BOOK REVIEW: THE BELIEVER
By Joanne Intrator | October 11, 2021 |
Ralph Blumenthal’s The Believer – a lively read – draws a poignant profile of the highly accomplished if controversial Harvard psychiatrist Dr. John E. Mack.
Mack had already published very well-regarded books in the field of psychiatry by the time he was made Head of the Harvard Medical School’s Psychiatry Department in 1977. That same year, his psychobiography of T.E. Lawrence, A Prince of our Disorder, won a Pulitzer Prize.
Blumenthal’s path into John Mack’s life story, though, is through Mack’s engagement with people who claim to have had contact with extraterrestrials, the sort said to arrive on earth via unidentified flying objects. While such people obviously are legitimate objects of psychiatric research, what got John Mack in hot water with his scientific community was that he frequently was a tad too credulous as regarded his study subjects’ – let us say — incompletely corroborated narratives of being kidnapped – and sometimes, even, sexually violated – by explorers from places in the universe other than our spinning planet.
That particular inclination gave Mack an entrée to popular celebrityhood. He published two “blockbuster” books on the topic, Abduction; Human Encounters with Aliens and Passport to the Cosmos. He also got invited onto Larry King Live and The Oprah Winfrey Show. However, in 1994, Mack’s Harvard peers, concerned, commenced an undercover investigation of how he was conducting himself with his study subjects and patients. One of the great services Blumenthal has done by publishing The Believer is getting the story of that initially secretive investigation fully told.
I was rivetted by the account.
Still more compelling are the underlying psychological factors that contributed to Mack’s pursuit of his interests in ways that threatened his good standing in medicine and academia. When John Mack was just a baby, his mother died an eminently preventable death. His father soon remarried, and the stepmother did her best to purge all traces of John’s biological mother from the home. Mack never really healed from his wounding loss. Within himself, he was always vigorously searching for something irrecoverable. In The Believer, Blumenthal assembles a touching weight of evidence of Mack’s suffering, but also of his many personal adventures and triumphs despite that suffering.
I offer, for consideration, a possible interpretation of John Mack’s strong interest in “experiencers” – people who allege to have been abducted by aliens. The experiencers’ narratives almost always involve their being hostilely kidnapped by unfeeling aliens into cold inhuman atmospheres. Those circumstances have their parallels in those that pertain when an infant loses its mother, as the infant Mack lost his. In addition to losing his mother, his maternal grandfather suddenly died; the baby got passed around to various relatives while John Mack’s father grieved. All that the baby had known at 8 months got ripped away. In place of the familiar smells, sounds, and touch of his mother, there was chaos and unfamiliarity. Also relevant is that because Mack credited the experiencers for their abduction narratives, they worshipped and adored him – the kind of attention a mother lavishes on her infant.
Blumenthal, a seasoned, spellbinding storyteller, here provides a rich overview of the world history of UFO and alien encounter lore. One thing to be learned from The Believer is that in 1897, as a mysterious airship was said to be flying around the south-central United States, Dr. Aaron Levy, the only rabbi then in Beaumont, Texas told a reporter that he had not only seen the airship, but also shaken hands with one of its crew members.
Mack along the way developed relationships with figures as far flung as the American artist Budd Hopkins and the Dalai Lama. The Believer recounts those relationships, and much more, in flowing, engaging prose. As sensitive as John Mack was to the felt experiences of “abductees,” Blumenthal is to Mack. No matter what you may think of UFOs and alien abductions, you will come away from reading The Believer with a deepened appreciation of John Mack, Renaissance man.
RALPH BLUMENTHAL on THE BELIEVER
By Joanne Intrator | October 11, 2021 |
Ralph Blumenthal’s latest book, The Believer, is about the controversial Harvard psychiatrist John E. Mack.
What made Mack controversial?
He gave more credence than would most psychiatrists to people who claimed to have been abducted by aliens.
I found reading The Believer extremely rewarding, and recently spoke with Ralph via Skype. This post is shaped and edited from our conversation.
Ralph tells me:
All the books I’ve done have come to me in a kind of mystical way. You don’t so much pick your subjects as the subjects pick you. In this case, in 2004, I read Mack’s Passport to the Cosmos. Shortly thereafter, Mack was tragically killed by a drunk driver in London. John Mack is a compelling character, and I came to view him as having gone through a hero’s journey, in the Joseph Campbell sense.
Engagingly, The Believer recounts an investigation of Mack’s treatment of patients, which Ralph refers to as ‘The Harvard Inquisition.’ On this topic, he says:
Mack left behind an unpublished manuscript, When Worldviews Collide. I love the title because of its play on the title of the 1951 science fiction disaster movie When Worlds Collide. Mack’s theme in the book was that he and Harvard had completely different worldviews. In his understanding of them, the people who claimed that they had been abducted by aliens had genuinely experienced some sort of trauma. When Harvard would ask: “Where is the scientific proof?,” he’d respond: “It exists, but I can’t prove it.” And then he would talk about the signposts pointing to the experiencers’ narratives being real on some level. Having his manuscript was a great window into that whole episode.
By the time John Mack got involved with UFOs and “abductees” in the 1990s, he was solidly established as a significant figure in psychiatry, and his 1977 psychobiography of T.E. Lawrence had long since won a Pulitzer Prize. Ralph tells me:
When Mack got involved with studying the experiencers, he was poking the Harvard bear. He knew this would be problematic for him, and he simply did not care. I mean, when he was just learning about this, when he was at the very beginning stages of trying to understand it, there he was, putting an experiencer on stage beside him, playing a recording of her screaming away. It was guaranteed to get Harvard’s hackles up; he did not care.
I remark on Mack’s publishing several commercial books about UFOs and abductees, and his going on Larry King Live and The Oprah Winfrey Show to discuss these books. A 1995 Washington Post headline reads: ALIEN BOOK CARRIES SCHOLAR FROM HARVARD TO OPRAH. Ralph exclaims:
He was caught up in the whirlwind!
And Ralph has many interesting things to say about his process of researching and writing The Believer.
Thanks to Mack’s family, I had extraordinary access to all kinds of documentation. Best of all, I had exclusive access. As a researcher, getting into somebody’s life like that, in ways nobody else has, is a great thrill, it’s almost like a rush.
When two writers are working on their own books about the same person, and using the same archives, there’s competition. So, I didn’t have to be looking over my shoulder, which was great. And the material was all so rich. It was his own thoughts, his own tapes, his own voice. I even had access to notes from his therapy sessions, in which he was forthcoming. He was a very astute man, who knew what was going on, and was not deceiving himself.
John’s eldest son Danny was my Mack family point man. I interviewed him on a number of occasions, but deliberately did not show him the book while it was in progress. After The Believer came out though, he didn’t even respond to me for six months. When he finally did, he said it had been very difficult for him to pick it up, knowing it would be tough to read because so many sensitive family issues were in it. That he had no quarrel with the book was comforting to me. Somebody like that could say: “You got it all wrong! You misconstrued everything!” But Danny told me he was pleased by what I did with the material.
It took me 16 years to research and write The Believer. I threw my heart into it. You know, when you work on a book, you reshape it all the time. You ask yourself; “Do I tell it this way, or that way?” Those kinds of choices for this book were particularly agonizing, because the subject matter — Mack’s reactions to the experiencers’ abduction reports — was so difficult. I had to hit the right tone, being close enough to the man, but keeping my distance. In terms of getting into his head, I had to sort of be his alter ego, yet, as the biographer I could not identify with him.
