Friday Brain Fire: Passport to the Cosmos?

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(Coming Monday: Greg Abbott and the Politics of Anger)

There were a large number of people wondering what had gone wrong with John Mack, and I was still coming to terms with why I was in his office. Mack was a cum laude graduate of Harvard’s medical school, a psychiatrist, and an author with a Pulitzer for his non-fiction work on Lawrence of Arabia, “A Prince of Our Disorder: The Life of T.E. Lawrence.”

We had walked across the Harvard Yard to his office and I had struggled to hear him speak above the cold spring wind in Boston. Mack wore a corduroy jacket with patches at the elbows and khaki slacks and his grayed sandy hair flew about his forehead. Doctor Mack did not seem to be speaking directly to me but almost sounded like he was still deconstructing his own thinking by talking to himself.

The professor’s research was taking him into an examination of a question that no university had ever confronted. He had been contacted by an artist and hypnotist from New York City and had been persuaded to have conversations with people claiming to have been abducted by aliens. The ivy-covered walls of the great learning institution might have cracked had word spread widely the esteemed doctor believed that something real had happened to the people he was beginning to refer to as experiencers.

“I don’t know what it is,” he told me. “But I know to them that what they have been through is a real experience. Our current psychology and science doesn’t account for what I’m seeing with these people.”

I was at Harvard under protest. The manager of our news operations in Houston had called me and said he wanted to assign me to do a series of reports on the UFO phenomenon. I argued, vehemently, I recall, by insisting I was a political journalist and spent my time on important issues, not gratuitous ratings projects. And then I did what I was told because I needed my job.

Mack, I hoped, would lend his great credibility to my reporting, and my reports might not appear like gratuitous ratings grabs. But he was very quickly losing his own stature. There were whispers across campus about the nature of his inquiry, and whether he had lost his way as a disciplined researcher and physician.

“I certainly did not ask for this to come in front of me,” my old notes indicate he said. “But you are not a scientist or a curious person if these types of stories are presented to you with great seriousness and emotional distress, and you ignore that. I can’t do that.”

And, of course, he didn’t.

Mack was seduced to this fringe subject matter by a New York artist and researcher. Budd Hopkins had been collecting UFO abduction stories for many years, and when he became trained in hypnotic regression, Hopkins was more convinced these were not artifacts of the mind. They were, in his analysis, real events. Hopkins wanted to know what a person with more science and research skills might think. He turned to Mack.

I sat in on some of those hypnosis sessions and readily admit to being unsettled by what I heard. The subjects screamed, cried, and squirmed while describing bug-eyed beings floating them into a craft in the sky where they were stuck with needles and shown disturbing visions of the earth’s future. If they were imagining the experience, there appeared to be a pathology because they all told of the same process of being taken from their beds, eggs extracted from women and sperm from men, and then returned to the location where they had been taken. Their conscious memory seemed to have been erased and was only accessible by hypnosis.

Mack’s skepticism came to be subdued by more than two hundred such regressions. The notion that memory gaps are filled by confabulation did not appear to be sufficient to make him think there was something psychologically amiss with his subjects. But Mack struggled to find a more prosaic explanation for what he was recording other than the physical abduction of people by non-human entities. He toyed with the notion that his subjects were tapping into some un-experienced or unexplored realm of the collective human consciousness, but nothing accounted for the descriptions or the real emotional dread, and he studied two hundred people.

It is easy to dismiss all of this as nonsense and fantastical but after you have sat through an hypnotic regression and watched the recalled memories make people suffer, you will make a more cautious assessment. If you have the stomach for it and the time, the clip below is rather long but it is an adult New Zealand man recalling a series of abductions that begin at age three.

I recorded several of these sessions for the series of reports I was preparing for the CBS affiliated TV stations. The multiple segments were to be broadcast in local newscasts around the country after the prime time dramatic series called, “Intruders,” which was based upon a book by Budd Hopkins, “Intruders: The Incredible Visitations at Copley Woods.” My sleep, for many weeks, was quite restless.

Regardless of what anyone might think of Dr. Mack and his research, his courage was extraordinary. He had built a career of significant renown and he put it in jeopardy to pursue an understanding of something that might not even be comprehensible, at least not psychologically. By 1994, he became the first tenured professor at Harvard to be reviewed for the type of research he was conducting. Mack had not been accused of any ethical or professional misconduct but was subject to a 14-month inquiry that appeared to have no other purpose than intimidating him into not harming the august academic stature of Harvard. He was censured in the investigative committee’s final report but he remained a professor in good standing.

