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    Book Tour: Flights of Fact or Fiction

    Reviewing Matthew Bowman’s The Abduction of Betty and Barney Hill: Alien Encounters, Civil Rights, and the New Age in America, Carlos Eire’s They Flew: A History of the Impossible, and Zadie Smith’s The Fraud.

    By Phil Christman

    April 9, 2024
    • Thomas Cathcart

      Wow! Phil Christman can write. He can teach me writing anytime, and I’m a writer. He can also teach me thinking.

    Book Tour is a bimonthly review by Phil Christman of new titles, each exploring a theme to trace hidden connections among books and writers.

    During the summer between middle and high school – the three months or so when you wait to see if a new and more presentable self will arrive in time to be useful – my two best friends told me they had seen a UFO. Their story was lengthy and involved, with strange and fast-moving lights pursuing them not only in the sky but on the ground. I don’t remember many details, but I remember that they were both fully committed to those details as they told them to me, the next day. We rarely discussed the incident afterward. I more or less believed them. I have no idea what either of them make of the whole thing now.

    Over the next several years of my education, and with greatest force during college, I came to understand that my willingness to believe them on their mere say-so made me in some sense a bad citizen of modernity. It’s not clear who lives in modernity and what its borders are, or even that it truly exists, but we seem to think that it does, and that it has rules, epistemological and political, that we ought to operate by. People who live in modernity, or who commute to it, do not, while they’re inside its city limits, accept UFO stories simply on the testimony of people they trust. They certainly do not believe reports of miracles simply because a lot of people swear to those reports. They believe that there are institutions and processes and best practices that knowing must submit to, as by social contract, and they regard any infraction of these rules as at best a little antisocial, like slightly exceeding the speed limit, at worst as a kind of treason. They may at times operate by other rules, and in their deepest selves they may think the world that modernity can know is only one layer of what really exists. Perhaps modernity and the ways of knowing and being that preceded it are best thought of as two realms living side by side, in superposition, like the two cities in China Miéville’s novel The City & The City (2009), whose residents must pretend not to see each other, though they stand on the same ground.

    I was already a bad citizen of modernity at that point, having been raised not only a Christian, but a fundamentalist. I thought (read: I had been told), for example, that the Earth was pretty young, that dinosaurs and men had walked it together, and that there was probably lots of evidence showing this, which the scientists were suppressing. As I knew no scientists personally – and as I was, like, fourteen years old – this seemed reasonable to me and not, say, an unholy piece of intellectual laziness and unearned arrogance. At the same time, my theological system didn’t necessarily dictate that I had to also believe in other people’s stories of UFO encounters. Without further details, the thing fit neither into a rationalist’s picture of the world, nor, cleanly, into mine. It was even then for me the sort of thing that William James winningly called a “wild fact.” I believed it because I believed my friends.

    If I remain, many years and many changes of outlook later, a bad citizen of modernity, a believer in miracles (at least those Christianity requires) and entertainer of weird possibilities, it’s not because I still hold the people who try to live in modernity in that same ignorant contempt. Rather it’s because the moral values that I see those people exemplifying, at their best – the cosmopolitanism, the civility, the secular awe at what is, the watered-down but real charity – can only really be accounted for in the language of the other place, the older order. I don’t mean this as a brag. It’s just one of those odd facts that a rational modern ought to love because it is a fact.

    Betty and Barney Hill, probably the most famous UFO abductees in history, were excellent citizens of modernity. One of the valuable qualities of Matthew Bowman’s The Abduction of Betty and Barney Hill: Alien Encounters, Civil Rights, and the New Age in America is that it recreates the intellectual world in which this apparently rather admirable and amiable couple lived, one that is as hard to imagine for many of us as the medieval era is. They were socially progressive – meaning not that they supported left-liberal social causes but that they thought history itself was actually, somehow, tending toward betterment. (Alien abductions strike me as much easier to believe in than that.) They worked for community uplift and the dissemination of scientific knowledge to the general public. Betty had survived a bad, abusive early marriage, and Barney a lifetime of white racism, but they thought that, as Howard Jones once sang, things could only get better. And they weren’t lazy about it. They worked to make things better. They were union members, civil rights activists, an interracial couple whose marriage was illegal in thirty other states. They were Unitarian, because their faith needed to be kindly, sensible, rational, and procedurally democratic, as they were.

