ARE ALIENS ALREADY HERE? HARVARD'S CONTROVERSIAL JOHN
MACK THINKS HE MAY HAVE THE ANSWER
05/24/94 CHICAGO TRIBUNE
Five years ago, when a colleague asked Harvard psychiatrist
John E. Mack if he wanted to meet Budd Hopkins, Mack replied,
"Who's he?" Told that Hopkins was a New York artist known for his
work with people who claimed to have been abducted by aliens and
hustled aboard UFOs, Mack swiftly came to a professional conclusion.
"I assumed that either there must be something the matter
with Budd Hopkins or that Hopkins was encountering a new form of
mental illness," Mack recalls. "I wasn't prepared for what I
What Mack found when he finally met Hopkins was something so
personally compelling that the veteran psychiatrist plunged into
the field of abduction research himself. Over the next three years,
as word of his interest in the abduction phenomenon spread, nearly
100 self-proclaimed abductees (or "experiencers") would contact
Mack at his office at Harvard University's Cambridge Hospital.
The stories varied, but many abductees told of being taken
from their homes by big-eyed extraterrestrials and borne aboard
space ships; there, sperm or ova samples were extracted from their
bodies as part of an ongoing earthling-alien hybrid breeding
After taking what he decribes as thorough psychiatric
histories of the subjects, Mack concluded that they were "solid
people, of sound mind" and told several colleagues that he believed
"something important" was going on.
It wasn't the first time the psychiatrist had flirted with
what some might consider fringe fields or taken an alternative
approach. The Center for Psychology and Social Change, the
nonprofit research organization Mack founded in 1983, often funds
projects that combine psychology with ecological or ethnic issues
outside the psychiatric mainstream.
"He's never been afraid to take a stand or follow his
intuition, even if it might subject him to criticism," says Douglas
Jacobs, an assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard who has
known and admired Mack professionally since 1975. "His whole career
has been about blazing trails."
But for many of Mack's fellow psychiatrists, the
abducted-by-aliens study was just too bizarre. Dismissing
abductees' claims as preposterous, colleagues respectfully
cautioned him about pursuing the project.
"The difference between courage and foolhardiness is often
subtle," Mack admits. "After a while, though, I reached the point
where there seemed to be more to lose in terms of my own sense of
integrity by keeping my mouth shut than I could lose by describing
what I was finding."
Last month, Scribners published Mack's "Abduction: Human
Encounters With Aliens," featuring 13 in-depth case histories drawn
from his research. And now a lot of people assume there must be
something the matter with John Mack-or at least something seriously
awry with the 64-year-old professor's professional judgment when it
comes to alien activities.
"There are people who think he's an embarrassment to Harvard,
that he's gone off the deep end," Jacobs acknowledges. "Many of my
colleagues have rejected John Mack's research outright."
George Vaillant, a Harvard Medical School psychiatry
professor who has known Mack for 25 years, provided a book jacket
blurb for "Abduction" comparing it favorably to Frazer's "The
Golden Bough." But he refuses to discuss his personal views on the
validity of Mack's research or the professional risks Mack is
Accepting a reporter's phone call "out of loyalty to John
Mack," Vaillant would comment only, "Let me say this. (`Abduction')
is a very idealistic book that asks us to imagine a world or worlds
better than the ones we have, and people who are idealistic take
risks. The book is probably best understood as a metaphor."
Mack is hardly the first to write about alien abductions. A
number of authors have chronicled the case of Betty and Barney
Hill, an apparently stable New Hampshire couple who claimed to have
been taken aboard a craft in the early 1960s by small, gray
humanoids and subjected to sexual examinations. (The Hills'
experiences later became the subject of a 1975 TV movie, "The UFO
Budd Hopkins' "Missing Time," published in 1981, chronicled
abduction claims involving missing time, body scars resulting from
invasive alien medical procedures and small metallic implants
purportedly inserted in victims' bodies as tracking devices; the
followup, 1987's "Intruders," focused on sexual and
reproduction-related episodes that have come to be associated with
the abduction phenomenon. Whitley Strieber's "Communion" was a
best-seller in 1987; and in 1992, Temple University historian and
abduction researcher David Jacobs presented his findings in "Secret
Life: Firsthand Accounts of UFO Abductions."
But whatever his colleagues may think, Mack's credentials-in
addition to being a Harvard psychiatry professor, he is the author
of a Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of T.E. Lawrence-set him
apart from the pack and lend a stamp of respectability to a topic
generally relegated to tabloids. As a result, he has received
mainstream news media coverage seldom accorded to just anybody who
announces his belief in alien abductions, though Mack isn't crazy
about invariably being described as a believer. He's even less
crazy about an anonymous quote from a "friend" in a New York Times
Magazine article that suggested Mack's UFO abduction "obsession"
led to his recent separation from his wife after 34 years of
"Untrue, and a cheap shot," says Mack, in Chicago recently on
a book promotion tour. "Our separation has nothing to do with this.
"You can make anyone look foolish, if that's your purpose,
and I'm no exception," he adds. "But I guess what gets me most
upset is getting pushed off in a category as a rigid believer. It's
(presented as) `This doctor believes in alien abductions.' That
really isn't fair. I'm opening up an area that has some power to
teach us something, an area that seems to have some implications
for all of us, even though I don't know what it's about and where
it's going. It's a mystery, and I want to stress my agnosticism.
