"We've All Studied Lifton"

by Martin Kottmeyer

"Don't be afraid to believe. This is the most significant development in the history of man." The words are those of a visionary, the newest defender of the reality of alien abductions. He is a psychiatrist addressing a group of colleagues. They aren't buying it.

"With all due respect, doctor. Everyone knows there are people who gravitate to this kind of thing. They read about it, see it on TV, in the movies. This is the pathology of a space-age psychosis. People don't see the Virgin Mary anymore -- now they see alien baby snatchers."

The psychiatrist is prepared. "Robert Lifton's work on survivors -- we've all studied Lifton -- the people that he writes about -- the survivors of Hiroshima, the Holocaust, Vietnam -- they all have the exact same symptoms as the people I've told you about; fear, anxiety, nightmares, suspicion -- suspicion especially of the mental health community who consistently misdiagnose them. These are reactions to real trauma. There's no fantasy here."

The exchange is from the 1992 mini-series Intruders. The visionary and skeptic are fictional, but the argument is familiar enough. John Mack, the Harvard psychiatry professor who authored the controversial book Abduction was not the inspiration for the Richard Creena character, but the writer admitted it "ends up being more like John Mack than anybody." Mack said it was kind of spooky how things in it happened to him, notably the credibility questions. People in the production had sat in on his therapy groups. One can find Lifton's name in the acknowledgments of Mack's book.

This was not the first time that Lifton's name had been invoked by defenders of the abduction phenomenon. Editorializing in the January/February 1987 International UFO Reporter Jerome Clark observed, "A milestone of sorts may have been reached on April 10, 1987, when Dr. Robert J. Lifton, one of this country's most prominent psychiatrists, acknowledged on NBC's Today Show that the UFO abduction phenomenon has yet to be explained and merits serious investigation." In the October 1988 Fate, he regarded Lifton's statement as emblematic evidence of "a quiet revolution" that had taken place as scientific, medical-health professionals displayed a growing involvement, believing the evidence pointed toward "an extraordinary cause" and "a potentially explosive payoff." Elsewhere, he also thought it indicated abductions constituted now "a subject that could be discussed seriously outside the pages of tabloids." (J. Gordon Melton's New Age Encyclopedia, Gale Research, 1990, p. 473.)

An instructor at Yale, Lifton has unambiguously high status. He authored Death in Life, an often cited study of the psychological aftermath of Hiroshima. It won the National Book Award in the Sciences and has had enduring respect among people in the social sciences. Even his most derisive critic, Adam Garfinkel, who lumps Lifton with Mack as Psycholeftists for their anti-nuclear politics, grants he is a serious writer whose "views, unlike Mack's, haven't departed from prevailing notions of reality, at least not yet." Maybe not the highest praise, but you should have seen the rest of the article. ("Psychobabble and Its Discontents" Heterodoxy,)

I missed Lifton's appearance on the Today Show and have to admit I didn't quite know what to make of this purported milestone. There were no direct quotes and no details. It might have been tact or deferring to the Slater study based on a casual reading. How deeply into the subject he was could only be termed unknown. I was curious about it in an idle way since I had read Death in Life and knew he once regarded alien invasion films as a reaction to the radical impairment of life-death balance and helplessness spawned by the threat of nuclear annihilation. Japan had made a number of such films in the Fifties. So, too, did America. Why he should think any differently about the persecution fantasies of UFO believers didn't quite make sense. I guessed it would only be a matter of time before he wrote a paper or book on the matter. Time passed; nothing appeared. I forgot about it.

Excerpt from The Protean Self

Editor's note: The following is full text of the paragraph that Kottmeyer referred in Lifton's latest book:

Historical forces may also be contributing to a dissociative constellation that includes: multiple personality and borderline states as clinical syndromes; a general increase in child abuse, especially sexual, and particularly by parents and other relatives; and a very different social manifestation, the dramatic expansion of the UFO (unidentified flying object) phenomenon in the form of sightings and descriptions of "missing time" attributed to "abductions" by extraterrestrial creatures. There is at least the possibility that these three elements are interrelated. Nicholas Humphrey and Daniel Dennett raise the possibility that much of the UFO experience, particularly its component of medical or surgical procedures ostensibly performed on abductees by humanoid creatures, could be a "mythic version" of actual child abuse. There is some evidence of increased incidence of child abuse in people reporting such abductions; but even if this correlation is uncertain, all of these states and our ways of talking about them could be greatly influenced by the vast dissociative trend in our time. Also related to the dissociative constellation could be the massive expansion of cult formation and of contemporary fundamentalism; and the increasing evidence of a "false memory syndrome," in which accusations of early parental abuse are made by adult children on the basis of claimed recovery of memories that had ostensibly been repressed for decades, the memories sometimes including satanic rituals -- the entire sequence considerably influenced by therapists and support groups focused on such repressed memories.

