Spaced out - and Other Delusions: Gullible Travelers

By Bernays, Anne | The Nation, June 27, 1994 | Go to article overview

Spaced out - and Other Delusions: Gullible Travelers


Bernays, Anne, The Nation


Some years ago, at the height of the antinuclear movement, John Mack, a psychiatrist and professor at Harvard Medical School, chained himself to a fence surrounding the testing grounds in Nevada. This gesture was altogether in character. Dr. Mack is a binary sort of fellow, an enthusiast searching for inspiring answers to big questions. The Harvard-affiliated department of psychiatry at Cambridge City Hospital is his creation; he's also the founder of the Center for Psychology and Social Change. Over time Mack has made some of his more conventional colleagues uncomfortable by endorsing Werner Erhardt's EST and, more recently, "breathworks," a method of breathing under supervision meant to help a patient recollect nasty things long kept under wraps. It's hard to imagine how he found the time, but in 1978 he published a biography of agitated iconoclast T.E. Lawrence; it won him a Pulitzer Prize. John Mack has magnetic eyes and a reassuring presence.

These days psychiatrist Mack has moved on to other worlds, spending a good deal of time interviewing, hypnotizing and "treating" men and women who claim to be victims of alien abduction. They say that during their several hours of captivity inside hovering space vehicles they are physically invaded in various ways, including sperm and egg removal and implantation of odd matter, usually in an arm or leg muscle. When their space odysseys are over, the abductees are returned to earth, thoroughly fartootst. This is where Dr. Mack takes over, assuring them that it's O.K. to be temporarily upset but not to worry: Their small gray kidnappers mean well and have come from outer space only in order to keep our planet from self-destructing.

I saw Dr. Mack on Oprah. He said that while he's aware all this sounds farfetched, the abductees he's talked to are neither psychotic nor neurotic in any conventional way. Their stories sound authentic and are amazingly similar to one another, even when related by people who have had no chance to meet and compare notes. While unwilling to go all the way and say they are telling the truth, Mack is far more convinced by tales of extraterrestrial abduction than he is skeptical.

If John Mack were the local chiropractor or small-town dentist, few would pay much attention to him or the ideas contained in his book, just published and now orbiting its author on the nation's airwaves. But this man is a Harvard professor; surely a man on the faculty of the Big H knows what he's talking about. His credentials alone give his narrative the wings it needs to fly; as a result, thousands, perhaps millions, believe it.

It seems we'll believe almost anything, and the more of us there are, the more likely we are to embrace total nonsense, a phenomenon known as mass hysteria. You're ashamed to admit that you saw Elvis twiddling the knobs on the gas grill, but as soon as a couple of the neighbors say they too saw him in their backyards, you figure it's O.K. to go ahead and call the folks at The National Enquirer. …

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