observation had spread and a local told him he had just spotted similar “mystery missiles” in nearby Ukiah. Arnold gave an interview to Pendleton’s East Oregonian in which he likened the objects’ movements to a flat rock bouncing up and down as it skipped across water. Reporter Bill Bequette put a short story on the AP wire memorializing Arnold’s account of “Nine bright saucer-like objects flying at ‘incredible speed.’” Headline writers later created the indelible shorthand of “flying saucers.”
Strikingly, though, at least twenty other witnesses, all but two in the Pacific Northwest, reported seeing similar flying discs on June 24, the day of Arnold’s encounter. One was a Portland prospector, Fred M. Johnson, who told the FBI he was five thousand feet up in the Cascade Mountains when he spotted a flying disc—and then five or six others—about one thousand feet away. He viewed one through a small telescope he carried and picked out some details. The silent objects, he said, sent his compass needle gyrating wildly.
Arnold later had seven other sightings and would run, unsuccessfully, in an Idaho Republican primary for lieutenant governor. He was often a target of ridicule, to which he reacted bitterly. “Call me Einstein, or Flash Gordon or just a screwball,” he said. “I’m absolutely certain of what I saw!”
The event came to be seen as ushering in the flying-saucer era, although prodigious scholarship took the origins back to the mists of time, with ancient annals memorializing hierophanies (manifestations of the sacred) since earliest antiquity. As theology or folklore, they had been consigned to the mythical, but the modern era brought a growing technological immediacy to the ever more closely reported phenomenon. These historical experiences began to acquire a physicality. The nineteenth century saw waves of airship sightings around the United States, where no balloonlike dirigibles were known to fly yet, although patents had been applied for. Heavier-than-air-powered flight would not arrive until the Wright Brothers in 1903. Puzzlingly, these propeller-driven craft seemed to fly slowly, as if keeping just one step ahead of current know-how. More bizarrely, they were sometimes reported to land humanlike passengers for chitchats with astonished earthlings.
One mysterious visitor kept recurring, a certain “Wilson.” According to research by UFO historian Jerome Clark, later author of the exhaustive 1,462-page, two-volume The UFO Encyclopedia, a Texas farmer named J. R. Ligon and his son saw a huge airship in a pasture adjoining their farm outside Beaumont on April 19, 1897. They described it as about 130 feet long and 20 feet wide, with wings on either side and propellers fore and aft. As the Houston Post reported, four men stood around the craft and requested water. One introduced himself as Wilson. They said they had just flown over the Gulf of Mexico and were returning to Iowa, where they had built their ship. Amazingly, the Post went on to report, J. R. then seemed to have built a replica of the machine in time to parade it through Beaumont on the Fourth of July. The tale might have been written off as a hoax but for a respected Beaumont rabbi, Aaron Levy, who while visiting New Orleans in April 1897 told the Times-Picayune he too had seen the original airship of Ligon’s farm and shaken hands with one of its crewmen. The same day as Ligon’s sighting, a Mississippi man, George Dunlap, said he had seen an airship flying over Lake Charles, Louisiana—not far from Beaumont—with an “unearthly whistle” that frightened his horses, throwing him from his buggy. The ship landed, and four occupants rushed out to see if Dunlap was hurt. The owner, Dunlap reported, was named Wilson. The next day, April 20, in Uvalde, Texas, 360 miles southwest of Beaumont, Sheriff H. W. Baylor found an airship with large fins and three crewmen near his house, according to the Galveston News. One introduced himself as Wilson from Goshen, New York, and formerly Fort Worth, Texas. Wilson mentioned the name of another Texas sheriff he knew—and Baylor knew him. Wilson drew water from Baylor’s hydrant and flew off. Deluged with questions, Baylor later insisted he had never seen an airship, and he went on to order that the news reporter who had perpetrated the yarn be shot. But then yet another sheriff in the Rio Grande Valley told the San Antonio Express that he had encountered a landed airship with three men who had just come from Sheriff Baylor in Uvalde. Jerome Clark tracked down three other similar newspaper accounts. But spookily, he said, no trace of Wilson ever turned up in Goshen, Fort Worth, or anywhere else.
“If the mystery airships were not the physical aircraft of the coming twentieth century, they were not entirely imaginary either,” Clark wrote. “They were only partly imaginary. They sailed both sides of the borderline, between the merely conceived and the vividly experienced, in the fashion of all fantastic phenomena that escape the page or the screen or the tale, to appear before us in guises that lead us to think we recognize them while yet being blind to their inscrutable and elusive identity.”
1. The best overall source, by far, for the history of UFOs and alien encounters is Jerome Clark’s two-volume The UFO Encyclopedia. CQ Researcher also has a solid database of UFO scholarship. I rely here too on an excellent historical account in a book financed by Laurance Rockefeller, UFO Briefing Document: The Best Available Evidence, a 1995 collaboration by Don Berliner, Antonio Huneeus, Whitley Strieber, Marie Galbraith, and Sandy S. Wright. See also David Jacobs’s authoritative debut, The UFO Controversy in America. Another authoritative source is Leslie Kean’s UFOs: Generals, Pilots and Government Officials Go On the Record, which cites the Barry Goldwater-LeMay exchange. Keyhoe’s classic, The Flying Saucers are Real, expanded from a 1952 LIFE magazine article; Donald Menzel’s debunking Flying Saucers; and Aimé Michel’s book, Flying Saucers and the Straight Line Mystery make up the other sources for this chapter. The preeminent UFO researcher and theoretician Jacques Vallee dedicated his book, Confrontations: A Scientist’s Search for Alien Contact, to Michel, “who taught me to ‘shake the pear tree’ of science.” But as noted by Jerome Clark in The UFO Encyclopedia, even Vallee came to question Michel’s “straight line” hypothesis, which remained inconclusive.
As Clark saw it, UFOs were an “event phenomenon”; they were potentially explainable, although not yet explained, and accompanied by fragmentary physical evidence that never seemed to go anywhere. Clark, a devotee of the mischievous anomalist Charles Fort—who said, “accept only temporarily”—was cautiously withholding judgment on the nature of the experience, which seemed akin to ancient folktales of fairies, gods, and demons. “Nothing has ever been finally found out,” wrote Fort in The Book of the Damned. “Because there is nothing final to find out. It’s like looking for a needle that no one ever lost in a haystack that never was—”
In Clark’s own case, three highly credible adult members of his family, who had vacationed years before at their cabin on Pickerel Lake in northeastern South Dakota, had looked out over the water one day to see, undulating on the surface, an immense sea serpent some fifty feet long and two feet in diameter with a head they later likened to the figurehead of a Viking dragonship. Then it slipped below the waves and vanished. The nineteenth century, Clark found, was replete with such sightings at many bodies of water. His family’s encounter was in all likelihood somehow imaginary, he wrote in Fortean Times, but not only imaginary. It was both there and not there, “blurring ontological categories in defiance of all our understandings of how things operate in the world.”
Before Ken Arnold’s sighting, World War II pilots had reported encountering transparent metallic glowing fireballs over the European and Pacific theaters. Americans assumed they were enemy aircraft and dubbed them “foo fighters,” perhaps a corruption of the French feu for fire, or just a nonsense term from the troops’ all-purpose FUBAR (fucked up beyond all recognition). But German and Japanese pilots seemed to have encountered them too. Among those who marveled at these mysterious flying craft was a decorated veteran of Guadalcanal, Rear Admiral Donald James Ramsey. After the war, he would confide the encounters to his daughter Anne Cuvelier, who turned her family’s 1869 bayside mansion in Newport, Rhode Island, into a Victorian inn where years later John Mack and Budd Hopkins and their experiencers would gather for private summer retreats to socialize free of ridicule and share abduction stories.
Within a year of the final Allied victory in 1945, a wave of sightings convulsed Scandinavia. Rumors of “ghost rockets” panicked Swedish officials, who held secret meetings with Navy Secretary James Forrestal and war hero Jimmy Doolittle, a survivor of America’s first suicidal strike at the Japanese homeland four months after Pearl Harbor. Fears that the Russians were experimenting with captured German rockets proved baseless. Years later, when Sweden opened its files, reports of more than 1,500 sightings emerged. Similar accounts, forever unexplained, poured out of Hungary, Greece, Morocco, and Portugal.
The year of Arnold’s sighting saw the most fabled American incident: the Air Force’s reported recovery of a “flying disc” near Roswell, New Mexico. The opening facts seemed simple enough, but the affair soon “ballooned” into a mythic affair generating endless investigation, countless pop-culture touchstones, and incessant commercial exploitation. It began with a press release issued on July 8, 1947, by the public information officer of Roswell Army Air Field, Lieutenant Walter Haut, at the direction of the base commander, Colonel William H. Blanchard, later the four-star vice chief of staff of the Air Force.
The many rumors regarding the flying discs became a reality yesterday when the intelligence office of the 509th (atomic) Bomb Group of the 8th Air Force, Roswell Army Air Field, was fortunate enough to gain possession of a disc through the cooperation of one of the ranchers and the sheriff’s office of Chaves county.
The flying object landed on a ranch near Roswell sometime last week. Not having phone facilities, the rancher stored the disc until such time as he was able to contact the sheriff’s office, who in turn notified Jesse A. Marcel, of the 509th Bomb Group intelligence office.
Action was immediately taken and the disc was picked up at the rancher’s home. It was inspected at the Roswell Army Air Field, and subsequently loaned by Major Jesse Marcel to higher headquarters.
The Roswell Daily Record immortalized the event the same day with the banner headline “RAAF Captures Flying Saucer on Ranch in Roswell Region” and a surprisingly superficial page-one story notable mainly for its eyewitness account. A local man, Dan Wilmot, told the paper he and his wife were sitting on their porch the previous Wednesday night “when a large glowing object zoomed out of the sky,” sending them running into the yard for a look. He described it as “oval in shape like two inverted saucers faced mouth to mouth, or like two old type washbowls placed together,” perhaps fifteen to twenty feet in diameter, and glowing “as though light were showing through from inside.” Wilmot remembered it as silent, but his wife recalled a brief swishing sound. They kept the experience to themselves, hoping someone else would come forward. When no one did, they decided to go public, just as the press release was issued.
But later that day Roger M. Ramsey, commanding general of the US Eighth Air Force in Fort Worth, Texas, announced that the recovered object had been a crashed radar-tracking weather balloon. The striking discrepancy and conflicting reports of other witnesses, including the supposed recovery of alien bodies, as recounted in numerous books and never convincingly laid to rest, fed conspiracy theories of a government coverup that have never abated. Among those fueling the suspicions was Brig. Gen. Arthur Exon, then a colonel stationed at Wright Field at Dayton, Ohio, and later a commanding officer at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, where recovered material and even alien bodies from the crash were rumored to have been taken according to accounts Exon said he had heard from witnesses and that he regarded as credible. He later shared the stories with a friend, who in turn passed them on to his nephew, Whitley Strieber, who would later write of one of the most popular abduction books, Communion. The Roswell mystique only grew with disclosure that the 509th Bomb Group that took custody of the wreckage was successor of the unit that conducted the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki two years before.
Over the years, as Roswell parlayed the mystery into a lucrative tourism industry, many public officials sought closure, to no avail. In a 1994 radio interview thirty years after his lost race for president, Republican Senator Barry M. Goldwater of Arizona said he had been intrigued enough to seek access to Wright-Patterson through Air Force General Curtis LeMay, mastermind of the firebombing of wartime Japan, commander of America’s nuclear strike force, and vice presidential running mate of George Wallace in 1968. LeMay, Goldwater recalled, “got madder than hell at me, cussed me out, and said, ‘Don’t ever ask me that question again!’” Administrative records and outgoing messages of the Roswell Army Air Field between 1945 and 1949 ended up destroyed, without explanation.
But soon it emerged that the mythologized Roswell crash was hardly unique. Jerome Clark later compiled dozens of other accounts of crashed craft all over the world, followed, in many cases, by the supposed retrieval of alien bodies. They all shared one thing in common: the absence of convincing artifacts or corpses.
As the waves of sightings around the nation continued—some seven hundred were recorded from 1947 to 1951—General Nathan D. Twining, chief of the Air Materiel Command at Wright Field, called the phenomenon “something real and not visionary or fictitious.” It was possible, he said, that some of the incidents could be attributed to meteors or other natural phenomena. But the extreme and suspicious operating characteristics “lend belief to the possibility that some of the objects are controlled either manually, automatically or remotely.” With that, the Air Force opened its first secret investigation of the mystery, Project Saucer, soon renamed Project Sign. Its staff included a thirty-seven-year-old astronomer from the Department of Physics and Astronomy at Ohio State University, Josef Allen Hynek, who dismissed flying saucers as “utterly ridiculous.” The Air Force reconstituted the inquiry as the oddly named Project Grudge under a well-regarded and open-minded Air Force officer, Captain Edward J. Ruppelt, who was credited with coining the phrase “unidentified flying object” because so many of them didn’t look like saucers.
Meanwhile, True, the bestselling men’s magazine, called in Donald E. Keyhoe, a Naval Academy graduate and combat aviator who had managed Charles A. Lindbergh’s triumphal air tour of the United States after his historic 1927 solo nonstop Atlantic crossing. Keyhoe’s article for True in December 1949, “The Flying Saucers are Real,” which he later expanded into a book, proved a sensation. “For the past 175 years,” he wrote, “the planet earth has been under systematic close-range examination by living, intelligent observers from another planet.” He told the story of a huge, gleaming object reported by the state police flying toward Godman Air Force base near Fort Knox, Kentucky, on January 7, 1948. Three P-51 fighters scrambled to investigate. Captain Thomas F. Mantell Jr., the twenty-five-year-old flight leader and a hero of the D-Day landings at Normandy, radioed to base, “I’ve sighted the thing! It looks metallic—and it’s tremendous in size!” He radioed that it was starting to climb and he was following it. “It’s still above me, making my speed or better. I’m going up to twenty thousand feet. If I’m no closer, I’ll abandon chase.” The radio went dead. His plane disintegrated, scattering wreckage all over the landscape. Two days later the New York Times carried the AP story, headlined, “Flier Dies Chasing A ‘Flying Saucer.’” The skeptical Hynek theorized that Mantell had been chasing the planet Venus, or perhaps a high-altitude Skyhook balloon.
Keyhoe, seen as the first to popularize the term UFO, and later the director of the influential and independent National Investigations Committee on Aerial Phenomena (NICAP), concluded that the saucers were indeed alien craft and that Project Saucer was set up “to investigate and at the same time conceal from the public the truth about the saucers.” He appealed for full disclosure. “The American people have proved their ability to take incredible things. We have survived the stunning impact of the Atomic Age. We should be able to take the Interplanetary Age, when it comes, without hysteria.”
Instead, the Air Force downgraded Project Grudge to show how little there was to get excited about. But in 1952 it reconstituted it under Ruppelt as Project Blue Book. Amid an alarming flurry of sightings over the White House, the Capitol, and the Pentagon, the Air Force called its biggest press conference since World War II. The Intelligence Chief, Major General John Samford, told reporters the sightings were optical illusions caused by “a temperature inversion” that made ground lights seem up in the air. Now the CIA mobilized. In January 1953, according to the agency’s own history, it put together a UFO study panel under H. P. Robertson, a noted physicist from the California Institute of Technology, to review the available evidence as a possible danger to national security. It concluded unanimously that there was none but recommended that the National Security Council debunk UFO reports and work to convince the public via mass media, advertising, schools, and even the Disney organization that there was nothing to them.
At the height of the Red Scare, with McCarthyism rampant, the panel also recommended that private UFO groups like the Civilian Flying Saucer Investigators in Los Angeles and the Aerial Phenomena Research Organization in Wisconsin be monitored for subversive activities. Ruppelt quit soon afterward and died of a heart attack in 1960 at age thirty-seven. But Blue Book would continue to compile data through 1969, investigating 12,618 sightings out of which 701 remained unexplained.
Henry Luce’s popular pictorial weekly LIFE had started working on a saucer article in 1949, but True scooped them that December. LIFE soon revived the project, finding an unexpectedly warm welcome in inner sanctums of the Air Force. Clearly someone very high up favored disclosure for whatever reason and was hoping, too, to gain access to LIFE’s intensive reporting. As one intelligence officer told the magazine, “The higher you go in the Air Force, the more seriously they take the flying saucers.”
The issue of April 7, 1952, was arresting—and not just for its cover photo introducing a sexy ingénue named Marilyn Monroe. Presenting ten case studies in a long article quaintly titled “Have We Visitors from Space?” LIFE reported that disks, cylinders, and other luminous and solid geometric objects, including “globes of green fire,” had for years frequented the earth’s atmosphere. Contemporary science could not explain them as natural phenomena but solely as artificial devices “created and operated by a high intelligence.” And no power source on earth could explain their startling performance.
LIFE went on to present ten carefully “checked and rechecked” case histories, including three the magazine itself had uncovered. They included the so-called Lubbock Lights of August 25, 1951, when three earth-science professors spotted a crescent of some two dozen lights flashing silently across the west Texas sky. A few nights later a student captured their images on film, showing, in several exposures, a larger luminosity “like a mother craft hovering near its aerial brood.” Depending on their distance, the professors calculated, the objects may have been traveling anywhere between 1,800 and 18,000 miles an hour. The Air Force, LIFE reported, accepted the photos as genuine.
In another case from 1947, a top American astronomer and meteor expert who asked LIFE for anonymity (but was later identified as Lincoln La Paz of the University of New Mexico) was driving at daytime with his wife and teenage daughters in New Mexico when they all saw a bright, luminous elliptical object wobbling in the clouds. Its sudden ascent, the astronomer said, “thoroughly convinced me that we were dealing with an absolutely novel airborne device.”
Almost two years later another prominent astronomer, Clyde W. Tombaugh, who had discovered Pluto in 1930, was sitting in his backyard in Las Cruces, New Mexico, with his wife and mother-in-law when they all saw something oval aglow with blue-green luminescence and a line of glaring windows rush overhead low and silently, too fast for a plane, too slow for a meteor. All three agreed that the object was definitely a solid “ship” of some kind.
In May 1951, three technical writers for the aerophysics department of North American Aviation’s plant outside Los Angeles gaped as some “30 glowing, meteorlike objects sprayed out of the east at a point about 45 degrees above the horizon, executed a right-angle turn and swept across the sky in an undulating vertical formation.” The objects, bathed in intense electric-blue light, were traveling as fast as 1,700 miles an hour, the writers estimated, and “moved with the motion of flat stones skipping across a smooth pond.”
