“When innocence has been deprived of its entitlement, it becomes a diabolic spirit.”
—J. Grotstein, “Forgery of the Soul”
A life full of holes. A cluster of fragments, swirling, roving, seeking a place to fit, seeking coherence, seeking meaning. A wound in the soul; a psyche in mortal peril. What is Whitley’s secret? And why do I need so badly to uncover it?
I have felt compelled to probe his work again and again throughout my adult life, like a tongue returning to an infected tooth. Whatever Whitley’s secret wound, finding it would mean—would depend on—finding my own. So how do you seek a secret you are keeping from yourself?
“I fought with the only weapon I had: my mind.”
“His mind was a desperate nest of rage and tension.”
“The visitors appeared to be using our distorted perception as a vehicle.”
“You’re chained to the ground.”
“I wondered if mind in its disembodied form is not wise and old but wise and young.”
“I no longer doubted the existence of a soul.”
“There was a strange darkness. I did not want to look; I didn’t even want to be near it.”
“You may be irretrievably lost.”
“An energetic level that is completely detached from the physical.”
“I would have laughed in the face of anybody who claimed contact.”
“Whitty, it’s not all right! It’s not all right!”
“I can imagine no greater honor than to be called human.”
“The vision of the box drew me so powerfully that I literally left my body.”
“This is the trigger for intervention, the destruction of a living world.”
“He would say only that something had gone wrong.”
“Mars was murdered by you.”
“I acquired an effective coping tool: The more frightening they got, the stronger I became.”
“I do not now find the small, gray beings terrible. I find them useful.”
Among the fragments that stand out in the Strieber material are Strieber’s various descriptions of his father. When Whitley is being subjected to strange procedures as a child—whether at the hands of alien beings or human ones or both—his father appears only as a powerless and frightened figure. It’s logical enough, since for Whitley to have been subjected to such traumatic treatments in his childhood, his father must have been remiss, ineffective, or simply absent.
In Communion (p. 62), Strieber describes a memory of being on a train, surrounded by soldiers lying unconscious in beds. He is twelve and his father is there, afraid, and the young Whitley is reassuring him. He tells his father that it’s all right, and his father replies, “Whitty, it’s not all right! It’s not all right!” The picture of a twelve-year-old boy trying to comfort his father puts the son in the role of the father, and vice versa. Later in the book (p. 118), Strieber adds more detail:
There was a sort of confused recollection of my father crouched at the back of an upper berth in our drawing room [on the train], his eyes bulging, his lips twisted back from his teeth. But I’ve always assumed that was a nightmare brought on by the fact that I was so sick on the trip. My illness was violent. I vomited until I thought I would die, and for no apparent reason. Nothing came up but bile, but the spasms simply would not stop.
Elsewhere in the same work, another fragment from Strieber’s childhood describes his father in a similarly terrified (and terrifying) light:
Almost in slow motion [my father’s] face simply broke up. He threw his head back and something like an electric shock seemed to go through him, making him spread his fingers and shake his arms. His eyes bulged and his mouth flew open. Then he was screaming, but I could hear it only faintly, a muffled shrieking, full of terror and despair (p. 126).
In The Secret School (p. 206), Strieber describes the effect of seeing his father’s terror in starkly visceral terms: “his fear just seemed to pour into me like a freezing torrent.” In Transformation (p. 232), Strieber’s follow-up to Communion, he describes being in a moment of terror and despair: “I wanted to give up, to sink down and just scream, but I couldn’t do that. My little boy was in there and he might wake and he mustn’t see his dad like this.” Here, Strieber is speaking from painful experience.
In Solving the Communion Enigma (p. 25), published twenty-five years later, Strieber recounts a strange memory which also occurred when he was twelve, when he found a photograph of his father lying in a coffin, eyes closed and arms crossed. Young Whitley showed the picture to his father, who tore it up, flushed it down the toilet, and never spoke of it again. As Strieber recounts the incident, the desk in which he finds the photograph had recently been given to him by his father, suggesting Whitley was meant to find the photograph at that precise time. For a boy on the brink of adolescence, seeing his father as a corpse would have had a profound impact on his psyche, an impact that would only have been deepened by his father’s demonstration of the forbidden nature of the image. Totem and taboo.
The earliest memory I have of my father—the only one I have of him while he was still living with us—is when I was around six or seven: he was half naked and unconscious—dead drunk—on the bedroom floor. No doubt the shocking nature of the scene seared itself onto my consciousness, and forever after I associated my father with unconsciousness, powerlessness, and incapacitation (maybe even death, if I didn’t understand what had happened to him). My clearest impression of him, then, was as an absence.
That Strieber was impacted in a similar way, specifically by the photograph, would seem to be confirmed by repeat mentions of coffins, boxes, and confined spaces throughout his writings. He first went public about his traumatic “schooling” experiences in a post at his website titled “The Boy in the Box,” describing memories of being confined in a small space for long periods of time.
