Roméo Di Benedetto, M.Div. and John E. Mack, M.D.
In this excerpt from the Emerging Renaissance television program, Dr. John Mack candidly discusses the investigation into his work that was launched by Harvard Medical School in 1994 and ended without censure in 1995.
Roméo Di Benedetto: Welcome to another presentation of The Emerging Renaissance: an Odyssey of the Spirit. We will now begin part two of a two part series with Dr. John Mack from Harvard University, the department of psychiatry. In the first part of this two part series, which we’re calling “The UFO Encounter: Power and Implications”, we looked at the meaning, the transcendent meaning that’s beginning to emerge, and especially in which Dr. John Mack is a pioneer in this sensing of an emerging meaning in the whole process of encounters. And in the second part, however, we want to look at, you might say some of the patterns that are events that are happening in different parts of the world, but also we will begin with some of the recent activities that are occurring at Harvard University.
Thanks again for being here for part two, John.
John Mack: Good to be here, Roméo.
Roméo Di Benedetto: Now, I guess we can look at Harvard, the Harvard experience, let’s call it that, as a plus and a minus. The minus has been very difficult, but share with us the tenure review process, the committee review that recently you’ve been through, but it seems there’s been some light at the end of that tunnel?
John Mack: Well I was quite high profile in the spring of 1994. When my book first came out, I was on Larry King and Oprah Winfrey. And that was part of the enthusiasm of my publishers. And I began to feel uneasy that maybe I better see how this was going down in the Dean’s office.
So I made an appointment to see the Senior Associate Dean for Faculty Affairs, but he was ahead of me, because about the same time that I got to see him he presented me with a letter saying that a committee had been formed – apparently there had been some concern, as he put it, about what I’ve been doing. We never found out quite what that concern was, but it had to do with the media, questions raised in the media. And we always suspected some wealthy alumni were troubled to see a Harvard professor going around declaring the truth of the UFO abduction phenomenon.
In any event, he presented me with a letter forming a committee, a three-person committee plus two university lawyers, which was supposed to investigate me and what I had done.
And this was practically unprecedented at Harvard. It followed no university guidelines around reviewing the work of any of the professors there. And it started a 14-month process which, as you say was personally very painful for me, but very interesting as well because it brought forth a dialogue on academic freedom, on how is, if somebody takes on something that’s not supposed to be, which challenges the status quo, how is it dealt with.
This Dean, when he gave me the letter said – and I knew him well, he was a friend – he said, “John, you know if you had just said this was a new psychiatric syndrome, you wouldn’t have gotten into trouble.” He said, “it’s because you said it required that we change our view of reality, that a problem has arisen here”.
Roméo Di Benedetto: Wow.
John Mack: And he was in effect saying that Harvard’s responsibility was to maintain the theological status quo of a certain view of reality. And that I was a heretic. He didn’t say the word “heretic”, although a number of people very close to him did use the word heretic to describe me, and not in quotes. I mean, you say a heretic in the sense [of] an analogy to a religious falling out with the establishment. But the word “heresey” was used really quite unconsciously. For example, in the psychoanalytic group in Boston, a reviewer for a psychoanalytic journal of my book said that this work is “subversive” – that was his word, published word – “to psychoanalysis as a science”. That these people by definition must be crazy because what they are reporting is not part of the majority consensus reality. And that was right in his review. And by definition, therefore they must be crazy. It never occurred to him that maybe the consensus reality needed a bit of elbow room or stretching.
Roméo Di Benedetto: Like in David and Lisa (1962), “if you’re a normal who wants to be like you?” That’s a movie back twenty-five years ago.
John Mack: Yes I knew the movie. But the point is that if something doesn’t fit our notions of reality, and yet the people that are having an experience that doesn’t fit are of sound mind, are sincere, have nothing to gain, are in effect opening to other realities, then, then it seems to me that the responsibility of academicians, as well as theologians, is to begin to question our notions of reality.
Roméo Di Benedetto: Seems that you and Harvard were experiencing the crisis that maybe Catholic universities in other places have experienced, with Harvard showing its background as it were – Harvard, which started out as a seminary. In the Catholic church there is this crisis that’s going on with [Charles E.] Curran at Catholic University, where traditionally it has been understood that a seminary is supposed to be Orthodox, passing on what’s been known and accepted. But the university is supposed to be the pioneering, developmental. And it seems that Harvard was seeking to impose on you, as well as on itself, the seminary role in priority over the evolutionary university role. So they’re wanting a tenured university professor to act like a non-tenured seminary professor who is bound to the rules as the congregation defines them.
