The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark - Carl Sagan, Ann Druyan (1997)
Chapter 9. Therapy
It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data. Insensibly one begins to twist facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts.
in Arthur Conan Doyle’s
A Scandal in Bohemia (1891)
True memories seemed like phantoms, while false memories were so convincing that they replaced reality.
Gabriel Garcfa Marquez, Strange Pilgrims (1992)
John Mack is a Harvard University psychiatrist whom I’ve known for many years. ‘Is there anything to this UFO business?’ he asked me long ago. ‘Not much,’ I replied. ‘Except of course on the psychiatric side.’
He looked into it, interviewed abductees, and was converted. He now accepts the accounts of abductees at face value. Why?
‘I wasn’t looking for this,’ he says. ‘There’s nothing in my background that prepared me’ for the alien abduction story. ‘It’s completely persuasive because of the emotional power of these experiences.’ In his book, Abductions, Mack explicitly proposes the very dangerous doctrine that ‘the power or intensity with which something is felt’ is a guide to whether it’s true.
I can personally attest to the emotional power. But aren’t powerful emotions a routine component of our dreams? Don’t we sometimes awake in stark terror? Doesn’t Mack, himself the author of a book on nightmares, know about the emotional power of hallucinations? Some of Mack’s patients describe themselves as having hallucinated since childhood. Have the hypnotists and psychotherapists working with ‘abductees’ made conscientious attempts to steep themselves in the body of knowledge on hallucinations and perceptual malfunctions? Why do they believe these witnesses but not those who reported, with comparable conviction, encounters with gods, demons, saints, angels and fairies? And what about those who hear irresistible commands from a voice within? Are all deeply felt stories true?
A scientist of my acquaintance says, ‘If the aliens would only keep all the folks they abduct, our world would be a little saner.’ But her judgement is too harsh. It doesn’t seem to be a matter of sanity. It’s something else. The Canadian psychologist Nicholas Spanos and his colleagues concluded that there are no obvious pathologies in those who report being abducted by UFOs. However,
intense UFO experiences are more likely to occur in individuals who are disposed to esoteric beliefs in general and alien beliefs in particular and who interpret unusual sensory and imaginal experiences in terms of the alien hypothesis. Among UFO believers, those with stronger propensities toward fantasy production were particularly likely to generate such experiences. Moreover, such experiences were likely to be generated and interpreted as real events rather than imaginings when they were associated with restricted sensory environments... (e.g., experiences that occurred at night and in association with sleep).
What a more critical mind might recognize as a hallucination or a dream, a more credulous mind interprets as a glimpse of an elusive but profound external reality.
Some alien abduction accounts may conceivably be disguised memories of rape and childhood sexual abuse, with the father, stepfather, uncle or mother’s boyfriend represented as an alien. Surely it’s more comforting to believe that an alien abused you than that it was done by someone you trusted and loved. Therapists who take the alien abduction stories at face value deny this, saying they would know if their patients were sexually abused. Some estimates from opinion surveys range as high as one in four American women and one in six American men have been sexually abused in childhood (although these estimates are probably too high). It would be astonishing if a significant number of patients who present themselves to alien abduction therapists had not been so abused, perhaps even a larger proportion than in the general population.
Both sexual abuse therapists and alien abduction therapists spend months, sometimes years, encouraging their subjects to remember being abused. Their methods are similar, and their goals are in a way the same - to recover painful memories, often of long ago. In both cases the therapist believes the patient to be suffering from trauma attendant to an event so terrible that it is repressed. I find it striking that alien abduction therapists find so few cases of sexual abuse and vice versa.