    Driving home from a trip to Montreal one night in September 1961, they, like my friends, saw a UFO. Their initial version of the story was significantly less dramatic than my friends’:

    When Betty and Barney Hill awoke in their home at three in the afternoon on September 20, 1961, all that lingered in their memories’ earliest draft was a strange light in the sky that chased them down New Hampshire’s Route 3 through the mountainous Franconia Notch into the early morning of the night before. After they roused themselves, Betty wandered over to the closet and shoved everything she had worn the previous night deep into the back. The reasons why were not quite clear to her. Barney meanwhile examined his shoes with confusion. He did not remember them being scuffed on top. Later, Betty went to the kitchen to call her sister Janet.

    A few days later they reported their experience, such as it was, to the Air Force. (The thing could have been a Russian craft, for all anyone knew.) Betty sent a more detailed account to an organization that studied UFOs, and then, the following month, they spoke to Walter Webb, an astronomer; it was during this six-hour long conversation that Barney revealed that he felt as though his memories of that night were already occluded somehow, that there were bits he had hidden from himself. The month after that, Betty started to write about her nightmares surrounding the whole thing – more evidence, she must have felt, that certain details of the night had gone missing. By 1964, they were trying to recover these details through hypnosis, under the direction of a psychiatrist named Benjamin Simon.

    UFO abduction

    Chronicle / Alamy Stock Photo. Used by permission.

    It is the far more baroque story that they told to Simon that has become the canonical “Betty and Barney Hill story,” the one that appeared in newspapers across the country, that inspired John Fuller’s 1966 book The Interrupted Journey, that became a movie with James Earl Jones, that is repeated in breathless and frankly rather credulous tones by a hundred writers of quickie paperback books for ’70s and ’80s and ’90s children that all had titles like Weird Unsolved Stories or UFOs: Fact or Fiction? (It was in such a book that I first encountered the story myself.) Whether you believe in little green men or not, the expanded story is socially revealing. Barney Hill feels paranoid about driving through the Northeast to Montreal; he keeps a gun in the trunk. Smart man. The prevalence of French makes both Barney and Betty feel out of place. Betty doesn’t fully grasp how stressed her husband is, traveling through the kind of corn country where it’s easy to imagine a crowd of men in white sheets popping out. They see a light. It moves fast. It may have fins. Then, depending on whether one is reading Barney’s or Betty’s hypnotized monologues, the car dies, the aliens take the dazed drivers to their parked spacecraft, the Hills are separated and given physical examinations, Betty is painfully poked in the navel with a needle, and then a friendly functionary emerges to answer Betty’s questions and point to some helpfully explanatory star maps (that’s Betty’s version); or the helpless Hills are manhandled by hostile and Nazi-like creatures with strange, memorable eyes, who speak a language that sounds like “mum, mum, mum, mum” (Barney’s version). Betty describes the experience with wonder and a little exasperation – she says, in effect, “Say, look here, Mr. Alien, I want some answers” – while Barney acts like a man who expects, who has always on some level expected, to be lynched.

