A prestigious Harvard psychiatrist, John Edward Mack, thought so. His sudden death leaves behind many mysteries.
If you’re abducted by alien beings, are you physically absent?
This happens to be an important issue for the media-shy people gathered one afternoon last July on the porch of Anne Ramsey Cuvelier’s blue Victorian inn on Narragansett Bay, in Rhode Island, once called “the most elegantly finished house ever built in Newport.” Co-designed in 1869 by a cousin of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s, it has been in Cuvelier’s family since 1895, when her great-grandfather bought it as a summer getaway from his winter home blocks away, just as the Gilded Age cottages of the Vanderbilts and Astors began springing up across the island, redefining palatial extravagance. Still imposing with its butternut woodwork, ebony trimmings, and four-story paneled atrium frescoed in the Pompeian style, the harborside mansion turned B&B seemed a fittingly baroque setting for the group of reluctant guests Cuvelier describes as “not a club anyone wants to belong to.”
She had gathered them to compare experiences as, well, “experiencers,” a term they prefer to “abductees,” and to socialize free of stigma among peers. Cuvelier, an elegant and garrulous woman in her 70s, isn’t one of them. But she remembers as a teen in the 1940s hearing her father, Rear Admiral Donald James Ramsey, a World War II hero, muttering about strange flying craft that hovered and streaked off at unimaginable speed, and she’s been an avid ufologist ever since. “I want to get information out so these people don’t have to suffer,” she says. “Nobody believes you. You go through these frightening experiences, and then you go through the ridicule.”
So, for a week each summer for almost two decades, she’s been turning away paying guests at her family’s Sanford-Covell Villa Marina, on the cobblestoned waterfront in Newport, to host these intimate gatherings of seemingly ordinary folk with extraordinary stories, along with the occasional sympathetic medical professional and scientist and other brave or foolhardy souls not afraid to be labeled nuts for indulging a fascination with the mystery. I had been invited as a journalist with a special interest who has been talking to some of them for several years.
Perched on a wicker settee was Linda Cortile, a mythic figure in the canons of abduction literature, whom I’d come to know by her real name, Linda Napolitano. A stylish young grandmother in a green T-shirt, black shorts, and a charcoal baseball cap, she had agreed to meet me months before at Manhattan’s South Street Seaport to point at her 12th-floor window overlooking the Brooklyn Bridge, where, she says, one night in 1989 three small beings levitated her “like an angel” into a hovering craft in view of horrified witnesses, including, it was said, a mysterious world figure who might have been abducted with her. “If I was hallucinating,” she told me, “then the witnesses saw my hallucination. That sounds crazier than the whole abduction phenomenon.”
The short-haired Florida woman in white capris and a fuchsia flowered blouse was, like Cuvelier, not herself an abductee but the niece of two and the co-author of a book on the first widely publicized and most famous abduction case of all. Kathleen Marden, the director of abduction research for the Mutual UFO Network, or MUFON, one of the oldest and largest U.F.O.-investigating groups, was 13 in 1961, when her aunt and uncle Betty and Barney Hill returned from a trip through the White Mountains of New Hampshire with the stupefying tale of having been chased by a giant flying disc that hovered over the treetops. They said they had stopped for a look with binoculars, spotted humanoid figures in the craft and, overcome with terror, sped away with their car suddenly enveloped in buzzing vibrations. They reached home inexplicably hours late and afterward recovered memories of having been taken into the ship and subjected to frightening medical probes. Their car showed some peculiar markings, and Betty’s dress had been ripped, the zipper torn. She remembered that the aliens had fumbled with her zipper before disrobing her for a pregnancy test with a needle in her navel. I was surprised to hear from Marden (but confirmed it) that the garment is preserved at the University of New Hampshire, in Durham.
