Ask Me Another 2

This is a continuation of the “Ask Me Another” conversation with Stephanie Kelley-Romano, associate professor of rhetoric.

What did your advisers at Kansas say when you said you wanted to interview people who believe they’ve been abducted by aliens?

They all said, “No, you can’t do that. It’s not real.” That made me want to do it, because they said I couldn’t.

Stephanie Kelley-Romano meets with
Breana  Milldrum ’08, who is writing an honors thesis on the portrayl of narcotics addicts on television.

Scholars agree that cultural myths — from the Greek’s gods to alien abduction — are valuable because they explain the how and why of life. Yet mythmaking isn’t embraced in today’s society.

We are no longer comfortable, as a society, making statements out loud about our personal myths, particularly those around religion or other proscriptive myths. It feels too personal or intimate, or we worry about offending. But we still have a need for public, cathartic spiritual displays, so while we’ve taken our public spirituality and pulled it into ourselves, we have it demonstrated and applauded in sport.

A large amount of religion, spirituality, and faith is being infused into sports. Like in the 2007 Super Bowl, there was the narrative of two black head coaches in the Super Bowl. Undergirding both those narratives was a narrative about faith and Christianity. We saw them praying, we heard them saying they owe everything to Jesus Christ.

Similarly, when bad things happen to athletes, faith undergirds the story. When Sean Taylor from the Redskins got killed, there were sketchy issues and issues of race. But the overpowering stories were about him as a lost soul, and how now he has redemption.

Take the Baltimore-New England game, right after Taylor’s death. Ray Lewis, Willis McGahee, and Ed Reed put their heads together to dedicate the game to Taylor. You could hear them say, “This is family right now. One of our brothers is gone home. Let’s see him home right.” It gets really spiritual.

Might there be other explanations for why so many people say they’ve been abducted?

Amy Bradfield [a Bates associate professor of psychology] and I have co-authored an article that says that alien abductees are more suggestible than the average person. Which is not surprising. Another explanation is sleep paralysis, a dreamy state where people can be influenced, through cultural factors, into believing it’s an abduction. Two percent of the population believes they’ve been abducted by aliens, and that’s the same number with sleep paralysis.

The ’70s seemed like the heyday for things like the Bermuda Triangle and UFOs. Is there less room for stories of the unreal today? Even The Weekly World News folded.

I’m sad about WWN. It’s the end of an era. Maybe it’s cynical and pathetic, but I think that weird stories like the ones in WWN took intellectual engagement and curiosity on the part of the reader. Now we get celebrity culture spoon-fed to us with ease and convenience.

Do you get any static for teaching “The Rhetoric of Alien Abduction”?

Students tell me their parents are mad because they’re paying so much while they take a course on alien abduction. So I ask why they’re taking the course, and they say because it’s going to be fun. And I say, “We’ll see about that.”

We start talking about how you justify what you believe. About skeptical discourse and evaluating evidence. I let them stay in their nice, fenced-in area of discussion, where it’s all about “those” people being a little crazy for believing in abduction. Then I whip out religion, and ask why belief in God is any more rational than a belief in aliens. And that gets people upset.

So I play devil’s advocate, suggesting that the story of the first famous abductees, Betty and Barney Hill, is like Genesis. The students then have to think about the ways alien abduction is different or the same as a religious myth. What’s the difference between the form of a story and the way that it functions? How do functions determine form? What’s the interplay?

Then they look at out-of-body experiences or other pseudo experiences, like the stories of all the satanic rituals that supposedly went on at daycare centers in the 1990s. None of it was true! We talk about mass-hysteria. About recovered memory and what you do you believe you know, and how do you know that you know. And that’s a trip.