Suppose I were to tell you that an alien abduction has been reported by no less a scientific authority than a Nobel Prize-winning biochemist. You’d be impressed, wouldn’t you?
But suppose I were to add that said Nobel Laureate has a long history of experimenting with psychedelic drugs. That he is, or at least he was 15 years ago, a firm believer in astrology. A firm disbeliever in human-caused climate change, and the role of the HIV virus in the AIDS epidemic. That he once heard, from a woman who’d picked him up in a Buttercup Bakery a few hours earlier, a story of how she’d saved his life in the course of her astral-plane wanderings across the continent—and he believed it.
How will you feel then?
Probably much the way I felt upon finishing Dr. Kary Mullis’s endearing, exasperating memoir Dancing Naked in the Mind Field (Pantheon Books, 1998).
In this book—which features the author on the cover, with his trusty surfboard—Mullis goes to some lengths to portray himself as a bad boy. A good bad boy, however. That is to say, he’s wild, impulsive, and bored by convention, but also honest, kind-hearted, and rock-solid dependable. When Kary Mullis gives his word, Kary Mullis stands by his word. Or that’s how he depicts himself in the memoir, and I for one am inclined to believe him.
I think I’d like to have Mullis as my friend. He promises to be not only an entertaining companion, but a loyal and caring one. I don’t think I’d like to have him as my financial advisor. Of his scientific genius, I have not the slightest doubt. But good judgment is not his strong suit.
So is he one of those “reliable observers,” of whom we UFOlogists so loved to talk? Or not?
Here’s the story of his abduction. (I won’t call it “UFO abduction,” since he never claims to have seen a UFO in the course of it.) It’s in a chapter entitled “No Aliens Allowed.” A kind of flippant title, for the narration of a potentially grave incident. But no one will ever accuse Kary Mullis of lacking a sense of humor.
It was 1985. Mullis was spending the weekend at his cabin on a tract of forested land in Mendicino County, California. He arrived about midnight on Friday, turned on the kitchen lights and put his bags of groceries on the floor, took his flashlight and headed for the outhouse. He never made it there.
“I walked down the steps, turned right, and then at the far end of the path, under a fir tree, there was something glowing. I pointed my flashlight at it anyhow. It only made it whiter where the beam landed. It seemed to be a raccoon. I wasn’t frightened. Later, I wondered if it could have been a hologram, projected from God knows where.”
The raccoon said: “Good evening, doctor.”
“The next thing I remember, it was early in the morning. I was walking along a road uphill from my house. What went through my head as I walked down toward my house was, ‘What the hell am I doing here?’ I had no memory of the night before. I thought maybe I had passed out and spent the night outside. But nights are damp in the summer in Mendocino, and my clothes were dry, and they weren’t dirty.”
The lights in Mullis’s cabin were still on, as he’d left them. His groceries were on the floor, no longer cold. His flashlight was missing, permanently as it turned out. That afternoon, entering the woods on his property, he felt overwhelmed by a panic he didn’t understand, and fled. Even long after the incident, he couldn’t bring himself to enter those woods alone.
A year or so later he did go into the woods, by night. He was armed with an AR-15 rifle and a fantasy of himself as John Wayne. He screamed things like “Get the fuck out of my woods” at whatever might be lurking there. Then:
“My D-cells cut a clean beam into the darkest part of the forest. There was a giant old hollowed bay laurel growing right out of a little waterfall full of ferns. I was fifty feet away from it. I loved it, but it had become the focus of my fears. John Wayne, at my side, wearing the same kind of hat I had donned for the occasion, said, ‘Let ’em have it, kid.’ I opened up with the AR-15 and riddled the area of the laurel. ‘Blow ’em to hell, kid!’”
After which Kary Mullis was no longer afraid to go into his woods.
There’s a postscript to the story—two postscripts, actually.
In a bookstore in La Jolla, Mullis spotted “a book on display by Whitley Strieber called Communion. On the cover was a drawing that captured my attention. An oval-shaped head with large inky eyes staring straight ahead.” This had to have been in 1987, when Strieber’s Communion was on the best-seller lists and the now-iconic UFO alien, painted for the cover by an artist named Ted Jacobs, had just entered the world’s cultural awareness. Thousands are reported to have seen that cover and felt: Yes, this is true. It happened to me.
Dr. Kary Mullis, 1993 Nobel Prize winner in chemistry, was among those thousands.
His daughter phoned him, long distance. “Dad, there’s a book I want you to read. It’s called Communion.” And—without having previously heard about his experience—she told him:
She had stayed in the Mendocino cabin with her fiancé. “And just like me, she had wandered down the hill. She was gone for three hours. Her fiancé had spent the time frantically searching for her everywhere, calling her name, but she was nowhere to be found.
“The first thing she remembered was walking the same road on which I’d found myself, hearing her fiancé calling her name. She had no idea where she’d been.”
She, too, saw Strieber’s book. She, too, “experienced the same sort of vague recognition as I had” upon seeing it.
That’s Mullis’s story, anyway.
Naturally, it’s occurred to me the whole thing might be a put-on. That it’s Mullis’s idea of wit to come up with the silliest whopper of a yarn he can think of, exploit my sympathy for his unconventionality in order to con me into trusting him, and then turn around and mock me as a sucker. Might be, could be. But that would be an exceedingly low-class trick, and Mullis doesn’t come across as a low-class kind of person.
He laughs at the bourgeois proprieties. He laughs at himself—but only seldom at others. He laughs at the white-coated scientific priesthood. But the scientific quest itself he takes with absolute and appropriate seriousness. How could a man, whose devotion to that quest won him a Nobel Prize, do otherwise?
“I wouldn’t try to publish a scientific paper about these things,” he writes at the end of the alien-abduction chapter, “because I can’t do any experiments. I can’t make glowing raccoons appear. I can’t buy them from a scientific supply house to study. I can’t cause myself to be lost again for several hours. But I don’t deny what happened. It’s what science calls anecdotal, because it only happened in a way that you can’t reproduce. But it happened.”
But it happened. We have only Mullis’s word that it happened—but it happened. It may never again happen to anyone as it did to Mullis—but it happened. It happened, and we need to find some way, using astral projection or abnormal psychology or anything in between, to make sense of its happening.
The battle cry of UFOlogy: But it happened.
by David Halperin
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