Also present was Barbara Lamb, a tanned and gold-coiffed psychotherapist and family counselor from Claremont, California, who studies crop circles, the enigmatic patterns left in fields, often in England, and practices regression therapy, treating personality disorders by taking people back to previous lives. She told me what she remembered happened to her about seven years earlier: “I was walking through my home and there was standing this reptilian being. It was three in the afternoon. I was alert and awake. I was startled somebody was there.” Ordinarily, Lamb said, she is repulsed by snakes and lizards, “but he was radiating such a nice feeling. I went right over and had my hand out. He was taller than I, this close to me”—she held her hands a foot apart—“with yellow reptile eyes. Then he was suddenly gone.” She said she had recalled more of the encounter when a colleague put her through hypnotic regression. “He said telepathically, ‘Ha, Barbara, good, good. Now you know that we are actually real. We do exist and have contacts with certain people.’”
Chatting with this group were two astrophysicists from a leading institution and the director of the Harvard-affiliated McLean Hospital Southeast. I was intrigued by these eminent outsiders, who may have been risking their careers.
But I was interested most of all in the dead man who remained an icon to many on the porch. John Edward Mack, a Pulitzer Prize–winning biographer and Harvard Medical School psychiatrist, spent years trying to fathom their stories and reached an astonishing conclusion: they were telling the truth. That is, they were not insane or deluded; in some unknown space/time dimension, something real had actually happened to them—not that Mack could explain just what or how. But weeks after attending the 2004 Newport gathering, days before his 75th birthday, he looked the wrong way down a London street and stepped in front of a drunk driver.
Aside from those of his circle and university colleagues, Mack is scarcely known today. But 20 years ago, when he burst onto the scene as the Harvard professor who believed in alien abduction, he was probably the most famous, or infamous, academic in America, “the most important scientist ever to dare to admit the truth about the abduction phenomenon,” in the words of Whitley Strieber, whose best-selling memoir, Communion, introduced millions of Americans to alien encounters.
Tall, impulsive, and magnetic to women and men, Mack was everywhere, or so it seemed—on Oprah and Nova; on the best-seller lists; in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, and Time; at his Laurance S. Rockefeller–supported Program for Extraordinary Experience Research; in scholarly journals, documentaries, poems, theater pieces, and Roz Chast cartoons. And then suddenly he was under investigation at Harvard, the target of a grueling inquisition. “I didn’t think people would believe me,” Mack had confided to his longtime assistant, Leslie Hansen, who was in Newport last July. “But I didn’t think they’d get so mad.” In the end he achieved a measure of vindication, but his freakish demise denied him a final reckoning in an unpublished manuscript he saw as his cri de coeur against scientific materialism and “ontological fascism.”
He left behind another unpublished manuscript, with another mystery he was seeking to unravel, a secret as dark as death itself. And now his interrupted journey may be heading to the big screen. After a four-year negotiation, the film and television rights to Mack’s story were granted by the Mack family to MakeMagic Productions, which has partnered with Robert Redford’s Wildwood Enterprises, and a major feature film is currently in development. But two decades after Mack took alien abduction from the pages of the National Enquirer to the hallowed halls of Harvard, the question remains: why would a pillar of the psychiatric establishment at America’s oldest university court professional suicide to champion the most ridiculed and tormented outcasts of society?
On Cuvelier’s porch, a Vermont shopkeeper who wanted to be known as “Nona”—the way Mack identified her in Passport to the Cosmos, his 1999 follow-up to Abduction—remembered filling 300 pages with “abduction recollections,” which Mack struggled to accept as real. Had she actually traveled on shafts of crystalline light? “John, I know when I’m physically gone,” she remembered replying. “I know when I’m going through a wall.” Mack had had one nagging disappointment, Nona recalled. He had never undergone an abduction, or even spied a U.F.O. Why can’t I see one?, he wondered. Nona would twit him. “Probably because you’re not patient enough, John.”
‘I was raised as the strictest of materialists,” Mack told the writer C. D. B. Bryan. “I believed we were kind of alone in this meaningless universe, on this sometimes verdant rock with these animals and plants around, and we were here to make the best of it, and when we’re dead, we’re dead.” A great-grandfather of his had pioneered the use of anesthetics in eye surgery, and a great-uncle had been one of the first Jewish professors at Harvard Medical School. His father, Edward, was a noted literary biographer and scholar at the City College of New York who had remarried a widow with a young daughter after his wife died of peritonitis eight months after John was born. John’s socially prominent stepmother, Ruth Prince, was an eminent feminist economist and New Dealer whose first husband, a great-grandson of the founder of Gimbels department store, had jumped or fallen from the 16th floor of the Yale Club as the Great Depression deepened.