The same year, on a clear, moonlit January night, the control tower at Sioux City airport detected a bright light above the field. Captain Lawrence W. Vinther and his copilot, James F. Bachmeier (of Mid-Continent Airlines), accompanied a civilian from Air Intelligence to investigate. They were approaching the light in their DC-3 when it frighteningly dived at them before skimming silently over their nose. The two pilots lost sight of it … and then suddenly it was at their side, flying in tandem. It seemed as big as, or bigger than, a B-29, with a cigar-shaped fuselage and a glider-type wing set well forward. It lacked sweepback or engine housings, jet pods, or exhaust glow. After a few seconds the object descended, passed under the DC-3, and disappeared.
A year later, in January 1952, a B-29 was on a solo mission over Wonsan, Korea, flying slowly at about twenty thousand feet when the tail gunner and another crewman saw a bright, pulsating orange object about the size of a large beachball with a halo of bluish flame. It followed the B-29 for about five minutes then pulled ahead and shot away at a sharp angle. On the same night, eighty miles away, another B-29 crew reported a similar flaming ball.
LIFE concluded with a summary of what the mysterious objects were not.
They were not psychological phenomena, however much the Air Force liked to belittle them as illusions or delusions of witnesses.
They were not secret American experiments. LIFE had questioned Gordon Dean, chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, who said, “There’s nothing in our shop that could account for these things, and there’s nothing going on that I know of that could explain them.”
They were not Soviet innovations. “It is inconceivable that the Russians would risk the loss of such a precious military weapon by flying a saucer over enemy territory,” LIFE said.
They were not atmospheric distortions from atomic testing, a theory David Lilienthal, the former AEC commissioner, ridiculed, saying, “I can’t prevent anyone from saying foolish things.”
They were not aberrations of the northern lights, magnetic disturbances, or “vertical mirages” from layers of heated air.
They were not plastic high-altitude Skyhook balloons.
They were not “fireflies in the cockpit,” as one Air Force colonel suggested.
They were not auto headlights reflected in the clouds—many had been seen in broad daylight. LIFE had even consulted Walther Riedel, former research director of Hitler’s V-2 rocket center in Peenemünde, who had joined Wernher von Braun and other Nazi scientists after World War II in the secret American intelligence program, Operation Paperclip. “I am completely convinced that they have an out-of-world basis,” Riedel told LIFE.
So what were they?
“Somewhere in the dark skies,” LIFE said, “there may be those who know.”
Among the many remaining skeptics was a heralded Harvard professor of astrophysics, Donald H. Menzel, who had directed the 1936 Harvard-MIT eclipse expedition to the Soviet Union and soon after developed the first telescopic instrument in America to block out the blazing disk of the sun to study its wispy corona. Later, as acting director of the Harvard College Observatory, Menzel set about explaining away the growing waves of UFO sightings as natural phenomena (although he dabbled in science fiction and liked to draw fanciful illustrations of aliens).
“Above all, there is not the slightest evidence to support the popular fantasy that saucers are interplanetary space ships, manned by beings from beyond the earth, however much some people want to believe in this unscientific, highly publicized interpretation of saucers,” he wrote in Flying Saucers: A Great Astronomer Explains the Facts, which was published by Harvard University Press in 1953. Call him the man who shot Santa Claus, Menzel said, but the sightings were nothing more than “optical tricks that the atmosphere and its contents can play upon our eyes.” What they were decidedly not, Menzel insisted, were “space craft from Venus, or perhaps from Mars, controlled, according to some reports, by miniature beings 26 inches high! Little men whose powerful physiques could withstand the tremendous buffeting that the flying saucers would give them. Little men who allegedly wore no buttons on their clothes. Little men supposedly investigating the earth because they had seen our atomic-bomb blasts and were concerned whether or not the bombs constituted a menace to interplanetary space.”
But the sightings continued.
After several hundred thousand people saw saucers over France in the late summer and fall of 1954, Aimé Michel, a French mathematician and engineer, discussed it with the poet and artist Jean Cocteau. “You ought to see whether these objects move along certain lines, whether they are tracing out designs, or something like that,” suggested an ailing Cocteau as he was recovering from a heart attack at his villa on the Côte d’Azur. Michel went on to painstakingly plot their courses for a stunning realization he called orthoteny, a word derived from the Greek for “stretched in a straight line.” He noted that the UFOs were witnessed flying in straight lines following the curvature of the earth. It seemed strongly probative of intelligent control, a thesis he would expound in his book, Flying Saucers and the Straight-Line Mystery. Carl Jung found “no certainty about their very nature” but “overwhelming material pointing to their legendary or mythological aspect,” to the point that, as he wrote in The New Republic in 1957, “one almost must regret that the Ufos [sic] seem to be real after all.”
If it was true that children lived the unlived lives of their parents, Mack wrote, then perhaps it was the intellectual rigor of his upbringing that impelled him later to question conventional rationality.1
There was a particular reason, Mack himself and many close to him believed, that he had been drawn to psychiatry and had come to risk a distinguished career chasing a disreputable cosmic mystery. It had to do with the childhood trauma that shadowed him throughout his life.
Although he was encouraged from childhood to take on the world, he grew up in a sheltered, wealthy, secular, German-Jewish home where it was assumed he was to follow his father, an English professor, and his stepmother, an economist, in the academic life. “I was raised as the strictest of materialists,” Mack told the writer C. D. B. Bryan, one of the special invitees to the alien abduction conference at MIT. “I believed we were kind of alone in this meaningless universe, on this sometimes verdant rock with these animals and plants around, and we were here to make the best of it, and when we’re dead, we’re dead.” Yet his ethnoreligious culture also embodied a commitment to open-mindedness, intellectual curiosity, and exploration—albeit short of superstition. “My parents grew up in a world from which the spirits had been banished to the supernatural or the paranormal and they did not want their children to develop irrational beliefs that would make it difficult for them to get along with other children and adults.”
Mack’s father’s great-grandfather emigrated in the 1840s from Bavaria, settling in Cincinnati where his son, Edward, was born. Edward’s son, Clarence, who was Mack’s grandfather, was a whiskey salesman who often traveled to Europe. On one of his trips he ran into a girl he knew from Cincinnati, Della Aub, the daughter of a pioneering ophthalmologist, Joseph Aub, who became one of the first physicians to use an electromagnet to remove foreign bodies from the eye and left Della an estate equivalent today to more than $6 million. Della and Clarence married and had a son, Edward, born in 1904, who would become Mack’s father.
Edward went to public school in Cincinnati until the family, increasingly prosperous, moved to New York, where they lived in splendor in the Sherry-Netherland Hotel on Central Park. Edward attended the exclusive Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts, and then he went to Princeton, graduating summa cum laude. He worked on Wall Street, found it distasteful, and set out to become an English teacher.
Mack’s mother, Eleanor, was descended from prominent German-Jewish brewers. Her great-grandfather, Samuel Baer Liebmann, owned an inn and brewery in Ludwigsburg in the kingdom of Württemberg. In the aftermath of the 1848 revolutions, Samuel and his wife, Sara, and their children left for America. They settled in Brooklyn, where Samuel and three of their sons, Joseph, Henry, and Charles, founded a brewery in Bushwick. It would be called Rheingold and would come to dominate the New York beer market in the 1950s, thanks to a catchy jingle and the annual elections to select a wholesome pinup queen as “Miss Rheingold,” who sometimes got almost as many votes as the president of the United States.2
Henry and his wife, Emma, had seven children including a son, Walter Henry Liebman (he dropped one “n”), a New York State Assemblyman and senior partner of his own law firm. Between 1902 and 1906 Walter Henry and his wife, Lulu Waxelbaum, had two sons and a daughter, Eleanor, who would become John Mack’s mother. Eleanor’s younger brother, Walter Henry Liebman 2d, a lawyer, would run as a New York Democrat for Congress in 1938. His wife, Grace Koehler, a pioneering woman aviator, wrote smoke signals in the sky to aid her husband’s campaign, though he ultimately lost to a Republican, Bruce Barton, who was a nemesis of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Eleanor’s other brother, Henry, who would be John Mack’s uncle, suffered from mental illness and was lobotomized. “I was always interested in the sources of suffering,” Mack recalled years later.
Eleanor, a luminous beauty with luxuriant bobbed hair, attended the progressive Ethical Culture School and then Vassar College, graduating at the age of twenty in 1926. The following year, the New York Times announced her engagement to twenty-three-year-old Edward Clarence Mack, a 1926 graduate of Princeton. The families were prominent enough to make the society pages—the Liebmans lived on Park Avenue and the Macks on Fifth. They wed in 1928 in fashionable Elberon, New Jersey, where the Liebmans had a summer estate on the shore. Once known as the Hollywood of the East, the beach community hosted stage and film stars and politicians, including President James A. Garfield, who went there to recover after being shot in July 1881 but died there three months later, the assassin’s bullet still in him.
By early 1929 Eleanor was pregnant. Their son, John Edward Mack, made his appearance at New York Fifth Avenue Hospital at 8:00 a.m. on October 4, 1929—an hour Mack would later pin down for astrological readings. Twenty days later, on what came to be known as Black Thursday, the plummeting stock market set off the Crash, although the family remained well-provisioned enough to ride out the Great Depression. Generations of Macks traditionally alternated the same male names, Clarence and Edward for instance, but, the young man later came to joke, from whence came the aberrant and generic “John”? Was it a sudden parental lapse of imagination? (It became funnier when, as the liberal New York daily PM would report, he once heard himself hailed on the street, “Hey, John!” He whirled around, only to be curtly dismissed, “Not you, mack.”)
1. The manuscript Mack was still laboring over at the end of his life and could never place with a publisher, “When Worldviews Collide: A Paradigmatic Passion Play,” remains a rich source of autobiography, especially on Mack’s struggle with Harvard. Useful genealogical information also comes from his grandfather Clarence’s 1921 passport application. In 1944 at age fifteen, John wrote a thirty-five-page typed autobiographical fragment, “Confessing is Depressing,” dedicating the opus, with pasted-in snapshots, “to my wife and children of the future who, upon reading it will become my severest critics.” He noted the hour of his birth as 8:00 a.m., which would take on significance in his later efforts to interpret his astrological chart. Much later Mack also wrote an autobiographical chapter for Ellen L. Bassuk’s The Doctor-Activist: Physicians Fighting for Social Change.
The following June, Edward and Eleanor took an eight-month-old John to escape the steamy city for a seaside holiday with Eleanor’s parents in Elberon. On June 20 Eleanor suffered an acute attack of appendicitis that went initially unattended. As her symptoms worsened, she was rushed to Monmouth Memorial Hospital for an emergency appendectomy. She developed an acute gangrenous infection, complicated by streptococcus peritonitis, an inflammation of the membrane covering the abdominal wall. Penicillin had been discovered two years before but was not yet in general use. In a week Eleanor was dead. She was not yet twenty-five.3
Edward, her husband of less than two years, bitterly blamed the surgeon. Others thought Eleanor may have hidden her distress until it was too late. Her mother, Lulu, was often overprotective—she was known to count the cherry pits after a meal to make sure no one had accidentally swallowed one—and Eleanor may have feared triggering her hysteria. Eleanor’s father, Walter Henry, struggled with his grief for six months until his heart gave out at age fifty-six.
John, suddenly motherless, was shunted to relatives, including his grandparents Clarence and Della and his uncle and aunt, Walter Henry 2d and his wife, Grace, the barnstorming pilot. Through Aunt Grace, infant John had also acquired another set of doting relatives—Grace’s mother, Carrie, and stepfather, David A. Schulte, a real-estate magnate and founder of the cigar-store chain that controlled three hundred prime street corners in the Northeast. Schulte and a real-estate partner had announced plans for the world’s tallest building, a 150-story skyscraper on Worth Street and Broadway, just before the stock market plummeted. Schulte was still a wealthy man. He gave his stepdaughter Grace her first airplane, which, teaching herself to fly, she crashed. Undaunted, she would go on to fly anti-submarine missions for the Civil Air Patrol in World War II. The Schultes had their own Monmouth County manor: Telegraph Hill Farm in Holmdel, New Jersey, which was near the Bell Labs telephone research facility, where the father of radio astronomy, Karl Guthe Jansky, first discovered radio waves from the Milky Way in 1931. It was also where, after Schulte died and the property had been sold in the 1960s, the radio astronomers Arno Penzias and Robert Woodrow Wilson discovered the background radiation permeating the universe to confirm the Big Bang theory of creation, winning them the 1978 Nobel Prize for Physics.
Edward struggled with his heartbreak. But he was a twenty-six-year-old widowed English teacher with a baby son to raise. It wasn’t long before he met a glamorous widow from Westchester with her own tragic past.
Ruth Allegra Prince Gimbel, a bewitching young socialite with dark, wide-set eyes, was the daughter of a Polish-born merchant/banker, Julius S. Prince, who owned a historic waterside estate—Wildcliff—on the Long Island Sound in New Rochelle, north of New York City. He and his wife, Clara Bertha Rich, had three daughters and a son; their eldest daughter, Helen, had died at nineteen of appendicitis, much like Eleanor Liebman Mack. Partly as a result, their son, Julius “Bud” Prince, went into medicine and became a pioneering public-health official in the US Agency for International Development in Ethiopia and Ghana—“the most indefatigable activist doctor I know,” John Mack would later write of his step-uncle and role model.
Ruth Prince attended Barnard College, where she studied economics and was mentored by Columbia’s redoubtable Arthur F. Burns. At twenty-one she married Lee Adam Gimbel, great-grandson of the founder of the department store. On New Year’s Eve in 1930, as the nation slid deeper into the Great Depression, Ruth went up to Wildcliff for the holiday, expecting her husband to join her. Instead, thirty-five-year-old Lee Gimbel checked into the Yale Club across from Grand Central Terminal and leaped from his sixteenth-floor window. He and Ruth had been married barely six years and were parents of a four-year-old daughter, Mary Lee.
Two years later, after meeting the bereaved widow, the aspiring English professor Edward Mack wed Ruth Prince Gimbel in March of 1932. At two and a half years old, John Mack suddenly had a new mother and a six-year-old stepsister.
Ruth was domineering, and her adoring husband denied her nothing. Edward did not protest when Ruth banished all traces of Eleanor from the household. Growing up, young John was not allowed so much as a photo of his dead mother. He grew up haunted by her sudden death. His childhood grief, many close to him believed, found expression in his later quest for the elusive in the cosmos.
He was struggling with “the feminine in my life,” Mack told one of his therapists. As a psychiatrist, he had undergone extensive psychoanalysis to excavate his earliest memories. As early as twelve, he remembered, he was searching out books on psychology in his school library, driven “by the restless hurt I felt inside.” One of his favorite childhood books was The Wizard of Oz, about characters in search of mythic attributes that they had within them all along. Another was Pinocchio. He was particularly taken with Pinocchio’s magical guardian, the fairy with the turquoise hair, who materializes to the boy puppet at critical moments to steer him from bad deeds. Mack would imagine his mother turning blue as she struggled to give him life. “Partly to heal the pain connected with early losses, especially the loss of my biological mother at 8 months,” Mack wrote, “I embarked on a course of psychoanalytic treatment during medical school.”
3. To resolve any question of how Eleanor died (see chapter 22), I tracked down her death certificate, which banishes all doubt. Mack’s cousins Susan Butler and her brother, Walter Henry (Terry) Liebman, provided recollections of grandma Lulu.
Susan Butler, Grace Liebman’s daughter and a cousin of Mack’s, was convinced that “if Elie hadn’t died, he wouldn’t have become a psychiatrist.”
“I knew it had to do with the loss of his mother,” said Vivienne Simon, an environmental activist who came to work for Mack as his abduction research was gaining traction.
Karin Austin, an experiencer and perhaps his closest confidant toward the end of his life, agreed. “If there wouldn’t have been anything missing, he wouldn’t have gone on this search,” she said. Phil Isenberg, who roomed with Mack at Harvard Medical School, said, “I always felt that he was driven by the notion you could go into Heaven and find your mother.”
Edward Khantzian, Mack’s close partner in bringing health care to Cambridge and a later skeptic of his abduction research, saw it too, finding significance in his friend’s sudden childhood acquisition of a stepmother. “He was adopted so he had an ongoing search for his origins,” Khantzian said.
But Roz Zander, a therapist, life coach, and artist who had carried on an intense romance with Mack before breaking it off, cautioned against armchair analysis, finding the equation “a little too pat.” Rather, she said, Mack was simply “a brilliant mind,” ever courting new experiences.
The gravest of losses to a young child also became a source of strength, said his close friend Michael Blumenthal, a clinical psychologist and poet. “He knew that being wounded means remaining capable of being hurt. And all his life John was open to the wounded.”
Mack’s wife, Sally, would see it another way after her husband’s restless search for romance, which would doom their thirty-three-year marriage. “There was always the missing woman in his life,” she said. Mack didn’t deny it. “It seems like my life is a never ending quest for that (those) moment (s) of bliss, connection with a woman,” he confided to his journal.
Mack’s therapist took note, finding that a rapturous affair with a younger woman Mack met when she was pregnant with another man’s child was entangled in issues of maternal loss—“swimming in archetypes,” as Mack himself put it.
That consuming love of Mack’s later life, Dominique Callimanopulos, granddaughter of a Greek shipping billionaire, saw the needy side of him too. “He was so ready to believe,” she recalled.
Budd Hopkins had an opposite theory. Far from traumatized, he said, Mack suffered from overwhelming self-confidence. “I think John throughout his life was extremely lucky,” Hopkins said shortly before his death from cancer at age eighty in 2011. “He was cushioned financially. He had looks, personality and brains. I don’t think John ever had a tough course of action. There was something blithe about the way he succeeded at everything.”
One admirer late in Mack’s life saw yet another impulse, a yearning for spirituality. “It is utterly fascinating to read your struggle with the reality of religious experience, or at least with experiences that seem to have a strong religious or spiritual overlay,” wrote James F. Strange, a distinguished university professor and a professor of religious studies at the University of South Florida in Tampa. “It is like a man born deaf who discovers sound and Mozart on the same day, or perhaps one born blind who gains sight and sees Van Gogh in the same evening.”
