The long table on the dais is swathed in tropical fruit salad prints. The lighting from the grid of the remodeled balloon hangar is pink

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People who run with Aliens

Our reporter goes to Port Townsend and uncovers the secret of the need to believe.

The long table on the dais is swathed in tropical fruit salad prints. The lighting from the grid of the remodeled balloon hangar is pink and fuschia, giving the skin of the people sitting behind the table a hyperhealthy glow. More or less from left to right, these people are:

* an ex-astronaut who wants the government to stop covering up what it knows about alien visitors to our planet;

* a weight lifter/emergency room doctor who moonlights as the director of an institute studying extraterrestrial intelligence;

* a Silicon Valley venture capitalist assembling backing for a project to harness the force of gravity for commercial purposes;

* a business executive convinced that planet Earth will enter another dimension as soon as genetic mutation brings about a species-wide transformation in our consciousness;

* an academic psychiatrist who has helped more than 60 people come to terms with being abducted, assaulted, and sometimes surgically modified by alien visitors;

* and the man who called this curious gathering, a former concert promoter who discovered some years ago that Carlos Castaneda, though perhaps not in the league of Carlos Santana, could draw a pretty good crowd.

The group assembled at Fort Worden to address the topic "The UFO: Anomaly, Reality, Implications" late last month at the Prophets Conference Port Townsend seems in appearance and demeanor a thoroughly conventional bunch. Good-humored but basically serious, conservatively dressed and quiet-spoken, they could easily be a candidates' panel brought together by the League of Women Voters—with one exception: the foxy grandpa with the mariachi shirt, the benevolent smile, and a slightly dangerous gleam in his eye.

When his turn comes to speak, Robert Anton Wilson proves as wild a card as his appearance promises. Up till now, the talk, despite its off-the-map subject matter, has been gravely serious, and the audience of two or three hundred has taken what's been said seriously, pencils racing over their notepads like students before the big exam, the most overt demonstration of emotional engagement an occasional, almost sub-vocal murmur of agreement.

Wilson breaks the elevated mood as decisively as a raspberry during a Sunday sermon. His voice is raspy and short-winded, as befits one after a lifetime of assiduous devotion to cigarettes and other smokables. With a delivery telegraphic as the late Henny Youngman, you hardly notice that he's riffing on material borrowed from Bertrand Russell and Wittgenstein. Wilson is best known as the coauthor of the ultimate novel of conspiracy Illuminatus!, but for the last 20 years he has been mostly writing the kind of unclassifiable m鬡nge of social criticism, satire, and rant that Nietzsche, had he overcome his shyness and listened to a lot of Coltrane, might have come up with.

After more than two hours of constant reinforcement of the notion that something, whether from out there or the fifth dimension or secret compartments in our own psyches, is messing with us, Wilson barrages us with a fusillade of genial scorn: not for our belief in alien abductors or extrasensory communication with dolphins or faster-than-light travel via wormholes in space but for belief in general, belief in anything. Wilson's skepticism is more radical than any conviction expressed so far today. And the audience loves it.

Sitting among a band of true believers hooting with laughter as their most deeply held convictions are pilloried has a curious effect on an outside observer, someone with no prior intellectual or emotional affinity for the whole UFO scene. Somehow, their willingness to respond with laughter to Wilson's only half-playful abuse is the most convincing evidence so far that the "phenomena" under discussion deserve respectful attention. Try to imagine the Christian Coalition paying Howard Stern to warm up a crowd.

After Wilson's fireworks display, it's hard to pay attention to the last discussant on the panel before lunch. There's too much to think about already. Except for Wilson, all the panelists who have spoken so far "believe" one way or another in UFOs and in the varied phenomena linked to that acronym in the public mind. But getting anyone else to believe seems to be the last thing on their minds. All these people— venture capitalist, psychiatrist, astronaut, emergency room physician—are far more interested in discussing, discovering even, what these phenomena mean, for themselves and for humankind.

The man who wound up the morning colloquium returns after lunch to make that perception explicit. He's Dr. John E. Mack, a professor of psychiatry at the Cambridge Hospital of Harvard Medical School, and, thanks to that highly visible position, a first-rank pain in the ass for mainstream scientists for whom the mere mention of the paranormal is anathema.

Author of two books dealing with what he today cautiously calls "extraordinary experiences"—Abduction (1994) and the forthcoming Passport to the Cosmos—Mack is an impressive figure, if only for his courage in continuing to insist on the importance of the phenomena he studies in the face of intense mainstream scientific resistance, knowing that a single intellectual misstep on his part could cost him his job. There's something reassuring, too, about his manner and appearance. After Wilson's flamboyance, a little academic tweed and avuncular prosiness is just what the doctor ordered.

