While thumbing through John E. Mack's Abduction, which concerns alleged alien abductions, I remembered reading a detailed and persuasive analysis of one such case in George P. Hansen's excellent book The Trickster and the Paranormal. His treatment of what he calls "the Linda Napolitano hoax" sheds considerable light 0n the abduction movement. After we look at it, I'll add some personal thoughts on how this topic may relate to the ongoing micro-controversy about David Thompson's sittings with Victor Zammit.
Hansen begins with an overview of the case. (All quotes are taken from pp. 249-267 of The Trickster and the Paranormal; citations omitted).
The purported UFO abduction of Linda Napolitano is truly exotic, even for a UFO abduction. Government agents were involved; the UN Secretary General was a key witness; Linda was kidnapped in the interest of national security; the CIA tried to discredit the case, and the ETs helped end the cold war. Or so the story goes....
The chief investigator of the case, Budd Hopkins, is the most active spokesperson advocating the physical reality of UFO abductions.... His most illustrious supporter and colleague is John E. Mack, M.D., former head of the psychiatry department at Harvard Medical School and a Pulitzer Prize winner.
From the time he first went public with the Napolitano case, Hopkins made it clear that he considered it to be the most important evidence for the physical reality of UFO abductions.... The case's significance is strengthened by the support he received from leaders of the two largest UFO organizations in the US.
Hansen then tells the story of the alleged abduction of Linda Napolitano (a.k.a. Linda Cortile) at 3:16 AM on November 30, 1989, when "a large, brightly lit spaceship was witnessed hovering over her apartment building in lower Manhattan, and Linda and three small beings were seen float floating up into it." Supposedly, the secretary general of the United Nations and his two bodyguards, Richard and Dan, also witnessed the event when their motorcade stalled nearby. These three witnesses were themselves abducted, and, like Linda, were later returned unharmed.
What followed was a strange thriller-movie sequence of alleged events in which Richard and Dan sent various communiqués to Budd Hopkins and to Linda, though they refused to speak with Hopkins directly. In April of 1991 they supposedly kidnapped Linda, questioned her, and let her go. A few months later Dan kidnapped her again, this time with homicidal intent; Richard pulled off a rescue in the nick of time.
Linda claimed to have had an x-ray taken of her head which showed a small object embedded in her nose, but apparently Hopkins never saw the x-ray, and, as Hansen dryly notes, "The aliens apparently abducted Linda and removed the object because a later examination found no trace of it."
The story ventured even further into movie-fantasy territory when Linda began to have an affair with Richard and "the two came to realize that they had been abducted together many times since their early childhood. As they grew up, the aliens arranged sexual liaisons, and Richard believed that he had fathered Johnny, one of Linda's children."
That, in essence, is the story. Hansen, well-known as a writer on the paranormal with extensive knowledge of the field, became involved in an investigation. He notes,
A number of elements raised suspicions. The story was outlandish on the face of it. No credible, multipli-witnessed abduction had ever been documented. The purported involvement of the UN Secretary General made the claims even more unlikely. Anyone familiar with ufology knew the field to be rife with fraud and hoaxes, and the implausible aspects alone should have been cause for great concern. An added twist came when our colleague Vincent Creevy told us about the science fiction novel Nighteyes by Garfield Reeves-Stevens. This was first published in April 1989, and it contains many striking parallels with Linda's story (including alien-arranged sexual liaisons between a government agent and the female protagonist), suggesting that the hoaxers had based some of their ideas on it....
Small details of the case also provoked questions. Why had Richard and Dan written to Hopkins before they contacted Linda? They knew the location of her apartment but would have had no reason to think Hopkins was involved. A most amusing detail was that Linda had not reported the kidnappings or the attempted murder to law enforcement authorities, even though she made the allegations publicly in front of media representatives and hundreds of other people at the 1992 MUFON [Mutual UFO Network] convention.... Her failure to make the allegations official made the case extremely dubious....
We toured Linda's neighborhood in order to become more familiar with the location of the events. Her apartment complex had a guardhouse that was manned 24 hours a day, and video cameras were positioned at various locations around the complex. We discovered that the New York Post had a loading dock two blocks away that was open until 5:00 a.m. We talked with the guards and people at the loading dock and others in the vicinity, but no one knew anything about the UFO event....