Mack acknowledged that it was complicated. “You know,” he told his therapist, Gurucharan Singh Khalsa, “it’s very hard to take a German-Jewish materialist and reprogram him into a mystic.” But his upbringing was destiny, he told the New York Times. “I was like a recalcitrant communist who becomes a right-winger.”4
4. See chapter 27.
Half a century before Mack entered Harvard Medical School in 1951, weird science was shaking it up. “Who shall say that the ordinary experience is the only one possible?” William James told the newspapers in 1896. Later, in his influential Lowell lectures, James, a medical school graduate and revered paterfamilias of psychology and philosophy, explored psychic phenomena as part of his wide-ranging exploration of religious experience. He dared to explore cases of mediumship, witchcraft, and demonic possession, of which he said, “I am convinced that we stand with all these things at the threshold of a long enquiry, of which the end appears as yet to no one, least of all myself.” He found few answers, but he ultimately concluded, “The only thing I am absolutely sure of being the extreme complication of the facts.” More than half a century before, transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson told the Harvard Divinity School that the world “is not the product of manifold power, but of one will, of one mind; and that one mind is everywhere active, in each ray of the star, in each wavelet of the pool; and whatever opposes that will, is everywhere balked and baffled, because things are made so, and not otherwise.” Benevolence—love, justice, temperance—ruled creation, Emerson went on. “It makes the sky and the hills sublime and the silent song of the stars is it. By it, is the universe made safe and habitable, not by science or power.”
But by the time of his arrival at Harvard, Mack saw the institution as a bastion of scientific materialism, with spirituality confined to the Divinity School. The most radical thing that a prospective physician could admit to, Mack thought, was a belief in God. Not that he was anything more than culturally Judaic.
He was by no means a rebel, despite a deeply progressive education. He had attended the experimental Lincoln School, founded by Teachers College of Columbia University and funded by the Rockefellers along precepts developed by John Dewey to test the latest pedagogical methods. He went on to Oberlin College, which had pioneered the acceptance of Black students and women and had been a station on the Underground Railroad for escaped slaves, fomenting an antislavery rebellion a year before John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry. At Oberlin, Mack recalled fondly, “no one pretended to know more than he or she did.” Like many of his classmates, he fell under the spell of a charismatic young history professor, Harvey Goldberg, who delivered standing-room-only lectures as improvisational as a jazz solo. In the spring of 1949 Mack won Goldberg’s approval with an earnest paper called “The Soviet Challenge to American Mythology” that looked to Lenin, Trotsky, and the Bolshevik Revolution for lessons in improving American democracy, a provocative thesis at the height of the Red Scare. Among Mack’s friends at Oberlin were John Kander, later the composer, with lyricist Fred Ebb, of “Cabaret,” “Chicago,” and other hit musicals and the Frank Sinatra anthem “New York, New York”; and John Gutfreund, later the “King of Wall Street” and the CEO of Salomon Brothers before a scandalous fall. With the rest of his “Fortunate Class of 1951” Mack, at twenty-one, was sent off by economics professor Ben W. Lewis, a Roosevelt New Dealer, who counseled graduates: “Some matters are more important than others; you’re going to live a long time. Budget your decisions; save your best ones for the issues that count, and be in there strong at the finish.” “When he came from Oberlin,” remembered his Harvard roommate Phil Isenberg, “he was as conventional and model a medical student as you could find. He was very disciplined. He spent every night studying.”
Another roommate, Lester Grinspoon, called Mack “solid as the rock of Gibraltar,” so fixated on his studies that his laundry often went unwashed. A school photo showed Mack as a first-year medical student with a debonair pompadour and white lab coat concentrating on an autopsy, snipping away at entrails—“Mack the Knife,” his family joked. He boasted of a distinguished forebear there. An award-winning cancer specialist, Joseph Charles Aub, a nephew of his grandmother Della’s father, Joseph Aub, the pioneering ophthalmologist, had graduated from Harvard College and Medical School and by 1924 was named an assistant professor in medicine, one of the school’s first Jewish academicians. That same year Aub and noted cardiologist Paul Dudley White (who would later treat President Dwight D. Eisenhower after his heart attack) happened to encounter two Bryn Mawr women on a transatlantic cruise. One of them contracted measles, and the two doctors helped them escape French immigration officers. The women, Cornelia Otis Skinner and Emily Kimbrough, ended up writing a best seller about the caper that was turned into a popular 1944 film comedy, Our Hearts Were Young and Gay.1
In his own era, Mack recalled, Harvard’s Jewish medical students were often dismissed as “eggheads if not wimps,” although Isenberg had captained the football team. To counter the stereotype, Mack and other Jewish students challenged the gentiles one day to a softball game behind a student dorm. It ended in a tie, Mack recalled, but the score was beside the point. “We Jewish intellectuals, from my distorted point of view, had certainly proved our activist credentials.”2
1. The Joseph C. Aub papers (1918-1974) are available online at the Harvard Library.
2. See Mack’s chapter in Bassuk, The Doctor-Activist.
A confident physician-to-be, Mack gravitated to psychiatry. As he explained decades later, “I guess I sort of always felt most mental illness was the result of misery of one kind or another.”3 He was not averse to shaking things up. In his fourth and final year, he was assigned from Boston Children’s Hospital to two months of surgical service at the old Peter Bent Brigham Hospital under the redoubtable chief surgeon, Francis D. Moore. “Franny,” as his adoring students called him, was a legend at the medical school, renowned for his findings on fluids and chemicals in the human body. The year before, one of Moore’s protégés at Brigham performed the first successful human organ transplant, transferring a kidney between identical twins. That and subsequent transplants won the surgeon, Dr. Joseph Murray, a Nobel Prize, which he graciously co-credited to Moore. Moore liked to test his students by firing out questions such as, “Mack, tell us the course and relations of the mammary artery.” Mack was forced to think back to his anatomy lessons of three years before and mumble whatever came to mind. One day, feeling particularly beleaguered, Mack was scrubbed in under Moore on a sympathectomy, a surgical procedure to cut ganglia along the spinal cord to relieve the constriction of blood vessels. After Moore sectioned the nerve bundle, he told Mack to wash it, dry it, and paste it in the patient’s chart. To the amazement of the rest of the team, Mack cheekily refused. The room turned deathly quiet. Moore quietly took the section of nerve-cell tissue, rinsed it in saline, and lay it down to dry. Then he turned to Mack and asked if he would be so good as to put it in the chart later. But Moore came to take a liking to Mack. Whenever he had an interesting case like a complicated parathyroid resection, he would summon Mack to the operating room, where he took pains to explain the operation. Later he wrote glowing recommendations for Mack’s psych residency and other positions. So Mack was particularly mortified one day to encounter a colleague who recalled, “Oh, you were the medical student who told Franny Moore to stick the sympathetic nervous system chain up his ass.” Atul Gawande, the popular writer and surgeon who had followed Mack to Harvard Medical School exactly forty years later, knew the story and speculated that Moore had been tickled by Mack’s audacity. Then too, Gawande wrote Mack, “perhaps he saw you were in the 1%.”
In one of his last major psychiatric papers at Harvard Medical School, Mack presaged some of the themes that would preoccupy him in years to come, while again opening a window on his fixation with his lost mother. The March 1955 paper, “Primitive Concepts of Illness and the Dilemma of the Sick Child,” said primitive people associated illness with evil spirits, relying on shamanic rituals for relief. But modern children are left with no way to process their misfortune and live saddled with guilt, often blaming their own forbidden sexual desires as the cause. Evident in Mack’s prodigious research was his interest in occult practices of ancient cultures, altered states of consciousness, spiritual breakthroughs, and mind-body connections that he would often later lament had been grievously devalued in an age of scientific materialism. He found Freudian relevance in his beloved Pinocchio story. A child, being whittled into life, turns cruelly on his father-creator, sadistically kills a cricket, and is punished with an illness that leaves him near death. He is saved by “the beautiful, good fairy mother,” who offers him magic medicine, which Pinocchio deviously rejects. “When he lies to her his sexual excitement betrays itself and he becomes quite embarrassed as his nose grows several feet long.” And so, Mack found, “becoming sick may play into oedipal conflicts.”
Mack began his residency in psychiatry at the Massachusetts Mental Health Center, where he fell under the spell of another charismatic mentor, Elvin Semrad, a Nebraska farm boy who had earned a medical degree in the Depression and trained with Hanns Sachs, a refugee disciple of Freud’s, before setting up at Boston Psychopathic. Pipe-smoking and avuncular, Semrad was beloved for his shrewd listening and knack for getting to the source of his patients’ anxieties. A psychiatrist’s best tool for understanding his patients, he told students including Mack, was himself.
3. Taped interview with Katherine Diehl, November 24, 1993. An abbreviated version ran in the March/April 1994 issue of Body, Mind, & Spirit magazine.
At a house party in Cambridge in 1959, Mack caught the eye of a young woman, model-thin and radiant with dark eyes and a dazzling smile, who tried to avoid him. “I did not want to look at this guy, he was so damn handsome,” remembered Sally Ann Stahl.4 Abruptly, the tall and broad-shouldered stranger who seemed to have been shadowing her all night was at her side. “I don’t believe we’ve met,” said John Mack.
Sally was then twenty-five, almost four years younger than Mack. She and her brother Irving had been born in Oil City in northwestern Pennsylvania, where their grandparents and father, Julius, once Stalevsky, had migrated from Vilnius, Lithuania. Julius sold real estate and insurance. His proudest moment, memorialized in a prized family photo, was once shaking hands with Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir. Sally was brought up an orthodox Jew in a Yiddish-speaking home. Refined and poised, though favoring off-the-shoulder blouses to show off her attractive figure, she won the Emily Post Etiquette Award at Oil City High School, where she graduated in 1951, the year Mack finished Oberlin and entered Harvard Medical School. Sally studied psychology and social work at the University of Michigan and was working as a licensed clinical social worker at Beth Israel Hospital in Boston when she met Mack, then chief resident of Mass Mental’s Day and Night Hospital, where patients received treatment during the day and returned to their homes at night, an innovation just beginning to catch on in America. Mack’s prominence was such that he had been asked to represent Mass Mental at the first national conference on day hospitals in 1958, and the following year he was named a consultant to the Veterans Administration on day hospitals.
In the face of the military draft, before meeting Sally, Mack had traveled to Washington in the fall of 1958 to discuss options for two years in the Air Force. He liked the prospect of England or France but found himself signed up for Japan. Mack asked if Sally would wait for him. No, she said. So he proposed. They wed in July 1959 in the garden of the Massachusetts home of Mack’s sister, Mary Lee, and her husband, Sidney Ingbar, an endocrinologist at Harvard Medical School. Mary Stahl was delighted with her new son-in-law. “A doctor! And such nice hands!” But there were times she thought him odd, a bissel meshuggah. The bridal couple took a quick honeymoon trip to Colorado, where they learned their first child was already on the way. When Mack shipped out to Tachikawa Air Force Hospital west of Tokyo, Sally continued her social-work training at home then later flew to Japan to meet him. They sent over their two-tone green and white 1955 Oldsmobile and took over part of a large old Japanese-style house in the village of Akishima. Mack was chagrined to discover that the household appliances they so cavalierly imported required the rewiring of the entire village.
In April 1960 Mack was at a Japanese lesson when Sally’s contractions began. He rushed home to escort her to the hospital, only to find her obstetrician unavailable. The head of the department ended up pressed into service to deliver their son, Daniel John, the proud father later confiding to his journal he was “a little disapp[ointed] it’s not a daughter.” When Mack’s deployment was up in the summer of 1961, the family left Japan for home. Back in Boston, Mack gravitated to the psychiatric treatment of children. He returned to Mass Mental as a resident in child psychiatry, and he began training in child analysis. He was drawn to the child’s world of myth and imagination. Just getting down on the floor with children kept it real, Mack found. He began training, too, with the Boston Psychoanalytic Society and Institute and commenced a study of children’s nightmares that would culminate in his first book, Nightmares and Human Conflict. Mack joined the faculty of Harvard Medical School as an assistant in psychiatry and became the associate director of psychiatry at Mass Mental, where he began a consultation service to the Massachusetts Division of Youth Services. One of the first of its kind at the time, it provided mental-health services to youths held in maximum security and other assistance to the state’s Institute for Juvenile Guidance.
Danny was twenty-two months old when he found he had company—a baby brother, Ken—and he didn’t much like it. Once, as Sally was nursing Kenny, Danny tried to put a fifty-cent piece through the baby’s soft skull. During nights, he would wake up crying hysterically and, brought to his parents’ bed, would restlessly kick them. He would try to kiss Kenny on the forehead, then he would swing at him with his fists. Whenever attention was being paid to the baby, he would drop objects into the toilet or soak himself in the shower. Mack, seeing a rare professional opportunity, observed Danny closely, and over three days in February 1962 he recorded a detailed case study of sibling rivalry that filled twenty-one single-spaced, typewritten pages. Mack concluded that Danny had a way of using play to make sense of the traumatic loss and sudden sharing of his mother’s affections.
A year later Sally was pregnant with their third son, Tony. She was in her eighth month and increasingly uncomfortable when she and her husband sought distraction one night at the movies. The theater was hot and crowded, and the desert scenes in the picture felt particularly stifling. But the long movie, Lawrence of Arabia, had given Mack an idea. He thought he might study up on Lawrence, and he soon embarked on a full psychological workup.5
4. Author’s interview with Sally at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, February 22, 2016. She died of cancer on March 24 at age eighty-two.
5. Bassuk, The Doctor-Activist.
Though barely a mile from Harvard Square and across the Charles River from the medical school, the distressed Cambridge City Hospital might as well have occupied a different planet. The prestigious teaching hospitals all around it siphoned off the best physicians, nurses, administrators, and staff, leaving Cambridge a health backwater—a city of one hundred thousand with no adult psychiatric services.
In the fall of 1964, chafing in a middle-management position in charge of inpatient services at the Massachusetts Mental Health Center, Mack learned from his highly-placed brother-in-law Sidney Ingbar that Harvard Medical School was developing an affiliation with the Cambridge City Hospital.
Harvard saw a chance to develop a model of community-based primary health care while eliminating the embarrassment of having a derelict hospital in its backyard.1 Making it possible was the Community Mental Health Act signed into law by President John F. Kennedy in October 1963, three weeks before his assassination. The act provided federal funds to establish local treatment centers so the mentally ill warehoused in institutions and hospitals could move back into their communities. To be eligible for the money, states had to create catchment areas to consolidate service. Cambridge and Somerville, with a total population of nearly two hundred thousand, was designated one such region.
Mack persuaded the Harvard Department of Psychiatry to adopt the Cambridge City Hospital with himself in charge of psychiatric services. He collected an eager team of nineteen fellow alums of Mass Mental along with his office secretary and assistant, Pat Carr, who would stay loyally at his side for the next four decades. For Mack it was a kind of crusade to develop a model for mental-health services. Eager to demystify psychiatry, they attended rounds and hung out in the physicians’ lounge to stay visible and engage the staff, talking about the weather and world news—anything to normalize interactions. They suffered the special enmity of East Cambridge City Councilor Al Vellucci, a Harvard hater who suggested designating the Harvard Lampoon a public urinal. But slowly they attracted supporters.
The unit’s licensed clinical social worker, Judy Einzig, never forgot Mack’s clinical approach. A twenty-two-year-old woman to whom Einzig gave the pseudonym “Patty” wandered in disheveled, drooling, and thrashing around like a wild animal in search of electric-shock treatment, which she had been unable to get at the state hospital that had been her home for the last eight years.2 She was quickly labeled retarded. As Einzig remembered in an unpublished essay and recollections more than four decades later, the staff sent for Mack. He addressed Patty soothingly, beginning with an unexpected question: “Do you believe in God?” “Yes,” Patty said. Taken off guard, she opened up and began relating her conversations with God as Mack and the clinical staff fell silent. “Our hearts opened to her,” Einzig recalled. “By the end of the interview we were all in love with her.” Daringly, Mack invited her to stay while they all discussed her case. “As she looked around the room, love and humanity poured toward her,” Einzig remembered. “Instantly, Patty was transformed.” Later, her father came to visit and was amazed, rediscovering the daughter he’d lost when his wife had died years before. Patty was able to make some visits home, but when she was away from the cocoon of the hospital she would relapse and need to return to the state hospital. Two years later she turned up for another electroshock treatment. Einzig found her strapped to a bed. But when Patty saw the social worker, she stopped writhing and smiled. “Hi, Judy,” she beamed. A happy ending would have been too much to ask for, Einzig concluded. She lost touch with Patty. Perhaps she went back to her conversations with God. Yet in all the intervening years, Einzig recalled, “I’ve never forgotten the deep humanity of that girl. I’ve never forgotten the deep kindness and human dignity that Dr. Mack extended toward her.”
The team continued to gain support. When non-English-speaking patients avoided the hospital, translators of various languages were recruited from the kitchen. A judge with the felicitous name of Lawrence Felony agreed to sign restraining orders all hours of the day or night. Throughout, Mack was inspired by his idol, T. E. Lawrence, whose biography he was beginning to research. He was trying to adapt Lawrence’s principles of diplomacy and action to the dynamics of Cambridge, Mack recalled to a New York Times interviewer nearly three decades later. “I kept using his way of working.”
Psychiatric nurses and addiction treatment were added. Eventually even Vellucci came around. Later elected mayor, he proclaimed Mack an honorary citizen of Cambridge. In 1993 the Cambridge Hospital would win the American Hospital Association’s prize for excellence in community health care, with First Lady Hillary Clinton going on national television to sing its praises.
1. Bassuk, The Doctor-Activist.
2. Einzig, “Do You Believe in God?”; see also author’s follow-up interview from 2020.
Mack meanwhile added to his prestige with a prescient book, Nightmares and Human Conflict, which he dedicated to his sons, “who showed me how important nightmares can be.” It expanded on two papers he had written for psychoanalytic journals and would seem especially applicable to his later abduction research. His prodigious scholarship reached back to the ancients, who personified and sexualized the terrifying dream as a fiend that crushed the sleeper’s chest, an incubus (or female succubus) from the Latin incubare (to lie on, as in to incubate and hatch or lay eggs). A North Borneo tribe still believed in an evil force disguised as malevolent creatures that came to women in the night to conceive children and sometimes steal away their pregnancies. The term “nightmare” itself was traceable to the Sanskrit mara (destroyer), which became the Anglo-Saxon mare (demon). The root migrated into the English mare (female horse), and the horse lent its symbolic sexual potency to the nightmare. Ordinary dreams occurred during Rapid Eye Movement sleep, Mack reported, but nightmares occurred during non-REM or short-wave sleep. Benign or terrifying, dreams were a way for the brain to resolve conflicts and not, as Freud said, a way of prolonging sleep. They served an evolutionary purpose, playing a part in development of the central nervous system, Mack wrote. And nightmares functioned to preserve the organism, honing a range of coping mechanisms for extreme circumstances.
