In the late 1990s, as a twenty-year rash of high-profile sex abuse cases was winding down, Harvard Ph.D. student Susan Clancy took a skeptical look at the phenomenon of "recovered memories"—memories repressed for years and suddenly recalled in therapy, which had been sending accused molesters to jail for a decade. Her work promptly got her labeled a "friend of pedophiles" by one letter writer, and politically biased by a colleague quoted in the New York Times. Unprepared for the political minefield she'd stumbled into, Clancy started looking for a way to study false memory creation without inviting attacks of political bias. Naturally, she turned to aliens.
Claims of alien abduction have become increasingly common over the past thirty years, Clancy reports, as has a general belief in the existence of extraterrestrial life. Recruiting people who truly believed they'd been abducted by extraterrestrials, she found a way to study memory creation without directly engaging the bitter debate over recovered memories of abuse. And listening to their grotesque and often sexually explicit accounts, she could be reasonably sure that the memories she was studying were not vivid recollections of traumatic abuse, but imaginative reconstructions of the latest Spielberg flick.
Abducted: How People Come to Believe They Were Kidnapped By Aliens, takes as its subject the disturbing vulnerability of memory, the appeal of pseudo-science, and, more pointedly, the ability of otherwise normal people to hold completely bizarre convictions. "The truth is that almost all of us can believe things without much evidence," she writes, "They only thing unique about the alien abductees I have met is their particular weird belief."
Assistant editor Kerry Howley spoke with Clancy in December.
Reason: What was the immediate reaction when you tried to discuss false memory creation in terms of sexual abuse?
Susan Clancy: The reaction from everybody was bad. It was hard to get people to participate in the research, because people were furious that anybody was doing any research that might challenge their beliefs. Members at the faculty at Harvard told me to stay out of this area because I would jeopardize getting a position when I got out of graduate school. Letters were flooding in to me from people who were furious. In one New York Times article my research was labeled as biased and political, even though it was peer reviewed and published in reputable journals. I was attacked.
Reason: So, aliens.
Clancy: Yes. But the alien research shows how beliefs can turn into false memories. The process by which they're retrieved, the process by which normal people can come to believe something that is sort of out there, and end up recovering memories, is very important.
Reason: You're convinced that most people who believe they've been abducted by aliens are normal people, and that every one of them with vivid memories got them in therapy. How does that happen, exactly?
Clancy: I do think these people are fundamentally normal. The belief in alien abduction is much less weird when you consider the process by which the belief is acquired. It doesn't happen overnight. Nobody wakes up and says, "Holy shit, I was abducted last night, they took me, there were rotating vibrating devices and then they extracted my sperm." People say, "I have these weird experiences. I wonder what it could be?" They look for explanations and at some point they'll say, well, maybe I was abducted. I know it sounds weird but it's just like what Whitley Strieber wrote about, or it's just like what happened to Betty and Barney Hill. There are a lot of people out there who believe aliens are real and a lot of people who believe aliens have been on earth—look at the Roper polls and the Time/CNN polls—and it's not that weird that some people would say, maybe I've been abducted.
Reason: And the memories are recovered later on?
Clancy: Either by choice, or because it kind of happens that way, some end up in an abduction researcher's office or a psychotherapists office to talk about their concerns or beliefs. I never met a single subject that had detailed autobiographical memories of what happened to them until they ended up under hypnosis.
Reason: Why does memory suddenly become so vulnerable under hypnosis, which is really just a relaxed state?
Clancy: When we know things but we forget how we learned those things, it is very possible to get confused—we can easily get confused about the things we heard about and things we imagined. I know that aliens lie you down on a table. Is this because I read it in a book? Or is it because it happened to me? And when you vividly imagine things—in hypnosis you are asked to imagine things that you are worried about—it becomes easier to become confused between things you imagined and things that actually happened. Your normal reality controls are down. Because of the vulnerability of our memory system, it becomes even easier to get confused between things we imagined and things that actually happened to us.
If anything the role of hypnosis is making false memory creation more likely than it already is. We all have the ability to get confused.