It has become an iconic alien abduction story. Horror author Whitley Strieber (whose early hits included Wolfen and The Hunger) and his family split their time between their apartment in New York City and their out-of-town holiday home… which in true horror style is an honest to goodness cabin in the woods. Surprise guests arrive in the form of little grey UFOnauts who take away Strieber in the middle of the night, mess with his head, and stimulate his prostate a bit with a fancy vibrator. Under hypnotic regression, Strieber remembers all this and comes to the conclusion that this has been happening all his life – that he, his father before him, and his son after him are a line of abductees, destined to be taught important spiritual information and lovingly pegged by a big-eyed ancient space goddess. At the end of the book, he sits down and thinks about triangles for a while.
Communion was, for a time, the book on alien abduction. During that brief cultural space when alien abductions were a red-hot subject, Communion ended up becoming such a widely-cited text on the subject – the book people waved around to try and persuade sceptical audiences of the reality of the phenomenon, and the book which many abductees claimed resonated so closely with them.
It’s rather odd that it has that status, considering how absolutely bizarre the book gets in some of its aspects, particularly towards the end. I can only assume that most readers got through the early descriptions of abduction experiences – undeniably creepy and haunting that they are – and perhaps a few of the hypnosis sections in the middle of the book before their attention wavered and they sort of gave up. Or possibly it’s the case that, as is very frequent in this field, people cherry-picked: they took the bits which supported their personal visions and theories about the abduction experience onboard as fact, whilst writing off bits which didn’t fit as Strieber filtering the information through his own worldview.
Strieber’s worldview is certainly eccentric; contrary to many of the claims people make about Communion, and the narrative he tries to frame, he is far from a rationalist, materialist sceptic at the start of the story. He claims to not have much interest in UFOlogy, but as we shall see, he has a deep interest in a number of esoteric subjects and philosophies – more than you’d really expect from a James Randi-style atheist materialist – and it is not only possible but likely that his whole abduction schtick is an exercise in working with these ideas.
Strieber’s day job as a horror author puts him in good stead for the purpose of writing Communion in some respects, but not in the way you’d think. You see, Strieber doesn’t bestow upon the book an obviously novelistic structure – which would surely encourage people to treat it as fiction – and he also seems to be aware that his reputation as a dreamweaver and visionary could provide a barrier to people believing in his sincerity. However, I do believe that here and there Strieber says a few things which are more reminiscent of an author defending a narrative they’ve invented than a witness detailing their direct experience.
For instance, early on in his narrative Strieber mentions that quite often in the incidents he describes, he responds to stuff in unusual ways – like when he is lying in bed and hears noises from downstairs but, on checking the burglar alarm panel, sees no sign that any of the alarms have been triggered, so lies back down despite the noises continuing. Strieber tries to make it sound like these inconsistencies of motivation are a spooky element of the phenomenon in question, but I’m not so sure.
For one thing, finding yourself responding to something weird in a way which doesn’t make sense to you is a hallmark of dreams. For another, if Strieber doesn’t have to explain why be does what be does at any particular moment, that makes the fiction author’s job remarkably easier. As a novelist he would well know this and would have likely had numerous conversations with editors and readers alike along the lines of “Why didn’t this character do X?” or “What are the characters’ motivations here?” It feels like Strieber is, ahead of time, trying to fend off such objections. In other words, he’s engaged in an exercise in managing reader expectations – something an author must do when writing fiction, but which witnesses describing a personal experience do not need to do at all.
Then, of course, there’s times when Strieber does stuff in the book which seem completely ridiculous on the face of it, and we just have to accept it, under circumstances where no alien intervention can be called on to explain why Strieber’s just acted like a big doof. The aliens might have mind control powers, but those probably do not extend to Budd Hopkins – the abstract artist-turned-UFO investigator who was one of the major drivers behind the mid-1980s explosion of interest in alien abductions, and whose book Intruders is second only to Communion itself in terms of its influence on the scene at the time.