The meeting [with Hopkins and some of his associates] revealed much about Hopkins' methods and the mentality of ufology's leaders. We asked Hopkins if he had checked with the apartment complex guards or with the New York Post loading dock personnel to see if they remembered seeing a UFO. He hadn't. We learned that Hopkins didn't even know the weather conditions the night of the abduction. He had done nothing to verify the most rudimentary facts. During questioning, Linda admitted that she had lied about several aspects of the case, and Penelope Franklin, one of Hopkins' closest collaborators, staunchly supported her in doing so.
[Coinvestigator Jospeh] Stefula brought along a colleague who had years of experience in dignitary protective services. He made an independent, detailed presentation on motorcades carrying important political figures. He explained that in such operations checkpoints are established, and if they are not passed on time, several authorities are notified. If even one car stalls, a whole network of people is informed. At the end of his presentation he suggested that Hopkins ask Richard and Dan the meaning of several specialist terms. If they were whom they claimed, they would know the definitions. Hopkins apparently never asked them the meaning of the words.
At the meeting we played our trump card. We suggested that Linda report the kidnapping and attempted murder to the police, and we stated that if she didn't, we were prepared to file a request for a federal investigation.... At that, Hopkins [and the others] all appeared to panic. They said that a worldwide government conspiracy may be attempting to suppress knowledge of earth's visitation by ETs. If the crimes were reported, we might never learn the truth about the Napolitano affair.... This reasoning was silly, but revealing. Even if there was such an effective, orchestrated conspiracy, Hopkins had already widely publicized the case, including the alleged crimes, and any report from us would amount to nothing.... There was nothing to lose....
To force the issue, and up the stakes, I wrote to the office of the Inspector General of the U.S. Treasury and Stefula called the Secret Service requesting an investigation of Linda's allegations.
The Secret Service did interview both Hopkins and Linda but apparently did not pursue the matter any further. This is hardly surprising, but what's interesting is Hopkins' reaction, and the reactions of his fellow UFO enthusiasts.
Hopkins was furious, and I received a letter from the Hyneck Center [a UFO research organization] rebuking me ... I gather that their private mythology had just collided with real-world considerations, and that was none too pleasant for them.
After Hansen and his colleagues published their highly critical report of the Napolitano affair,
Hopkins and his supporters wasted little time in replying. The March/April 1993 issue of the Hyneck Center's magazine International UFO Reporter was almost entirely devoted to personal attacks on us. Hopkins made a number of false statements about us, and though we informed him and the magazine of them, no apology or correction ever appeared. Nevertheless I found his vehement denunciation, including profanity, quite hilarious.
One of Hopkins' diatribes concluded, "the soul of George Hansen is, essentially, the soul of a hater."
After our exposé, Hopkins seemed even more firmly committed to the case.... For several years, the Linda case captured the imagination of ufologists and garnered endorsements from many of them. By the time Hopkins' book [Witnessed: The True Story of the Brooklyn Bridge UFO Abductions] appeared in 1996, their interest and support had faded.... Some reviewers even appeared slightly embarrassed, and a number of ufologists seemed to want to forget the affair....
Some have objected that the hoax explanation is not plausible because there is no reasonable motive for such an extended effort. This is a common refrain, and in my investigations of other paranormal deceptions, I've often heard the questions "Why would anyone perpetrate a hoax? What motive could there be?" After a few experiences investigating them, I discovered that motives are often difficult to discern and comprehend.
I admit that the motives in the Napolitano case are a mystery, but some speculation might ease concerns about them. Perhaps Linda began with a relatively innocent tall tale that got out of hand.... As the case became known, Linda was mentioned in magazines, invited to conferences, appeared on TV, was provided a bodyguard, and even dined with royalty (the Prince of Liechtenstein was friendly with Hopkins)....
The Napolitano affair is an important example because the field's leaders vetted the case and committed their views to writing. Hopkins shared his evidence with them, and subsequently Walter Andrus, Jerry Clark, David Jacobs, and John Mack all supported the integrity of Linda and her story....