"Yes, I take these peoples' stories seriously. Yes, I think
that they are telling the truth. Now, does that mean that the whole
thing is literally of our physical world and is going to conform to
the requirements of proof of our classic western scientific
methodology? Probably not. We need a more complicated ontology to
The extraterrestrials, Mack theorizes, may be coming from
some other dimension of reality-possibly a parallel universe.
"I'm not convinced that when the abductees are brought aboard
ships to see hybrid beings, however real that may be to them
experientially, this is really occurring in physical reality as we
know it," he says. "But does that mean that it's not really
happening? I don't think you can conclude that. I think it might
simply be inviting us to open up our way of knowing to other kinds
of evidence. I want people to look at this and ask questions."
Philip J. Klass, publisher of the Washington, D.C.-based
publication Skeptics UFO Newsletter and a longtime UFO debunker,
can come up with plenty of them.
"If you assume that we do have extraterrestrial visitors who
are engaging in crossbreeding and that they are very advanced, why
don't they abduct Olympic athletes?" Klass asks. "And why is it
that not one person who claims to have been aboard a flying saucer
has ever brought back a paper clip or cigarette lighter or some
Just attention seekers?
Klass, a contributing editor for Aviation Week & Space
Technology magazine, has spent 28 years investigating UFO cases. He
maintains that he has yet to find what he considers "a single,
credible case that cannot be explained in prosaic terms."
As Klass sees it, most abductees simply crave attention.
"Certainly, 99 percent of them are not, underline not,
crazy," he says. "When one is dealing with human behavior there is
never just one explanation for anything, but in my opinion, a
number of the people who report these tales seek attention. I have
appeared with these people on a variety of TV talk shows, including
Oprah Winfrey and Jerry Springer, and these are people who would
never otherwise be invited to appear on a talk show. Their only
reason for being there is that they can tell this story of UFO
But don't they risk being branded as wacky? "They are not
ridiculed on the shows," says Klass, who observes that `abductees'
are often invited to appear as paid speakers at UFO conferences.
"There may be a few who are reluctant to go public, but many
are not," adds Klass, who believes that the publicity accorded the
phenomenon will cause countless suggestible people to believe that
they, too, have been abducted. According to a highly controversial
1991 Roper poll, anywhere from several hundred thousand to several
million Americans may have had abduction-related experiences.
"I think the abduction cult is a very dangerous one," Klass
says. "I am suggesting that many, many more people will suffer.
They will be afraid to go to sleep at night (lest they be
abducted), and these fears will be passed on to their children."
The lack of physical evidence associated with alien
abductions also arouses skepticism among some members of the UFO
Longtime UFO investigators Kevin D. Randle and Donald R.
Schmitt, authors of the recently published "The Truth About the UFO
Crash at Roswell" (Evans), are convinced that an extraterrestrial
craft crashed near Roswell, N.M., in 1947; their book includes
testimony from doctors, law enforcement officials and military
personnel who claim they saw five alien bodies amid the wreckage.
(Klass dismisses the Roswell crash, considered for decades to be
the most famous and well-documented of all UFO episodes, as "a myth
perpetuated by the media, mainly television.")
"If we are right, we have leaped the first hurdle for John
Mack," says Randle. "We have proved that (extraterrestrials) can
get here." But Schmitt and Randle have yet to be convinced that
aliens are abducting earthlings for any reason whatsoever.
"The problem with abductions is that you are dealing in most
cases with something that relies solely on the mind-recall of the
subconscious through hypnotic regression, which is highly
unreliable," says Schmitt, co-director of the Evanston-based Center
for UFO Studies.
"With Roswell, we were able to prove the nuts and bolts to
our satisfaction, because at least at one time there was something
tangible and physical. The main problem with abductions is that
there is nothing tangible. We need some good physical evidence. And
through suggestibility and support group influence you perpetuate
the idea that people have been abducted by aliens when that is not
Lacking a smoking gun
Mack readily admits that he would love to have a smoking gun.
"If someone did bring back an artifact, though, the debunkers
would just argue over its pedigree," he says. "I'm not trying to
prove this with physical evidence. I take the whole package. These
abduction accounts are so congruent among healthy people, from all
over the United States-people who are not in touch with each other,
who have nothing to gain and everything to lose by telling their
stories. The only thing I know that behaves like that is real
experience, and I am going to continue to try to deepen my
Mack is pushing on with two new research projects, one
comparing abductees with victims of traumatic psychological
experiences and the other a study of UFO abductions worldwide.
"Obviously this isn't the best way to get ahead
(professionally)," he muses. "But it's such a short time in this
culture between when something is regarded as taboo and
career-threatening and when it becomes acceptable.
"I worked on a study in the late 1970s and early 1980s about
children's fears about nuclear war," Mack adds. "It was considered
odd at first, but a few years later there were Ph.D. theses all
over the place about children's reactions to the nuclear threat. My
guess is that within three or four years there will be all kinds of
Ph.D. theses about people who have abduction experiences."