I was saddened to learn of the recent death of Alvin Lawson, at the age of 80. He was best known in ufological circles for his promotion of the 'Birth Trauma' hypothesis for UFO abductions. Lawson was a professor of English at California State University, Long Beach. His interest in UFOs began in the 1940s with the early UFO waves, and in the 1970s he started the UFO Report Center of Orange County. He worked with William McCall, a doctor, in hypnotic regression of claimed abductees. As a result of this work they became increasingly sceptical of the accounts they uncovered.
At California State he was able to combine his professional and outside interests by studying the language and structure of UFO reports, and in 1977 began to test whether imaginary abduction stories bore any comparison to the 'real' accounts that he had encountered. He asked students who had never reported abduction experiences to imagine such an experience under hypnosis, and concluded that their narratives were substantially the same as those of self-reported abductees. This led Lawson and McCall to conclude that the 'real' abduction experience was an entirely psychological construct. His research was first announced to the UFO world at a Center for UFO Studies conference in 1976.
Understandably this created a great deal of controversy in the UFO world, and Lawson and McCall's research was challenged on a number of levels - particularly the small size and untypical nature of the control group, and the degree to which abduction imagery was already prevalent in the general culture (as well, of course, as suggestions that the 'imaginary' accounts were in fact genuine and the subjects had repressed their conscious memories). In Magonia 6 (1981) we published an article by Willy Smith pointing out flaws in his theories.
However the controversy increased with Lawson's development of the idea. If both sets of imagery were similar, he then asked what could be their common origin? He arrived at the answer that the abduction imagery arose from the most universal human experience, that of being born. His theories were heavily dependent of the work of Stanislav Grof, a psychiatrist who used birth trauma theory in his therapy. That there was a strong resemblance between the 'Grey' abducting alien and a human foetus was not a new idea, and may be traced back to the film 2001, and earlier, but Lawson's ideas produced a ufological storm when first announced.
In 1981 Magonia devoted a special issue to presenting Lawson's 'BTH', the first time in a British publication. (The on-line article has links to some critical responses)
In 1982 I had the great pleasure of meeting Alvin Lawson and his wife Barbara when they briefly visited London in July of that year, on their way to a UFO conference in Austria. By coincidence Lawson's collaborator Dr McCall was also in town. My wife and I joined them for a meal at their Kensington hotel, where we planned a public meeting for Lawson and McCall to be able to put their ideas before a British UFO audience.
Because of the short notice, the location of the meeting hall (at an out-of-season sports' club in Tufnell Park, North London), and a rail strike, not as many people were able to attend as we would have wished. One enthusiastic individual did manage to make his way from Manchester with a large video player and forty-hours-worth of videotapes of hypnotic regressions he and his colleagues had conducted. Unfortunately (?) for some inexplicable reason the power supply to this equipment failed to work and we were unable to view this evidence. I would prefer to put this failure down to some paranormal electrical interference phenomenon rather than deliberate sabotage, which was claimed by some attendees!
I have also been informed by Nigel Watson (who, by a Fortean coincidence rang me just a few minutes before I began to write this piece) that at this event I had been subjected to hypnosis by Dr McCall to see if I could come up with an imaginary abduction experience, but to no effect. The fact that I have no memory of this particular incident suggests that the hypnosis must have worked to some extent!
Lawson gave a robust exposition and defence of his ideas, but not many of his audience, which covered a pretty wide range of ufological opinion, were wholly convinced. However I think people were pleased by his willingness to confront critics head-on.
After the initial interest in the topic the Birth Trauma Hypothesis seems to have faded away in ufological discourse, relegated to a sort of vague "perhaps there's something in it" status. I do not think that it is the whole, or even a substantial part, of the explanation for the abduction experience, but I still feel unable to reject it entirely as an explanation for some of the imagery involved. -- John Rimmer.