Mack's talk is billed as "Encounters with Other Dimensional Intelligences: What Could We Learn?" In fact it's a lot less speculative than that: more a primer outlining the common features he believes he has discovered in his extensive interviews with (and, in some cases, clinical treatment of) persons who believe they have had encounters with intelligent alien and/or other dimensional beings.

Mack, who wryly describes himself as "a recovering Freudian," begins his account with a few facts about himself, including his utter lack of interest in so-called paranormal phenomena until being forced to confront such experiences himself, something he calls undergoing "ontological shock." "People we talk to frequently tell us that what happened to them 'shattered their worldview.' That is what happened to me. There was absolutely no place for these phenomena in my worldview."

What phenomena? Mack catalogs common features of the experience: It can happen anywhere—car, bedroom, home, schoolyard. The subjects, wherever they may have been, report feeling a presence, sensing a light or hearing a sound or feeling an electrical sensation in their bodies. Some feel fear, others welcome, as they are floated, often somehow passed through solid barriers, to find themselves inside a "craft," where they find one or more varieties of nonhuman entity. They may find themselves immobilized on a table, their clothing removed or vanished, to be examined, probed, or operated on. In more extreme cases the subjects sense they have been violated sexually; in the most extreme of all, they feel their reproductive cells have been combined with alien germ plasm to produce hybrid creatures.

People reporting such hair-raising and "abusive" events are understandably disturbed by them. When brought to disclose them to the interviewer, they commonly tremble and weep in relief at finally sharing the experience with another and not experiencing disbelief or rejection. What is not so easy to understand is that once they have disclosed and worked through the experience, a positive side begins to emerge, often to dominate the initial trauma. Experiencers, as they are called, feel they have been granted a privileged look at a wider reality, received a message of great importance about the nature of the universe and the place of our planet and our species in it, a warning of impending catastrophe if we do not mend our collective ways.

Mack avoids saying that the events his subjects report experiencing are "real." What he does assert, and very convincingly, is that the experiences are real: that the emotions, thoughts, physical sensations are as real as those coursing through the nervous systems of the people in this hall at this moment listening to these words. And it's quite clear also that he believes that if a fellow creature feels an experience is important, it is important. To dismiss or ignore or ridicule the experience or the person feeling it is inhuman, like hearing a shout of exultation or a cry of pain in the street and not caring enough to turn one's head to see what caused it.

Mack ends his deliberately dry presentation by turning over the mike to a speaker who's not on the printed program: one of his patient/informants who goes by the name of Steve. We aren't told much about him: All we learn from the man himself is that he's in his early 40s, lost an arm in an encounter with a high-voltage line at the age of 14, and even earlier suffered abuse at the hands of alien visitors.

But that childhood encounter isn't the main subject of Steve's half-hour talk. The subject is himself: his rage, his frustration, his sense of disempowerment. In Steve's mind, the aliens are responsible in part, but self, family, society, come in for their share of blame. His address is a rant, but not incoherent or inarticulate. On the subject of what he and the universe have done to each other, Steve is cogent and powerful: a stand-up Dostoyevsky working a Vegas of the mind.

Steve's oral self-portrait makes no direct contribution to the argument for or against the existence of aliens or alien abduction. But it provides an essential experiential link between what seemed at first polar opposites: Mack's inclination to "believe" whatever he's told by his subjects and Wilson's derisive debunking of all systems of "belief." Wilson would surely have no trouble relating to Steve's ongoing tussle with the terms of existence; Wilson's three-volume "novel" The Cosmic Trigger is confessedly based on 14 years of enthusiastic tampering, through chemical and other means, with those same terms. The title of an unproduced 1992 screenplay sums it up: for Wilson, Reality Is What You Can Get Away With.

After Mack and Steve's double act, it's hard to get back into the more conventionally unconventional items on the rest of Saturday's bill of fare: psychologist Joan Ocean's memoirs of swimming with the Yucatᮠdolphins, guitar-strumming "peace balladeer" James Twyman's encounter with a millennial secret society in the Bosnia mountains, Gregg Braden's exposition of the lost science linking the Shroud of Turin to Tibetan tantra. If you prefer a little skeptical salt with your speculations, Mack provides the only challenge here, because he's trying to make his case within the framework of evidence required by scientific method.

