1 December 2021

SEPARATING BELIEF AND REALITY

Ralph Blumenthal. The Believer: Alien Encounters, Hard Science and the Passion of John Mack. High Road Books (University of New Mexico Press) 2021.


My first thoughts on beginning this account of the life and works of psychologist, ufologist and abductionologist John Mack, was 'when did it all start to go wrong?' I would say round about Chapter 15, but I will go into that later. Mack was born into a wealthy, middle-class secular Jewish family with academic connections and involvement in liberal politics. An early disruption in Mack’s life was the death of his mother before his first birthday. 
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He was now moved around through a number of sometimes rather eccentric relatives. His father re-married two years later, and his new step-mother was intent on removing all traces of his birth mother, and he was not even allowed to see a photograph of her. Blumental comments: “His childhood grief, many close to him believed, found expression in his later quest for the elusive in the cosmos”.

At the age of twelve he was hunting out books on psychology in his local library, which friends saw as the beginning of a search for contact with his mother, although later his wife saw this as looking for for “the missing woman in his life” which broke up their marriage. He seems surprised that his wife did not accept his various affairs and lesser attachments, saying she took a “dim view” of them

After a spell at Oberlin College, Ohio, a pioneering progressive institution, Mack moved to study medicine at Harvard, where one of his room-mates was Lester Grinspoon, who years later with Alan Persky, contributed to the 1969 American Association for the Advancement of Science symposium on UFOs. Persky described Mack as “like the Rock of Gibraltar”, so fixated was he on his studies.

Eventually Mack moved from surgery to psychiatry, and in his final year at Harvard presented a paper entitled ‘Primitive Concepts of Illness and the Dilemma of the Sick Child’ which perhaps as a foretaste of his later work, examined how ‘primitive’ people saw illness as a spiritual matter which needed treatment by shamanic and magical means, but that modern children had no way of processing life’s misfortunes other than through feelings of guilt.

After a spell in the US Air Force, stationed at a military hospital in Japan, he returned to Harvard, now a married father of three. Here he persuaded the department to put him in charge of mental health at the neglected Cambridge Hospital, and turned the facility around so effectively that he was awarded an honour by the city of Cambridge, and in 1993 the hospital won a national prize for community mental health services.

In 1989 he published Nightmares and Human Conflict, a book which looked back at historical phenomena such as succubi and incubi, and contemporary manifestations in tribal societies. Mack said that such nightmares were a way the brain resolved conflicts, that they served an evolutionary purpose by developing the central nervous system and “honing a range of coping mechanisms for extreme circumstances”. In that book he said that parents, confronted by children having nightmares, should comfort them and help them distinguish between reality and fantasy. A lesson he never seemed to practice himself when dealing with his abduction subjects.

Mack secured a great publishing success, and a Pulitzer prize with A Prince of Our Disorder, his psychological biographical study of T. S. Lawrence, ‘Lawrence of Arabia'. In a comment in his review of The Believer, David Halperin suggests that part of Mack’s interest in Lawrence was that Lawrence’s belief in creating a détente between Arab and Jew in the Middle East after the fall of the Ottoman Empire, found an echo in Mack’s own beliefs. After the Yom Kippur War in 1973 he was invited to speak at a conference on the psychological aspects of the Middle East conflict, and later was part of a delegation of academics who met Yasser Arafat.

In the 1980s he became increasingly involved in political activism in the peace and anti-nuclear movements, getting himself arrested at a protest at a nuclear testing site in Nevada. In September 1987 he attended a conference at the Esalin Center on the ‘Frontiers of Health’, speaking on nuclear imagery and its influence on children. The Esalin Center attracted such figures as Fritz Perls, the founder of Gestalt Therapy, Aldous Huxley, Timothy Leary, Ken Kesey and Joseph Campbell.

One of the other speakers at Mack’s seminar was Stanislav Grof. Grof is a name that will be familiar to Magonia readers, as it was his ideas on pre-natal and birth memories that gave rise to Alvin Lawson’s ‘Birth Trauma’ theory of UFO abduction imagery.

