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The Psychiatrist, the Aliens, and “Going Native”

The Psychiatrist, the Aliens, and “Going Native”

Psychiatry, Alien abductions HISTORY OF PSYCHIATRY

In 1994, after years of working with troubled individuals claiming to have been abducted by extraterrestrials—so-called experiencers—Harvard University Professor of Psychiatry John Mack (1929-2004) published one of the most controversial books in the recent history of psychiatry. Abduction: Human Encounters With Aliens1 chronicles Mack’s therapeutic work with scores of men, women, and children with “conscious recall or recall with the help of hypnosis, of being taken by alien beings into a strange craft, reported with emotion appropriate to the experience being described and no apparent mental condition that could account for the story.” What made the book and Mack himself so controversial was the fact that he had come to accept that the stories his clients were recounting were an accurate description of real events. As he put it:

What the abduction phenomenon has led me (I would say now inevitably) to see is that we participate in a universe or universes that are filled with intelligences from which we have cut ourselves off, having lost the senses by which we might know them. It has become clear to me also that our restricted worldview or paradigm lies behind most of the major destructive patterns that threaten the human future—mindless corporate acquisitiveness that perpetuates vast differences between rich and poor and contributes to hunger and disease; ethnonational violence resulting in mass killing which could grow into nuclear holocaust; and ecological destruction on a scale that threatens the survival of the earth’s living systems.

 

Niall Boyce, editor of The Lancet Psychiatry, noted that the reaction of Mack’s colleagues was decidedly negative, with many puzzled by the fact that someone they considered intelligent, affable, and so eminently reasonable could go down the proverbial rabbit hole. Boyce, however, has tried to understand Mack’s turn more sympathetically than critics, dubbing him “the psychiatrist who wanted to believe.” “The book [Abduction],” Boyce argues, “speaks of a man easily touched by others’ emotions—indeed, a man whose perception of others’ emotional sincerity led to a belief in the reality of the experiences they described.” Mack was, therefore, “wrong for the best of reasons, and with the best of intentions.” Mack’s tragic flaw then, according to Boyce, was his failure to effectively navigate the boundaries separating the sympathetic from the critical facets of the therapeutic relationship.2

Boyce is correct that Mack’s “going native” exposed the tension between, on the one hand, the healer’s desire and need to provide comfort and, on the other, the importance of providing a critical voice and expert counterweight. It could be argued that this tension has only grown more recently as clinicians’ methods have become more firmly tied to scientific data.

That said, the question of just how far “native”—and here I use the term adjectivally, synonymous with the term “indigenous”—one may acceptably go as a professional scholar, teacher, or counselor is hardly unique to psychiatry and psychotherapy. Similar to Mack, for instance, former Temple University Professor of History David Jacobs, after writing a well-received book on the history of the UFO phenomenon in the US,3 eventually came to the view that extraterrestrials were in fact kidnapping human beings as part of a plot to breed human-alien hybrids and became a hypnotherapist and advocate for self-identified abductees.4

The issue of how far a professional may legitimately go in allying and empathizing with his or her subjects extends well beyond UFOs and aliens. Sociologist Erich Goode, for instance, has chronicled prominent cases—controversially including his own—in which social scientists have had sexual relations with informants.5 And, anthropologists widely rejected the work of Carlos Castaneda, a PhD in anthropology, after he adopted and became a vocal advocate for a form of Yaqui Indian shamanism.6

In fact, especially over the past 2 decades, anthropologists have dedicated significant time and space debating the proper limits of “going native.” Ethnography’s laudable insistence on seeing the world through the eyes of informants has historically led anthropologists to require that researchers live within the communities being studied and to learn and adopt members’ lifestyles.7 Scholars, however, have warned that if taken too far, “engaged anthropology” can help perpetuate stereotypes and trivialize indigenous lifeways and may give the researcher the false impression that he has fully captured the authentic experience of the other.8,9 Rather than attempting to know and represent some imaginary pristine, authentic way of life, critics suggest that anthropologists would be better served aspiring to sincerity—ie, acting in good faith to establish a rapport with their subjects while acknowledging their different respective positions.

Seen from the perspective of anthropology, it is possible to understand Mack’s instance of “going native” along lines that expand on the argument of Niall Boyce. It was not simply that Mack sympathized too deeply with his patients’ suffering. If we take him literally at his word, Mack’s well-intentioned desire to listen sincerely to his patients eventually led him to see in their experiences a form of lost authenticity, one he believed capable and worthy of capturing. His deeply held belief that the modern world was fraught with lethally destructive and self-destructive impulses that might be eradicated by redemptive extraterrestrial intelligences was one shared by a great many of those historically involved in the UFO and alien contact communities.10 His involvement with self-identifying alien abductees, therefore, was about more than the force of his professional concerns about his patients; it was also about the force of his political convictions—convictions he had in common with those he hoped to help.

Disclosures

Dr Eghigian is the History of Psychiatry Section Editor for Psychiatric Times. His full bio can found here.

References

1. Mack JE. Abduction: Human Encounters With Aliens. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons; 1994.

2. Boyce N. The psychiatrist who wanted to believe. Lancet. 2012;380:1140-1141.

3. Jacobs DM. The UFO Controversy in America. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press; 1975.

4. Jacobs DM. Secret Life: Firsthand Accounts of UFO Abductions. New York: Fireside; 1993.

5. Goode E. Sex with informants as deviant behavior: an account and commentary. Deviant Behav. 1999;20:301-324.

6. Lindquist G. Travelling by the others’ cognitive maps or going native and coming back. Ethnos. 1995;60:5-40.

7. Turner E. The reality of spirits: a tabooed or permitted field of study? Anthropol Conscious. 1993;4:9-12.

8. Marker M. Going native in the academy: choosing the exotic over the critical. Anthropol Educ Q. 1998;29:473-480.

9. Jackson JL Jr. Engaged anthropology: diversity and dilemmas. Curr Anthropol. 2010;51(suppl 2):S279-S287.

10. Eghigian G. A transatlantic buzz: flying saucers, extraterrestrials, and America in postwar Germany. J Transatlantic Stud. 2014;12:282-303.

 
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