I believe that John Mack’s loss of his mother is key to understanding his adult vulnerabilities. Ralph says:
He was a little boy, always missing his mother. He was lost. And you see his self-awareness of that in something he once told a Brazilian therapist. “The abduction story is a welcoming story because it means that—Ooooo, I’m getting goose pimples as I think of this—I’m not alone. There is life in the universe.”
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BOOKS | SCIENCE
The Believer by Ralph Blumenthal review — could alien abduction really be true?
Professor John Mack shocked his Harvard colleagues when he came out as a believer in alien encounters. His story is riveting, says Simon Ings
Saturday July 24 2021, 12.01am BST, The Times
In September 1965 John Fuller, a columnist for the weekly magazine Saturday Review, was criss-crossing Rockingham County in New Hampshire in pursuit of a rash of UFO sightings, when he stumbled on a darker story so unlikely, he didn’t follow it up straight away.
Not far from the local Pease Air Force base, a New Hampshire couple were claiming that they had been abducted and experimented on by aliens. Every few years since the end of the Second World War, others had claimed similar experiences. But they were few and scattered, their accounts were incredible and florid, and there was never any corroborating physical evidence for their allegations. It took decades before anyone in academia took an interest in the plight of “experiencers”, the name that those who claim to have been abducted by aliens give themselves.
John Mack, a noted Harvard psychiatrist and Pulitzer-winning author, changed all that. In 1992 Mack told an astonished audience at a conference at Massachusetts Institute of Technology that “there is no evidence that anything other than what abductees are telling us has happened to them . . . the people with whom I have been working, as far as I can tell, are telling the truth, and this has been the impression of other abduction researchers”. As Ralph Blumenthal writes, “word of the conference leaked out, and many of Mack’s Harvard colleagues were incredulous or appalled. He was lending his professional eminence to this?”
Mack, the head of psychiatry at Harvard’s medical school, had not come to this unorthodox opinion lightly. He spent time interviewing experiencers and came to find their stories of encounters with aliens compelling. The aliens, by the way, tended to have large bulbous craniums, set on thin necks. Their eyes were large and inky black; the mouth a lipless, toothless slit.
In his book Abduction: Human Encounters with Aliens (1994) Mack found a wider audience for the testimony he gleaned from his subjects. People such as “Ginny”, a 36-year-old woman who had memories of alien beings crowding around her bassinet as an infant and who recalled an abduction and invasive medical probe, or that of “Cathy”, an employee of the US Drug Enforcement Administration, who was found in a field near her flipped-over snowmobile. Her coat, hat, scarf and gloves were found neatly folded near by. Under hypnosis, details of an abduction came back to her.
In The Believer Blumenthal, a former New York Times journalist, examines why this establishment figure should court ridicule and career suicide. What led such a distinguished man to believe in alien abduction?
It started in January 1990 when Mack visited Budd Hopkins, whose Intruders Foundation provided support for experiencers. Mack’s interest had been piqued by his friend, the psychoanalyst Robert Lifton. An old hand at treating trauma, particularly among Hiroshima survivors and Vietnam veterans, Lifton found himself stumped when dealing with experiencers: “It wasn’t clear to me or to anybody else exactly what the trauma was.” Nonetheless, they had been through something lifechanging.
Mack was immediately intrigued. Highly strung, narcissistic, damaged by his mother’s early death, Mack needed a deep intellectual project to hold himself together. He was interested in how perceptions and beliefs about reality shape society. A Prince of Our Disorder, his Pulitzer prizewinning psychological biography of TE Lawrence, a man who perpetually tortured himself with self-examination, was his most intimate statement on the subject. Work on the psychology of the Cold War had drawn him into anti-nuclear activism and close association with the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, which won a Nobel peace prize in 1985.
Just as important, though, Mack enjoyed helping people, and he was good at it. In 1964 he had established mental health services in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where thousands were without any mental health provision at all. As a practitioner, he had worked particularly with children and adolescents, had treated suicidal patients and published research on heroin addiction.
Whitley Strieber (whose book Communion, about his own alien abduction, is one of the most disturbing books ever to reach the bestseller lists) observed how Mack approached experiencers. “He very intentionally did not want to look too deeply into the anomalous aspects of the reports,” Strieber writes. “He felt his approach as a physician should be to not look beyond the narrative but to approach it as a source of information about the individual’s state.”
But what was Mack opening himself up to? What to make of the sexual nature of some accounts? Men claimed to have endured forced ejaculation; weirder still, other abductees claimed to have seen hybrid infants, the result of alien-human sexual contact.
Mack certainly believed that the experiencers had undergone something traumatic but he could not point to some terrible childhood experience as an explanation for why they believed they had been abducted. He was also intrigued that many experiencers reported a pressing, painful awareness of impending environmental catastrophe and a tremendous sense of empathy, extending across the whole living world. Some felt optimistic, even euphoric: for these were now recruited in a project to save life on Earth, as part of the aliens’ breeding programme.
Mack championed hypnotic regression as a means of helping his clients to discover buried memories. This led to two kinds of trouble. First, Mack never thought very deeply about where these memories might spring from, assuming they weren’t memories of real events — this despite a rich esoteric literature exploring the link between malevolent visitations, lucid dreaming and sleep paralysis. Second, the satanic abuse scandals that erupted in the 1990s were to reveal just how easily false memories can be implanted, even inadvertently, in people made suggestible by hypnosis.
In May 1994 the dean of Harvard Medical School appointed a committee of peers to confidentially review Mack’s interactions with experiencers. Mack was exonerated of malpractice but it was a serious and reputationally damaging shot across the bows, in a field coming to grips with the reality of implanted and false memories.
Mack did not so much “go off the deep end” after that as wade, steadily and with determination, into ever deeper water. The saddest passage in Blumenthal’s book describes Mack’s trip to Stonehenge in Wiltshire in 2004, the year he died after being knocked down by a car in London. Surrounded by farm equipment that could easily have been used to create them, Mack absorbs the cosmic energy of crop circles and declares, “There isn’t anybody in the world who’s going to convince me this is man-made.”
Drop all mention of the extraterrestrials and The Believer remains a riveting look at the psychology of how we come to believe things. Mack’s abilities, his brilliance, flaws, hubris and mania, are anatomised with sensitivity. Readers will close the book wiser than when they opened it, and painfully aware of what they do not and perhaps can never know about Mack, about extraterrestrials and about the nature of truth.
Mack became a man easy to dismiss. However, as Blumenthal points out, there is no pathology to explain the stories of the experiencers. Not alcoholism. Not mental illness. Not sexual abuse. Not even a desire for attention. Most were ashamed or embarrassed of what they claim happened to them and had no desire for publicity.
Aliens are engaged in a planet-saving obstetric intervention, involving probes? You may not like it. You may point to the lack of any physical evidence. But as Blumenthal playfully points out, you have no solid reason, beyond incredulity, to suppose that abductees are telling you anything other than the truth.