How parents dealt with the children’s nightmares was also noteworthy, Mack said. Parents needed to comfort their children and help them distinguish between fantasy and reality; failure to do so could be harmful. With his book, published in 1970, no one could deny Mack’s expertise in matters of sleep disturbances and waking fantasy—nor could they claim he didn’t know what a nightmare was. He was also embarking on another foray into the shadowlands of the mind, Borderline States in Psychiatry, an anthology that he edited and introduced with an opening chapter. A dense survey of the extensive professional literature on shifting definitions of mental illness, the compendium, published in 1975, showcased Mack’s expertise in aberrant mental states.
He was also hard at work on the book that would crystallize his celebrity. Since the night with Sally at Lawrence of Arabia in 1963, Mack had been gripped by the legend of the desert-blasted, blue-eyed British warrior/statesman with a whiff of perversion who had redrawn the map of the Middle East. He was well into his own pursuit of Lawrence, one of the most quixotic figures of the twentieth century, a quest that would consume thirteen years of research and writing on three continents and culminate in a prize-winning biography, A Prince of Our Disorder. “It was clear this really caught him,” Sally recalled more than half a century later from a hospital bed shortly before her death from cancer.
Mack felt compelled to correct the film’s distortions of history. Lawrence, who stood barely five-foot-five in contrast to Peter O’Toole’s six-foot-three, was no hysterical sadist in battle, Mack wrote. He may have lost control of his men at times, but he was far too self-possessed to revel in their orgies of recrimination. Lawrence was, in many ways, an anti-egotist, so averse to aggrandizement that he took a pseudonym to serve in the military. Mack was drawn to Lawrence’s incessant psychologizing—could a psychiatrist find a worthier subject than someone perpetually torturing himself with self-examination? And he was astonished to realize that they were almost contemporaries. Mack was four and a half years old when Lawrence died in a motorcycle crash in 1935 at age forty-six; had he lived, he would have been seventy-five when Mack began his research at age thirty-four.
He learned that Lawrence had two living brothers in England, two others having been killed in World War I. The older brother, Montague Robert (M. R., or Bob), a religiously ethereal ex-missionary and physician, had retreated in obscurity to a rectory in southern England. Lawrence’s younger brother, Arnold Walter, a professor of Hellenic archaeology, was often away in Greece. Mack tracked them both down.
He approached M. R. doctor to doctor, arranging in August of 1964 to fly to England for a meeting at the rectory. High on his agenda was an answer to the question of the source of Lawrence’s guilt. Mack was ready to offer assurances that nothing would appear in print for five to ten years (it would actually be a dozen years), and he avowed the “family’s right to see any thing I’d write.” Mack was curious about the development of Lawrence’s conscience and his high aspirations as well as his early influences at home, his young strivings and ideas, and his “unsureness & unworthiness from early evidence in childhood,” which, he wrote, “may leave vulnerability.” Mack wondered about Lawrence’s yen for travel, particularly curious as to “why Arabia & the East”? He wanted to be sure to ask M. R. about their brotherly relationship—who was the leader?—and Lawrence’s relationship with his father and mother. There was also a girl Mack had read about; was she a “lost love”?
The other brother, Arnold Walter, controlled Lawrence’s archives but didn’t respond. Mack traveled back to England anyway and reached Arnold by phone at home. “Nothing on that subject interests me,” Arnold said. Mack said he had come all that way, couldn’t they just talk? Finally, Arnold said he had a meeting at the British Museum at 6:00, and Mack could come half an hour beforehand. An hour would be better, Mack said. He would need time to thaw out. That made Arnold laugh, and he softened, eventually granting Mack the archival access he sought. Mack was also able to meet many of Lawrence’s surviving comrades, who, initially suspicious, soon warmed to the big Yank with his boundless enthusiasm and ingratiating manner.
By the time Mack sat down to write, it was clearer than ever that he had chosen his subject for deeply personal reasons, “deriving from my own predilections and psychological makeup,” as he wrote. “I have long been fascinated by the relationship between the inner life—between dreams, hopes and visions—and actions or activity in the ‘real’ world.” And, notably, Mack was fascinated by what constituted heroism. Revealingly, he quoted from Irving Howe’s essay, “T. E. Lawrence: The Problem of Heroism”: “The hero as he appears in the tangle of modern life is a man struggling with a vision he can neither realize nor abandon, ‘a man with a load on his mind.’” Mack, in fact, took his title from Howe’s description of Lawrence—“A Prince of Our Disorder.”
Lawrence’s life began with a burdensome family secret, Mack wrote. His father, Thomas Chapman, who boasted Sir Walter Raleigh as a distant ancestor, had been married in Ireland to a vinegary cousin who gave birth to their four daughters. But sometime after 1878 Thomas ran off with the children’s vivacious Scottish governess, Sarah, to Wales. They lived there, unmarried, as husband and wife, took the surname “Lawrence,” and had five surviving sons. The second of those sons, Thomas Edward, or T. E., was born in 1888 and grew up with a passion for history, especially Arthurian romance. Young Lawrence was closeted in make-believe, manly deeds, and heroic fantasies that served to obscure the ignominious reality of his illegitimacy.
Mack tracked down the first and apparently only woman Lawrence had ever pursued romantically, Janet Laurie, a childhood friend two years his senior. Although she was drawn to his younger brother, Will (who would later die in World War I), Lawrence surprisingly proposed to her, taking her so aback she laughed in astonishment. Lawrence may never have recovered. Tellingly, he would inscribe the Greek words for “Does Not Care” over Clouds Hill, his small cottage in Dorset in Southwest England, and he would never again, so far as was known, attempt to form a love bond with a woman, or anyone. Strikingly, for a figure renowned for bold action, Lawrence was essentially a man of the spirit, focused on mastery of the self, Mack said. From his earliest days digging in the ruins of Carchemish in Syria and, once the Great War broke out, as a British intelligence officer in Cairo, he seemed attuned to the Arabs and they to him. When Arab tribesmen rose in revolt against their Turkish masters, Lawrence became their guerilla commander in league with Faisal (later King of Syria and Iraq) while also serving the Crown’s national interests in the field. But when his forces conquered Damascus, Lawrence returned to Palestine. “Never outstay a climax,” he said. Lawrence’s success, Mack wrote, was due not only to his formidable intellect and command of history, geography, customs, tribal structure, and language but also to a striking ability to influence superiors like Winston Churchill. “I have a fine taste in chiefs,” Lawrence said.
Mack spent considerable effort researching two shatteringly violent events in Lawrence’s life. The first was in November 1917, when he was captured by the brutal Turkish governor, Hajim Bey, and, by Lawrence’s account, subjected to an atrocious gang rape. He finally escaped, but, as he later wrote, “the citadel of my integrity had been irrevocably lost.” The assault haunted Lawrence for life, Mack wrote, and played a particular role in a second savage episode nearly seven months later. A column of Turkish and German troops was retreating through Tafas, raping women as they went. Lawrence’s outraged Arab rebels fell upon the enemy, who retaliated by slaughtering the villagers, bayonetting many women and children. Lawrence’s guerillas then counterattacked, cutting the Turkish column in three. One section got away badly mauled, but the two others were “wiped out completely,” Lawrence reported to headquarters. “We ordered ‘no prisoners’ and the men obeyed.” In Seven Pillars of Wisdom he quoted himself: “The best of you brings me the most Turkish dead.” Some two hundred Turkish prisoners, despite the order, escaped the massacre. In a ghastly epilogue, their Arab captors then came upon one of their own men on the field, bleeding to death from a thigh wound. “In the fashion of today’s battle,” Lawrence recounted, “he had been further tormented by bayonets hammered through his shoulder and other leg into the ground, pinning him out like a collected insect.” The dying man implicated the Turkish prisoners, who were then methodically murdered. “They said nothing in the moments before we opened fire,” Lawrence wrote. “At last their heap ceased moving.”
Mack found Lawrence deeply conflicted over the massacre and guilt ridden over his own loss of control. He was confronted in Arabia with an array of evils and “tried always to do the least harmful of them, and to do it so that the fewest small people were harmed by it.” But the effects were malign. Lawrence’s sexual humiliation at Deraa and the slaughter at Tafas, Mack wrote, somehow set off, suddenly and devastatingly, “forbidden or unacceptable sexual, aggressive and vengeful impulses.” What was until then in Lawrence a kind of rigorous self-abnegation and puritanism channeled itself exaggeratedly into a powerful need for self-abasement, a quest for penance through severe degradation. It found outlet in a compulsion for flagellation, a yearning to be whipped.
Mack now confronted a dilemma: How much, if any, of this sordid chapter was germane to Lawrence’s biography? Arnold Lawrence questioned whether Mack needed to go into his brother’s sexual history at all. Mack reasoned that a biographer was justified in delving into his subject’s intimate life if it was vitally related to his public life and required for an understanding of his character. “In my opinion all of these conditions pertain to some degree in Lawrence’s case,” Mack wrote.
In examining Lawrence’s psyche as a psychiatrist, Mack was struck by his close attachment to his mother, made closer by the discovery of the secret of his illegitimacy. As a youth he shied away from girls, and his one attempt at a romantic liaison, with Janet Laurie, was painfully rebuffed. Mack found no evidence that Lawrence as an adult ever engaged voluntarily in any kind of sexual relationship, with either sex, for intimacy or pleasure. It was not that he was asexual but rather that from childhood he repressed any feelings of desire and remained fearful and inhibited when it came to sex. At the same time, homosexuality troubled him less than heterosexual love—he had seen enough of it in the desert culture of Arabia—and his closest attachments were always with men.
About the time Lawrence died in 1935, Mack wrote, his brother Arnold received a letter from a young Scotsman named John Bruce, who revealed a prurient secret. Bruce had been hired as Lawrence’s “personal bodyguard” to administer regular floggings. Lawrence had invented an imaginary “Uncle Ted” who was inflicting punishments for an unspecified offense, and Bruce had been paid to carry them out, believing he was truly serving the uncle. The matter lay buried for more than thirty years until Bruce sold his story to the Sunday Times in 1968. “How Lawrence of Arabia Cracked Up” revealed that in 1923, while writing Seven Pillars of Wisdom, Lawrence suffered a series of nightmarish flashbacks to his rape six years before. To expunge them, he directed Bruce to reenact the assault. The fanciful tale of the punishing uncle came later. According to Lawrence’s elaborate ruse, he had stolen £150 from an uncle—the Old Man—who threatened to reveal Lawrence’s illegitimacy unless he paid back the money or submitted to a regimen of severe floggings, delivered in a precise number with a metal whip on his bare buttocks until he ejaculated. And what was the crime for which Lawrence was punishing himself so heinously? Mack concluded it was Lawrence’s sexual surrender to spare himself further torture at Deraa. Lawrence was convinced he had sacrificed the fundamental integrity of his very soul. More shamefully, he had derived a measure of pleasure from it, plaguing him with an insatiable desire to both put an end to it and keep reliving it.
But Mack remained careful to place Lawrence’s private torment in the context of a nobler legacy, an idealistic determination to give the Arabs the land and liberty they had won on the battlefield and transform the geography of the Middle East. Back home on leave in England, Lawrence had arranged a meeting between his ally Faisal and the Zionist leader Chaim Weizmann, aimed at fostering Arab-Jewish cooperation in Palestine, a goal of Lawrence’s that at the time seemed feasible. But the secret Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916 and the Paris Peace Conference crushed those hopes as the victorious powers proceeded to re-carve the Middle East into expedient new “zones of influence,” embittering Lawrence, whose promises to his warriors were thereby nullified. Syria and Lebanon went to France, Palestine and Trans-jordan to England. Mesopotamia was divided up between the two powers. “As for Irak,” Lawrence wrote in 1927, “well, some day they will be fit for self-government, and then they will not want a king: but whether 7 or 70 or 700 years hence, God knows.”
Lawrence’s death was an accident but was not entirely accidental, Mack wrote. He was pushing his Brough motorcycle to a daredevil speed near his beloved Clouds Hill in Dorset when he suddenly overtook two boys on bicycles. He swerved past an oncoming truck to avoid them, lost control, and flew over the handlebars, landing on his head. He died six days later. “There is no evidence of a direct suicidal intent in the accident,” Mack wrote. “But it is known that men who are living without hope or interest in their lives, or have suffered a recent severe loss, like Lawrence’s loss of his work in the RAF, are more prone to accidents.”
Mack was finishing his research on the book in the fall of 1973 when his father, Edward, and stepmother, Ruth, left New York for a weekend at their country home in Thetford, Vermont. That Friday in September, Ed drove off for groceries. On the way home he collided with a truck and was killed instantly. Once again violent death had widowed Ruth. John was plunged into existential grief. He had never stopped mourning his mother, lost to him in infancy. His beloved grandmother Della had died, along with her husband. Now his father had been struck down at age sixty-eight.
A few days later the shattered Macks—Ruth, John, Mary Lee, and other relatives—gathered numbly in the lounge of City College’s Finley Student Center in Harlem for an impromptu memorial service—“brief and simple, the way Eddie would have liked it,” a faculty colleague said.3 Mourners remembered him as a “sunshine spirit,” a tall, sweet soul with receding gray hair who, like his son, was an enthusiast, one to whom “today’s hero was the most heroic, today’s scenery was the most scenic, and today’s food the most delicious ever.” Academia esteemed him: Garrett Mattingly had dedicated his Pulitzer Prize-winning 1959 history The Armada to Edward and Ruth. Edward was also remembered as an author in his own right, having written books on the New York industrialist Peter Cooper, on Thomas Hughes, an earlier Cooper biographer and author of Tom Brown’s School Days, and on English public schools. His cubicle mate, the renowned Dickens biographer Edgar Johnson, recalled how Eddie would join the faculty lunch table and skip nimbly from “Tom Jones” to “The Alexandria Quartet,” “Candide,” Noel Coward, and the latest break in the spreading Watergate scandal. The austere and Lincolnesque college president, Buell G. Gallagher, recalled Eddie’s thankless service on the Discipline Committee during the turbulent 1960s, for which he had endured indignities, harassment, and “venal cruelty.” Dean Samuel Middlebrook said simply, “Si monumentum requieris, circumspice” (If you wish to see his monument, look about you).
In April 1977 Columbia University awarded A Prince of Our Disorder the Pulitzer Prize for biography, selecting it above ninety-three other submissions. “This book has such distinctive merits as to stand in a class by itself, with no serious competitors,” the three-member jury decided. The Harvard Gazette asked Mack if there was a single theme in the book that benefited from his psychoanalytic training. Yes, he said, “the whole question of heroism and Lawrence’s need to be heroic.” Later Sally found him sitting with his head in his hands. “You just won the Pulitzer,” she said. “Why are you depressed?” “Because now they’ll expect me to keep it up,” he said.
Mack was indeed haunted by Lawrence. “I have found it easy, though at times disturbing, to identify with his hopes, his actions and his pain,” he wrote. Lawrence enabled him “to see possibilities that were not dreamed of before.” He may also have identified with George Bernard Shaw’s pointed critique in a 1922 letter to Lawrence that compared him to the headstrong and doomed defender of Khartoum, the English adventurer Major General Charles George Gordon. “You are evidently a very dangerous man,” Shaw wrote. “Most men who are any good are.” The following year Shaw wrote Lawrence again: “Like all heroes, and, I must add, all idiots, you greatly exaggerate your power of moulding the universe to your personal convictions.”
3. Records of the City College memorial service, in Mack’s files.
The Soviet Union’s electrifying 1957 launch of the world’s first artificial satellite, Sputnik 1, followed a month later by a second earth-orbiting satellite with the world’s first space dog, Laika, turned the world’s eyes to the skies. Within days, Project Blue Book was swamped with some three hundred reports of UFO sightings, a cluster of them over the west Texas town of Levelland, where multiple witnesses reported large flying objects before their car engines and lights failed. A Blue Book investigator reported that “a severe electrical storm … stimulated the populace into a high level of excitement.” But an atmospheric physicist found no storm in the area that night.
The 1940s and ’50s had taken the phenomenon beyond sightings of craft to fantastical interactions with space emissaries as recounted by a colorful new group of enthusiasts.1 Dubbed “contactees,” they claimed regular communication with Space Brothers (and occasionally Sisters), gorgeous angels in space suits on celestial missions to aid beleaguered humanity. As far back as the mid-1700s, the Swedish scientist and mystic Emanuel Swedenborg had chronicled astral travels to the moon and other bodies where he encountered enlightened creatures. Such accounts proliferated in the nineteenth century and continued into the twentieth century, notably when a Polish-born occultist and science-fiction devotee, George Adamski, described a 1952 encounter with a UFO in the desert between California and Arizona. Out of it, he said, walked a being five and a half feet tall with long, blond hair and a high forehead who let Adamski know by gestures and telepathy that he was from Venus and was here to warn humanity against its warlike ways. Many similar accounts by Adamski and others emerged, all strikingly short of convincing evidence, leaving the contactees as often-derided fringe players in a long and perplexing mystery. But other episodes continued.
In Socorro, New Mexico, Officer Lonnie Zamora was chasing a speeder in April 1964 when, he later recounted, “I heard a roar and saw a flame” in the sky to the southwest. Suspecting an explosion at a nearby dynamite shack, he rushed toward the site to find what he described as a large, egglike object supported on slender legs. “I saw two people in white coveralls very close to the object,” Zamora told Blue Book. “One of these persons seemed to turn and look straight at my car and seemed startled—seemed to quickly jump somewhat. I don’t recall noting any particular shape or possibly any hats or headgear. These persons appeared normal in shape—but possibly they were small adults or small kids.” The policeman drove in for a closer look, but he lost sight of the object behind a hill, and when he saw it again the two beings had vanished. He got out of his car and walked closer, whereupon, he related, he heard several loud thumps like a door being slammed, and the object began to roar. “It started at a low frequency, but quickly the roar rose in frequency and in loudness.” Zamora saw flames and the bottom of the object started glowing blue and orange. Fearing an explosion, he took cover behind his cruiser as the craft hovered, now silently, before it flew off, first slowly and then with gathering speed. A sergeant who had joined Zamora also saw the craft depart, and together they checked the landing spot, finding charred grass and depressions in the soil.
