Working for years in a prison, sometimes you come to wonder about truth.  Would an inmate’s story, if told from someone else’s perspective, sound completely different?  After hearing thousands of stories, sometimes you listen, but you don’t necessarily believe.  You learn to live in a world of “as if”; maybe if you believe in the reality of a bus, it will somehow magically be able to take you where you want to go.

But, with Felix, the skepticism natural to prison life felt different.  This curly-haired twenty-six-year-old had been arrested on Federal weapons charges.  But when he came to see me in the prison medical suite, he didn’t want to talk about his charges or his girlfriend or the dangers and unfairness of the prison world.  He wanted to talk – hesitantly at first, even furtively – about the most remarkable experience of his life: that of being contacted by aliens.

He told me that one evening he and his girlfriend had been sitting on a stone wall next to the highway.  They were just sitting, not drinking or smoking herb, for Felix, unlike more than ninety percent of inmates, had been clean and sober for years – or so he said.  So, they were just sitting there and talking as the hours passed and the evening progressed to night, and, he said, suddenly, the night sky filled up with lights. Those were the exactly the words he use; “The night sky filled up with lights.”  I know because I write them down.  Not just a few stars or the moon, he said, or the blinking colored flashes of passing aircraft.  He meant that the sky, literally, filled up with bright, flashing light.  Then he turned to his girlfriend.

“Hey, babe, all those blue and white lights, you see that?”

She didn’t answer but he could tell by her face that she saw it too.  Then as they both watched some of the lights turned sideways to reveal to reveal a huge disc of revolving, spinning, brilliant lights.  The size and proximity of the lights was overwhelming.  Then, just a moment later, the brilliant lights were everywhere, zooming back and forth at incomprehensible speed from horizon to horizon, turning right and left as if the hugs disc had fragmented and run in a thousand different directions.  Then one of the spinning lights stopped and came quite close to Felix and his girlfriend, hesitated, and loomed, incandescent and spinning, right over their heads.  Felix somehow had the sense that the spinning brilliant object was examining them, scrutinizing them.  Felix didn’t know how a spinning thing could have the capacity for attention and awareness, but that’s what it seemed like – the spinning, shining object was an intelligent thing, and it was examining them.

Felix, seated in a hard metal chair beside my desk, spoke to me in a flat voice, as if he himself did not expect to be believed.  In truth he looked tired.  He said that the event had occurred two years ago, and since then he had slept poorly. It was the dreams, he said – if indeed they were dreams – and the fear, the jolting fear, that he felt as he was dropping off to sleep, that kept him awake night after night.  He couldn’t even call them nightmares; they were just different, and strange, and, most nights, he said, when he lay down to sleep he was not ready to encounter the strange.

But back then, he said, back when he had first seen the lights, he was younger and he had been both industrious and bold.  After all, he thought then, lights were lights.  He phoned the local television station to discuss what he had seen and talked to a man who confirmed that indeed there had been “a lot of electrical activity” in the sky around the time he was describing.  Felix told him that what he saw may have been electrical but it sure wasn’t lightning or satellites – it was something more. It was an armada of intelligent somethings in the sky, he said, somethings that looked at him, that seemed to know him, and that now had access to his dreams.  The television guy said he would look into it and get right back to him.  He never called.

Then Felix phoned the local military base.  He told them what he had seen; the lights, the spinning, the knowing.  The officer from the base kept on trying to find out where Felix lived so they could send someone to his house.  Hey, Felix said, I saw a huge intelligent something in the sky, and you want to send someone to my house?  Who are you planning to send to my house, and what are they going to do? The guy wouldn’t say, or rather, he said, “That depends.” Depends on what? Felix said, and hung up.

Then, after that, there were more times, more visits, because that’s what they seemed like – visits. They showed up, called on him.  Yeah, it seemed like they were calling to him.  Felix would only talk about two of the visits – one time with his girlfriend and a third time when he was sitting around with friends.  Each time everyone saw the lights but reacted differently.  Some just flat out denied it happened, just refused to believe what they had seen with their own eyes, and others tried to explain it away – calling it electrical activity again – and still others, like his girlfriend, just looked nervous and refused to say anything when he brought it up.  Felix thought it could be a chance for something, maybe it was an opening to something great.  It doesn’t have to be something terrible, he would say to his girlfriend, kit could be wonderful. But she just looked away and remained silent and busied herself with something.

