The recent announcement that Bigfoot DNA has been sequenced has prompted Whitley Strieber to reflect on the differences between Sasquatch and man: “Sasquatch is here to be,” Strieber has explained. “Man is here to do.”
Aside from clarifying a potentially confusing distinction, Strieber’s helpful scholium has had the pleasant side-effect of reminding me that he exists.
I hadn’t thought of Strieber in years, aside from one wine-fueled conversation with someone or other in which I tried to explain his bestseller Communion. Strieber was a mildly successful, modestly famous author of horror novels (he calls them “imaginative thrillers,” a description I would prefer to apply to his non-fiction books) until 1985, when he had a series of experiences that led him to believe that he had been abducted by “visitors.” His account of these experiences and their aftermath was published as Communion: A True Story, the cover of which featured a now-iconic image of the creature already known to popular folklore as the Grey: a sallow, triangular, mask-like face above a narrow neck, with thin nostrils and a gioconda smile, oddly feminine despite the grotesquely large black eyes.
I read Communion when I was maybe eighteen. At the time I was working night shifts at a warehouse and had trouble sleeping during the day. I spent many mornings in a state of jittery dislocation verging on paranoia, and I found Strieber’s descriptions of his experiences, although not entirely persuasive, vivid and inexplicable enough to be disturbing. I knew nearly nothing about confabulation, or sleep paralysis, or any of the various and perfectly ordinary cognitive dysfunctions that can cause us to mistake fantasy for reality. My own sleep deprivation had bred a sort of hyper-alertness in which, optically and mentally, foregrounds receded and backgrounds advanced, and trying to get any perspective on anything was an exercise in vertigo. A visit to the library and a perusal of some of Strieber’s later books (Transformation, Breakthrough) ultimately convinced me that he was mentally ill (a judgment I would not presume to make today), but the memory of reading Communion stayed with me for years, and contributed for a time to my fascination with alien-encounter stories.
A few years later I stumbled across Keith Thompson’s Angels and Aliens, a muddled (one reviewer, delightfully, uses the word ‘wispy’) but informative attempt to place modern UFO stories in their proper place beside older accounts of visiting cherubim, celestial apparitions, and faery abductions. Thompson argued that people who insist on treating UFO reports as either hoaxes and misidentifications, or genuine evidence of extraterrestrial presence, are missing the point: “[E]ach hypothesis seeking to explain the UFO phenomenon … can be taken as a particular and limited question put to the UFO by particular observers with particular assumptions,” he wrote, thereby dismissing all potential explanations before they are tendered. An admirer of Jung, Thompson seemed to hint that some unidentified, potentially incomprehensible engine was burbling and buzzing in the mythogenic basement of culture, and that the best answer to the UFO question was the one that placed us in the interstices between imagination and reality – where we create our own perceptions but those perceptions are nonetheless accurate.
This line of inquiry struck me as profound. Both of my parents have seen UFOs, and one family friend, as a child in the 1950s, watched one land and take off again in a suburban backyard. I grew up believing that such phenomena were real and (sometimes) unexplained, and as a boy watching the night sky, I was less interested in learning to identify Arcturus or Spica than in looking for strange moving lights. Remembering, among other oddities, Thompson’s tales of UFO witnesses who watched the craft move in response to where they wanted it to go, I tried to make his implied conclusions explicit: I wondered if the reason that UFOs have “the capacity … to outdistance each attempt to corner them definitively,” as he put it, is that, like quantum phenomena (Thompson cites Heisenberg and Einstein), their physical reality is inseparable from our observations of them. I tried to formulate a philosophy to account for them – and for a time I stood shivering on the brink of the great, infinite, mirrorlike pool of mysticism, dragging a toe across the surface and watching the reflections of what I thought I knew writhe and shatter. Then, for whatever reason, I took a step back.
Perhaps it was my inability to explain to anyone what I meant that made me do it. I don’t mind ambiguity, but I mistrust imprecision, and if nothing else the vague and undefined nature of my thoughts, however appealing they were, gave off a mental odor of something rotten. I stopped thinking about UFOs, and with them, Whitley Strieber.
Now I look back on my immature efforts to explore what I truly believed to be an unsolved or partially solved mystery, and wonder what devilry I had worked on myself to have constructed such an edifice of speculation on so flimsy a foundation. And I realize that my biggest problem was simple: it was an unconscious allegiance to perception, to the idea that what we see is accurate unless certain specific circumstances are present to make it dubious.
The opening of Strieber’s Communion reassures us repeatedly with disclaimers: “we rarely drink more than wine, and neither of us has ever used drugs…. I do not recall any dreams or disturbances at all…. My mind was sharp. I was not asleep, nor in a hypnopompic state between sleep and waking.” His incantatory insistence on his own sobriety is necessary because he wants to establish that his memories are accurate recollections of accurate perceptions, and hallucinatory states of mind need to be eliminated. The underlying assumption is that whatever remains must be true.
Of course, we know that this is far from the case. Perception and memory are wildly unreliable. In the assertion of extraordinary claims, the mere promise of sobriety, and the elimination of mental illness (Strieber had his head examined), are far from sufficient to make a empirical fact of remembered experience. Our brain is a house haunted by poltergeists too legion to name here: apophenia and pareidolia, two of my favorites, frolic beside more dully named devils like self-deception and the above-mentioned confabulation. These, more like roommates than visitors, are far more likely to keep us company at night than anything supernatural or extraterrestrial.
Strieber has a podcast now, and a website edited by his wife, and a library of books on everything from human-alien hybrids to the Tarot of Marseilles. Like Graham Hancock (whom he praises), his credulity has become encyclopedic. It might have been that way from the beginning, too: as his protests in Communion attest, he never even understood the meaningless of his own conviction that he was awake when the visitors first came. His assumption that his assurances are valuable is almost endearing – except that they were valuable to me, at one point, which is something I’m grateful to Strieber for reminding me of. Strieber has gone far beyond where most of us will ever go in happily believing nonsense, but his story reminds me of how easily a single, innocent false assumption can mislead the well-intentioned.
Well, enough of this – I’m off to be. Or is to do? Damn these confusions.
Strieber, W. Communion. New York: Avon, 1987
Thompson, K. Angels and Aliens. New York: Ballantine, 1991