John Mack: Well in effect the role of theological orthodoxy has slipped away from the churches into the universities, into the scientific profession. So in a subtle way, the orthodoxy, at least around ideas, may no longer be held by the traditional religious organizations.
The thing that captured really what happened at Harvard was when my lawyer – I had to get a lawyer to defend myself – said that the university lawyer said to him “well, what do you think the Dean thinks when he watches television and sees one of his faculty members on Oprah Winfrey saying little green men are taking women, children, and family members into spacecraft”? Now, I assume the Dean doesn’t watch Oprah Winfrey, and that I never said anything about little green men, but it does give you a sense of what might’ve been so upsetting to the Dean.
And that process went on for 14 months. And the way ultimately… they, their claim was these people – and the most dangerous part of this, I’ll tell you what the real issue was. It wasn’t just about academic freedom, because obviously any university would have defended, as they did, my right to do this work. That’s not the point. The point had to do with the fact that they didn’t like what I was saying. It was the content, not the fact of what I, what I was, what I was doing.
And what particularly they tried to criticize me around, or silence me around, was the notion that by supporting the truth of what these people were experiencing, possibly I was affirming them in a distortion or in a delusion. In other words, instead of being a good psychiatrist, helping them over their, get cured of their crazy thinking, I was deepening and validating their distorted notions, and therefore doing medical harm. And that was what was so dangerous. That’s what I had to fight, that I was actually harming my own clients by believing them or by taking them seriously.
So what I had to do in defense was get affidavits from the people I’d worked with, have them interview the people I’d worked with and establish beyond any doubt that I was being helpful to them.
Because if you take, for example, a psychotic person who is deluded and you affirm the delusion, they get worse. They regress, they become more and more disturbed, more and more crazy. But when these people begin to find that they can talk with somebody about this, they’re not being declared crazy, that the person takes seriously what they’re saying, enters the mystery, says, “look, I don’t know, I’ve seen other cases, I don’t know where this comes from but it’s not a product of your mental condition” (and at first they may not want to hear that they may want to be cured of these experiences by me), eventually that helps them.
They feel they’re not alone. They feel supported. That’s not what happens if you affirm the distorted notions of a psychotic person. So we were able to show far from harming them, I was actually helping these people. And that forced them ultimately to back away.
Roméo Di Benedetto: Okay. But you had to defend what you were doing. Did any of these committee members – and I’m presuming some of them were psychiatrists?
John Mack: There was one psychiatrist on the committee.
Roméo Di Benedetto: Did the psychiatrist and the other members ever themselves directly work with clients in this area to experience for themselves the interaction that you experienced working with people? Or were they coming from deep, committed faith? They knew reality and they didn’t have to look at the facts, as it were. They didn’t have to put their own feet in the tub to see if the water was hot, but they knew that it was wrong so that you had to defend something abstractly because they themselves would not get into the realm of experience the way you did?
John Mack: They, in fairness to them, they did interview several of the people that had these experiences. And they were not able to say these experiences were a product of a psychiatric illness.
But the psychiatrist on the committee took one of the cases, and in a way I thought was utterly ridiculous, interpreted the woman’s experience of the alien encounters in terms of a conventional psychiatric point of view. I’ll tell you what he said, because this will give a flavor of how this thing went. A woman, starting several months after her mother had died – possibly related, possibly unrelated to the mother’s death – began to have encounters with what she called “electrical dreams” in which there would be this powerful vibratory experience, typical of abduction experiences, a light in the room, and then these beings were there. And she was a very rational, critical self-questioning person.
In fact, her psychiatrist, who had been a skeptic too, came in to some of our sessions and said, “I know this woman, she’s telling you the truth. This is real”. And he testified to the committee that he knew this woman and this was real. Nevermind that. She was having these experiences. She was critical of them. She had an appropriate point of view about it. She was improved through our work together, did very, very well.
Nevertheless, this psychiatrist on the committee said, “well you know, she and her husband, they’re not getting along so well, and her mother died, so she’s a lonely person so she invented these beings to keep herself company because she felt so estranged and, and didn’t feel her husband really understood her very well and her depression after her mother’s death”. Well she wasn’t depressed, she was troubled as many people are.
