C.D.B. Bryan of "Close Encounters Of The Fourth Kind"

By Sean Casteel


C.D.B. Bryan is a journalist and author of the 1976 bestseller Friendly Fire, a gritty, brutally honest look at the impact the Viet Nam War had on this country. He has also been published in "The New York Times Magazine," "The New Republic," "The New Yorker," and most of the other leading magazines, and has earned the kind of reputation as a journalist that demands he be taken seriously.

Bryan recently came out with a new book called Close Encounters Of The Fourth Kind: Alien Abductions, UFOs, And The Conference At M.I.T. (Alfred A. Knopf, 1995) in which he reports on the 1992 scientific conference held at The Massachusetts Institute Of Technology in order to examine "the findings of various investigators studying people who report experiences of abductions by aliens, and the related issues of the phenomenon." The five day conference was chaired by M.I.T. Professor of Physics David Pritchard and Harvard Professor of Psychiatry John Mack. As one of the few members of the media invited to attend, Bryan was intrigued enough by what he saw and heard to investigate the subject in book-length form in an attempt to answer the question: If what these abductees are saying is happening to them isn't happening, what is?

I spoke to C.D.B. Bryan by phone from his home in Connecticut, and asked how he felt his book had been received so far.

"Well, I haven't had any responses from the reading public," Bryan said, "but I have heard from people in the field who said my book was the kind of book that John Mack should have written. You know, that it was an objective look at the phenomenon from somebody outside. I think John Mack is disappointed that I didn't come out and say that I believed that these people are being abducted by aliens in UFOs. And I'm not sure that they are. But what I do think is that something is going on here, and that just to disregard it out of hand because the subject is unpopular or associated with flakey people is a mistake."

Bryan admitted that tackling the subject of UFO abduction entailed a certain amount of risk, especially for a professional journalist like himself.

"You write about this subject," he said, "and you can get tarred with the same brush that tars the contactees. But I don't give a damn about that, you know? I'm going to be sixty next year, and I've been writing and supporting myself as a writer for thirty-five years. And critics come and go, but I'm still here."

"What I care about," Bryan continued, "is that here is a subject that is really interesting. And one of the luxuries of being a free-lance writer is that you can follow your curiosity. Were some of these abductees off the wall? Sure, some of them were. But not enough of them to disregard the phenomenon. And if it's real, if it's true, then it's a hell of a lot bigger story than Bosnia and O.J. Simpson."

Bryan said that some of the articles written about his Close Encounters Of The Fourth Kind have asked the question "Why is a journalist with his reasonably good credentials risking all of that to do this book?"

"Well, I'm risking it," Bryan explained, "because I think the subject is compelling and I think something's going on. And I don't have any idea what it is, but I'm certainly not going to laugh at people like Mack and Pritchard who take such risks. Nor am I going to laugh at the abductees who are in such obvious pain."

Bryan said that he had learned that often an abductee wants very much to be told he's crazy. "John Mack had a wonderful story," Bryan said, "about a University administrator telling him the story of his abduction. And Mack is listening to this guy and sees the guy is getting increasingly upset and finally Mack asks 'What's the matter?' And the guy says, 'You're not telling me I'm crazy.' You see, if you're crazy you can take Prozac or go see a shrink. But if this stuff is going on--and here is where Mufon and John Mack and Budd Hopkins and all of us who have looked into this have trouble--it's fascinating, but if it's real, then what the hell is going on? I mean, that's truly terrifying."

Bryan said that, while he has grown more skeptical about the truth of alien abductions since putting some time and distance between himself and the book, he still cannot explain away everything he learned while working on it.

"The five key dimensions that John Mack talks about," Bryan said. "The repeated, consistent details, the absence of any diagnosed mental illness, the physical changes, the association with UFOs, reports by children. Nothing I can come up with, and believe me I've looked, fits all the basic dimensions of the abduction phenomenon better than exactly what the abductees are saying."

At the M.I.T. conference, Bryan spoke to Robert Bigelow, the Las Vegas entrepreneur who was one of the backers of the conference and the Roper Poll on "Unusual Personal Experiences" designed by Mack, Hopkins, and David Jacobs.

"When I asked Bigelow what he thought was going on," Bryan recalled, "he said, 'Either it's a new psychiatric phenomenon, or it's real.' And what's interesting is that nobody has come up with the psychiatric illness that corresponds with what these people are seeing. And I think by now several thousand, or certainly several hundred conservatively, have been given very detailed psychiatric examinations--you know, tests like the Minnesota Multi-Phasic Personality Inventory, and they don't seem to be off the scale."

Of the many explanations offered for the alien abduction phenomenon, Bryan said, "My own favorite is 'The Overlapping Realities,' where we have frogs who can only see shades of gray, and we think we're superior beings because we see colors. We may be frogs to whoever these beings are. Because I don't think it's extraterrestrial, by the laws of physics and whatnot. I think if they're here, they're here."

So, a journalist from the mainstream enters the study of alien abductions from sheer curiosity and sees enough hints of the truth and enough fascinating, tantalizing possibilities to stay curious.

As Bryan said in Close Encounters Of The Fourth Kind, "If the conference, and my subsequent interviews and discussions with its participants and investigators, failed to provide me with 'clear and convincing evidence' that these abductees experienced extraterrestrial visitation, I did come away a believer in the sincerity and merit of their quest."