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The aliens, he continues, don't ask permission. "They don't make an appointment and say, 'We're gonna stop by at 2 this morning.' They just show up in your room. And take you and do stuff to you. And the most they say is it will be fine. I mean, how condescending is that?"
Hosenfeld is not himself an abductee, but his younger sister Maren is. Their mother struggled with bipolar disorder. When Maren started showing manic symptoms, he figured, "Oh no, it's happening again."
She saw furniture fly around her bedroom — the bed shaking, Bible pages flipping, "serious Poltergeist shit," as Hosenfeld puts it. She felt as if she was "being downloaded with a bunch of information and couldn't process it." She felt as if she was being asked to do something ... but what? She could not understand. Maren's psychiatrist prescribed the mood stabilizer Depakote.
Maren, in the meantime, prayed. "I cannot help you if I am insane," she begged. Miraculously, the information downloads stopped. After three weeks, she stopped taking the Depakote.
Shortly thereafter, she came across an autobiography by abductee Stan Romanek. "She devoured it in a single night. It didn't just resonate," Hosenfeld says, "it rocked her."
She did hypnotic regression with Smith. She began to attend the support group meetings.
Strangely enough, being an abductee has given Maren a purpose. "I love my sister," Hosenfeld says, "but she was one of those people who just kind of drifted in the wind. Wherever it blows, she goes." He shrugs. "She read the book, and went, 'This is a direction I might be able to go where I don't have to worry about whether I'm crazy or not.' That was very therapeutic for her."
Every abductee wrestles with the question of whether they're crazy. For a long time, Jacqueline struggled with whether she was awake or asleep. Watching NBC's UFO conspiracy-theory series Dark Skies and reading books written by fellow abductees, however, she knew in her gut what had happened to her. "Isn't that the first sign of sanity? Questioning it?" she says. "Those who are not sane think everyone else is the problem."
Jacqueline met her best friend, Rachel, at a UFO convention. Rachel, who is also an abductee, says she's lost friends over her beliefs. " 'No, I don't think you're crazy,' they'll say. Never hear from them again."
Rachel grew up on Star Trek, Tommyknockers and The X-Files. "Anything to do with ghosts," she says. "Obsessed. Loved it."
As a teenager, her room was covered in sci-fi posters and festooned with alien blow-up dolls. "You're just making up the experience in your head," she recalls friends telling her. "You've always been into it, so you wanted to live out your fantasy."
Family is no more supportive. Her twin sister refuses to acknowledge any abduction. Their mother, who is a nurse employed by the Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health, has, Rachel says, threatened to lock her up in a mental institution if she persists in her "alien talk."
"But she hasn't locked you up," Jacqueline offers. "They're scared. They don't want to know. So they put up this wall. We're all living in the same house growing up, but we're not really living in the same house."
She and Rachel are having coffee at the Sherman Oaks Galleria near the Paul Mitchell School, where Rachel is a student. Sitting at the Starbucks, Rachel keeps her head lowered, her eyes on her cup.
"I flip-flop," she continues. "I understand what's going on, but I still question. I don't know. But you get reassured. 'You're not crazy. It's happening.' There's still moments when, man, I feel like I'm nuts. If I heard myself, I'd think I sound absolutely crazy."
"OK. Like, right now. Sitting here talking about it," she says. "Anybody that's walking by. If someone was listening to us, they'd say these chicks sound fucking mental."
Whether or not alien abductees are mental is a long-standing debate. Some speculate that their tales are lies, or delusions, screen memories masking more conventional forms of abuse, or honest confabulations of stories heard in the media, or the result of epilepsy.
Others, such as Harvard experimental psychopathologist Richard McNally, say that belief in alien abduction is a type of false-memory syndrome. Memory, of course, is notoriously fallible.
Like Smith, McNally was struck by the normalcy of the abductees he studied. A number of years ago, he set out to "explain why seemingly sincere, nonpsychotic people claim to have memories of being abducted by space aliens."
His research originated in the late '90s, at the height of the "memory wars," when it seemed as if everyone and his mother was unearthing a repressed memory of Satanic ritual torture or childhood sexual abuse. McNally was invited by colleague John E. Mack to a weekend conference he was hosting at Harvard Divinity School on "anomalous experiences" — Mack's code for alien abduction. Mack, who died in 2004, was a psychiatrist at Harvard Medical School, a Pulitzer Prize–winning biographer, and one of the UFO community's staunchest and more unlikely advocates.