Those who have in fact been subjected to childhood sexual abuse or incest are, for very understandable reasons, sensitive about anything that seems to minimize or deny their experience. They are angry, and they have every right to be. In the US, at least one in ten women have been raped, almost two-thirds before the age of 18. A recent survey reports that one-sixth of all rape victims reported to police are under the age of 12. (And this is the category of rape least likely to be reported.) One-fifth of these girls were raped by their fathers. They have been betrayed. I want to be very clear about this: there are many real cases of ghoulish sexual predation by parents, or those acting in the role of parents. Compelling physical evidence - photos, for example, or diaries, or gonorrhoea or chlamydia in the child - have in some cases come to light. Abuse of children has been implicated as a major probable cause of social problems. According to one survey, 85 per cent of all violent prison inmates were abused in childhood. Two-thirds of all teenage mothers were raped or sexually abused as children or teenagers. Rape victims are ten times more likely than other women to use alcohol and other drugs to excess. The problem is real and urgent. Most of these tragic and incontestable cases of childhood sexual abuse, however, have been continuously remembered into adulthood. There is no hidden memory to be retrieved.
While there is better reporting today than in the past, there does seem to be a significant increase in cases of child abuse reported each year by hospitals and law enforcement authorities, rising in the United States ten-fold (to 1.7 million cases) between 1967 and 1985. Alcohol and other drugs, as well as economic stresses, are pointed to as the ‘reasons’ adults are more prone to abuse children today than in the past. Perhaps increasing publicity given to contemporary cases of child abuse emboldens adults to remember and focus on the abuse they once suffered.
A century ago, Sigmund Freud introduced the concept of repression, the forgetting of events in order to avoid intense psychic pain, as a coping mechanism essential for mental health. It seemed to emerge especially in patients diagnosed with ‘hysteria’, the symptoms of which included hallucinations and paralysis. At first Freud believed that behind every case of hysteria was a repressed instance of childhood sexual abuse. Eventually Freud changed his explanation to hysteria being caused by fantasies - not all of them unpleasant - of having been sexually abused as a child. The burden of guilt was shifted from parent to child. Something like this debate rages today. (The reason for Freud’s change of heart is still being disputed - the explanations ranging from his provoking outrage among his Viennese middle-aged male peers, to his recognition that he was taking the stories of hysterics seriously.)
Instances in which the ‘memory’ suddenly surfaces, especially at the ministrations of a psychotherapist or hypnotist, and where the first ‘recollections’ have a ghost- or dreamlike quality are highly questionable. Many such claims of sexual abuse appear to be invented. The Emory University psychologist Ulric Neisser says:
There is child abuse, and there are such things as repressed memories. But there are also such things as false memories and confabulations, and they are not rare at all. Misremem-berings are the rule, not the exception. They occur all the time. They occur even in cases where the subject is absolutely confident - even when the memory is a seemingly unforgettable flashbulb, one of those metaphorical mental photographs. They are still more likely to occur in cases where suggestion is a lively possibility, where memories can be shaped and re-shaped to meet the strong interpersonal demands of a therapy session. And once a memory has been reconfigured in this way, it is very, very hard to change.
These general principles cannot help us to decide with certainty where the truth lies in any individual case or claim. But on the average, across a large number of such claims, it is pretty obvious where we should place our bets. Misremembering and retrospective reworking of the past are a part of human nature; they go with the territory and they happen all the time.
Survivors of the Nazi death camps provide the clearest imaginable demonstration that even the most monstrous abuse can be carried continuously in human memory. Indeed, the problem for many Holocaust survivors has been to put some emotional distance between themselves and the death camps, to forget. But if in some alternative world of inexpressible evil they were forced to live in Nazi Germany - let’s say a thriving post-Hitler nation with its ideology intact, except that it’s changed its mind about anti-Semitism - imagine the psychological burden on Holocaust survivors then. Then perhaps they would be able to forget, because remembering would make their current lives unbearable. If there is such a thing as the repression and subsequent recall of ghastly memories, then perhaps it requires two conditions: (1) that the abuse actually happened, and (2) that the victim was required to pretend for long periods of time that it never happened.
The University of California social psychologist Richard Ofshe explains:
When patients are asked to explain how the memories returned, they report assembling fragments of images, ideas, feelings, and sensations into marginally coherent stories. As the so-called memory work stretches out for months, feelings become vague images, images become figures, and figures become known persons. Vague discomfort in certain parts of the body is reinterpreted as childhood rape... The original physical sensations, sometimes augmented by hypnosis, are then labeled ‘body memories’. There is no conceivable mechanism by which the muscles of the body could store memories. If these methods fail to persuade, the therapist may resort to still more heavy-handed practices. Some patients are recruited into survivor groups in which peer pressure is brought to bear, and they are asked to demonstrate politically correct solidarity by establishing themselves as members of a survivor subculture.