- Robert J. Lifton, The Protean Self: Human Resilience in an Age of Fragmentation. New York: BasicBooks, pp. 210-11.

Then, recently, I learned there was a sequel of sorts. Lifton had written a book six years later called The Protean Self: Human Resilience in an Age of Fragmentation (BasicBooks, 1993). The book is a descriptive enterprise which details the psychological adaptations that part of humanity has created to deal with the amazing cultural transformations of the 20th century. It's a good, solid work which strikes a fair balance with regard to the implications of these adaptations. Neither utopian or dystopian, it's a refreshing change of pace from the general run of psychological tomes one encounters. Quietly waiting to be found is half a paragraph devoted to the alien abduction phenomenon.

It's in a section titled "The Deracinated Self." Lifton essentially considers alien abduction experiences part of the dissociative constellation of psychological byproducts of our rapidly changing times. The current era is "an age of numbing" that has left the Self detached and disaffiliated from the outside world. It displays impaired symbolization with a marked separation of thought from feeling. He cites a paper on multiple personality disorder that considers the abduction experience a "mythic version of childhood abuse."

This is not exactly the same as calling it a "space-age psychosis," but there a radical presumption here of pathology that mirrors the skeptic in Intruders. Both share the suspicion that this is fallout of the times we are living in; for Lifton, however, the dissociation started decades before Sputnik and Apollo. Curiously, Lifton is proposing a pathology that seems more disturbing than the explanations proposed by most of the debunkers and psychosocial adherents on record. Ironic indeed, when you consider Lifton was being pointed to as an authority demonstrating how wrong-headed the skeptics were in thinking abductees shouldn't be believed. Turnabout being fair play, shouldn't we now wonder if Lifton's stance represents a milestone in a heretofore silent counter-revolution pointing to ordinary causes and a potentially boring outcome of this program of investigation?

I'd counsel against it. Frankly, Lifton's stance shows no deep acquaintance with the abduction phenomenon. It is rooted entirely in a paper by Nicholas Humphrey and Daniel C. Dennett titled "Speaking for Our Selves: An Assessment of Multiple Personality Disorder" (Occasional Paper # 8, Center on Violence and Human Survival, John Jay College of Criminal Justice: The City University of New York). The paper is a philosophical meditation on the multiple personality problem rooted in interviews with multiples and their therapists. The authors deal with the abduction myth in only one paragraph in a section explicitly admitted to be random speculation. Here it is in its entirety:

In contemporary America, many hundreds of people claim to have been abducted by aliens from UFO's. The abduction experience is not recognized as such at first, and is described instead as "missing time" for which the person has no memories. Under hypnosis, however, the subject typically recalls having been kidnapped by humanoid creatures who did harmful things -- typically involving some kind of sex-related surgical operation (for example, sharp objects being thrust into the vagina). Are these people recounting a mythic version of an actual childhood experience? During the period described as missing time, was another personality in charge -- a personality for whom the experience of abuse was all too real?

No interviews with abductees are cited and their knowledge of abduction lore can only be termed as hearsay in form. They are asking questions, not arguing positions. As it happens there are known cases of abductees with multiple personality disorder, but if anyone has come forward to reveal an alien-ascribed missing time was confused with a personality shift in which the person was doing things with other people, it hasn't been mentioned. The involvement of childhood abuse was noted by several workers, notably Kenneth Ring and Susan Marie Powers, but the linking of specific motifs to documented episodes of abuse has yet to be demonstrated. There are good reasons to be cautious in accepting this as a blanket explanation. Dreams and fantasies tend to be more closely related to ongoing mental conflicts in the individual rather than his early life. Some of D. Scott Rogo's work is more supportive of this life crisis view of abductions. Early abuse may only predispose the person to paranoid styles of expectation and interpretation in a vague way. The specific motifs may be borrowed from a variety of sources; lore about other abductees, distorted memory residues from earlier in the day, movies, TV, creative imagining, and the vast pool of transpersonal imagery we ascribe to the human unconscious. Recall the material Stanislav Grof described in his LSD studies.

What is amusing here is not so much that Lifton was wrong, but that he didn't care enough about the abduction phenomenon to give it more than a few seconds thought. Lifton, after all, was truly into bigger business. Protean adaptations are something all of us encounter in people we know, perhaps even in ourselves. Abductees are a fringe phenomenon which matter to a tiny percentage of people. Contrary to the visionary in Intruders, he blatantly doesn't consider them the most significant development in man's history. They rate half a paragraph, which sounds about right for a Yale man. I can certainly respect that.

I wonder though whether ufologists will appreciate what it means.

[Writer Martin Kottmeyer writes frequently for The REALL News.]

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