The second time, Felix said, was in the field in front of his house.  Same thing, he said, lights, spinning brilliant lights, turning vertical to the ground, then splitting apart and hovering overhead, seeming to be examine them.  That time his girlfriend ran from the field into the house, holding her hands over her head.  When Felix came in and said something she gestured to him and shook her head.  Already he knew that the lights were something which he needed to keep to himself.

But when he first came to jail he mentioned the sightings to another mental health worker because it was bothering him, the dreams and the thoughts.  It didn’t go away.  The mental health worker, after listening to the story, asked him if maybe it was the aliens who had put the guns in his car, setting him up for the Federal weapons charges.  That pissed Felix off and he shut up about it for a while.  But now, the second time around, after more anxiety and lost sleep, he had decided to give the story to me.

I asked him about his psychiatric history.  Yes, he admitted, once, years ago, he said, he had been psychiatrically hospitalized.  It was after he had broken up with a girlfriend and he was depressed.  He stayed in the hospital for a couple of weeks and then they let him go.  He had never taken any psychiatric medications.  He said there was no history of mental illness in his family.

So, I thought, Felix was an emotional guy.  He had gotten upset enough about a relationship loss to need to be hospitalized.  That told you something.  But was he emotional enough to see alien spacecraft where there were none?  He spoke lucidly, coherently, appeared to be of at least average intelligence.  The experience was “ego-dystonic” for him; meaning he would much prefer that it had not happened, but now he found himself unable to get away from it.

Years before all this, I had been sent a copy of a monograph by Dr. John Mack, the Harvard psychiatrist who has written a book, Abduction, recording the stories of individuals who claim to have had direct contact with alien beings.  I had read the monograph, which concluded that these individuals, who number in the many hundreds of thousands, are not psychologically any different than the rest of us.  They do not display higher rates of mental illness, sexual abuse, or dissociative disorder.  They usually are terribly pained and confused by what has happened to them and they often greet the opportunity to share their experience with a non-mocking listener with great relief.

Later, I read Mack’s book and even discussed the issue in a graduate psychology seminar I was teaching.  To my surprise, nearly everyone in the class responded positively to the discussion and many in the reported similar odd experiences that led them to resonate strongly with the stories.

In Mack’s book, it so happens, a disproportionate number of abduction-related experiences were reported to have occurred in or around the small Massachusetts coastal village of Plymouth, home of the famous Plymouth Rock.  If indeed the alien events were real, it would be surprising, and perhaps meaningful if their repeated visits were to the place where Western technology first entered the New World.

So, out of curiosity, in the course of gathering general information I asked Felix where he lived before he came to the prison.  He said he and his girlfriend had a little place out in the country, outside of town.  Outside of what town, I inquired.

Plymouth, he said.

He insisted he had never read any material about alien experiences, was not fascinated by space movies, and had talked to no-one about it – no one but me and the other counselor.

It strains credulity enough when someone comes to your comfortable Cambridge office on the campus of the world’s greatest university and tells you they believe they have had contact with alien beings.  But when such a confession occurs in the context of a maximum-security prison, where doubt and skepticism, even cynicism, are typical, one is immediately confronted, as Mack has noted, with serious epistemological questions.

Did I have the right, I thought, or even an obligation, to consider Felix’s experiences as manifestations of mental illness, ought I to suggest treatment with an antipsychotic medication or transfer to a psychiatric facility?  Or is that a disruption of Felix’s right to freedom of belief?  Am I ethically bound to provide Felix with information, psychoeducation if you will, which may empower him to make a more informed decision regarding the nature of his experiences?

And then much more personal questions arose; is there a deeper reason why Felix, in the midst of the maelstrom of the prison, had found his way to me, a clinician at least minimally informed about alien experiences?  Was it excessively personal of me, even perhaps unhinged, to wonder whether the aliens, in their subtle but extremely efficient way, were reaching out not only to Felix, but also to me?

