The Believer: Alien Encounters, Hard Science, and the Passion of John Mack
Ralph Blumenthal | High Road Books | Mar. 2020 | 312 pages | ISBN: 978-0-8263-6231-5 | $29.95
Ralph Blumenthal’s The Believer is probably the wrong book for me to be reviewing right now. Coming on the heels of me finishing a six-month project writing my own new book, which also combined biography with UFOs, the structural and formal similarities between our two volumes became uncomfortable. That Blumenthal made exactly the opposite choices in putting his book together served for me as an object lesson in the difference between reportage and storytelling. The Believer is a bad book, though not without a basic factual utility. It’s unpleasant to read, confusing, and lacks a clear perspective on its subject beyond hagiography. But worst of all, it’s bad as biography. You won’t leave this book feeling anything for or about John Mack, the Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer who became an alien abduction researcher and who serves as the book’s titular subject. He never feels human.
Blumenthal was a reporter for the New York Times until 2009 but is today best known for his 2017 return to the paper in collaboration with writing partner and UFO disclosure lobbyist Leslie Kean. Together, they publicized UFO conspiracy theories in the Times, chronicling the misadventures of the crew associated with the Pentagon’s defunct UFO office, many later involved with To the Stars Academy of Arts and Science. Blumenthal’s reporting has been credulous, and the Times retracted at least one major claim from his UFO articles, that former Sen. Harry Reid had told him the United States recovered a crashed flying saucer.
The Believer is Blumenthal’s passion project of fifteen years, and it is billed as a biography. For the first half, Blumenthal structures the book with alternating chapters, half covering Mack’s life and work and the other half covering developments in the UFO field. These sections seemingly have nothing to do with one another, being chronologically out of sync and only slowly intersecting. The UFO narrative starts in World War II and moves in fits and starts through the twentieth century. The Mack narrative is a jumble, covering impressionistically parts of his life from 1929 onward, but not always chronologically and never parallel to the preceding or succeeding UFO material. Honestly, after writing my own book, I am close to an expert on early UFO material, and Blumenthal’s narrative confused and baffled me. I’m not sure how deep into UFOs you would need to be to fill in the many gaps.
I found the book’s structure distressingly familiar. In my own book, which covers three parallel narratives on flying saucers, McCarthyism, and the life of James Dean, I also alternate the stories, starting in 1947 and moving forward to 1955. But I worked my ass off to make sure that each of the narratives paralleled the other two, their stories echoing each other thematically and moving in lockstep chronologically, until they slowly bleed into one another and merge into a single story. Blumenthal stops alternating stories a little before the halfway point, calling attention to the random organization. Blumenthal employs the encyclopedia data-dump style of writing, where a sentence or two moves the narrative forward before splattering in a long, complicated paragraph of mostly irrelevant backstory, sometimes going back decades or centuries. It’s a choice, but not one I make in my own writing.
Blumenthal’s lack of artistry depresses me. Consider this one example: For a book about alien abduction, he chooses to open the story not with a dramatic abduction narrative, or even his hero’s Road-to-Damascus shock at such accounts, but with a lengthy description of college architecture. Even I knew enough to put an eruption of the supernatural first in my book. Of course, if Blumenthal did that, he’d be stuck with Mack’s actual abduction accounts, like this one, recorded from a patient and later played for the Dalai Lama: “They’re taking it!” the abductee screamed. “They're taking my semen! [...] They have control over my genitals! [...] They have a cup over my cock! Fuck you! AAAHHHHHH!” I counted to make sure I had the right number of H’s.
I could also nitpick the minor errors in the book. The UFO Incident, for example, was not a “big screen” spectacular about the Barney and Betty Hill abduction but an NBC TV-movie. The words mare (female horse) and mare (demon-goblin) are not etymologically related, and Blumenthal could have checked a dictionary to see that Mack’s Freudian ideas about the sexual potency of horses in nightmares are wrong. I could also laugh at Blumenthal’s credulous acceptance of Mack’s silliest ideas, like the Neo-Freudian claim that Pinocchio is the story of a boy who becomes sexually aroused by thoughts of his mother, with his nose representing an erection.
But to confine ourselves to the story at hand, we follow John Mack along the trajectory of his life through plainly stated lists of facts about his career. He rose through the ranks of academia. He wrote a biography of T. E. Lawrence, revealing his subject’s penchant for paying a man to spank and flog him to orgasm, which won the Pulitzer Prize for reasons that Blumenthal never really grapples with. Blumenthal dismisses this major part of Mack’s life—thirteen years—with a few superficial pages. Mack became enmeshed in the elite world of celebrity thinkers, hobnobbing with Yasir Arafat, Daniel Ellsberg, and Carl Sagan. Blumenthal depicts him as a key player in the Middle East peace process, though a careful reading finds that Blumenthal used quite a bit of smoke and mirrors to inflate his role. Mack has sex with many women, which Blumenthal attributes to Mack’s desire to replace his mother, who died when he was an infant. The shadow of Freud never lifts, despite the manifestly false nature of Freudian speculations. (Mack only rejected Freudian ideas in the late 1980s, after reading a Blumenthal article in Time.)