    Unsurprisingly, Barney is reluctant to discuss their experiences with government and scientific authorities. He has to be coaxed. It is Betty who calls the Air Force, Betty who seeks out the budding UFO community. She has information about the universe, and obviously, the rational, progressive institutions of the New Deal consensus are going to want to hear about it. When the Hills are dismissed as cranks, when their experience is reduced by their own hypnotherapist to the level of mere allegory, when Carl Sagan in “Cosmos” represents the Hills as a pair of stereotyped hicks, she is unbelieving, indignant. This isn’t how progress works! Progress is open and democratic! For the rest of her life, she will seek out those counter-institutions, those gatherings of cranks, who will take the Hills’ experience seriously on more or less the terms the Hills prefer. “I learned to distrust anyone who offers to analyze anything I find,” she later wrote. In this way, a partisan of modern rationality became an apostle of New Age credulity. And yet her optimism never left her:

    She wove conspiracy and high strangeness together and made of them a story meaningful to her. What did we know about the pilots of the UFOs, she asked? They seemed as though they were visiting Earth for the long term. They traveled in groups. They did not seem dangerous unless threatened. And finally, most important to Betty, “They must have extremely long lives or they have abolished death.”

    I finished this valuable book, which offers brief histories of everything from ufology to spiritualism to Unitarianism as it goes about its business, with a real affection for the Hills, and a true gratitude that they did not live long enough for Facebook.

    The Hills’s story, in both its bare version (lights in the sky) and its full, baroque flowering, is full of impossibilities. Even if one accepts that seemingly immortal aliens have landed on earth with messages of peace and rectal thermometers, one must deal with the inconsistencies in the Hills’ own stories, the marked difference in the putative aliens’ look and mood when they speak to positive, liberal Betty versus when they speak to a man who has experienced high levels of constant background racism. To handle this, Bowman does the thing that historians and social scientists usually do in these cases: He punts on all the fun questions and teaches the controversy:

    I am interested in the story of the Hills as an account of the shifting winds in American politics and culture in the second half of the twentieth century and, particularly, how one family – typical in some ways, quite atypical in others – followed them. I am less interested in exploring why Americans see strange things in the sky than in how the Hills in particular, some of the first Americans to have such a strange encounter, came to interpret what they had seen as something they called first “a flying saucer” and then “a UFO”; how they moved from believing merely that they had seen something strange to believing that they had been abducted by aliens, and how this process went hand in hand with their growing skepticism about mainstream authority in American life.

    Really, dude? That’s what you’re interested in? I would personally like to hear more about the things in the sky. I want to know what the deal was with those.

    It is this exact tendency in the social science that Carlos Eire, a prominent historian of early modernity and a National Book Award–winning memoirist, takes aim at in They Flew: A History of the Impossible (2023). To reduce it to bare summary, They Flew is a book about early modern levitators and bilocators, mostly though not exclusively Catholic Europeans. It is a history of miracles, wonders, and saints. Since one has not met many people who fly, or who appear in more than one place at a time – nor is one sure that one has met many saints, for that matter – one might be tempted, in writing a book on these subjects, to leave aside whether these things happened and talk about what the stories mean. (We don’t have to doubt meaning’s existence, heaven help us. We’re drowning in that stuff. Just pick up your phone and let all the meanings and interpretations sluice over you like lukewarm greywater.) However, Eire refuses this honorable dodge:

    As soon as these questions begin to pop up, we historians proudly bring out our brackets and wield them with all the epistemological brawn we can muster. “We bracket the question of whether this happened or not,” we say, and by that we mean that since we cannot prove that any of this hovering and flying happened, we put those questions aside and instead ask other ones, admitting that all we can analyze is the fact that some people believed that such things did happen.

    Indeed. A lot of people who would have gotten in trouble for lying really did attest that, for example, Joseph of Cupertino did a lot of flying while he was under the influence of the Holy Spirit, and that so did Teresa of Ávila, who found her flights mortifying and uncomfortable and who begged God to stop making her fly. We know that the sorts of people – fellow religious, mostly – who attested again and again to these miracles would have gotten in trouble for demonstrably lying, because they did: there are cases of false and scheming would-be levitators, as well as levitators on whom the jury remains out (Mary of Jesus of Ágreda). Eire mentions one case in which a woman with a rough case of stigmata got herself involved in a plot against a king, which brought on the friendly attentions of the Spanish Inquisition. (Avoiding the Inquisition was one of Teresa’s lesser motivations for wishing to stop flying.) It turned out that a little soap was all that was needed.