A cautious 1993 statement by the American Psychiatric Association accepts the possibility that some of us forget childhood abuse as a means of coping, but warns,
It is not known how to distinguish, with complete accuracy, memories based on true events from those derived from other sources... Repeated questioning may lead individuals to report ‘memories’ of events that never occurred. It is not known what proportion of adults who report memories of sexual abuse were actually abused ... A strong prior belief by the psychiatrist that sexual abuse, or other factors, are or are not the cause of the patient’s problems is likely to interfere with appropriate assessment and treatment.
On the one hand, callously to dismiss charges of horrifying sexual abuse can be heartless injustice. On the other hand, to tamper with people’s memories, to infuse false stories of childhood abuse, to break up intact families, and even to send innocent parents to prison is also heartless injustice. Scepticism is essential on both sides. Picking our way between these two extremes can be very tricky.
Early editions of the influential book by Ellen Bass and Laura David (The Courage to Heal: A Guide for Women Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse, 1988) give illuminating advice to therapists:
Believe the survivor. You must believe your client was sexually abused, even if she doubts it herself... Your client needs you to stay steady in the belief that she was abused. Joining a client in doubt would be like joining a suicidal client in her belief that suicide is the best way out. If a client is unsure that she was abused but thinks she might have been, work as though she was. So far, among the hundreds of women we’ve talked to and the hundreds more we’ve heard about, not one has suspected that she might have been abused, explored it, and determined that she wasn’t.
But Kenneth V. Lanning, Supervisory Special Agent at the Behavioral Science Instruction and Research Unit of the FBI Academy in Quantico, Virginia, a leading expert on the sexual victimization of children, wonders: ‘Are we making up for centuries of denial by now blindly accepting any allegation of child abuse, no matter how absurd or unlikely?’ ‘I don’t care if it’s true,’ replies one California therapist reported by The Washington Post. ‘What actually happened is irrelevant to me ... We all live in a delusion.’
The existence of any false accusation of childhood sexual abuse - especially those created under the ministrations of an authority figure - has, it seems to me, relevance to the alien abduction issue. If some people can with great passion and conviction be led to falsely remember being abused by their own parents, might not others, with comparable passion and conviction, be led to falsely remember being abused by aliens?
The more I look into claims of alien abduction, the more similar they seem to reports of ‘recovered memories’ of childhood sexual abuse. And there’s a third class of related claims, repressed ‘memories’ of satanic ritual cults - in which sexual torture, coprophilia, infanticide and cannibalism are said to be prominently featured. In a survey of 2,700 members of the American Psychological Association, 12 per cent replied that they had treated cases of satanic ritual abuse (while 30 per cent reported cases of abuse done in the name of religion). Something like 10,000 cases are reported annually in the United States in recent years. A significant number of those touting the peril of rampant satanism in America, including law enforcement officers who organize seminars on the subject, turn out to be Christian fundamentalists; their sects explicitly require a literal devil to be meddling in everyday human life. The connection is neatly drawn in the saying ‘No Satan, no God’.
Apparently, there is a pervasive police gullibility problem on this matter. Here are some excerpts from FBI expert Lanning’s analysis of ‘Satanic, Occult and Ritualistic Crime’, based on bitter experience, and published in the October 1989 issue of the professional journal, The Police Chief:
Almost any discussion of satanism and witchcraft is interpreted in the light of the religious beliefs of those in the audience. Faith, not logic and reason, governs the religious beliefs of most people. As a result, some normally sceptical law enforcement officers accept the information disseminated at these conferences without critically evaluating it or questioning the sources... For some people satanism is any religious belief system other than their own.