That makes it unusual when Strieber declares his intention not to use any hypnotherapist to whom Hopkins had made previous referrals, so as to avoid bias towards a UFO-friendly diagnosis… only to plump for Donald Klein as soon as Hopkins recommends him, completely undermining the purpose of choosing a hypnotherapist independent of Hopkins.
Of course, if his head was already stuffed with half-remembered UFOlogical lore and a strong suspicion, which he keeps trying to avoid take seriously, that he really had been abducted by aliens, then arguably it doesn’t matter who Strieber’s hypnotist was – he was already perfectly primed by Hopkins and his own subconscious to come out with an abduction story. It’s also evident from the transcripts of the hypnosis sessions that Budd Hopkins was sat right there, priming Strieber on what to expect and yes-anding him. (“It’s often like this. Beginning moments are the worst. And after that, it gets easier.”) Later, when Anne Strieber is undergoing her own hypnotic regression sessions with a different doctor, Budd Hopkins entirely takes over one of the sessions.
In short, despite being vaguely aware of the necessity to ensure that he goes to a hypnotic regression therapist independent of Hopkins to maintain the credibility of the testimony derived, Strieber entirely subjects himself to Hopkins in this matter. He doesn’t go to someone that Hopkins had previously sent people to, but he accepts Hopkins’ hand-picked candidate and had Hopkins sit in on the sessions. The way that Strieber emphasises the point about how Klein wasn’t one of Hopkins’ usual go-to hypnotists, but he completely fails to cover for anything else, puts me in mind of a stage magician who demonstrates to the audience that there’s nothing up his sleeves but fails to disguise the radio earpiece in his ear that his assistant will be giving the answers for the card trick through.
Let’s go over some theories to explain Strieber’s odd behaviour here.
- Strieber is making everything up, possibly in conjunction with Hopkins, and whilst he makes the pretence of looking for independent input, he’s smart enough to realise that he can’t claim that Klein wasn’t recommended to him by Hopkins or that Hopkins wasn’t in on the sessions, so he might as well put it out there in the book so that at least nobody could accuse him of concealing those facts.
- Strieber is ignorant of any sort of scientific or other investigative technique and is extremely credulous, and really did believe that not choosing one of Budd’s go-to hypnotists was sufficient to avoid undue influence, and Communion is basically the story of how Budd Hopkins gaslit Strieber into thinking he’d been abducted and Strieber taking that idea and riding with it hard.
- Budd Hopkins is an agent of the aliens who let him their mind control technology to help dupe Strieber.
- As #3, except that there are no aliens, just MKUltra.
Then again, at least Strieber feels like his experiences with the aliens was broadly positive, anal play notwithstanding. Who knows, maybe if he’d gone to a different therapist, outside of Budd Hopkins’ sphere of influence entirely, he’d discover that he’d had a traumatic experience in a past life which formed the basis of his odd experiences, or he’d discover that he was subjected to Satanic Ritual Abuse as a child and was haunted by demons.
Strieber puts a lot of weight on Klein’s assessment that he is not having an episode of psychosis – but that’s a very specific diagnosis. Strieber seems to be under the impression that, in the absence of any other diagnosable psychiatric disorder, he can’t be delusional, but as I understand it that just isn’t the case – it’s entirely possible to be delusional without having any other form of mood or personality disorder. Overall, Strieber’s approach to mental illness seems largely based on social prejudices and media depictions rather than actual reality, which I guess is testimony to how little he actually listened to Klein.
Other aspects of the book provide further evidence that Strieber realises that some facts about his past and ideas he’s expressed to others might put the lie to the idea that he was a sceptic prior to all this, so he takes the approach of acknowledging these facts but attempting to minimise their significance. For instance, Strieber claims to have had little prior interest in UFOs, despite his brother buying him a copy of Jenny Randles and Pete Warrington’s Science and the UFOs for Christmas shortly prior to the first abduction – an absolutely bizarre gift to buy someone who wasn’t deep into UFOs.
