The young woman arranges herself on the hypnotherapist's couch and closes her eyes. "Just let it flow," Yvonne Smith, the therapist, says. "Even if it sounds weird." The young woman, Jacqueline, a 33-year-old talent agent, nods and wiggles her toes. Bothered by a moment in her recent past that she cannot quite remember, she has come to Smith to fill in the blanks.
"Feel your breathing deepen," Smith says. A small, compact woman in her late 50s, Smith has neatly bobbed dark hair and a calm, pleasant demeanor. "Give yourself permission to relax," she says. "Exhale out any stress or anxiety, pain or discomfort."
She instructs Jacqueline to picture a waterfall, then a staircase. As she counts down from 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, Jacqueline imagines herself descending the stairs. Her eyelids flutter. "Describe what you see or hear," Smith says.
Jacqueline murmurs that she is in her apartment living room. It is midnight. There is a man on the balcony, observing her. He is tall, with white-blond hair, pale skin and unblinking blue eyes.
Jacqueline feels her head spinning. The man, she understands, is an alien. He has come to take her away.
Sitting in her modest La Cañada Flintridge office after Jacqueline leaves, Smith looks outside the window. There is a park within view.
"I see all these parents with their kids going about their normal day," she says. "And here I am dealing with aliens and abduction." Pause. "If these people only knew."
For the hypnotherapist, the scene with Jacqueline has played out hundreds of times before — different patients, different memories, but always involving extraterrestrials.
As the country's go-to hypnotherapist for this type of work, Smith has observed surprising things about alien abductees. Typically, by the time they get to her, they've been examined by a whole series of psychologists, psychiatrists and other health care professionals. Nobody can figure out what to make of them.
They are functional in all other aspects of their life. They have jobs. They have families. They drive. They pay taxes. Except for the alien thing, they seem like, well, ordinary people.
After two decades specializing in abductee work, it can still feel surreal to Smith. And what might seem most surreal of all is this: Over the years she has come to believe them.
"If you're hearing it again and again, you have to start paying attention to it. Even if it sounds far off and bizarre," she says. "That's what has kept me in this crazy field. These people feel that there is something truly going on. And they need help."
Hypnosis is Smith's econd career. Previously, she worked for 10 years as a jury supervisor for Los Angeles Superior Court, a job she left to raise a family. In the late 1980s, Smith attended her first UFO lecture with her mother, who was curious about ufologist Budd Hopkins, considered the pioneer of abduction research. Hopkins was lecturing in Pasadena at the Whole Life Expo, a compendium of all things metaphysical now called the Conscious Life Expo. Smith became fascinated by Hopkins' use of hypnotherapy to retrieve so-called hidden memories. The two struck up a friendship and Hopkins eventually became her mentor.
After earning a degree from the Hypnosis Motivation Institute in Tarzana, Smith set up shop. She didn't focus right away on abductees. Her clients were initially run of the mill: actors looking to enhance their memory, people trying to lose weight, cancer patients grappling with chemotherapy. She figures she would be working with cancer patients right now, "if there was no such thing as alien abduction."
But in 1991, her first UFO patient arrived. He was an engineer in his late 30s, conservative, smart and responsible. He was nervous about hypnotherapy but, as she led him through the paces, he recalled being taken onto a craft as a little boy. It was an emotional session, Smith remembers. She was shocked at his recollections but impressed by his sincerity. So she kept an open mind.
After that, referrals came pouring in. "It started to snowball," she says.
If alien abductees are ridiculed, though, how much more so is the therapist who believes them? "People snickered," she admits. "But you can't worry about what other people are going to think."
This work, she felt, is what she was meant to do. "Traditional therapists don't really want to touch this," she says. "They don't know what to do with it."
Today, 95 percent of Smith's patients are abductees: "I had no idea how widespread it was. It's all ethnic backgrounds, all socioeconomic levels." More than anything, it reminds her of her old jury-selection work, of the diversity of citizens picked from voter rolls. "It's really a cross section of the community," she says. "If you look out at your neighborhood, that's who it is."