Something Strange and Distressing

Matthew Bowman, The Abduction of Betty and Barney Hill: Alien Encounters, Civil Rights, and the New Age in America

Yale University Press, 288pp, £25.00, ISBN 9780300251388

reviewed by Alexis Forss

On June 25th 2023, at 13:37 BST, Matthew Bowman became probably the first author in the history of the Yale University Press to have their work plugged by the Daily Mail website. Before anyone starts wondering at the new slant of MailOnline’s TV & Showbiz coverage, here’s the headline: ‘We were abducted by aliens: The unbelievable story of suburban churchgoing couple Betty and Barney Hill, the first Americans to claim they'd been snatched by a UFO.’ This macabre story may endure as the object of tabloid gawking, but The Abduction of Betty and Barney Hill: Alien Encounters, Civil Rights, and the New Age in America is a sad and fascinating book.

Bowman begins with the incident. The facts of the case — such as can be agreed upon when dealing with a story that got better with each telling — are as follows: late in the night of September 19th 1961, the Hills were driving home through central New Hampshire when, they claim, they saw a flying saucer in the sky. They awoke in their home in a daze at 15:00 EST on the following day, puzzling through memories of having been pursued by flashing lights down Route 3 through the mountains of the Franconia Notch. Barney couldn’t account for the scuffing of his shoes, nor could Betty explain her compulsion to shove the previous night’s clothes deep into the closet.

From these rudiments of disorder Bowman traces out a cross-section of American turbulence. Spanning ESP and black helicopters, as charged up on Dealy Plaza paranoia as it is blissed out on New Age beatitudes, the Hills’ journey takes in seemingly every belief on offer in postwar America. At points the fever of suspicion runs so high that we half-expect to bump into Clay Bertrand or gatecrash a meeting of the Special Study Group.

Intriguingly, Bowman veers off already at this early point and doubles back to establish his protagonists’ social identity and context: a chapter each on their individual lives leading up to that night, and another on their shared Unitarian faith. The structural detour works as a rumble-strip on our derision. Before this little fish of a strange incident swells into a whopper of insane proportions, Bowman would have us know the Hills. They weren’t marginal tub-thumpers or resentful illiterates; we’re talking about people firmly in the mainstream of society, with a belief in their government’s paternalistic and transparent benevolence that reads like the wildest fiction in the whole book. Patriotic, deferential, probably downright naïve — from the cynical vantage point of the 2020s the Hills risk seeming like dupes even before what we would now call their radicalisation into conspiracy theory.

Betty was white, a daughter of the New Deal; her mother a member of the American Federation of Labour who could trace her family’s roots back to within a few years of the Mayflower. Descended from southern sharecroppers on both sides, Barney was born in Virginia and raised in Philadelphia, his family part of the Great Migration of Blacks fleeing Jim Crow. As a young man he attended the African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas, where he became involved with the NAACP and bought into the politics of respectability and uplift. Theirs was a union born not only of love but also hope. So widespread and deep-running was the fear of miscegenation in American society that by 1960 only one percent of all marriages were interracial. The Hills’ relationship would be the subject of much tawdry speculation and innuendo as their public profiles burgeoned along with the details of that fateful night.

Now, Bowman is meticulous in charting the metamorphoses of the Hills’ account. Perhaps too much so, to the degree that any shaggy dog story eventually becomes an endurance test for its audience. To telescope a process that’s both baffling in its details and quickly predictable in its rhythms: after an interview with Air Force officials provided neither the clarity nor the catharsis they sought, the Hills got passed along a whisper network of cranks, fantasists, and charlatans, the details of the story burgeoning with each step. Anyone familiar with how lives were upended and reputations ruined during the Satanic Ritual Abuse hysteria of the 80s and 90s will shudder to read that ‘under hypnosis, the Hills recalled much more.’

Next thing we know we’re firmly in yellow press territory, and we might as well let that Daily Mail article do the talking. The tropes of a genre, its stock characters and furniture, find their preliminary sketches here: ‘They said they were placed on examination tables in the UFO, before being subjected to scientific experiments while the aliens stripped them, plucked their hair, took clippings of their nails, and scraped their skin. Betty also claimed to have been shown an intricate star map that she knew from memory. When asked to produce it later, she identified star system Zeta Reticuli, around 39 lightyears from earth, as her abductor's home planet.’ From this point nothing is off the table, and it’s a surprisingly short journey from Area 51 to the sunken shores of Atlantis.

And yet we’re not dealing with anything like the Theosophical chicanery of an Edgar Cayce or the science-fictional anti-Semitism of a David Icke. Our protagonists sought neither to enrich themselves nor to promulgate rancour and division. Something strange and distressing happened to Betty and Barney Hill, and the systems they trusted denied them an explanation — a compounded trauma, opening wide the floodgates of credulity. Stonewalled by a military-scientific establishment institutionally incapable of validating their feelings, they turn to books on ‘mysterious satellites, silenced Army officers, and the possibility that alien civilisations were using the moon as a base for the investigation of Earth.’ Somehow, the straight face of Bowman’s prose never once cracks into a smirk or sneer.

The temptation is to gawp at such people, to point and laugh. Early in the book, Bowman feints towards this impulse without indulging it: ‘It should be of little surprise that the Mutual UFO Network (MUFON), a nationwide organization investigating UFOs in the United States since its founding in 1969, began in the mid-2010s to struggle with growing members attracted to political extremism and the conspiracy theories stoked by President Donald Trump.’ Recent books by James Bridle and Naomi Klein have explored the fashionable idea that conspiracy theories fly wide of the factual mark while getting the ‘structure of feelings’ right, but to liberal empiricist rubberneckers, the most delicious absurdity of the conspiratorial imagination is its febrile everythingitis: you only need to spend a bit of time online to see how the New World Order is perched above a Flat Earth beneath a sky crisscrossed with chemtrails.

Barney is the saddest player in this story. Even psychologists who condescended to his ‘average intelligence’ could discern in his recollections the nightmare of living as a Black man in America: ‘In the abduction Barney’s removal from the car by dark coated men creates a magnificent image of the lynching of a negro,’ as one report had it. He died in 1969, at the age of 47, leaving Betty the custodian of their legacy, in which capacity she cut an increasingly paranoid, alienated, and pitiful figure. By the end, it seemed, she was lost in permanent hallucination: every night she’d look up at a skyful of stars and see in each one of them an alien craft. They became something of a comfort – succour from the men in black who were tapping her phones and dogging her steps.

One can easily imagine a much lesser book: a potboiler, a freakshow. Instead, Bowman has pitched this tale as a sort of shadow play of collective trauma and an elegy for the nation’s loss of innocence. Not once does he condescend or jeer at the Hills’ ill-starred delusions. They deserve better than that, and they receive it in this patient and scrupulous account of their travails.

Alexis Forss is a writer based in London.