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Book Review: Art, Life And UFOs by Budd Hopkins

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I recently received a copy of painter and UFOlogist Budd Hopkins’ memoir Art, Life And UFOs to review. I was of a mixed opinion as to whether to review it. The reason is a possible conflict of interest. More than 20 years ago I wrote a lengthy letter, replete with illustrations, of some of the more mystic/supernatural/paranormal/weird events that had taken place in my life until that point because many of my experiences were reminiscent of those described in Hopkins’ two best-selling 1980s books. Missing Time and Intruders — both of which helped popularize the whole claimed UFO abduction phenomenon which, along with the Satanic Cult craze, swept the country at the time.

I did not then, nor do I now, believe in the literal presence of UFOs and Abductions (for reasons I’ll get into), but I do believe that such claims (as with most paranormal claims) can rather easily be explained via the human mind’s perceptions, misperceptions, self-deceptions, willful lies, and unknown aspects of creativity — at least unknown to the masses. That Hopkins, a well-known, if not particularly good nor influential, member of the AbEx generation of painters did not realize this, even decades ago, said something to me about how much (or little) he truly understood creativity and himself. Of course, given that Abstract Expressionism was his choice of creative mode may well explain the general lack of insight.   

However, that all aside, I must be up front that my detailed exegesis of my experiences, and my attempts to correlate them to Hopkins’ classic narratives of abductions (which themselves are almost exact replications of centuries old abduction narratives by other supernatural beings from folklore), led to an "event" that needs to be revealed, so that anyone reading further will be able to discern any potential biases in my review which will be a) generally favorable as to the life narrative part of the book, and b) pretty critical of the AbEx and UFO portions of the book. Here’s what happened, all those years ago: a few months after I mailed my package, and followed up with a letter (both sent to his publisher) after no reply the first time, I got a reply the second time. It was a brief handwritten letter, written and signed by a woman, stating basically, "Thanks for writing, but your situation does not fit our needs." While I’m paraphrasing the whole (a bit longer, and which I, in youthful scorn over being patted on the head, ripped up), the italicized portion is a direct quote. It’s always stuck with me, and always seemed to me to be a de facto recognition, however offhandedly, by one of Hopkins’ pals/supporters/assistants, that there was a distinct agenda that Hopkins was pursuing, and that his "pursuits" were not, in any real way, credible science nor journalism.

I repeat this point because, in the memoir, Hopkins many times takes a sort of ridiculous pride in claiming he is a scientific methodologist, although his book clearly shows he does not even understand what that means. One simply does not blithely discard data that does not neatly fit into one’s package. One follows where evidence leads. One does not twist evidence to point to conclusions already reached. One does get the sense, though, that, at least in the memoir, Hopkins sincerely believes all he claims

So, there it is. Again, unlike many other critics, I have been up front about a possible area of conflicted interests. One area, though, to which there is no conflict is the fact that the memoir, published by Anomalist Books, is truly one of the worst edited and most poorly proofread books I’ve ever read. And I got the paperback edition. We’re not even talking about the initial, much less tenth, hardcover print, much less a galley copy. This is the first paperback run.

The book is divided into four major parts, and each part is divided into chapters. Part One is called "Beginnings," and deals with Hopkins’ youth and early adulthood. On page 15 of the book, Hopkins (born in 1931) goes into detail about suffering Infantile Paralysis from polio. What follows is a description of how his family jury rigged a device to help him circumambulate his way around his home, and how helpless and humiliated he felt. What is astounding is how premonitory this description is of the very themes of UFO Abduction that Hopkins would obsess over later in his life.

Whether or not Hopkins’ description of being a toddler wheeled around by his relatives, strapped down on a gurney-like device, is a real event that has been back-altered due to his mania over Abduction scenarios, or the reverse, that this event so resonated with him that he imbued it into the claims of Abductees he routinely hypnotized, the thing that is evident, to even a casual reader, is that Hopkins is utterly clueless of the fact that there is some connection (whatever that is). I mean, not a scintilla of self-awareness is evident, and the sad fact is that things like this, which, again, are obvious to even a casual reader, never even faze Hopkins. It’s truly startling.

