Scientific Ufology?

Ann Druffel. Firestorm: Dr James E. McDonald's Fight for UFO Science, foreword by Jacques Vallee. Wild Flower Press, 2003.

James McDonald is one of the few figures in ufology whose reputation seems to be rising, to the point of being hailed as the great forgotten genius. His death by suicide at the age of 51 has leant him something of a martyr status, and the idea has got around that he was driven to that sad fate by public ridicule over his involvement in ufology.

This massive biography, though having something of the hagiography about it, presents a portrait of a tortured man: a manic depressive who alternated between long periods of workaholic hypomania and bouts of terrible depression. To cope with the both the dysfunctional family in which he was raised, and one suspects the need to control his hypomania, Macdonald engaged in huge emotional repression, channelling his vast energies into one obsessive project after another. He was able to use this hypomania to see connections and solutions that passed others by, and it fuelled the self confidence which allowed him to take risks of which more stable colleagues might have fought shy.

Ufology was one such project, and was handled with the same obsessive attention to detail as the others. Obsessive detail might also characterise this biography, which could clearly have done with some good editing: pages being devoted to McDonald's investigation of the Hefflin photographs, the minutiae of ufological office politics, and the author's speculations about MJ12, etc., which are quite anachronistic to McDonald's period. At the same time Druffel never quite gets a grip on exactly what it was that drove him to ufology with quite such zeal; a zeal exemplified by his continuing on a UFO lecture trip the week his mother died.

One can certainly see that his main professional interest in the physics of the turbulent atmosphere with its peaks and troughs, cyclones and vast thunderstorms, reflected in some sense his own psychological turbulence. Colleagues quoted here talk of his need to understand and perhaps control everything. Did UFOs then represent some deep mystery of being, the solution of which would pose an answer to all life's problems?

McDonald, publicly at least, was seen as a champion of the ETH, though this seems to have been a position of default, being unable to think of any other solution to the more puzzling cases; and of course McDonald was campaigning at the heart of the space age, and long before the computer age, when perhaps the idea of extraterrestrial visitants taking the form of ultra high performance aircraft did not seem anywhere near as implausible as it does today. Privately he might have been thinking along more esoteric lines, the mysterious 'Proposition Six', that UFOs were some kind of psychic projection.

The saddest part of this book is the narration of how McDonald's world fell to pieces, starting with the brutal rape of his daughter. It appears that it was this confrontation with the heart of darkness, and the infinite fragility of life, against which scientific formulae were as impotent as prayer, which tipped him over the edge. This was something he could neither control nor solve, though he tried to act the role of private detective. In the end it was the wildness that the McDonald's had invited into their home which destroyed him, when his wife announced that she was planning to leave him for a young fellow-revolutionary, snapping his last slender thread of sanity.

Of course it is impossible to say what would have become of McDonald had he lived. One can imagine him moving deeper into the environmental movement, campaigning against the bomb and nuclear winter, helping to found the Green Party. Still in his 80s marching against the war in Iraq and globalisation with the uncompromising passion of the sea green incorruptible, with the images of UFOs flying high in some deep blue sky before his eye, symbols of aspirations which can never be achieved but must never be abandoned.

Or would he have gone deeper into ufology, seduced by the magic tricks of Uri Geller and his ilk into the morass of paranormalism into which the likes of Hynek, Vallee and Guérin sank? Would he have, like so many 60s radicals, become the devotee of some outlandish cult or weird New Age fad, or have sort a solution to his psychological problems by proclaiming himself an abductee? Is the simple reason that he is scientific ufology's hero, that he didn't live long enough to make a complete fool of himself as so many others have?

What is certain from this account is that the story of the life and death of James McDonald is inseparable from the narrative of the times in which he lived. -- Reviewed by Peter Rogerson, from Magonia 83, December 2003.

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