The Truth is Out There?

What exactly do aliens have to do with civil rights? What would drive supposedly sane people to believe something that defies all rational explanation? Why exactly are we so fascinated in what (or who) may exist outside the threshold of our world when we already have more than enough trouble to last lifetimes contained within our own borders? These are the questions that Matthew Bowman interrogates in his latest book The Abduction of Betty and Barney Hill, a rigorously researched historical account of an alleged alien abduction of a married couple in 1961.

The story of the UFO sighting and subsequent abduction, told first by Barney and Betty Hill and later propagated during the media frenzy that followed, is one that exists within a very particular and complicated moment in American history. It is this cultural and social context which Bowman is most interested in exploring.

The Hills were an interracial couple during a time when the civil rights movement was just beginning to rise to the forefront of the national conversation. Tensions were climbing rapidly as society began to splinter into factions of those who sought to preserve the status quo and those who sought to build a more progressive future. The 1960s brought forth a tidal wave of tumultuous changes to the social order, and one outcome of those changes was an atmosphere of fear and distrust aimed primarily towards outsiders, whether those “outsiders” took the form of people of different races, Communists, or people who simply chose to pursue lifestyles that existed outside the norm. It is no shock that public attention turned towards the ultimate foreigners: beings from outer space.

Bowman provides useful background information on the Hills’ life pre-abduction, describing how the Hills entered the civil rights movements as activists, bright-eyed and hopeful about the future of race relations in America. They were both fervent advocates of desegregation and believed that harmony between Black and white people was only feasible through mutual understanding. However, the conflicts that emerged throughout the social changes of the 60s, including the brutality inflicted upon activists and apparent lack of substantial progress and support from the government for their cause, eroded their trust in that idealized future of peaceful coexistence as well as in the institutions which they had once believed could be fixed.

Perhaps disappointingly to readers hoping for more anecdotes on little green creatures in pizza-shaped saucers, the account of the night of the abduction is probably the sparest part of the book. This is most likely due to the enigma surrounding the veracity of the events in its various retellings over the years, which in its earliest form began with the description from Betty Hill of what resembled a star falling upwards sighted from inside their car and then from Barney Hill the observation of gray-skinned humanoid figures in black military uniforms peering at them through a window in the spaceship. Afterwards, following a series of hypnosis sessions which supposedly unearthed the repressed memories of their experience, the Hills’ account expanded to include an actual abduction in which they were taken into the saucer and conversed with and had tests performed upon them by their extraterrestrial captors.

Beyond their foggy memories, the Hills offered a few items of physical evidence to support their claim that something inexplicable indeed passed that evening in New Hampshire: a broken watch, a dress with a mysterious chemical stain, strange dusty markings on their car. There was no smoking gun irrevocably proving the existence of life outside Earth, only the shared conviction between two people that they had undergone the unfathomable. And it was this fervent conviction that led them on a quest to share their story and gain a deeper understanding of their experience.

Following the Hills along on their quest for knowledge, Bowman introduces us to a myriad of intriguing and eccentric characters, including ufologists, other alleged abductees, psychics, hypnotists, and many figures involved in the growing New Age movement. The intermingling of spirituality and science is a common theme throughout the book, as we see the Hills’ concept of science and scientific inquiry evolve from an elite institution gatekept by an educated few to a more sprawling esoteric project in which knowledge seekers need no academic credentials to be considered credible.

This leads to the central thesis of the book, which is that when institutions like the government or scientists are perceived to have failed in their capacity to inform and protect the public, people like the Hills who already live a stigmatized existence eventually turn to unconventional (and often dubious) means to discover the truth and gain validity on their own. Although it may be easy to dismiss the Hills as kooks, or even as conmen attempting to capitalize on the media attention brought by their abduction story, it is hard to ignore the fact that no matter how eloquently the Hills attempted to sway the public onto their side they never could lose their permanent place in the fringes. Unsurprisingly, many critics of the Hills stated that it was the psychological trauma of being an interracial couple that had stoked the alien delusion.

October 26, 1966 headline from The Washington Post illustrates public fascination with UFOs

All in all, The Abduction of Betty and Barney Hill is a book about how we reconcile science, religion, authority, and the experiences that may threaten the integrity of all three. It is also just as much a book defining the attitudes of our current era as it is a book about the sixties. In reading it, I could not help but see flickers of the same cultural anxieties which permeate contemporary society. The continued distrust in institutions like the government or the CDC, to give the most blatant example, has led many people to reject the conclusions drawn by scientific research and join fringe anti-vaccination movements.

Furthermore, the conspiracy theories which first grew in popularity during the 60s depicting politicians as willfully deceiving the public (conspiracies which, after the Vietnam War and the Nixon administration’s implosion, seemed arguably well-justified) are with just a few tweaks and name changes practically identical to the speculations of D.C.’s swampy underbelly circulating social media in the year 2024. I also frequently thought about our cultural preoccupation with astrology, as well as its specific connotations of popularity among marginalized groups–whether politically motivated or not, surely we are still seeking out answers to all our burning questions in the stars.

The stories we tell about flying saucers and the little men inside them always seem to lead back to our own universe, to the nature of humanity and our never-ending quest to better understand ourselves, each other, and our place in the grand scheme of things. Bowman is as much a historian of the sixties as he is of our present day, and in his book we may not find any satisfying answer to the question of why institutions consistently fail their citizens and progress is so slow to come, and certainly not to the question of whether or not the Hills actually boarded a spaceship or if life exists at all outside our tiny blue planet. In fact, we may find ourselves with even more lingering questions than when we began. Yet it is perhaps this open-endedness that will be most satisfying to the believers and skeptics alike, as we continue to earnestly seek out the truth wherever we may find it.

Recommended further readings from HPNL and other libraries:

Barkun, Michael. A Culture of Conspiracy : Apocalyptic Visions in Contemporary America. University of California Press, 2003.

Denzler, Brenda. The Lure of the Edge : Scientific Passions, Religious Beliefs, and the Pursuit of UFOs. University of California Press, 2001.

Lewis, James R. The Oxford Handbook of New Religious Movements. Oxford University Press, 2004.

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