Review: The Believer: Alien Encounters, Hard Science, and the Passion of John Mack – Ralph Blumenthal

New Mexico, High Road Books, 2021. ISBN 978-0-8263-6395-4 [pbk] £17.95

(This review originally appeared in Anomaly: Journal of Research into the Paranormal, Volume 52, May 2023, pp. 182 – 5).

Once upon a time, way before UFOs became a hot topic within academia, there was John Mack. Mack, himself, was an academic: an outstanding Harvard psychiatrist who won a Pulitzer Prize in 1977 for his celebrated biography of T.E Lawrence, A Prince of Our Disorder, beating 92 other entrants to win the much-coveted award. By the early 1990s his reputation was impeccable, his academic credentials outstanding, and the respect he had garnered from the Harvard hierarchy unshakable. All his professional ducks in a row, then, until his interest – no, belief – that human beings had been abducted by aliens became common knowledge.

And then…well…things changed, somewhat.

Belief is a problematic word within science. And Mack was, above everything, a scientist. I was going to write ‘above and beyond’, and yet, in presenting his views on the reality of alien abduction, John Mack was, as his critics averred, going well beyond science itself. A showdown with his Harvard superiors was inevitable and occurred, eventually, in the summer of 1994. Though he would emerge from it with his reputation intact he would be forever after remembered as the man who had ‘gone off the rails’ in pursuit of a worldview which many of his scientific peers could neither endure nor endorse.

He has a fine biographer in Blumenthal. After all, in presenting, assessing, and properly contextualising Mack’s extraordinary life Blumenthal is forced to supply the reader with nothing less than a history of Ufology and its place within the wider world of anomalistics: no easy path, and one which a less sure-footed writer would have found it much more difficult to traverse. Not so the author of this compelling and highly readable biography who skilfully weaves together two narratives within The Believer: the story of Ufology, with its emergent ‘sub-plot’ of abduction, and the story of Mack, whose own ‘abduction’ by the Ufological sub-field of abduction studies is charted meticulously and in detail.

Blumenthal is clearly much taken with certain contributors to the field of Ufology: Jerome Clark, in particular, whose magisterial two-volume UFO Encyclopaedia he references throughout. He charts all of the major trends and developments within the field, from the coining of the term ‘Flying Saucer’ in 1947, through the US Air Force’s various attempts to investigate – and in some instances to suppress – the thousands of reports sent to them in ensuing decades, and all the way, eventually, to the seminal Betty and Barney Hill abduction of 1961 and the subsequent emergence of UFO abduction research as a field in its own right. He correctly lingers on this latter ‘phase’ as he attempts to chart Mack’s own entry into the field, making detailed reference to researchers David Jacobs and Budd Hopkins and highlighting the massive influence of the latter upon Mack’s own thinking (even if they disagreed fundamentally on certain aspects of the phenomenon and fell out for a while).

So why was Mack so taken with UFO abductions that he would risk so much in order to examine them so deeply and, ultimately, so publicly? Blumenthal leaves the reader in little doubt as to how Mack would have answered this: the evidence. As awareness of Mack’s interest – and eminence – within the field spread, so too did so-called ‘abductees’ seek him out. And the stories they told him – over two-thirds in full or in part as a result of regressive hypnosis – appeared, at least to Mack, eerily consistent: abductees’ experiences would begin with the sighting of a craft, followed by their ‘transportation’ on board in the company of beings who would ‘switch them off’ before examining them, sometimes removing sperm from males or, from females, foetuses, to be used in some sort of human-alien hybrid breeding programme. As his research developed Mack became aware of other features too, such as visions of planetary destruction vividly-communicated to abductees. A warning, perhaps: either of what awaits the human race or a lesson to be learned from what had already befallen the aliens.

Critics were not slow in coming forth. What he was uncovering was a purely psychological phenomenon, surely? A ‘screen memory’ of some sort, or a shared, cultural narrative consciously or unconsciously absorbed and reproduced within the psychotherapeutic context? Not so, averred Mack. The stories were too consistent, for one thing. And what to make of the reports of young children; too young to have absorbed any such shared, culturally determined set of memorates? And what of the disappearances of abductees, as vouched for by others? And the ‘scoop marks’ and implants, left on abductees as a result of the procedures carried out on them by their abductors? And the fact that so many of them had ‘come to’ after their experiences in places unfamiliar to them and improperly dressed?

As strange as this all sounds, none of it was particularly original. Beginning in the early-1980s, Budd Hopkins had been saying very many similar things as a result of his own abduction research and David Jacobs had undergone much the same academic censure as a result of his own, similar, findings. Yet nobody else in the field had Mack’s eminence: a fact explaining his own popularity and, some would say, notoriety.

Perhaps inevitably, Mack’s abduction research would lead him to other things, including an increasingly spiritual quest for the underlying reality beyond that of ‘mere’ appearances. After all, having shaken off the “super-Western-science-y” paradigm, as he put it on one occasion to his therapist, he was free to explore, even to embrace, just about anything. And this he did, as Blumenthal shows, steadily and without let up until he was run over and killed in an accident during a visit to London in September 2004.

Mack’s legacy is a compelling, if controversial, one. Abduction research is nowhere near as popular nor widespread within the Ufological field as it was during Mack’s lifetime but questions about the Western scientific paradigm still remain. Indeed, the words of William James, as quoted by Blumenthal, remain as true today as they did during the lifetime of Mack: ‘I am convinced that we stand with all these things at the threshold of a long enquiry, of which the end appears as yet to no one, least of all myself.’