And yet the reader never gets a feeling that “John Mack” is anything but some words on a page. Blumenthal’s plain, stylistically vacant writing grants Mack neither character nor grace. Despite having access to his journals, Blumenthal learned nothing of his inner life. He is a series of actions without motivation, a list of events unmoored from passion, pride, or personality. I don’t feel like I know him, or could tell you anything about who he was outside his alien obsession. In working on the biographical sections of my own book, I scoured sources for telling details about James Dean’s life to help make him feel real, to help the reader bond emotionally in order to carry the narrative forward. That way, when I discuss Dean finally taking a friend to bed after many years of hesitant flirtation, the weight of those details turns it into art and beauty and tragedy. Here, Blumenthal simply shrugs and offers no thoughts on his hero conducting innumerable extramarital affairs. There is neither grace nor tragedy nor even emotion. It is as mechanical as an alien anal probe.
Similarly, Blumenthal offers no pushback on Mack’s most bonkers ideas, even as their illogic becomes obvious in the light on modern knowledge. In the 1970s, Mack believed that a trance had taken him back to memories of being in the birth canal and of being his own mother before and during her death. He concluded his consciousness could access time and space beyond his own reality. “I cried with gratitude,” he said after “watching” his mother give birth to him. Mack compared the experience to Invasion of the Body Snatchers, writing that the movie helped him understand the need for maternal warmth and not merely masculine, plant-like mechanical behavior. He was obviously fantasizing a story of his own obsession with his mother and her death, but being so close to the subject, he couldn’t imagine anything but a divine revelation. Blumenthal simply transcribes.
Blumenthal also reports uncritically Mack’s immediate belief upon encountering Budd Hopkins’s UFO abduction claims that Freud was wrong and abduction dreams are in fact the human mind’s inability to accept the reality of strange incursions from parallel worlds, whose Lovecraftian horrors humans must cloak under science-fiction guise: “What if the horror/sci Fi/fantasy stuff is not Freud projection,” he wrote in his journal, “but the effort to come to terms with the nightmare trauma of our visitation from the ‘other universe,’ which, because we cannot accept its reality, must come to us as buried horrors do—& we displace in horror stories, twilight zones etc.” He later concluded that the aliens inhabit a parallel spiritual realm of divine perfection, a level above human close to God. Blumenthal takes this as profound, but truthfully, it’s freshman dorm room bullshit, and common at that. H. P. Lovecraft wrote about how humans cloaked interdimensional horrors behind more acceptable monsters in his Cthulhu Mythos stories. Not to put too fine a point on it, but James Dean was talking about worlds beyond worlds and another level of perfection beyond the material plane forty years before Mack, though he was technically a college sophomore at the time. He also spoke of this world being an illusion. All of these ideas one could, if so inclined, see as parallel with material in 1930s and 1940s SFF stories from magazines like Astounding, Amazing, Unknown Worlds, etc., and Theosophy before them. It’s not really a coincidence. Profundity was on sale in the pulps and paperback SFF story collections in those days. The point is that Mack did not have the reality-shattering insight Blumenthal seems to want us to assume.
Mack started doing drugs in 1990. “The ecstatic surrender seems divine, beyond sex,” he wrote. It’s funny to compare his imagining that he met God while high with James Dean doing hard drugs for the first, and apparently only, time in his life late in 1954 or early in 1955. He didn’t see God. He just said he finally realized how things must feel for normal, happy people all the time. The experience is, shall we say, subjective. I’m not sure Mack ever quite understood that.
Anyway, the lead up to the crazy part of Mack’s life was the most interesting part of the book, but Blumenthal never quite gets to the heart of what made a seemingly sane, rational psychiatrist go batshit crazy for alien abduction stories. His answer involves yearnings for his mother and for the divine, and a soaking in Freudian and Jungian ideas that combined with SFF to prepare him to believe in impossible, ridiculous things. It’s as good an answer as any, but the way I summarized it here is more clearly stated than Blumenthal ever does. Only in the afterward does Blumenthal explicitly state his (likely wrong) theory that Mack kept expanding his unending, unconditional love of humanity from the personal to the global to the cosmic to the supernatural. (Blech!) Nevertheless, the scene where Mack joins a men’s empowerment group and has to run a gauntlet of screaming men in order to retrieve his own “symbolic balls” from his imaginary version of his mother pretty much encapsulates the masculinity panic that I identified as the theme of my own book. I concede that I cannot understand what Mack described as his “terror” of emasculation, his mother, and being alone in the cosmos. But it did prove something to me. In my own book, I rejected the popular (and intentionally fabricated) explanation that James Dean was driven by a desire to replace his own dead mother. He never expressed even a tenth of the mommy issues as this guy. Now that I see what actual mother issues look like, there is a distinct difference.