The Believer: Alien Encounters, Hard Science, and the Passion of John Mack by Ralph Blumenthal, University of New Mexico Press, 324pp; £23.95
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“Detailed, thoughtful, and entertaining. . . . Ralph Blumenthal is a sympathetic biographer and, perhaps, a kindred spirit.”–Nick Pope, The Seminary Co-op Bookstore blog
“A compelling biography. . . . This well-researched account uses Mack’s personal journals, archives, and notes, along with interviews of close friends and family members, to capture the full picture of Mack’s life and genius.”–Marissa Mace, Library Journal
“Based on fifteen years of research, interviews, and exclusive access to Mack’s archival material, The Believer is the story of a brilliant man whose breadth of interests generated a lifetime of achievements. Believers will appreciate the book’s extensive cosmic phenomena, and nonbelievers will find a unique chronicle of an unquenchable human spirit.”–Amy O’Loughlin, Foreword Reviews
“This extraordinary biography reads like a fast-paced thriller. It deftly weaves the detailed richness of John Mack’s genius and complex life through the historical backdrop of the alien-abduction phenomena. Ralph Blumenthal has so beautifully captured the essence of Mack’s soul and his relentless curiosity that by the end of the book I mourned that Mack is no longer with us.”–Trish MacGregor, coauthor of Aliens in the Backyard: UFO Encounters, Abductions, and Synchronicity
“As a person sane enough to hold a driver’s license, I say, what are we to make of Mack’s findings? Read this gripping, factual account of a mental-health pioneer and truth-seeker by a soundly accredited successful author, veteran New York Times foreign correspondent, and reporter. Decide for yourselves and then tell me!”–Dan Aykroyd
“Anyone who is intrigued by the involvement of John Mack, a psychiatrist on the faculty of Harvard, or by the interest of psychiatrists in the anomalous in general and UFOs in particular, should not miss reading this book! It is filled with details on the topic, both pro and con, that are not publicly available in any other place that I know.”–David J. Hufford, author of The Terror That Comes in the Night: An Experience-Centered Study of Supernatural Assault Traditions
“John Mack was one of the few prominent American intellectuals who saw and said what was, and still is, really at stake in the UFO phenomenon–reality itself. And Ralph Blumenthal is the perfect biographer to take up Mack and bring him to life, in all his humanity and complexity, on the page. A major achievement.”–Jeffrey J. Kripal, author of The Flip: Epiphanies of Mind and the Future of Knowledge –This text refers to the hardcover edition.
From the United States
5.0 out of 5 stars An important book – and the best book I’ve read in years
Reviewed in the United States on March 6, 2021
This is the best book I’ve read in years – and I read a LOT of books. It’s intelligent, fantastically well-researched and consistently fascinating.
I bought the book without great enthusiasm. I’ve been involved in the study of the UFO phenomenon for upwards of 50 years. I closely followed the alien abduction phenomenon from its beginnings to a point sometime in the mid-2000s when I finally threw up my hands. I was convinced the phenomenon had nothing to do with literal aliens or literal abductions but likewise couldn’t be explained away as some mass psychosis. Further study just seemed a waste of time, a road to nowhere.
I was very familiar – or thought I was – with the late Harvard psychiatrist John Mack and his controversial work with abductees. This book opened my eyes. Expecting a more-or-less standard biography of Mack, I received a gripping page-turner that I devoured (Kindle version) in two days.
Mack was a far more interesting and multi-faceted character than I had realized. A Harvard psychiatrist – yes, but so much more; that description barely scratches the surface. The author makes clear that Mack’s fascination with the alien abduction phenomenon and his willingness to take abductees’ reports at face value were almost inevitable, part-and-parcel of who he was and always had been – a troubled but very deep and human seeker.
The author had the full cooperation of the Mack family and access to all of Mack’s voluminous notes and recordings. He interviewed pretty much everyone worth interviewing. This book is an authentic portrait of Mack, not a long-distance biography that relies heavily on conjecture.
Woven throughout is a fair amount of the history of ufology and the inner workings of the abduction research community. It’s all presented in a completely objective manner, to the extent that I really had no inkling until the end whether the author was sympathetic to Mack or to the abduction phenomenon or ufology in general.
Only at the end did I learn just how sympathetic the author is. The Epilogue includes a number of possible after-death communications by Mack (not to the author, but to former close associates of Mack), while an Afterword is entirely sympathetic to Mack and makes clear the author’s serious interest in the UFO phenomenon. Those who fear this might be a superficial debunking biography thus may rest easy.
I still have no great interest in the abduction phenomenon per se. I have my theories as to what is going on and how the phenomenon relates to other paranormal phenomena. It was highly interesting news to me that by the end of his life Mack had likewise moved on from the abduction phenomenon and was focusing on a wider range of phenomena and specifically the possible survival of consciousness after death.
If you have even the slightest interest in Mack, the abduction phenomenon, ufology or related subjects, you will not regret buying this book.
5.0 out of 5 stars Blumenthal nails it!
Reviewed in the United States on May 14, 2021
Ralph Blumenthal totally nails it in this biography of John. I am a psychiatrist who just happened to be in the audience when John gave his first public lecture on alien abduction in 1991, spent many hours one on one with John in supervision during my residency, sat in with John when he met with and interviewed individuals who claimed to have been abducted by aliens, drove with him to and from his grand rounds presentation on this topic at McLean Hospital, presented in the seminar John ran on anomalous experience, and very shortly before John died told him and the board of his institute that that as a young psychiatrist I was hesitant to—and would not—attach my name to his or anyone else’s. John was indeed a believer in every sense of the word. He also was an amazing clinician and teacher. I still quote him regularly to both patients and trainees to this day, 25 years after I finished my residency training, about how to be the best therapist and psychiatrist you can be. I have tears in my eyes of gratitude as I write this. Raise a glass to John and also to Ralph Blumenthal for capturing the essence of everything that John was.
3.0 out of 5 stars More puzzled than ever
Reviewed in the United States on May 31, 2021
Writing a review of a biography is tricky, since you feel like you need to either write a review of the person or a review of the book as a book, or confuse the issue. Let’s start with the reading experience of this book for people who don’t know John Mack and are only mildly interested in him. (I suspect that some of the five star reviews here come from people who are committed to Mack as a friend.) As such, it’s the portrait of a truly brilliant, ever-changing guy who got to know a huge number of important people and delved into a variety of causes and who never seems to emerge from the pages as somebody you can really know. One of the problem of the book is that you are introduced to dozens of names at a breakneck pace and never feel like you’ve found a place to rest.
Of course, that’s Mack, apparently–a protean, even chaotic personality, and a biographer is kind of stuck with that. So, with all due respect to the writer, I found myself not enjoying the experience that much, sort of like drinking water out of a firehose.
OK, that’s the book as experience. You may differ. Obviously, the man is somebody whom many, many people loved dearly and who frustrated many more because he seemed to be always breaking boundaries. I have no way of judging him as a person, never having met him. As an introvert myself, I probably would have run away screaming. But definitely a moral person who wanted to make the world a better place.
Ah, but what about the whole alien abduction thing? Here’s one person’s opinion. I read the book because I’m interested in the topic, though I have never seen a UFO or been abducted or met anybody who was, or at least, who spoke to me about it. I finished the book more confused than ever. It seems undeniable that UFOS are “real” in that they are truly unexplained phenomena and that the government has been covering up a lot of stuff maybe just because they don’t want to scare the horses, or…maybe something more interesting. I don’t know. But I finished the book less interested in the abduction stories than when I started it. As Mack himself admitted, the physical evidence is scarce. What we have is witnesses accounts. Pretty much what we have for the resurrection of Jesus, and I don’t say that lightly. What is the value of witnesses?
And what if you don’t know them personally? And even if you do, have wives ever been lied to by the men they’ve been sleeping with for decades? Answer: yes. So I gave the book three stars just because it left me unsettled.
5.0 out of 5 stars the best John Mack biography available
Reviewed in the United States on April 13, 2021
This book is not only a great biography of john mack, but a deep dive into the ufo/et/abduction experience history we’re living thru.
the book is well researched and well written (which we’d expect from a seasoned veteran new york times journalist), but avoids the kind of quick, easy answers many journalists succumb to. this is an important book.