    Eire enters so deeply into the intellectual world of early modernity – a very different city from that of Modernity as we know it – that he ends up recapitulating exactly why we ended up with Modernity and its statutes. Both Catholics and Protestants were happy enough to acknowledge the miraculous, although the first generations of Calvinists and Lutherans insisted rather sternly that the age of miracles had ceased. (This tendency wore off just in time for the Great Awakening.) Protestants assumed that people could fly, or bilocate, or work strange wonders; it’s just that they did so through the power of Satan, or demons.

    The problem is that miracles have rhetorical significance; they don’t just sit there, meaning nothing and looking cool, like Warhol silkscreens.

    The problem that both groups faced is that miracles have rhetorical significance; they don’t just sit there, meaning nothing and looking cool, like Warhol silkscreens. If Teresa of Ávila, during deep mystical ecstasies, feels her soul rising, and her body (of necessity, for we are psychosomatic unities) follows, that means at a minimum that Teresa’s whole approach to prayer and spiritual activity is probably not totally off-base. But when miraculous deeds are attributed to humble, pious mystics in, say, two separate wings of the church that are busy execrating each other and accusing each other of heresy, it seems like we have to reject one or both miracles, no matter how apparently trustworthy the person to whom they are supposed to have happened.

    Once Protestants emerge on the scene, they try to make things simpler – all contemporary miracles are fake and the work of demons – but even they run into the same sorts of problems. Consider the Miracle of Laon, which Eire describes in passing: A girl gets demonically possessed. The local Huguenots try to help her, but can’t. Catholics show up to exorcise her, whereupon the demons obligingly proclaim their love of Calvin and his Geneva. (When a demon starts telling you exactly what you want to hear about the very people you’re trying to kill, you should probably take your next steps very, very deliberately.) The Catholics print up a bunch of pamphlets using this whole sorry episode as a talking point against the Reformation; the Calvinists just claim that the reports of the demons’ speech are Popery-as-usual. Once miracles are allowed into the discussion, everyone is going to use them to beef up their case; in this atmosphere, it may seem even an act of piety to disallow arguers from resorting to them.

    But what is an act of piety for one generation becomes a set of epistemological blinders for the next. (One might even say “an iron cage.”) Eire’s final chapter makes it clear that he intends to remove those blinders:

    Every age and culture has its own unquestionable beliefs, and our own tends to prize the rationality and superiority of unbelief as one of its core beliefs, especially in regard to denying the existence of a supernatural dimension. Such unquestionable pervasive beliefs – Troeltsch’s “social facts” – which William Blake called “mind-forg’d manacles” in 1794 and Max Weber spoke of as the “steel-hard casing” or an “iron cage” a century later, are difficult to detect and acknowledge, for they frame our thinking and are very much like the air we breathe…. And even when perceived as what they are – as difficult as that is to do – these manacles and cages are even harder to discard or annihilate.

    Eire makes an honorable run at it.

    “A history of the impossible,” Eire writes early in They Flew, “is a history of testimonies about impossible events.” We aren’t ultimately that disposed to believe reports that ignore our sense of how the world works; if an obvious flake or dingbat tells us that he has proof of life after death, we don’t generally take him seriously, even though very few of us would like to die. The miraculous is in contention at all, for any of us, either because of our own experiences, or because of the words – the bare words, however carapaced in, or canonized by, institutional authority – of people we have decided to trust.

    Of my UFO-sighting friends, one was just a guy; I haven’t seen him since the mid-2000s. The other, however, became my friend on a specific day sometime in the winter of 1991, because he jumped between me and a larger, older kid who was threatening me. We barely knew each other, and in the world where I spent most of my time then – the world of seventh grade – people did not do this kind of thing. His selfless act sealed my admiration forever. If a kid like that tells a kid like me that he sees a UFO, as far as I’m concerned, he saw a UFO.

