The Abduction of Betty and Barney Hill: Alien Encounters, Civil Rights, and the New Age in America
Matthew Bowman | August 2023 | Yale University Press | 288 pages | ISBN: 978-0300251388
Last week, in announcing his support for legislation that would nationalize the alleged bodies of dead space aliens and require the surrender of crashed flying saucers, Senate majority leader Chuck Schumer said that Americans had a “right” to learn about “non-human intelligence” and “unexplainable phenomena.” The collision of UFO fantasies and legislative grandstanding—a “frankly … bizarre” story, as NBC’s Gadi Schwartz described it on NBC Nightly News—may not have been exactly what historian Mark Bowman had in mind when he wrote The Abduction of Betty and Barney Hill, but it is the culmination of what, in Bowman’s view, has always been a ufology movement driven by dissention from the traditional bureaucratic inertia and elitism of America’s postwar liberal order.
Bowman’s new book, The Abduction of Betty and Barney Hill (Yale University Press) takes an unusually political approach to ufology, using the story of the most famous case of alien abduction as a framework for exploring the social, cultural, and political upheavals that transformed FDR’s America into Reagan’s. In theory, this might have been a fruitful way to locate the abduction phenomenon in the context of the forces that gave rise to what Bowman himself concedes was almost certainly not an actual encounter with space aliens. In practice, however, the book never quite delivers on that promise and instead tends to alternate between passages of compelling narrative and long digressions into politics that Bowman doesn’t quite tie convincingly to the experiences of abductees Betty and Barney Hill. As an academic, Bowman is hesitant to draw strong conclusions, and this undercuts what could have been a strong book.
The outlines of the Hills’ supposed alien abduction are so well known that most of you reading this review already know them: The Hills, an interracial couple active in liberal causes, saw a UFO in 1961 while driving across their home state of New Hampshire. Three years later, under hypnosis, they claimed that during the 1961 incident, beings from another world abducted them, took them aboard their ship, and performed invasive examinations on them. After their claims became public in an article and then a book by journalist John Fuller, the Hills became UFO celebrities, appearing on television (including game shows) and serving as the subject of an NBC-TV movie starring James Earl Jones and Estelle Getty. But they also struggled to convince scientists, journalists, and scholars that their story was true, leading both to become disillusioned. Barney Hill died young and Betty Hill spent her life making increasingly outlandish claims about a variety of supernatural topics.
Bowman’s book follows the Hills’ life stories in joint biography, from childhood to death, and onto this chronological framework, he hangs a series of loosely connected essays about various aspects of postwar American culture, including the Red Scare, the UFO flap of the 1950s, the white backlash to the Civil Rights Movement, the sexual revolution, and transformations in psychology as Freudian ideas declined. (I admit, in the last of these, to being amused that Bowman cited the same article from Life that I used in my own manuscript about James Dean, to very different effect.) Each chapter, in general, includes a narrative section about one Hill or the other and then a lengthy background essay about a (somewhat) relevant topic before returning to the Hill narrative.
Not to belabor the point, Bowman’s conclusion is that the Hills’ alien abduction was a fantasy and largely an outgrowth of their declining faith in the liberal social order, particularly in the power of the federal government to effectively achieve social justice. The Hills were Democrats living in New Hampshire, a Republican state. Their crippling loss of confidence in Washington found its mirror in their disillusionment with institutional science, which they also saw as an elite (white) project systematically arrayed against them and their beliefs. Hence, he claims, Betty Hill both rejected mainstream scientists because of their elitism but pursued the trappings of scientific credibility to justify her own fantasies. There is certainly truth to this argument, and it is beyond doubt that political and social conditions impact how people interpret ambiguous events and understand their worlds.
The result, however, is a bit less than the sum of its parts. There is little that the reader will learn from Bowman’s book that one will not find in other books about the Hills, and his analysis of American political and social history is, unsurprisingly, conventional. The value in the story derives from the juxtaposition of social and personal history, and yet at most junctures Bowman’s case is largely circumstantial. Although he had access to rarely seen archival materials, little insight emerges from them. He asserts many times that various national events impacted the Hills’ relationship to “the American state” (his preferred phrasing), but he provides little direct evidence for these conclusions—no quotations from letters, few interviews, almost no testimony from friends and family. (End notes list archival materials linked to some of these claims but do not indicate their contents, and in one case he quotes Betty Hill falsely alleging that a Watergate conspirator stalked her.) Can we really assume that the federal government was the single biggest influence on the Hills’ alien abduction narrative?
In reading Abduction, I frequently found myself feeling as though the author had become so entranced by his political narrative that he often failed to see much of it had only a tangential connection to the subject. The Hill abduction, he claims, was a microcosm of the failure of “the American state” that eventually led former New Deal-style liberals like the Hills to abandon reason and embrace the irrational, revanchist anti-elite grievance culture that he chooses not to identify or describe—an odd choice for a book about politics. But in emphasizing the role of the federal government (and, primarily, the presumed failures of Democrats) nearly to the exclusion of all else, Bowman goes too far.
The Hills didn’t live in a world mediated solely by federal social policies. They lived in a world that was filled with popular culture, much of it devoted to aliens. Barney Hill didn’t tell his story on The CBS Evening News. He told it on To Tell the Truth, a game show. The most famous version of the Hills’ abduction didn’t air on 60 Minutes but in a TV movie, for entertainment. When the Hills spoke about their feelings, they didn’t reach for political metaphors; they referenced science fiction like The Twilight Zone. Barney Hill’s abduction narrative itself bears striking resemblance to several episodes of The Outer Limits which aired immediately before his hypnosis sessions, while Betty Hill’s version finds clear parallels in flying saucer movies and sci-fi TV of the preceding years. Bowman briefly acknowledges this in a limited way near the end of the book, but in giving (very) short shrift to the role of popular culture in shaping the Hills’ story, both internally and externally, Bowman creates a distorted narrative that both leads the reader to view alien abduction as a revolutionary act of political resistance and to imagine that such abduction narratives are much more serious and politically consequential than any fair assessment of their impact would conclude.
Bowman’s book is strongest when he sticks to the narrative of the Hills’ lives and lets the reader draw conclusions. It is weakest when he reverts to professorial mode and turns away from his subject toward potted histories and Wikipedia-length background on tangentially related topics. Narratively, the Hill story is problematic because the climactic event happens first—the alleged abduction. Everything that happens after is anticlimax. Bowman correctly tries to solve that problem by making the abduction the inciting incident in a story of disillusionment and madness. But because he refuses to offer critical judgment on his subjects, whom he very obviously has come to love, that narrative never reaches its obvious conclusion.
There is a powerful Shirley Jackson-style Gothic story buried inside Bowman’s book. Betty Hill’s biography is scarcely different from the heroines of Jackson’s masterpieces like The Haunting of Hill House or We Have Always Lived in the Castle. But to tap that power and to craft a truly heartbreaking portrait of a woman driven out of mainstream society and into the depths of raving conspiracy after touching the supernatural, you must be willing to criticize and critique your subject and you must be willing to view the retreat from reason as tragic. Even at the end, when ritually mourning that “conspiracy and distrust” have overtaken American life, Bowman persists in seeing the Hills as heroes. Unwilling to make value judgments about what is good and what is bad, he can reach no real conclusion, leaving his narrative to fizzle out into a lament that Hills were confused and mistaken, but scientists and journalists were wrong to point it out because it made the Hills feel bad about themselves. To save America, he implies, we must not challenge anyone’s beliefs lest we hurt their feelings.
That is a terrible lesson for science, for politics, and for history.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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