When you think of the UFO abduction literature, what authorial names come to mind? From the 1980s, Whitley Strieber and Budd Hopkins, surely. From the 1990s, David Jacobs and John Mack.
Of course your mind will go to the granddaddy of abduction books, John Fuller’s The Interrupted Journey (1966), which introduced the story of Betty and Barney Hill to the American public. Perhaps, on the other side of the fence, you’ll think also of Philip Klass’s 1989 UFO Abductions: A Dangerous Game (with its dedication “to those who will needlessly bear mental scars for the rest of their lives because of the foolish fantasies of a few”).
With a bit more thought, you might come up with two of the earlier books of the abduction genre, Raymond Fowler’s The Andreasson Affair (1979) and The Andreasson Affair, Phase Two (1982). But did you know about a third book from the same period–The Tujunga Canyon Contacts by Ann Druffel and D. Scott Rogo, originally published in 1980, then reissued with an extended update in 1988?
I didn’t. Until I found a paperback of the 1988 edition among the UFO materials loaned me by my friend Professor Diana Pasulka. It’s a window back into the opening decades of the abduction phenomenon, before the cover picture of Strieber’s Communion became the standard for what an abducting alien ought to look like. It’s also a window into an older America, so recent that we forget how much things have changed since then. An America in which no one could have guessed what “LGBT” would come to stand for, and which was just about to awaken to the living nightmare with the benign-sounding name “AIDS.”
The abductees around whom The Tujunga Canyon Contacts revolves are all gay, or at least bisexual, women. The book acknowledges this fact but only shamefacedly and near the end. For most of the story, pairs of women who are obviously lovers are called “roommates.” Sara Shaw (pseudonym) is said to have been “going through a difficult time in her life” and to have “accepted Jan [Whitley, also a pseudonym] as a companion.” Later on, a physician performing a hypnotic regression on Sara is said to have known about “the relationship Jan and Sara had shared during this period of their lives, and he had begun to suspect that this part of Sara’s abduction story“–in which the aliens squeeze Jan Whitley’s breasts as if milking a cow–“might be a symbolic fantasy representing possible hostility toward her friend.” We’re obviously supposed to “get” what their relationship is. But the word cannot be spoken.
My friend Dr. Lisa Rhodes–author, musician, trained cultural historian–assures me that Druffel and Rogo’s nervous evasions were “totally in keeping with 1980’s, US mainstream mores.” In 1953, when Shaw and Whitley were abducted from their isolated cabin in the Tujunga Canyons of California, the societal horror attached to the “evil and immoral illness” of lesbianism had been exponentially greater. By 1975, when Shaw began the hypnotic regressions that would unearth the details of her experience, attitudes had begun to change. It was in 1973, as Lisa points out to me, that the American Psychiatric Association stopped classifying homosexuality as a disease.
The dual chronological plane on which the Druffel/Rogo story unfolds–early 1950s for the abduction, late 1970s for the emergence of the memories–must be kept in mind as we try to understand it.
Begin with the night of March 22, 1953, when “a deathly stillness, so thick that it was itself like an unknown sound, descended over the forest” and the cabin in the forest where the two women lived. “The stillness, combined with a sudden illuminating glow of light, awakened Sara. … Jan jumped out of bed and moved to the closet to get her robe, while Sara glanced at the clock. It was 2:00 a.m.”
Then suddenly, inexplicably, it was 4:20. And Shaw, who’d been kneeling on the bed, was now sitting on it with her feet on the floor.
She and Whitley fled the cabin. As they ran, they passed an “apparition,” “a vaporous something” with “the head and shoulders of a long-haired personage.” When they returned two days later, “a thick pall of alien dread still lay over the place. Never again would they feel safe there and never again would their lives be the same.”
Now fast-forward to August 5, 1975. Ann Druffel, in Los Angeles, gets a telephone call from Sara Shaw, who explains that a TV documentary on UFOs had evoked for her memories of a mysterious incident 22 years earlier. The two meet; they talk. On December 5, Shaw undergoes hypnotic regression for the first time.