The second half of the book traces Mack’s career hypnotizing alleged abductees to tease out their various nutty claims about aliens manipulating their genitals and using them as incubators to grow hybrids. He followed Jacques Vallée’s idea that these beings were interdimensional and phased in and out of our reality. He found himself unable to distinguish between other planets, other dimensions, and heavenly realms, eventually considering the whole phenomenon as spiritual, a part of his own quest for a path to reunion with his mother and God. Blumenthal also discusses the ridicule Mack faced as a result of using his Harvard University berth to promote these claims. (Like every fringe researcher, he claimed elites were “threatened” by a paradigm-shift.) Bizarrely, the single longest narrative in the book is given over to a day-by-day account of Harvard University conducting an inquiry into Mack’s research methods, which amounted to nothing. Bureaucratic processes are not inherently exciting. No one bothers to note the impossible coincidence that Mack’s hypnotherapy turned out abduction accounts that mirrored his own preoccupations with mommy issues, pregnancy, and childbirth. It probably would have been good to note that when Mack sexually pursued young women who approached him for research purposes or scholarly collaboration, that was an abuse of power and morally disgusting, not something to wink and cheer about.
Mostly, this half of the book, despite Blumenthal’s own admiration for his subject, functions as a chronicle of an uncritical believer in wide-ranging loopy ideas, from Freudian and Jungian nonsense to ancient astronauts to parallel realities to astrology, and above all the efficacy of hypnotic regression, despite the mounting evidence that it is little more than guided fantasy. Still more disturbing is the cynically symbiotic relationship between UFO researchers and the national media, the latter knowingly exploiting nonsense for ratings and thus creating still more “abductees.” Scribner’s paid Mack $250,000 to write his abduction fantasies in a 1993 deal. By the time Mack declares sex with space aliens to be “exuberantly fulfilling” and a path to God, in Blumenthal’s words, after formerly treating it as an invasive terror (a change never addressed in The Believer), it becomes evident that the UFO movement isn’t about aliens or spaceships but a global freak-out over the failure of faith. “Everything is divine, everything is sacred,” Mack told Shirley MacLaine as they credulously discussed her past lives in Atlantis and Lemuria communing with God. “We’re the sky. It’s us.”
After the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Mack proclaimed the need to abandon Cartesian dualism for a “unifying cosmology that transcends this dualism,” and he started to believe that that he had met souls that survived after death. By the end of his life, he believed in every type of New Age nonsense, from crystals to crop circles, ancient astronauts to astrology. This was not science.
In 1955, James Dean died in a car accident and people the world over thought he began talking to them through Ouija boards, psychic mediums, and even rattling coat hangers. In 2004, Mack died in a car accident and UFO believers the world over thought he began talking to them through séances and even a tray of rattling cookies. Fans claimed to see both men’s ghosts at spots important to them, and their closest friends claimed to meet with them in psychic dreams, and said they guided them from beyond. The desire to transcend the material world and death itself never dies, but I admit to experiencing a moment of uncanniness in seeing how closely Blumenthal’s book reads like an uninspired parody of my own.
Blumenthal switches to the first-person voice in an afterward in which he describes, more or less, falling in love with Mack after reading one of his books in 2004 and then choosing to devote fifteen years of his life to subsuming himself in Mack’s life and work. Mack’s ideas were in his mind during his coverage of UFOs for the New York Times, he says, and that explains a lot. Although Blumenthal professes not to have an answer to the UFO question, he is deeply disturbed by reality and the very the notion that something might arise from nothing, and so he endorses the idea that the “phenomenon” revolves around “transcendent encounters with the ineffable.” He, too, is on a spiritual quest to find God in a material cosmos, and Mack is his prophet, priest, and Messiah.
The Believer is a life story that never goes beyond a basic list of the events its subject experienced, an intellectual biography that never engages with the intellect, a would-be nonfiction thriller written without drama. Blumenthal’s style is plain to the point of vanishing into an encyclopedia entry writ large. There is no analysis, no point of view, no conclusion. Charles Darwin once said that every observation must be for or against some idea to have value. Although Blumenthal’s credulous perspective is obvious from his editorial choices and his lightly biased language (particularly in his end notes, citing almost entirely credulous sources in glowing terms), his refusal to engage with Mack’s most obviously false ideas beyond paraphrasing them leaves the reader wondering after the point. It’s evident that in calling Mack “heroic” and “Everyman” in his afterward—one who heeded the call to plumb the secrets of existence “for humanity’s sake,” he says—Blumenthal means us to see him as an epic hero and an archetype of the human condition. But even in his telling, and in his refusal to see the obvious, he has painted a portrait of an insecure man projecting his own fears and desires onto the stars.
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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