Lanning then offers a long list of belief systems he has personally heard described as satanism at such conferences. It includes Roman Catholicism, the Orthodox Churches, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Mormonism, rock and roll music, channelling, astrology and New Age beliefs in general. Is there not a hint here about how witch hunts and pogroms get started? He continues:
Within the personal religious belief system of a law enforcement officer, Christianity may be good and satanism evil. Under the Constitution, however, both are neutral. This is an important, but difficult, concept for many law enforcement officers to accept. They are paid to uphold the penal code, not the Ten Commandments... The fact is that far more crime and child abuse has been committed by zealots in the name of God, Jesus and Mohammed than has ever been committed in the name of Satan. Many people don’t like that statement, but few can argue with it.
Many of those alleging satanic abuse describe grotesque orgiastic rituals in which infants are murdered and eaten. Such claims have been made about reviled groups by their detractors throughout European history, including the Cataline conspirators in Rome, the Passover ‘blood libel’ against the Jews, and the Knights Templar as they were being dismantled in fourteenth-century France. Ironically, reports of cannibalistic infanticide and incestuous orgies were among the particulars used by Roman authorities to persecute the early Christians. After all, Jesus himself is quoted as saying (John vi, 53) ‘Except ye eat the flesh of the Son of man, and drink his blood, ye have no life in you’. Although the next line makes it clear Jesus is talking about eating his own flesh and drinking his own blood, unsympathetic critics might have misunderstood the Greek ‘Son of man’ to mean ‘child’ or ‘infant’. Tertullian and other early Church fathers defended themselves against these grotesque accusations as best they could.
Today, the lack of corresponding numbers of lost infants and young children in police files is explained by the claim that all over the world babies are being bred for this purpose, surely reminiscent of abductee claims that alien/human breeding experiments are rampant. Also similar to the alien abduction paradigm, satanic cult abuse is said to pass down from generation to generation in certain families. To the best of my knowledge, as in the alien abductien paradigm, no physical evidence has ever been offered in a court of law to support such claims. Their emotional power, though, is evident. The mere possibility that such things are going on rouses us mammals to action. When we give credence to satanic ritual, we also raise the social status of those who warn us of the supposed danger.
Consider these five cases: (1) Myra Obasi, a Louisiana school-teacher, was - she and her sisters believed after consultation with a hoodoo practitioner - possessed by demons. Her nephew’s nightmares were part of the evidence. So they left for Dallas, abandoned their five children, and the sisters then gouged out Ms Obasi’s eyes. At the trial, she defended her sisters. They were trying to help her, she said. But hoodoo is not devil-worship; it is a cross between Catholicism and African-Haitian nativist religion. (2) Parents beat their child to death because she would not embrace their brand of Christianity. (3) A child molester justifies his acts by reading the Bible to his victims. (4) A 14-year-old boy has his eyeball plucked out of his head in an exorcism ceremony. His assailant is not a satanist, but a Protestant fundamentalist minister engaged in religious pursuits. (5) A woman thinks her 12-year-old son is possessed by the devil. After an incestuous relationship with him, she decapitates him. But there is no satanic ritual content to the ‘possession’.
The second and third cases come from FBI files. The last two come from a 1994 study by Dr Gail Goodman, a psychologist at the University of California, Davis, and her colleagues, done for the National Center on Child Abuse and Neglect. They examined over 12,000 claims of sexual abuse involving satanic ritual cults, and could not find a single one that held up to scrutiny. Therapists reported satanic abuse based only on, for instance, ‘patient’s disclosure via hypnotherapy’ or children’s ‘fear of satanic symbols’. In some cases diagnosis was made on the basis of behaviour common to many children. ‘In only a few cases was physical evidence mentioned - usually, “scars”.’ But in most cases the ‘scars’ were very faint or non-existent. ‘Even when there were scars, it was not determined whether the victims themselves had caused them.’ This also is very similar to alien abduction cases, as described below. George K. Ganaway, Professor of Psychiatry at Emory University, proposes that ‘the most common likely cause of cult-related memories may very well turn out to be a mutual deception between the patient and the therapist’.