Hansen then addresses the question of how seemingly sophisticated investigators like Hopkins could get "hoodwinked." He observes that the UFO researchers already held beliefs that were only confirmed and reinforced by Linda's story. Moreover,
grandiosity frequently accompanies conspiratorial thinking and paranoid belief. That occurred in the Linda case, and the hoaxers capitalized splendidly on it. One of Hopkins' abductees was chosen by the aliens for their demonstration of power to earth's political leaders. Hopkins was thereby cast in a central role in the drama, and his colleagues would share in the glory of proving to the world the reality of the ETs. This would be the ultimate accomplishment for any ufologist. Even if there was only a slim chance of the case being proven, the payoff was extraordinary, and it would make their lives' work worth all the effort.
There is another reason that Hopkins and his supporters failed to critically examine the evidence. At some unconscious level, they must have recognized their hopes and beliefs to be unrealistic. To the extent that they vaguely understood this, it was to their credit. Had they pushed for a federal investigation, and Linda was proven to be lying, they would have looked silly. If they firmly believed in a vast government conspiracy, they might have joined a survivalist anti-government group. It was to their benefit that they did not act in accordance with their expressed beliefs.
Despite the indications of their unconscious doubts about the case, they made ludicrous statements supporting it, and that remains puzzling. The victims' actions suggest that they were almost playing along with a hoax. They seemed to unconsciously subscribe to the agenda and carry out their roles, sometimes with great vigor....
Hopkins' partisans have dedicated their lives to UFO research; they identify with the field, and others identify the field with them. These people are inseparable from those roles.... The leaders firmly believed in the value of ufology, despite its shabby treatment by establishment science.... Hopkins' associates tried to uphold ufology's reputation and defend its institutions. In contrast, Stefula and I ... were seen as outsiders and troublemakers trying to besmirch its status. That perception was not altogether wrong.... My role was that of an outsider, and I had no commitment to the field as it was formally organized in the U.S. Our side had no institutional affiliation to defend. Our opponents understandably viewed us as people who could not be trusted.
I am not saying they consciously weighed and evaluated their social roles when they supported Hopkins. The victims were unable to step outside their roles as defenders of ufology and examine matters in a more detached manner. This was probably exacerbated by the field's marginality. Marginal groups usually need members to strongly identify with them in order that the groups remain viable.... With marginality, paranoia can emerge, which may serve to draw the group together and unite it, but it can also undercut rational reality testing ...
Hansen goes on to make some comparisons between fantasy role-playing games and ufology. He acknowledges that there are important differences between the two areas, but observes that in both cases there are "liminal features" -- a "blurring of fantasy and reality," participation in a "drama," the use of "creative imagination," and the tapping of "archetypal images." In comparison with role-playing games,
Ufology is more unstructured; there are fewer rules about what is and is not possible, and the powers of the otherworld figures are almost unbounded. The UFO phenomena can happen without warning, at any time or any place. The ETs can be anywhere, and some ufologists believe that ETs tag certain people and track them for their entire lives. There is no escape. Paranoia is rampant, with a fear of the ETs or the government, or of ETs and government working together...
Both ufology and [Dungeons & Dragons] allow direct, immediate involvement with powerful otherworld beings and mythological motifs. Both endeavors have been known to engross the participants. Most "players" are able to successfully detach themselves from involvement, but occasionally the "game" becomes obsessive and interferes with real-world pursuits. The problems are far more severe with UFO phenomena than with [fantasy role-playing games]....
The Napolitano case is essentially an unbounded version of Dungeons & Dragons. The victims interpreted the hoaxers' handiwork as due to beings with virtually unlimited magical powers. They believed that ETs could pass through walls, make themselves invisible, and even control world events. The magical beings included not only the ET aliens, but also the pantheon of agents of an unreachable, evil government conspiracy determined to prevent humankind's knowledge of the ETs. Thus the interactions of Hopkins, et al., with the hoaxers conform with those between humans and gods. Humans question and provoke the gods only at the greatest peril. The proper approach is to appease, mollify and supplicate them. It should be no surprise that the simplest reality tests of the Napolitano story were not made. Hopkins' failure to search for witnesses actually makes sense in this context....
Observers might now see Hopkins and his supporters as deserving only scorn and derision. That would not be completely fair. Hopkins should be given credit for daring to study matters shunned by orthodox science. His efforts, writings, and life provide abundant material for analysis. Further, Hopkins has a true interest in aiding UFO abductees, and he has spent enormous time and effort in that. Unlike professional therapists who profit from the afflictions of others, Hopkins assists abductees without charge. He is exceptionally dedicated, and his good intentions probably made him more vulnerable than he otherwise would have been.
