Communion at 25: Whiltey Strieber's Alien Claims Re-examined. (part 1)
Today in 2010, the concept of “alien abduction” is now a cultural meme. Virtually everyone in the Western world, and probably a good chunk of the non-Western world, is familiar with the paradigm: the belief that extraterrestrials visit the Earth, occasionally kidnap unsuspecting persons, subject them to weird experiments (usually involving an anal probe or some other humiliating procedure) and set them loose again. Alien abduction is now mainstream enough to be mentioned on comedy shows like South Parkand Mad TV and gag lines in blockbuster movies like Independence Day. It’s one of those fringe topics that arouses intense, but usually temporary, curiosity.
It wasn’t always so. The first documented claim of alien abduction, which set the blueprint for the genre, was the case of Barney and Betty Hill, a New Hampshire couple who claimed they were taken aboard a UFO and molested in September 1961. This incident became the basis for a bestselling 1966 book, The Interrupted Journey. However, the person who really propelled the idea of alien abduction into popular consciousness was former horror author Whitley Strieber, who wrote a book published in early 1987, Communion. Strieber’s book was a bestseller and followed by various sequels, most notably Transformation and Breakthrough. Strieber is still active in the UFO community, and is associated with the website Unknown Country.
Strieber’s basic claim was this: that on the night of December 26, 1985, exactly 25 years ago this week, he was abducted from the bedroom of his rural cabin in upstate New York by nonhuman beings, taken aboard some sort of craft, and subjected to bizarre and intrusive prodding. The obvious supposition in the opening pages of Communion is that he was raped ,although Strieber did not make that claim explicitly in those words until 2009. In reflecting on this experience, Strieber decided that the creatures who assaulted him must have been trying to help him “break through” to some higher form of consciousness. The title of his book, Communion, refers both to Strieber’s highly religious Catholic background and to his idea of some sort of spiritual union with the nonhuman consciousness he believes has intervened in his life.
I remember when Communion came out. I was 14 years old and very interested in UFOs. In the fall of 1986 I remember seeing a segment on a news magazine show about the book, which made the statement that Strieber’s claim is credible because he was an “ordinary guy” and very trustworthy. I was excited to read the book, bought it on its first day of publication, and have read it many times in the 23 years since its publication, as well as Transformation, which came out in 1988, andBreakthrough, in 1995.
The purpose of this blog is not to offer an opinion on whether “alien abduction” as a phenomenon is real or not. Rather, I will analyze Strieber’s specific claims, now nearing 25 years old, and offer some remarks on the cultural impact of Communion and its ilk.
Basic Claims: Communion
Regardless of what you think of UFOs or alien abduction, Communion is a well-written book, a fascinating story and definitely worth a read, whether you believe it’s literal truth or not. Strieber begins with a perfunctory description of himself and his occupation (“From 1977 until 1983 I wrote imaginative thrillers, but in recent years I had been concentrating on much more serious fiction about peace and the environment…”) and an idyllic description of his life in rural New York with his wife and son. Then, on the night in question, he describes waking up in the middle of the night and seeing a strange robot-like figure coming toward him in his bedroom. This was followed by the entry of a group of weird, small, dark-skinned creatures, who by some machination bring Strieber to a strange room where he sees various other creatures, including the tall, willow-like being with the big eyes who is depicted on the book cover. After waking up in his bedroom again, Strieber at first thinks he’s seen an owl, then begins having bizarre flashbacks. He calls a noted UFO researcher, Budd Hopkins, who hypnotizes him, and under hypnosis (that’s an important factor) the whole horrific story comes out.
That’s not all. In various hypnosis sessions with Budd Hopkins, Strieber recalls a previous UFO abduction from October 1985, which he had apparently forgotten about, and then, most amazingly, spontaneously recalls an experience from his childhood, where he was evidently taken aboard a UFO along with (inexplicably) a whole troop of U.S. soldiers. After realizing this, Strieber begins thinking back to his past and uncovers experience after experience that he had forgotten, or at least hadn’t interpreted in the context of alien abductions.
It’s important to note that in the original Communion, although Strieber talks very extensively about UFOs and the UFO phenomenon in general, he deliberately avoids making the claim that he believes the beings who abducted him were in fact aliens from another planet. In fact, Strieber leaves open the possibility that they may not be physically real at all, suggesting in the lengthy philosophical essay in the last third of the book that they might be from some unknown part of the human subconscious. (He later backed off from this supposition).