Later Zamora gave his account to the FBI and to an army commander at the White Sands Missile Range. Blue Book’s astronomical consultant Allen Hynek also arrived to question Zamora and investigate the landing site. Long a debunker of UFO reports, Hynek was growing increasingly confused, beginning to doubt his own doubts. He left Zamora “more puzzled now than I arrived,” convinced that the police officer had encountered something. In the end, Blue Book called the case “unsolved,” meaning it could not be explained away, despite later reports of a possible student hoax. Writing in 1966 in Studies in Intelligence, the professional journal of the CIA, Hector Quintanilla, Blue Book’s last chief officer, called it “the best-documented case on record.”
1. Clark, UFO Encyclopedia.
In September 1965 John Grant Fuller, a fifty-one-year-old Saturday Review columnist, Broadway playwright, and radio and television producer who had worked on Candid Camera and The DuPont Show of the Week, read an Associated Press clipping from the New York Times on a rash of UFO sightings in Texas, Oklahoma, New Mexico, and Kansas2 The Times didn’t cover UFOs much, so that was interesting right there. From NICAP, Fuller learned of a fresh case in Exeter, New Hampshire, about an hour north of Boston, not far from Pease Air Force base in Portsmouth and home to one of the nation’s noblest prep schools, Phillips Exeter Academy, founded in 1781. According to a detailed report by a NICAP investigator and former Air Force security officer, Raymond E. Fowler, two police officers had gotten a close look at a huge, floating object—and there were lots of other witnesses. Fuller’s Saturday Review “Trade Winds” column in early October told the story of eighteen-year-old Norman Muscarello, who was hitching home to Exeter on Route 150 shortly after midnight on September 3 when, he told the Exeter police, a large airborne object, bright red with flashing lights, approached him with “a yawing, kitelike motion.” Officer Eugene Bertrand, out on patrol, had just stopped at a parked car on a highway overpass where two women were hysterical over a flying, red-flashing object they said had tailed them from a nearby town. Called in, Bertrand picked up Muscarello at the police station and drove him back to where he had seen the object.3
They parked and were walking into a field when Muscarello yelled, “There it is!” Bertrand saw it too, coming over the trees about two hundred feet away. It had five bright-red lights in a row that dimmed right to left and then left to right, “just like an advertising sign.” Bertrand’s first reaction was to reach for his revolver. A second officer, David Hunt, pulled up, and all three gaped at the big, silent thing floating and wobbling now just one hundred feet away. When it disappeared, they drove, shaken, back to the police station to put the whole story on the blotter. “We weren’t believing our eyes,” Bertrand recalled. “Your mind is telling you this can’t be true, and yet you’re seeing it.”
Fuller crisscrossed Exeter, tape-recording dozens of witnesses with convincing tales of having encountered strange craft often hovering near the power lines. What infuriated him, and many of the witnesses he spoke to, was the Air Force’s insistence that people were seeing reflections or mirages, airplanes, balloons, planets, or stars, as if the people of Exeter, many of them combat veterans, didn’t know what B-52s, the moon, or Venus looked like. And what of the jets from the air base that were forever streaking around after these things? Were they chasing Venus too?
While winding up his research in Exeter, Fuller had heard about a Portsmouth couple, Betty and Barney Hill, so traumatized by an encounter with a flying craft in the White Mountains four years before that they could barely discuss it.4 They were all the more reluctant because the husband was Black and the wife white. They were involved in civil-rights work and feared that any notoriety could erode their credibility in the struggle for racial justice. Fuller had already talked to more than sixty people with tales of treetop sightings, and he didn’t think he needed to interview any more, particularly if they were hesitant to come forward.
Several weeks later, though, Fuller was in Connecticut talking to Look editors and television producers about a possible documentary when calls started pouring in from Exeter. On October 25, 1965, the Boston Traveler broke a big scoop: “UFO Chiller—Did They Seize Couple?” It was the story of the Hills—how a UFO had followed and stopped their car in the mountains four years before, how they had been taken captive by the humanoid crew and subjected to pseudo-medical tests, and how they had been so terrorized they required hypnotherapy by a top Boston psychiatrist.
2. See the New York Times obituary of John Grant Fuller, November 9, 1990, and other press accounts.
3. Fuller, Incident at Exeter.
4. Fuller, The Interrupted Journey.
The disclosure had caught the Hills themselves largely by surprise. They had told their story to a UFO group in Quincy, Massachusetts, in November 1963—this was their first public recounting of the episode some two years prior to the Boston Traveler article—and a Traveler reporter, John Luttrell, had somehow recently gotten hold of a recording. Luttrell had badgered the Hills for an interview, but, getting nowhere, he wrote the story over their objections.
With the avalanche of publicity loosed by the newspaper’s series, the Hills decided to clear the air and present their story more completely at a public meeting in nearby Dover. Fuller made sure to show up. The Hills, he later wrote, reached out to him, asking if he would write their story as a sequel to Incident at Exeter, and he agreed. (A niece of Betty’s, Kathleen Marden, would give a slightly different account in Captured!, the 2007 book she and UFO researcher Stanton T. Friedman wrote about the Hill case, drawing on family accounts and other material beyond what Fuller had forty years earlier.5) Either way, Fuller’s 1966 book, The Interrupted Journey: Two Lost Hours “Aboard a Flying Saucer”, based heavily on transcripts of the Hills’ hypnotic regressions, became a sensation, all the more so because no one could say the Hills were copying anyone or anything—no one had ever encountered a story remotely like theirs before (although a Brazilian farmer, Antônio Vilas-Boas, had said he was forced into an egg-shaped craft to have sex with a humanoid female in 1957.) The far more elaborate Hills case would rate a top 5 out of 5 in both the quality of the witness accounts and subsequent investigation, according to a 1987 review of 270 reported abduction cases by Thomas E. Bullard, a noted folklorist and UFO researcher at Indiana University. And it would find its way to the big screen as The UFO Incident, a 1975 biopic with James Earl Jones and Estelle Parsons as Barney and Betty Hill.
The Hills had initially contacted the Air Force and then Donald Keyhoe of NICAP. The UFO group dispatched investigators, who found the couple’s conscious recall of the episode intriguing and suggested hypnosis as a way of accessing buried memories. A series of referrals led them to Dr. Benjamin Simon, a prominent Boston psychiatrist who had collaborated with director John Huston in Let There Be Light, a searing 1946 army documentary on the mental problems of returning troops that was long withheld by the Pentagon for its troubling content.
Simon saw the need for hypnosis. In cases like the Hills’, he wrote, “it can be the key to the locked room, the amnesiac period.” Under hypnosis, Simon said, experiences blocked by amnesia may be retrieved sooner than through other means. But there was no magic to it. Hypnosis delivered little that was not otherwise accessible. It was often seen as the royal road to truth. But it was truth as understood by the subject, which may or may not correspond with ultimate truth. What that was, Simon was to find, would prove maddeningly elusive.
5. Friedman and Marden, Captured!
On a Sunday in mid-September 1961, John Fuller recounted, Betty and Barney Hill and their dachshund, Delsey, set off from Portsmouth, New Hampshire, in Betty’s blue and white Chevy Bel Air for a quick holiday to Niagara Falls, Toronto, and Montreal. They were taking an impromptu honeymoon sixteen months after their wedding, which had marked a second marriage for both.1 Betty, curly-haired and vivacious, was a caseworker for the New Hampshire Department of Welfare. Barney, stolid and handsome, was a postal worker and World War II veteran.
On the night of September 19, with Hurricane Esther churning up the Atlantic coast toward Cape Cod, they cut short the trip and headed home. Just south of Lancaster, New Hampshire, on Route 3, Betty noticed a bright light, and then a second one that seemed to grow bigger and brighter, keeping up with them. They first thought it might be a satellite, or a Piper Cub. They stopped to listen for the sound of an engine but heard nothing. Peering through binoculars, Barney saw what looked like the fuselage of a plane with blinking lights, although he could see no wings. Betty saw a cigar-shaped object moving erratically and flashing red, amber, green, and blue lights. In the back seat, Delsey began whimpering and cowering. Betty, remembering that her sister in Kingston, New Hampshire—just seven miles outside Exeter—had seen a UFO in 1957, kept telling Barney to take another look. It had to be a plane, Barney kept saying. But he was getting spooked. The road was deserted.
Nearing midnight, they drove past Cannon Mountain and then the rock formation and state symbol long known (until its later collapse) as the Old Man of the Mountain. Home was only a few hours away.
The thing was getting closer, now maybe only a few hundred feet off the ground. It looked huge. The blinking lights had become a steady, white glow. Betty picked up the binoculars again and gasped. She could now make out a craft of enormous size with a double row of windows. She demanded Barney stop the car and look at it. He made excuses—it would disappear by then, he insisted. But after peering up through the windshield, he slammed on the brakes and stopped in the middle of the road, leaving the motor running. He was no longer worried about oncoming traffic.
It was hovering silently just above treetop level barely a city block away—a gigantic, glowing pancake.
Barney stepped out of the car for a better view. With that, the enormous thing swung toward him. Then, for some reason he later had trouble explaining, he found himself walking across a field toward it. He remembered seeing a row of gleaming white windows and two finlike extensions with red lights on the tips. He got within fifty feet as it hovered at treetop level, looming larger than a jetliner. Betty had seen Barney leave the car but was not immediately aware that he was walking across the field toward the object. She was worrying because they had left the car in the middle of the road. She was preparing to scoot behind the wheel to move to safety when she realized Barney had disappeared. She screamed into the darkness for him to come back.
As he approached the object, Barney put the binoculars to his eyes and halted, stricken. He could clearly see rows of windows, and behind them at least half a dozen humanoid figures in some kind of uniform were bracing themselves against the tilt of the craft. Then he watched them turn away to a control panel behind the windows—all but one of the figures, that is, who stayed at the window staring down at him. Barney remembered thinking the one who remained seemed like the leader, and he was mesmerized by its large, slanting eyes.
Overcome with terror, he thrust down the binoculars—snapping the strap and bruising his neck, he found later—and raced back screaming through the field to the car, where Betty had been shrieking for him to come back. The car was still sitting in the middle of the road, motor running. He threw it into gear and shot off, yelling that they were about to be captured. He told Betty to roll down the window and watch for the craft, but it had disappeared. She looked up and saw nothing. But, ominously, there were no stars either. Was the thing over the car, blocking out the sky? Then, creepily, they heard a series of electronic beeps from the direction of the trunk and felt the car vibrate. It was, they said later, like someone had dropped a tuning fork on the car.
All of that, Fuller recounted, they pretty much consciously remembered afterward. But from then on, their memory of the ride grew increasingly hazy. They drove on in a strange state, hearing the beeping again but somehow not talking much. Finally, as dawn was breaking the next day, they reached Portsmouth, Barney mentioning they had reached home “a little later than expected.” Both their windup watches had stopped working. Barney felt dirty, and for some reason he went into the bathroom to examine his lower abdomen. Then they stood together at the window staring skyward before tumbling into bed and falling into a nine-hour dreamless slumber.
1. Fuller, Interrupted Journey.
The next afternoon, Betty unaccountably packed away, in the deep recesses of her closet, the blue-and-purple patterned dress and the shoes she had worn on the trip. Barney was mystified by the badly scraped tops of his shoes. Betty, checking the car, found a dozen shiny, half-dollar-size circles on the trunk, where they thought the beeping and vibrations had come from. Wondering if they might be magnetic, she tested them with a compass; the needle spun wildly. That’s when they decided to call Pease Air Force Base. Betty also checked Donald Keyhoe’s book The Flying Saucer Conspiracy out of the library and wrote Keyhoe a synopsis of their encounter.
Ten days after they returned home, Fuller wrote, Betty was visited by a series of terrifyingly vivid dreams. On a lonely stretch of countryside, their car was halted at a roadblock. Strange men in uniforms bundled them aboard an unfamiliar craft, leading them down separate curving corridors to laboratory rooms for peculiar tests. The nightmares continued for five nights and then just as suddenly disappeared. But one day, driving in the countryside outside Portsmouth, they came across a car blocking the road. Betty was inexplicably overcome by terror. Both fell into a debilitating anxiety, setting off a series of counseling referrals that ended in the office of Dr. Benjamin Simon.
Under the psychiatrist’s careful ministrations, their amnesia gave way to astounding new details—although to shield them from additional trauma, Simon ended each hypnotic session with the instruction that when they awoke they would not remember what they had said. Barney recalled under hypnosis that the figure that had regarded him from the window looked like … a German Nazi! It wore a black, shiny uniform with a black scarf dangling over the left shoulder and had mesmerizing wraparound eyes. Reliving the experience, Barney wept and writhed in terror, a convincing affect that Simon took as genuine.
In her hypnotic state, according to Fuller, Betty now remembered that after Barney had seen the craft and raced back to the car and they had resumed their journey, he had suddenly turned off the highway onto a narrow road, where they were halted by a group of figures. The engine died. Barney tried frantically to restart it. Strange men dressed alike pulled them from the car, but Betty kept thinking she was asleep and couldn’t open her eyes. When she did manage to open them, she saw Barney behind her being sleepwalked away by two short men. “Barney! Wake up!” she cried, hearing the figure at her side asking whether Barney was his name.
Simon was surprised to hear that the intruder spoke good English. Yes, Betty confirmed matter-of-factly, but he had a foreign accent. The men brought them to a ramp that led into the craft. Betty balked and was told sharply to hurry up, that they didn’t have much time. She was taken to a room, while Barney was led off elsewhere. Betty objected, wanting him there with her, but she was told they only had enough equipment in each room to do one person at a time. She remembered that they sat her on a stool, pushed up the sleeve of her dress, and examined her arm with some kind of magnifier, taking a scraping of her skin and preserving it in plastic. They put her head in a brace and shined a light in her eyes, mouth, throat, and ears, and they pulled and cut a few strands of hair. They clipped a piece of fingernail and took off her shoes to examine her feet. Then they said they needed to check her nervous system. She was told to remove her dress, but before she could pull down the back zipper, the examiner yanked it—Betty thought she could hear the stitching rip. (Later she found a one-inch tear on the left side of the zipper and, on the right, two inches of ripped stitching.) She saw an array of needles, each attached to a wire that connected to a monitor, which were run along her head, neck, legs, and back. Then the examiner returned with a longer needle that alarmed her. He was going to put it into her navel, he explained. It was a pregnancy test. She felt excruciating pain, as from a knife thrust, and cried out. The examiner ran a hand over her eyes, and the pain vanished.
Simon asked if there were any sexual advances. No, Betty said.
In a subsequent session, Fuller recounted, Betty added yet a stranger detail, a remembered conversation with the one she called the leader. Relieved at the welcome release from her pain, she recalled telling him that no one would believe her amazing story, she needed some proof, and she asked if she could take something back with her.
Like what? he asked. She fixed on a large book with strange, vertical writing. Could she have that? He said yes. Exhilarated, Betty asked where they had come from. He in turn asked what she knew of the universe. Not much, she admitted. Then there was no point going into it, he said. But he showed her a large map, a star chart, with lines showing trade routes and expeditions. Betty could make little of it.
She became aware of a commotion outside, and the examiner and others came running in. Alarmed, she wondered if something had happened to Barney. The examiner made her open her mouth and started tugging at her teeth. Why did the other one’s teeth come out and hers didn’t? Betty laughed and explained that Barney wore dentures. Eventually, they said, Barney was ready. The two could leave.
Then, to her dismay, she remembered, the leader reached out and took the book back. Furious, Betty said he had promised. Yes, he agreed, but the others had objected.
It was the only proof she had, Betty insisted.
That was the point, the leader said. They didn’t want her to remember; they wanted her to forget.
She would not forget! Betty insisted. She would never forget!
It wouldn’t do her any good, the leader said. Barney wouldn’t remember, or if he did, he would remember it differently, and they would both get confused, so it would be better if they just forgot.
And then they were getting in the car and watching a big, orange ball disappear in the sky. They found themselves driving home to Portsmouth, not talking about it.
Those were Betty’s recollections under hypnosis, Fuller said. Simon called in Barney next, to compare accounts.
In his altered state, Barney remembered being stopped at the roadblock by an orange glow. Two men moved him out of the car, down the road, and onto a ramp and into a strange craft. He was told to keep his eyes closed, and he complied out of the terror of seeing their eyes. He stumbled over a bulkhead. He heard a voice reassuring him that he would not be harmed. He didn’t see Betty. He was put on an operating table, and he recalled that his feet stuck over the end. He felt his shoes being removed and hands examining his body, counting his vertebrae. A finger pushed at the base of his spine. To his discomfort, but without pain, he felt a narrow tube being inserted into his rectum and withdrawn. Then he was turned over on his back, his mouth was opened, and he could feel two fingers inside. Something scratched lightly against his left arm. He thought a cup was placed over his groin. (Barney later told authors Marden and Friedman that a sperm sample was taken, although he felt no sexual arousal.) Then he felt his shoes being put on and felt happy. He sensed it was over. He was at the car, and Betty was coming down the road, grinning. He thought she must have made a bathroom stop in the woods. She got into the car, and they resumed the drive home. Neither spoke.
Simon was deeply perplexed. How could two people describe, completely separately but so similarly and vividly, an unearthly encounter like nothing in human history? In one way, however, it resembled the trauma cases he had treated after the battle of Guadalcanal. The breakdowns came not during the fierce fighting with the Japanese but afterward, when the troops could afford the luxury of getting sick.
As Simon saw it, there were four possibilities: Betty and Barney were lying (unlikely); it was a dual hallucination (improbable); it was a dream or illusion, some kind of experience enhanced by fantasy (conceivable); or it actually happened (unthinkable).
Most likely, Simon theorized, Betty had dreamed these things and shared them with Barney, who adopted them as his memories as well. The psychiatrist tested this out on Barney under hypnosis. It wasn’t a dream, Barney insisted. The men in the road were real. He wished it were a hallucination.
Simon also asked Betty whether this all could have been in her dreams.
She knew when she dreamed, she said. This was different.
In the final stages of treatment, Simon, with their agreement, stopped implanting the hypnotic suggestion that, upon waking, they would forget what they had recalled. Now Barney said he remembered that the interior of the craft was filled with bluish fluorescent light that cast no shadows. Befitting a circular craft, the rooms were pie-slice-shaped, with the point cut off or blunted. The ceiling, floor, and walls were smooth and barren, no ornaments and no furniture aside from the table he was lying on. The men had large craniums, their heads tapering to a pointed chin. Their eyes wrapped around the side of their heads and seemed to follow him wherever he was. Their mouths were straight lines, without lips, and parted slightly to issue what sounded like murmurings. Their skin looked grayish and metallic. They had no hair or noses, just two nostril slits. They communicated their thoughts directly into his mind.
