Every year, seemingly sincere, non-psychotic people claim to have been abducted by aliens. Psychopathologists generally treat the stories they tell as symptoms of False Memory Syndrome, but the dubiousness of their claims doesn’t necessarily alter the reality of people who believe they were taken. Abductees, as a class, see themselves as victims of something terrible and scarring — and they surely are even if the nature of that something is in question. This is why Stephanie Kelley-Romano, a professor of rhetorical theory and criticism at Bates College who owns zero tin foil hats, has made it her business to listen to these modern captivity narratives. She wants to understand how exactly they work.
Inverse spoke with Kelley-Romano about how to earnestly study abduction narratives, how best to understand incredible stories, and why aliens help some people express their very human needs.
What was it about alien abduction narratives that drew you in?
It was the early 1990s and I was into The X-Files and was in graduate school. I didn’t have much time for anything ‘extra’ so I found a way to make aliens a part of my school work! It started with a paper on conspiracy and grew from there. I’ve always been interested in how people make sense of experiences that are marginalized by mainstream culture: paranormal stuff, religious conversation, etcetera.
For your paper “Mythmaking in Alien Abduction Narratives” you gathered 130 different stories. How did you collect these and are they all from a certain time period?
I collected narratives from people from about 1995 to 1998. I went to UFO and abduction conferences and collected surveys over the internet as well.
What was it like, reading through them? Was it hard to empathize because the claims seemed so outlandish?
Not at all. People talking about their experiences with extraterrestrials are very similar to people talking about their experiences with God, or anything mystical or less tangible.
Why do you think we tend to see common threads among abduction narratives?
I think the most common threads occur because they tap into some larger individual, communal, or cosmic need. Invariably in any story, we highlight what is most important to us. The same happens in abduction narratives.
In your paper you describe alien-human interactions as a “Myth of Communication” and say these narratives reveal a lot about our cultural condition. Can you expand on that?
People have a need for individual significance. We also have a need for community. These stories, and the populations who embrace them — whether they be believers, experiencers, or skeptics — create community and significance for people.
The best historical parallel can be seen in the Native American captivity stories. Those stories came to function on a multiplicity of levels for people of that time. The stories warned of what could happen to women, and by extension to the new world, and they spoke of the role of faith in maintaining virtue. Like abduction stories, they ran the gamut from stories that purported to tell the actual events of an experience, to those that were sensationalized for popular culture consumption.
Thematically, there are things that continue to pop up in these stories that can be read metaphorically regardless of the empirical reality of the experience. So, the focus on reproduction in these stories grapples with issues of technology and reproductive freedom at a very relevant time. The extraterrestrials themselves may serve as mirrors to ourselves.
Do you think there is more to be said about how we as a society view those who claim to be abducted? Are you interested in researching any other part of alien abduction narratives?
I think there are several areas that warrant further investigation. Again, jumping off captivity narratives, we see this thing called ‘rhetorical drag,’ a term coined by Lorrayne Carroll. Basically, captivity stories were the stories of women as told by men. We see the same thing happen within abduction discourse in that the major experts in the field who gather and tell the stories of mostly female abductees are men: David Jacobs, John Mack, Budd Hopkins. To understand the role of gender in the recounting of these stories is important. I also think it’s significant that oftentimes experiencers look to experts for verification and validation while at the same time say that they don’t care what other people think — they know what happened to them. The inherent tension demonstrated by this struggle is one I think that is significant in contemporary American culture, in terms of the challenges in negotiating life and that balance between experience and expertise.
In society, we often marginalize people who are different. With the internet, however, we see more pockets of community, and more variety in lifestyle choices and beliefs. To examine how people make sense of the world around them, and find significance is, I believe, always worth while.