Alien Abduction, Child Abuse, & the “E.T. Hypothesis” as Crucial Fiction
“The unconscious mind is like the universe out beyond the quasars. It’s a place we want to go to find out what’s there.”
—Whitley Strieber (allegedly quoting his nine-year old son), Transformation
I should make it very clear at this point that I am in no way suggesting that abduction experiences are merely mental fantasies created as a screen through which to revisit past experiences. There is abundant evidence that something “objectively real” (so far as we can even talk about such a thing) is happening, something that, by the nature of the evidence, clearly involves some sort of agenda that is both hidden and “advanced” – i.e., entails either technological or natural means beyond our common understanding of what is possible.
What I am saying is that these anomalous or otherworldly experiences are echoing – feeding into and potentially exploiting and exasperating – original traumas that may be independent of these hidden forces, and therefore much closer to home and easier to identify.
So while I don’t intend to suggest that the abductee experience is less real than, say, an ordinary human kidnapping, it is clearly less “provable,” because the UFO and the “alien” do not adhere to the rules of reality as we have come to accept them. The usual explanation for this maddening lack of proof is that “ETs” belong to some higher level of reality. I would argue that it has less to do with any magical qualities we assign to hypothetical outside agencies, and more to do with the fact that we have, to a great extent, denied the reality of the psyche. As a result, we are unable to grasp, or even fully recognize, its manifestations.
The desire to prove that these experiences are real, while perfectly natural and to some degree unavoidable on the part of the experiencer, is a dead-end that leads only to undirected obsession. As the man says, “What is real?” If the psyche is real, then whatever it experiences is real too. Seeking validation from outside is not part of the solution, but part of the problem. And not a small part, either.
Suppose we juxtapose reports of alien abductions, and the widespread belief in them, with the question of institutionalized child abuse (ritual or otherwise). There is evidence all around us for the latter; it is a largely overlooked part of human history (see Lloyd de Mause’s The Emotional Life of Nations for a starting point). In contrast, there is relatively little evidence for alien abduction as an actual, physical occurrence (as compared to an insufficiently understood psychic one). Yet belief in alien abduction—while not yet embraced by the so-called “intelligentsia”—is far more widespread than belief in (or rather awareness of) systematized child abuse. (To the extent that some readers may find I’m presuming too much; those inclined can do their own digging.) There may be different reasons for this, but the one that interests me relates directly to the psyche, and that is that stories about alien abduction, though no less preposterous than stories about institutionalized abuse of children, are considerably more palatable to us.
One argument given by believers for the paucity of evidence for alien abductions is that the aliens in question are good at hiding their traces. Very well, and so we will counter that those involved in child trafficking and other forms of exploitation—being merely human—must surely be considerably less efficient than such alleged “aliens.” So why do we hear so much about aliens and so little about exploiters of children? I think there’s an equally “magical” explanation, but one which we can all identify to one degree or another in our own lives. The conscious mind has extremely strong defenses, and equally ingenious subterfuges, to prevent it from seeing what it does not want to see, in this case, the reality of trauma and its impact, both directly and indirectly, on our own lives.
Alien abduction may be a way for some of us to allow such traumatic material into our awareness in a more “magical” (transcendental) guise. This would account for the inescapable overlap between abduction narratives and systemized child abuse, for which Whitley Strieber, once again, is exhibit A. Strieber’s accounts of “the visitors” are undeniably horrific, or at least they would be if he didn’t constantly frame them in the language of shamanic initiation, evolutionary engineering, spiritual midwifery, and cosmic intervention. Such ambiguity is essential for the psychological survival of the child who suffers abuse (it has to believe in the goodness of those who have power over it); and logically, it’s easier to feel ambiguous about beings who are outside our ordinary frame of understanding than ones who are not. Hence Strieber and others frame the visitors in Nietzschean terms, as “beyond good and evil.”
There is a thin line between validating someone’s experience and feeding their delusion, and many researchers (and a researcher-experiencer such as Strieber) may jump to too many conclusions too fast. One of the reasons they are able, or even forced, to make such leaps is from underestimating the power of the psyche to generate experience. The other reason, perhaps connected, is that the mind experiences profound discomfort when forced to leave an unknown as unknown. It relentlessly seeks answers and, when it doesn’t find any, has no qualms about inventing them and then forgetting it has done so.