Betty now remembered that the beeping had sent them into a kind of hypnotic trance. She recalled struggling to awaken as she was being led to the craft and noticing a movable rim on the outside, like a gyroscope. She remembered a curved corridor with doors to different rooms and a sense that the craft was metallic. She thought, too, that the leader and the examiner were different from the crew members, maybe taller, but she was afraid to look closely. All their bodies seemed out of proportion, with oversize chests. Maybe they didn’t speak English, Betty now realized, and she had just heard the words in English in her head, because when they spoke to each other they were not understandable.
Their eyes were by far their most terrifying feature, Betty said. Simon had only to say the word to send Betty into hysterics. They reminded her, she said, of a wall gecko’s giant bulbous orbs and vertical-slit pupils. When they walked outside it was with a rolling gait, as if they were unsure of their balance, Betty noticed. They were strong, able to carry Barney without difficulty. Betty saw one of the crew members outside gulping air like a fish, as if the atmosphere was difficult for them to breathe.
Barney, on the medical table, saw inside the mouth of the examiner. There were no teeth, but there was a membrane, or possibly small tongue, which fluttered when they spoke in their murmuring language. The air in the craft was noticeably cool, Betty and Barney both told Allen Hynek of Project Blue Book when he questioned them under hypnosis at a special session at Simon’s home. Hynek, originally a skeptic, came away deeply impressed.
As Fuller recounted, in a final hypnotic session in 1966, two years after the treatment ended, Simon asked Barney flatly: Had he been abducted?
He felt he had been abducted, Barney hedged.
Not “feel,” the psychiatrist pressed. Was he abducted?
Yes, Barney said. He only said “felt” because he still didn’t want to accept the fact.
What if, Simon persisted, he had just absorbed Betty’s dreams? He would like that, Barney said. But it wasn’t true. He broke into anguished sobs. “I didn’t like them putting their hands on me! I don’t like them touching me!”
Simon was left with one conclusion: the whole confounding episode “could not be settled in an absolute sense.”
Fuller too ended up with more questions than answers, remembering Tennyson: “Maybe the wildest dreams are but the needful preludes of the truth.”
The Hills’ saga took one more strange turn. Betty had made a drawing of the star map she remembered the leader showing her in the ship. In 1968 Marjorie Fish, an Ohio teacher and amateur astronomer who had read Fuller’s book, correlated the pattern to the binary star system Zeta 1 and Zeta 2 Reticuli in the Reticulum constellation, which is thirty-nine light years from earth. Astronomy magazine took the hypothesis seriously enough to explore it in 1974, setting off a bitter debate on its plausibility.
Barney died in 1969, Betty in 2004, after ignominious final years of erratic claims that she could summon UFOs at will. In 2007 her niece Kathleen Marden gave the University of New Hampshire in Dover all their papers and artifacts—thirteen boxes containing 111 file folders, 313 envelopes of photos, 26 reels of family films, 10 audiotapes—including the hypnosis sessions—and Betty’s torn blue dress. They remain open for study by anyone. Marden often shows up summers at Anne Cuvelier’s Sanford-Covell Villa Marina in Newport for the annual experiencer mingle, amid the keenly felt absence of Budd Hopkins and John Mack.
Mack’s literary laurels gave him a special cachet at Harvard, his name to be forever paired with “Pulitzer Prize-winning.” In the early stages of his Lawrence research, Mack had queried a Harvard history colleague and former Beirut foreign-service officer, L. Carl Brown, about the politics of the tormented region.1 Brown later moved to Princeton and invited Mack to talk about Lawrence there at a 1973 conference on the psychology of the Middle East. That was soon followed by a series of other Princeton forums, including one that November, a month after the surprise Arab attack set off the short but fratricidal Yom Kippur War. While struggling to wrestle his unruly Lawrence material into a narrative, Mack delivered a paper at a conference on psychological aspects of conflict in the Middle East, a program cosponsored by the privately funded Institute for Psychiatry and Foreign Affairs, a Washington-based organization that brought together diplomats, political leaders, and military officials to discuss ways to bridge their differences. Its president was William D. Davidson, a colleague of Mack’s at Harvard Medical School who, like Mack, had served in the Air Force. Arab presenters, abrim with nationalist pride from the strike against Israel, had been invited too, promising insights into the war from the other side. Before the conference, Davidson introduced Mack to a fellow panelist, Dr. Rita Rogers, a Romanian-born child psychiatrist who had survived Nazi deportation and Communist repression before fleeing to the West, while her family resettled in Israel. A short, lively woman four years older than Mack with glossy, black hair and penetrating, dark eyes, she was there to present a paper on Israel’s founding father, David Ben-Gurion. They quickly bonded, beginning what would become a fruitful literary collaboration on her traumatic history.
Four years later, in November, 1977, seven months after Mack won the Pulitzer, Egypt’s President Anwar Sadat stunned the world by telling Walter Cronkite of CBS that he was ready to travel to Jerusalem and address the Knesset to jump-start peace talks with the Israelis. Cronkite promptly called Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin, who responded, “Any time, any day he’s prepared to come, I will receive him cordially at the airport.” On the evening of November 20, with the Egyptian flag flying over Ben Gurion Airport, Sadat stepped off the plane to a twenty-one-gun salute and an emotional welcome by an Israeli Army officer, who said, “Mr. President, the guard of honor of the Israeli Defense Forces is ready for your inspection.”
In early January 1978, in the euphoric aftermath of Sadat’s visit, William Davidson, who had invited Mack to the Princeton conference and in the meantime had made two trips to Egypt, joined with Mack, Rita Rogers, and two other psychiatrists on a return trip to Cairo to see for themselves how Egyptians were greeting the historic breakthrough.2 One thing Sadat had said resonated particularly strongly with Mack: 70 percent of the Middle East conflict was psychological.
Accordingly, Davidson and Joseph V. Montville, a career State Department officer who had served in the Middle East, were exploring innovative psychological approaches to conflict resolution through unofficial lines of communication they called “Track II” diplomacy (the official channels were “Track I”).3 Mack could help them devise a body of analytic principles as a basis for resolving ethnonational conflicts. Sally would fly separately and join him there later.
Mack’s night flight from Boston began inauspiciously with an hour-long delay for an extra security check that caused him to miss his connecting flight in Paris. He got on another plane and was soon winging over the Egyptian coast at El Alamein, which gave him a shiver as he recalled the crucial World War II battle in late 1942 over a hellish field of five hundred thousand German mines. Churchill had called it the “turning of ‘the Hinge of Fate’”: “Before Alamein we never had a victory. After Alamein we never had a defeat.” Upon landing, Mack discovered that TWA had lost his luggage. In the taxi to the Sheraton, through Cairo’s tangled traffic and thick smog from factory smokestacks and blown sand, the driver beamed at hearing that Mack was an American. “America very good,” he said. “French, English, German no good. Soviet very bad.”
After Sally arrived they toured the cavernous Egyptian Museum enshrining Pharaonic treasures in empty galleries, so different from the mobbed Tutankhamen blockbusters back home. They squeezed in a quick flight to Luxor, where Mack imagined his Hebrew forebears laboring on colossal temples for their Egyptian slave masters. At a final gathering, grievances were freely shared. One Egyptian insisted that Uganda and Argentina had been offered to the Jews, but no, they had to settle in Palestine.
1. Bassuk, The Doctor-Activist.
2. After returning from his trip, Mack typed out, on February 6, 1978, a five-page memo on his peace mission: “The Arab-Israeli Conflict: A Psychiatrist’s View from Egypt.” He followed this with a twenty-nine-page “Confidential” draft version on February 14, called “Psychology and International Relations in the Field: A Psychiatrist’s Diary of two Weeks in Cairo.” He also described his trip in a later interview with his friend Andrew Beath, a California philanthropist and activist who established Earthways Foundation in 1985.
3. Bassuk, The Doctor-Activist.
In April 1980, a year and a half after Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin, prodded by President Jimmy Carter, signed their historic agreement at Camp David, Mack was invited back to the Middle East to lecture on Lawrence and consult on improving the hospital psychiatry department at the American University of Beirut.4 In addition, Mack’s Palestinian colleague at Harvard, Walid Khalidi, had arranged for a special honor.
Mack was picked up at night by Shafik al-Hout, the director of the PLO office in Beirut. Three weeks after Black September’s murder of the eleven Israeli Olympians in Munich in 1972, al-Hout had told a cheering throng in Beirut, “We will continue what we began in Munich.” Now, armed escorts hustled Mack into a car and sped him through checkpoints manned by glowering gunmen to Hout’s apartment, where they waited. Near midnight a short, paunchy man with a trademark stubble and black-and-white keffiyeh slipped in—Yasir Arafat. Mack knew he would be meeting the “Chairman” and had come prepared with a copy of the Lawrence biography to present him.
Mack and Arafat discussed prospects for peace, Arafat envisioning an eventual confederation of Arabs and Jews, beginning with a Palestinian entity existing alongside Israel and culminating in a democratic secular state incorporating Israel, a pipedream Mack knew the Israelis ridiculed. Arafat depicted it as a compromise—Iraq and Libya were demanding the Jews be driven out of Palestine altogether. The first step, Arafat insisted, was a Palestinian state alongside Israel. How could a weak new state with no oil, no resources, and no ready army threaten the mighty Israelis? The real problem, he said, was that the Israelis felt inherently superior to the Arabs. Palestinians were becoming the dislocated Jews of the world, Arafat said. But Hout said ominously that failure to solve the Arab-Israeli conflict would have dangerous repercussions for world Jewry.
Arafat wanted Mack to tell Jewish leaders at home that the PLO sought only a Palestinian homeland on the West Bank and Gaza and not the whole of Israel. Muslims and Christians had historically been conquerors, Arafat said, but it was against the values of the Jewish religion for Jews to be the same. Mack knew that the Old Testament was replete with Israelite conquests and figured this might be a good time to end the evening.
As they left, Hout took Mack aside. He was afraid the chairman had been too frank, a common tendency of his. Hout said Mack should take care in deciding how to handle what he had been entrusted with. It carried an undercurrent of menace. But Arafat and Hout stressed that if Mack ever heard anything about the PLO that he needed to check, he should reach out to them directly. Mack could be put in touch with Arafat anytime.
The next afternoon, as Mack delivered another Lawrence lecture, the Beirut hall was rocked by a tremendous explosion outside. Having learned something from his visit, he muttered “Malesh” (doesn’t matter) and resumed his talk.
4. Mack typed out a detailed diary of his trip from April 20, 1980, through April 27, filling sixty-three pages. On May 7, 1980, he sent New York Times editor Mitchel Levitas a thirteen-page Q&A with Arafat, which appears not to have run, probably because Times correspondent Anthony Lewis happened also to be in Beirut interviewing Arafat. Lewis’s piece ran in the paper’s foreign news pages on May 8, 1980.
Along with his political awakening, Mack was undergoing a spiritual transformation that grew out of a spiraling crisis in his family life.
With his extensive travels, Mack was often “missing in action,” Danny remembered, although when he was around he tried to make up for it by being passionately present.1 Once after a ballgame at Fenway Park to see his beloved Red Sox, he took Danny out for hot dogs. To Danny they were just ballpark franks, but his father gushed, “These are exceptional hot dogs! Really, tremendous!” Boston could be way ahead, but they had only to give up a single run for Mack to moan, “Oh, God, here’s where they’re going to lose it!” Kenny remembered going to see Saturday Night Fever with his dad. As if a parental escort wasn’t humiliating enough for a teenager, Mack, overcome at John Travolta’s heartbreaking struggles, kept up a loud running commentary and sometimes wept. Danny was surprised one day while playing basketball with his father when Mack blurted, “My life is just a series of obligations.”
It had hardly escaped Sally that her husband was experiencing an alienating restlessness.2 In truth, she had experienced his disengagement as early as the birth of their boys, as Mack acknowledged in his journal: “She always said you’re away from me. You pull away into work, whatever. Not really there with me.” It occurred to Mack that Sally felt he might be jealous over her maternal bond with their sons, but he dismissed that as ridiculous. In company with their friends and colleagues, Mack reveled in being the life of the party. Companions found themselves disconcerted by his gravitational attraction, a human black hole impossible to resist. At times like that Sally couldn’t help feeling he was so far ahead of her intellectually, she could never keep up. At home, however, it was clear to her he felt something was missing. He was no good at keeping secrets, so she knew years ago he had been taken with a psychiatric nurse at work. Sally had suffered silently until, totally fed up one day, she spirited her three young boys off for a quick fatherless vacation by themselves. Lately she had seen some unfamiliar charges on the credit card bill and some suspicious calls on the phone bill—clearly there was yet another woman. When she confronted him, he didn’t deny it. Strangely, perhaps because of his essential openness, Sally did not distrust him. She guessed he was acting out some search for the ineffable, perhaps his lost mother. “I do feel I’m selfish,” Mack admitted to his therapist Gurucharan Singh Khalsa. “The whole thing is selfish. I can’t seem to escape the biology of it.” He was simply attracted to other women.
Meanwhile, Danny was a terror. He had resented Ken when he came along, and he later tormented their baby brother, Tony, whom Danny liked to knock down until he cried. Danny eventually outgrew bullying Tony, but adolescence brought new anxieties. Mack thought Danny might be a candidate for the Austen Riggs Center in the picturesque Berkshires village of Stockbridge, Massachusetts. Founded in 1919 by Dr. Austen Fox Riggs as the Stockbridge Institute for the Study and Treatment of Psychoneuroses, it specialized in individual psychotherapy for adults with complex psychiatric problems and had boasted Mack’s idol Erik H. Erikson as a staff psychologist from 1951 to 1960. But Danny refused institutionalization, setting off a family fight. For all his training, Mack felt stymied by his own independent-minded son.
For high school, the family enrolled Danny in the elite Cambridge School of Weston outside Boston. Linked to Radcliffe College, the school took just a few hundred students and educated them in modules of individually tailored study, rather like Mack’s old Lincoln School. Danny had a creative writing teacher, Holly Hickler, who assigned her students to write candidly about themselves. So when Mack was planning a lecture on teen behavior and asked his sophomore son if he knew a teacher who had access to student writing, Danny naturally thought of Hickler. She showed Mack some compositions and then a special trove—the journals, letters, poetry, and classwork of an exceptionally gifted student, Vivienne Loomis, a diarist in the mold of Anne Frank, except that Vivienne’s imprisoning walls were internal. At age fourteen she had hanged herself at home, leaving behind her secret diary, which contained haunting poems like “Dream of Reality” with these lines:
What is it?
The stillness of wisdom?
The patience of doom?
That drives you to mount
That coal-black stallion?
Struggling with their grief, Vivienne’s parents, David and Paulette, had asked for Hickler’s help in compiling their daughter’s writings as a memorial and a warning. How could the school’s admissions office have read on her application essay the declaration, “I am drawn to death,” and let it go without further inquiry? How could Vivienne’s sister, her best friend, and her favorite teacher all have known of her self-destructive threats and yet kept silent out of respect for her privacy? Thanks to Danny, Mack and Hickler were soon collaborating on a book that would combine the girl’s autobiographical writings with Mack’s clinical analysis in an attempt to illuminate a growing epidemic of suicide that was killing some two thousand young people a year—a fatality rate that was second only to accidents as a deadly scourge of older adolescents. Vivienne: The Life and Suicide of an Adolescent Girl was published by Little, Brown in 1981 to a respectful review in the New York Times by a Harvard friend and colleague of Mack’s, Robert Coles. He called it “a plainly written, clearheaded, wise book” and wrote that Mack’s analysis was “instructively modest and tentative,” adding, “He is unwilling to let the suicide’s family, with its understandable feelings of guilt, transform its outpourings, inevitably confessional, into a bill of indictment.”
Mack was simultaneously at work on another book, a biography of Rita Rogers, the Romanian-born antinuclear activist he had met at Princeton. Mack had been gripped by her Holocaust survival story, and he had grown determined to extract from its grim narrative inspirational wisdom on how humans surmount devastating trauma. In the summer of 1981, Rita, Mack, and Mack’s nineteen-year-old middle son, Kenny, traveled to her birthplace in the Romanian province of Bukovina for the research. Inviting Kenny along had been an inspired move. He had been a struggling teen, overshadowed by his father’s triumphs. But the Romania trip transformed Kenny, awakening him to something deeper in life. The book, The Alchemy of Survival: One Woman’s Journey, would be published in 1988.
1. Author’s multiple interviews with Danny Mack, principally in February 2016.
2. Author’s interview with Sally, 2016.
Danny, meanwhile, had been gradually discovering his own spiritual side, one that would spur his father’s. In 1975 he had been in bed, fiddling with the radio he had connected to a pillow speaker, when he tuned into the Larry Glick show, a Boston-area institution known for its off-beat programming. Glick’s guest that night was Dr. Benjamin Simon, the psychiatrist who had treated Betty and Barney Hill after their terrifying 1961 encounter in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. Danny felt chills, suddenly remembering an old LIFE magazine that had contained images of alien spacecraft. It reinforced his growing interest in the supernatural, along with Eastern philosophy, transpersonal psychology, and alternate states of consciousness.
In the summer of 1977, he signed up with the Interlocken travel camps of New Hampshire and found himself competing in multiple games of backgammon against one of his fellow campers. She seemed to be getting an inordinate number of doubles. Danny realized that she was concentrating unusually hard. He concentrated too and realized he could counter her with his own psychic abilities. She exclaimed, “You’re blocking me!” The girl then told him about Silva Mind Control, a popular training program where she had learned her skills of visualization and manifestation. Danny signed up for that course in 1978, shortly after graduating high school, and participated in multiple programs and a weekly support group. He also became more actively involved in dance and music; he had been playing the piano since age seven and had discovered dance in junior high school. He also now studied various body/mind techniques, taking multiple classes in the Boston and Cambridge area. Through participants in Silva Mind Control, he also learned about the Relationships workshop, a derivative of something called Erhard Seminars Training.
