Psychology/Psychiatry

The Truth Is in There

Susan Clancy on recovered memories, alien abductions, and how to believe weird things.

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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.

Reason: Do false memories differ in any perceptible way from actual memories?

Clancy: No. My colleague Richard McNally and I looked at psycho-physiological reactivity in people who believe they were abducted by aliens. We wanted to know whether when people are remembering their false memories, their bodies react the same as when they're remembering things that actually happened. So we compared psycho-physiological reactivity in alien abductees while they were remembering their alien abduction experiences and people who experienced actual traumatic events like rape victims and Vietnam vets—and they react the same.

Reason: How prevalent is belief in recovered memories? Are they still commonly accepted as evidence in legal proceedings?

Clancy: Yes. It is unbelievable. All of the scientific research shows that repression is just preposterous. But most therapists believe that repression exists. And most people in the world believe that the concept of repression is real. I think that's because of movies and Hollywood, we see it depicted, it's just culturally out there.

Reason: But in the scientific community—

Clancy: It's dead. Dead, dead, dead. For five decades we've known that memory is reconstructive in nature; we've known that memories can be created. The whole issue of repression didn't become a hot topic until the 90s. And for the past ten years scientists have been arguing that repression is preposterous.

Reason: You deny the existence of recovered memories; how do you explain the fact that adults do sometimes suddenly remember being abused, and the accounts turn out to be accurate and traumatic?

Clancy: Ninety-five percent of child sex abuse cases are non-traumatic events, traumatic in the sense of being life threatening or physically painful. If you look at the data, what is most likely to happen to victims involves touching and kissing. It's not something that requires medical attention. The average age of sexual abuse victims is seven. You take a young kid who does not know about sex—no kid under ten is able to understand what sex is—you have a child who doesn't know about sex, and somebody they love and trust is touching them in a way that is not painful. Put yourself in the perspective of the victim. There is no way to understand what is happening to you is a crime. They just don't know. It becomes one of the millions of experiences kids have that they don't understand. And it's not surprising to me that many kids simply don't think about it until later on in life. At some point, later on, when they hit puberty in high school or college, they put two and two together, and they realize that it was wrong. It was abusive. And people refer to that as "I remembered."

The other thing is the perpetrator is almost always somebody the victims knows and trusts. In almost all cases it is a family member, or teacher, or camp counselor, or priest, somebody in authority the kid loves. For most of the victims, it's the breach of trust that's traumatizing. And for a lot of kids, it's that they liked it at the time. And you can see how people feel shameful and repelled: How come I liked that? How come it didn't bother me? Well, it didn't bother you because you were seven and didn't know what was going on. You thought someone was showing you attention or love. We're looking at these experiences through the eyes of adults, not as a child.

Reason: It's just like any other memory.

Clancy: Exactly. And instead of just using this data to alert others to the fact that sexual abuse is often not understood by the victim, we as a society say: "Oh my God, you didn't think about it for ten years, it must be because it's so traumatic you repressed it." We have no culturally acceptable way of talking about sexual abuse that wasn't thought about. People think abuse must be so terrible that if you don't think about it, it must be because it was repressed. And that is because we fundamentally misunderstand or don't want to understand what actually happens. As a parent, I want people to know what happens.

Reason: You mention that alien abduction reports didn't start popping up until they became prevalent in pop culture in the 60s. Which is the most culturally resonant alien abduction account?

Clancy: Definitely Betty and Barney Hill. Nobody had said it before them, and their account was turned into a book, The Interrupted Journey by Don Fuller, and that book was turned into a major TV movie that was meretriciously presented as a "documentary." It was on NBC. That really became the seed story—everything blossomed from there. Steven Spielberg used the alien Barney Hill drew during hypnosis as a prototype for the alien that was in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. And from there—I mean, who didn't see that movie?

Reason: What's your favorite alien abduction story?

Clancy: It's really so boring after you've heard one. For the most part they're all the same. I was in my bed and someone took me out of my bed and then I ended up on some kind of table (a black table usually) and then there are these creatures looking down at me and then they did so and so to me. The plot is always the same. The details differ—what the aliens look like, what exactly was done, what the purpose of the experiments were.

Reason: You state in the book that pseudo-science is proliferating "more than ever." What's the evidence for that?

Clancy: We live in a scientific age, and still most people out there do not know how to think objectively or scientifically. Thinking in terms of probability or parsimony does not come naturally to any of us. And even when we do think scientifically, we're still capable of believing in things like alien abductions.

I think we're scientifically more sophisticated today than we have ever been, but there is no evidence that our belief in ghosts, or aliens, or macrobiotic diets, or the power of echinacea to kill colds has decreased. We are as interested in mysticism today as we were five decades go. Or forever as far as I can tell.

Reason: Popular culture is full of myths, but people don't normally walk around insisting they're true. Why alien abduction?

Clancy: It's an excellent question. You have a bunch of weird experiences and you're trying to understand them: Why choose aliens? It seems so bizarre. And I think it just comes down to the fact that these people think it's possible, then they have their memories, and once they have their memories, it feels too real to them to not be memories.

Reason: You refer to alien abduction as a "culturally available" script. If abduction is yesterday's script, what's tomorrow's?

Clancy: I think it's God. There is a cultural movement toward going back to God and wanting to have personal experiences with God. There was a very interesting Newsweek cover a few months ago about the increase of evangelism in which people are having kind of a direct physical contact with God. We want to be touched with the spiritual, we want to feel the divine, and I think some people are doing it with aliens and other people are doing it with God. I think this is a manifestation of a cultural need to get in touch with something spiritual, kind of moving away from science towards mysticism.

Reason: You're very upbeat, in the end, about the power of the alien abduction narrative to fill a spiritual need. But creating false memories can be devastating in cases that society takes more seriously; people end up in jail.

Clancy: We have a tendency–we want to demonize the hypnotist. But you need to realize that the patient has a role. You don't go to an abduction researcher unless you believe in alien abduction. Therefore you are engaging in a mutually interesting, beneficial account with the hypnotist. You couldn't plant an abduction memory in somebody who didn't want to believe it or believe it was possible in the first place. Two people engage in a social interaction that results in these memories. When people go into these hypnosis sessions, they're implicitly wanting to get these memories out. And the researchers are aiding and abetting. It's two people together.

Reason: Your interviewees seem to always be proselytizing, in a way, by trying to convince you that you too were abducted.

Clancy: I don't know what I left out because I didn't want to get sued. But the worst experience in all this research was a woman who was a "channeler," which is like a medium between aliens and humans. She told me, among other things, that I was interested in this research because I was part of a select alien sisterhood. She said I had actually had a baby. I had been pregnant in the past, and the aliens took the baby—the baby is part alien—and now the baby was nine years old. And did I want to talk to my baby? That was truly too much for me. I was like, "No, I do not want to talk to my baby."

Reason: Surely you too have some weird beliefs?

Clancy: Yes, and they're terrible. I think smoking three or four cigarettes a day won't kill you. And I think a martini a day is good for you.

Kerry Howley is an assistant editor of Reason.