My younger brother and I called him ‘the old lizard’ (on account of his reptilian resemblance — and to irk our mother, his partner at the time). To his enemies, he was a crackpot, fraud, and a cheat. And to his patients, and many of his friends, he was a source of support, an open listener, a sage and protector.
Dr John E Mack was many things to many people. A Harvard-trained psychiatrist, tenured professor, and one of the founders of the Cambridge Hospital Department of Psychiatry (a teaching hospital affiliated with Harvard University), John held an impressive command and was respected in his field. After an early career spent working on issues of child development and identity formation, he won the Pulitzer Prize in 1977 for his psychoanalytic biography of Lawrence of Arabia, entitled A Prince of Our Disorder (1976). Then, in the late 1980s, John put his reputation on the line when he started investigating the phenomenon of alien abduction.
It all started innocently enough. He began holding sessions with patients or ‘experiencers’ (as they’re called) who believed they’d been abducted. He ran hypnotic regressions from our home, and he gradually came to furnish enough evidence for a book, Abduction: Human Encounters with Aliens (1994). This was followed in 1999 by Passport to the Cosmos: Human Transformation and Alien Encounters. His standard line with the outside world was (as given to the BBC): ‘I would never say, yes, there are aliens taking people. [But] I would say there is a compelling powerful phenomenon here that I can’t account for in any other way, that’s mysterious… I can’t know what it is but it seems to me that it invites a deeper, further inquiry.’
In the privacy of our home, where he was a regular presence, John was bolder in his claims. Aliens were real — it was just that their existence threatened the dominant logic of our worldview. John attributed society’s failure to account for the abduction experience as a cultural failing. Alien abductees weren’t deranged or mentally ill — we just didn’t have a way of interpreting and understanding what they’d been through. Rather than label these peoples’ experiences as a new disorder or syndrome, John argued that we had to probe into and change our perception of reality to account for this phenomena. The subtext: we had to allow for the existence of aliens.
For more than a decade, from the time I was eight until I was of legal age, I was witness to these debates and to the politics surrounding John’s ‘coming out’ in support of abduction phenomena. My mother, an anthropologist by training, was John’s primary research assistant. They bought a house together in Cambridge, Massachusetts and my brother and I visited them once a month and during school holidays. The rest of the time we lived with my father and stepmother in Arlington, Virginia.
Like many of his colleagues, I viewed John with a mixture of scepticism and intrigue. Part of my scepticism can be put down to the fact that he was dating my mom; but a good fraction of it owed to my sense of reality being overturned by the postulation of ‘greys’ — a particular manifestation of extraterrestrials, known for their large heads, huge almond eyes, and shortened, pretty much featureless bodies.