Danny had come across EST, as it became known, when the record-breaking blizzard of 1978 buried the Cambridge School, canceling classes. Bored, he had leafed through his roommate’s January 1977 Playboy, lingering not over the lubricious centerfold but over a Dan Greenberg article, “You Are What You Est,” which was about a West Coast motivational teacher, John Paul Rosenberg, who had reinvented himself as a mashup of physicist Werner Heisenberg and German Chancellor Ludwig Erhard—Werner Erhard. He preached breakthroughs in self-mastery through rigorous discipline and mind control. Be. Do. Have. Danny was hooked.
As he approached his high school graduation in 1978, he still didn’t know his next move. His father’s promptings of Harvard or Yale didn’t interest him. Instead, he took a year off and made his way to San Francisco. For the academic year of 1979, he enrolled at the University of California at Berkeley.
Meanwhile, he also signed up for a Relationships workshop at a hotel in Brookline. For three and a half days, he and the hundred other participants were led to personal, emotional, and psychological transformation using techniques derived largely from Gestalt Therapy. Participants were “on the hot seat” until they had a breakthrough. One man, in a spontaneous emotional release, ejected his dentures, terrifying fellow workshoppers. Danny responded with a relish he never felt for his psychotherapy. As he felt his psyche opening up, he could visualize the constricted nature of his parents’ relationship. He came home announcing to his startled father and mother, “I love you!”
When a State Department diplomat working with Werner Erhard to bring EST to Israel asked Mack in 1980 if he wanted to meet Erhard in San Francisco, Mack asked Danny if he should go. “Only if I can be invited too,” Danny said. They joined up for the visit.
Twenty-year-old Danny was goggle-eyed at the Erhard mystique, the free-flowing wine in oversize glasses, the cigars. Mack was similarly entranced—“The most extraordinary person I’ve ever met!” he gushed to Danny. Erhard, in turn, was taken with Danny. “You opened your father’s vistas,” he said, offering father and son EST training at no cost. For Christmas break in 1980, Danny came home and enrolled in a workshop at a Boston hotel. Through the wall he could hear Beatles tunes from a memorial to John Lennon, who had been killed in New York earlier that month.
After two years at Berkeley, Danny spent the summer of 1981 in Japan, including a week at a Zen monastery in Kyoto. When he returned home, he vowed he would fix his family as a way of fixing himself. He would be their psychiatrist. But first he redesigned his room to conform to his new minimal Zen sensibilities. He moved out the desk and the rug. Erhard taught that your closet is your unconscious, so Danny emptied his closet and prepared to tear out the shelves until Mack put his foot down. No demolition. In the empty room Danny treated his parents to a tea ceremony. But by 1982 Danny thought it was time to leave again. He moved to Amherst, and the following year he enrolled in Hampshire College, a barely decade-old experiment in alternative higher education affiliated with Amherst, Smith, Mount Holyoke, and the University of Massachusetts.
With his trips to the Middle East, Mack had grown increasingly alarmed over the risk of world conflicts and nuclear proliferation. Moscow and Washington had signed a Partial Test Ban Treaty in 1963 and a Strategic Arms Limitation Talks Agreement in 1972, but each superpower retained enough atomic firepower to obliterate the other many times over. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979 and the election of Ronald Reagan the following November ratcheted up the tensions.
Mack’s friend Bob Lifton had long been active in the antinuclear movement, a commitment growing out of his Air Force service in Japan, where he encountered the horrific aftereffects of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, whose total estimated casualties, dead and injured, exceeded two hundred thousand. After returning to Japan to research a book on the survivors, Death in Life, Lifton grew active in a group called Physicians for Social Responsibility, founded in 1961 by antinuclear activists around Dr. Bernard Lown, a developer of the DC defibrillator that could shock the heart out of life-threatening arrhythmia, and, later, a recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize. Mack, too, joined the group and was drawn into its ministry of peace and protest.1
The doctors group, dormant for a time, had been reactivated in the late 1970s, thanks to a kinetic Australian pediatrician, Dr. Helen Caldicott, who became an antinuclear activist after reading On the Beach, Nevil Shute’s 1957 doomsday novel about the aftermath of a global nuclear holocaust. Caldicott had protested French nuclear tests in the Pacific before becoming a visiting instructor at Harvard Medical School and Children’s Hospital Medical Center in Boston. She realized the doctor’s group had an influential identity and pressed the New England Journal of Medicine to accept an ad by twenty-five eminent physicians warning of the dangers of a nuclear-plant catastrophe. By happenstance, it ran on March 29, 1979, a day after the reactor meltdown at Three Mile Island in the Susquehanna River south of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania—America’s worst nuclear accident. Physicians for Social Responsibility suddenly attracted five hundred new members.2 Enrollment would soar to forty thousand by the mid-1980s, just before the Chernobyl disaster.
Mack became an eager conscript, “more activist than the movement,” Lifton remembered.3 Once again, Danny was a catalyst. In Berkeley he had been taking part in demonstrations against the Diablo Canyon nuclear plant. Mack viewed nuclear weapons as a far greater threat, but Danny said nuclear plants were the place to start.
In November 1980, the physicians group and the Council for a Liveable World, an organization founded by the Hungarian nuclear physicist Leo Szilard, cosponsored a two-day symposium in San Francisco on what a Harvard public-health dean called “the last epidemic”—nuclear holocaust—for there would be no others. A thousand people attended. Mack was the only psychiatrist on the panel, tasked with examining the psychological burden of living with imminent annihilation. From Erik Erikson, he had become familiar with the concept of “pseudospeciation,” the delusion that different groups of people were different species, making it easier to kill them. Nations, like individuals, Mack said, were historically locked in a self/other, good/evil, me/you duality, with differences settled by political negotiation or war. With twenty thousand nuclear warheads pointed at each other, the United States and the Soviet Union were poised for mutual suicide. Yet military strategists still talked of “fighting” and “winning” a nuclear war, a fully human reaction to the terror and helplessness of the dilemma. There was one promising development, Mack concluded. Soviet and American doctors had recently pledged to work together to avert a nuclear catastrophe. “It is not too late to begin,” he said.
1. Lown, Prescription for Survival. See also interviews with Lown and Robert Lifton, which are referenced throughout the chapter.
2. Caldicott, A Desperate Passion.
3. Author’s interview with Lifton, February 1, 2016.
In the summer of 1979, Bernard Lown had invited Caldicott and a handful of other colleagues to his home in Newton outside Boston to discuss founding a new antinuclear group that would include Soviet physicians. It took two years to organize, but Lown eventually recruited Eugene Chazov, a top Kremlin partner and the cardiologist to the Politburo, including Leonid Brezhnev, the Supreme Soviet Chairman. At last the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War held its opening congress in March 1981 with doctors from eleven nations. High-level players included Moscow’s leading expert on America, Georgi Arbatov, and, on the American side, the journalist I. F. Stone and the astronomer and cosmologist Carl Sagan and his wife, Ann Druyan. The already-suspicious Soviet delegation and Lown himself were dismayed to discover that the Virginia venue, Airlie House, had been used as a conference center by the CIA. Was the congress bugged? “Of course,” Lown said decades later, shrugging it off as predictable and inconsequential.
Mack, who had made his own trip with Sally to the Soviet Union in October 1979 for a landmark psychoanalysis conference in Georgia, had thrown himself into Lown’s antinuclear congress, even volunteering as Lown’s chauffeur. It was Mack who swayed the congress on a fateful issue. The Americans had split bitterly over whether to function as a research organization or an activist group, with Jonas Salk and Caldicott opposing activism. The doctors, they argued, should steer clear of Cold War politics. Mack argued for full engagement. “It was one of the most brilliant, emotional speeches I ever heard,” Lown recalled. Mack said that an actual nuclear “exchange”—an anodyne euphemism that he deplored—would destroy human life beyond all hope of medical response. So the only sane approach was prevention. The group voted for activism. It incensed one powerful critic, Arnold S. Relman, editor of the New England Journal of Medicine, who decried the growing profile of the medical profession in raising concern over nuclear war. It was fine for physicians to opine about issues of medical care and public health, Relman argued in a September 1982 editorial, but “physicians have no obligation to speak out, as physicians on public issues on which they have no special expertise.”
“But what if we believe such policies endanger the health, well-being, and lives of all peoples?” Mack countered later in a hospital lecture. “Is it not our responsibility as physicians and citizens to be sure our voices are heard? How else are we to regain control of our destinies and reverse the present course?” It wouldn’t be the last time he and Relman would clash.
In the end, Lown and Chazov adroitly navigated the harsh rivalries and misunderstandings to unite the American and Soviet physicians in a consensus against the nuclear-arms race, moving the hands of the ticking atomic clock back a few precious minutes. The congress concluded with an appeal to President Reagan, Chairman Brezhnev, and fellow doctors of the world to act on the dire warnings of nuclear catastrophe. Many other world congresses would follow, earning International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War the 1985 Nobel Peace Prize.
In years to come Lown would wonder about Mack’s journey from anti-nuclear activism through spiritual epiphanies to alien abduction and all anomalous experience. “It made no sense,” he thought at first. But then he reflected, “John’s spirit roamed so wide, it was not totally surprising.” His causes, Lown thought, could be seen as a succession of passionate enthusiasms.
In March of 1983 Mack organized an “Explanatory Meeting on the Nuclear Deadlock” at the Rockefeller estate in Westchester. It drew top academicians and opinion-makers including the medical philosopher-poet Lewis Thomas, the pollster Daniel Yankelovich, publisher Mortimer Zuckerman, and Werner Erhard. Later that year Mack and Lifton and other colleagues, including Roberta Snow, a Brookline teacher and principal who had founded Educators for Social Responsibility, established the Center for Psychological Studies in the Nuclear Age at Harvard Medical School. It would become the Center for Psychology and Social Change and would give rise to the Program for Extraordinary Experience Research (PEER), which would eventually evolve into the John E. Mack Institute—one of Mack’s enduring legacies, enshrining his abduction research.
Mack also took time that year to anchor a scholarly anthology, The Development and Sustenance of Self-Esteem in Childhood. His overview noted that high self-regard, a contemporary virtue, had been condemned by early Christians. The medieval church considered pride, which it defined as “a high or overweening opinion of one’s own qualities, attainments of estate; inordinate self-esteem,” as the worst of all sins, fostering delusions of godliness. Mack’s analysis traced self-esteem to infancy, when a child requires assurance he will not be abandoned. To be left or abandoned, Mack wrote, “conveys to the child that he is powerless.” The consequences were often hostility toward the parent and a redirection of the aggression inward, toward the child.
Continuing to work for disarmament, in early May 1986 Mack arranged through scientists at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, which oversees the safety and reliability of the nation’s nuclear deterrent, to meet the gruff, seventy-eight-year-old Hungarian-born physicist Edward Teller, widely known as the father of the H-bomb and an archfoe of the antinuclear movement.4 Their encounter at the Cosmos Club in Washington quickly deteriorated. “If you are not in the pay of the Kremlin you’re even more of a fool,” Teller told Mack. He triumphantly described his “Star Wars” plan to send nuclear weapons into space to destroy incoming missiles with high energy particles. Mack asked Teller if he really thought it could work. “We might be able to save Israel,” said Teller, who had fled Nazi Germany before the Holocaust. Mack beat a hasty retreat, believing Teller a complete lunatic.
Later that month the whole Mack family flew to Nevada for a protest at the nuclear test site in Mercury, northwest of Las Vegas.5 With them was Mack’s whistleblowing friend Daniel Ellsberg, a former RAND Corporation analyst who had worked with Defense Secretary Robert McNamara in the Kennedy Administration on operational plans for nuclear war before serving two years in the US Embassy in Saigon evaluating pacification efforts in the Vietnam War during the Johnson Presidency. After returning to RAND, he had worked on a classified study of the disastrous American decision-making in Vietnam. Distraught that it was being repressed, he had spent all his savings to secretly photocopy the seven thousand pages known as the Pentagon Papers and leaked them to the New York Times and later the Washington Post—resulting, Ellsberg liked to say, in the biggest federal manhunt since the kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby. His subsequent trial on federal espionage, theft, and conspiracy charges carrying up to 115 years in prison was thrown out after the Nixon Administration admitted it had illegally wiretapped Ellsberg and broken into the office of his psychiatrist, factors in the later conviction of White House aides and Nixon’s pending impeachment and resignation.
Ellsberg and Mack had met at an Erik Erikson peace gathering at Robert Lifton’s Wellfleet house several years before, where they had bonded over T. E. Lawrence.6 Growing up, Ellsberg had read Seven Pillars of Wisdom and later recognized Lawrencian dreams of nation-building in the American intelligence operatives he had worked with in South Vietnam, if not also at times in himself. Ellsberg was further drawn to Mack as a psychiatrist who was good at listening after he confided his enduring sorrow over a childhood family tragedy: Ellsberg’s mother and sister had been killed in a car crash when his father fell asleep at the wheel.
Along with Ellsberg, the Macks’ contingent included Carl Sagan and his wife, Ann Druyan; Mack’s former Harvard roommate, Lester Grinspoon; and Margaret Brenman-Gibson, an antiwar activist who had become one of the first women full professors at Harvard and who had pioneered hypnosis to treat traumatized World War II combat veterans. Brenman-Gibson was also a particular role model to Sally. A veteran of the Menninger Clinic, where she worked with Erikson, Brenman-Gibson later joined the eminent developmental psychologist as a psychotherapist at the Austen Riggs Center in Stockbridge, treating Mary Rockwell, wife of the artist Norman Rockwell, and later the artist as well, who was to make Brenman-Gibson’s portrait. Now, together in Nevada, protesting nuclear weapons, they rallied in the 115-degree heat with some six hundred other demonstrators. They listened to speeches, sang songs, and practiced techniques of civil disobedience. After a prayer service for world peace led by a Franciscan priest, a minister, and local Shoshone Indians, they slow-marched to the base perimeter, holding hands and singing “America the Beautiful” and “We Shall Overcome.” The sheriff stopped them at the boundary line. To cross it would mean arrest. The Macks and some 140 other protesters stepped over the line and were arrested, handcuffed and led to buses for arraignment in Nye County Court.
Mack, Sally, Tony, and Danny agreed to pay their fines in exchange for release. Kenny, who had been reading up on Gandhi and Martin Luther King, refused to plead guilty and insisted on being taken to the neighboring Esmeralda County jail to serve his six-day sentence. He had lately gone through a Karl Marx phase, quoting so often from Das Kapital that his family had started calling him “Karl.” Incensed to learn that the federal civil-defense plan for a nuclear strike on Brookline was a mass evacuation to Laconia, New Hampshire, he had informed Brookline’s town fathers and mobilized a Selectmen’s Meeting that ended up rejecting the plan. Kenny also wrote and circulated a booklet exposing the perils of mass flight. Inspired by a group of grade schoolers in Vermont who had organized a worldwide letter-writing campaign against atomic weapons called the Children’s Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament—and who had personally delivered thousands of the letters to President Reagan at the White House—Kenny had gone on Nickelodeon’s Livewire television show, where he held the young studio audience spellbound with his knowledge of the nuclear peril. “Once I got involved, my sense of helplessness vanished,” he said. “I no longer felt that scared. I realized I’m a person who can do something.”
4. Mack later wrote up ten pages of “confidential” notes on his meeting with Teller at the Cosmos Club on May 10, 1986.
5. Mack wrote an op-ed article on the protest that ran on June 20, 1986, in the New York Times as “To Test Or Not to Test: That is the Nuclear Question; To Halt the Arms Race.” Mack also transcribed twenty-eight pages of tape-recorded recollections of Kenny and Sally on the family’s arrest experience.
6. Author’s multiple interviews with Daniel Ellsberg, summer 2017 and October 4, 2017.
Kenny shared a cell with a Mack family friend, Richmond Mayo-Smith, the former headmaster of Boston’s elite Roxbury Latin School. Sally was worried about Kenny but felt she had exorcized an old demon: growing up Jewish in wartime rural Pennsylvania, she was haunted by fears that the Nazis were coming for her family. Now she was doing something to avert another cataclysm. Mack wrote an op-ed piece on the protests for the New York Times. It was reprinted in the International Herald Tribune, where, as it happened, his beloved Oberlin professor Harvey Goldberg saw it in Paris and proudly wrote Mack, “I’m glad to see we taught you something at Oberlin.”
Trying to raise money for the cause, Mack sought advice from Harvard president Derek Bok. He responded in January 1987 that “the most important problem you face is an ambiguity as to whether you are, at bottom, an advocacy group with clear convictions and preconceptions about the arms race and ways to avoid the nuclear threat or whether you are an academic group seeking objective answers to hard questions.” Because their collaboration with the Soviets could be seen as amateurish or biased, they should take care to work with recognized experts, Bok suggested.
That July, Mack invited Werner Erhard to Harvard for a brainstorming session on how to woo corporate America away from a Cold War mentality.7 They began by reminiscing about their meeting in California seven years before. Erhard asked about Mack’s boys, especially Danny. “I can’t believe the extent to which I grow from learning from who he is,” Mack said. Kenny, at twenty-five, was the “revolutionary,” Mack continued. He was working as a carpenter, up mornings at 6:00 to do manual labor. Tony, just back from Central America, was studying US-Latin American relations in Harvard summer school, Mack said. And Sally was coping with “negative energy” from her mother. “Her expertise is in mobilizing people’s distress around her.”
Erhard wondered if it might be worth targeting corporate bigwigs at defense firms, although most seemed to be true believers. Mack was dubious. “I wouldn’t start with those people,” he said. They had so much power. “We always talk about how, when we are in a happy mood, things are on our side and going our way but we don’t know shit about that.” Erhard thought that the defense bosses could be encouraged to at least question things. Always going with the consensus produces a Nazi Germany, he said. Mack had another idea. “Never mind citizen exchanges,” he said. “Take the Congress to the Soviet Union.” Erhard agreed that both sides needed to get away from rhetoric and change the climate. He paraphrased Heidegger: The power of a conversation lay not in what was said but what remained unsaid. It was not the words being spoken but the thoughts, attitudes, feelings, and actions “ontologically embedded in an already existing network of conversation.” You had to know this to find a solution. It was “like trying to fix the chair working on the table,” Erhard went on. “You can work on the goddamned table from now to doomsday and you are never going to fix the chair.”
Erhard had meanwhile evolved his EST program into self-realization workshops called the Landmark Forum. One session in the Harvard area drew a vivacious family therapist, executive coach, and landscape painter—Rosamund Zander, a mother of two living apart from but still close to her third husband, Benjamin Zander, who was a noted conductor and a founder of the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra.8 Roz, willowy and sensual, looked out to see a recognizable figure sitting in the back, the prominent Harvard academician John Mack. Afterward she felt emboldened to look up his phone number and give him a call. “You won’t know me,” she began, introducing herself. But Mack cut her off. “I know exactly who you are,” he said. They made a date for coffee, began meeting regularly, and before long they were lovers.
