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Unidentified Scholarly Subject

Whitley Strieber’s academic communion takes shape.

By February 2016Comments

Strieber in New York City in November 2015.
Photograph by Timothy Greenfield-Sanders

On December 26, 1985, when he was forty years old, Whitley Strieber awoke as he was being carried out of his cabin in New York’s Hudson Valley to a tent in the surrounding woods, where he was beaten, poked, and prodded by unknown assailants. A circle of observers around him included giant insects and masked, trollish figures as well as an old friend—human—whom Strieber later learned had died several months earlier. In the years that followed, Strieber had more strange experiences with entities he came to call the “visitors”: One night, he found himself in flagrante delicto with an otherworldly lover. A year or two later, two mysterious beings implanted a small piece of metal in his ear. Over time he recalled events that had happened much earlier in his life: encounters with diminutive blue men, out-of-body experiences, and strange childhood episodes at Randolph Air Force Base, in his native San Antonio.

At least, this is what Strieber perceived happened to him, as recorded in his best-selling 1987 book, Communion, and several sequels. As a result, he became “the poster boy for alien abduction,” despite maintaining that he didn’t know exactly what had happened to him; after Communion’s publication Strieber received nearly half a million letters from readers describing their own close encounters. “My first books were unfortunate in one respect, in that they were so vividly written that readers and the media looked at them as descriptions of experience rather than descriptions of perception,” he says. “There’s a great deal of difference between the two.”

Though critics were often savage (the Los Angeles Times refused to place the first sequel to Communion on its nonfiction best-seller list; the book appeared on the fiction list instead), Strieber has stuck to his guns. This month he will release his thirty-sixth book, The Super Natural: A New Vision of the Unexplained, a collaboration with Rice University professor of religion Jeffrey Kripal that considers Strieber’s experiences through the lens of comparative religious study. Its chapters alternate between Strieber’s autobiographical accounts and Kripal’s examination of those reports using the tools of his discipline. Kripal, whose research interests include the mystical and paranormal, suggests that Strieber’s experiences with the “visitors” are not unlike St. Paul’s encounter on the road to Damascus or Moses’ interaction with the burning bush. If Strieber is telling the truth—and Kripal is convinced he is—his accounts might offer religious historians a modern case study of a perceived encounter with extraordinary beings.

Strieber, who splits his time between San Antonio and California, calls Kripal “the only person of any intellectual standing who’s ever understood my work” and sees The Super Natural as a step toward gaining the attention of the intellectual community, not just fans of the paranormal. In fact, though the book was published by a division of Penguin, he hopes that it will reach a smaller, more educated audience. “When a mass audience was interested back in the Communion days, it was a disaster,” he says. “The book was immediately sensationalized, and I was swept up in this circus that I couldn’t control.”

Strieber is emphatic when he says that he doesn’t believe in the supernatural or the paranormal; he simply believes that humans don’t understand all the laws of nature yet. Hence the all-important space in the book’s title. “To me ‘the supernatural’ is something outside of nature, so Jeff and I call it the ‘super natural’—two words—because it is part of nature,” Strieber says. “We need to accept the fact that there are things that happen around us that are not explained by science. But that doesn’t mean that they can’t be.”

This past December 26 marked the thirtieth anniversary of Strieber’s life-changing experience in the woods, but he says it was a date that passed without fanfare; his wife, Anne, died in August, and he was grieving too deeply to reflect on it. Still, as has been the case for the past three decades, he wakes in a panic nearly every night at 3 a.m., the moment he claims he was startled awake in the cabin. But he doesn’t seem to mind living with so many unanswered questions. “I’m actually very lucky in that respect,” he says. “It’s a wonderful place to be if you like being driven slightly mad by your own life.”

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  • I have not yet read the book, but I’ve followed Strieber for decades and to a lesser extent Kripal, who seems to be bent on providing Strieber with the legitimacy he feels he has until now so sorely lacked. I will be interested to see if the book touches on Strieber’s involvement in MKULTRA-style psychological torture as a child and his later, off and on, admission to having been recruited by the CIA, not to mention his involvement with the Process Church of Final Judgment in the late 60s and the massive amount of evidence that, whatever was interfering with Strieber, was of all-too-earthly origin. I imagine not, since that would rather detract from Kripal’s attempt to put Strieber in the Holy Prophet box of Moses and St. Paul. Apparently, both he & Strieber believe that trauma-based dissociation resulting from extreme forms of abuse are valid means to some transcendental end. A belief they share with those individuals responsible for creating MKULTRA and related programs, as it happens…. As always, the truth is stranger and far more disturbing than the (“non-“)fiction.