Mack graduated cum laude from Harvard Medical School and, while only a resident, founded one of the nation’s first outpatient hospitals. He took his social-worker bride, Sally, to an Air Force posting in Japan and, once home, introduced psychiatric services to incarcerated youths and impoverished nursery schoolers. He started the first psychiatric department at Cambridge hospital, winning a prize for a study of childhood nightmares, a field he would explore further in his first book, Nightmares and Human Conflict. His second book, a groundbreaking psychological study of Lawrence of Arabia, A Prince of Our Disorder: The Life of T. E. Lawrence, won the Pulitzer Prize for biography in 1977. He traveled in the Middle East, lecturing on the Arab-Israeli conflict and going on “bomb runs,” traveling from city to city warning what would happen if a one-mega-ton bomb exploded overhead, and getting arrested with his family at nuclear-test sites. He cornered Dr. Edward Teller, the father of the H-bomb then pressing President Reagan for a Star Wars nuclear-weapons shield in space. Teller denounced peacenik physicians and told Mack: “If you are not in the pay of the Kremlin, you’re even more of a fool.” After the cold war ended, Mack studied consciousness expansion with Stanislav Grof, a Czech-born psychoanalyst who had experimented with L.S.D. Grof and his wife, Christina, had developed a breathing discipline called Holotropic Breathwork to induce an expanded state of consciousness. In one breathwork session with Russians at California’s Esalen Institute, Mack recounted that he became, “a Russian-father in the 16th century whose four-year-old son was being decapitated by Mongol hordes.’’ He owed a lot to the Grofs, Mack later said. “They put a hole in my psyche, and the U.F.O.’s flew in.”
They flew in with a man named Budd Hopkins.
It was January 10, 1990, Mack recalled, “one of those dates you remember that mark a time when everything in your life changes.” A woman he had met at the Grofs’ introduced him to Hopkins, a nationally known New York Abstract Expressionist and intimate of Willem DeKooning, Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Franz Kline, and Robert Motherwell, whose works hung with his in the permanent collections of the Museum of Modern Art, the Guggenheim, and the Whitney. According to Hopkins, he had spotted a U.F.O. on Cape Cod in 1964, and he went on to investigate the case of a badly shaken neighbor who had reported seeing a spaceship with nine or ten small beings land in a park near Fort Lee, New Jersey. Hopkins wrote a story about it for The Village Voice that was picked up by Cosmopolitan. He was soon being thronged by abductees, whom he examined under hypnosis, and he would win renown as the father of the alien-abduction movement, starting with his book Missing Time, in 1981, and its 1987 sequel, Intruders: The Incredible Visitations at Copley Woods.
Hopkins was then beginning his investigation of the so-called Brooklyn Bridge U.F.O. abduction of the woman he called Linda Cortile, which would become his third book, Witnessed, in 1996. It would involve two security guards for an international figure Hopkins never named but believed to be U.N. secretary-general Javier Pérez de Cuéllar, who, Hopkins would conclude, appeared to have been abducted with her. (I had a local reporter in Lima ask the 92-year-old retired Peruvian diplomat directly about the matter in April 2012. He responded enigmatically, saying, “I’m not interested in those types of curiosities.” Asked if he recalled being questioned by Hopkins, Pérez de Cuéllar, who was in the process of updating his 1997 memoirs, said, “I don’t remember, but it is possible. I can’t assure it nor deny it. My memory at this age fails me.”)
Hopkins gave Mack a box of letters from people reacting to aliens. “I think most of these people are perfectly sane, with real experiences,” Hopkins recalled telling Mack when I visited him in his art-filled Chelsea town house shortly before his death of cancer at 80, in August 2011. But, he added, Mack could decide for himself. He was the doctor.