5.0 out of 5 stars Biography At Its Best
Reviewed in the United States on April 28, 2021
In this wonderful biography, Ralph Blumenthal reveals the complexities of John Mack’s full and complicated life, interwoven with his important but controversial work–a fascinating story, thoroughly researched, beautifully told. It’s also quite a handsome book and would make a lovely gift.
5.0 out of 5 stars Even Better Than I Expected
Reviewed in the United States on May 31, 2021
The widespread enthusiasm about this book raised my expectations significantly. The Believer exceeded those expectations, covering a wide range of topics beyond the subject of alien abduction.
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent insights into Mack’s open heart and mind
Reviewed in the United States on May 9, 2021
Wonderful read into a mesmerizing man with an adventurers spirit. Blumenthal’s thorough investigation into Mack captures the triumph and difficulties in Mack’s professional pursuits. I’m grateful to have read this book to understand one of the foremost open minded thinkers of our time.
Denise A. Becker
5.0 out of 5 stars Subject matter always piques my interest.
Reviewed in the United States on May 3, 2021
Great book. Fascinating.
5.0 out of 5 stars What John E. Mack Deserves
Reviewed in the United States on March 7, 2021
Harvard Psychiatrist, John E. Mack, was ridiculed for his work in the very controversial alien abduction subject. But it never stopped him from working with, and listening to those who made the extraordinary claims. He risked so much to try to understand the phenomenon, and in this new biography by Ralph Blumenthal, Mack gets the credit he so rightfully deserved. Meticulously researched and documented, Blumenthal breathes life in his protagonist and also gives a rich history of the UFO phenomenon with ease, the two stories unfolding together into a cohesive and empathetic story. Well worth the time, money, and read.
5.0 out of 5 stars Superb Biography of a Fascinating Life Journey of a Pulitzer Prize Psychiatrist
Reviewed in the United States on March 4, 2021
I received a hardcopy from the author. I was also interviewed for the bio. by ralph. It was a well-written, engaging journey filled with the complications of a brilliant mind, a conflicted heart, and a calling to touch the ineffable within in us, around us, and in John Mack’s own personal life. I enjoyed over 20 years of a rich and varied relationship with John. All the chapters rang true. They pulled me to many memories and adventures with John. The book itself is crafted well and leads me as a reader to ponder a life of meaning and the questions, as Rilke wrote, that cannot be answered, cannot be answered, and should be chewed on until you live into being the answer. this is such a life. Enjoy.
The Last Time There Was a Craze About UFOs and Aliens
The academics and other figures who helped make alien abductions a major cultural phenomenon in the 1990s.
by DANIEL N. GULLOTTA JUNE 9, 2021 5:30 AM
(Photo by Movie Poster Image Art/Getty Images)
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UFOs are in the news again.
Though they never recede entirely from the headlines—you can always find stories somewhere speculating about spacecraft or sensationalizing optical illusions that look like saucers in the sky—public interest seems to come in waves, cresting every twenty years or so.
This time around, the burst of public interest can be traced to some 120 sightings and videos made by Navy aviators and Air Force pilots over the last two decades. The claims and the footage have been investigated by small programs in the Pentagon; videos collected from various military sources were leaked the press in 2017; by last year congressional curiosity was sufficient to demand the Pentagon produce a report, the classified version of which apparently says that there is no good explanation for these phenomena. An unclassified version of the report is expected to come out later this month.
The whole story has slipped into the realm of infotainment. In April, NBC produced a story on these sightings; then 60 Minutes did its own segment in mid-May, which in turn led to former President Barack Obama being asked about UFOs on The Late Late Show with James Corden. “There’s footage and records of objects in the skies that we don’t know exactly what they are,” Obama said. Cue the media firestorm among broadcast and cable TV, radio, newspapers, and podcasts. “Yes! You guys!” an excited Fox News personality remarked, “Former President Obama is all but confirming the existence of UFOs!” Her co-panelist Juan Williams joked that the arrival of aliens would only be further evidence that a border wall was required—adding that “Americans love this story. This is a story that could bring us together.”
There’s no way of knowing how long this particular wave of interest will last—or whether it will rival the last time UFOism was a major part of the American zeitgeist, back in the 1990s.
The ’90s saw a huge wave of pop-culture interest in UFOs and visits from extraterrestrials. One of the leading factors in this alien craze—both a symptom and a cause—was The X-Files, a TV sensation unlike anything before it. At its peak, the show had 20 million viewers tuning in each week to see FBI Special Agents Fox Mulder (David Duchovny) and Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson) deal with unexplained phenomena, possible alien abductions, and shadowy government conspiracies. Meanwhile, aliens-come-to-earth movies were a major draw, featuring such titles as Species (1995), Independence Day (1996), Contact (1997), Men in Black (1997), and The Faculty (1998). Belief in alien involvement in human affairs reached strange new heights, although one of the most infamous statistics of that era—the widely discussed claim, extrapolated from a 1991 Roper survey, that as many as 3.7 million Americans might have been abducted by aliens—tells us less about what the public actually believed than about the strangeness of that intellectual and journalistic moment.
Two of the men behind that statistic can be partly held responsible for the 1990s pop-culture obsession with UFOs. One of them had never evinced prior interest in UFOs and aliens; the other had been thinking about UFOs since the previous wave of public fascination a generation earlier.
John E. Mack, the subject of a new biography by New York Times reporter Ralph Blumenthal, was arguably the most prominent American academic to take a serious scholarly interest in UFOs. Born in New York City in 1929, and raised in what Blumenthal calls “a sheltered, wealthy, secular, German-Jewish home,” Mack graduated from Harvard Medical School in 1955. After completing his residency, he served for two years as a U.S. Air Force psychiatrist in Japan. Mack eventually returned to Harvard as a professor of psychiatry, and became the head of the university’s psychiatry department in 1977—the same year he was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for his psychobiography of Lawrence of Arabia.
Despite his secular upbringing and scientific training, Mack became interested in exploring different states of the consciousness, researching the spiritual breakthroughs of great religious leaders, practicing Holotropic Breathwork, and experimenting with mind-altering drugs.
Dr. John E. Mack in 2002. (Photo by Stuart Conway, via the John E. Mack Institute)
In 1989, Mack was introduced to Budd Hopkins, a popular New York artist who claimed to have seen a UFO—an experience that Hopkins had described in a 1981 book, Missing Time: A Documented Study of UFO Abductions. While driving to a party in August 1964, Hopkins—along with his wife and a friend—spent a long time watching a mysterious “elliptical object” that appeared to hover before it finally flew away. Several of the partygoers attested to having on other occasions seen UFOs as well. Hopkins began collecting stories about encounters with UFOs.
Mack reacted to Hopkins with curiosity but suspicion. What particularly interested Mack was the hundreds of letters Hopkins had received from other people who claimed to have seen UFOs. In addition to the sheer number of claimants, what also intrigued Mack was the relatively mundane lives they lived. The majority of “experiencers” had normal careers. Most were happily married with children, had plenty of friends, and were well liked in their communities. Few had experienced childhood trauma or had been abused. Most had achieved a high school or higher education. Initially concerned that they might be trying to find notoriety, Mack was taken aback by how frightened these people were. Some worried about their mental health, alarmed that they might be going crazy, while others expressed anxiety about how talking about their experiences could damage their relationships and reputations.