It's a challenge his professional peers have largely avoided, but two at least have done him the courtesy of taking his studies seriously enough to attack them as science. Back in 1996, psychologists Leonard Newman of the University of Illinois and Roy Baumeister of Case Western Reserve published a thorough analysis of the entire abduction literature disclosing that the vast bulk of the evidence in favor of the phenomenon was elicited with the aid of hypnosis.

As repeatedly demonstrated by critics like the University of Washington's Elizabeth Loftus, hypnosis is the least reliable way imaginable to elicit reliable information from a subject because it inclines the subject to sense and respond affirmatively to the slightest bias in the hypnotizer's line of questioning. The catastrophic result, for both the science of psychiatry and the lives of thousands of mishandled patients, can be read in the sorry catalog of imaginary sexual abuse, demonic possession, and Satanic ritual cases generated by careless or unscrupulous investigators of "repressed memories."

Most skeptical investigators of such material, having demonstrated the flaw in the method, rest their case. Newman and Baumeister go farther. The "evidence" presented may not stand up to criticism, but that doesn't explain the phenomenon itself: Why, they ask, would otherwise apparently conventional and sensible people imagine such experiences—particularly since the experiences described are in the main extremely humiliating and disagreeable? The best they can do is suggest that abductees are suffering from a variation on the creaky Freudian category of masochism: a sort of intergalactic game of Bondage & Discipline.

The echoing silence following publication of their essay in the journal Psychological Enquiry suggests that even fellow professional skeptics found that explanation a little inadequate. Deluded or not, tens if not hundreds of thousands of people are convinced they have experienced some kind of contact with powerful alien intelligences. Surely something's going on here that can't be treated by a little light nonjudgmental counseling and a furtive trip to the local sex-toy shop.

But Baumeister and Newman at least have a crack at answering the question. Most of their colleagues won't even try. What happened to Carl Jung back in 1909 is burned into the brain of everyone who takes up any branch of psychological science. One day Jung was Sigmund Freud's fair-haired boy, his designated intellectual heir and successor. The next he was out on his ear, his unforgivable crime the admission that he believed paranormal phenomena were psychologically significant. For the 75 years that Freud ruled the psychological roost, the message was clear: If you want a respectable academic career, don't go there, girlfriend.

The Freudian claim to exclusive possession of the scientific skinny was always suspect and has come under flat-out intellectual attack in the last decade or so, but with no more satisfactory map of the psychic landscape yet in circulation, it still rules academe by default. A journalist named Russell Shorto found that out while researching his new book about psychology and religious experience, Saints and Madmen. "I interviewed a lot of leading members of the profession. I had kind of hoped to get people to give me a hard anti-religion line, but they didn't. Some simply professed ignorance of what is going on in that area. Others talked about it noncommittally. So I tentatively concluded that the topic is seen as P.C. in the field, and that they don't want to be portrayed as ogres."

It was not always so. A hundred years ago, one of the founders of scientific psychology, William James, attracted standing-room professional crowds with the series of lectures later published as The Varieties of Religious Experience. For James, a tireless collector of case histories as well as a dissector of brains, it was blindingly obvious that the "normal" state of consciousness that suffices to get us on and off the bus is neither necessary nor sufficient for handling experiences like orgasm, listening to Beethoven's Ninth, being dumped by your fianc鬠or realizing the truth of the Pythagorean Theorem, let alone seeing an angel come down your chimney. Religious experiences were more interesting than others to the psychologist in James because they tended to be vivid, extreme, and extraordinarily important to the experiencer—not because they were symptoms of disease or delusion.

As an index of how Freud's hostility to attaching any value or importance to religious experiences (he called his own book on the subject On the Future of an Illusion) has lingered in the profession, we have the statement Shorto found in a 1976 manifesto of the Group for the Advancement of Psychiatry defining religious belief as "borderline psychosis" and "a regression, an escape, a projection upon the world of a primitive infantile state." So there.

Shorto, who had emphatically rejected his own Catholic background "James Joycestyle" at the age of 15, was in his 30s when he began having second thoughts about the place of soul and spirit in his own life, starting to dip into "big fat books by Biblical scholars. I was in therapy at the time, for the one and only time in life. It was a terrific experience and I got a lot out of it working with a very wonderful therapist. But I started wanting to bring up questions about religion and god with her, and—though she didn't halt me or dismiss it in any overt way—I sensed a clear difference in her. I realized we were at a limit."

Shorto's big-fat-book reading led in time to Gospel Truth, an in-depth study of the diverse band of scholar-polemicists who are wielding the arcane tools of philology and historiography to wrest Jesus from the crushing grip of fundamentalist orthodoxy. It was at a convention of such students that he met a woman who was both Biblical scholar and psychologist, whose special field of interest was the Gospel narratives of Jesus' "miraculous" cures.