In fact, Strieber even admits to having prior links to Budd Hopkins – he claims that he’d been aware of Hopkins via the art scene, and since apparently Hopkins lived about 10 minutes away from the Striebers’ home in the city, it seems highly likely that they’d have previously met through the local art scene if not through other avenues. (Strieber even has Hopkins’ phone number to hand to call him up, after reading in Science and the UFOs about Hopkins’ involvement with abductees.)
Perhaps most significantly, Strieber admits to having read years previously about the Betty and Barney Hill case – the first really widely-reported alien abduction incident, and one which has a ton of parallels with the incident Strieber describes here, right down to the sexualised nature of the aliens’ interactions with him. We’re coming here to a suspiciously specific level of disinterest in UFOlogy. Can you really claim to be wholly disinterested in a subject if your relatives buy you books about it as presents (books you read in short order after receipt, at that), you know current major figures in the field, and you are able to name significant decades-old cases, having read about them at the time?
Perhaps his biggest habit from his past Strieber has to account for is a habit for telling tall tales. Strieber talks at one point about making up stories about stuff in the past – seeing a wolf by the side of the road, being scared at a parade as a child by Mr Peanut, being at the infamous University of Texas clock tower massacre. He implies that these are screen memories, which he was compelled to repeat to cover up his abduction experiences – but this also feels like anther case of Strieber trying to get in his defence in first in case people dug into his background and discovered this history. (The fact that at 13 he’d told a friend that aliens had shown him how to make an anti-gravity device, for instance, would otherwise be a gap in the story that he had no inkling of his contacts with aliens prior to 1985.)
The University of Texas incident has caused repeated trouble for Strieber in particular; a while after Communion came out, Strieber changed his mind and decided that he probably was there after all – but the details he gives out about what he saw (mentioning seeing a young boy riding a bicycle shot dead) didn’t happen. In the face of this and later debacles, such as the one surrounding his book The Key, it seems impossible to avoid one of three conclusions about Whitley Strieber:
- Strieber is a self-admitted liar, who tells outlandish stories to people for reasons he doesn’t really unpack and may not be able to enunciate. In which case, none of his evidence can be taken at face value without corroboration independent of Strieber.
- Strieber has severe memory issues and genuinely can’t tell the difference between a story he’s made up and a real thing that happened to him, and as a result if he tells himself a story often enough he’ll start believing it’s true. In which case, again, he’s a deeply unreliable witness and without independent verification nothing he says can be trusted.
- Strieber is consciously and deliberately bullshitting for profit and attention, continuing a habit stretching back to childhood. In which case if he says the Sun’s rising in the East you should still go to the window to check.
In short, with Strieber as with so many other things in life, we should apply the Littlefinger Rule: if someone specifically tells you that they cannot be trusted, take them at their word and don’t trust them.
Late in the book, Strieber discloses that he has in fact had occult and esoteric interests dating back decades – having been a member of the Gurdjieff foundation and studied his thinking and that of Ouspensky and others for some fifteen years. This seems to be a big influence on the final chapter, in which Strieber has a sit down and thinks about triangles for a bit, and would apparently be a big theme in Transformation, the followup book.
Now, part of Gurdjieff’s entire teaching method involved being as obscure as possible and deliberately hiding the core of what he was talking about, since he tended to think that if you didn’t do the work to actually puzzle a lot of this shit out you wouldn’t get the benefit. I can well believe someone coming from that background constructing a hoax such as Communion for the purpose of propagating their personal spiritual, ecological or philosophical beliefs.
And when Strieber tells us at the beginning that he was intending his next book to deviate from the genre fiction he was known for in favour of pondering a bunch of big questions – precisely the big questions he claims the visitors have been teaching him about – well. It’s rather convenient that the visitors’ plans and Strieber’s plans happened to coincide so well, isn’t it?