But that’s the kind of thing people do. I mean, if you have a worldview – in this case it was a psychoanalytic orthodoxy – you interpret somebody’s experiences in terms of that worldview. In other words, he found a psychodynamic explanation of this phenomenon, which I’ve never been able to do.
Roméo Di Benedetto: Okay. But now the resolution?
John Mack: Well, finally they backed off. I mean, they began to get national press which was very negative. As I said, I had my people who I’ve worked with signing affidavits that I helped them. We prepared a 75 page brief countering every criticism that the university had leveled at us. And they basically backed off.
I [then] had a meeting with the Dean in which he said – and this is one of the things the committee had said – I should involve more colleagues. Well I’d tried to involve more colleagues. When I would bring this to their attention early on they would say, “Oh, this has gotta be something psychiatric. This is, this is just, this can’t be” and so forth.
And so that was one of the recommendations, that I should involve more colleagues to look at these unusual kinds of phenomena, with which I completely agreed.
So one of the outcomes of this is that our little organization, PEER, that I mentioned earlier, Program for Extraordinary Experience Research in Cambridge, has received a small grant from the Fetzer foundation to put together at Harvard, a multidisciplinary committee to look at how do we in science and academia look at anomalous phenomena that do not fit ordinary disciplinary expectations. In other words, the alien abduction phenomenon being perhaps the most obvious one, but there are others. There are near death experiences, clairvoyance, out-of-body experiences, visions of all kinds, spiritual transformations.
Those experiences which tend to be fit[ted] into one orthodoxy or another, but don’t fit.
So we’re going to have an anthropologist, additional psychiatrists, physicists, theologians, historians of science. So we’re on the process now of putting together at Harvard a multidisciplinary group to look at this and related phenomenon. So that’s constructive.
Roméo Di Benedetto: Vartan Gregorian, I believe is the president of Brown University. I have a tape in which he gives a lecture in which he is saying this is how classes should be taught in a university: Multi-dimensional, many perspectives simultaneously, so you don’t get caught in the trap of excluding other dimensions of that reality, thinking you’re exhausting it because you’ve exhausted your perspective. And I’m glad to see that this step is actually being taken. What is happening with this?
John Mack: Yeah, I’m supposed to be in charge of setting it up, which I am doing. I’m meeting with one of my psychiatric colleagues to plan it further. Several people in the faculty have agreed to serve, to participate in this, a very open-minded astrophysicist at the Harvard Smithsonian Institute by the name of Rudolph Schild who is a very renowned scientist is going to participate. It’s happening.
Roméo Di Benedetto: Now the work of this committee, are they primarily going to do research? Is it envisioned that ultimately they will be teaching courses?
John Mack: No, it is going to be mainly to explore methodology. “How do we think about a phenomenon that doesn’t fit?” In the meeting in El Paso on February 7th, in the discussion after the lecture somebody asked, I think, very cogently, “who are the appropriate people to study this phenomenon?”
And I began to think about the fact that this doesn’t belong in any discipline. It doesn’t belong in mental health. It doesn’t belong in physics. It doesn’t belong in religion. It doesn’t belong in anthropology. It doesn’t belong in history of science. And yet each of those disciplines has something to contribute. So we perhaps need to invent or create a new kind of discipline that partakes of all of these, a kind of “clinical metaphysics” of a sort, somebody suggested. And that hasn’t happened. That’s a new edge.
Roméo Di Benedetto: Well, again, looking at this from the perspective of Thomas Kuhn, you’re really in process. You’re looking at this from the viewpoint of philosophy of science. It seems you’re on the verge of redefining science. I often get in discussion with colleagues with the kinds of issues that we examine in this program, and they feel it doesn’t belong in academia, that it’s not scientific. Understanding science, identifying the particular methodology of science as the only legitimate methodology, rather than feeling it appropriate to adapt a methodology to fit the particular object that they are studying.
I mean, we don’t impose telescopes on biologists or microscopes on astrophysicists, on astronomers. But yet it seems in science, if you don’t take one of the existing tools, you’re not scientific. So that Galileo under that approach would not have been scientific, because before him who used the telescope?
John Mack: I would go even further. The term “science” now has, as we were talking earlier has become a kind of theological orthodoxy whereby all we really know is that which we can gain through science. A colleague of ours, somewhat seriously, and maybe a little bit tongue in cheek says, “if I can’t measure it mathematically, it’s not a phenomenon, doesn’t exist”. And that is kind of the attitude in a way. He was being more candid than most people.
