A conversation with David Halperin about his first novel, Journal of a UFO Investigator
Most of this story's action takes place in two dimensions of time, in 1963 and 1966. How did you decide to write it in this way, and why did you choose these particular dates?
I began the book with a three-year time lapse between the writing of the journal and the events recorded in it, because I wanted to depict the excitement and possibility of early adolescence (the thirteen-year-old Danny Shapiro) through the eyes and with the voice of an older adolescent already living with a burden of failed dreams. Then the time lapse closes. The year is 1966; Danny no longer looks backward, but scribbles into his journal his current desperate hopes that his dreams of love, safety, and healing may still come true. Maybe it's not too late. Maybe there will be a happy ending after all.
I chose this time period partly because I was myself a teen UFOlogist in the early sixties. I can write what it felt like to be an adolescent in this era with the authenticity that comes from personal experience. The UFO world of the time is something I know from the inside.
But there's another reason. The time period of the book is framed by two historical events of immense symbolic importance. The story begins shortly after the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962, which was the closest this world has yet come to nuclear apocalypse. It ends with the Six-Day War of June 1967, which transformed the Middle East, carrying with it a load of symbolic baggage that Israelis and Palestinians are still staggering under. Both events mirror key themes of the book.
What sort of research did you do in preparation for writing this book? How much of the story directly reflects actual UFO literature?
The story is deeply rooted in the UFO traditions of the 1950s and early 1960s, which present-day UFOlogists look back to as a golden age. Morris K. Jessup, for example, was a real person, author of several UFO books. The legends surrounding his death in 1959 would have passed back and forth in long letters between Danny and other teen UFOlogists, with wide-eyed speculation about whether Jessup really committed suicide or whether this was a "cover" for something more sinister. The Three Men in Blacklong before Hollywood got hold of themwere part of the 1950s UFO lore, much of it shaped by the great West Virginia mythmaker Gray Barker and his bestselling They Knew Too Much About Flying Saucers. Readers can check out the historical note, posted to the Penguin web site for more details.
I knew this UFO world so intimately from my own adolescence that there wasn't much research required beyond poking through my voluminous files of correspondence from almost fifty years ago, plus rereading the UFO books that so influenced me back then. The UFO Encyclopedia, published in the 1990s by my old friend and fellow-UFOlogist Jerome Clark, was an inexhaustibly rich resource for me, as it will be for anyone with the smallest interest in UFO belief. And I spent a magnificent week in September 2004 in the Gray Barker Collection of the Clarksburg-Harrison Public Library (West Virginia), going through Barker's correspondence with Morris Jessup and many, many others. For his kind and generous assistance during my visit, my deepest thanks go to the archive's curator, David Houchin.
Like the other UFO researchers he admires, Danny is a social misfit. Does dwelling on the fringes of society better prepare a person to truly understand or perceive the mysteries of outer space? Are there other advantages to this perspective?
I don't think UFOs have anything to do with the mysteries of outer space. They're not about space travel or extraterrestrial life but about us, our longings and our terrorsmost especially, if my hunch is correct, our confrontation with the end of our existence. The UFOs come from within, and the "inner space" from which they derive is every bit as eerie and mysterious as the galaxies and black holes "out there."
Does a social misfit have privileged access to this "inner space"? Maybe, maybe not. Probably he or she will be more intimately exposed to the above-mentioned longings and terrors, more intensely aware of them, than those who can insulate themselves with the comforts and distractions of social life. This is not to say the misfit will understand them any better. If and when understanding does comewith age, perspective, perhaps psychotherapythose who've lived on the fringes may find themselves with an enhanced compassion for others. Still, I wouldn't recommend social isolation for a teenager or anyone else, assuming some choice in the matter. But most of us, like Danny Shapiro, have to play the hand we are dealt.
Danny's father is surprised to discover that UFO books and the Bible hold equal weight in Danny's personal library. As a religion professor, what parallels do you see between UFO research and religious study?