Among my worst memories, one that has come back to me again and again and again over the course of my life, is of waking up and finding that I am in a coffin. A box. I wake up when I try to move, and my head bounces against the top of the thing. I cannot get out. I’m trapped. The silence is absolute. The air is heavy. Soon, my breathing is agonizing. I’m in torment. But it doesn’t end. It keeps on and on and on. I remain for what seems like hours at the edge of suffocation. I scream, I see demons staring at me, I see angels, I see my grandfather Strieber there, then I see a long horizon, the sun either rising or setting.
In Solving the Communion Enigma, the coffin image recurs in a more cosmic context, when Strieber mentally asks one of the visitors, “What does the universe mean to you?”
Instantly, there appeared in my mind a bright, clear image of a closed coffin. . . . I wondered how anyone could think of our mysterious universe that way? But then I realized that, of course, they have probably reached its limits, or worse, discovered that reality has no limits. I can see the claustrophobia that would attend to the realization that one was trapped in an infinity that could never be escaped. In fact, I can feel it. It’s a little like being in a room you can never leave, or a prison (p. 71).
By what strange logic can infinity be compared to a closed coffin? The logic of trauma, perhaps? It is as if Whitley’s whole universe has become the casket in which his absent father is concealed, and matter the tomb in which the divine is forever buried. Like Kurzweil, Strieber seems to have projected his unhealed trauma onto infinity.
At seven, Strieber’s immune system broke down and he fell ill, after which he was apparently taken out of the secret school (the non-alien one). Strieber’s father was upset and paced the room, but “would say only that something had gone wrong.” If, as this seems to imply, Strieber’s father (and possibly both his parents) had inducted young Whitley (probably at around age four) into the secret school of traumagenesis, how much had he known about what would happen to his son? Strieber has not talked about it much, but he did address the question at his website forum, in February of 2007, in response to a comment about Ty Brown’s research:
Here is what I believe happened, in essence: During the war, my father was involved in a program to prevent US dollars going to Mexico from the Texas German community, where this money would be used to buy gold to send to Germany. Prior to the war, during the great German inflation, he had been participating in doing this himself, but certainly never for the Nazis. After the war, he was approached and his patriotism was appealed to, I was enrolled in this program. He did not know what it involved, except that it was important cold war work. I think that he was the victim of Paperclip scientists, who singled us out because of his war work. He did not know that I was going to be harmed, but the stress was so great that my immune system shut down and I was treated in the autumn and winter of 1952 at Brooke General Hospital with gamma globulin injections. I was isolated from other children at that time.
In his short story “Pain,” Strieber describes the incident with the photograph but fictionalizes it, saying it is a picture of the main character’s uncle. The narrator describes how his uncle lived in Munich in the 1920s, and how the photo is a record of his initiation into the Vril society, a secret occult order behind the Nazis’ rise to power. Strieber speculates how the Vril society performed a magical working to “raise a demon” to possess Adolf Hitler, their ultimate goal being to perform an alchemical ritual called “the death of the white king,” the final end of which was the detonation of the atomic bomb. The death of the white king relates to the semi-historical practice (famously described by James Frazer’s The Golden Bough) of slaying the father in order to replace him. Also known as the myth of Oedipus.
“I call them visitors, but now I am beginning to think that is a misnomer. I have had the impression that they think of themselves as family, and perhaps that is exactly what they are.”
—Whitley Strieber, Transformation
One of the stranger encounters which Strieber recounts in Solving the Communion Enigma (p. 45) is with a weird, feral creature that lived outside his house for several years, chain-smoking cigarettes. As Strieber describes him: “He looked like somebody who had ceased to age before puberty, and was now not a man but a sort of weathered child” (emphasis added). Strieber comes to see the weird man-child as his protector, keeping him safe from hostile (probably human) agencies who wish to harm him. The strange creature seems to live in the forest behind Strieber’s house and to be constantly lurking in the vicinity, keeping an eye on Strieber and his family. Strieber first becomes aware of its presence due to the smell of cigarette smoke, which Strieber is allergic to. He goes to investigate the being but is met with a ferocious look and a guttural growl that discourages him from any further attempts. He eventually comes to refer to the being as “the guardian.”
Like so many of Strieber’s encounters, the guardian is an almost spell-binding blend of the mundane with the fantastic. In Strieber’s world, creatures that would seem to belong exclusively to the realm of myth have an unsettlingly profane reality to them: bad smells, dirty ships, cigarette butts. While I was looking over the descriptions of this strange withered child, I found myself considering an even more peculiar possibility than that of an objective being “out there.” What if—like the daimonic guardian described by Kalsched—the creature was an aspect of Strieber himself? Admittedly, Strieber claims that other people saw the being, and that there was the evidence of the cigarette butts (it seems unlikely Strieber could be smoking them himself without his wife noticing). But in Strieber’s world, things are rarely as simple as either/or. Could the creature be an objectively real being (at least some of the time?) while in some strange way being an aspect of Strieber’s psyche? Strieber has suggested something similar about other fantastical beings he has encountered, and he speculates on several occasions that the Master of the Key is his “future self.” So why not the little shriveled guardian which he finds so distasteful? Maybe the answer is in the question?