Through her he discovered a loose network of psychologists, therapists, and ministers, rabbis, priests, and nuns, their one point of agreement a conviction that, illusion or not, the religious impulse is not going to just wither away beneath the glaring sun of science. It represents, on the contrary, one aspect of an ineradicable reality, a basic element in the construction of the human psyche.

Saints and Madmen is in the main the story of therapists who draw no sharp line between experiences conventionally categorized as "lunatic" and others perceived as "rational." Nor do they distinguish between experiences secular and sacred or normal and pathological. (Shorto cites approvingly R.D. Liang's dictum that schizophrenics can be mad without being ill.) Although John Mack's work with saucer abductees has nothing to do with religion on the surface, its methodology is in harmony with that of the people Shorto describes, looking for a middle way that honors the infinite quirkiness and endless fluidity of individual beliefs while recognizing that without the tethers of shared convictions and perceptions the individual is lost.

This unconventional approach to therapy—treating patients' values and experiences as essential data, not merely as symptoms—is as applicable to people troubled by other kinds of encounters with nonstandard realities as those with conventionally religious overtones. Such patients are less likely to get a sympathetic hearing; if you're going to have a spiritual crisis, you're better off having one with a socially sanctioned label. Even convinced Freudians may sometimes refer a patient with "religious problems" to authorities accustomed to dealing with same, while they would consider referring "alien abductees" to a therapist such as Mack tantamount to compounding their delusions.

The intellectual exclusivity of the scientific mainstream—the assertion that science is the one style of cognition with any claim to truth or value—is probably the biggest force driving curious, questing, troubled individuals into the trackless New Age hinterlands, where an explorer needs the suspicious eye and cool head encouraged by a scientific attitude more than ever. The audience for the Prophets weekend at Port Townsend nodded and murmured as approvingly over the mushy scientific metaphor-mongering of astronaut Edgar Mitchell as it did when John Mack tried to bring the abduction experience out of the shadows into the light of reason. Materialist scientists reject a vast spectrum of human experience as unworthy of attention. Does that stop us from wanting and needing answers? No: It just leaves us on our own in a field where we need the assistance of the skeptical scientific eye more than ever to help us distinguish psychological truth from neurotic defense construction, wishful thinking, deliberate deceit.

And the most annoying aspect of that rejection is its complete lack of intellectual justification. Forty-five years ago, Carl Jung said it better than anyone, in a reply, it just so happens, to a Swiss newspaper editor's query about his opinion on "flying saucers." Jung was and remained until his death in 1961 resolutely agnostic about the airborne discs that had haunted world consciousness for a decade. But "I cannot refrain from remarking," Jung added, "that the whole collective psychological problem that has been opened up by the Saucer epidemic stands in compensatory antithesis to our scientific picture of the world. In the United States this picture has if possible an even greater dominance than with us [Europeans]. It consists, as you know, very largely of statistical or 'average' truths. These exclude all rare borderline cases, which scientists fight shy of anyway because they cannot understand them. The consequence is a view of the world consisting entirely of normal cases. Like the 'normal' man, they are essentially fictions, and particularly in psychology fictions can lead to disastrous errors. . . ."

Wow. Couldn't have put it better myself. The kind of "Science" Jung's talking about here, claiming exclusive access to truth, is the reverse of skeptical. It's just another dogma, the protective mental armor of another priestly class with turf to protect. In his 1954 letter to Die Weltwoche, Jung continues: "Since it can be said with little exaggeration that reality consists mainly of exceptions to the rule, which the intellect then reduces to the norm, instead of a brightly colored picture of the real world [this kind of science] gives us a bleak, shallow rationalism that offers stones instead of bread to the emotional and spiritual hungers of the world. The logical result is an insatiable hunger for anything extraordinary."

That hunger is what this conference at Port Townsend is about. But flying saucers aren't the only thing you can call extraordinary. People aren't only hungry for signs and wonders: They also thirst for wisdom. While inside the balloon hangar Edgar Mitchell rambles on about "Evolution's Rosetta Stone" and "The Quantum Hologram," out on the grand lawn within its circle of solemn cedars, a little group of truants clusters round the picnic table where Robert Anton Wilson, refreshed by a nap and looking very much like the Ancient of Days in a rare good mood, is patiently waiting for his call to deliver the last talk of the afternoon. It's called "There's a Seeker Born Every Minute."

 
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