At midnight on Thursday, May 9th, 2013, VANITY FAIR posts its online feature article about Harvard Psychiatry Professor and Pulitzer Prize-winner, Dr. John Mack, written by NY Times investigative journalist Ralph Blumenthal. The article, recounting Dr. Mack’s defense of alien abductees and the personal and academic price he paid for it, is also the first public announcement of the partnership between Denise David Williams’ MakeMagic Productions and Robert Redford’s Wildwood Enterprises for the production of a major motion picture based on Dr. Mack’s extraordinary story. (Go to johnmackmovie.com to read more about it).
Leslie Keane, New York Times bestselling author, says “Ralph Blumenthal has written an intelligent and insightful story; the best treatment on John Mack I have ever read.”
- The Vanity Fair article initially describes “Elisabeth and Mark Before and After Death: The Power of a Field of Love” as an unpublished manuscript by Dr. Mack (“He left behind another unpublished manuscript, with another mystery he was seeking to unravel, a secret as dark as death itself”), before later correctly identifying this as a book proposal, not a manuscript. The materials for this project in actuality consist of a dozen-page single-spaced outline (the book proposal) and several sets of interview transcripts (interviews Dr. Mack conducted with friends and family of the late Dr. Elisabeth Targ).
- Vanity Fair fails to examine the Donna Bassett incident critically. The article says Donna Bassett “intrigued [Mack] with a bizarre tale of being taken into a spaceship with Nikita Khrushchev and President John F. Kennedy during the Cuban missile crisis”. It presents her as a “Boston writer” who later told Time magazine that she “was a double agent out to expose Mack’s U.F.O. cult” through her “hoax”.
Evidence from Mack’s archives (presented below) was provided to the writer of the Vanity Fair piece that strongly indicates her claim of being an undercover writer was a lie used to mislead the press, and that she was in fact simply a troubled client.
“The assumption is that she fooled me into using her material as part of my database,” Mack told Richard Cutting in a 1994 interview. “The fact is I didn’t use one word she had to say in my book. Does that mean I didn’t trust her, or that I didn’t think she was telling the truth? I guess that in some intuitive way I kept a certain distance. But I don’t think that’s because she’s necessarily not an abductee. This is hard to know — it gets close to getting into what I know about her from my clinical work with her, which I’m unwilling to do. …[The other experiencers who knew her well] believe she’s an abductee who became disturbed and couldn’t deal with her experiences. I’m not saying that I believe that, but others do.”
The most damaging claim that she brought to Time magazine – as Time reporter James Willwerth credulously accepted and reported – was a “lack of therapy following [the] traumatic hypnosis sessions”.
But it seems that Bassett had in fact been advised to seek regular therapy, and took offense at the way in which the advice was presented and was disappointed that Dr. Mack himself was not the resource to which she was being directed.
A colleague of Dr. Mack’s explained that at a social meeting with Ed Bassett and Donna Bassett, “I felt over my head and asked if it would be helpful to her to see a psychologist regularly who has an understanding of the phenomenon. This was exactly the wrong thing to say. She felt I was calling her crazy and that I was abandoning her just when she’d started to open up to me.”
This is confirmed by Bassett herself in a pair of illegally-recorded phone call conversations (between Bassett and Mack) that Bassett made a year before she complained to Time magazine’s James Willwerth. (Absolutely no clinical materials have been unsealed for this Errata).
In the first phone conversation (believed to be from April 1993) she tells Dr. Mack that “There’s got to be a better way of saying it than ‘you should go to someone for this reaction.’ …Some sort of response that makes you feel a little more than expendable. …I mean, [she] gave me that message: ‘this is research not therapy, and if you’ve got a problem you need to go see a therapist.’ And this is why the next time we got together I reacted the way I did; it was like ‘I’m not expendable thank you very much.’”
