Michael MurphyWorking in a prison, you wonder about truth.  Would an inmate’s story, if told from someone else’s perspective, sound completely different?  You listen, but you don’t necessarily believe.  You live in a world of “as if”; maybe if you believe in the reality of a bus, it will take you where you want to go.

But, with Felix, the skepticism natural to prison life was different.  This curly-haired twenty six year old was 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 danger 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 said that 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 and talking late at night when, he said, suddenly, the night sky filled up with lights.  Not just a few stars or the moon or the blinking colored flashes of passing aircraft.  He meant that the sky, literally, filled up with bright, flashing light.  He turned to his girlfriend.

“Hey, 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 one of the lights turned sideways to reveal that it was in actuality a huge disc; revolving, spinning, brilliant lights.  The size and proximity was overwhelming.  Then, a moment later, the brilliant lights were everywhere, zooming back and forth at incomprehensible speed from horizon to horizon, as if the hugs disc had fragmented and run in a thousand different directions.  Then one of the spinning lights came quite close, hesitated, and loomed, incandescent and spinning, over their heads.  He had the sense that the spinning object was examining them, scrutinizing them.  He didn’t know how a spinning thing could have attention and awareness, but that’s what it seemed like – the spinning, shining object was an intelligent thing.

Felix spoke to me in a flat voice, as if he himself did not expect to be believed.  He looked tired.  That had been two years ago, he said, and since then he had slept poorly. It was the dreams – 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.  He couldn’t even call them nightmares; they were just different, strange, and, most nights, when he lay down to sleep he was not ready to encounter the strange.


But back then, back when he had first seen the lights, he had been both industrious and bold.  After all, lights were lights.  He phoned the television station to discuss what he had seen and talked to a man who confirmed that there had been “a lot of electrical activity” in the sky during 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, 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 called the local military base.  He told them what he had seen.  They kept on trying to find out where he lived so they could send someone to his house.  Well, Felix asked, I saw a huge intelligent something in the sky, and you want to sends someone to my house?  Who were they sending to his house, and what were they going to do? They wouldn’t say.  Felix hung up.

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

The second time was in the field in front of his house.  Same thing, lights, spinning brilliant lights, turning vertical to the ground, splitting apart, then hovering overhead, seeming to be examining them.  That time his girlfriend ran from the field into the house, her hands over her head.  When Felix came in and said something she gestured and shook her head.  Already he knew enough to shut up.

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 charges.  That pissed Felix off and he shut up about it for a while.  But now, the second time around, he had decided to give the story to me.


I asked him about his psychiatric history.  Yes, 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 two 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, he was an emotional guy.  He had gotten upset enough about a relationship loss to need to be hospitalized.  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; he would much prefer that it had not happened – but now he found himself unable to get away from it.

Years ago I had been sent a copy of a monograph by John Mack, the Harvard psychiatrist who has written a book, Abduction, recording the stories of individuals who claimed to have had direct contact with alien beings.  I 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 about what has happened to them and they often greet the opportunity to share their experience with a non-mocking audience with great relief.

Later, I read Mack’s book and discussed the issue in a graduate psychology seminar I was teaching.  To my surprise, everyone in the class responded positively to the discussion and many in the class reported 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 occur 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 if their repeated visits to the place of first encounter of the New World with western technology was coincidence. So, out of curiosity, in the course of gathering general information I asked Felix where he lived.  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, had talked to no-one about it – but me.  He hadn’t even ever heard of Mork and Mindy.

It strains credibility 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.  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, or even an obligation, to consider Felix’s experiences as manifestations of mental illness, to suggest antipsychotic medication or transfer to a psychiatric facility?  Or is that a disruption of his 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 experience?

And then much more personal questions arose; is there a deeper reason why Felix, in the midst of the maelstrom of the prison, found his way to me, a clinician at least minimally informed about alien experiences?  Was it too insane of me to wonder whether the aliens, in their subtle but extremely efficient way, were reaching out to me?


I quickly tried 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 abduction experiences.  I told him that there were many others, called “experiencers”, who report phenomena 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 discovered that it would take me weeks to even peruse all the material available on alien contact.  There are even direct interviews with aliens – beings, though close by, perhaps in another dimension perched on your very shoulder, speaking dispassionately and seemingly from a great distance and appearing to lack any other agenda than pure honesty. Still confused, in my own mind I placed the experience in a state of epistemological suspended animation.  The experience, apparently, was quite common, but little known to me – until now.

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 is on my desk.

Then I impulsively rummaged through the jumble of paper on my desk for the thick prison population list.  I scanned though the thousands of names 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 in the huge list.  I often have to read the list many times.


After repeatedly shuffling the wad a paper I realized the truth.  Felix 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; 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.”

I thanked the officer and hung up the phone.  I was left with questions on a confusing array of levels.

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

Then maybe the gun charges weren’t so minor.  Prison cynicism says that he 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 Stateville.

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

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 more than one hundred.


I could ask Central to 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 probably cost me my job.  John Mack says 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 positions.  As is the case with love, when it comes to alien contact, freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.

But what if, I found myself thinking in spite of my best efforts at self control, what if it wasn’t the Feds who came to get Felix?  What if Felix himself was… What if….

If I wanted to find the answer to those questions I would have to dig deeper.  I could ask transportation, and I could ask a buddy in administration to check the computer.  Or I just could go sit by the road outside Plymouth, staring at the night sky.

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