Believing in Abductions

Susan Clancy. Abducted: How People Come to Believe They Were Abducted by Aliens. Harvard University Press, 2005.

Susan Clancy is a psychologist who wanted to find some way of clearly distinguishing between the recovered memory and false memory hypotheses. This was difficult to do with people who claimed repressed memories of sexual abuse, as there was usually no way of knowing this abuse had taken place or not. She therefore decided to look for a test case, where the chances of the events really taken place were vanishingly small. Alien abductions seemed to be as good a sample as any, after all the chances that people are nightly being abducted through solid walls into invisible spaceships doesn’t seem very great.

Of course this assumption on Clancy’s part has earned her the wrath of a good few true-believing abductees and abduction finders, to say nothing of their followers in the wider world of ufology. Much of this is on the lines of the classical neo-populist whining that one hears from various sections of the right, about East Coast/Islington liberals looking down their noses at good old grey-fearing folks.

Clancy is at pains to point out that she does not think that abductees are mentally ill, they are, in the most part, ordinary people who have developed extraordinary beliefs. What leads people to such extraordinary beliefs; Clancy suggests that people adopt these ideas gradually, and they are developed to account for both anomalous personal experiences, such as aware sleep paralysis episodes, and for the general traumas of life. Few abductees have detailed memories of actual abductions as such, they may indeed have memories of the aforementioned anomalous experiences, but often even that is lacking, there is just a vague sense that something has somehow gone wrong
While most of us can understand why people may adopt comforting beliefs, such as in a warm, loving, non-judgmental afterlife, or that nice space brothers are here to save us from nuclear war, it is much more difficult to understand why people would want to believe they have been abducted by aliens, or the victims of childhood sexual abuse.

Clancy’s interviews may provide something of an answer, partly it is that any explanation is better than none, a vacuum of complete inexplicability is more frightening than a fearful explanation. Secondly this explanation adds meaning to the world, it also adds to a sense of self importance, something really big and special has happened to little old me.

Few of the people Clancy interviews see themselves as the helpless victims of Hopkinsian lore, rather they see their experiences as terrifying but transformative encounters with the wholly and unconditionally other. This is a kind of primal religious experience that reminds us that rape and rapture come from the same roots, far removed from latter-day social-worker Christianity.

UFOs become the vehicle for discourse on these experiences because of their dominating role in popular culture, UFO imagery is everywhere (and has been for many years now). The myth of abduction grows (of course critics will point out odd errors and lack of total in-depth knowledge of the abduction literature in Clancy’s accounts) from one story to another.

Though Clancy does not make the connection, there are obvious similarities with beliefs in witchcraft, which also developed around both anomalous personal experiences, and the sense that everything is going wrong. Today much the same sense of frustration and sense of powerlessness can be found in a variety of political discourses, particularly from the radical right. We have pointed out a number of times the growing convergence between the abduction lore and general right wing political paranoia, the idea of the enemy burrowing into society, the racially suspect taking ‘our women folk and the idea that ‘they’ are in the process of taking away our way of life.

It is into ideas like this that Clancy dare not go, for she then might have to examine critically the most central pillar of therapism itself, the idea that capitalist, free-enterprise society is perfect, therefore if people are having less than perfect lives, then the fault is either some personal condition that can be medically cured, or because some particular individual has abused them in some way. That living in a simultaneously highly individualistic and hierarchical, competitive, winner takes all, society in which few people have much control over their daily lives, might be really bad for both your physical and mental health, and that the traumas of living in such a society might be reflected in abduction narratives, is not one that good well brought up psychologists could entertain. -- Peter Rogerson

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