"What Happened?"

Deconstructing Memories of Alien Abduction

How to Cite

Dodd, A. (1998). "What Happened?": Deconstructing Memories of Alien Abduction. M/C Journal, 1(2). https://doi.org/10.5204/mcj.1706
Vol. 1 No. 2 (1998): Memory
Published 1998-08-01

"And then I ask the question, 'How long have you been doing this?' And it says, 'That knowledge isn't given to you.' And I say, 'Jesus Christ, will you answer a question for the love of God? How long have you been doing this, and stop with those stupid answers.' I'm so pissed off at it. And it sort of just smiles and doesn't answer. And I say, 'Have you been doing this forever?' I don't think it understands forever. And then I ask what it's doing. 'What are you doing?' It wants me to give it my mind, and then it will show me what it's doing. I say, 'No dice, I don't care that much. No thanks, I'm not interested.' It says, 'Why are you afraid? Why are you worried? Don't be afraid.' All the same bullshit that it always wants to give you." -- Abductee 'Karen Morgan', interviewed in David Jacobs's Secret Life

"We should learn to live by learning how not to make conversation with the ghost but how to talk with him, with her, how to let them speak or how to give them back speech, even if it is in oneself, in the other, in the other in oneself: they are always there, spectres, even if they do not exist, even if they are no longer, even if they are not yet." -- Jacques Derrida, Spectres of Marx

Hundreds of people from all around the world are reporting being abducted by apparently alien beings, taken aboard a UFO or into a profoundly unfamiliar environment, and subjected to bizarre reproductive procedures and quasi-medical examinations. It's usually called alien abduction, and it's becoming increasingly common in western society. Official culture (academics, government, scientific institutions, etc.) have been very slow to acknowledge that anything at all is happening, overlooking the clear implication that even if a lot of people aren't reporting actual experience, that a lot of people believe they are reporting actual experience. The source of this apparent lack of official interest may lie in the undesirability of transgressing the superficial sensationalism that belies the phenomenon's apparent complexity. But what seems unavoidable is the implication that alien abduction represents an unprecedented sociological and psychological phenomenon.

Predominantly obfuscating investigation of alien abduction is the absence of a clear mode of approach. The most obvious (and common) place to begin is with the question "is alien abduction real?" -- which quickly proves unproductive, essentially because its premises aren't appropriate. Firstly, it assumes that current definitions of 'real' are both stable and applicable to a hypothetically alien phenomenon. Alien abduction is also commonly deemed impossible a priori; in other words, it's not happening because we 'know' it can't. (Note: this premise embarrassed many French astronomers who for decades, despite villagers' reports, maintained that 'rocks could not fall from the sky'. We now know, despite the astronomers' arrogance, that meteorites do exist.) This is an effect of the dominant ontology -- literally, a reality constructed and reinforced by a minority of powerful members of a culture. Phenomena which threaten the most basic ontological, epistemological and existential premises of this minority are marginalised as tabloid, suppressed, or simply ignored in its hegemonic efforts to maintain power.

Secondly, asking if alien abduction is real bypasses the highly problematic trait that connects virtually all abduction cases: the bulk of evidence is in the form of abductees' memories. Roughly 30% of abductions are remembered without the use of hypnosis, and 70% are 'recovered' memories of 'missing time'. (McLeod et al. 156) Most abduction experiences seem to involve complete, or almost complete, erasure of memory of the event. (see Hopkins, Missing Time). Memory itself thus becomes heavily problematised, and no longer reliable. Abduction (if we take any notice of it) causes us to doubt the reality of events that our memories are capable of providing for our perusal, since abductees remember, often very clearly, events which as a culture we generally consider impossible. Conversely, and most provocatively, alien abduction causes us to question the assumed fantasy of events that our memories contain. Vivid dreams are potential abduction experiences. As a society we may stubbornly assume the role of the French astronomers and tell abductees that they are not remembering experience, that their memories are 'false' or have been implanted by hypnotists predisposed to the alien hypothesis. But the abductees, and their memories, do not go away.

A conceptualisation of memory that is capable of dealing with alien abduction phenomena should begin by observing that the memorial is intimately linked with the imaginative. It is the retained impression of experience, which is a convergence of imagination (creative thought) and perception (reception of sensory stimuli). Without memory, without the ability to recognise patterns, 'experience' -- meaningful perception -- would not be possible. Experience then, upon which we rely totally to formulate reality, is not possible without memory and imagination. Reality does influence imagination, and vice versa. But imagination is more powerful at the end of the day, since it is always imagination that changes reality. Put simply, discovery is invention. The earth only orbits the sun because enough people imagine (or think or believe) that it does. It only became possible to imagine that the earth orbits the sun, as opposed to the sun orbiting the earth, because of changes that occurred within the culture. Knowledge, despite its claims of universality, is always cultural. The experiences that produce knowledge are always never more than what a culture will allow, can allow. Cultural practice, including the production of knowledge, is and inevitably must be, a restrictive practice.

The emergence of postmodern thought is essentially what has allowed an alien abduction phenomenon to begin an existence. Conceptual boundaries which have traditionally precluded such a phenomenon are now being attacked and acknowledged as cultural and therefore subject to change. Postmodern society recognises and appreciates the plasticity and constant change of reality and knowledge, and stresses the priority of concrete experience over fixed abstract principles (Tarnas 395). At its deepest level, alien abduction exposes the arbitrary nature of the reality/non-reality duality, since abduction experiences seem to involve something from non-reality/immateriality (alien beings that walk through walls) entering reality/materiality (its aftereffects are observed in the physical world).

Importantly, people are affected not so much by their experience of alien abduction (which are usually forgotten), but by their memories of alien abduction. John E. Mack suggests as a response to this that our use of familiar words like 'happening', 'occurred' and 'real' will themselves have to be thought of differently, and less literally (405). What would have once been interpreted as an inclination towards fantasy, realistic dreams or simply insanity now has the potential to become something more. The memories that so many people are now reporting are not seen as merely memories of dreams, memories of fantasies or memories of episodes of insanity. They are seen as memories of experiences that bridge an objective/subjective dichotomy. They are memories of events that persistently evade complete detection and leave only enough traces in the physical world -- the odd anomalous scar or lesion, and distraught abductees -- to imply that something is happening. But the aliens never land on the White House lawn.

Most significantly of all, alien abduction particularly involves that ambiguous bridge between reality and non-reality, perception and imagination -- memory. Memory is the true realm of alien abduction, and we will be forever frustrated if we try to transfer it neatly into other conceptual realms such as 'reality' or 'non-reality', 'perception' or 'imagination'. Alien abduction, like memory, just won't fit into them. It is the hybrid of perception and imagination, the convergence of reality and non-reality, resulting from the privileging of imagination over perception in the formulation of experience. It is the ultimate postmodern myth.

Author Biography

Adam Dodd