The Death Of John Mack

Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 10/30/04


  There’s something unsavory about a person using their credentials in one area of life to leverage power, influence, or respect, in another. The first instance that comes to mind is writer Maya Angelou calling herself a doctor because she has received honorary doctorates degrees from many universities over the years. Don’t get me wrong- this is an issue apart from her horror as a poet. It goes to the fundament of who she is, feeling a need to claim something she’s not to prop up her ego. This is not akin to someone fudging on their resumé to get a job to support themselves. Maya Angelou is rich, obscenely so when considered in proportion to her literary worth. It just seems, to me, unethical to use that as a reason to declaim expertise elsewhere. Bill Cosby, as droning and dull-minded as he is, at least earned his PhD. I still think it’s silly for a man whose profession is telling jokes to appear on talk shows and pontificate as if he has any clue about subject matter his discourse actively disproves. Nonetheless, as said, he earned the right to wave his sheepskin in opponents’ faces.

  Yet, worse than either a doggerelist, or over-the-hill comedian, has to be the academic who leverages renown, fame, or accolades in one area to speak authoritatively in another. Imagine if, in a few years, I am a published writer with a few bestsellers, & a significant Q rating. My expertise is in poetry, literature, and I can declaim- from a lay point of view- things regarding politics, economics, archaeology, philosophy, etc. But, I have no expertise to discuss in depth the theories of Adam Smith, John Mill, nor Charles Lyell. Yet, some media entity or pundit puts me on a panel with a professional economist, philosopher, or geophysicist. I’d be over my head. I mean, I’m a bright guy, and may very well be able to see a larger picture than the focused expert. But, I’d still look foolish trying to argue minutiae in things clearly beyond my ken.

  Yet, this sort of thing goes on all the time in today’s 24/7 media blitz. I recently saw comedian John Stewart, from Comedy Central’s The Daily Show, declaiming on a C-Span special re: the 2004 Presidential Election. Of course, he’s entitled to his opinions, but the whole forum accorded him was on par with that to be accorded to pundit William F. Buckley, or his longtime debate foe George McGovern. Regardless what you think of either man’s views the fact is this is their area of expertise. Stewart may be a funny guy, and there’s certainly a place for political comedy, but that was not the way the venue was constructed- it was billed as a political talk; as if this comic were a sober voice. Perhaps he does make more sense- but the forum was just inapt.

  This brings me to the subject of this piece- Dr. John Mack, a psychiatrist who won widespread acclaim & fame for ‘A Prince of Our Disorder: The Life of T.E. Lawrence’, which won the 1977 Pulitzer Prize for biography. The 74 year old recently died, on September 27th, 2004, when he was struck and killed by a drunk driver in London, England while attending the T.E. Lawrence Society Symposium in Oxford, England. For the next decade and a half, or so, Dr. Mack went back to a life of relative anonymity, until in the late 1980s he apparently had a ‘spiritual conversion’ & became enamored of the ‘Alien Abduction’ mythos. He spent several years ‘researching’ the claims of abduction and sexual abuse of humans by gray extraterrestrial humanoids and bought the claims hook, line, and sinker. So much so that he felt compelled to author a book called Abduction: Human Encounters With Aliens, in 1994. Not unsurprisingly it became a bestseller. Prior to Mack’s involvement the 2 most famed proponents of the quasi-spiritual Alien Abduction mythos were charlatan painter-cum-researcher Budd Hopkins- whose motives for such have been impugned on many fronts, from promoting his failed art career to plain old publicity hound, & horror writer Whitley Strieber- a man who has documented mental ills.

  Despite his eminent credentials as a psychiatrist and the manifest evidence that ‘abductees’ were people highly susceptible to fantasy lives, Mack waded into this minefield and tossed his career away, while trashing his reputation. In the last few years Mack backed away from insisting the abductions were real material events, claiming they were only ‘real’ to the experiencers, but the damage was done. Although a Harvard Medical School professor of psychiatry he became a laughingstock and embarrassment among colleagues for his obvious bias, and faulty research into the phenomenon, which- for some reason- he could never come out and define as a mental illness, along the lines of schizophrenia, nor could he reconcile it with its kindred False Memory Syndrome- so rife during the 1980s sex and Satanic cult scares.

  The most troubling aspect of Mack’s descent from respected member of his field to career joke was that whenever he appeared on a tv show, or was interviewed, about alien abductions he was always referred to as Pulitzer Prize winner, to lend him a simulacrum of credence in an area he knew little of. This fact is why some of the best researchers in the field are trained in magic or fakery. What Mack swallowed gullibly was easily seen by experienced researchers, soaked in con artistry, as a scam. On more than one occasion Mack’s inner circle of claimed abductees was penetrated by hoaxers, whose fabulous claims were trumpeted as real, and breakthroughs, by Mack. When the hoax was revealed Mack sheepishly backed off, sometimes even impugning the hoaxer had real abduction memories and was using the hoax as a way to psychologically deal with the pain. Needless to say, Mack’s esteem plummeted even worse.

  Yet, think about this- psychiatry, at best, is a pseudoscience. The talking cure pioneered by Sigmund Freud and his acolytes has never proved to be effective. Most books on dream interpretation are laced with the biases of their proponents. Psychiatrists are noted for their inability to often miss the forest for the trees. Mack claimed that the Abductees’ stories consistency was proof of their reality, ignoring decades of cultural seepage from magazines, films, & tv. Also, that the amazing consistency of the tales actually disproves objective reality since forensic investigators will always tell you that when different people witness a crime they almost always tell divergent tales, with differing descriptions. He never realized that the abductions claims were important not for their scientific nor psychiatric value, but for their mythic value. Most cogently, Mack was accorded the Pulitzer for his biography, not his psychiatric ability. So, to trumpet his credibility as a UFO investigator was specious, to say the least. I may be able to give better advice than anyone regarding poetry criticism, but be wary if I start touting the best Filipino investment opportunities.

  It has been posited that Mack’s obsession with psi phenomena long predated his belief in UFO Abductions, stemming from some alleged incidents while serving in the U.S. Air Force, & belief in foo fighters and gremlins, so rife in the early Cold War era. It was suspected that this led to Mack’s own avowed New Age beliefs concerning the efficacy of homeopathic medicines, as well as a quasi-mystic view of the earth. His many detractors, in fact, have pointed out that these biases lace his work with patients both before & after his conversion to alien abduction belief, & that Mack was a very bad psychoanalyst. They have pointed out numerous instances where Mack utterly missed warning signs that his alleged abductees were fantasy prone personality types- most of them were susceptible to hypnosis, many made use of paraidentities- invisible childhood friends that lasted past pubescence, and/or fantasies about being someone else, or had psychic experiences. Many also had visions, precognition, out of body experiences, or repeated fantasies about floating or flying. Others were prone to hallucinations, seeing ghosts or fantasy creatures, or receiving messages from disembodied spirits. While none of these things in and of themselves would be enough to declare the ‘abductees’ insane, that Mack willfully ignored this anecdotal evidence seems to indicate a willful ignorance of the obvious. In my view, though, from having read his works, and observed him in interviews, Mack clearly was a man not at ease in himself- a man constantly searching, or as the saying goes, trying to find himself.

  I don’t believe he willfully fudged facts, he was simply incapable of going against his own engrained biases. That others helped promote his delusions, all for the holy buck, I consider a far worse thing- using his Pulitzer status just another example of leveraging power across disciplines, a too common ill in these times. That said, there’s a bridge in Manila I’d like to interest you in....

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