“As a physician,” Mack is heard replying, “my first responsibility is always to the well-being of the person. So to make a discrepancy [sic] between research and therapy is not right.” He continues, “[This] could be put in a way that [would] work whereas that doesn’t work. In other words if we said to someone ‘this is research but our first responsibility is to your well-being, but feelings and needs may come up for you that are beyond what we can handle at the time and you’re going to need some additional support,’ that would be…” “That’s better, yes,” Bassett affirms.
But in a subsequent call (believed to be early May 1993) it is evident that Bassett remained offended and that her distrust was growing. Referring to the colleague who recommended therapy, Bassett says, “We tried to patch things up…we tried to get through that, but the basic lack of trust, that feeling of ‘oh, you’re expendible,’…” “Now come on Donna,” Mack interrupts, “you and I went over this at great length on the phone, that was not the attitute I conveyed to you.” “That was not your attitude, that was [her] attitude,” Bassett explains. “I feel responsible,” Mack replies, “if there are communications from her that are not what they should be. But she is not indifferent to people, she is very caring about people. And if you felt that she was cold and indifferent then I am very sorry.” “But that’s how it came across,” Bassett replies, continuing, “I’m trying to lay out some groundwork for me personally here. This thing happened with [her]. I don’t trust anybody – my life has taught me that’s been useful.”
In March of 1994 she made her claim to Willwerth that she was an undercover writer whose false persona had not been directed into the therapy she felt she would have needed had her persona been real.
Although this indicates that Bassett was simply an upset client, it must be noted that Mack’s organization is not absolved of all responsibility; a formal research protocol should have been established, possibly entailing the hiring of therapists who could have provided therapy for clients in-house, rather than directing them to outside resources. The effects of the “certain distance” (as he put it) that Mack put between himself and Bassett by not becoming her therapist and not writing about her should have been more carefully considered.
The conversation provides the context of her complaint to Time magazine. But it does not necessarily prove that Bassett was not an undercover writer; one could reasonably expect that an undercover writer would record conversations for accurate reporting. But another fact concerning this recording adds to the likelihood that Bassett was an upset client. It also explains how this recording came to be in the possession of people other than Bassett herself.
In July 1993 (the year before she went to Time magazine) Bassett mailed this recording to Scott Jones, Ph.D., the director of the Human Potential Foundation – the conduit through which Laurance Rockefeller provided the major funding for Dr. Mack’s work. It would not be an exaggeration to call this foundation’s contributions the lifeblood of Mack’s organization. Along with the tapes, she included a letter that, as Mack’s attorney put it, “(falsely) describes Dr. Mack as repeating ‘claims regarding Dr. Jones and the CIA’.” The attorney continued, “it is difficult to understand why she would have written to entities which provided financial support for Dr. Mack’s work,” concluding, “This communication is hardly consistent with an investigative journalist going undercover.”
Footnote: Vanity Fair seems to endorse Bassett’s claim that Mack was “intrigued” by her “bizarre tale”, but her claim is of course simply her opinion. That Mack chose not to write about her may be more telling. Bassett told Time magazine that Dr. Mack believed her story about meeting Khrushchev on a spaceship, but her impression ignores the reality that nurturing a sense of trust is elemental to therapy. Indeed, a 1993 APA document titled “Statement on Memories of Sexual Abuse” to which Mack referred to for guidance on interviewing experiencers advised that “Psychiatrists should maintain an empathic, non-judgmental, neutral stance towards reported memories of sexual abuse. …Expression of disbelief is likely to cause the patient further pain and decrease his/her willingness to seek needed psychiatric treatment”. Those lines were in fact underlined by Mack on his own copy of the APA document.
- The concluding paragraph of the Vanity Fair article refers to a possible after-life communication from Dr. Mack that was shared with his former assistant Roberta Colasanti via a psychic. “It’s not what we thought”, is the message he is said to have related. Colasanti would like to clarify that this was in regards to our sense of what death is, rather than being about the nature of alien encounters. It was the second of two messages that two different psychics had said were being directed to her from the late Dr. Mack on the subject of life-after-life, the message being relevant to her due to a recent personal loss.