The late Unitarian minister Forrest Church called religion "our human response to the dual reality of being alive and having to die." If UFO belief is at bottom a way of grappling with our mortality, as I suspect, it's a quintessentially religious phenomenon.
There are other, more specific, points of contact between UFOlogy and religious traditions. The latter often describe the otherworldly journeys of certain privileged human beings. There's a very peculiar genre of ancient Jewish literature that concerns itself with the "descent to the merkavah," a sort of psychic/shamanic journey to the divine "chariot" (merkavah, in Hebrew) described in the first chapter of the Book of Ezekiel. UFO abductions, which become part of UFOlogy from the mid-sixties on, sound a lot like modernized versions of these merkavah journeys. We seem to be dealing with something rooted in universal human perceptions of the numinous, the unconscious, the strange and spooky realms where Freud and Jung staked out their territories.
Those realms are within us. When we use the phrase "depth psychology" to speak of them, we express our intuition they're somehow down below. This is why, when Danny gets inside his UFO, it carries him down down down rather than the other direction. And why the ancient Jewish visionaries were right to speak of the "descent," not the ascent, to Ezekiel's chariot.
As a Jewish child of the post-World War II era, Danny is caught between his family's insular suspicion of gentiles and a real threat of anti-Semitism around him. The result is a kind of constant paranoia that pervades the book. How are we as readers meant to interpret his anxieties? Are they real or exaggerated?
Danny faces very little anti-Semitism of any significance. His friend Jeff is a bit supercilious about Danny's Judaism; some others make fun of it. Yet Rosa Pagliano, who is not only Danny's crush but also his truest friend, staunchly defends him. The suffering his Jewishness causes him, the social wall separating him from the kids (especially the girls) around him, comes more from his family's insularity than any outside rejection.
So are his fears real? Absolutely. There's a menace hovering over Danny every day of his lifehis mother's impending death, compounded by an emotional alienation within his family that's worse than anything he faces at school. So his sense of dread is reality-based. It's "paranoid" only in that he's looking for the threat in the wrong direction. But that's what he has to do. Perseus had to look away into a mirror if he wanted to cope with Medusa without being turned to stone.
In this book sexuality and danger seem inextricably linkedis this pairing a by-product of Danny's religious upbringing, or it is simply part of the adolescent experience in general?
This is a basic questionmaybe the basic questionposed by the sexual revolution of the sixties. Is youthful sexual angst a needless hang-up, a dispensable artifact of a dead religious tradition? Or is it an element of the human condition? I'd pick the latter alternative. Dread of sexuality has been humanity's burden for a long, long timesince long before the rise of the Judaic religionsand works its damage in societies untainted by Western taboos. Teenagers have vastly greater sexual freedom now they did in Danny's time. But adolescence doesn't seem an easier or more benign experience than it was fifty years ago.
Told from a teenager's point of view, this novel seems to straddle the line both between young adult and adult fiction, and sci-fi and contemporary realism. Do these categories make a difference to you as a novelist? Did they impact your writing process at all?
No. I just tried to tell the story. For the most part I was lucky enough that the story told itself. I never thought of Journal as a young adult novel, despite its teenage protagonist. Yet sometimes I've imagined despairing, possibly suicidal teenagers sneaking the book off the adult shelves and realizing as they finish it that life, hopeless as it can seem, is worthwhile. There is hope. They must go on living.
Nor did I intend the book as science fiction, though it makes use of S-F motifs like alien worlds. In the process of employing these motifs, it may do something to unpack the secret of their appeal. But this wasn't planned. It just came out that way.
As Danny clashes between fantasy and reality your prose style becomes more experimental. Did this happen organically as you wrote, or was it more of a conscious choice?
I made no conscious choices in this respect. My only choice was, when something wanted to come out of me, not to get in its way.
The moment at the end of the story, when Danny leaves behind his UFO "bible" before setting off for college on his own, is a powerful one. Does growing up necessitate letting go of (a) passion?
