Whitley Strieber and Jeffrey J. Kripal, The Super Natural: A New Vision of the Unexplained. Tarcher/Penguin, 2016.
(Continued from my previous post.)
“Obviously something incredibly intense had happened to Whitley. I never have doubted the veracity of the intensity of it. … As is the case with almost all of these kinds of experiences, they combine the quality of intense meaningfulness within the first person and a frustrating lack of external corroboration. … We can be talking about a religious experience, we can be talking about a symptom of temporal lobe epilepsy, we can be talking about a possible allergic response to common or not-so-common chemicals, or even a response to electromagnetic phenomena, one way or another. We can be talking about somebody who’s been abducted by real flesh-and-blood aliens. We don’t know, but my problem, as a third-person observer, who believes in the scientific method, is how to interpret it. You can’t just deny it.”
–Dr. John Gliedman, quoted in Ed Conroy, Report on Communion (1989)
“You can’t just deny it.” The brilliant maverick psychologist John Gliedman had that exactly right.
In the 1980s Gliedman knew Whitley Strieber well. He knew–or at least was entirely certain–that Strieber wasn’t just making up the fantastic experiences that found their way into his 1987 bestseller Communion, many of which Strieber had confided to him over lunch long before the book appeared. In C.S. Lewis’s famous “trilemma” of Lunatic-Liar-Lord (referring to Jesus), the second option seems ruled out.
The first also? Is it thinkable that Strieber’s mind–his perceptions, his memories–though demonstrably free from any of the “mental disorders” defined as such by the American Psychiatric Association, nevertheless doesn’t work quite the way our (statistically) “normal” minds do? That he sees and hears, feels and remembers things that most of us can’t or wouldn’t?
If so, does that make him crazy? Or the rest of us limited?
Like Gliedman, I’m a “third-person observer.” So, in a certain measure, is Jeffrey Kripal, the Rice University religious-studies professor who co-authored with Strieber the mind-bending, mind-opening book that I’m discussing in this and the preceding post. But Kripal has an advantage over me. Unlike me, he’s had his own direct and undeniable experience of “erotic mysticism” of the kind that suffuses Communion, immediate encounter with a cosmic sexuality “reaching down into every single cell of my body, or–if this is even possible–into every subatomic particle, each of which seemed to be humming at an unbelievable frequency.”
It happened to Kripal only once. The experience never came to dominate his life as it did Strieber’s. But that one time was enough for Kripal to know that what Strieber experienced was real. (Whatever “real” may mean.)
I haven’t had even that one experience. Which puts me in a dilemma. On the one hand, I want to believe Strieber, simply as the decency owed by one human being to another: not to laugh or diagnose away experiences that he or she has felt as soul-shatteringly real.
But I can’t help but disbelieve.
I don’t like the materialist scientific paradigm that Strieber and Kripal attack in their book, any better than they do. “Matter is made up of tiny dead things. … There is no meaning. There is no mind. Evolution is without a goal. It intends nothing. It is going nowhere. The universe is pointless.” This is Kripal’s characterization of it; and he asks, rhetorically, why anyone would want to believe such a depressing vision of reality.
He at once goes on to answer his own question: “those who embrace it do so because they think it is true.”
With good reason, I would add. The materialist paradigm has proven its utility ten thousand times over.
If like many of us I feel compelled as a matter of intellectual honesty to think within this paradigm, I can’t believe Strieber. The events he describes just make no sense. In the scientific paradigm, the world and its happenings may have no meaning or intention–but they’ve got to make sense.
To this we must add a very real and troubling problem. We know Strieber’s experiences only via his claims about them. He himself, assuming (as I do) that he’s sincere in his claims, knows them only through his recollections of them. And these recollections show a distressing capacity to shift over the course of time.
On pages 212-213 of The Super Natural, Strieber tells the story of a strange and unsettling event that happened to him in 1968.
“That year, I was living in London and attending the London School of Film Technique, now called the London Film School. During the summer break, I decided to travel on the Continent. On an overnight train to Florence, I fell in with a girl. We began traveling together. For a couple of weeks in Florence, we had a lovely time, living together in chaste intimacy. But then we went on to Rome, and when we toured St. Peter’s, she became crazy, stalking through the church in raging silence. She scared me. I was living with her in a small pensione near the railroad station. I decided, ‘No more,’ and headed off to the pensione to collect my suitcase and get out of there.
“I went into our tiny room, threw my toothbrush into my suitcase, and started to leave. Then I stopped. Her suitcase was lying at the foot of the bed. I have always been a bit too curious, and I opened it. What I saw shocked me to my core. In it was a nun’s habit and, lying beside it, a dry, flattened owl carcass.
“I didn’t get off the train again until I was in Strasbourg.
“The owls were gathering,” Strieber concludes, and that’s the point of his story: owls have always been mysteriously intertwined with his experiences of “the visitors.” (The morning after his initial abduction experience on December 26, 1985, his initial memory of it was the image of a barn owl staring at him through his window.)
It’s a gripping, goosebump-raising tale, if perhaps a trifle implausible. (When I was 23, as Strieber was in 1968, I would have had the most immense difficulty sharing a “tiny room” with an attractive young woman “in chaste intimacy.”) But contrast it with what’s patently an account of the same incident in Communion, page 135:
“I took the train to Italy, second class. On the train I met a young woman and we began to travel together. At this point my memories become extremely odd. If I do not think about them they seem fine, but when I try to put them together they don’t make sense. I recall that we went to Rome, but that we spent a few days in Florence on the way. … For some reason, I left the young woman in Rome and dashed off on the train with no ticket, traveling almost at random. I ended up in Strasbourg, where I saw the cathedral, then suddenly rushed to the station and grabbed another train, a local, that crept across France, ending in Port Bou on the Spanish border.”