“Nothing in my nearly 40 years of familiarity with psychiatry prepared me,” Mack later wrote in his 1994 best-seller, Abduction: Human Encounters with Aliens. He had always assumed that anyone claiming to have been abducted by aliens was crazy, along with those who took them seriously. But here were people—students, homemakers, secretaries, writers, businesspeople, computer technicians, musicians, psychologists, a prison guard, an acupuncturist, a social worker, a gas-station attendant—reporting experiences that Mack could not begin to fathom, things, he reflected, that by all notions of reality “simply could not be.”
As he later said, “These individuals reported being taken against their wills sometimes through the walls of their houses, and subjected to elaborate intrusive procedures which appeared to have a reproductive purpose. In a few cases they were actually observed by independent witnesses to be physically absent during the time of the abduction. These people suffered from no obvious psychiatric disorder, except the effects of traumatic experience, and were reporting with powerful emotion what to them were utterly real experiences. Furthermore these experiences were sometimes associated with UFO sightings by friends, family members, or others in the community, including media reporters and journalists, and frequently left physical traces on the individuals’ bodies, such as cuts and small ulcers that would tend to heal rapidly and followed no apparent psychodynamically identifiable pattern as do, for example, religious stigmata. In short, I was dealing with a phenomenon that I felt could not be explained psychiatrically, yet was simply not possible within the framework of the Western scientific worldview.”
With the new millennium, Mack began showing up at Newport, Leslie Hansen remembered. She had been hired to help Mack transcribe recordings of his sessions, and she came to believe in the process that she had buried her own troubling childhood memories of aliens at her bedside. Mack’s household was in turmoil. Sally was unhappy with Mack’s treatment sessions in the house, especially the screams. Mack was also deeply in love with his research associate, Dominique Callimanopulos, the glamorous daughter of the Greek shipping tycoon who owned Hellenic Lines. “John had a lot going on, but he was kind of like a child,” Hansen recalled. “He kind of regarded every person as a fresh slate.” And, she added, “he was very attractive.” Hansen had heard about Cuvelier’s gatherings, and she invited him to attend. Mack was dubious. “What’s this going to cost me?,” he asked. Hansen laughed. “John,” she said, “you’re a guest.”
Two years after meeting Hopkins, Mack was working with dozens of experiencers, and one day he told incredulous fellow psychiatrists at Cambridge Hospital about alien abduction. In 1992 he and David E. Pritchard, a pioneering physicist in atom optics at M.I.T., got that institution to open its doors to a revolutionary alien-abduction conference. Mack presented his findings, as did Hopkins and David M. Jacobs, an associate professor of history at Temple University who was teaching the nation’s only fully accredited college course on U.F.O.’s, and who had just published a provocative book detailing alien encounters, called Secret Life. C. D. B. Bryan, the author of the best-seller Friendly Fire, was among a few select writers invited, for another book, Close Encounters of the Fourth Kind, which Knopf would publish in 1995.
“If what these abductees are saying is happening to them isn’t happening,” Mack demanded, “what is?”
Conferees argued over the validity of a poll done by the Roper Organization for the hotel and aerospace mogul and U.F.O. advocate Robert T. Bigelow that sought for the first time to quantify alien abduction in America. Because few were likely to admit to being an abductee, the pollsters asked the 5,947 respondents if they had ever experienced five key abduction-type symptoms: waking up paralyzed with the sense of a strange presence or person in the room, missing time, feeling a sensation of flying, seeing balls of light in the room, and finding puzzling scars. (A trick question asked if “Trondant” held any secret meaning for them. Anyone who answered yes to the nonsense word was eliminated as unreliable.) Two percent of the respondents, or 119 people, acknowledged at least four of the five experiences, which Roper said translated to 3.7 million adult Americans. At a minimum, Hopkins reported, the results suggested that 560,000 adult Americans might be abductees.
The beings didn’t have to come from outer space, Mack theorized, maybe just a parallel universe. But by the time he wrote Abduction, he said his cases had “amply corroborated” the work of Hopkins and Jacobs, “namely that the abduction phenomenon is in some central way involved in a breeding program that results in the creation of alien/human hybrid offspring.” He concluded furthermore that the aliens were carrying warnings about dangers to the planet; almost all of his abductees emerged with “a commitment to changing their relationship to the earth.”