    • K.D. Evans

      You should really read the book. Kripal and Strieber go carefully, using phenomenology to make no firm claims about the cause of the phenomenon, but examine the perceptions themselves without claiming a cause. You say: “whatever was interfering with Strieber, was of all-too-earthly origin. I imagine not, since that would rather detract from Kripal’s attempt to put Strieber in the Holy Prophet box…”, but I find that Kripal and Strieber insist on the “earthly” aspects of the events described, without saying it was only a material event or that it has to have been caused by X, Y, or Z (the CIA, alien visitors, elves, or a Cult). They leave the question open and A) report the perception while B) comparing it to other cases in the category of contact with an ‘other’. Very good book.

    • Whitley Strieber

      I don’t get what seems to me an obsession with MK-ULTRA. I wonder if you believe yourself to have been affected by it somehow? I have no evidence that what happened to me as a child was related to MK-ULTRA. The only suggestions that children were involved in this program are sketchy at best.

      Also, it’s not apparent to me that Jeff puts me in any sort of “holy box.” And to claim that I was “involved” with the Process Church of Final Judgement strikes me as an intentional, and entirely inaccurate, mischaracterization of what I have written on this subject. (I refer here to the review of Super Natural that you have been posting in various places.)

      The “all too earthly origin” of my experiences isn’t a possibility that I would reject, or have ever rejected. Generally ignored is the large-type statement in the frontispiece of Communion: “…Instead of shunning the darkness, we can face straight into it with an open mind. When we do that, the unknown changes. Fearful things become understandable and a truth is suggested: the enigmatic presence of the human mind winks back from the dark.”

      Us, in other words, contemplating ourselves in a way that we do not understand. Across our history, we have formed thousands of different systems of belief around this presence. Most recently, we think of it as aliens or, in your case, as something generated by some sort of secret conspiracy.

      But what is it, really? My life is about asking this question. That is a “holy box” which I am proud to inhabit.

      • Linus Minimax

        MKULTRA scenarios are similar enough to some experiences you’ve described, and relevant enough to the theme of the latest book, for its absence to be worth noting, no obsession required.
        (from the review)
        “MKULTRA is not mentioned in The Super Natural, not once. This is despite Strieber’s acknowledgment of participating in a secret, Nazi-run US program for gifted children in the early 1950s: exactly the time, place, and players involved at the inception of MKULTRA. Strieber’s experiences are mentioned primarily to show that his psychic prowess and otherworldly encounters are rooted in massive childhood trauma, and that he is the exception who proves, not the rule, but that MKULTRA’s methods—using extreme trauma to endow children with psychic abilities—occasionally worked.”

      • Thomas Anderson

        Dear Whitley: My response has not made it past the moderator. I have tried twice now & another response has been posted in the meantime.

      • Release your film on the Process Church if your involvement was only as an objective documentarian. The evidence, as it stands, clearly points otherwise.

        • Thomas Anderson


          A few days after listening to “Pain” and discovering these peculiar facts, while reworking this current chapter, I listened to a 1986 recording of a hypnosis session between Strieber and UFO-researcher Budd Hopkins. The focus was on Strieber’s missing time experience in the summer of 1968. During the session, Strieber remembers traveling to Rome with a mysterious woman and being joined by some other people. He is able to remember these people only peripherally, as shadowy figures at the edge of the scenes. He remembers telling his “life story” in great detail to the woman, “twice or three times.” He recalls that the woman told him she grew up in Ireland (McLean was Scottish, the fictional Janet is given an Irish name), and describes having sex with her more than once. On at least one occasion, he remembers other people in the room, directing the sex act and manipulating his body! One of the rooms he finds himself in was reportedly an “operating theater that was supposedly a bedroom.”[3]