For my money, the most fascinating part of the book is Chapter 4, which Strieber titles “The Sky Beneath My Feet: A Journey Through My Past.” In this section Strieber ruminates about a number of odd experiences in his life. None are explained, but they’re offered as tantalizing partial glimpses of what he obviously wants the reader to interpret as past abductions. To-wit:
· At age thirteen, in 1958, he claims to have built an “anti-gravity” machine in his bedroom using counter-rotating magnets. Supposedly he told a friend that “spacemen” had given him the plans, though he says he didn’t remember saying this. The machine exploded and caused a fire that burned down the family house.
· A very confusing episode where Strieber says he thought he was present at the infamous 1966 University of Texas bell tower spree shooting by madman Charles Whitman, but he then claims he wasn’t there, and was possibly with aliens at the time.
· A period of “missing time” in 1967 preceded by the sight of a UFO in the sky.
· A bizarre account of a “chase” across Europe, which Strieber says happened in 1968. He remembers traveling from country to country with a mysterious companion who he doesn’t identify, but then hints that this too is what he calls a “screen memory” for an experience with aliens. The strong supposition–again, never explicitly stated–is that he was taken to another planet, again for reasons unknown.
· An incident, said to have happened in April 1977, where an alien voice talked to Strieber and his wife through their hi-fi stereo set, concluding with the words “I know something else about you.”
I remember this chapter absolutely blew my mind when I read it in 1987. I thought, “How could you have been abducted by aliens numerous times throughout your life and not be aware of it until years later?”
Nearly 25 years later this is still a fair question. In the book, Strieber hypothesizes that the “visitors,” as he calls them, are seeking some kind of rapport with the human race on a higher level of consciousness, and that they become “involved” with people over a lifetime, and also families. Why do they hide their presence, then? Well, Strieber supposes, that’s how they want it.
I remember the last third of Communion bored me silly when I was 14. That’s the part where Strieber tries to make sense out of the “visitors,” and argues passionately that what they seek is indeed “communion” with the soul of humanity. He offers absolutely no support for this view. Every impression he has of the “visitors” is highly subjective–which, again, is supposedly how they want it. Aside from a weird cut behind his head, Strieber never claims the aliens left any marks or other physical evidence behind. He’s quite up-front about this, and in fact uses it in support of the supposition that they may be “from the unconscious” or any other number of ephemeral explanations.
An “Ordinary Guy?”
As I mentioned above, one of the key points in the original promotion of theCommunion book was fostering the impression that the story is believable because Strieber is an “ordinary guy” and obviously not insane. I remember this theme was repeated in every interview or mention of the book. The “About the Author” section on the original back flap goes to great pains to explain that “Whitley Strieber undertook a battery of psychological tests” and that “all test results indicated that his experiences were not caused by a known psychological or physiological disorder.” The appendices of the book contain results of a lie detector test, which verifies he’s telling the truth, and a statement from a psychologist saying “he is not suffering from a psychosis.” All in all this is intended to be proof positive that what Strieber describes is real.
When I was 14, I thought this was an open-and-shut case. At last, we have an eyewitness account of aliens, from someone who’s been examined, certified sane, and even polygraphed as truthful!
More than 20 years later, and after considerable experience in the realm of conspiracy theories, I’m no longer quite so easily persuaded. RereadingCommunion with a critical eye, and after two more decades of life experience, I note the following things that shake the “ordinary guy” image that Strieber (or at least his publicists) tried to cloak him with. Some of them are very subtle. For example:
· A circumstantial case can be made that Strieber has had a lifelong interest in UFOs and paranormal phenomena. Remember that he was talking about “spacemen” as early as 1958 (though he claims not to remember such talk). Reporter Ed Conroy, who investigated Strieber and wrote a generally supportive book called Report on Communion, interviewed many of Strieber’s friends from the 1950s, and many reported that he talked about spacemen and aliens very often as a child.
· Strieber admits that, at the time he was dealing with the aftermath of the first abduction, he was reading a book called Science and the UFO’s by British UFOlogist Jenny Randles, which he says his brother sent to him for Christmas. (I discuss this later).
· Strieber reports a long-time association with the Gurdjieff Foundation beginning in the 1970s. This is an organization promoting the work ofG.I. Gurdjieff and P.D. Ouspensky. These are noted “mystics” (translation: charlatans) who figure large in New Age philosophy circles.
