“I faked it,” said the woman named Donna Bassett. “Women have been doing it for centuries.”
What Donna Bassett “faked” was her hypnotically evoked memory of having been abducted into a UFO. The victim of her fakery was the august John Mack–professor of psychiatry at Harvard University, Pulitzer Prize-winning author, and (until his death in 2004) fearless advocate of the alien abduction phenomenon. Thereby exposed as a clueless buffoon.
Bassett’s coup was revealed to the world in the April 25, 1994 issue of Time magazine, in an article written by James Willwerth and published under the mocking title “The Man From Outer Space.” She recounted it two months later, to what I assume to have been a mostly applauding audience, at a conference of what was then called the “Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal.”
CSICOP, which had arranged for Mack to speak earlier in the same session, had conveniently failed to inform him that Bassett would be speaking too. Blindsided, he could only splutter that maybe Bassett really was an abductee despite her protestations. Naturally this made him look like even more of an ass.
So the takeaway is … that Mack was a moron? That even being a psychiatry professor at Harvard doesn’t give you privileged insights into human nature? (“The trouble with you, Sigi,” Freud’s aunt is supposed to have told him, “is that you just don’t understand people.”) The UFO debunkers in the CSICOP audience must have found Bassett’s jape an absolute scream. For me, who’s neither a believer nor a debunker, it was a squalid trick but one from which it’s possible to learn.
Here’s what Willwerth says about one of Bassett’s hypnotic-regression sessions with Mack, which seems to have taken place late in 1992 or in 1993:
“Among other recollections, she told of an encounter with John F. Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev on board a spaceship during the Cuban missile crisis. Bassett said Khrushchev was crying and that ‘I sat in his lap, and I put my arms around his neck, and I told him it would be O.K.’ Hearing her tale, Mack became so excited that he leaned on the bed too heavily, and it collapsed.”
Let’s acknowledge the story Bassett told is completely preposterous. But let’s also suppose that Mack swallowed it, not because he was preternaturally gullible, but because Bassett had zeroed in on one of his vulnerabilities. And that this vulnerability will tell us something, not necessarily discreditable, about an extraordinary human being whom this world lost too soon.
I’ll link this question to another one. Mack is mostly known in UFOlogical circles for his abduction work. But he had another lifetime fascination, with Lawrence of Arabia (T.E. Lawrence, 1888-1935), and in 1977 won the Pulitzer Prize in biography for A Prince of Our Disorder: The Life of T.E. Lawrence. It isn’t as if he discarded Lawrence after discovering UFOs. When he was killed by a drunken driver on September 27, 2004, Mack was in London to deliver a lecture on Lawrence for a conference sponsored by the T.E. Lawrence Society. What do Lawrence of Arabia and UFO abductions have to do with each other?
About ten years ago I bought a copy of A Prince of Our Disorder, and began reading it in search of clues to that nexus. Unfortunately I got bogged down about a third of the way through, and still haven’t finished it. So what I’m about to say is bound to be provisional, and highly speculative.
Thomas Edward Lawrence was the early 20th century’s most powerful, eloquent, and influential advocate of Arab national liberation. He was also a Zionist. The combination seems mind-boggling nowadays, but it wasn’t in the heady times just after World War I. David Fromkin has shown this in his fascinating 1989 book A Peace to End All Peace: The Fall of the Ottoman Empire and the Creation of the Modern Middle East. In those days Zionism and Arab nationalism were often seen as complementary rather than opposing movements. To be “pro-Arab” in the British Foreign Office was also to be “pro-Jew.”
“The Jewish experiment is a conscious effort,” Lawrence wrote in 1920, “on the part of the least European people in Europe, to make head against the drift of the ages, and return once more to the Orient from which they came. … They propose to settle down amongst the existing Arabic-speaking population of the country, a people of kindred origin, but far different social condition. … The success of their scheme will involve inevitably the raising of the present Arab population to their own material level, only a little after themselves in point of time, and the consequences might be of the highest importance for the future of the Arab world … the new [Zionist-Arab] confederation might become a formidable element of world power.” (Quoted in Mack, Prince of Our Disorder, pp. 252-253)
Of course these romantic prophecies didn’t work out too well. Yet Lawrence’s rosy picture of a future Middle East, harmonious and advanced and “formidable,” has power even today. It certainly did for Mack, who was “intrigued,” not to say “obsessed,” by his idol’s “creative vision of changing the world.”
But back to the UFOs …
1994, the year of Mack’s humiliation at the hands of Donna Bassett, was also the year in which his book Abduction: Human Encounters with Aliens was published to nationwide publicity and stellar sales. In that book, Mack presented a series of case studies of his work with different abductees. Of all his “experiencers,” his hands-down favorite–the one with whom he seems to have had the strongest personal connection–is the woman he calls “Eva.” (She’s the subject of chapter 11, which he titled “Eva’s Mission.”)