Almost all leaders of U.S. ufology remain oblivious to the phenomenon's nature. But this has nothing to do with their IQ, education, or professional achievements in other areas. Actually, high accomplishment in established fields may make them more vulnerable, as they may assume that the rational methods effective in those areas will yield results on the UFO problem. When they pursue the UFO topic, they enter an unbounded, liminal domain, unaware of the dangers.
I don't want to confine this discussion only to UFOs, a subject I know (and care) little about. I think many of the same points are applicable to issues that more frequently crop up on this blog. One of those issues is Victor Zammit's ongoing investigation of the medium David Thompson.
To be clear, the points made in this part of the essay are solely my own, not George Hansen's; I have not discussed the matter with him and am speaking only for myself. It does seem to me, however, that several strange features of the Zammit-Thompson matter can be illuminated by the above analysis.
Note that in both the Linda Napolitano case and the David Thompson case, certain obvious avenues of investigation were not followed. No eyewitness reports of Linda's abduction were sought, just as no escape-proof methods of restraining Mr. Thompson have been tried.
When outside critics suggested contacting the police in the Napolitano case, the insiders were horrified and panicky, probably because bringing the police into the affair would threaten their elaborate, shared fantasy. Similarly, when an outside critic (namely, me) suggested bringing in an escape artist to properly secure Mr. Thompson, Mr. Zammit responded with vitriol and denunciations.
The ufologists in the Napolitano case no doubt hoped that it would prove the existence of ETs to a skeptical world, vindicating their lifelong efforts. Mr. Zammit has said repeatedly that his work with Mr. Thompson constitutes the most important evidence ever produced for life after death, that it will have "world shattering" repercussions, and that it will convince "hundreds of millions" of people, having effects comparable to the Copernican Revolution.
Budd Hopkins and others responded to critics of the Napolitano case with personal attacks, psychologizing ("the soul of a hater"), and childishly vehement language, a pattern unfortunately repeated by Victor Zammit in his responses to me, Marcel Cairo, and others.
Other ufologists rushed to Hopkins' defense because it was seen as important to create a common front against skeptical outsiders, just as some afterlife partisans seem to have defended Mr. Zammit because they regard him as an important, high-profile figure that the movement cannot afford to lose.
Hopkins and his colleagues viewed the ETs and the government agents as almost magical beings of unlimited power, who had to be handled with extreme care. Similarly, Mr. Zammit and his Circle of the Silver Cord seem to view the spirits who work through Mr. Thompson as immensely powerful and somewhat unpredictable beings whose every demand must be honored, lest the phenomena be discontinued. When the "spirits" told the circle to remove a large number of audio files from the circle's Web site, the circle immediately complied. Infrared photography is not used in the seances because the "spirits" will not allow it. Audio recordings of the seances indicate that the sitters are extremely reluctant to press the "spirits" for detailed answers or to pursue unsatisfactory answers that the "spirits" provide. To paraphrase Hansen:
Thus the interactions of Zammit, et al., with the spirits conform with those between humans and gods. Humans question and provoke the gods only at the greatest peril. The proper approach is to appease, mollify and supplicate them. It should be no surprise that the simplest reality tests of David Thompson's mediumship were not made. The circle's failure to ask hard questions, use infrared, or hire an escape artist actually makes sense in this context....
I should add that George Hansen's paragraph in praise of Budd Hopkins can apply just as well, in my opinion, to Victor Zammit: He should be given credit for studying these matters; he has a true interest in supplying evidence for the afterlife; he has made no money for his efforts, and indeed has spent a large sum; he is "exceptionally dedicated, and his good intentions may have made him more vulnerable than he otherwise would have been."
Of course, role-playing and self-delusion (or shared collective delusions) are by no means limited to the paranormal community. Similar psychological dynamics can be found in skeptical organizations. We might even ask whether all of our activities constitute role-playing (and even delusion) to some extent.
But that's a topic for another day.
Hansen et al's critique of the Napolitano case is here.
Another investigator weighs in here.
A supporter of Linda's claims writes about the case here.
George P. Hansens maintains a blog here.