Monday, June 5, 2017

New York Times review of Close Encounters, 1995

Giving the U.F.O. Group A Shot at Persuasion
Published: June 5, 1995
CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE FOURTH KIND Alien Abduction, U.F.O.'s and the Conference at M.I.T.
By C. D. B. Bryan
476 pages.
 Alfred A. Knopf.

 Alfred A. Knopf, the publisher of "Close Encounters of the Fourth Kind," is about as mainstream and respectable as a publisher can be. The author, C. D. B. Bryan, has written estimable histories of the National Air and Space Museum and the National Geographic Society. The book's main event is the so-called abduction study conference from June 13-17, 1992, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology under the direction of David E. Pritchard, a physicist there, and John E. Mack, the Harvard psychiatrist. 

 So even a complete skeptic is inclined at least to consider what Mr. Bryan has to report. While the very notion of the book remains incredible, more trustworthy circumstances under which to entertain it are hard to imagine. 

The two submitted book cover designs. the one on the right would be chosen

 As Mr. Bryan reports, he attended the five-day conference, took extensive notes, talked to the participants during breaks and over meals, and followed up with "postconference interviews," some of which involved sitting in on hypnosis sessions with witnesses who claim to have been abducted by aliens. 

 If one boils down their testimonies to a single archetypal event, what they experienced involved first a sense of foreboding, the sighting of bright lights in the sky and the stalling of the cars they happened to be driving; then an awareness of missing time, a feeling of acute anxiety and the discovery of cuts or gouges on their bodies. 

 Later, under hypnotic regression, they recalled being wafted into spaceships by small gray beings who communicated telepathically with them and performed medical experiments, often involving sex.  

Understandably enough, the reader's mind boggles at these reports, and one feels some sympathy for the committee at Harvard Medical School that recently criticized Dr. Mack, the co-chairman of the conference, for his research on subjects claiming to have been abducted. 

 You naturally reject the logic of their testimony: that creatures could appear out of nowhere in craft that defy the laws of matter. You wonder why these aliens show up more in English-speaking countries than in the rest of the world, and why, if they are clever enough to travel through different dimensions of time, they would want to breed with humans or perform countless experiments on them. And you look for flaws in the witnesses, presuming them to be publicity-seeking nuts who are likely to be repressing some sort of childhood sexual trauma. 

The Japanese translation

 But Mr. Bryan's report anticipates these objections. Perhaps the case for the believers is best summed up in what Dr. Mack calls the "five basic dimensions" of the abduction phenomenon, which he summarizes this way: 

 "1. The high degree of consistency of detailed abduction accounts, reported with emotion appropriate to actual experiences, told by apparently reliable observers. 

 "2. The absence of psychiatric illness or other apparent psychological or emotional factors that could account for what is being reported. 

 "3. The physical changes and lesions affecting the bodies of the experiencers, which follow no evident psychodynamic pattern. 

 "4. The association with U.F.O.'s witnessed independently by others while abductions are taking place (which the abductee may not see). 

 "5. The reports of abductions by children as young as two or three years of age." 

 The effect of reading Mr. Bryan's book is far from enlightening. Rather one experiences it with the outlook of someone reporting an abduction: although one senses it is happening, one still doesn't believe it. 

 Nor does it help that Mr. Bryan's text is disorganized and repetitive, and shows signs that it was written hurriedly ("Budd Hopkins has arranged for Carol and Alice and I to attend one of his support group meetings after dinner that Friday"). And once you've read a couple of abduction accounts, you might as well have read them all. 

 So you race to Mr. Bryan's final chapter, titled "Various Theories." Here you are not much reassured to learn that some theorists consider alien abductions a phenomenon to make us aware of "other realities; further, that it is during, or within, some sort of overlapping of these realities that alien abductions occur." Others believe alien abductions to be a program to raise human consciousness of the earth's ecological needs, taught us by creatures from another dimension. 

 Still others support the speculation of C. G. Jung in his old age that U.F.O.'s might be "materialized psychisms," or, as Mr. Bryan puts it, "actual physical or paraphysical objects created by the collective unconscious." 

 Finally, the closest approach to a rationally acceptable explanation is a theory that physical abuse in childhood somehow makes people sensitive to electrical disturbances in the brain's temporal lobe. Such disturbances can produce "dream states" or "psychical seizures" in which people mistake fantasies for reality. Yet believers insist that memories of sexual abuse are more likely to be a screen for abduction than the other way around. 

 Mr. Bryan himself comes away from his experiences benignly skeptical. He writes that he "would like to believe" in some of the creatures he heard described, but that "I cannot honestly say I have come across any hard evidence of their presence." With his somewhat rambling report, he persuades you in the end that something very odd may be happening and that, as believers like to say, the absence of evidence is not the evidence of absence. But that's about the sum of what you get from this strange and disturbing book.