Some respected colleagues, asked to comment on his manuscript, were dismayed. Anyone could espouse alien abduction, but Mack was a renowned Harvard professor. “Can I believe any of this?,” wrote the editor of a psychiatry journal who turned down publication even though all of the peer reviewers urged it. An eminent Harvard ethicist and philosopher responded: “Clearly you cannot easily go ahead with publication so long as you do not have more incontrovertible evidence.” Even Hopkins called Mack “gullible.”
Indeed, Mack soon stepped into a minefield, adding to his circle of abductees a 37-year-old Boston writer who intrigued him with a bizarre tale of being taken into a spaceship with Nikita Khrushchev and President John F. Kennedy during the Cuban missile crisis. Then, saying she was a double agent out to expose Mack’s U.F.O. cult, the woman, Donna Bassett, supplied tapes of her sessions to Time, which ambushed Mack with the hoax, calling him “The Man from Outer Space.” Mack countered that Bassett had a troubled history at his office, but the betrayal stung. The Boston Globe followed up with a gleeful headline: ALIENS LAND AT HARVARD!
Undaunted, Mack appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show with five of his lucid, articulate, and normal-acting abductees. “He believes them when they say they have been on the aliens’ spaceships,” declared Oprah. “And Dr. Mack believes them, he says, when they say that they have had children with aliens.” Mack put it differently. “Every other culture in history except this one, in the history of the human race, has believed there were other entities, other intelligences in the universe,” he said. “Why are we so goofy about this? Why do we treat people like they’re crazy, humiliate them, if they’re experiencing some other intelligence?”
Harvard had had enough. In June 1994 it convened a confidential inquest under a former editor of The New England Journal of Medicine, Professor Emeritus Arnold Relman. “If these stories are believed as literal factual accounts,” Relman wrote Mack, “they would contradict virtually all of the basic laws of physics, chemistry and biology on which modern science depends.” Some went further, accusing Mack of ushering in a new dark age of superstition and magic.
Mack recruited a potent legal team: Daniel P. Sheehan, of the Christic Institute, who had helped to uncover the Iran-Contra drugs-for-arms deals of the Reagan administration and had represented Karen Silkwood’s family in their successful lawsuit against the Kerr-McGee nuclear power plant, and Roderick “Eric” MacLeish, former general counsel of the Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, who was to achieve fame for exposing sexual abuse by Catholic priests in Boston.
Experiencers who had appeared on Oprah with Mack testified for him. Peter Faust, an acupuncturist in his 30s, told of having been recognized on a spaceship by another abductee and of possibly having been an alien himself in a previous lifetime.
And then, as if scripted for dramatic timing, BBC journalist Tim Leach in Zimbabwe called Mack’s office about a flurry of U.F.O. sightings. Mack and his research partner Callimanopulos flew off to investigate a report that on September 14, 1994, a large, saucer-shaped spacecraft and several smaller craft had landed or hovered near a schoolyard in Ruwa, 40 miles northeast of Harare.
The children told Mack and Callimanopulos on tape that the beings had large heads, two holes for nostrils, a slit for a mouth or no mouth at all, and long black hair, and were dressed in dark, single-piece suits. “I think it’s about something that’s going to happen,” said one little girl. “What I thought was maybe the world’s going to end. They were telling us the world’s going to end.”
“I don’t even know. It just popped up in my head. He never said anything. He talked just with his eyes. It was just the face and the eyes. They looked horrible.”
By mid-December 1994, with Mack back in Cambridge, the Harvard committee accused him of failing to do systematic evaluations to rule out psychiatric disorders, putting “persistent pressure” on his experiencers to convince them they had actually been abducted by aliens, and preventing them from obtaining the help they really needed. Mack countered with a fervent rebuttal.