One of the most troublesome cases of ‘recovered memory’ of satanic ritual abuse has been chronicled by Lawrence Wright in a remarkable book, Remembering Satan (1994). It concerns Paul Ingram, a man who may have had his life ruined because he was too gullible, too suggestible, too unpractised in scepticism. Ingram was, in 1988, Chairman of the Republican Party in Olympia, Washington, the chief civil deputy in the local sheriff’s department, well regarded, highly religious, and responsible for warning children in social assemblies of the dangers of drugs. Then came the nightmare moment when one of his daughters - after a highly emotional session at a fundamentalist religious retreat - levelled the first of many charges, each more ghastly than the previous, that Ingram had sexually abused her, impregnated her, tortured her, made her available to other sheriffs deputies, introduced her to satanic rites, dismembered and ate babies... This had gone on since her childhood, she said, almost to the day she began to ‘remember’ it all.
Ingram could not see why his daughter should lie about this, although he himself had no recollection of it. But police investigators, a consulting psychotherapist, and his minister at the Church of Living Water all explained that sex offenders often repressed memories of their crimes. Strangely detached but at the same time eager to cooperate, Ingram tried to recall. After a psychologist employed a closed-eye hypnotic technique to induce trance, Ingram began to visualize something similar to what the police were describing. What came to mind were not like real memories, but something like snatches of images in a fog. Every time he produced one - the more so the more odious the content - he was encouraged and reinforced. His pastor assured him that God would permit only genuine memories to surface in his reveries.
‘Boy, it’s almost like I’m making it up,’ Ingram said, ‘but I’m not.’ He suggested that a demon might be responsible. Under the same sort of influences, with the Church grapevine circulating the latest horrors that Ingram was confessing, and the police pressuring them, his other children and his wife also began ‘remembering’. Prominent citizens were accused of participating in the orgiastic rites. Law enforcement officers elsewhere in America began paying attention. This was only the tip of the iceberg, some said.
When Berkeley’s Richard Ofshe was called in by the prosecution, he performed a control experiment. It was a breath of fresh air. Merely suggesting to Ingram that he had forced his son and daughter to commit incest and asking him to use the ‘memory recovery’ technique he had learned, promptly elicited just such a ‘memory’. It required no pressure, no intimidation - just the suggestion and the technique were enough. But the alleged participants, who had ‘remembered’ so much else, denied it ever happened. Confronted with this evidence, Ingram vehemently denied he was making anything up or was influenced by others. His memory of this incident was as clear and ‘real’ as all his other recollections.
One of the daughters described the terrible scars on her body from torture and forced abortions. But when she finally received a medical examination, there were no corresponding scars to be seen. The prosecution never tried Ingram on charges of satanic abuse. Ingram hired a lawyer who had never tried a criminal case. On his pastor’s advice, he did not even read Ofshe’s report: it would only confuse him, he was told. He pleaded guilty to six counts of rape, and ultimately was sent to prison. In jail, while awaiting sentencing, away from his daughters, his police colleagues and his pastor, he reconsidered. He asked to withdraw his guilty plea. His memories had been coerced. He had not distinguished real memories from a kind of fantasy. His plea was rejected. He is serving a twenty-year sentence. If it was the sixteenth century instead of the twentieth, perhaps the whole family would have been burned at the stake, along with a good fraction of the leading citizens of Olympia, Washington.
The existence of a highly sceptical FBI report on the general subject of satanic abuse (Kenneth V. Lanning, ‘Investigator’s Guide to Allegations of “Ritual” Child Abuse’, January 1992) is widely ignored by enthusiasts. Likewise, a 1994 study by the British Department of Health into claims of satanic abuse there concluded that, of 84 alleged instances, not one stood up to scrutiny. What then is all the furore about? The study explains,
The Evangelical Christian campaign against new religious movements has been a powerful influence encouraging the identification of satanic abuse. Equally, if not more, important in spreading the idea of satanic abuse in Britain are the ‘specialists’, American and British. They may have few or even no qualifications as professionals, but attribute their expertise to ‘experience of cases’.