(In between these two dates, on October 20, the TV movie “The UFO Incident,” dramatizing the Hill abduction, has aired nationwide. Significant? I can hardly imagine that it’s not.)
The sessions continue into 1979, expanding to other eerie episodes from the 1950s (mostly) and to other women experiencers, a network of friends and lovers of which Jan Whitley seems to be the hub. Yet Whitley herself, unlike the others, remembers only a few cryptic details of the events. Attempts at regressing her prove disappointing.
Meanwhile, Whitley’s life has taken a tragic turn. Her breasts–with which Shaw remembers her as having been deeply uncomfortable, which she hated for men to look at or anyone to touch, which the UFO beings had so coarsely violated–have become cancerous. In 1975, some months before she meets Ann Druffel for the first time, she undergoes a double mastectomy. But in 1987 the cancer returns, and, as described in the second edition of The Tujunga Canyon Contacts, she dies “only two days after seeing her last sunset over her beloved lake.”
Strangely, or perhaps just coincidentally–yes, coincidences do happen–her former lover and abduction partner Shaw has been obsessed since 1955 with the belief that she’s received a mysterious inspiration to be communicated only to the right doctor: that ordinary household vinegar will cure cancer. In 1978, under hypnosis, she realizes the source of her revelation. It was imparted to her during her 1953 abduction, in the “conference room” of the UFO. The UFO beings “said I was important even before I became human. Like where I lived before, I was a body technician. I developed internal replacement parts for all parts of the body … made out of something like plastic. … They knew I’d understand about the cancer cure because I had been a body technician.”
(In 1986, Shaw develops an unpleasant skin growth that might–or might not–be precancerous, and she tries using vinegar to banish it. It works.)
Clearly, the women’s abduction experiences were embedded in their earthly lives, social and sexual. How the links functioned remains obscure. In her conclusion to the 1980 edition–the Tujunga Canyon co-authors could not agree on what conclusions to draw, and so wrote separate “conclusion” chapters–Druffel seems aware of the connection but shies away from examining it too closely. “Deep inquiry into personal aspects of witnesses’ lives is unbecoming and, to an extent, unnecessary. The search for truth cannot justify violation of privacy.”
A few pages later, though, Druffel overcomes her inhibition sufficiently to observe that “Sara, troubled at the time with problems of finding herself, was abducted by manlike, masked entities who differed from each other only in size. After hypnosis, however, the witness remembered the creatures seemed to be either male or female, but the females were distinguishable only because their heads were slightly enlarged toward the bottom, contrasting to the males’ exactly oval faces. Were these actually projections into Sara’s mind, troubled as it was with problems of sexual identification?”
Note well: projections into, not of. Druffel remains persuaded that Shaw and Whitley were in fact abducted by alien beings whose curiosity had perhaps been piqued by the “unorthodox life-style”–two sentences later she finally spits it out, “gay life-style”–shared by the two women.
Rogo, in his “conclusion,” allows himself more freedom to speculate. After some very perceptive remarks about the features of the Hill abduction that reflect the tensions of Betty and Barney’s interracial marriage, he remarks:
“Sara grew up in a family where the subject of sex was taboo. Her mother taught her that it was a ‘necessity’ in marriage and a rather distasteful one at that. As Sara once told us, she grew up totally out of touch with her own feelings. Subsequently, she shied away from normal inter-personal relationships with men, since she was very sensitive to her mother’s feelings about such involvements. It was just this pressure that led her to live with Jan.” Her “abduction,” Rogo suggests, was a “rape fantasy”–carried out by males, presumably–reflecting a resurgence of Shaw’s “normal” sexual feelings.