If Strieber’s own psychological development, by whatever means, was deliberately arrested prior to adolescence as part of an inner-outer “archetypal traumatogenic agenda,” designed to harvest his psychic energy and redirect it down specific channels (towards the creation of a de-eroticized transhumanist scientific religion, say), was this weathered pre-pubescent what his traumatized psyche might have looked like? A lot more than “the Master of the Key,” at any rate?
Towards the end of Solving the Communion Enigma, Strieber describes a kind of “mind-meld” with the being:
His mind was a desperate nest of rage and tension. He could hear thoughts, and at one point we were able to briefly share his experience, which was among the most appalling things that has ever happened to me. . . I could suddenly hear a great number of voices, and they were all roaring and snarling and wailing, partly in words, partly in feelings, and they were primitive in the extreme. They were savage but they were also in a strange way wonderful (p. 199-200).
He then makes a surprising statement—“I have wanted to hold him, to bring him some kind of comfort.” Strange, but if the creature somehow embodied Strieber’s own traumatized inner child, the statement also makes perfect sense. Perhaps the weird creature might best be seen as Strieber’s “alter”? Psychologically speaking (in Kalsched’s model), the “guardian” describes the aspect of the psyche that comes into being in order to protect the conscious mind from re-experiencing the original trauma. It is the way “the secret guards itself.” Part of the individuation process, perhaps even the central goal, entails getting past this defense mechanism and discovering the secret which it exists to protect. Once the secret is exposed, the “guardian” no longer has any reason to exist. In a sense the secret is the guardian, and vice versa. An unconscious mechanism, once it is brought into consciousness, ceases to operate or even to exist. Donald Kalsched describes it this way:
[T]he original traumatic situation posed such a danger to personality survival that it was not retained in memorable personal form but only in daimonic archetypal form. This is the collective or “magical” layer of the unconscious and cannot be assimilated by the ego until it has been “incarnated” in a human interaction [emphasis added]. As archetypal dynamism it “exists” in a form that cannot be recovered by the ego except as an experience of retraumatization. Or, to put it another way, the unconscious repetition of traumatization in the inner world which goes on incessantly must become real traumatization with an object in the world if the inner system is to be “unlocked”
This appears to be the underlying dynamic and drive behind the kind of experiences Strieber describes: an unconscious attempt to translate an archetypal (“screen”) memory of early trauma into more human form, in order to interact with it and recognize its true nature. This interaction is an opportunity to repeat the original trauma in a new way, to bring it all the way into consciousness, thereby dissolving the defense mechanism (that of the false self or “guardian”) created by the early experience of trauma. This can only happen, however, if the individual recognizes the “incarnation” of trauma for what it is, an image from the past personified in the present as a means to be understood and assimilated, dissolved, through exposure to consciousness. Ideally, this is what occurs in the psychotherapeutic process through transference. Transference is when a safe space is created by the analyst for the analysand to re-experience an original trauma with a minimal risk of re-traumatization. Re-traumatization is the result of misattributing the distress that arises during the therapeutic process to a present cause, rather than correctly tracing it back to the past and integrating it.
Truly distressing as the therapeutic process is, most individuals prefer to experience re-traumatization by projecting their autonomy onto the other—whether alien, spouse, or analyst—and attributing both the “transformation” and the trauma to an outside agency. The alternative is to go willingly back into the original trauma and re-experience it with full body awareness, which, by definition, is the most terrifying thing there is. Strieber touches on this in Transformation (p. 37) when he reports his wife’s suggestion that the contact experience, while stemming from an objective reality, is “changed by the filter of our experience.” Expectations distort the ability to see or understand, she says. “More than that, the visitors appeared to her to be using our distorted perception as a vehicle through which they could transmit messages of importance to the inner growth of the individual participant.”
I understand this statement to mean that the visitors were drawing Strieber into forms of interaction that would allow him to see his own distortions. Strieber is attributing “messages” to the visitors, but the nature of the therapeutic process is that all such messages must finally be seen as coming from the patient’s own psyche and not from any external source. Without this realization, the projected distortion remains in place, and instead of unlocking the defense system and reintegrating past trauma, there is an experience of retraumatization without any resulting breakthrough. New layers of trauma are then added to old, and the guardian becomes a prison guard.
 In Communion, Strieber describes his feelings for the female being represented on the cover as similar to how he might feel about “my own anima” (p. 105). He wonders, “Can anything other than a part of oneself know one so well?” (p. 106). On an audio he aired in Feb 2005, “Unpublished Close Encounters, Part 2,” he implies that his “guardian” resembled the Master of the Key! http://www.unknowncountry.com/whitleysroom/unpublished-close-encounters-part-2
 P.26. Semantically, I would question Kalsched’s use of the term “re-traumatization” here, as I think a re-experiencing of trauma is a more accurate description of the desired outcome, while re-traumatization is what must be avoided.