Finding subject patterns and developing a unifying explanatory theory seemed impossible. But the more Mack investigated and the more experiencers he met, the more he became convinced that something genuine had happened to these people—and he spent years trying to figure out what. According to Blumenthal, “he was professionally and personally drawn to the mystery and the plight of the abductees”—but he also had “a yearning for spirituality.” The mystery of alien abductions apparently helped satisfy that yearning, and Mack’s status as a Harvard professor, a respected psychiatric researcher, and a Pulitzer-winning writer brought new vigor to the study of claimed alien encounters.
Prior to Mack, the few psychiatrists and academics who had attempted to tackle the meaning of alien abductions had typically interpreted them as physiological or psychological reactions to trauma. Some theorized that they were hallucinations or false-memory coping mechanisms. Because so many experiencers claimed their abductions had happened at night or while they were asleep, another common explanation involved sleep apnea or night terrors.
Other psychologists suggested that UFO abduction stories are most likely rooted in sexual gratification. Because the subjects often reported that they were abducted against their will and physically violated, it was argued that masochistic escapism was a likely partial explanation for accounts of alien abduction.
Still other psychiatrists chalked up many cases to medical malpractice, with subjects attesting to having seen a UFO or having been abducted by aliens because the power of suggestion and the influence of pop culture—a criticism made all the more potent due to the frequent use of hypnotism on people making such claims. Psychiatrists were increasingly weary of such methods, since this was unfolding at the same time that the repressed-memory psychotherapy that drove so much of the Satanic panic was collapsing.
One academic particularly embroiled in controversy for his use of hypnosis is David M. Jacobs, a longtime professor of history at Temple University. After writing his 1973 doctoral dissertation and his first book on the history of UFOs in America, Jacobs began offering students a course focusing on “UFOs in American Society.” Jacobs was confounded by the number—and the sincerity—of the people who claimed they had been abducted. Despite his background as a historian, Jacobs began hypnotizing subjects who came to him, attempting to “recover” memories of their meetings with aliens.
Jacobs’s subjects typically viewed aliens as hostile and menacing figures. As Jacobs described in Secret Life (1992), the supposed abductees he worked with resembled the victims and survivors of assault or rape. Jacobs asserted that not only were aliens real, but they were kidnapping humans and impregnating them in hopes of producing hybrid babies.
Mack conducted many hypnosis sessions as well, but with very different results. In contrast to Jacobs’s starkly negative views of alien abductions, Mack said that he typically encountered people who had experienced friendly aliens, and who spoke of their abductions in a positive and transformative light—as though it were a profound spiritual experience that brought them a deeper appreciation of their loved ones and the environment as a whole. Mack’s book Abduction: Human Encounters with Aliens, which focused on eight male and five female abductees, was published in 1994 and quickly became a bestseller.
David M. Jacobs giving a 2013 lecture in front of a slide suggesting—based on the 1991 Roper survey—that “more than 6 million Americans” may have “had abduction-like experiences.”
Unlike Jacobs, Mack tried to pose—at least in public and with varying degrees of success—as neutral on the question of whether aliens were real. As a scholar, he suggested, his job was to try to understand a compelling phenomenon; as a clinician, his job was to help and sympathize. When asked “Do you believe these people?” during a 1999 Today show interview, Mack replied, “I think that they’re describing truly and honestly, with appropriate feeling, with intensity, something that happened to them.”
But according to Alexa Clay, who as a child had been a family friend of Mack before his death in 2004, in private Mack was “bolder in his claims,” asserting that aliens were indeed real and that “their existence threatened the dominant logic of our worldview.” But even aliens did not quite solve things for Mack, who privately started to ponder if the individuals he studied had actually been engaging with beings on a higher consciousness or on another dimension. As Blumenthal describes in his biography of Mack, the psychiatrist became increasingly uninterested in trying to find the kind of “proof” of the existence of aliens that so preoccupied Jacobs and Hopkins. Indeed, Blumenthal writes, Mack’s final book, Passport to the Cosmos (1999), shows he came to regard “the alien-abduction phenomenon as only one of the mysterious crossovers confronting human consciousness, along with near-death and out-of-body experiences, animal mutilations, crop circles, apparitions of the Virgin Mary, and shamanic soul flights.”
Understandably, Mack’s work divided his colleagues, both at Harvard and in the psychiatric community more generally. Some believed he was well-meaning, genuinely inquisitive, but disastrously gullible. Others accused him of being recklessly unscientific in his studies and unscholarly in his conduct. Like Jacobs, Mack came under intense criticism for his use of hypnosis, with many comparing the memories produced by his subjects to those produced during the Satanic abuse panic. In the mid-1990s, Harvard launched an investigation into Mack’s methods, and though the university considered censuring him, it ultimately reaffirmed Mack’s tenured privilege of academic freedom.
The intense popular interest in aliens and UFOs during the 1990s dissipated around the turn of the century. By 2001, the weekly audience for The X-Files was half what it had been at the show’s peak. Then came the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, which not only focused the nation’s attention on matters of national security and war, but also resulted in a rapid rise in Americans’ trust in their government. In that new atmosphere, the kinds of stories told on The X-Files—tales of government conspiracies and coverups about aliens—came, at least for a while, to seem frivolous.
Meanwhile, advances in consumer technology chipped away at the public belief in UFOs. As ever more people had phones with cameras on them at all times, blurry photos and amateur videos, once a staple in UFO sightings, seemed to disappear. The burgeoning market for drones meant that there was suddenly a plausible explanation always at hand for many strange sights in the sky. Over the 2000s, numerous alien interest groups were disbanded, and the frequency of UFO sightings was in freefall. And instead of movies about extraterrestrial encounters, audiences were being offered a different genre of blockbuster: superheroes.
While John Mack’s untimely death—he was struck and killed by a drunk driver in 2004—did not entirely end the academic study of supposed alien abductions and related paranormal claims, it did greatly diminish it. Mack’s own Harvard-based Program for Extraordinary Experience Research evolved into the freestanding John E. Mack Institute, which seems today to exist only to promote Mack’s memory and preserve his papers. David Jacobs, now retired, has continued to write about UFOs and extraterrestrials, but to far less fanfare than before. A quick search turns up a handful of doctoral dissertations, monographs, and journal articles from the last decade that touch on alien abductions—suggesting that, at least for some scholars, the academic study of alien abductions remains a compelling, though controversial, area of research.
And the aliens-on-earth theme hasn’t entirely disappeared from our popular culture. Ancient Aliens has remained a staple of the History Channel, with one of its frequent “experts” achieving meme status. A few hundred people participated in the 2019 storming of Area 51, a stunt that grew out of a joke suggested on Joe Rogan’s podcast. President Trump repeatedly discussed his interest in UFOs. And now, with the Pentagon report—not to mention President Obama’s comments—it is possible that interest in UFOs and aliens will surge once again.
Daniel N. Gullotta is a Ph.D. candidate (ABD) in American religious history at Stanford University. He is also the host of the Age of Jackson Podcast. Twitter: @danielgullotta
ALIEN ENCOUNTERS, HARD SCIENCE, AND THE PASSION OF JOHN MACK
High Road Books (Mar 15, 2021)
Hardcover $29.95 (352pp)
The Believer is the expansive story of John E. Mack, a preeminent Harvard Medical School professor and psychiatrist whose exploration of alien abduction phenomena nearly destroyed his career and reputation.
Born in 1929 to wealthy German Jewish academics, Mack grew up in New York. His mother died when he was young; her loss caused a lifetime of abandonment trauma and inspired his interest in psychiatry. He entered Harvard in 1951 and later joined the faculty, founding the department of psychiatry at Cambridge Hospital.