By page 17, Hopkins’ prose becomes littered with words like "worried, feared, anxiety, depredations, fearful, nightmare, ominous, echoing, medicinal, stripped, wept, pleaded, weakened, terrifying," and "humiliating." Remarkably, and without an iota of irony, in the context of this description of a trip to a hospital, Hopkins ends his description thus: "Freud, I’m sure, could have come up with several cogent and fascinating reasons why they were so upsetting." 

All of the above quoted words, be they nouns, verbs, modifiers, are replete in every description of UFO Abductions, and in earlier accounts of classic mythic abductions before that. And, truth be told, is there a more Freudian thing in modern society than the idea that fetus-like aliens are kidnapping, raping, and sexually abusing people in their sleep, hovering over their beds like obstetricians?

By page 18 Hopkins discourses on his need for boundaries in art and life. He claims to love order and states that a friend once told him that "you have a need to make everything absolutely clear." Hopkins calls it a moral imperative. If this is not the credo of a Fundamentalist lacking the ability to understand the grays in life (as opposed to the alien Grays), then what is? Yet, again, Hopkins makes no such connections. He is utterly lacking in self-awareness. That he would be so void of this in his day to day dealings is one thing, but that in looking over galley proofs, and rereading the words he typed, no inner buzzer goes off is astonishing.

A further irony is that he, later in life, became an Abstract Expressionist artist and, despite claims to the contrary, AbEx is all about obfuscation of meaning, intent, and reason, and being against clarity. It invites imbuement and ambiguity over everything. It offers nothing, but invites everything. Yet, this is what Hopkins, the self-proclaimed Great Clarifier, chose as his career. Is it any wonder, then, that his artistic obfuscation could not satisfy his moral imperative? Thus, perhaps, the whole Abductee trope is a backlash against his straying from clarity in other areas?

This is from page 26: "Since all childhood traumas leave psychic scars, Welles’ radio program marked me in several ways." Hopkins is referring to Orson Welles’ infamous Halloween broadcast of H.G. Wells’ The War Of The Worlds. But, note his emphasis on scarring. Hopkins clearly buys into the current PC notion that everyone is a perpetual victim of life, in myriad ways, great and small. Yet, clearly, the overwhelming majority of people leave their childhoods behind. It’s simply not true that we are all the walking wounded, be it from the assault of bullies, abuse from elders, or any even worse things (terrestrial or not).

The book’s most engaging moments come from Hopkins’ accounts of life at home, as a child. His mother is severely short shrifted as a woman filled with phobias, whereas his father is portrayed as a no-nonsense military guy with strong racist and Anti-Semitic leanings. However, Hopkins does relay one telling incident, where he got into a non-fight with a Jewish boy who was smaller than he was, but whom Hopkins was scared of. Some time later, his father regaled a wartime couple the family was staying with about how little Hopkins beat the hell out of ‘the little Jew.’ Hopkins then relates the fact that the couple they were staying with were Jewish, and his shame over a) his father’s lies about the fight and b) his father’s bigotry. It’s a nice moment, although one gets the sense that Hopkins is backward imbuing a bit into the tale by exaggerating his knowledge of bigotry, as well as his outrage at his father.

Later in the book, Hopkins relates his father’s role in covering up his grandfather’s murder/suicide of his grandmother, and speculates the effects of this on his father’s bigotry. More interestingly would be how such an incident may have affected Hopkins’ own sense of security in his clan. Would he wonder if his father got the "going postal" gene from his own father? If so, would Hopkins worry that his own dad might one day retaliate against him for their disagreements in a spasm of violence? And, has Hopkins ever wondered if this murderous streak was passed on down to him? Clearly, the world of paranoia Hopkins has constructed about himself in the decades of UFOlogy suggest that there may be a link between his world view and the shattering of the self that a violence wracked and kyboshed family lineage offers.