Those convinced that devil cults represent a serious danger to our society tend to be impatient with sceptics. Consider this analysis by Corydon Hammond, PhD, past President of the American Society for Clinical Hypnosis:
I will suggest to you that these people [sceptics] are either, one, naive and of limited clinical experience; two, have a kind of naivete that people have of the Holocaust, or they’re just such intellectualizers and sceptics that they’ll doubt everything; or, three, they’re cult people themselves. And I can assure that there are people who are in that position... There are people who are physicians, who are mental health professionals, who are in the cults, who are raising trans-generational cults ... I think the research is real clear: We got three studies, one found 25 percent, one found 20 percent of out-patient multiples [multiple personality disorders] appear to be cult-abuse victims, and another on a specialized in-patient unit found 50 percent.
In some of his statements, he seems to believe that satanic Nazi mind control experiments have been performed by the CIA on tens of thousands of unsuspecting American citizens. The overarching motive, Hammond believes, is to ‘create a satanic order that will rule the world’.
In all three classes of ‘recovered memories’, there are specialists - alien abduction specialists, satanic cult specialists, and specialists in recalling repressed memories of childhood sexual abuse. As is common in mental health practice, patients select or are referred to a therapist whose specialist seems relevant to their complaint. In all three classes, the therapist helps to draw forth images of events alleged to have occurred long ago (in some cases from decades past); in all three, therapists are profoundly moved by the unmistakably genuine agony of their patients; in all three, at least some therapists are known to ask leading questions - which are virtually orders by authority figures to suggestible patients insisting that they remember (I almost wrote ‘confess’); in all three, there are networks of therapists who trade client histories and therapeutic methods; in all three, practitioners feel the necessity of defending their practice against more sceptical colleagues; in all three, the iatrogenic hypothesis is given short shrift; in all three,
the majority of those who report abuse are women. And in all three classes - with the exceptions mentioned - there is no physical evidence. So it’s hard not to wonder whether alien abductions might be part of some larger picture.
What could this larger picture be? I posed this question to Dr Fred H. Frankel, professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, Chief of Psychiatry at Beth Israel Hospital in Boston, and a leading expert on hypnosis. His answer:
If alien abductions are a part of a larger picture, what indeed is the larger picture? I fear to rush in where angels fear to tread; however, the factors you outline all feed what was described at the turn of the century as ‘hysteria’. The term, sadly, became so widely used that our contemporaries in their dubious wisdom ... not only dropped it, but also lost sight of the phenomena it represented: high levels of suggestibility, imaginal capacity, sensitivity to contextual cues and expectations, and the element of contagion... Little of all of this seems to be appreciated by a large number of practicing clinicians.
In exact parallel to regressing people so they supposedly retrieve forgotten memories of ‘past lives’, Frankel notes that therapists can as readily progress people under hypnosis so they can ‘remember’ their futures. This elicits the same emotive intensity as in regression or in Mack’s abductee hypnosis. ‘These people are not out to deceive the therapist. They deceive themselves,’ Frankel says. They cannot distinguish their confabulations from their experiences.’
If we fail to cope, if we’re saddled with a burden of guilt for not having made more of ourselves, wouldn’t we welcome the professional opinion of a therapist with a diploma on the wall that it’s not our fault, that we’re off the hook, that satanists, or sexual abusers, or aliens from another planet are the responsible parties? Wouldn’t we be willing to pay good money for this reassurance? And wouldn’t we resist smart-ass sceptics telling us that it’s all in our heads, or that it’s implanted by the very therapists who have made us happier about ourselves?
How much training in scientific method and sceptical scrutiny, in statistics, or even in human fallibility have these therapists received? Psychoanalysis is not a very self-critical profession, but at least many of its practitioners have MD degrees. Most medical curricula include significant exposure to scientific results and methods. But many of those dealing with abuse cases seem to have at best a casual acquaintance with science. Mental health providers in America are more likely by about two-to-one to be social workers than either psychiatrists or PhD psychologists.