In 1976, Mack published A Prince of Our Disorder, a Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of T. E. Lawrence (of Arabia); in the eighties, he became an antinuclear activist. He also turned to psychedelics and breathwork to assuage his psychological pain. Both opened him up to a range of psychospirituality, priming his belief in anomalous experiences.
In 1991, Mack met Budd Hopkins, a pioneering UFO abduction investigator. Hopkins explained his use of hypnotic regression to unlock the suppressed memories of “experiencers” of alien encounters. Mack was hooked. Within a year, he was counseling his own experiencers. He collected encounter stories that varied from benign abductions to the “forcible harvesting of…eggs and sperm for human-alien hybrid reproduction.”
Hard scientific proof was elusive, Mack acknowledged. He focused on the transpersonal, on experiencers’ authenticity and emotional intensity; he found that experiencers exhibited no psychopathology. But colleagues still derided him for “conclusion-jumping,” and Carl Sagan chided him with a quip: “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” Soon, Harvard came for a reckoning.
Based on fifteen years of research, interviews, and exclusive access to Mack’s archival material, The Believer is the story of a brilliant man whose breadth of interests generated a lifetime of achievements. Believers will appreciate the book’s extensive cosmic phenomena, and nonbelievers will find a unique chronicle of an unquenchable human spirit.
Reviewed by Amy O’Loughlin
March / April 2021
By Dylan Matthewsdylan@vox.com Jun 18, 2021, 10:00am EDT
A still from a video purporting to show a UFO.
A still from the GOFAST UFO video. Official UAP Footage from the USG
All of a sudden, serious people are starting to take UFOs — unidentified flying objects — seriously.
“There’s footage and records of objects in the skies that — we don’t know exactly what they are, we can’t explain how they moved, their trajectory,” former President Barack Obama told CBS’s James Corden.
Many in Congress are curious, too, and this month the body is set to receive a report originating from a Pentagon task force detailing its investigations into unidentified aerial phenomena (UAPs), the preferred term for UFOs among specialists. The Pentagon Office of the Inspector General is also evaluating the government’s approach to UAPs with an eye to strengthening its monitoring and response. The highest levels of the American government are very, very interested in what’s up there in the sky.
When I was growing up, UFOs were the province of late-night talk radio and The X-Files. They had a roughly similar level of respectability to theories that the 9/11 attacks were an inside job, or that the CIA killed John F. Kennedy.
That stigma appears to be fading somewhat. In 1996, Gallup found that only 47 percent of Americans thought people reporting UFO sightings were seeing something real, and not imagining it. In 2019, when Gallup polled again, a majority, 56 percent, thought UFO observers were seeing something real.
Fox Mulder and Dana Scully, the leads of Fox’s The X-Files, in a still from the show.
The truth, and I cannot stress this enough, is out there. IMDb
Interestingly, the share of Americans saying the government “knows more about UFOs than it’s telling us” fell very slightly from 1996 to 2019. That may reflect the fact that the government has confirmed the reality of some of the most prominent UFO videos.
In a somewhat surprising development that helped kick-start the current round of UFO fascination, the government confirmed the authenticity of two videos featured in a 2017 New York Times story and a third one leaked a few months later, each of which depicts US Navy fighter pilots observing a strange object whose nature appears baffling to them.
We still don’t fully know what these videos depict, and at the risk of disappointing some readers, there’s no evidence that they depict alien aircraft. But it’s hard to overstate just how much these videos have changed the way the public, the government, and the mainstream press (most notably the New York Times) think and talk about UFOs — to the point where people may have misconceptions about what exactly we know given the available evidence.
Here’s a closer look at what these videos actually depict (and what they do not), how they came to light, and whether the resurgence of interest in UFOs should make us reassess what we think we know about UFOs and life beyond Earth.
The three canonical UFO videos behind the current wave of interest
The resurgence in interest in UFOs — or UAPs, the preferred term in the Defense Department — can generally be credited to three specific videos captured by the US Navy. The first two were leaked to the New York Times and written about on the front page in the December 17, 2017, print edition of the paper, while the third was leaked a few months later.
The first of these incidents, and probably the most important, is what’s called the USS Nimitz encounter, named after the supercarrier from which the jet pilot who observed the UFO took off.
In November 2004, about 100 miles off the coast of San Diego, Cmdr. David Fravor and the pilot on his wing, Lt. Cmdr. Amy Dietrich, reported seeing what Fravor called a “white tic-tac looking object” the size of an F/A-18 with no wings, markings, or exhaust plumes, that, when approached, “turns abruptly and starts mimicking me.” Eventually, Fravor told 60 Minutes’ Bill Whitaker, it simply “disappeared.”
The USS Princeton, a cruiser in the area that had asked Fravor and Dietrich to investigate anomalous aerial phenomena, reacquired the target “seconds later,” Whitaker reports, “60 miles away.” Another flight crew took a video of the object using their forward-looking infrared camera (FLIR), leading the video to be dubbed the “FLIR1 video”:
An important note here: While Fravor and Dietrich believe that the object they reported seeing and the one in the FLIR1 video are one and the same, it’s hard to be sure of that identification. And, lacking such certainty, we also cannot be sure the object flew some 60 miles in a matter of seconds, a feat that explains much of why the object seemed so strange and impressive.
The second video, labeled “GIMBAL,” was taken by a fighter jet from the carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt, flying by the coast of Florida in 2015. “This is a fucking drone, bro,” one pilot is recorded saying. “There’s a whole fleet of them,” another adds.
The third video, “GOFAST,” also recorded in 2015 and first publicly released a few months after the other videos, in March 2018, features audio of laughing, audibly excited pilots observing a small white object appearing to fly over water at an extremely rapid pace:
These three videos set off the current wave of interest in UFOs/UAPs, but they’ve been followed by at least a couple more. This year, Pentagon spokesperson Susan Gough confirmed that two recently leaked videos were taken by Navy pilots.
The first, taken above the USS Russell destroyer near San Diego in July 2019, depicts a “pyramid-like” object:
The other, taken that same month and in that same geographic area by the USS Omaha combat ship, shows what appears in the infrared camera to be a spherical object. Both videos were brought to light by filmmaker and reporter Jeremy Corbell, an enthusiastic believer in the extraterrestrial hypothesis (the theory that UFO sightings reflect contact with alien civilizations) and an advocate for greater UFO disclosure:
How a group of UFO enthusiasts helped mainstream UFOs
The story of how Navy videos depicting UFOs landed on the Times’s front page is its own fascinating saga. The best single account I’ve seen is Gideon Lewis-Kraus’s in the New Yorker, but here’s a summary.
The story begins in 2007, at the instigation of Robert Bigelow, a Nevada businessman with a fortune from extended-stay hotels, an aerospace firm, and a deep, abiding interest in UFOs. That year, Bigelow worked with Sen. Harry Reid — a campaign donation recipient — to secure $22 million in “black budget” money (that is, appropriated by Congress outside public committees) for the DOD to investigate UFO sightings.
The Bigelow-centric phase of the investigation, by all accounts, was fairly conspiratorial, producing documents like a report with a “photo of a supposed tracking device that supposed aliens had supposedly implanted in a supposed abductee,” as Lewis-Kraus, who saw the document, describes it.
Enter veteran DOD counterintelligence officer Luis Elizondo, who in 2010 took over the effort, rechristened as the Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification Program (AATIP). AATIP studied videos and encounters like the Nimitz incident, the GIMBAL video, and the GOFAST video, and convinced Elizondo that something bizarre and worthy of exploration was taking place. But Elizondo found himself frustrated by the lack of departmental buy-in.
