It’s nighttime, and it’s raining. I’m in a bedroom–my bedroom, I assume–in the three-story house on Bellevue Avenue in Trenton, NJ, where my parents and I lived with my mother’s parents until I was five. My father is with me. We’re looking out the window at a rainy street, the glare of the street lights reflecting on the wet pavement. He’s showing me something important; I don’t know what it is.
And that’s it. That’s the memory.
What was my father showing me? I’ve often assumed, looking back, that it must have been the night shortly after my third birthday when my mother had her heart attack, and that we were watching the ambulance that carried her away. But wouldn’t he have gone to the hospital with her? After all, my grandparents were there to look after me. So maybe this isn’t really the explanation.
Freud would have called this a “screen memory.”
“A table laid for a meal and on it a basin of ice.” Or “an episode upon a walk in which he [the man reporting the memory] broke off a branch from a tree.” These are among the fragmentary, enigmatic childhood recollections to which Freud called attention in his seminal paper “Screen Memories,” originally published in 1899. I imagine most of us can remember something of the kind.
The turn-of-the-century Viennese doctor would no doubt have been interested, though hardly astonished, to learn that the concept he introduced into psychological discourse would become a key element, at the turn of another century, in the lore of UFO abductions.
The modern abduction theorists use “screen memory” in a way rather different from Freud’s. For Freud, the screen memory is an accurate recollection of something that really happened. It’s remembered, however, not for itself–since it’s usually meaningless or trivial–but because of its association with something vitally important that’s been repressed.
This association may be symbolic. Or it may be temporal. The ice-basin memory in Freud’s paper happened at the same time as the death of the little boy’s grandmother, “which, according to his parents, was a severe blow to the child. But the professor of philology, as he now is, has no recollection of this bereavement; all that he remembers of those days is the basin of ice.” If my memory of the rainy street is indeed connected with an ambulance with my mother inside, then the really important detail–the ambulance–has been suppressed. All that I’ve allowed myself to remember is the rain and the street lights’ reflection in it, and the awed gravity with which my father and I stared out at them.
UFO abductees, by contrast, have “screen memories” that never happened as remembered. The memory is a disguise for something so unearthly that, until hypnotically regressed, the abductee can’t remember it as it really was. The “screening” process may transform the aliens of the actual experience into strange animals–owls, say, or raccoons–that behave as no animal should.
Thus, the Nobel laureate Kary Mullis is outside his mountain cabin one night in 1985 when he encounters a glowing raccoon. The raccoon says, “Good evening, doctor.” That’s the last Mullis remembers until he finds himself walking down a road in the early morning light, his clothes inexplicably dry and clean. (Which they wouldn’t have been, if he’d passed out and spent the night outdoors.) Surely his encounter was really with aliens, their huge eyes represented in the eerie raccoon-eyes of the “screen memory” that cloaks them.
It’s an intriguing concept, given power and plausibility by the experience of our own screen memories. (A Freudian analyst once said to me: all childhood memories are screen memories–not meaning that they’re false, but that they’re remembered not because of themselves but because of what they point to.) And I was doubly intrigued, reading Chris Aubeck and Martin Shough’s new book Return to Magonia, to find the same concept used in a UFO context that has nothing to do with abductions.
The story that Aubeck and Shough tell of the Aldeburgh flying platform first came to light in 1968, with the publication in the London Daily Mirror of a letter from one A.E. Whiteland. “My mother has often told the following story over the years and, as she is eighty-four, I would like to find out for her who these mystery men were and what they were doing.”
It happened at Aldeburgh, Suffolk, “about the middle of World War One,” “around the middle of the year” although Whiteland’s mother wasn’t sure which year. She was looking out an upstairs window and was about to turn away when “something urged her to look again. A little above the level of the house eight to twelve men appeared on what seemed to be a round platform with a handrail around it. This they were gripping tightly. She could see them so clearly. They were wearing blue uniforms and little round hats not unlike sailors’. She heard no sound from the machine as it came off the marshes. It turned a bit and went over the railway yard to disappear behind some houses.”
As Aubeck and Shough point out, the story is very suggestive of the famous Gill UFO sighting from Papua New Guinea in June 1959–not least, in that both Gill and Mrs. Whiteland described the mysterious pilots as looking like ordinary (Caucasian?) human beings. Air raids on England by German Zeppelins were a common, unnerving occurrence at the time of Mrs. Whiteland’s sighting. What she described, though, was plainly no Zeppelin.
And yet …
John Harney, whose website on the Aldeburgh incident was a prime source for Aubeck and Shough, has suggested that the lady’s experience may be linked to a horrific event that took place in the Suffolk skies at about the same time. In the early morning hours of June 16, 1917, the Zeppelin L48 was shot down over Theberton, just 6 miles north of Aldeburgh. Three of its crew somehow survived. The other 16 were killed–burned alive–when the hydrogen that kept the Zeppelin aloft “ignited in a fireball said to have been visible from 50 miles.”
Mrs. Whiteland could easily have seen that fireball in the sky if she was awake at the time, and the noise of the hydrogen exploding must have woken people for miles around. Whether or not she witnessed the dreadful incident, she must have been aware of it; it’s commemorated down to the present at St. Peter’s Church in Theberton. What might her feelings have been at the horrible deaths of 16 young men, inflicted by those charged with protecting and defending her?
“Is it possible that her apparent observation of the flying platform was what some psychologists call a screen memory?” says Harney, who I assume is aware of the use of the screen-memory trope in the abduction literature. Aubeck and Shough affirm that it’s indeed possible.
Screen memories, says Harney, are “a protection, a defense against the recollection of other memories that they hide”; it’s easy to see why Mrs. Whiteland might have wanted to hide whatever memory she had of the fate of Zeppelin L48.
“In view of the facts that the object reported by Mrs Whiteland obviously had only a conceptual connection with airships and that no one else reported seeing the object, or anything resembling it, some kind of psychological explanation seems to be indicated,” says Harney, and I couldn’t agree more.
Not “screen memory” in the strict Freudian sense, of course. Yet also not quite as used by the abduction theorists, for whom the screen memory is the psyche’s confabulation of something relatively mundane to conceal something utterly fantastic. (You don’t see talking raccoons every day, but compared to UFO aliens they’re reassuringly earthbound.) Here, if Harney is right, it’s the “screen memory” that’s unknown, mysterious. The reality “screened” is terrestrial, readily comprehensible. Yet too ghastly for the mind to preserve without cracking.
The UFO itself as a screen memory–or even a “screen perception”? Let’s give that one some thought.
by David Halperin
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