I quickly struggled to reel myself in from such ruminations.  Indeed, personalizing Felix’s clinical presentation and material could well be seen as constituting a boundary violation. Do ethical standards regarding dual relationships apply to experiences with aliens?

As much to deal with my own uncertainty as his I told Felix about the Mack studies, about the thousands of abduction experiences.  I told him that there were many others, called “experiencers”, who report phenomena very similar to those described by him.  Prison pressure kept me from spending more time with him, but I promised to gather some reading material and talk to him again the following week.

That evening, I got on the internet and printed off an interview with John Mack.  I quickly discovered that it would take me weeks to even superficially peruse all the material available on alien contact.  There are even direct interviews with aliens – beings perhaps in another dimension but nonetheless close by, perhaps perched on your very shoulder, speaking dispassionately and seemingly from a great distance and appearing to lack any other agenda than pure honest communication. Still confused as to my course of action, in my own mind I placed the whole experience in a state of epistemological suspended animation.  In was still unready to buy in, to believe that what could be, actually was.

The following week I was distracted by the hubbub of prison life: emergencies, transfers, court testimony.  In a stolen moment I wondered about Felix, but he had not submitted a request for contact, as planned.  Contact, I laughed, thinking of the Jodi Foster movie, there’s a coincidence.  I took my copy of the Mack interview out of my briefcase and put it on my desk.

Then I impulsively rummaged through my jumble of papers for the thick prison population list.  I scanned though the thousands of names, turning the stapled pages, searching for the unit on which was held – the Federal detention unit.

I scanned again.  The print is small and it’s easy to miss names from the huge list.  I often have to read the list many times.

After repeatedly shuffling the wad of paper I realized the truth.  Felix, it appeared, was gone.

Inmates such as Felix typically spend many months, even years, waiting for the gigantic gears of the Federal criminal justice system to turn.  Felix had been held at the prison a relatively short time, so his disappearance was, at least, unusual.  I buzzed the medical unit corrections officer and asked him to do me a favor.  Using his password, he accessed the computer logs to determine Felix’s status.

“No longer in the house, buddy,” the officer said, “It says here the Feds came and got him yesterday. He’s bye-bye.”

I thanked the officer and hung up the phone.  Still, I was left with questions.

Why would the Feds bother to urgently transfer an inmate like Felix, awaiting trial on a minor gun charge that could easily have been resolved in a local court?  This question, I realized, assumes that decision-making in the correctional system makes sense, a futile and usually incorrect assumption.

Then, I thought, maybe the gun charges weren’t so minor.  Prison cynicism suggests that Felix was just a con running another scam, this time passing the time by yanking the prison shrink’s chain.  Even now he was probably running the same alien number on some poor sap at the Federal prison in Providence or Philadelphia or Phoenix.

I knew I should just push all this alien stuff aside and get on with my life.  Drop it into the “to be done later” box until it gathers so much dust that it is forgotten.

But how many other guys in this prison, I wondered, are keeping quiet about the same story?  Mack’s data says that, in a prison with more than two thousand inmates, there should be dozens.

Maybe I should suggest that Central make an announcement over the intercom;  “All inmates reporting contact with alien beings please submit mental health request slips to Dr. Murphy as soon as possible.”

That one would undoubtedly cost me my job.  John Mack noted that experiences of abduction are disproportionately reported among poorer populations because wealthier people, doctors and lawyers and members of boards of directors, understand that reporting contact with alien beings will not enhance their professional careers.  As is the case with love, when it comes to alien contact, freedom is just another word for nothing left to lose.

But in spite of my best efforts at self-control I found myself wondering; what if it wasn’t the Feds who had come to get Felix?  What if Felix himself was…

If I wanted to find the answer to those questions, I knew I would have to dig deeper.  Maybe I could ask transportation, or that buddy of mine in administration to check the computer.  Or maybe I should just go sit by the road outside Plymouth, staring up at the night sky.

So far, I haven’t done any of those things. Because, truth be told, if indeed there are those lights in the night sky, I am not sure I want to see them.