To read my review of The Believer, go here.
Ralph Blumenthal’s latest book, The Believer, is about the controversial Harvard psychiatrist John E. Mack.
What made Mack controversial?
He gave more credence than would most psychiatrists to people who claimed to have been abducted by aliens.
I found reading The Believer extremely rewarding, and recently spoke with Ralph via Skype. This post is shaped and edited from our conversation.
Ralph tells me:
All the books I’ve done have come to me in a kind of mystical way. You don’t so much pick your subjects as the subjects pick you. In this case, in 2004, I read Mack’s Passport to the Cosmos. Shortly thereafter, Mack was tragically killed by a drunk driver in London. John Mack is a compelling character, and I came to view him as having gone through a hero’s journey, in the Joseph Campbell sense.
Engagingly, The Believer recounts an investigation of Mack’s treatment of patients, which Ralph refers to as ‘The Harvard Inquisition.’ On this topic, he says:
Mack left behind an unpublished manuscript, When Worldviews Collide. I love the title because of its play on the title of the 1951 science fiction disaster movie When Worlds Collide. Mack’s theme in the book was that he and Harvard had completely different worldviews. In his understanding of them, the people who claimed that they had been abducted by aliens had genuinely experienced some sort of trauma. When Harvard would ask: “Where is the scientific proof?,” he’d respond: “It exists, but I can’t prove it.” And then he would talk about the signposts pointing to the experiencers’ narratives being real on some level. Having his manuscript was a great window into that whole episode.
By the time John Mack got involved with UFOs and “abductees” in the 1990s, he was solidly established as a significant figure in psychiatry, and his 1977 psychobiography of T.E. Lawrence had long since won a Pulitzer Prize. Ralph tells me:
When Mack got involved with studying the experiencers, he was poking the Harvard bear. He knew this would be problematic for him, and he simply did not care. I mean, when he was just learning about this, when he was at the very beginning stages of trying to understand it, there he was, putting an experiencer on stage beside him, playing a recording of her screaming away. It was guaranteed to get Harvard’s hackles up; he did not care.
I remark on Mack’s publishing several commercial books about UFOs and abductees, and his going on Larry King Live and The Oprah Winfrey Show to discuss these books. A 1995 Washington Post headline reads: ALIEN BOOK CARRIES SCHOLAR FROM HARVARD TO OPRAH. Ralph exclaims:
He was caught up in the whirlwind!
And Ralph has many interesting things to say about his process of researching and writing The Believer.
Thanks to Mack’s family, I had extraordinary access to all kinds of documentation. Best of all, I had exclusive access. As a researcher, getting into somebody’s life like that, in ways nobody else has, is a great thrill, it’s almost like a rush.
When two writers are working on their own books about the same person, and using the same archives, there’s competition. So, I didn’t have to be looking over my shoulder, which was great. And the material was all so rich. It was his own thoughts, his own tapes, his own voice. I even had access to notes from his therapy sessions, in which he was forthcoming. He was a very astute man, who knew what was going on, and was not deceiving himself.
John’s eldest son Danny was my Mack family point man. I interviewed him on a number of occasions, but deliberately did not show him the book while it was in progress. After The Believer came out though, he didn’t even respond to me for six months. When he finally did, he said it had been very difficult for him to pick it up, knowing it would be tough to read because so many sensitive family issues were in it. That he had no quarrel with the book was comforting to me. Somebody like that could say: “You got it all wrong! You misconstrued everything!” But Danny told me he was pleased by what I did with the material.
It took me 16 years to research and write The Believer. I threw my heart into it. You know, when you work on a book, you reshape it all the time. You ask yourself; “Do I tell it this way, or that way?” Those kinds of choices for this book were particularly agonizing, because the subject matter — Mack’s reactions to the experiencers’ abduction reports — was so difficult. I had to hit the right tone, being close enough to the man, but keeping my distance. In terms of getting into his head, I had to sort of be his alter ego, yet, as the biographer I could not identify with him.
I believe that John Mack’s loss of his mother is key to understanding his adult vulnerabilities. Ralph says:
He was a little boy, always missing his mother. He was lost. And you see his self-awareness of that in something he once told a Brazilian therapist. “The abduction story is a welcoming story because it means that—Ooooo, I’m getting goose pimples as I think of this—I’m not alone. There is life in the universe.”
Ralph Blumenthal’s author website is here. The Believer is available here on Amazon, and here from Barnes & Noble.
Remember that you can read my review of The Believer here.