Magazine article Family Therapy Networker

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Magazine article Family Therapy Networker

Around the Network

Article excerpt

ALIENS

THE LITTLE GRAY MEN HAD come for her again, Julia * told her therapist, taking her from her bed, through the walls of her bedroom and into their spaceship.

There, she was made to lie on a table with bright, white lights all around, while reptilian-looking beings with enormous eyes peered down at her.

This was only one of dozens of times that the 35-year-old office manager claimed to have been abducted by space aliens.  Sometimes, they would perform operations on her or take her to a breeding chamber to show her babies that were half-human, half-alien. Though her family thought she was crazy, Julia was convinced that these experiences were real. In fact, she'd found a support group of people who also believed they'd been abducted by aliens, and in many ways that group had become her new family.

Tales like this, once confined to the pages of tabloid newspapers, have begun to turn up in the offices of therapists who find themselves hard-pressed to know how to respond. Should they proceed as if these clients are deluded? Do they treat such clients as if they are members of a cult? Should therapists search for some other trauma that the abduction story might be masking? How can they talk seriously with someone about little gray men?

The spotlight was turned on this little-known corner of the therapeutic world last spring, when Pulitzer Prize-winning Harvard psychiatrist John E. Mack published Abduction, a book detailing the case histories of 13 people who believe they were abducted by aliens. Mack became interested in the abduction phenomenon in 1990, after he met Budd Hopkins, a New York sculptor and UFO buff who started the first support group for purported abductees. Since then, Mack has interviewed more than 100 people many of them sent to him by Hopkins who, under hypnosis, report consistent stories of alien abduction.

Though he was initially skeptical, Mack now believes that these reported abductions may somehow have actually happened. He contends that the universe contains forms of intelligence from which we have cut ourselves off and suggests that we need to shift our ideas about reality in order to account for them. Based on reports of some of the abductees he has interviewed, Mack even hypothesizes that the aliens are deeply worried about the deteriorating environmental condition of our planet and are trying to send us a wake-up call about the dangers we are facing.

Mack's mainstream credentials garnered an initial flurry of respectful press coverage for the book, including a review in The New York Times Book Review. For a time, it appeared that the stories of abduction were finally being taken seriously.

After all, Mack could point to other research supporting his contention that abductees have no obvious mental disorders that could account for their stories. Psychologist Nicholas Spanos, of Carleton University in Ottawa, studied 31 people who said they'd communicated with aliens and compared them with control groups of college students and adults from the same community. Results of a battery of tests showed that the alien-contact group was no more psychologically disturbed, fantasy-prone or hypnotizable than the control group. Nor were they less intelligent. The main difference was that the alien-contact group believed more strongly in aliens.

But beyond this point, Mack parts company with others who've examined the issue, and his book soon generated a backlash of criticism. Some critics took him to task for giving short shrift to other possible explanations for the abductees' experiences. Spanos, for example, suggests that because abduction episodes frequently happen on the edge of sleep, they may simply be nightmares associated with sleep paralysis, a form of early-onset REM sleep marked by immobility and vivid hallucinations. He also criticizes Mack's use of hypnosis. "By the time somebody gets to Mack, they already hold a belief in abduction," says Spanos. …

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