Academia and abductions

Bridget Brown. They Know Us Better Than We Know Ourselves. New York University Press, 2007. Reviewed by Peter Rogerson.

This book is perhaps symptomatic of a growing academic interest in ufology as a source of modern folklore and a window into otherwise hidden contemporary mind sets. Bridget Brown takes a strongly psychosocial approach to the abduction experience, with the emphasis on the social, warning of reductive psychological approaches which leave out the social context of such stories.

From her studies of the literature and interviews with members of abductee support groups in New York, she sees that the abduction narratives tell us far more about ourselves than any alien.

Brown locates the growth of the abduction narratives within the contexts of continuing debates over memory, the rise of the therapeutic culture, the allure of hypnosis and confusion over personal history and identity. In a world of rapid social change in which people feel increasing powerless, and often overwhelmed by the pressures of everyday life, abduction accounts give a shape and meaning to life, a face to faceless fears and a name to nameless dreads. The angst many people feel in their lives is transformed by abduction researchers into ‘evidence’ for alien abduction, and of lost secrets which only the charismatic investigator can heal.

She notes the curious echoes between the actions of the hypnotists from Dr Simon onwards and the putative aliens: both are seen as essential male authority figures who can be become the masters of the abductees memory, which they can turn on and off at will. The construction of narratives becomes a collaborative process in which fragmented life narratives are woven into a new story.

Abduction narratives derive from pervasive images, the growing scientistic and technophillic rhetoric surrounding developments in the medical field, for example whereby patients are increasingly seen as objects of research, the scientification of reproduction, and general fears of science, which reappears time and again in abduction narratives where the aliens take on the role of the cold clinician administering barely-understood procedures for ‘our own good’. Equally the pervasive concern over the environment is projected onto lectures given by the ‘aliens’, the post-Watergate revelations of government malfeasance reflected in the tales of human alien collaboration and the like.

Brown sees in much of this rhetoric a sense of helplessness. Even though some of the abductees she interviews were once community activists, they have now abandoned such activity for waiting on the alien and their equivocal intervention. Within these narratives one can perhaps sense a pervasive ‘fear of freedom’, and a dream of a restoration of a given world handed down from on high. A recent development too late to be included in this book (most which was clearly researches and written about ten years ago) are claims that abductees are being told that when ‘they’ take over, ‘everyone will know their place’, modernity, with its legions of confusing and agonising choices, will be replaced by some kind of traditional society, whether cosmic boot camp envisioned by Hopkins and Jacobs, or the closed society of ‘ancient wisdom’ dreamed of by Mack.

One way to escape from freedom is to become a ‘victim’, and during the period there was a growing movement which saw the world divided into sharply opposing legions of perpetrators and victims. Victimhood both relieves people of responsibility: things have turned out the way they have because the terrible others - aliens, the secret state or abusive parents - have done this unspeakable thing to me. Victimhood grants moral authority, an idea which derives from long traditions in which spiritual enlightenment comes through suffering, so that one gains merit through martyrdom. This can easily take on a sinister edge: several of the abductees reported here clearly suggest that not only does their suffering at the hands of the others give them spiritual insight, but the rest of us need a good dose of alien tough love, or the spiritual enlightenment brought about through global catastrophe. Note that the aliens never offer any practical advise as to how such possible real global catastrophes may be avoided (no formulae for cheap, pollution-free, carbon-free fuel for example), only platitudes. The dystopias abductionists offer do not provide for effective action.

This spiritual charisma of the suffering saviour can be further enhanced by the abductees often having litanies of mysterious illnesses, and by bearing marks of various stigmata which bare physical testimony to their suffering. Some of these marks Brown can see are just the scars of daily living, but others hint at self harm, or of actual abuse from sources much closer to home than any place on Betty Hill’s star chart.

The abuse here is not just physical, Brown makes in pretty clear what she thinks of abduction researchers such as Hopkins, Jacobs and other male authority figures prompting female abductees to construct ever more lurid sexual fantasies. They are essentially pornographers. Though the words are never uttered you definitely get the feeling that good old uncle Budd makes Brown’s flesh creep. She could have gone further with Jacobs, whose fantasies increasingly incorporate all the standard clichés of racist pornography, with the Greys or the hybrids standing in the for Jews/gypsies/blacks/Arabs etc etc, who are infiltrating into our bloodline, seducing our women, trying to pass themselves off as one of us, while seeking to take over the country.

Abduction narratives may have had more power in the United States because of the lack of a mass tradition of opposition to the official state. Western Europe and Australia, and even Canada have had powerful socialist and labour movements which have legitimised the rhetoric of opposition to capitalism. But capitalism is the official ideology of the USA in a way it isn’t in the rest if the west, and anyone seriously challenging it can become more marginalised than any abductee in large parts of the country. Brown presses the abductees, including those with a previous history of political activism as to whether their disease might not reflect social problems, they all deny it. No explanation other than the aliens will do.

At one level one can see that this is because these people have created a new identity for themselves, a new sense of specialness and a new community. They are no longer average boring people with the same average boring problems as the rest, but special people, with special problems, more than that, they have been chosen even if it is a hard choosing to a savage road. They can still feel part of a larger meaning - their lives have a purpose, albeit a painful and mysterious one.

But perhaps there is another reason for this clinging to the alien, and the denial of any suggestion that the abduction experience is a metaphor for something closer to home. There is a connection Brown does not quite make here. who is it who knows, or thinks they know us, better than we know ourselves; have ‘a right’ to do things to us; who do things ‘for our own good’ which might cause pain, teach us lessonds, and who hide deep secrets from us? Parents of course. The greys are ‘bad parents’, the essence of the negative image of the parent, the wicked stepmothers of the space age. Remember that most of these abductees are baby boomers or second wind baby boomers, many of whom had confrontational relationships with parents whose lives were shaped by economic depression and war. These were people who as teenagers might have heard parents say things ‘all long haired teenagers should be shot’ (see James Micheners Kent State: What Happened and Why to get an idea of how bad intergenerational hatreds had become). This is a period which the baby boom generation, now themselves parents and grandparents, have real difficulty in coming to terms with. Wounds were papered over in the years following, but deep underneath there are festering sours

By projecting the negative features of parenthood onto the terrible others, perhaps abductees are able to maintain an idealised image of their parents, the pains are not inflicted by their own parents, but by terrible anti-parents who are all power and no love. Equally the reason things fall apart is not because there is something structurally wrong with my country and its political, social and economic order, but because individual traitors have formed an alliance with these terrible others. The evil parents and the evil parental state are thus separated away from the reality. The real mixed up, confused and ambiguous source of authority is radically separated into the idealised us and the demonic them. If that defence fails then the parents themselves might become completely demonised into monsterous satanic child abusers

If Brown misses out the parental references, she can see the reverse operating, parents sense of the loss of their growing up children is sublimated into grief for the lost boys and girls of the extraterrestrial neverland, lost boys and girls who never grow up and will always need their love, but who will not otherwise complicate their lives.

Perhaps not just parents and children but themselves, the compromising, getting-the-job-done, its-the-rules-mate aspects of their own lives and personalities can also be projected onto the terrible others. If this is a world of perpetrators and victims, them if you are not a victim you are a perpetrator, only by being a victim, especially one who is wonderful and special and spiritual and who does wonderful special things like ‘listen to the earth’ can you be sure that really deep down you are not just another jobsworth grey.

Now of course, as Brown adds in what is clearly an afterward for mass publication, we have other fears and other enemies, and the world seems sharper again, or rather it did in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. Now in a world of endless unwinable wars, that serve only to dehumanise all involved in them, the time is ripe for some rougher beasts yet.

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