Why am I odd? It’s the UFOs

Review of Abducted: How People Come to Believe They Were Kidnapped by Aliens by Susan A.Clancy, Harvard University Press, 180 pp, hardback £14.95, ISBN 0-674-01879-6

Times Higher Education Supplement, 24 Mar 2006

Are people who think they’ve been abducted by aliens crazy? Not according to Susan Clancy, whose many meetings with “abductees” form the basis of this engaging book. These people may be wrong about what happened to them but, she concludes, they are quite understandably adopting the explanation that makes most sense for them.

Most abductees start by feeling that they are different in some way; “I’ve always had strange nightmares”, “I have a pain in my genitals”, or “I never liked sex like other people”. Others experience frightening sleep paralysis or night-time disturbances and start searching for explanations. If they meet something – a TV programme, a book, a therapist or hypnotist – that suggests the possibility of abduction the idea may take hold. They look for confirmatory evidence, ignore disconfirming evidence, and soon everything seems to fall into place. Then there is no going back.

Sceptics may argue that there is no evidence for aliens landing on earth, and scientists may view their beliefs as unfalsifiable and therefore meaningless but, as Clancy points out, we don’t live in a science lab. We live in the real world and in the real world people don’t ask whether the evidence justifies their beliefs; they just go on the costs and benefits. Yes, they may lose a few friends and be thought a bit crazy but at least they have an explanation, and giving that up would cost too much.

Abduction is a popular book and is light on detail (just how many people did she interview and how were they selected, for example, or how many is the “most” who fell into the hands of an abduction researcher or therapist). It romps through the relevant psychology, glossing over some of the controversies and unknowns. Nevertheless it provides some fascinating accounts of the way abductees use evidence in their reasoning, the effects of relaxation therapy and hypnosis in creating false memories, the power of emotions to convince them that false memories are real, and the importance of TV shows, films and books in creating the myth of the grey alien. As Clancy puts it, these stories have been contrived out of shared cultural knowledge and shared fears, needs, hopes and limitations. She also explores the factors that predispose people to becoming abductees; fantasy proneness, a tendency to hold other unusual beliefs and some odd or disturbing experiences that they cannot explain.

Clancy claims to have read every account of alien abduction ever published and just about everything that commentators have written. From some of the research that is not mentioned I very much doubt this claim. Nevertheless, her wide knowledge does provide a most interesting counter to the “If it’s not true why are the stories all so similar” argument. They simply aren’t, she claims. Some aliens are naked greys while others wear orange overalls or long white robes; some use needles to extract sperm and others use vast machines or bare hands, and their purposes in abducting innocent humans range from evil to protective.

Yet the basic plot is the same, and here I feel that Clancy does less well. She does not explain, for example, the neurophysiological origins of the tunnels that so many abductees report, or the well documented symptoms of sleep paralysis that underlie the details of the abduction stories, such as the humming noises, sensations of floating, body distortions and sense of malign presence.

These criticisms aside, Clancy writes in an easy-going and engaging way, describing the processes and the ups and downs of her research as well as her findings. This is a fun, readable and informative book that helps explain how and why alien abduction has become such a powerful myth.