Eva was an Israeli. Or at least she was born in Israel; her family lived all over the world when she was a child and she eventually settled in the US. She had a strong connection with her ancestral Judaism: on the Purim festival of 1993, which Mack calls the “Jewish redemptive holiday,” she sent him the traditional gift of fruit and other food. And in a previous life, she had been an Arab man.
Specifically, she was “Omrishi,” a Moroccan merchant of the 13th century known for “his wealth and his reformist ‘ideas and ideals,'” who “organized militia groups to obtain greater economic equality for the villagers.” The name sounds like made-up Arabic to me, perhaps based on “Omar.” I would be stunned to discover evidence that anybody like this “Omrishi” ever existed.
Now, it’s nothing out of the ordinary that Eva remembered a past life. It’s a recurrent theme with Mack that, whatever the abductee can be brought to remember of his or her encounters with alien entities, there was always something before that. That’s true even of his subjects’ earliest childhood memories, so he has little choice but to take them wandering back into their prior lives in search of something still earlier.
What is out of the ordinary, and what I’d guess would have particular emotional appeal for Mack, is the Israeli woman who’s also an Arab man.
The opposites are integrated, in Eva’s past-life memories no less than in T.E. Lawrence’s messianic dreams. And here we move toward the emotional stance that I think underlies John Mack’s entanglement with both.
He was Jewish, yet without a trace of Jewish faith in his upbringing. In a wonderfully perceptive and sympathetic essay, published in 2013 in Vanity Fair, Ralph Blumenthal describes Mack as the scion of a distinguished family of intellectual aristocrats, all or nearly all of them relentlessly secular. “I was raised as the strictest of materialists. I believed we were kind of alone in this meaningless universe, on this sometimes verdant rock with these animals and plants around, and we were here to make the best of it, and when we’re dead, we’re dead.”
Whether he still held these views when he wrote the Lawrence biography, I don’t know. By 1990, when Budd Hopkins introduced him to the abduction phenomenon, he’d at least questioned and very likely abandoned them. “Every other culture in history except this one,” he told Oprah Winfrey’s audience after Abduction came out, ” … has believed there were other entities, other intelligences in the universe. Why are we so goofy about this?”
So Mack’s abduction research was a journey of discovery, or perhaps rediscovery of faith. Not necessarily the faith of his ancestors. But it’s hard to imagine, especially given his attachment to Eva, that he didn’t have a soft spot in his heart for Jews and Judaism, and for the Jews’ historic 20th-century return to their ancestral land.
Not just a psychiatrist, not just a biographer, Mack was also a political activist. Ecological, anti-nuclear and “peacenik” causes were at the top of his agenda. Middle East peace, which in those days meant essentially between Israelis and Arabs, seems to have been particularly important to him. While in Beirut in 1980 he arranged to meet with Palestinian leader Yassir Arafat–then persona non grata in the US, regarded by most Jews as a combination of Satan incarnate and Hitler back for another round.
“In my notes right after the meeting, I wrote, ‘[Arafat] is a bit paunchy and yet there is a sympathetic quality to the man, a kind of directness. He meets you eye to eye, and you feel a determination and clarity of mind.’ … [He] hoped that I would convey to the American Jewish leaders with whom I was then in contact his willingness to settle for a Palestinian homeland on the West Bank and Gaza and to do my part in dispelling the notion that such a step would be but the first stage in taking over the whole of Palestine, i.e., the destruction of Israel.”
So Mack was one of the first, if not the very first, of a string of American Jewish intellectuals who dared to break taboo and speak with Israel’s archenemy, thus pioneering the Israeli-Palestinian peace signed in Oslo in 1993. Given the disaster that peace turned into–google “Second Intifada” for details–“dialoguing” with Arafat may not have been the brilliant idea it seemed at the time. If Mack was wrong about that, he was in good company. (Which included Professor Abraham Udovitch, who taught me Arabic at Cornell 50 years ago.) Still, hearing Mack burble about the shifty Arafat’s “sympathetic quality,” his “directness” and looking you right in the eye, I get a whiff of the same people skills he was later to demonstrate vis-a-vis Donna Bassett.
Who told Mack a made-up story she must have known would get through all his defenses, play on his craving for reconciliation of enemies, integration of opposites. What he imagined he might be able to do with Yassir Arafat in Beirut, she fabricated Kennedy and Khrushchev doing aboard a flying saucer. Antagonists meet face to face and understand each other; the dreaded foe weeps like a baby and is comforted. Peace and harmony emerge triumphant. Is it any wonder he was a sucker for a story like that?
“Integration of opposites.” That’s what the mandala (a.k.a. UFO) does according to Jung, and it’s what John Mack yearned for in all the paths of his versatile life. “Deine Zauber binden wieder / Was die Mode streng geteilt,” “Your magic brings together what fashion has sternly divided,” Schiller wrote and Beethoven set to immortal music; and Mack’s “Eva” and T.E. Lawrence, each in her and his own way did the same.
So did Donna Bassett–deceitfully, treacherously. She knew the man she was dealing with, and used that knowledge to mock his noblest dreams. She was right; she made her point. After more than 20 years, her triumph still leaves a bad taste.
by David Halperin
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