Grof was promoting a system called ‘Holotropic Breathwork’, and Mack signed up for this enthusiastically. In a series of trance states, he experienced a variety of exhilarating and sometimes terrifying visions. One, which seemed to set the pattern for the rest of his life's work, he describes as, “and then I got this stuff about incubators, this picture of all these abandoned fetus-infants separ[ated] from their mothers in these technology places which is the work my wife does.” Was he one of those ‘abandoned infants’, left behind when his mother died?

He continued, recalling the film Invasion of the Body Snatchers, “These invaders from outer space come & they take over everyone’s bodies. They take over the resources. They take over the plants. They take over everything – for them – and you have all these breathing creatures . . . breathing in this cold, dead suffocating way until all the resources are used up and the planet has been completely taken over.”

This was written three years before he met Budd Hopkins. And this is Chapter 15.

Mack's specific interest in UFOs seems to have begun when Grof gave him a book he had edited on 'personal transformation', particularly a section by Keith Thompson, who had previously contributed to a collection of essays on the psychological issues of UFO contact. Thompson's contribution to Grof's book concentrated on the forms of personal transformation that seemed to be associated with UFO encounter experiences, but did not discuss the nature of the experiences themselves.

Mack was introduced to Budd Hopkins via a psychotherapist at one of Grof's Californian training sessions. At this time Hopkins had begun his abduction research following his investigation of a UFO case in New York. Colleagues including Lester Grinspoon and Carl Sagan tried to dissuade Mack from getting involved, but Mack was soon attending meetings with Hopkins and a group of abductees at Hopkins's New York studio.


Mack began introducing abductees and 'experiencers' into seminars he was conducting at Harvard on the feelings of people confronted with traumatic experiences. It was at one of these that the path he was to take became apparent. A re-experiencer he was working with began receiving “apocalyptic images of a dying world”. He told his audience, “This is emerging now with others that I'm working with, this very powerful ecological consciousness that emerges from people that would not be particularly ecologically minded or transformational but that seems to be an outgrowth of these experiences.”

From then on Mack saw the abduction phenomenon as something external to the individual, an outside source influencing humanity to raise its consciousness, and he was now firmly convinced that the abduction experience was an objective reality, and that abductions were the actions of an extraterrestrial force with a defined programme of interbreeding with humans and guiding their development. He was holding monthly encounter groups with abductees, and claiming that he found no way of “tying the troubling events of my clients' histories to their abduction stories”. A statement which can only lead to the assumption that his 'clients' did in fact have troublesome histories.

Mack's work was now beginning to trouble the Harvard authorities, and when his book Abduction: Human Encounters with Aliens was published in 1994, it provoked an inquiry into whether Mack's work was compatible with his position at the university. Although some of Mack's sympathisers have described this as an 'inquisition', the result of the inquiry almost entirely acquitted Mack of any unprofessional conduct, concluding that “Dr. Mack remains a member in good standing of the Harvard Faculty of Medicine”

Mack continued his abduction work unabated, now getting deeply involved with Budd Hopkins and other researchers, and using hypnotism as his main instrument for obtaining abduction narratives. Any remnants of his previous attitude to such accounts, as situations where the experiencers should be comforted and helped to distinguish between reality and fantasy, had long been jettisoned, and he now seemed determined to reinforce their fears and extinguish any difference between reality and fantasy.

One trigger event in this retreat from science came in 1994 with a UFO report from a school in Zimbabwe, where a group of children reported a UFO landing and contact with its occupant(s). When Mack learned of this story Blumenthal reports that, “After nearly half a year under Harvard inquiry Mack didn't need much to get him out of Cambridge...”

On his way to Zimbabwe he stopped off in Johannesburg, appearing on a TV show with Credo Mutwa, described as a “celebrated South African songoma (medicine man). Known as 'Vusumazulu (awakener of the Zulus.” Mutwa was a controversial figure and it probable that Mack was unaware of his background, which included supporting the white Nationalist government in its apartheid policy, with the aim of preserving Black "tribal customs and way of life". He also allied himself with David Icke, promoting his 'reptilian agenda'.