· Strieber states toward the end of Communion that his life and philosophy has been heavily influenced by “the tarot.” He says, “Please, set aside any notion of fortune-telling,” and then says that he became interested in tarot about 1971 and he “came to realize that the tarot is much more than a deck of fortune-telling cards; it is a sort of philosophical machine that presents its ideas in the form of pictures rather than words.”
So, instead of being an “ordinary guy,” it turns out Strieber has always been interested in UFOs and aliens, believes in tarot cards, and is a follower of weird New Age mystics. Is the picture changing here?
I remember, not long after Communion came out, being home sick one day and flipping channels on the TV. I happened to come upon the Oprah Winfrey Show, which was just then (1987) being nationally syndicated. Whitley Strieber was a guest on the show. I disliked Oprah and her show every bit as much when I was 15 as I do today, but because Strieber was on and I loved Communion, I watched it. I remember being disappointed because there wasn’t a single word in the show about aliens. In fact it was about witchcraft, and while I didn’t remember what was being said, I remember Strieber came off looking like a kook. This was the beginning of my doubt that Communion was gospel truth.
By complete chance, while doing research on the Web related to this blog, I happened to come across a transcript of that self-same Oprah show. It was broadcast on June 24, 1987, and in it Oprah introduces Whitley Strieber as someone “who has participated in many Wiccan rituals.” Here is the transcript. Incidentally, the search term that brought up this transcript was “Dora Ruffner,” a longtime friend of Whitley Strieber’s who is mentioned by name in Transformation and Breakthrough (more on her later). I was curious to learn her background to see if Strieber’s close friends are also involved in New Age stuff. Turns out they are, or at least were in the case of Ms. Ruffner.
So, we have a guy who’s had a lifelong interest in UFOs and aliens, believes in tarot cards, follows Gurdjieff and Ouspensky, takes part in Wiccan rituals, and his best friend went on the Oprah Winfrey show as a self-proclaimed “white witch.”
Now, let me be clear. I’m not knocking Strieber’s beliefs. I think Wicca and “witchcraft” is a perfectly reasonable religious belief. (Strieber self-identifies as a Catholic, and there’s no reason to question that). Wicca is not, as the fundamentalist Christian preacher in the Oprah transcript fulminates, an evil religion of Satan worship. But it is sort of a fringe belief, meaning, it’s very firmly located in the alternatives to more mainstream belief systems, and it’s not a far jump from Wicca, witchcraft and New Age mysticism to the world of UFOs and aliens.
Also, let’s take into account Science and the UFOs. Strieber claims it was given to him for Christmas 1985 by his brother. Think about why people give each other books as gifts. This year for Christmas I got two books, The Secret History of MI6 by Keith Jeffery and First Family by Joseph J. Ellis. These books were given to me because the person who gave them to me (my father, for the record) knows I love history. If Strieber’s family members are giving him books about UFOs, before he goes public with a story of being abducted by one, isn’t it reasonable to assume that Strieber’s family realized he was interested in UFOs and the occult, and thought this book would be an appropriate gift based on that? Doesn’t that show that Strieber was probably predisposed to this sort of material even before whatever events occurred on December 26, 1985 to make him think (honestly, it appears) that he was abducted by aliens?
It gets better. Strieber says, on page 40 of Communion, that reading an account of an alien abduction in Science and the UFOs got him thinking about whether what happened to him was an alien abduction. In fact, it was that book that caused him to call alien abduction “expert” Budd Hopkins, who brought out the abduction story under hypnosis.
Here’s where I’m going with this. This is not an “ordinary guy,” just like you and me. Sure, I know some people who have spiritual beliefs; I do. But do you know a lot of people who believe in tarot cards and consider “the way of the tarot” a central tenet of their life? Do you know a lot of people who are interested enough in New Age mystics to volunteer with the Gurdjieff Foundation for 20 years? Supposing you do, would it surprise you that someone with this sort of background suddenly starts talking about being abducted by aliens–especially after reading an account of such an abduction in a book?
It probably wouldn’t, would it?
To illustrate where I’m going with this, let’s take two hypothetical “witnesses” who claim they were abducted by aliens.
Witness #1: middle-class American man, a bank manager, reasonably religious (let’s say Presbyterian), does not believe in UFOs or aliens, has never had an interest in New Age or the occult, has never known to discuss these subjects more than casual conversation when they might come up in the context of popular culture. After zero exposure to UFO materials, he claims to have been abducted by aliens and subjected to bizarre experiences. The first professional he contacts after having this experience is a psychologist. The witness remembers his experience in ordinary consciousness.