I have dealt with people who believe they are abductees (I even have my own abduction-like experiences), and from what I’ve seen, interpreting the experience as an external, “objective” reality tends to exacerbate the tendency of the mind towards rigidity, projection, delusion, and obsession. The person will often become comfortably immersed in a fantastic narrative about space brothers, hybrid aliens, government conspiracies, and the like, which removes them further and further, not merely from consensus reality (which is not always a bad thing), but from their own inner reality (as any obsessive external focus does). The reason for this tendency to take refuge in convincing fictions or partial truths may be straightforward: to connect fully to one’s inner reality—to become fully embodied as a psyche—means returning to and fully re-integrating whatever early traumas prevented that embodiment from occurring at an early age. All of our fictions are designed to protect ourselves from that mind-shattering—though soul-rescuing—event.
So while I can admit to the possibility of actual, nuts-and-bolts aliens, I’m not really interested in exploring this possibility, at this time, especially because, as every Ufologist knows (though only if he or she admits it), there’s almost nothing to go on. As Sherlock Holmes says, we need to first rule out all of the improbables before accepting the impossible. And yeah, I’m aware that, for many people, the idea of extraterrestrials visiting Earth and using super-advanced technology to hide their presence is less improbable than that of a “materialized psychism.” But I still argue there’s more evidence for the latter, and the primary criteria for accepting a given hypothesis is that it fits the data better than the others.
If it can be shown that childhood trauma informs at least some of these experiences, beyond reasonable doubt, then we now have a new element to bring to the table when considering all other cases. It may be that “the ET hypothesis” is entirely unnecessary based on the evidence (that’s my position, I believe it was Jacques Vallee’s too). Of course that doesn’t rule out some other, nonhuman unknown, but again, the sensible way to proceed would be first of all to see if we can account for all the evidence without resorting to “magical” hypotheses. The fact that, to some people, the psyche is a magical hypothesis itself makes it doubly ironic that it’s not being allowed into the debate, because it may be that all the magic and mystery which we are projecting onto the UFO is already there, at the very center of our lives, in the form of the psyche.
Accepting the reality of the psyche and learning more about how it works is, I think, indispensable for making meaningful headway in this field and for helping experiencers to deal with their experiences. In contrast, I have seen very little evidence that anyone was helped by fully embracing a belief in nonhuman entities having control over their bodies and minds in a totally random way, or at best as part of some non-human design. In most cases (Strieber being an example), all this really does is allow the person to get swept away by a grandiose personal narrative partially formed by lurid sci-fi magazines and movies, and largely in-formed by religious indoctrination and a (trauma-based) need to feel powerful or special.
To give an example: one way in which experiencers get swept up by a sense of being on a world-saving mission is by trying to get the government (and other people) to see what the aliens are doing to us! Scratch the surface of this phantastic narrative and underneath it we may find something more mundane and tragic. At the very least, it’s a close match for the frustration and torment of a child, unable to get its parents (or other adults, if the abuse or neglect is by the parents) to see what’s happening to it. The experiencer’s experience then becomes part of a larger, unconscious re-enactment, meant to bring about whatever resolution failed to occur when it was most needed.
This doesn’t make the experience unreal; on the contrary, it makes it more real—but only if it’s seen in the proper psychological context. We can even allow that the hypothetical aliens are real without invalidating this reading, since it re-contextualizes the ETs as outside agencies assisting the experiencer towards healing by re-staging a psychodrama for them. Without this extra layer of meaning to flesh it out and give it body, however, the alien abduction narrative is two-dimensional and bloodless, little better than a B-movie rendering of profound psychic truth.
 While abduction researchers may very well be sincere in their attempts to get to the bottom of what’s happening to experiencers and to help them to make sense of it, this doesn’t mean they aren’t susceptible to delusion, or to external manipulation, or capable of unconsciously manipulating or deluding their witnesses. The recent disclosures around Budd Hopkins’ and David M. Jacobs’ work with abductees have provided extremely damning evidence of this. What makes me suspicious of the work of many researchers is that they frequently choose to frame the abduction experiences in terms in line with (what I see as) an overarching agenda: that of sowing the seed of a new scientistic religion. John Mack, for example, recognized that the abductees he interviewed were reporting something real, and that it was a real unknown. But he then got busy interpreting it to make it into a “known,” and of course, he couldn’t help but refer to previous interpretations, both fictional and non, to do so.