BOOK REVIEW: THE BELIEVER
For my interview with Ralph Blumenthal about The Believer, go here.
Ralph Blumenthal’s The Believer – a lively read – draws a poignant profile of the highly accomplished if controversial Harvard psychiatrist Dr. John E. Mack.
Mack had already published very well-regarded books in the field of psychiatry by the time he was made Head of the Harvard Medical School’s Psychiatry Department in 1977. That same year, his psychobiography of T.E. Lawrence, A Prince of our Disorder, won a Pulitzer Prize.
Blumenthal’s path into John Mack’s life story, though, is through Mack’s engagement with people who claim to have had contact with extraterrestrials, the sort said to arrive on earth via unidentified flying objects. While such people obviously are legitimate objects of psychiatric research, what got John Mack in hot water with his scientific community was that he frequently was a tad too credulous as regarded his study subjects’ – let us say — incompletely corroborated narratives of being kidnapped – and sometimes, even, sexually violated – by explorers from places in the universe other than our spinning planet.
That particular inclination gave Mack an entrée to popular celebrityhood. He published two “blockbuster” books on the topic, Abduction; Human Encounters with Aliens and Passport to the Cosmos. He also got invited onto Larry King Live and The Oprah Winfrey Show. However, in 1994, Mack’s Harvard peers, concerned, commenced an undercover investigation of how he was conducting himself with his study subjects and patients. One of the great services Blumenthal has done by publishing The Believer is getting the story of that initially secretive investigation fully told.
I was rivetted by the account.
Still more compelling are the underlying psychological factors that contributed to Mack’s pursuit of his interests in ways that threatened his good standing in medicine and academia. When John Mack was just a baby, his mother died an eminently preventable death. His father soon remarried, and the stepmother did her best to purge all traces of John’s biological mother from the home. Mack never really healed from his wounding loss. Within himself, he was always vigorously searching for something irrecoverable. In The Believer, Blumenthal assembles a touching weight of evidence of Mack’s suffering, but also of his many personal adventures and triumphs despite that suffering.
I offer, for consideration, a possible interpretation of John Mack’s strong interest in “experiencers” – people who allege to have been abducted by aliens. The experiencers’ narratives almost always involve their being hostilely kidnapped by unfeeling aliens into cold inhuman atmospheres. Those circumstances have their parallels in those that pertain when an infant loses its mother, as the infant Mack lost his. In addition to losing his mother, his maternal grandfather suddenly died; the baby got passed around to various relatives while John Mack’s father grieved. All that the baby had known at 8 months got ripped away. In place of the familiar smells, sounds, and touch of his mother, there was chaos and unfamiliarity. Also relevant is that because Mack credited the experiencers for their abduction narratives, they worshipped and adored him – the kind of attention a mother lavishes on her infant.
Blumenthal, a seasoned, spellbinding storyteller, here provides a rich overview of the world history of UFO and alien encounter lore. One thing to be learned from The Believer is that in 1897, as a mysterious airship was said to be flying around the south-central United States, Dr. Aaron Levy, the only rabbi then in Beaumont, Texas told a reporter that he had not only seen the airship, but also shaken hands with one of its crew members.
Mack along the way developed relationships with figures as far flung as the American artist Budd Hopkins and the Dalai Lama. The Believer recounts those relationships, and much more, in flowing, engaging prose. As sensitive as John Mack was to the felt experiences of “abductees,” Blumenthal is to Mack. No matter what you may think of UFOs and alien abductions, you will come away from reading The Believer with a deepened appreciation of John Mack, Renaissance man.
THE BELIEVER is available here through Amazon, and here through Barnes & Noble.
Ralph Blumenthal’s author website is here.
Remember that my interview with Ralph Blumenthal about The Believer is here.
Richard, Thank you for reading this. Ralph Blumenthal’s book was one of the most interesting books I have read in many years. I was captivated by John Mack’s story. Read it over a weekend. And thought about it for weeks.