Witness #2: middle-class American man, a horror writer, reasonably religious (Catholic), has talked about UFOs all his life, claims he had contact with “spacemen” at age 13, follows New Age spiritualism, does volunteer activities toward spreading awareness of New Age theories, has taken part in many Wiccan rituals, and believes in tarot cards. After reading about an abduction claim in a UFO book, he claims to have been abducted by aliens and subjected to bizarre experiences. He openly states, however, that what happened to him may not be real but something from “the unconscious mind.” The first professional (I use that term loosely) he contacts after having this experience is a UFO researcher known for alien abduction scenarios–who was mentioned in the book he read. The witness remembers his experience only under hypnosis by the UFO researcher.
Witness #1, who does not exist (at least so far as I know), would be a far more credible source of an alien abduction claim, in my view, than Witness #2.
Let me be extra clear here: I’m not saying that Strieber’s claims are or must be false because he’s a New Age guy with a lifelong attraction to fringe beliefs. That’s not what I’m saying. What I’m saying is that when you claim that his experiences should be regarded as credible because he’s an “ordinary guy”–which was the tack used to promote Communion–the credibility decreases to the extent to which he turns out not to be an “ordinary guy.” This gets us into the realm of arguing, “Okay, so what’s ‘ordinary?” I don’t want to go there, but I think most people would agree that a follower of Gurdjieff and Ouspensky, an advocate for Wicca and a believer in tarot cards is, however sincere he may be, more…unusual than he is “ordinary.”
So What About That Hypnosis?
I mentioned the case of Barney and Betty Hill as a paradigm early on and I think it’s apposite. If you read The Interrupted Journey you will find that the Hills’ claim of alien abduction came out only after the fact, and only under hypnosis. That’s also true in Strieber’s case. Also, and I emphasize again, the first “professional” he called was not a psychologist, psychiatrist or other mental health professional. It was Budd Hopkins, who, as I said, Strieber admits he called after reading an abduction account and Hopkins’s name inScience and the UFOs by Jenny Randles.
The bulk of Communion is devoted to Strieber bringing out his abduction claims under Hopkins’s hypnosis, and later, hypnosis conducted by a bona fide scientist–but usually with Hopkins present.
Post-hypnotic suggestion is often asserted as a possible explanation for abduction claims. If nothing else, the fact that Strieber did not remember his abduction clearly until he was hypnotized by Budd Hopkins should set off alarm bells.
Who is Budd Hopkins, anyway? I did a bit of research on him, expecting to find he was a psychologist or other mental health professional. After all, his depiction in Communion certainly leads you to believe he’s a doctor of something. Actually he’s not. Aside from finding out he’s a graduate of Oberlin College, I couldn’t find anything about his background. You would think if he was a doctor or a psychologist, he’d be trumpeting it from the rooftops. He’s not.
Budd Hopkins, in fact, is an artist by trade. The whole UFO thing is a sideline. He’s an amateur, and hypnotizes people without any professional experience in hypnotherapy. This is the guy that Strieber turned to first?
Why not a psychologist? If I woke up in the middle of the night surrounded by weird things that looked like aliens–something I know is radically unusual, and shouldn’t happen by all we understand about science–my first thought would be that there’s something seriously wrong with me. I’d go to a shrink and try to find out why I was having hallucinations. If, and only if, explanations of a mental nature turned out to be unavailing, I might consider alternative hypotheses…if there was evidence to support them.
Instead, it seems Strieber turned to the alternative hypothesis first. He went to Budd Hopkins first, and then later got checked out by psychiatrists, it seems (given the way the disclaimers in Communion read) in an attempt to head off explanations other than the one he wanted to champion–that nonhuman beings were involved with him on some level. Remember, in 1987 Strieber wasn’t even on record as claiming these beings were aliens, or that they even existed–he left it clearly open that the whole thing might have happened only in his head! (He later recanted this in Transformation, as we’ll see in the next blog, but in early 1987 that was Strieber’s position).
If you’re looking for unimpeachable, slam-dunk proof that alien abduction is a literally real phenomenon, you may be disappointed in Whitley Strieber.
In Part II of this blog I’ll take on Strieber’s even more bizarre assertions in Transformation, the sequel to Communion that even had me, at the age of sixteen, thinking he’d finally jumped the shark. Such as the part where he starts chanting in the woods, having out-of-body experiences, and the aliens drain his bank account when he defies their warnings not to eat Snickers bars. I’m serious. He really claimed that. To be continued!