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Trauma, Transformation and Cosmic Awareness: Review of John E. Mack's 'Passport to the Cosmos'

Albert A. Harrison, Ph.D., University of California, Davis

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Summary: Psychiatrist John Mack's Passport to the Cosmos takes a fresh look at the alien abduction experience. This relatively brief, organized and readable work departs in significant ways from Mack's earlier Abductions: Human Encounters with Aliens (Crown, 1994) which was organized around case histories.

Psychiatrist John Mack's Passport to the Cosmos takes a fresh look at the alien abduction experience. This relatively brief, organized and readable work departs in significant ways from Mack's earlier Abductions: Human Encounters with Aliens (Crown, 1994) which was organized around case histories. Although Passport to the Cosmos introduces new case material, most of this built into topical chapters and presented to illustrate and support the author's thesis. The topical organization, the impressive use of cross-cultural material and citations of very recent references are among the features that set this apart from Mack's earlier work.

If we take alien abduction reports at face value, then countless humans have been transported through walls or ceilings to destinations where they are examined and sexually abused (if not impregnated) by humanoids, shown visions of a calamitous future Earth. Some report repeated abductions and establishing continuing relationships with their abductors. Over time these experiencers gain a new perspective on the cosmos, become more aware and socially concerned, and undergo self-actualization or personal growth.

Many elements in abduction reports hint that abductees have come into contact with advanced beings from other worlds. Yet, as Mack points out, neither the level of physical evidence or corroborative testimony satisfies scientific criteria. Even if we ignore the efforts of the media to publicize the phenomena and make the assumption that individual abduction reports are independent and convergent, we cannot take them as evidence of life on other worlds, at least not the physical worlds familiar to the astronomers, physicists, and biologists. Yet, to ignore these reports because they are absurd and not supported by material evidence would be a mistake. Such reports may tell us little about life on other worlds, but they do tell us much about our culture and psychology, and about the emerging relationship between humans and the cosmos.

Rather than attempting to establish the "reality" of alien abductions, Mack centers on the powerful nature of the abduction experience. He urges readers to suspend preconception and disbelief, consider the reports in their entirety, and accompany him on a journey to explore common themes. In this book Mack adopts a remarkable cross-cultural perspective which shed much light on diverse and long-standing beliefs in star people. This breaks important new ground and helps him develop a comprehensive framework for organizing and interpreting abduction reports.

Part I offers an introductory overview of the abduction experience, discusses methodological issues, and grapples with the "reality" of such reports. It also includes a chapter on the abduction experience, which suggests to this reader a tremendous gulf between people who undergo this powerful experience (and those who view the experiencers' powerful emotions) and people who only read about it. Part I also includes a brief synopsis of the major cases that appear repeatedly throughout the text. These synopses are a useful orientation to the diversity of people who report experiences and a welcome reference section for readers who are interested in tracking who-said-what.

Part II discusses the increased environmental awareness that often accompanies the experience, and the recurrent and seemingly absurd notion of human-alien breeding. Such topics have been discussed before, but placing these reports within a cross-cultural framework and attempting to evaluate them evenhandedly are welcome twists.

Although cross-cultural material is spread throughout the entire book, Part III begins with a focused introduction to the anthropological dimensions of belief in life on other worlds and the relationship between human and non-human entities. In this chapter, and in three subsequent chapters that develop case histories, Mack identifies the threads that bind the worldviews and experiences of "mainstream" and indigenous societies. These chapters remind us of the infinite diversity and complexity of the human personality and the immense amounts that we can learn from different cultures.

Part IV emphasizes the psychological and cultural impact of the abduction experience. Of particular interest is how such stressful, indeed traumatic experiences are transformed into an increased awareness of the cosmos and personal growth. This reader came away doubting that a mish-mash of simple psychological principles — the distortion of memory especially under hypnosis, therapist or interviewer expectations, transference, and social support — provide a satisfactory explanation of the overall pattern or Gestalt of abduction reports. Still, mundane and well-known psychological principles probably contribute, and a failure to address this head-on is a weakness in a book by a psychiatrist.

Several authors, including Mack, have noted similarities between near death experiences and alien abduction reports and an exploration of still other types of experiences may provide further insights. Of particular interest to this reviewer are experiences that cause people to look beyond themselves, develop a heightened appreciation for the cosmos, and in the course of this develop a new sense of purpose and meaning in life. For example, viewing the Earth from afar, some astronauts and cosmonauts undergo transcendent "overview effects," which include a new appreciation of pattern and beauty in the nature, feelings of wonder and awe, and a sense of affinity with something much greater than themselves. Appreciating Earth from afar also increases appreciation for our planet's delicate ecology. Are there still other experiences scientific insights, religious episodes, traumatic events that alter worldviews, expand awareness of the grandeur of nature, and attach new meaning to the Universe? If so, what ties these disparate experiences together and why does it seem that cosmic awareness is increasing at this particular time?

In Passport to the Cosmos, Dr. Mack strives valiantly to come to grips with phenomena that do not seem to fall squarely within either the material or spiritual worlds. He follows two separate paths. First, he reviews physical evidence and corroborative testimony, and notes that whereas there is enough of this evidence to maintain the support of believers it is woefully inadequate to convince skeptics. Second, he discusses alternative models of reality. This is likely to meet with mixed reactions. Some readers are likely to see this material as a "retreat into metaphysics" brought about by the failure of the "evidence" to withstand the scrutiny of physical scientists, whereas others will see this as a courageous effort to break free of the dominant narrow scientific paradigm. Ultimately, there must be some way to prove, or disprove, new conceptions of reality.

Passport to the Cosmos may not fully satisfy readers who take abduction reports as a sign that extraterrestrials have arrived on Earth, or their polar opposites who attribute all such reports to a combination of ignorance, mental health problems, or fraud. It offers no final answers, but largely because of its conspicuous attempts to be even handed and the introduction of cross-cultural material it breaks new ground. Passport to the Cosmos does not come with a free round trip ticket to Alpha Centauri, but it does shed some light on how we see ourselves in the universe. All things considered, this reviewer found John Mack's most recent book a credible work on an incredible topic and worth reading.

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John Mack, M.D.