    If that same kid grows up – as this one did – to be an adult who flirts with QAnon-ish conspiracy theories, it does not make QAnon less false. But it does constitute an epistemological crisis for those who believe in his goodness. Moral rightness seems as though it should confer some sort of protection against malign nonsense invented to weaken social bonds and pretextualize violence. Unfortunately, things don’t work this way.

    The impossibility that is examined in Zadie Smith’s superb new novel The Fraud is this: why an utterly honest and sensible man would lie. The Fraud examines the famous Tichborne case, in which a rich family’s heir, lost at sea for twelve years, suddenly popped up again, looking not at all like the Tichborne heir and possessing nothing like his bearing or manners. No one in the family bought it, except the mother, and a formerly enslaved man who had worked for the family, Andrew Bogle. But the Tichborne Claimant became a kind of folk hero, a con man made larger-than-life by the ardent belief in him of people who wanted to see aristocracy confuted.

    Bogle is the mysterious heart of Smith’s novel, which is written in short, grimly funny, aphoristic chapters. We hear what scraps of his own family history Bogle knows, from before Jamaica; we hear of the impossible-but-real atrocities of the sugar plantations, of the “treadmill” (a method of torture in which “they tied your hands to a giant treadmill, as if you were a donkey, and whipped you as you walked all day, until the trough beneath your feet filled with blood”). We hear of the woman Andrew Bogle loved, who after her encounter with this technological breakthrough has a religious vision in which the entire world is kept running by a giant treadmill on which Black people are forced to walk. We hear how Bogle is yanked away from her, to England, where love is “not passion but a kind of adding up – a consolidation.” He marries another woman, fathers children, and then, in one vertiginous sequence:

    When John was eight and Andrew seven, Elizabeth’s lungs filled with a persistent fluid that could not be drained. She gurgled and seemed to be drowning. John ran the half-mile to Upton but by the time Bogle was brought to his wife’s bedside she was dead. Everything he had worked for, every hope, every possibility and prospect for the future –

    “Bogle! Remarkable news: we will be moving to Tichborne Park in the autumn. My poor brother died on Tuesday – his title has passed to me. A move like this will always have its difficulties, of course, and I don’t forget your recent misfortune, but I can promise you Hampshire is beautiful country and a fine spot for a fresh beginning. Mrs. Doughty – Lady Doughty-Tichborne! – is keen that you bring your boys. She has even taken the trouble of finding a good Catholic school, it is not far from Reading. I do hope you will consider following her recommendation. She thinks of your welfare always, and an apprenticed boy with a little education is worth his weight in gold – and can usually be counted on to stay clean, besides.”

    Surely, one of the more telling and bitter paragraph breaks in the history of the novel.

    None of this detail really explains why, decades later, Bogle swears that the fraudulent claimant is the real Tichborne heir. The rich accumulation of believable data – some of it apparently told by Bogle to Smith’s other major point-of-view character, Eliza Touchet, housekeeper and lover to the windy Victorian novelist William Ainsworth – makes Bogle’s decision believable, but only in the sense that we can believe a three-dimensional character will do things that surprise us. Knowledge of other people expands the range of what we can imagine them doing even as it also determines the limits of that capacity.

    At one point in They Flew, Eire quotes the historian Lucien Febvre: “To comprehend is not to clarify, simplify, or to reduce things to a perfectly clear logical scheme. To comprehend is to complicate, to augment in depth. It is to widen on all sides. It is to vivify.” Smith has for years written essays that accomplish just this sort of widening-on-all-sides, but The Fraud is, to me, the first of her novels to do so with equal success. It is a wonder, a wild fact.

    Contributed By PhilChristman Phil Christman

    Phil Christman teaches first-year writing at the University of Michigan and is the editor of the Michigan Review of Prisoner Creative Writing.

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