Saturday, March 16, 2024

Q&A with Matthew Bowman




Matthew Bowman is the author of the new book The Abduction of Betty and Barney Hill: Alien Encounters, Civil Rights, and the New Age in America. His other books include The Mormon People. He is associate professor of religion and history and Howard W. Hunter Chair of Mormon Studies at Claremont Graduate University.


Q: What inspired you to write The Abduction of Betty and Barney Hill?


A: I am a scholar of contemporary American religion, and I'm particularly interested in how religion in the United States in the last hundred or so years has evolved in response to what we might call "modernity" - the emergence of a modern culture of science, the rise of commercialized mass culture, the distrust of institutions endemic since the 1960s, and so on. 


All of these things led me to UFOs, which seemed to me to encapsulate all of these developments, as well as the ambiguity inherent in the category of "religion" in the United States. 


Are UFOs scientific or supernatural? Aliens from another planet flying machines to earth, or the manifestations of interdimensional creatures that function on another realm of reality? 


Are dismissals of the phenomena from established authorities in academia and politics a sign of conspiracy, or is there really nothing to the host of strange sightings reported every year?  


The UFO seemed to me to sit at the center of really important questions about the modern world, rather than a fringe aberration.


Q: The Publishers Weekly review of the book called it “a potent deconstruction of mid-20th-century American politics and culture.” What do you think of that description?

A: I hope it's right! As I've said, I think we can learn a lot about issues front and center in modern society, politics, and culture from studying seemingly fringe topics like UFOs.


Readers will meet alien abductees and UFO researchers in this story, but they might be surprised to note that events and figures we'd think would have nothing to do with UFO culture in the United States, like James Earl Jones and the Watergate scandal, are surprisingly wound into the Hills' own lives.


Q: How did you research the book, and what did you learn that especially surprised you?


A: I knew I wanted to write about UFOs, but I'd not picked the Hills in particular until I learned that their niece, Kathleen Marden, has quite recently donated a large collection of the Hills's papers to the University of New Hampshire. 


Betty and Barney Hill were an interracial couple living in New Hampshire in 1961 when they encountered a strange light in the sky - a light which, after undergoing hypnosis, they came to believe was a spacecraft piloted by aliens who seized them and subjected them to medical testing.


This is the first modern alien abduction story in American history, and it's famous for that reason.


Other historians have written about the Hills, but nearly all rely on the 1966 book The Interrupted Journey, by the journalist John Fuller. Fuller's book is based almost entirely on interviews with the Hills, and I was surprised to learn how error-riddled that book is.


Fuller occasionally misattributes or alters quotations, for instance, in ways that shape how we understand the Hills's story.


I was able to compare Fuller's book to the interview transcripts (which no other scholars have looked at), and identified many of these problems.


Q: What role do you think race played in the public reaction to the Hills' story?


A: This gets to my answer above. Fuller tried to minimize the impact of race on the Hills's story.  This was in part politic on his part - he was writing at the height of the Black freedom movement in the United States and wanted to avoid the politics of race.


But my research demonstrates how central race was both to how the Hills themselves understood their experience and in how the public interpreted it.


Barney was, of course, Black, and both Hills were involved in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. They were activists, and feared that the story might harm their work. As it turned out, it did.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: Two projects. First, there has been little scholarly work on how UFOs have been understood by traditional religious denominations. I'm working on a study of UFOs in the history of Mormonism.


Second, I'm working on a not-biography of Stephen R. Covey, the famous business management author and self-help writer. I call it a not-biography because I'm as interested in the world around Covey, the ideas he absorbed and synthesized, as on simply telling the story of his life.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: The UFO Incident, the film James Earl Jones produced and starred in about the Hill incident, is free to watch on YouTube.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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