A much better anecdote comes along on page 43, wherein Hopkins describes a scary moment that, again, is so manifestly connected to his whole Abductee obsession that it’s amazing he does not understand the anecdote’s relevance to his adult life’s Holy Grail. Hopkins describes the moments before a plane crash near his wartime Memphis, Tennessee home. Hopkins saw a plane flying out of control and low, too low for the airman he saw at an open door to safely jump from with his parachute. He gazed up and saw the doomed military man’s last moments, and then wonderfully puts himself in the doomed man’s place, a transposition of the self that is a common theme throughout Abduction literature.

Over and again, claimed Abductees talk about out of body experiences where they witness the clinical "horrors" the aliens inflict on them, but from a safe place somehow not in the real world, but existing on some higher plane of existence, and they are all related in the same tones of disconnectedness with which Hopkins relates the death of the World War Two flyer, with himself as the flyer looking down at little helpless Hopkins. Again, and I apologize for repeating this point, but any neutral reader has to be amazed at the stolidity Hopkins shows, for, assuming his honesty in relating his pre-UFO experiences, their connection to his later lifelong pursuit is uncannily cogent, if not actually prescient.

We do get an inordinate amount of time spent and written about Hopkins’ being fixated on gay sex — from accounts of college frat boy orgies and antics to Hopkins’ being the near permanent target of many predatory homosexual men in the 1950s — the most famous of these being the poet and art dilettante Frank O’Hara. This all occurs in Part Two of his tome, titled "Art." Hopkins naturally waxes on about all the AbEx painterly personalities he knew — the usual suspects: Jackson Pollock, Franz Kline, Robert Motherwell, Mark Rothko, Willem De Kooning, Clement Greenberg, as well as other celebrities of the New York art scene.

As for the photos and reproductions of Hopkins’ own art, well, first, as all but the last dinosaurian diehards of AbEx realize, the whole movement was a sham, one I, and many others, have debunked before. Second, even by the grossly limited claims of the movement, itself, Hopkins was clearly a follower, not an innovator, and few aesthetes of the highest order would afford him more than a polite chuckle, in terms of his art. One wonders if Hopkins’ "getting lost" in the AbEx shuffle might have anything to do with his rush to become Pope of UFO Abductionism. In fact, it’s debatable whether or not Hopkins’ UFO claims or art are a bigger stain on his credibility as a serious person in pursuit of "truth."

By page 114, he starts recounting the mental depressions of pals like Pollock and Rothko, and how both ultimately knew they were frauds (like the recently suicidal David Foster Wallace), even though, despite the evidence Hopkins presents to support these conclusion of the artists on themselves, Hopkins still gullibly swallows all the praise, yet, remarkably, calls James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake "impenetrable." Joyce’s silly book is the literary equivalent of AbEx painting, and like the paintings, is neither impenetrable nor complex. It is simply ill wrought and dull masturbation in letters.

Hopkins then segues into encounters with Beatnik writers and poet John Ashbery (among other poets, like Mary Oliver and Stanley Kunitz, he has known), before delving into an August, 1964 UFO sighting that kicked off his obsession. Truth be told, Hopkins’ sighting was rather banal, and simply not in the least bit remarkable. The sightings of UFOs that I (and many others) had during New York’s 1977 Blackout were far more interesting, in terms of what was actually seen in the sky. Hopkins also spends a good portion of the rest of the book trying to link his obsession with real scientific research; going so far as to link UFOlogy with Global Warming, and later comparing his plight to that of…you got it, Charles Darwin.

Then comes the recounting of the classic Betty and Barney Hill case of alleged abduction. This was the case that sundered the earlier paradigm of UFOs in the The Day The Earth Stood Still vein, with human-like aliens out to save mankind from itself. But, given the little variance in this initial meme, to most people, this is a good first proof that the Abduction mythos is internally generated. Many studies have shown that groups of humans can witness an event and give totally different assessments. Taped experiments have show a professor giving a lecture, and a person rushing in to steal something of his. The class of dozens of students will then give wildly varying descriptions of what the thief looked like, where he or she entered from, what they stole, what the professor did, etc. In fact, human memory is so fallible that hundreds, if not thousands, of men have already been released from prison because DNA evidence showed that they were wrongly charged and convicted of rape; and, tellingly, often with the rape victim’s swearing and claiming without a doubt, that the man she pointed to raped her. Only he didn’t, because DNA is more reliable than human memory.

