Monday, October 8, 2012

Solving the Communion Enigma

Courtesy isamizdat at Flickr Creative Commons
When I picked up Whitley Strieber's newest book Solving the Communion Enigma at the library this week, I was pretty sure that, at 213 pages, it wasn't going to really solve the Communion enigma.

I mean, if he'd really solved that puzzle, he would have told us all sooner, right?

I picked it up anyway on the off chance it contained something new.

It does not.

I do have some thoughts about the book though, which I'd like to share as charitably as I can. I don't love scathing reviews written just to be nasty, and I don't mean to write one here.

First, what I liked about the book:

  • I like that Strieber brings up the link between childhood trauma and contact experiences. Bringing this up is risky, since most of the people who write about alien abduction are heavily invested in the ET theory that aliens are coming to Earth to breed a hybrid race of human/alien creatures. I've never been convinced of that explanation, and I've never liked the way the credentials of experiencers are laid out in every case to prove they are sane. Not that I think people who have these kinds of experiences are insane (especially since I'm one of them), but because doing this eliminates all kinds of possibilities and opportunities to learn new things. 
  • I like that Strieber brings out the obsession some experiencers have with perceptual gaps, these spaces in human perception that even humans can learn to use to render themselves 'invisible'. What else could be lurking there? I've wondered that for years, but when I bring it up, most people look at me like I'm nuts. (See above paragraph.)
  • I like that Strieber leaves open the possibility that, if there is some kind of other life form intruding into our space (or visiting it, or whatever), it does not automatically follow that their motives are cohesive or understandable. He uses as an example humans who go to a vacation spot. Anybody can visit a popular resort, but not everybody is going to behave the same way when they get there. Some will be courteous and circumspect, some will throw trash everywhere, some will commit criminal acts. Some will dissect cows and take sperm samples.
  • I like that Strieber took the chance of putting his personal experience out there, which, although he swears otherwise, I can't help but think he sometimes wishes he hadn't. After the initial sensation triggered by Communion, this gamble basically ruined his career as a writer and trashed his finances in the bargain. He lost his beautiful cabin in the woods where he met all these beings. He now runs his own radio show and maintains a subscription-only website. Many people of many stripes make fun of him or don't like him. Reading this latest book, it comes across that this fall from grace (and money) shook him and his family to the core.

That said, Solving the Communion Enigma left me with some negative reactions and critical thoughts that I almost hate to mention.

After all, I'm not putting every burp and wrinkle of MY inner life on the page for the public to trash or validate or whatever.

I'm a bit more self-protective than that.  I choose to inhabit the peanut gallery most days.

But, on the other hand, when you put yourself out there in that way as a writer, in the first person, you do open yourself up to the critical thoughts of others.

Here are a few of mine:

1) Another characteristic shared by people who experience this kind of contact is a fluid or shaky sense of self. I don't believe this characteristic is necessarily pathological (although it can be). The fact is, though, that many abductees (or 'experiencers', a term many prefer) see their 'self' or ego state, their identity, in a different way than other people do. You can hear this almost obsessive self-concern in Strieber's writing, especially in this book, where it reaches an almost aggravatingly intense pitch. At times it almost feels like a tic, or like verbal picking at a scab.

Strieber is forever pointing out that 'we are more than we seem' and 'we are the greatest mystery of all', without getting into any details about why that is. What's more, he clearly considers himself some sort of adept because of his ability to initiate all manner of anomalous experiences during meditation, including his initial exploration of 'the visitors'. This becomes wearing after awhile. It's way better if lots of other people call you an adept. If you are the only one saying it while those around you have less charitable things to say, the impression that comes across is something like narcissistic petulance.

MC Escher print Public Domain
2) Strieber consistently refers to these various others as butterflies to our caterpillars; that is, as possibly the next form humanity takes in some other hyperreal dimension after death. The problem with this is these others don't really look or sound like butterflies so much as hymenoptera--that class of parasitic wasp that lays its eggs in caterpillars so its own young can hatch and devour them. Strieber does give lip service to this possibility, but it's clear he really, really wants his visitors and his others to be cool and advanced so that his experiences with them can also be cool and advanced. I know that after I die, I do hope I don't turn into a wide-mouthed Ooompa Loompa in a blue suit who carries people out of their bedrooms at night, but if I do end up like that, I don't think 'butterfly' will be the first word that comes to mind.

3) This leads me to my last and most troubling question: Why does Strieber cling so manically to these experiences and their importance above all others? His insight that the reason people with trauma in their pasts are more likely to make contact is because they understand that reality isn't always what we want is a good one. That might be true too, and I've thought of that explanation many times myself.

But an alternate explanation--one that can't be discarded out of hand--is that the reason trauma victims are more likely to have such experiences is that the aliens (or visitors or others or whatever they might be) know that no one is going to believe a person with past trauma who is carrying a fantastic story.

Trauma victims are uniquely prone to more trauma and more victimization, as almost any experienced therapist will tell you, and predators get very, very good at recognizing and exploiting traumatized people--even ordinary human predators do this, so how much more so predators with uncanny non-human abilities?

More so than in any of his other first person books, the voice of the traumatized child really comes through in Strieber's latest work; the longing to be special, to have been chosen because of one's unique and elevated capabilities, to be recognized as worthy and worthwhile instead of damaged and suspect and something to use.

His relative inability to own this part of himself, to get some kind of human perspective on his frantic, confusing (and as it sounds, lonely and rejecting) childhood, hurts his case when it comes to his special insights about the visitors and the others, and raises the possibility that he clings to these strange experiences in order to avoid looking hard at more earthly ones.

That doesn't mean he's wrong. It doesn't mean that close encounters of the 4th kind aren't very real in many cases, including his.

But this desperate tone hurts his first person analysis.

We need this kind of testimony and we need people strong enough to disclose it.

But to expect to make a living from it--that's probably not realistic and possibly not a very wise path to take. I can't help but think, after reading this book, that Strieber chose this path prematurely, before he fully considered what the consequences might be.

Witnessing the aftermath of his choice has been alternately fascinating and--in this case--painful.