This is where Blink-182 comes in. Tom DeLonge, the lead vocalist and guitarist behind such classics as “First Date,” “All the Small Things,” and, of course, “Aliens Exist,” has had a longstanding interest in the paranormal.
According to an extensive 2018 profile in the Fader by Kelsey McKinney, DeLonge has “consistently claimed to believe” that “UFOs are real, aliens are real and they visit us episodically, the U.S. government has known about alien life for decades … and the U.S. government has a real live alien species locked up somewhere” — among other things.
To that end, DeLonge began putting together To The Stars Academy, which in his vision would become a leading source of UFO-related expertise and of related media projects. In that role, he became an important convener of ex-government officials with an interest in UFOs — starting with Luis Elizondo, who left the DOD in 2017, and the man who would become his main partner in UFO evangelism, Christopher Mellon.
Mellon, a member of the prominent Mellon family of Pittsburgh who served as deputy assistant secretary of defense for intelligence in the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations, had a longstanding interest in UFOs, and began giving interviews arguing for increased disclosure around 2016.
“TO APPROACH UFOS RATIONALLY, WE MUST MAINTAIN THE AGNOSTIC POSITION REGARDING THEIR NATURE OR ORIGIN, BECAUSE WE SIMPLY DON’T KNOW THE ANSWERS YET”
“Tom [DeLonge] called me out of the blue one day,” Mellon recalls. “He saw an article I’d written. … He was starting this organization and was wondering if I would want to get involved.” DeLonge connected him with Elizondo, and both joined To The Stars as advisers.
Mellon had been outside of government for many years at this point, but still had sources in the Pentagon, which is how he and To The Stars got access to the three videos above.
“Somebody met me in the parking lot and passed [the videos] off. It had documentation stating it was approved for public release. It was unclassified,” Mellon told Lewis-Kraus. To the best of my knowledge, the person inside the Pentagon who leaked to Mellon is still unknown.
The To The Stars team then looped in a journalist with an interest in the subject, Leslie Kean.
The New York Times and the mainstreaming of UFO speculation
Kean, like Mellon a scion of a Northeast political dynasty (her uncle, Thomas Kean, served two terms as governor of New Jersey and chaired the 9/11 Commission), had been interested in aliens and UFOs for years.
In 2010, she had published a book compiling firsthand UFO sightings from what she considered credible sources; John Podesta, the former White House chief of staff under Clinton and a huge UFO fan, wrote the foreword.
“To approach UFOs rationally, we must maintain the agnostic position regarding their nature or origin, because we simply don’t know the answers yet,” Kean writes in the book’s introduction.
This is indicative of Kean’s broader approach: She is clearly sympathetic to arguments for extraterrestrial or paranormal explanations of mysterious phenomena, but focuses on cases she views as credible and supportable with empirical evidence, which could be more persuasive to people on the fence.
This is true not just about aliens. Kean’s follow-up to her UFO book was Surviving Death, a decidedly non-agnostic argument (later adapted into a Netflix miniseries) for the reality of an afterlife, reincarnation, and telepathy.
“Human beings have extraordinary mental abilities that science cannot explain,” Kean writes in the book’s introduction, abilities that “may be controversial” but “have been documented by legitimate scientists for many years,” known as “psi” or extrasensory perception (ESP).
Kean’s efforts to the contrary, parapsychological claims like this are not widely accepted in psychology. When a Cornell scientist purported to have conducted lab experiments showing psi is real, the main response in the field was that because psi is obviously fake, the finding meant that prevailing methods in psychology were totally broken.
In any case, Kean continued to maintain a steady interest in UFOs, serving with Mellon on the board of the nonprofit UFODATA, which supports scientific, agnostic investigations in UFOs. Per Lewis-Kraus, Mellon and To The Stars offered her the UFO videos and supporting documentation on the condition that Kean place the story in the New York Times. Kean told me she wasn’t sure the offer was so explicitly conditional, but that the goal was always to place a story in the Times.
Kean worked with Ralph Blumenthal, a 45-year veteran of the paper who had retired in 2009. Blumenthal was then working on a biography, now released, of John Mack, a Harvard Medical School professor who became convinced that the purported alien abductees he was interviewing were telling the truth, despite the lack of physical evidence for their claims and the possibility that the experiences they described were simply sleep paralysis.
“I believe … that Mack was onto something,” Blumenthal told one interviewer. He added to me, “I went very carefully over [Mack’s] research, and I must say that the so-called skeptics, who are very quick to debunk a lot of this field from the simplest UFO sightings to alien encounters, have not done the research that people in the field have done.”
Blumenthal was, naturally, intrigued by what Kean was offering, and they set off to pitch a science story to the editor of the New York Times. Blumenthal told me, and documented in a “Times Insider” column for the paper, that he took the story directly to Dean Baquet, the Times’s top editor.
“I want to make a clear distinction between the material in my book, which is about alien encounters reported by people, and UFOs,” Blumenthal clarified to me. “It is much easier to interest people at the Times in a story about UFOs than about alien encounters.”
On UFOs, he had Navy pilot testimony and videos to lend the story credibility. “Maybe [alien encounters] will become part of the dialogue at some point,” Kean told me, “but it’s not going to become part of the mainstream dialogue at this stage. We’re just not there yet.”
Blumenthal and Kean’s effort culminated in two pieces posted online on December 16, 2017, for the next day’s print edition: the front-page, A1 story revealing the existence of AATIP and the contents of the FLIR1 and GIMBAL videos, and a story deeper in the paper interviewing Fravor and Lt. Cmdr. Jim Slaight, also in an F/A-18 during the Nimitz encounter, about what they saw.
The latter piece was preceded by the following disclaimer:
The following recounts an incident in 2004 that advocates of research into U.F.O.s have said is the kind of event worthy of more investigation, and that was studied by a Pentagon program that investigated U.F.O.s. Experts caution that earthly explanations often exist for such incidents, and that not knowing the explanation does not mean that the event has interstellar origins.
It took years, but eventually in September 2019 the Pentagon confirmed that the two videos in the Times, as well as GOFAST which was released a few months later by To The Stars, were authentic. On April 27, 2020, it formally released them itself.
Beyond the initial disclosure of the Navy videos, the Times’s coverage has ventured into somewhat more speculative territory.
In that December 2017 story, it repeated claims that a Bigelow facility was “modified” to house “metal alloys and other materials that Mr. Elizondo and program contractors said had been recovered from unidentified aerial phenomena,” alloys that Blumenthal told MSNBC government researchers were struggling to identify. That claim earned immediate pushback from chemists who found the notion of the Pentagon recovering unclassifiable mystery alloys implausible.
In a July 2020 story, Kean and Blumenthal passed along a claim from astrophysicist and contractor Eric W. Davis that “he gave a classified briefing to a Defense Department agency as recently as March about retrievals from ‘off-world vehicles not made on this earth.’”
Davis is a bit of a perennial figure in stories about offbeat Pentagon investigations. In 2004, he received $7.5 million from the Air Force to study “psychic teleportation,” or the ability to transport yourself between locations with the power of your mind. The US military has long paid for long-shot investigations into alleged paranormal activity (see Jon Ronson’s book The Men Who Stare at Goats for a longer history).
By passing along Davis’s claims without verifying them, the Times’s July 2020 story effectively suggested that alien civilizations have reached earth with “off-world vehicles” that the Pentagon has retrieved, a truly extraordinary claim in need of extraordinary evidence. The story did note, “No crash artifacts have been publicly produced for independent verification,” and acknowledged that astrophysicists contend that “Even lacking a plausible terrestrial explanation does not make an extraterrestrial one the most likely.”