Think of it. A person holds one in an intimate act, against one’s will, and even then, a large portion of the alleged rape victims are shown to have (likely, most honestly) been 100% wrong. By contrast, Hopkins, even in his book, acknowledges what I knew decades ago — that he discards Abductee claims that do not fit into his strict paradigm. In effect, he is pre-screening out claims that don’t fall into his prescribed model. This simply is not science, much less good science.

This leads into Part Three: "UFOs," unfortunately, the longest section of the book. Hopkins’ main points in reiterating cases he’s dealt with in his earlier books is that he kept some details a secret, as to weed out the ‘real’ Abductees from the poseurs (as if there could be only one true set of alien beings on the planet, were one to accept any — and Hopkins posits this as not only proof, but self-aggrandizingly believes it a Rosetta Stone). Great, although he still offers no real ‘proof’ as to what these are, even decades after the cases.

By page 292 Hopkins again confirms that he is utterly clueless about the scientific method. Re: some famed abduction cases, he writes, "Even worse for the skeptical position, I had found no disconfirming (emphasis Hopkins) evidence in any of them." He also writes of telling someone who asked him, that he "no longer had the luxury of disbelief." Wow! If that’s not a Fundamentalist credo then what is? In science, there is no need for disconfirming evidence. The bulk of the task falls upon the claimant, and Hopkins and his ilk have still, decades later, yet to provide a single bit of real evidence. The narrative then takes on an increasing tone of paranoia and aggrandizement, as Hopkins delves into hypnosis, again blithely unaware that the suggestibility of that state often renders information gotten useless, and that few courts nowadays even allow such as admissible evidence.

The rest of the book follows down a dreary path, with Hopkins basically talking of negative celebrity reactions to his UFO endeavors: Shirley MacLaine mocked one of Hopkins’ Abductee stars (interestingly, although Hopkins thinks little of pop artist Andy Warhol, his UFO coterie is structured almost exactly the same way as Warhol’s Factory — replete with Abduction Superstars) — heaven forfend an actress might be able to discern another; Communion author Whitley Strieber betrayed Hopkins (and also became the lone UFO Abductionist with a bigger name and public profile); and a perceived diss from astronomer Carl Sagan, who asked Hopkins to let him know of the next Abduction case that was interesting. Of course, when Hopkins supplied yet another nicely weeded and "approved" case, one which Sagan did not find "interesting," Hopkins again feels betrayed. But, who’s to blame for such a situation? The man who cannot understand why others would not share his obsessions, or the dispassionate scientist?

Then, on page 373, Hopkins claims that the general intelligence of most of the art world is not high, and he’s correct. But, given his lapses of judgment about his own life and pursuits, he likely had no sense of the irony when he reiterated that old saw. Nor is there a hint of irony when Hopkins separates himself from the sad case that was John Mack, accusing Mack of a sort of New Age Fundamentalism, even as Hopkins’ own Fundy tendencies are on full display in the book. I guess this is what Fundies do, they argue over whose Fundamentalism is more fundamental. Great.

The book’s fourth and final section is called "A Few Final Thoughts." Its only real relevance is to relate an anecdote about the painter Edward Hopper and allow Hopkins to summarize (or attempt to) his current plight. It’s a rather whimpering end to a book that makes such grandiose claims. And, Hopkins is merely a straightforward and unadorned wordsmith. There is no soaring poesy in his prose, nor is there any great structural effect in his book’s architecture.