Mack wrote two successful books on the subject. “Abduction: Human Encounters with Aliens,” was a narrative report of his gathering of data from his subjects, and an analysis and interpretation of what it all might mean. “Passport to the Cosmos: Human Transformation and Alien Encounters,” studies the idea that the boundaries between energy and spirituality and the human experience are not what we think, and that most of reality needs to be intellectually reconfigured.

When I was attending university up in Michigan, I recall a poster that was seen on a number of dormitory room walls. The picture was of a UFO landing and the headline read, “Everything you know is wrong.” Actually, I know nothing, and very few of us do. I scoffed mightily when my managing editor demanded that I spend my intellect and energy to report on UFOs and then I discovered John Mack as he was launching his research. I wanted to dismiss him because what he told me made me uncomfortable.

But I was unable to ignore what he said and what he showed me.

Here is Dr. Mack on the Oprah Winfrey program in the 90s, a few years after I had conducted his first interview. (Never mind his damn college professor socks.)

Dr. Mack died in London while he was attending a conference on T.E. Lawrence (of Arabia.) He stepped off the sidewalk to cross the street but looked in the wrong direction for the UK traffic, and a drunk driver hit him, an ignominious end to a man who was unafraid to follow his intellect and science data wherever he was led, regardless of the consequences.

And suddenly with the proliferation of mobile phones with video cameras, and, yes, teenagers who have mad skills doing computer-generated graphics, we are confronted with having to decide if videos like this are real, or hokum.

If none of this activates your imagination, have some coffee, or something. After my travel and interviewing, I was sufficiently stimulated to write a novel based upon many of the things I had heard during the course of my reporting.

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Trib Bits

This could become a full time job keeping track of the deceptions of the Texas Tribune, but I’d rather be de-heading shrimp down on a dock at Rockport, if given the choice. The shrimp tend to stink less.

But here’s yet another example of what the Trib does and doesn’t do. On March 9th, the Tribwire picked up a story about Houston’s Ben Taub Hospital over-billing Medicare about a million dollars for outpatient dental work.

However, a few days earlier, the Dallas Morning News ran a piece about an even bigger chunk of money that the feds claim was “erroneously” charged to Medicare. CHRISTUS, an Irving based hospital group, is being ordered to refund to Medicare $3.3 million it had billed for short stay inpatient services. Oddly, this story did not make the Tribwire.

Coincidence, you say? Oversight? Possibly. But it’s good to know, when making your guesses about the Texas Tribune, that CHRISTUS has donated about $110,000 to the media outlet in Austin. Ben Taub? Nothing that we can find in the disclosures. Maybe Ben Taub needs to write the Trib a check?

I’m sure it was just an editor that missed a story link and didn’t post it to the wire.

Aren’t you?

Some Things Considered

But, hell, nothing can cause veinous constriction around here any more. The Walton Foundation, yes, those Waltons of Walmart, has given big fat grants to lots of media outlets doing reporting on education. Why would they do that? Well, the Walton family is a devotee of charter schools and vouchers and making those nasty ol’ public schools go away. Last year they wrote checks for $158 million to organizations that are dedicated to creating a school voucher system and supporting charter schools. The Waltons want education privatized.

But they also gave money to what are presumably non-partisan operations. So, if you are ever listening to NPR again and they have a report on the air that sounds like charter schools and vouchers for kids to enable them to leave public schools are really an innovative and great idea for educational advancement, please bear in mind that the Waltons gave NPR $1.4 million in 2013.

We’re sure it doesn’t affect their reporting, though. Aren’t you?

Never mind any of the above. Just check out this kid below, who is barely old enough to walk, and watch him on the drums. If you’ve ever doubted that music exists outside of us and simply arrives within some people, this ought to disabuse you of that notion. This kid could not have practiced enough in his short life to play this well, which leads me to a story about Willie Nelson.

I had the pleasure and burden for many years of spending my Fourth of July holidays reporting from the Willie Nelson concerts. I did it often enough the great man learned my name as my hair grayed, which was kind of cool for an obscure TV guy. He invited me onto his bus to conduct an interview one year during the concert at Luckenbach to tape my interview and, because I am completely without any understanding of music, I asked him where melodies come from. Willie just kind of smiled and looked at me like I had just stepped off a landed UFO.

“Well, Jim,” he said. “Melodies are everywhere. Whenever I need one I can just reach up in the air and grab one. That part is easy.”

I suppose I feel that way about words.

Now look at this kid, and if you can look away, something might be wrong with you.

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