As the inquiry hit the press, Harvard Law School professor Alan Dershowitz wrote an op-ed picked up by The Washington Post and The Harvard Crimson: “Will the next professor who is thinking about an unconventional research project be deterred by the prospect of having to hire a lawyer to defend his ideas?”
When the final report came out, Mack was dumbfounded. In a short statement, Harvard Medical School cautioned him “not, in any way, to violate the high standards for the conduct of clinical practice and clinical investigation that have been the hallmarks of this Faculty.” But Harvard “reaffirmed Dr. Mack’s academic freedom to study what he wishes and to state his opinions without impediment. Dr. Mack remains a member in good standing of the Harvard Faculty of Medicine.”
Mack had prevailed, but he realized in retrospect that he had made a fateful error. As he wrote nearly a decade later in a manuscript he was seeking to publish as his masterwork, “When Worldviews Collide”: “I can see now that I had to a large extent created my problem with the literalness that I had treated the encounter phenomenon in the 1994 book. It is possible that in some cases people are taken bodily into spacecraft. However, the question is more subtle and complex.”
Whether space aliens were visiting, what planet they came from, and whether they were friendly to humans seemed increasingly less important than what such spiritual encounters revealed about the cosmos, Mack wrote. The Western materialist worldview was closed to such mysteries. But even without physical proof of the encounters, scientific investigation could proceed through study of the abductees themselves. What was needed, Mack argued, was a new “Science of Human Experience” stressing “the value of the authentic Witness.”
In any case, the aliens’ abduction phase may have ended, Mack and his associates theorized. Had whatever hybrid-breeding program existed been accomplished? What was the next step? The emergence of aliens among us? How would humanity react?
On Cuvelier’s porch in Newport, a staff astronomer at a renowned astrophysics center, in a short-sleeved sport shirt and cargo shorts, explained what he was doing at a gathering of abductees. “I don’t mix the two,” he said. “As a scientist, I would say we don’t have enough data.” So far, he said, “it’s hearsay: somebody says they saw a light, somebody is telling a story what they saw.” But that didn’t mean, the astronomer added, that the stories weren’t interesting. He was joined soon by a towering, bullet-headed friend of Mack’s who had arrived straight from McLean Hospital Southeast, a psychiatric facility affiliated with Harvard Medical School, where he is the medical director. Jeffrey D. Rediger, who also holds a master-of-divinity degree, is no stranger to anomalous experiences. A decade ago in Brazil, where he had gone to study the claims of a mystical healer called John of God, Rediger said, he had witnessed surgeries without instruments and experienced, on his own chest, a sudden episode of spontaneous bleeding from an unexplained incision that quickly healed.
Rudolph Schild, a noted astrophysicist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics who had spoken up for Mack at the Harvard inquest, joined the group. I had talked to him several times about one of Mack’s friends and veteran experiencers, a woman named Karin Austin, who, some two decades ago, recalled somehow arriving at a clearing in a forest, where she and other humans had been presented with their “hybrid” children. Schild had interviewed Austin and was struck by her uncanny familiarity with the double suns orbiting one another in the Orion belt. How, he marveled, was she able to give such accurate descriptions of seasonal changes particular to a binary system?
With the new millennium, Mack’s interest had shifted to a new mystery, the survival of consciousness, particularly the story of his friends Elisabeth Targ, a psychiatrist with an interest in the paranormal, and her husband, Mark Comings, a theoretical physicist specializing in alternative energy. Targ’s grandfather William, as editor in chief of G. P. Putnam’s, had published The Godfather, and her father, Russell, an inventor of the laser, conducted top-secret extrasensory experiments for the C.I.A. in “remote viewing,” the ability to visualize objects thousands of miles away. Elisabeth’s mother, Joan, was the sister of chess grandmaster Bobby Fischer and had taught her little brother the game of chess. Elisabeth was also a prodigy, with unusual mental powers. As a psychiatrist, she practiced distant healing on AIDS patients, and, later, on patients with rare brain tumors, glioblastomas. Then, in a cruel twist of fate, she contracted the same type of cancer and, despite her practice of the non-traditional prayer therapies she championed, died. She was only 40. But now her husband was telling Mack that she was sending him messages of love from beyond the grave. Mack was writing a book about it, Elisabeth and Mark Before and After Death: The Power of a Field of Love. He sent the proposal off to his literary agent with a note: “There is a bit of urgency about this.” In a few days he would be leaving for London to deliver a lecture on his idol, T. E. Lawrence, killed at 46 in a motorcycle accident in England in 1935.
