David J. Halperin. Intimate Alien; The Hidden Story of UFOs. Stanford University Press, 2020.
David Halperin is a true ufologist. Unlike many academics who have dipped a toe into the cold water of ufology, he has done his time deep down in the ‘gutter roots’ of the subject, as Peter Rogerson once so eloquently described it. His first chapter, ‘Confessions of a Teenage Ufologist’ tracks a ufologocal career progression that will be familiar to many of his, and Magonia’s, readers.
He got caught in the UFO treadmill via a book in the local library, in his case, Gray Barker’s They Knew Too much About Flying Saucers. Not the ideal introduction, I would have thought, but Barker’s accounts of the Shaver Mystery and the troubled world of Albert K. Bender had a deep effect on 12-year-old David.
From then on his progression was inevitable: forming a short-lived school UFO club, joining an acronymical UFO society (NJAAP) and producing a mimeographed UFO bulletin. We’ve all been there and some have the t-shirts! However, as with so many of us, Halperin’s involvement with UFOs faded as he left high-school, discovered real life, and came to realise that much of his fascination with the subject was part of a displacement activity to avoid recognising the impact of the illness and death of his mother.
Halperin’s path back into ufology began with the sight of the alien head on the cover of Whitley Strieber’s Communion, glimpsed in a New York bookshop, and immediately sparking a latent interest. A while later he discovered Jacques Vallee’s Passport to Magonia, which introduced him to an approach to UFOs more in line with his own thoughts. The UFOs had no physical reality, as described by the witnesses, but many had some real object or event which provided a basis for the description given by the percipients. This, he now felt, was where the UFO mystery lay.
Halperin’s analysis is in many ways Jungian, based on the concept of the ‘collective unconscious’, but perhaps in a rather more nuanced fashion. Jung suggested that the collective unconscious was more than just the collective experience of humankind, but that it had an objective existence of its own and was able to manifest its presence in a physical form which could be photographed or tracked on radar. Halperin does not go that far, but believes that physical phenomena can manifest themselves within the individual’s consciousness as representing a story, an experience which has some connection to the percipients own life.
The larger part of the book is devoted to analysis of UFO-related incidents, which he uses to illustrate the manner in which these ‘stories’ can be created.
Halperin is a professor of Judaic studies, and he draws a number of parallels between the visions of Jewish mystics and the experiences of UFO experiencers. He sees the ‘Men in Black’ myth as having antecedents such as the Jewish magus, theologian and cult leader, Abraham Cardozo, who in 1683 was tormented by three figures in black who “came down from the moon”.
I think Halperin, like a number of other academics who have written on the UFO topic, perhaps quite understandably, overemphasize the relevance of their own fields of study. Vallée, with his interpretation of the phenomena as a sort of computerised ‘control system’ is a classic example. It is probably inevitable that a Jewish theological scholar would find the idea of the wheeled visions of Ezekiel of great interest, and his speculative analysis of the imagery of those visions is fascinating, if complex.
However, Ezekiel’s vision is only drawn into the UFO debate because some literal-minded ufologists claimed it as a report of a physically real aerial vehicle and therefore annexed it as part of their subject – a brazen act of cultural appropriation! He is, I think on sounder territory when analysing those cases which arose from within the ufological sub-culture.
Halperin’s analysis of the ‘actual existing’ UFO phenomenon becomes much more relevant and clearly argued when he re-visits a number of classic cases. Like almost everybody, be begins his review with the Betty and Barney Hill abduction, and quickly identifies the initial trigger experience as a light on an observation tower on Cannon Mountain. He admits there are a couple of possible minor inconsistencies in this identification, but concludes that it is “compelling”.
It is the subsequent explanation of the way in which this single stimulus triggered the complex abduction accounts of the two percipients, which is the key to his whole argument. Halperin sees links to Barney’s African-American ancestry, suggesting that the experience was a psychological re-enactment of a collective memory of slavery. Fears deep in Barney’s psyche were brought to the surface and presented in a visual form.
One of the book’s reviewers reviewer has found this interpretation “a leap to far”, but reading Barney Hill’s initial recall of the UFO and its crew, we see a description which is more like a warplane or a naval ship than a vehicle from another planet. The ‘crew’ wear caps, one seems to be a red-haired Irishman, another "looks like a Nazi", with a black leather jacket and a scarf over his shoulder. The UFO has maps showing ‘trade routes’, Barney describes the feeling of ‘being shackled’, stepping over a ‘bulkhead’ when he is taken into the vessel.
These images have been noted before. Writing in Magonia in 1993, Peter Rogerson saw that the images of Barney’s experience related to a far closer threat than anything from beyond Alpha Centuri:
What is Barney afraid of, but which Betty Barrett of New Hampshire can stand up to? Look at the pictures of the aliens with their caps and jackets and trousers, remember those charts and that mutinous crew. Charts aren’t much use in space ships hopping between stars through wormholes... These are images of ships and the sea. These are sailors. What kind of sailors steal people? Slavers of course ... This is the central fear which grips Barney, the terrible others who are both us and not us and are going to take him back into slavery. Betty comes from the dominant white culture, she cannot feel the fear of being turned back into a slave. She can stand up to the crew. In her vision the sailors are more like a chaotic pirate crew. (Peter Rogerson, ‘Fear and Loathing in New Hampshire’, Magonia 96, October 2007.)
The dangers of post-hoc psychoanalysis are perhaps more evident in his section on the abduction phenomena that seems to have been triggered by his initial encounter with Whitley Strieber’s 1987 book, Communion. He looks at the undoubted sexual imagery that is revealed in many of the accounts of abduction, derived usually but not always, from hypnotic sessions. Halperin seems sympathetic to John Mack, whose abductors are a rather gentler species than the inhuman monsters revealed by Budd Hopkins or David Jacobs. This surely shows how much the content of the abduction phenomenon is led by the investigator, especially if hypnotic regression is involved.
He considers the concept of the ‘repressed memory’ and the idea that the abduction experience may represent a ‘screen memory’ of childhood abuse. Although accepting that the search for such memories led to huge injustices in the 1980s and 1990s, he takes a ‘don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater approach’, which I think is not justified by the evidence, and seems prepared to accept this as an explanation for many abduction cases. He describes the ‘backlash’ against this idea in the late 1990s as “ferocious, as excessive and undiscriminating as the recovered-memory crusaders had been at their worst”. I do not think this can be justified.
Elsewhere he re-examines key milestones on the history of ufology, including an assessments of Al Bender’s ‘Men in Black’ encounters and the complexities of the Shaver mystery which place them clearly in the mainstream of the development of the mythos, and not fringe irrelevancies which must be pushed to one side in case they taint the ‘scientific’ approach to UFOs.
Ultimately Halperin’s thesis is expressed in the title of his book. The UFO experience is something internal and intimate to the human condition. The stimulus for the experience may be a physical phenomenon which is not so much ‘misinterpreted’ by the percipient, as ‘reinterpreted’. Whether you take a Jungian or a Freudian approach, and Halperin tries a bit of both, (his ‘broken condom’ UFO is almost worth the price of the book on its own!) or even if you “treat those two impostors just the same”, he presents a convincing argument.
Halperin is a sympathetic guide to the ufological world, he writes as an insider and from personal experience, and brings the depth of his academic knowledge to the topic, without drowning the reader in academic jargon. It is well written and a surprisingly compelling read. It’s not a book for someone coming new to the topic, but for anyone who has looked at it in some detail and is open to challenging concepts, it will be a source of intriguing new ideas.
Just one niggle, the word ‘ufology’ does not need the first three letters to be capitalised. Publishers generally, please note. – John Rimmer.