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Harvard riled by close encounters

Illegal Aliens Dept.
By MIKE MILIARD  |  June 10, 2009

John E. Mack
On September 16, 1994, 62 children in Ruwa, Zimbabwe, said they saw a spacecraft land near their school. Some claimed they communed with the small, dark-eyed beings who emerged from it, and were warned about the damage humanity was inflicting upon planet Earth.

Two months later, Harvard Medical School psychiatrist John E. Mack was on a plane to Africa, where "he interviewed 14 or 15 kids," says Randy Nickerson, whose work-in-progress documentary, Encounter in Ruwa: The Ariel School Sighting, screens in Cambridge on Friday. "One of the things that really fascinated me was the consistency of their stories and drawings. It still astounds me."

Mack, who died in 2004, founded the psychiatric department of Cambridge Hospital and won the 1977 Pulitzer Prize in biography for his portrait of T.E. Lawrence. His life's work was "preoccupied with the issue of human identity," says Dominique Callimanopulos, a former colleague who also worked on the film. And as the years wore on, he became more and more intrigued by how that identity fit into a "cosmic context," and in exploring "our place in the universe," says Callimanopulos.

In the early '90s, Mack began interviewing hundreds of so-called experiencers — people claiming to have had extraterrestrial contact. It was work that didn't sit particularly well with many of his colleagues. In 1994, the dean of Harvard Medical School launched an investigation into Mack's methodology, the first time in the university's history that a tenured professor had been put under such scrutiny.

"He was so shocked at how they turned on him," Callimanopulos says. "He was really hurt. And then he got really angry at how closed-minded they were."

Fourteen months later, Harvard released a statement that reaffirmed Mack's "freedom to study what he wishes and to state his opinions without impediment." And now, 15 years after the Zimbabwe incident, Encounter in Ruwa may further vindicate Mack.

"Last March, I flew to Zimbabwe and tried to locate all the other children," explains Nickerson. "I discovered there were more witnesses than just those children." He spoke to a pilot who'd spotted a UFO around that time, for instance, and to the school's headmistress, who was initially too fearful of being fired to confess her own close encounter. The lesson, says Nickerson, as in Mack's psychiatric work, is to "keep an open mind."

"People who report these experiences are still really discriminated against," says Callimanopulos. "The stigma is that they're nutcases." Mack believed differently. And he staked his considerable academic bona fides to prove it. "He was really committed to this work. And he put everything on the line for it for the last 12 years of his life."

Encounter in Ruwa: The Ariel School Sighting will screen on Friday, June 12, at 7 pm at 38Cameron (38 Cameron Avenue, in Cambridge). Go to for more information.

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  Topics: Lifestyle Features , Science and Technology, Technology, Health and Fitness,  More more >
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