But what we call [science], what is called science with a capital S is particularly adapted to instruments for measuring phenomenon that exists purely in the physical world. In other words, using sensory empirical means to study matters through extension of the senses, in effect. You mentioned telescopes, microscopes, computers. That which can measure something purely in the… that has its existence in the physical world.
Where you’re dealing with something that may manifest in the physical world but also reaches out into another domain, into the domain of spirit, into other dimensions, then you can’t get there with telescopes. (Nevermind that they’re sending radio waves to try to get, you know, the SETI program to get radio waves back, that’s ridiculous. That’s so culture-bound that it just doesn’t to me make any sense.)
But if you’re dealing with something which seems to come from another dimension and shows up with light, with spaceships, and crosses into this dimension, the only way I know of to approach this is through the instrument of human consciousness. That’s our instrument – through shared experience, through exploring people’s experiences.
So I think the, maybe I wouldn’t call it science, but knowledge of the future that really matters may be not to discard our science, not at all, but to use our empirical science, but connect it with the experiences of consciousness opening up to other dimensions of reality. Maybe that’s the sort of knowledge of the future.
Science has done an extraordinary job of defining the material world. But it’s not very good at phenomenon that are multi-dimensional or interdimensional, that may begin in another unseen dimension and then cross over into the material world.
Roméo Di Benedetto: I’d heard about the outcome of your case. Personally, I was glad that it went well, but this other development that you’re sharing with us has dimensions that goes far beyond even you. I mean, it’s the first step that I’m aware of, of a flagship like Harvard, anywhere in the world, anyone doing this, looking at a new way to deal with realities that are unknown. It’s like landing on the moon – “one small step for Harvard, and a giant step for mankind”. We’re giving a formal structure to reassess how we study reality. I see it, just potentially where this thing might be in five or 10 years, is just fantastic.
John Mack: I don’t know, I mean, there are certainly many, many pioneers who have studied these unseen realms, like Robert John studying parapsychological phenomenon at Princeton, Charles Tart has been a pioneer in looking at so-called PSI phenomena. But by and large, what we’ve had in the past is the study of the unseen realms or the parapsychological phenomenon through the empirical methods of science. So it was to corroborate that… for example [to] study telepathy by [assessing] how accurate can people be in reading the numbers on cards. And we get better than chance [that] people are able to correctly telepathically perceive what someone else says, [or] has projected as a thought, or as an idea through concrete evidence of what appears on a card. Well, that’s really taking empirical science and applying it to the unseen realms.
What we don’t have is the use of consciousness, the use of a deeper total use of ourselves to understand other dimensions of reality in there in its own right, in a sense. Using our whole selves, using altered states of consciousness, using the full potential of the human mind and psyche to explore the unknown, but not by restricting the exploration to the sensory empirical modalities of traditional science.
Roméo Di Benedetto: Ok. And what it seems to me is that maybe we’re beginning again the first small step of going full cycle. We as humans, starting with Aristotle, using the mind and then developing it into a scientific method centuries later, developed tools for science, but we put more credibility into the tools than the tool-maker who made the tools. And now we’re saying, we’re looking at the resources of the toolmaker and the experiences of the toolmaker as a source of understanding reality.
John, we’ve finished. We’ve run out of time though we could talk for many more hours. And I want to thank you very much for coming with us, coming here to be with us and sharing this. I know it has not been an easy journey.
John Mack: Thanks Romeo, for the opportunity.
Roméo Di Benedetto: I hope you can be back again someday.
John Mack: I hope so.
Roméo Di Benedetto: And thank you for joining us.
Roméo Di Benedetto, M.Div., was ordained a Catholic priest in 1965 and served in both the Newark and Albuquerque archdioceses. He taught Sociology at El Paso Community College for 30 years. In 1986, he earned a Doctorate of Education from New Mexico State University. He also held baccalaureate degrees in Classical Languages and Theology, a Master of Arts in Sociology and a Master of Divinity in Pastoral Ministry. He created and hosted the Emerging Renaissance television series.
© 1997 Romeo Di Benedetto. All Rights Reserved
This program is courtesy of El Paso Community College Center for Instructional Telecommunications, and is presented by kind permission of Daniel Matta, Director, in cooperation with Romeo Di Benedetto.