In Newport with the other experiencers, a Tom Hanks look-alike who wanted to be known as “Scott,” the way Mack referred to him in Abduction, remembered their last meeting at Cuvelier’s villa, in the summer of 2004. Mack was excited about his new book, on the survival of consciousness. Scott confessed his own fear of death. Mack reassured him. “You never know when it will be your time,” he said. “We could all go at any time. I could walk out on the street and get hit by a car.”
Raymond Czechowski, a 50-year-old computer technician, had spent three-and-a-half hours at the Royal British Legion, a military charity in north London, planning the latest poppy drive to aid the troops, in the course of which he downed five or six pints of shandy—beer mixed with lemonade and ice. Then, on that mild, clear Monday night of September 27, 2004, he pointed his silver Peugeot north and started driving home.
Just ahead, shortly after 11 P.M., in the north London suburb of Barnet, John Mack climbed wearily out of the Underground station at Totteridge and Whetstone. His talk had gone well, and many in the audience had brought copies of his Lawrence biography, which they asked him to sign. He had also spoken about the death of his father, Edward Mack, who, 31 years before, almost to the day, had been driving home with the groceries to their summer home in Thetford, Vermont, when his car collided with a truck. In London, Mack was staying with a family friend, Veronica Keen, a widow who told him she had been receiving messages from her deceased husband—more evidence, Mack thought, of survival of consciousness. She had said to call her from the station and she would pick him up, but Mack decided to walk. He crossed a divider and stepped into the busy street. His American instinct was to look to the left.
Czechowski hit the brakes, but too late. Mack’s body flew into the air, shattering the Peugeot’s windshield before traveling over the roof and landing heavily on the ground. “He just stepped there, bang,” Czechowski told the police, who registered his alcohol level at well over the limit.
Mack never regained consciousness. From a crumpled paper with an address on it found in his pocket, the police learned his destination and his identity.
Keen, who sat with Mack’s body at the morgue, said he materialized and told her, “It was as if I was touched with a feather. I did not feel a thing. I was given a choice: should I go or should I stay? I looked down at my broken body and decided to go.”
At Mack’s funeral, many recalled one of his favorite quotes, from Rilke’s Letter to a Young Poet (as translated by Stephen Mitchell): “That is at bottom the only courage that is demanded of us: to have courage for the most strange, the most singular and the most inexplicable that we may encounter. That mankind has in this sense been cowardly has done life endless harm; the experiences that are called ‘visions,’ the whole so-called ‘spirit-world,’ death, all those things that are so closely akin to us, have by daily parrying been so crowded out of life that the senses with which we could have grasped them are atrophied. To say nothing of God.”
Barbara Lamb and other friends also reported visitations.
Roberta Colasanti, one of Mack’s research associates, said he communicated to her a cryptic message on the abductions they had been studying: “It’s not what we thought.” Colasanti waited breathlessly for the solution to the mystery, but it didn’t come. Mack promised to return with more information. So far he hasn’t.
Ralph Blumenthal worked for The New York Times from 1964 to 2009 as an investigative reporter; foreign correspondent in Germany, Vietnam, and Cambodia; Texas bureau chief; and arts writer. In 1993, he led the team covering the truck bombing of the World Trade Center, which won the paper a Pulitzer Prize for spot reporting. In 2009, he broke the story of the proposed mosque and Islamic cultural center two blocks from Ground Zero. A Guggenheim fellow, he is the author of four nonfiction books on organized crime and cultural history and is currently a distinguished lecturer in journalism at Baruch College of the City University of New York. He lives in Manhattan with his wife, Deborah, a writer of children’s books and novels. They have two daughters. No one in the family, so far as is known, has ever been abducted by aliens. ralphblumenthal.com