I asked Blumenthal about the choice to pass along the news of Davis’s briefings without further verification of his claims — after all, the Times spent years on a story looking into whether Donald Trump cheated on his taxes, so it seems reasonable that a claim suggesting alien materials here on Earth would receive similar vetting.
Blumenthal defended the inclusion by noting the piece stopped “short of saying that we have verified information that material was recovered. We just said that congressional staff was shown a briefing slide that referenced these materials. It was very carefully worded, because we didn’t want to get ahead of the information we had. … But we thought it was quite an advance to get that into the paper.”
Kean told me she confirmed with numerous sources that such vehicles have been discussed in high-level briefings by Davis. She also went a bit further in vouching for the substance of Davis’s claim. “I absolutely think Eric Davis is a respectable, credible person,” she told me, adding later, “The fact that a government agency has been briefing congressmen on that topic, and briefing many other people at high levels, for many years, is highly suggestive that there’s something to it.”
The prevailing explanations of the videos
No one knows with a high level of confidence what the Navy videos are depicting, or if they are even depicting the same thing. But explanations generally fall into one of four categories:
Natural or non-military phenomena (like a pelican or civilian aircraft or camera error)
Secret US government aviation technology
Secret aviation technology from the military of another country, most likely Russia or China
The main expositor of the first hypothesis is Mick West, a British video game programmer known for his work on the Tony Hawk skateboarding series, who now devotes his time to his website Metabunk and the broader project of debunking what he regards as conspiracy theories, including “chemtrails” and extraterrestrial explanations of UFOs.
West had laid out his theory of the three videos in many places, but the below video is to my mind the most helpful summary:
The FLIR1 video is “entirely consistent with being a plane that’s very far away,” West says. “Radar’s great if you know where to look, but if you’re looking in sector A and it’s in sector Q” you’re going to miss it — which is what he thinks happened in the Nimitz case.
West believes the GIMBAL video is most likely the glare of a jet’s engine; he says he has replicated this kind of image using his own infrared cameras. Its apparent rotation, he says, is due to a limitation in the camera’s ability to move and track the object. GOFAST, he thinks, is a lost weather balloon (or perhaps a pelican), which — because it’s midway between the jet observing it and the water — appears (misleadingly) to be going as fast as the plane itself when it’s really staying still.
So that’s number one, the naturalistic explanation. Elizondo, Mellon, Fravor, and other UFO disclosure advocates and ex-pilots do not just dispute this argument but are actively infuriated by it.
“I don’t know why people even take [Mick West] seriously,” Mellon told me. “He knows nothing about these sensor systems, he deliberately excludes 90 percent of the pertinent information and in the process maligns our military personnel. ‘Oh, Dave Fravor doesn’t know what he’s looking at. Oh, those guys don’t know how to operate those infrared systems.’ Who the hell does he think he is? These guys are the real deal. He’s a desk jockey sitting in front of a monitor.”
West, for his part, told me, “I don’t ignore the pilots. I try to engage with them to resolve issues like this. I respect their skills and experience but recognize (as they themselves have said) that they are human, not perfect.”
Elizondo is sometimes more charitable to the skeptics, even giving an hour-long interview to West on his YouTube channel. In general, his response was to argue that West was looking just at videos and not at the totality of information that’s available to researchers in the Pentagon. On Nimitz/FLIR1, he told West, “Based on my experience in the AATIP program, there is certainly additional information that is very, very compelling. People are going to say, ‘Well, what is it, Lue, why don’t you tell us? We want to know.’ Well, I can’t” — it’s still classified. But, Elizondo advised, this corroborating information might start to trickle out soon.
As a layperson, I’m sort of at a loss of what to make of these disputes. West’s explanations seem plausible, but I haven’t been in a physics class since 2007, I have never flown a fighter jet, and I have no expertise with infrared cameras.
It also seems perfectly plausible that Elizondo and Mellon are right and there is private government data proving the skeptical explanations wrong — but it’s impossible to evaluate that without access to such data.
In any case, “it’s a weather balloon” strikes me as more plausible than “it’s aliens,” at least until we see the disconfirming evidence to which Elizondo is alluding.
The other two non-extraterrestrial explanations — that it’s secret US military aircraft, or secret foreign military aircraft — are even tougher to nail down. The DOD is not in the habit of blabbing about secretive air tests, especially ones that (in this scenario) it would be hiding from Navy fighter pilots operating in the same airspace. The Russian and Chinese militaries are really not in the habit of disclosing trade secrets.
Mellon has said that he’s confident the vehicles aren’t ours, because he has a high enough security clearance that he would have heard about them in that case.
Maybe! But I imagine there were many people with high security clearances who, say, did not know that in the 1950s and ’60s the CIA was secretly dosing people with LSD to see if it could be used to coerce confessions. The US government is a vast, sprawling behemoth that’s doing any number of strange things at any given time, so Mellon’s point — while plausible — doesn’t strike me as dispositive. That said, the Times’s Cooper and Julian Barnes have reported that the UAP Task Force report will conclude that the UAPs in the videos were not US military aircraft, which would back up Mellon’s claim considerably.
What about the Russian and Chinese militaries? That’s a common theory among pilots. Pilot Lt. Ryan Graves told 60 Minutes’ Bill Whitaker, that “The highest probability is that it’s a threat observation program,” perhaps from Russia or China.
The best argument for this possibility I’ve seen comes from Tyler Rogoway of the War Zone, a publication focused on defense issues. As Rogoway notes, there is a huge amount of precedent for this kind of aerial surveillance: The US engaged in this activity extensively vis-à-vis the Soviet Union, and tests of surveillance aircraft in locations like Roswell, New Mexico, and Area 51, Nevada, have generated many past UFO reports.
Area 51 is a highly classified United States Air Force facility located near Rachel, Nevada. Bernard Friel/Education Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
The adversarial drone explanation would also help explain why pilots and ships, in particular, are seeing so many of these objects: Why wouldn’t the Russian or Chinese militaries want to learn more about the US military this way? At the same time, Rogoway concedes that there are some incidents that are difficult to explain in this framework.
But a crucial point he makes is that there’s very little in the video evidence, including the three blockbuster UFO videos detailed above, that suggests vehicles with abilities unknown to humankind, writing, “Beyond the so-called ‘Tic-Tac’ video that just looked like a blurry little Tic Tac, I have seen nothing in any government ‘UAP’ videos that supposedly show unexplainable capabilities or craft that actually portray that. In fact, quite the opposite.”
In other words, they’re probably not from an advanced alien civilization — which is probably the most common misconception I’ve found in talking to friends and families about the resurgence of UFO talk. Just so we’re clear: These videos do not amount to the Pentagon or the government admitting that the extraterrestrial hypothesis is true.
Kean, for her part, while open to the extraterrestrial hypothesis, also expressed openness to the foreign military aircraft hypothesis, telling me, “I think Tyler Rogoway does great work … it’s an open question.”
So what is true? I’m personally left agnostic by all the evidence. I’m certainly not persuaded these are alien aircraft, but the evidence for skeptical explanations like weather balloons or civilian airplanes or foreign drones is incomplete as well.
The only sure thing is something odd is happening — and that we’ve just started trying to understand what it is.
Clarification, 6 pm: This piece has been updated to clarify our summary of the reporting in a December 16, 2017, New York Times story. That story passed along claims from Luis Elizondo and others that materials from UAP had been recovered, and that a Bigelow facility was being modified to be able to store them, but the Times story did not claim that the Bigelow facility was actually storing these materials.