Strieber must have written these words in 1986, 18 years after the incident occurred. “For some reason, I left the young woman in Rome.” After 18 years, he couldn’t remember the reason he left her. Another 29 years later, he remembered it vividly. What are we to say of such a memory?
Compare also the half-comical, half-shivery story that Strieber tells on pages 99-100 of The Super Natural, of how William Morrow & Co. editor Bruce Lee encountered two huge-eyed aliens poring over Communion in a New York City bookstore, with the account he gave of the same episode in his 1988 book Transformation, pages 235-237. (And with Lee’s own version of the incident, in Ed Conroy’s Report on Communion.) “He [Lee] watched them walk off into the afternoon crowd on Madison Avenue,” Strieber writes in The Super Natural. “Nobody seemed in the least concerned that two aliens were strolling down the street in overcoats and hats on a warm afternoon.”
But when he wrote Transformation, Strieber knew perfectly well why they’d be wearing overcoats and hats. The incident didn’t happen on a warm afternoon in 1988, as Strieber remembered it for the 2016 book, but “on a cold, windy Saturday afternoon” in January 1987.
I need to be clear. By questioning the integrity of Strieber’s recollections, I am not questioning his personal integrity. I take that as a given. But if the things that Strieber remembers having undergone are to be used to mount a challenge to the current scientific understanding of how the world works, his memories need to have a solidity that puts them beyond question. They don’t.
Or they don’t always, and that casts a shadow of suspicion on the rest.
And yet …
There’s one monumental fact that persuades me there’s something real and important going on here, that wherever Strieber’s memories come from they tap into something deep within the human psyche. This is the response that Communion evokes in many of those who read it, or simply see its cover.
“I bought Communion in March 1988 on my way to Los Angeles to sing at my cousin’s wedding. I was simply glued to it. There was a strange sense–yet a vague sense of recognition in what you were saying. … I felt drawn to the cover of Communion like a duck to water.”
“Last spring, I saw Communion in the library for the first time. The face on the cover scared me so much that I went home. … I couldn’t understand why I was so afraid of a book.”
“When I walked past the bookstore, it was only out of the corner of my eye that I saw the cover of your book staring out into the mall. I stopped and looked at it, not believing what I was seeing … just how close the depiction of the being on [the] cover was to the real thing.”
“Sitting right there on the kitchen stove [in 1958, when the writer was four], in front of God and all my family and relatives, was this creature that I had never seen before. I remember pointing to the creature on the stove, and by now I had everyone’s attention. Obviously I was the only one who could see it, which only added to the terror. … I never again saw that face staring at me, that is, until I was browsing in a bookstore a few years ago and saw the book Communion, and right there on the cover was that all too familiar face almost laughing at me.”
These are quotes from the book The Communion Letters (1997), co-authored by Strieber and his late wife Anne. They’re extracts, selected by Anne from what Strieber estimates (in The Super Natural) to have been upwards of half a million letters he received between 1987 and 2000. “We stopped counting at two hundred thousand, and that was in 1992. … We have kept around thirty thousand on file.” (The full collection is not currently open to researchers, though I’m given to understand that this may soon change.)
There were others who didn’t write to Strieber, yet whose memories were triggered by Communion and its cover. In his 1994 book Abduction: Human Encounters With Aliens, the distinguished Harvard psychiatry professor John Mack–whose tragic death in 2004 we’re still grieving–tells of an abductee who “saw a face in the craft ‘looking down at me,’ and when he later saw the picture of an alien on the cover of Communion he was shocked, for ‘that’s what I imagined was looking down at me when I was nineteen.’” Nobel-laureate biochemist Kary Mullis tells of seeing Communion in a California bookstore and realizing that this book was somehow, mysteriously, connected with his own bizarre experience a few years earlier in his mountain cabin. He was in the middle of reading it when his adult daughter phoned. “Dad, there’s a book I want you to read. It’s called Communion.“
She too, Mullis’s daughter went on to explain, had undergone something uncanny and inexplicable in that same cabin. “When she saw the book, she had experienced the same sort of vague recognition as I had.”
Very few of the stories related in The Communion Letters pose any particular challenge to 21st-century science. Most give the impression of being unusually vivid and powerful dreams, with a few waking hallucinations mixed in. (In the last of my quotes from that book, the four-year-old witness is surrounded by relatives, none of whom sees anything unusual.) But they attest to the incredible resonance that Strieber’s recollections–his narration of them, the artistic rendering that appears on his cover–have had with an incredible range of men and women, who can’t be dismissed as all insane. (Though some perhaps are, such as the author of the letter on pages 239-242.)
This resonance, unlike the memories themselves, is documented fact.
Grant, if you’re willing, that Strieber remembers events that can’t have happened, involving entities that don’t exist. His memories remain genuinely his, genuinely shared with hundreds of thousands of others. As such they’re vitally important, although in what way they’re important we don’t yet understand.
Attention must be paid.
Of all the merits of this wonderful book Strieber and Jeffrey Kripal have given us, this may be the most fundamental. It pays attention. It invites us to do the same.
by David Halperin
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