7. Mack taped the session on July 7, 1987, and kept a transcript.
8. Author’s multiple interviews with Roz Zander, July 9, 2019, and thereafter.
For thousands of years the rugged Pacific wilderness the Spanish settlers called El Sur Grande, the Big South, harbored a sacred site of healing mineral hot springs and cascading streams that flowed out of the granitic base rock onto the crashing ocean south of Monterey. In 1910 California physician Henry Murphy, who, as it happened, had delivered the future author John Steinbeck in Salinas a few years before, bought 375 acres between the coast and Santa Lucia Mountains for a European-style spa.1 He got as far as some bathhouses before he died. The property fell into abandonment for half a century until Henry’s grandson Michael showed up to reclaim the springs with a companion, Richard Price, and allies like Henry Miller, Hunter Thompson, and Joan Baez in what became known as the “Night of the Dobermans.” Miller had been among the earliest pioneers, helping build the baths on the rebound from his traumatic breakup with lover Anaïs Nin in Paris and imbuing the retreat with a not-entirely-deserved (at least not yet) aura of sex, scandal, and anarchy. The pre-gonzo Thompson had been hired to guard the property, and Baez lived in one of the cabins, where she performed small concerts. The bar was staked out by pot-smoking mountain men called the Big Sur Heavies, and the baths were thronged with gays from as far afield as San Francisco and Los Angeles, who posted a lookout up the path to signal approaching danger with Morse code flashings of car headlights. And so it went through 1961, wrote the political scientist Walter Truett Anderson, who chronicled the compound’s evolution: “Sodomy in the baths, glossolalia in the lodge, fistfights in the parking lot, folk music in the cabins, meditation in the Big House.”
Soon their encampment—which they called Esalen, an adaptation of a geographic designation of one of the Indigenous tribes, the Esselen Indians (although no one knows what they called themselves)—gained renown as a temple to human potentiality, a psychic Olympia where the games would celebrate the spirit, mind, heart, and physical body. Devotees were encouraged to enjoy the springs and surroundings like their ancient forebears: au naturel. Among the many luminaries attracted early on was the émigré psychiatrist Fritz Perls, founder of Gestalt Therapy, a Zen-inflected, consciousness-expansion and healing regimen centered on “the hot seat” of psychodrama, and perhaps the only German Jew disdained by both Adolf Hitler and Sigmund Freud. Abraham Maslow, a humanistic psychologist in great vogue with the founders, wandered by in 1962 looking for a room and all but caused a worshipful riot. He stayed. Arnold Toynbee gave one of the first seminars. Aldous Huxley visited shortly before his assisted suicide (on the same day President Kennedy was assassinated), and his spiritualist writings became Esalen’s ur-text. The Harvard LSD gurus Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert (later Ram Dass) offered guided psychedelic tours. The summer 1964 Esalen brochure offered “A Trip with Ken Kesey,” prankster author of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Mythologist Joseph Campbell arrived to lecture in 1966 and returned annually for almost two decades until his death, his archetypal journey of a hero venturing forth from the world of the common day into a region of supernatural wonder ingrained in the Esalen mythos. The Beatles came, and soon everyone else. It was the “religion of no religion” (and equally the religion of all religions), as the Esalen biographer and Rice University religion professor Jeffrey J. Kripal put it, a place where, as the Esalen ethos had it, “no one captures the flag.” Perhaps Fritz Perls came closest.
In 1973 the Czech-born psychiatrist Stanislav Grof arrived as scholar-in-residence. Grof had studied medicine in Prague, and in the 1950s he was conducting research on the antipsychotic tranquilizer Melleril, produced by Sandoz Pharmaceutical Laboratories in Basel, Switzerland. Two decades earlier a chemist at Sandoz, Albert Hofmann, had synthesized d-lysergic acid diethylamide from ergotamine derived from the ergot fungus. In 1943 a trace accidentally absorbed through his fingers sent his brain exploding in kaleidoscopic colors, signaling the mind-altering psychedelic properties of LSD, the most powerful consciousness-altering substance ever discovered—up to ten thousand times more powerful than mescaline. Hofmann experimented with ingesting 250 micrograms, 25 millionths of a gram. But even smaller quantities sufficed to produce its effects; just 20 micrograms were necessary, one 1/700,000,000 of an average man’s weight.2 Sandoz provided the drug to Grof’s clinic, and Grof was able to qualify as an experimental research subject. He experienced rapturous visions and, when subjected to electric impulses and strobe light, “a divine thunderbolt that catapulted my conscious self out of my body.”
1. Kripal, Esalen; and the New Yorker profile of Michael Murphy from the January 5, 1976, issue.
2. Watts, Joyous Cosmology.
In 1967, an invitation from Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore enabled Grof to leave communist Czechoslovakia. Two years later, at the Maryland Psychiatric Research Center, he continued his psychedelic research on volunteers, discovering that 300 micrograms evoked forgotten infantile memories and induced powerful out-of-body experiences and transpersonal encounters with mystic dimensions of the cosmos. The results were not necessarily dose related, he discovered, but seemed affected by breathing patterns.3 He experimented with regulated breathing in conjunction with classical music, a therapy called Guided Imagery and Music, or GIM, developed by musician and psychotherapist Helen L. Bonny at the Maryland Psychiatric Research Center.
At a party in New York in the early 1970s, Grof met Michael Murphy, who invited him to a residency at Esalen. Two years into his stay, Grof, recently divorced, met his second wife-to-be, Christina, who introduced him to Kundalini yoga and her noted master, Swami Muktananda. Grof integrated his LSD experiences into yoga practice, affirming that the drug was not a causative pharmacological agent but only a catalyst for what already lay buried in the psyche. He and Christina went on to develop Holotropic Breathwork as a relaxation technique with music to induce altered states of consciousness—better things for better living not through chemistry, as DuPont advertised, but without it. Somehow, the Grofs found, the breathing discipline altered the blood, boosting the unconscious in ways that the great Yogi and Sufi masters had understood ages ago. It was, they said, a gateway to the infinite, overturning the Western view of material reality. But hallucinogens would nonetheless permeate the Esalen experience, fostered by Leary, Alpert, and the charismatic ethnobotanist Terence McKenna, who linked human civilization to a cosmic seeding by plants containing psilocybin, dimethyltryptamine (DMT) and other psychedelics. From there it was hardly a stretch to programs on cosmic intelligence, UFOs, and alien life.
“High” on the Esalen agenda, too, was world peace, advanced by Joseph Montville, the career diplomat working on Middle East initiatives. Starting in the 1970s, and buttressed by Murphy’s new wife, Dulce, and support from John D. Rockefeller’s counterculturist grandson, Laurance, Esalen embarked on a series of Soviet-American friendship initiatives, which only expanded in reaction to the official chill and US boycott of the Moscow summer Olympics following the December 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. The “hot tub diplomacy” reached a milestone in 1982 with a TV satellite link connecting ordinary Muscovites and Southern Californians. Thereafter Esalen became ground zero for friendly exchanges between the longtime Cold War adversaries.
In September 1987, Esalen staged a large bilateral conference on Frontiers of Health. It featured Dean Ornish on dietary approaches to heart disease; Robert Peter Gale, a bone-marrow specialist who had advised the Soviets on leukemia treatments after the Chernobyl nuclear disaster; Candace Pert, a psychoneuroimmunologist known for her pioneering mind-body work on AIDS; four Soviet physicians, including three psychiatrists; and Mack, who spoke on the imagery of nuclear war and its effect on children and adults. Stanislav Grof was asked to talk about transpersonal psychology, a vibrant spiritual alternative to behaviorism and Freudianism.4 Grof described his experiences with Holotropic Breathwork, setting off great excitement. They quickly agreed to cancel the next day’s afternoon program for a series of breathing workshops.
Mack signed up eagerly but with some trepidation, little imagining the vistas it would open and to what strange realms it would lead him. He knew that psychoanalysis depended on the recall of disturbing memories and the release of their buried affects, or powerful feelings.5 But Freud had discovered that this catharsis by itself was not enough. The ego erected defense mechanisms against such discharges such that, improperly managed, their sudden freeing could cause damage—a failure to integrate the affective experience, or even psychosis. Controlled altered states like dreams offered normal regression. But the earliest physical experiences of birth and body awareness were so powerful that entire schools of therapy were dedicated to addressing their troubled affects. Wilhelm Reich, seeing defensive energies stored up as “character armor,” explored hyperventilation, physical manipulation, and containers known as orgone accumulators to release the libido. Convicted of fraud for violating a federal injunction on transporting the orgone boxes, he died in federal prison in 1947, his devices and books incinerated by the government. Less controversial therapies explored massage and body work like Rolfing to free bottled-up energies. So what might come out of Grof’s Holotropic Breathwork (which would remain a popular feature at Esalen to the present)?
3. Mack’s paper on Grof, May 16, 1989.
4. Author’s interview with Stan Grof, March 7, 2016.
5. Author’s interview with Stan Grof, March 7, 2016.
Mack’s group consisted of eleven breathers, including two of the Soviet psychiatrists, and the same number of partnered sitters positioned behind them for relaxation and safety.1 Reclining on a mattress, Mack followed Grof’s instructions: he closed his eyes and took full, deep breaths, filling his lungs completely and keeping his breathing circular, a little faster than normal, with no gaps as he focused on aligning his body with the hypnotic beats of the music. For the first half-hour, he felt nothing. He was wondering how long this would go on when he felt himself engulfed by a wave of despair. He was borne back fifty-eight years—he was an infant not yet nine months old, reliving his mother’s anguished death. He was alone, abandoned. He felt his father’s fathomless grief and struggle for self-mastery and the cool distancing from his son that the little boy had never understood and never quite forgave. Mack was ready to forgive him now. And then he was in medieval Russia with his four-year-old son and … a Mongol Tatar on horseback was decapitating his child! The horror ebbed, and he felt a surge of empathy for the Russians he sensed beside him. What they and their people had endured! Afterward they compared their visions. One of the Russian psychiatrists admitted, “I had an experience with God.” Of course, he hastened to add, “I remain a Communist, but I understand now what they mean by God.”2
Mack was troubled but exhilarated. Not in years of professional analysis had he come close to accessing such primal memories. And that Mongol business? Had he discovered a past life? Unlikely, he thought. More probably it showed that consciousness was fluid and could travel.
How, he asked, could he do more breathwork? Grof said they were about to start a twelve-day training module at Hollyhock Farm, a learning retreat on Cortes Island in the Strait of Georgia about one hundred miles north of Vancouver, where twice-yearly sessions alternated between there and Pocket Ranch in Geyserville in the Santa Rosa mountains north of San Francisco. Mack eagerly signed up for Hollyhock, even arranging to have his daily New York Times delivered to him there. (Grof, seeing him immersed in the paper, thought him rather tightly wound, someone who needed to get out more in the transpersonal world.)
“That was wonderful. Just wonderful,” Mack scribbled in his journal as he emerged from trances that had carried him back to his earliest memories.3 “It was like I was in the canal and seeing the fetus and coming thru and then I was out. But then I was her, my mother … I was a blue baby in my last breathing experience. A blue head came in. But she was blue. My father’s story was that she was unattended at her death, which I’ve never allowed myself to consider what it was for her, so I got with her that she died blue … And then I returned to my own birth, and that I was blue, that I turned blue … blue at birth and she was blue and the blue came together.”
With that, Mack made the connection to Pinocchio and his own long fascination with the turquoise maiden. “The archetype of my childhood. He keeps looking for the blue mother through the whole story. I did that. I found the blue mother in the breathing. It was obvious. She was blue. I was blue. We were together blue … I’m alone, this little blue baby—I’m tough as hell. I’m the toughest son-of-a-bitch, and I think my whole life is like ‘I’m gonna make it!’ And then I felt this flood—I cried many times, but most of the time I cried—pride & gratitude, pride that I’d made it & gratitude toward the women who’d loved me. I cried with gratitude …”
Mack then went on to record a particularly bizarre vision that seemed to foreshadow his later encounters with an alien world—although he would not meet Budd Hopkins for three years. “And then I got this stuff about incubators, this picture of all these abandoned fetus-infants separ[ated] from their mothers in these technology places which is the work my wife does.” It brought to mind what he called “The Return of the Body Snatchers,” an evident reference to the 1956 sci-fi movie Invasion of the Body Snatchers (or perhaps its 1978 remake). “These invaders from outer space come & they take over everyone’s bodies” Mack went on. “Maybe they punish us for not loving enough. They take over our bodies. They take over the resources. They take over the plants. They take over everything—for them—and you have all these breathing creatures, these plant creatures breathing & breathing in this cold, dead suffocating way until all the resources are used up and the planet has been completely taken over. It’s like for not loving ourselves enough, not giving each other enough warmth …”
1. Bassuk, The Doctor-Activist.
2. Author’s interview with Stan Grof, March 7, 2016.
3. Mack filled at least eighteen journals in which he recorded his romantic anguish and thoughts on abduction and other matters.
For Christmas 1988 Mack and Sally and their three sons, now in their twenties, gathered with Mack’s sister Mary Lee Ingbar and her son David at Ruth Mack’s white colonial homestead in Thetford, Vermont, where Edward had been killed some fifteen years before.4 Danny, with shoulder-length hippie hair befitting his Jesus stage, was there with his common-law wife, Adwoa, a dance-movement therapist who was expecting their first child, Ari, early in the new year. Kenny had even longer hair and the pout of a bad-boy rock drummer, and Tony had a shaggy bowl cut left over from the years when all three brothers favored Beatles coifs. Mack stood out stiffly with his unruly thatch of dark-brown hair close-shorn on the sides. The family celebrated a generic Christmas, rankling Sally and other Jewish relatives, who made sure they also celebrated Chanukah. Struggling to master a new video camera, they exchanged jokey presents, tossing the crumpled gift wrap into the crackling fire. The boys and their father donned new pointed hoodies that make them look, Mack commented, like the Black Death. Mack and Sally were presented with sexy silk pajamas amid ribald giggling over how they might be best put to use. They harmonized with Digger, the black and tan coon hound mutt that Kenny had adopted while volunteering at an animal shelter, nuzzling in to join the fun. Later, horsing around with his brothers after the others went to bed, Danny mused, “Imagine this tape in 40 years.”
But the idyll was deceiving. Mack had been carrying on a tumultuous romance with Roz, the therapist he had met through Werner Erhard’s Landmark Forum. They had stolen away for breathwork seminars and a weekend in Vermont at the house of a friend of Roz’s. Mack was growing close, too, to her son and daughter. Roz had accompanied Mack one evening to experience MDMA, the mind-altering drug commonly referred to as Ecstasy, although she ended up demurring. Mack, infatuated, was driven to paroxysms of rapture, despair and jealousy. Sally had been on to her husband’s latest affair, Mack being terrible at keeping secrets, and he had felt compelled to tell her the truth. A friend in whom Mack confided said Mack thereby “put a nail in the coffin” of his illicit relationship, but Mack responded that “it felt like there was no choice.” Yet he continued to pursue Roz, filling his journal with lovesick avowals that went unsent: “This AM the pain is deep as ever. It seems unfathomable, unreparable, paralyzing—Sally, reluctantly is off to breath[work]. What do I do with myself. It is like the deepest connection, heart guts & soul have been ripped out of me. I can’t work, write, create … sometimes I want to cry out wait for me wait for me in this life or the next …”
By 1989 Mack was a regular participant in Grof’s breathwork modules. That March, in Geyserville, Grof gave Mack a chapter from his forthcoming anthology, Spiritual Emergency: When Personal Transformation Becomes a Crisis. Grof wanted Mack to read a section by Keith Thompson, a California writer and therapist adept in philosophy, quantum physics, non-ordinary states of consciousness, shamanism, mysticism, and parapsychology. As a boy in Ohio, Thompson had been captivated by a 1966 wave of Michigan UFO sightings that government consultant Allen Hynek had infamously dismissed as “swamp gas.” In residence at Esalen in the 1980s, Thompson maintained his interest in UFOs, including the experiences of Hopkins, author Whitley Strieber, and the reborn Hynek, now a champion of serious research. Thompson had participated in a celebrated 1987 symposium in San Francisco—“Aliens, Angels and Archetypes: Cosmic Intelligence and the Mythic Imagination ”—that found the UFO phenomenon decidedly real, a mainstay of history, and simultaneously physical and spiritual, a form of consciousness able to manipulate dimensions beyond space and time. That year, Thompson had also joined an annual UFO and abductee conference in Laramie, Wyoming, convened by Dr. Leo Sprinkle, a University of Wyoming professor whose research went back to the 1960s.
In his chapter for Grof, which he called “The UFO Encounter Experience as a Crisis of Transformation,” Thompson examined the phenomenon as a rite of initiation. He was not so concerned with what was objectively true—that might never be knowable, he wrote. Rather his approach was phenomenological. He wanted to see what people reported about their experience, unencumbered by questions of what could and could not be real. Viewed in that way, the encounters resembled timeless and familiar human rites of transition or initiation, the Hero’s Journey, popularized by the mythologist Joseph Campbell. First, a separation or departure from the existing state, the way a boy in an Indigenous culture might leave his childhood behind at home before entering the initiation lodge to manhood. Then, entrance into a shadow realm of marginality betwixt and between, where one is both the old thing and the new. And finally, an aggregation stage when the experiences are reassembled into a new state of being. In Campbell’s epic twelve-stage mythology, the hero lives an everyday life until confronted with a challenge that summons him to his journey. He refuses it but encounters a mentor who steels him for the struggles ahead. He crosses the first threshold to a new world with tests of will, daunting enemies, and staunch allies. He suffers setbacks, forcing new strategies. He endures a terrible ordeal but triumphs to earn a reward. He sets off for home only to suffer a final trial that risks the entire journey. He succeeds again, returning to present his boon to a grateful world.
Applying Campbell’s descriptions of the Hero’s Journey to the UFO abduction experience, Thompson wrote that the call to adventure signifies “that destiny has summoned the hero and transferred his spiritual center of gravity from within the pale of his society to a zone unknown.” The setting may vary, “but it is always a place of strangely fluid and polymorphous beings, unimaginable torments, superhuman deeds, a