Dr. John E. Mack; The Harvard Psychiatrist Who Believed Contactees

Senior psychologist interviewing his depressed patient. Mental therapy.

In the annals of psychiatry, no one has challenged some of the core tenets of psychoanalysis as much as John E. Mack. And because of his careful research, even those at the top of the ivory tower at Harvard found it hard to dismiss the credibility of his work when it came to prominence in the 1990s. 

Mack was born in New York in 1929, to an illustrious family of academics and professionals. His father was a history professor, his stepmother an economist, and his sister a pioneer of computer science at Dartmouth College. In 1955, Mack himself received a medical doctorate, graduating cum laude from Harvard Medical School.

Four years after his graduation, Mack served in Japan as a medic in the Air Force, earning the rank of captain. When he returned to the United States, he became certified in child and adult psychoanalysis and psychotherapy. Shortly thereafter, he returned to Harvard Medical School, became a full professor, and was appointed Head of Psychiatry — a highly coveted role he occupied until his death in 2004.

As if all of this was not enough, Mack was awarded a Pulitzer Prize in 1976 for his biography of the famous British officer T.E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia), called A Prince of Our Disorder.

Mack was a hardworking and well-respected psychiatrist, the kind of medical practitioner, researcher, and educator that made Harvard proud. But all this changed when the doctor began documenting patients’ claims that they had been the victims of alien abductions. Unsure of what to do with this information — especially in light of Mack’s growing prestige —  Harvard officials hoped their shining star would calm down before garnering too much negative attention.

But even though he was initially skeptical of his patients’ bases for their accounts, Mack became more and more involved in cases of alien abductions, documenting an astounding 200 of them. Mack once told an interviewer, “‘When I heard about this phenomenon in 1990, I was very doubtful. I thought it must be some kind of mental illness.’ He later described the abduction claims as ‘an authentic mystery’ that deserved to be researched. A third of U.S. adults say they believe aliens have visited the Earth at some time in the past, according to a 2001 Gallup poll.”

In a PBS interview, Mack said, “I, like most of us, was raised to believe that if we were going to discover other intelligence, we’d do it through radio waves or through signals or something of that kind.”

Mack went on to say, “The idea that we could be reached by some other kind of being, creature, intelligence that could actually enter our world and have physical effects as well as emotional effects, was simply not part of the world view that I had been raised in. So that I came very reluctantly to the conclusion that this was a true mystery. In other words, that I—I did everything I could to rule out other sources, or sexual abuse. Some of these people are abused. But they’re able to tell, distinguish clearly the abduction trauma from other forms of abuse. Some forms of psychosis or people making up stories—I could reject that on the basis that there was no gain in this for the vast majority of these people.”

Mack eventually accepted the accounts as irrefutably true, before doing the unthinkable by appearing on a media circuit with some of his patients. It was his interview with Oprah Winfrey that transformed him into somewhat of a media sensation.

Afterward, the Washington Post noted, “Grant money from Rockefellers and others started flowing, and he became a topic on the Internet. Thousands read his book, and hundreds thanked him for validating their experiences.”

Then Mack wrote a book in 1994, titled Abduction: Human Encounters With Aliens, which rose to prominence as a bestseller. The Washington Post reported it as having far outstripped sales of his earlier book, Borderline States in Psychiatry, even outselling his Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of Lawrence of Arabia.

Through all the publicity, touring, and lecturing, Mack remained the staid, serious, and insightful professional whom Harvard had been proud to call their own — even though, in private, he made his colleagues extremely nervous with his philosophy about other dimensions, alien lifeforms, and unconventional ideas about the nature of reality.

They began to fear the worst from a soiled reputation at the hands of a man with too high of a profile and too many accomplishments to get rid of.

John E. Mack early in his career

At the time, the Washington Post reported, “The Mack affair — both his findings about alien abductions and his treatment by the dean — has caused a stir on the Harvard campus and sent ripples farther afield, raising questions about research methods, academic discipline and freedom of thought.”

In the long run, many UFO investigators and advocates of alien abductors were witnessing their worst fears come to fruition. They had seen so many hundreds, if not thousands, of personal testimonies come under heavy fire by conservative institutions, the media, the scientific community, and skeptics. 

Detractors complained that “Mack’s embrace of hypnotism to draw out stories of alien abduction drew fire from those who cautioned that ‘recovered memories’ were unreliable. They warned that, for example, in the Satanic abuse cases that were sweeping the nation, innocent people were being imprisoned because hypnosis and suggestive interview techniques often created fabricated memories.’” 

In his defense, Mack noted, “It’s often said that I’m a believer and sort of have gone and lost my objectivity. I really object to that. Because this is not about believing anything. I didn’t believe anything when I started, I don’t really believe anything now. I’m come to where I’ve come to clinically. In other words, I worked with people over hundreds and hundreds of hours and have done as careful a job as I could to listen, to sift out, to consider alternative explanations. And none have come forward. No one has found an alternative explanation in a single abduction case.”

Though Mack was maligned, misinterpreted, and belittled, he pushed forward — with the support of a high profile lawyer, perhaps eventually pressuring officials at Harvard to leave the now-famous psychiatrist alone.

In perfect health and still profoundly interested in — and outspoken about — the plight of the UFO abduction experience, Mack was killed in 2004, struck by a drunk driver while strolling down a sidewalk, just before he was scheduled to speak at a symposium of the T.E. Lawrence Society in London.

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