Rogo’s formulations, and his assumption that a woman entering into a lesbian relationship is fleeing “normal” sexuality rather than searching for her own “normal,” gives his analysis a very dated feel. But it is true that Shaw was at least ambivalent about her sexuality–she was later to marry twice and divorce twice, and in 1961 she bore a daughter whom she gave up for adoption. Rogo’s line of questioning, with its premise that the “alienness” Shaw encountered came from within her, seems to me exactly right.
Is there anything that can be said about the details of her experience? Reading the Druffel/Rogo accounts of Shaw’s early regressions, I’m struck by the appearance of what sounds very much like Holocaust imagery. On December 5, 1975, Shaw remembers having been marked on her back with the number 4. (“A tattoo or something,” she describes it; “like an invisible tattoo, except you don’t feel it. … It’s like under my skin, almost into my skin, like an invisible tattoo.”) On February 26, 1976, she recalls being controlled by the aliens “as if I were a sheep or something. In fact, a whole herd of sheep.” Jewish Holocaust victims were often accused to going to their deaths “like sheep to the slaughter.”
In this same regression, Shaw sees a figure “wearing a light-colored suit with black. The man’s suit is like with stripes. One or two stripes. I can’t tell if it’s one or two. … Stripes are black.” This doesn’t exactly correspond to the striped uniforms of the death camp inmates, any more than those inmates were tattooed on their backs (as opposed to their arms) with single-digit numbers. Still, the concatenation of tattooed numbers, sheep-like captives, and striped clothing goes beyond what I’d expect of coincidence.
There’s no hint in Druffel and Rogo’s book that Sara Shaw was Jewish, and their choice of a pseudonym for her sounds a bit odd if she were. But on September 10, 1975–less than three months before Shaw’s first regression–the New York Times published an op-ed by Ira Glasser (then director of the New York Civil Liberties Union) entitled “The Yellow Star and the Pink Triangle.”
The Nazi extermination of the Jews was already part of the American consciousness, though not as deeply inscribed as it would become in the wake of the 1978 NBC miniseries Holocaust. But the parallel persecution and slaughter of gay people, Glasser felt, “still lies buried as a virtual historical secret.” The purpose of his op-ed was to bring that secret to light, and to arouse the American conscience on behalf of gays as it had been aroused on behalf of Jews.
“In the concentration camps where the Jews were compelled to wear yellow stars, the homosexuals were forced to wear pink triangles, and were treated as the lowest of the low by the Nazis. … Just as the Jews of Europe had to hide or perish, so many homosexuals today must hide in New York City to avoid the penalties of ‘coming out’ in the open: loss of job, harassment and abuse, even rejection by family and friends.”
Did Sara Shaw read Glasser’s op-ed, between her first telephone call to Ann Druffel in August and her first regression in December? Did she hear friends discussing it–as she may have heard people talking about “The UFO Incident” that October, even if she didn’t actually see the show? Did it inspire her to use Holocaust images to express her own sense of alienation, of belonging to a scorned minority always vulnerable to discrimination and persecution, needing to hide in the wilds of the Tujunga Canyon to live according to her nature? Pursued even there by fear of what might come knocking on her door after midnight?
And while we’re asking questions to which we’ll never know the answers …
Was Shaw haunted, from the time she knew her sexual predilections weren’t exactly what the culture valued, by a dread and sense of alienness to which she could give neither form nor description? Did her memory focus that dread on what I presume to have been a strange but entirely natural event one March night? Did she give it concrete form and narrative two decades later, aided by the images of Holocaust and UFO abduction that her culture had begun to provide?
Do we have here, perhaps, an explanation for why the spinoffs of Betty and Barney Hill’s alienation made Fuller’s The Interrupted Journey a best-seller in 1966, while The Tujunga Canyon Contacts fell into obscurity? In a racially torn society still (sadly) recognizable as our own, people craved a story of black and white no longer alien to each other, together facing the truly alien. But the angst and alienation of a group of young white lesbians–who wanted to think about that? Who wanted to know anything about it?
Would the Druffel/Rogo book do better, I wonder, if it were published today?
by David Halperin
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