Not passion, perhaps, but illusion. Yet there's a paradox: no sooner do we discard illusion than we take it up againnot the same one, perhaps, but something akin to itbecause we can't live without it. And illusion is not wholly negative. It brings gifts that remain after the illusion is gone. This is something Danny is aware of, though not quite consciously, as he lets drop the "bible" that is the emblem of his UFO illusion.
This "childhood's end" is itself an unending process, which never becomes complete. We never become illusion-free. (Would we want to?)
What makes the UFO myth such a persistent idea in our culture? Why do people want to believe that flying saucers exist?
This is the big questionthe real UFO mystery.
There's an obvious answer, which the UFOlogists are bound to offer. People want to believe in flying saucers because flying saucers are real; they're bowing to the weight of the evidence. I can't say this, because I don't think it's true. It wasn't true for me, back when I was a UFO believer. I doubt whether it's true of others.
The real answers are only dimly perceptible, shapes in a fog. I'll repeat what I've said before: the mysteries of "inner space" are every bit as shrouded, elusive and eerie as those of "outer space."
Most basically, I think, UFOs are a mythology of death. Deathbone of our bone, flesh of our flesh, born with us at the moment of our birth, our inseparable companion throughout our lives. Yet deaththe ultimate alienness, though which we cease to be ourselves, cease to be anything at all. How better to express this paradox than with a myth of alien intruders into our familiar skies?
Consider the best-known of the UFO tales, the legend of Roswell, New Mexico. At its heart, the crux of its fascination, is the theme of mortal divinitycelestial beings, surely qualified as gods by their extraordinary powers, yet mortal for all that, tumbling dead from their heavens.
This may be why the UFO era began in 1947. Odd things had been seen in the skies, as long as people looked upward. But recognition of them as a distinct phenomenon, an enigma of alienness, came a little less than two years after the end of the Second World War, after Alamogordo and Hiroshima and Nagasaki. This was when, for the first time in human history, it became a realistic possibility that we can die collectivelyas a species, not just as individuals. And voilà! The UFOs appear.
There's more to it than that. The UFO myth persists because, like all true myths, it coalesces a whole range of meanings. Take alien abductions. We can pinpoint just when the abduction tradition came into existenceFebruary 1964, when a New Hampshire couple named Betty and Barney Hill were put under hypnosis by a Boston psychiatrist for the purpose of relieving physical symptoms that had dogged Barney since the couple's UFO sighting more than two years earlier. Under hypnosis, they told a story of how their car was stopped in the middle of the night. They were led away from it, carried into a waiting UFO where they were made to undergo bizarre pseudo-medical procedures.
Now, Betty and Barney Hill were an unusual couple for small-town New England in the early 1960s. She was white. He was black. I have no way of knowing precisely how his ancestors came to this country. But it's a good guess they were abducted in the middle of the night and carried off to a waiting ship. This ancestral trauma was transmitted through the generations, preserved in Barney's unconscious. Through him it was injected into the mainstream of the society that had wronged him, humiliated him, marginalized him.
(Those who've heard the tape of Barney's first hypnotic trance, have attested to the wild terror in his voice as he recalled his experience. The psychiatrist reports having been afraid Barney would throw himself out the office window. There must have been something powerful and deeply frightening inside him that the hypnosis allowed to come out.)
I'm haunted by a remark of Freud's, near the end of his Interpretation of Dreams:
There is often a passage in even the most thoroughly interpreted dream which has to be left obscure
a tangle of dream-thoughts which cannot be unraveled
This is the dream's navel, the spot where it reaches down into the unknown. The dream-thoughts
have any definite endings; they are bound to branch out in every direction into the intricate network of our world of thought. It is at some point where this meshwork is particularly close that the dream-wish grows up, like a mushroom out of its mycelium.
Perhaps the UFO is the spot, in the collective dream that is our culture, where it reaches down into the unknown.