By now Mack's interests had gone well beyond UFO abductions. Although he still seemed to believe that the abduction event was a physical process conducted by intelligent beings from another world, the need to provide evidence of that was secondary to proselytising the message and meaning behind these events. And in his mind that was a combination of ecological doom, and the rejection of 'Western' objectivity. In Mack's new world the word 'Western' was often used virtually as an insult, and that we must look to traditional tribal societies for a better understanding of the world and our place in it.

One amusing insight into Mack's ideas of 'tribal societies' is revealed in Blumethal's account of Mack's visit to Australia in 1996. He had gone there to address the 'Transpersonal Society' and investigate a wave of UFO sightings in Australia's remote Arnhem Land in the far north of the Northern Territory. He was to visit an Aborigine community on Crocker Island, which involved an uncomfortable journey in the bed of a pick-up truck.

There was no-one there to meet him so he and his colleague sat on a bench in the middle of the small settlement. A number of curious locals gathered round, and Mack introduced himself, saying “Well, you see, people in the United States have been reporting seeing strange things...” He got no further before someone interrupted him: “Oh yeah, Alien Abductions. We watch the X-Files every week.”

I'm not sure how this may have disturbed his opinion of the uncontaminated natural wisdom of tribal societies.

Not a lot, it would seem, as these ideas formed the basis of Passport to the Cosmos, Human Transformation and Alien Encounters. It finally abandons any scientific rigour. The abduction experience, it proclaims, is a personal transformation, guided either physically or in some occult way, by aliens. The message is to reject the harsh objectivism that has created Western science and society, and to return to the magical thinking of tribal societies, such as those promoted by 'shaman' like Credo Mutwa.

Passport to the Cosmos spoke of “shattering the boundary that has separated matter and spirit and scientific or spiritual ways of knowing” by going “beyond the largely useless debate about whether UFOs or abductions are real in a purely material sense.” All contact with a scientific investigation of the abduction phenomenon in a rational manner was abandoned. Abductions were now purely a matter of spiritual transformation, and most particularly environmental awareness.

In his review of Passport to the Cosmos, Peter Rogerson says that “Mack's version of how this all came about would be quiet worrying if true; it is that his exploration of the abduction experiences forced him to choose between the western world view and his 'clinical experience'. Heaven forbid that there could be anything wrong about his 'clinical experience' or judgment, therefore the Western world view had to go. I suspect things were more complicated than that".

Indeed, they were a lot more complicated than that, as this biography reveals, and much of it involved Macks' own intensely complicated private family, sexual and emotional life, which is set out with admirable honesty in this biography.

Mack was killed in a tragic accident in London in 2004, resulting from a combination of a driver who was over the drink-drive limit, and Mack's own unfamiliarity with Britain's left-hand-drive traffic rules. He had come to Oxford to participate in a conference on his hero T. E. Lawrence. In London he met Veronica Keene, widow of the psychical researcher Montague Keene; and the controversial biologist Rupert Sheldrake. This seems to give a very strong indication of where Mack's interests may have been heading. He actually asked Veronica Keene if she could arrange for him to attend a few séances.

Mack's life has threaded through medicine, psychology, parapsychology, literature, politics, psychedelics, personal transformation and any amount of Californian New Age weirdness, and managing to combine any and all of them in various arrangements.

Looking at Mack's life from the viewpoint of an 'objective' Westerner who comes from a 'WEIRD' society (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic) I can only see a series of missed opportunities for objective research. If he hadn't so casually dismissed the possibility of sleep paralysis as an explanation for the initial abduction experience, for instance, he might had discovered a way of interpreting the subsequent narratives that experiencers presented. His avocation of tribal societies and culture was certainly not an idea he took on for himself. He was always a Harvard man.

This is a fascinating book, which gives a considered insight into the character and thinking of a complex individual, and leaves one wondering just where his life would have taken John Mack if it had not been so tragically cut short.
  • John Rimmer


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