As for the actual life tale Hopkins weaves; aside from his celebrity encounters, very little of depth is revealed about the man. Would that he had done more self-examination, and actually understood the many instances (as I’ve pointed out) where he had opportunities to understand his own Fundamentalist tendencies (despite a liberal view of politics). Aside from being a Fundy, Hopkins seems to live a life filled with fear, despair, and gloom. He does not recognize, as example, that there are very sane, explicable reasons for things that mystify him, and most of these things have been taken seriously by the very sorts of people Hopkins’ dismisses as mere ‘debunkers,’ with the same curtness he claims they treat him and his claims. Alien ‘scoop marks,’ as example, are a classic example of psychosomatic illness manifesting itself bodily. After all, there are documented cases of stigmata, so are mere scoop marks implausible for people under the assumption they’ve been abducted by all-powerful aliens? As mentioned earlier, human memory is unreliable, and memories are utterly fungible. Recent years have shown a remarkable advancement in the studies of things such as sleep paralysis, and hypnogogic and hypnopompic states, and how they render remarkable experiences that seem real as alien abductions.

My personal take, based upon my own life experiences and the wielding of intellect and logic, suggests that UFO abductions are merely feeble examples of rote unconscious creativity, whereas my own experiences differ in details (although similar in syllabus), and those details are excellent examples of a profound and deep creativity aborning. How much of paranormal experience is the result of frustrated creativity morphing things into the trite narratives that most non-creative sorts are wanly capable of creating? After all, the likelihood is that these narratives (be they Abductionism, crop circles, Virgin Mary sightings, etc.) are just unconscious poor attempts at trying to make one’s mundane existence seem important. Few, of course, seem to recognize this Occam’s Razor answer. Hopkins even goes so far as to draw a line in the sand between UFO enthusiasts and artists, claiming that they are virtually separate domains that only he bestrides like a Colossus, whereas, in my decades of experience, in four distinct artistic regions (three real world American states and the cyber-world), this is 180 degrees from reality. Most artists I’ve known (in the thousands) are fascinated by not only UFOs, but all things paranormal. Just Google Mystic Poetry (one of dozens of subgenres) and one can see the Internet brims with artists and artist wannabes rapt by the world of unexplained phenomena.

As for Hopkins? In a sense, the question of whether or not Hopkins is a True Believer or a con man is a version of the query over whether or not Hitler was a real Anti-Semite or just an opportunist. If Hopkins is a con man, he’s not that good at the game, and if the former, well, what more is there to be said? At least Mack had a career to risk for his beliefs, so one could more easily believe he was a True Believer. Add this to the equation- Hopkins is involved in the big time arts world; one of the most narcissistic endeavors going. Many artists also delve right into the mythos that they are monsters in the making; a point Hopkins acknowledges in the book as one talked about in his circle. Imagine an activity more monstrous than mesmerizing people and subtly (and possibly unconsciously, on Hopkins’ part) manipulating their recall? This seems a legitimate possibility, as Hopkins has, as shown above, has an outright scorn for all UFO percipients whose narratives do not match up with his own Fundamentalism’s version. To Hopkins, memory is not malleable, but a good facsimile of what must have been (emphasis mine).

If Hopkins really wants to show he is open to letting his claims withstand scientific rigor, there is a very simple way to do it: publish the real information withheld, and let scientists examine it. But if he did so it’s likely to be so wan and explicable that there would be no straws left for Hopkins to suck on. Of course, his own paranoia over his opponents (be they scientists or rivals like Strieber) will not allow this. But, paranoia aside, Hopkins’ Art, Life And UFOs is a book whose main value, if any, in years to come, will be in how it allows critics and historians of American culture’s fads deal with the quasi-religious movement that was UFOlogy, and its subcult of Abductionism. As for Hopkins, this book may just have gotten himself the minor immortality every artist seeks, but which his own artistic work’s worth precludes. How’s that for sticking it to your critics?

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About Dan Schneider

  • http://preciouscargo.blogspot.com Peter L. Winkler

    “I mailed my package, and followed up with a letter (both sent to his publisher) after no reply the first time, I got a reply the second time. It was a brief handwritten letter, written and signed by a woman, stating basically, “Thanks for writing, but your situation does not fit our needs.”

    It sounds to me like the publisher mistook your material for an unsolicited submission of a book proposal or manuscript. “Does not fit our needs” is classic rejection letter boilerplate.