Most of these therapists contend that their responsibility is to support their patients, not to question, to be sceptical, or to raise doubts. Whatever is presented, no matter how bizarre, is accepted. Sometimes the prompting by therapists is not at all subtle. Here [from the False Memory Syndrome Foundation’s FMS Newsletter, vol. 4, no. 4, p. 3, 1995] is a hardly atypical report:
My former therapist has testified that he still believes that my mother is a satanist, [and] that my father molested me ... It was my therapist’s delusional belief system and techniques involving suggestion and persuasion that led me to believe the lies were memories. When I doubted the reality of the memories he insisted they were true. Not only did he insist they were true, he informed me that in order to get well I must not only accept them as real, but remember them all.
In a 1991 case in Allegheny County, Pennsylvania, a teenager, Nicole Althaus, encouraged by a teacher and a social worker, accused her father of having sexually abused her, resulting in his arrest. Nicole also reported that she had given birth to three children, who her relatives had killed, that she had been raped in a crowded restaurant, and that her grandmother flew about on a broom. Nicole recanted her allegations the following year, and all charges against her father were dropped. Nicole and her parents brought a civil suit against the therapist and psychiatric clinic to whom Nicole had been referred shortly after she began making her accusations. The jury found that the doctor and the clinic had been negligent and awarded almost a quarter of a million dollars to Nicole and her parents. There are increasing numbers of cases of this sort.
Might the competition among therapists for patients, and the obvious financial interest of therapists in prolonged therapy, make them less likely to offend patients by evincing some scepticism about their stories? How aware are they of the dilemma of a naive patient walking into a professional office and being told that the insomnia or obesity is due (in increasing order of bizarreness) to wholly forgotten parental abuse, satanic ritual, or alien abduction? While there are ethical and other constraints, we need something like a control experiment: perhaps the same patient sent to specialists in all three fields. Does any of them say, ‘No, your problem isn’t due to forgotten childhood abuse’ (or forgotten satanic ritual, or alien abduction, as appropriate)? How many of them say, ‘There’s a much more prosaic explanation’? Instead, Mack goes so far as to tell one of his patients admiringly and reassuringly that he is on a ‘hero’s journey’. One group of ‘abductees’ - each having a separate but similar experience – writes
[S]everal of us had finally summoned enough courage to present our experiences to professional counselors, only to have them nervously avoid the subject, raise an eyebrow in silence or interpret the experience as a dream or waking hallucination and patronizingly ‘reassure’ us that such things happen to people, ‘but don’t worry, you’re basically mentally sound.’ Great! We’re not crazy, but if we take our experiences seriously, then we might become crazy!
With enormous relief, they found a sympathetic therapist who not only accepted their stories at face value, but was full of stories of alien bodies and high-level government cover-up of UFOs.
A typical UFO therapist finds his subjects in three ways: they write letters to him at an address given in the back of his books; they are referred to him by other therapists (mainly those who also specialize in alien abductions); or they come up to him after he presents a lecture. I wonder if any patient arrives at his portal wholly ignorant of popular abduction accounts and the therapist’s own methods and beliefs. Before any words are exchanged, they know a great deal about one another.
Another prominent therapist gives his patients his own articles on alien abductions to help them ‘remember’ their experiences. He is gratified when what they eventually recall under hypnosis resembles what he describes in his papers. The similarity of the cases is one of his chief reasons for believing that abductions really occur.
A leading UFO scholar comments that ‘When the hypnotist does not have an adequate knowledge of the subject [of alien abductions], the true nature of the abduction may never be revealed’. Can we discern in this remark how the patient might be led without the therapist realizing that he’s leading?
Sometimes when ‘falling’ asleep we have the sense of toppling from a height, and our limbs suddenly flail on their own. The startle reflex, it’s called. Perhaps it’s left over from when our ancestors slept in trees. Why should we imagine we recollect (a wonderful word) any better than we know when we’re on firm ground? Why should we suppose that, of the vast treasure of memories stored in our heads, none of it could have been implanted after the event, by how a question is phrased when we’re in a suggestible frame of mind, by the pleasure of telling or hearing a good story, by confusion with something we once read or overheard?