Delivering the Poison Secret:

Whitley Strieber & Jeffrey Kripal’s Traumatic Package

Image by Jasun Horsley

“I cannot tell you how to escape, but I can tell you that it’s a terribly interesting place.” Whitley Strieber, The Super Natural

The Super Natural: A New Vision of the Unexplained was promised by its publishers (Tarcher-Penguin) to be “the most important book on the paranormal since Charles Fort published The Book of the Damned in 1919.” The book is a collaboration between Whitley Strieber, best-selling horror author “who popularized the concept of alien abduction,” and Jeffrey Kripal, renowned scholar and “renegade advocate for including the paranormal in religious studies.” On its own terms, it is an attempt to integrate “rejected knowledge” with “the great paradigm change of our time: the end of materialism.” The book is arranged in alternating chapters from both authors, cozily marked with their first names, “Whitley” and “Jeff.” This is the first clue that, despite Kripal’s credentials, we will not be reading a scholarly work. The first chapter, by Kripal, begins with these words: “I am afraid of this book. There is something about it, something explosive and new. It is not a neutral book. It is an apocalypse of thought waiting for you, the reader, to actualize.” Three pages later, Kripal assures us, the reader: “We have no easy or settled answers. Our intentions for this book are more humble.” This is the first clue that The Super Natural is not going to play it straight with us, the reader, but that it will dissemble with every dissemination, in one breath presenting itself as “an apocalypse of thought,” in the next assuring us of its humble intentions. This weird juxtaposition of self-inflation with self-effacement runs through the book, and it gave me the strong sense that I, the reader, was being played.

Kripal has been advocating Strieber since 2011, when he wrote a section on him in Mutants and Mystics and penned the foreword to Strieber’s same-year release, Solving the Communion Enigma. On the surface, Kripal takes Strieber’s outlandish testimonies at face value; he appears to see them, to see Strieber’s mere existence, as a means to banish forever the old, moth-eaten paradigm of materialism. In The Super Natural he compares Strieber to St. Paul and Moses, clearly signaling that what Strieber is presenting is akin to the inception of a new religion. On page 222, Kripal describes Communion as “a trance-text, a ‘remembrance’ of a literally hypnotic story that helped ‘reveal’ and then establish one of the most powerful cultural narratives working in American culture today.”

Both Kripal and Strieber (I am tempted to call them Stripal for short) repeatedly assure us, the reader, that they are not interested in fomenting belief (which they consider “a dangerous response”) but in forging a new path between belief and dismissal, one which entails a more direct, experiential, gnosis-like encounter with the “super natural.” Yet the book I read was saturated in belief; it was a tract that aspires to being an apocalypse of thought, a manual for accessing the higher mind of super nature. (It even comes with its own seven-pronged methodology and a glossary to help us, the reader, stay on track as we plunge into the challenging new terrain.[1]) But for all its claims to be a shockingly new vision of the unexplained (claims backed up by Joscelyn Godwin, Jacques Vallee, and Dean Radin quotes on the back of the book), I found very little new about The Super Natural. What about Pauwels and Bergiers’ Morning of the Magicians in 1963, Fritjof Capra’s The Tao of Physics in 1975, Marilyn Ferguson’s The Aquarian Conspiracy in 1980, Michael Talbot’s The Holographic Universe (one of Strieber’s favorites) in 1991, and Graham Hancock’s Supernatural, in 2006? It seems as if, at regular intervals, a book comes along that tries to do more or less what The Super Natural is claiming to do, and turn the materialist paradigm upside down. The main difference here is that the focus is on the experiences of a single individual, Strieber, and by extension, those of thousands, or millions, who also believe they have been contacted by . . . something that can’t be explained by orthodox science.[2]

Kripal’s primary role is to provide the Strieber-material with the academic seal of approval. Yet the book, including Kripal’s contribution, is written in the sensationalist, whiz-bang, hyperbole-filled, how-can-we-top-ourselves-this-time style of all Strieber’s previous works. Although Kripal doesn’t openly express envy for Strieber’s “super natural” experiences, he practically oozes admiration for him, though whether he is sincere or not is hard to say. Much of the time he seems to be selling a product rather than exploring a mystery, and the book’s earnestness smacks, to me at least, of insincerity. In case this seems overly harsh, here are some examples. On page 195, Kripal writes:

“The fact that Whitley has in turn been rejected by the official cultures of the public media, the scientific establishment, and conservative religion for his prophetic voice does nothing to challenge such vocational reading of the ‘magical stone’ in his ear [i.e., an electrical implant Strieber received from unknown agencies]. Indeed, it only strengthens it, since this is what often happens to the prophet in western culture: he or she is rejected by the cultural elites.”

Cultural elites not including Kripal, that is, whose standing at Rice University, his selection as the official Esalen-biographer, and his participation at the Noetic Institute of Sciences (where Radin also works as “chief scientist”) apparently does not count for much in his own eyes. Having delivered his lofty statement on Strieber’s prophetic status, on page 197 he adds “I am not saying: ‘Whitley Strieber is a shaman.’ Nor am I saying: ‘Whitley Strieber is a prophet.’” Are we, the reader, assumed to have such short memory spans that we won’t notice this blatant contradiction? Or are we to believe Kripal when he tells us he didn’t say what he just said? If Kripal didn’t mean to say that Strieber was a prophet, why didn’t he just edit it out?

There are countless other edits that could have been made, yet they are so glaring that it’s difficult, if not impossible, to believe they are simply oversights. Not only does the book have two authors, reading over each other’s chapters as they write their own responses, it was edited by another author, Mitch Horowitz, who has made something of a name for himself as an investigator of occult symbolism and secret US history; isn’t it reasonable to suppose all three of them were paying close attention to the content of this book? Yet Strieber’s sections are filled with errors, exaggerations, and, frankly, lies (I will get to this latter in a moment): did neither Kripal nor Horowitz notice; did they not care; or are they involved in a deliberate distortion of the truth for unknown reasons? We, the reader, have not just a right to ask these questions, we have an obligation; unless, that is, we want the first casualty of Strieber and Kripal’s apocalypse to be thought itself.

Regarding Strieber’s inconsistencies, dissembling, and deception, to be fair it runs through all of his work and has provided the basis for my own book-length exploration of it, Prisoner of Infinity, which I am currently serializing at my blog. Kripal has seen the first part of Prisoner of Infinity (I know because he asked for a PDF in 2014, while he was working on The Super Natural). I would guess it has been seen by Strieber too, because who can resist reading about themselves? But neither have addressed the arguments I have made there. In this their latest opus, either the inconsistencies are more glaringly obvious than before, or I have trained my eye to see them more starkly. To start with the small ones: on page 97, Strieber refers to “the great-eyed being I painted for the cover of Communion”; the image was actually painted by Ted Jacobs, as described in Communion.[3] On page 184–5, Strieber mentions “one incident, however, that I haven’t described,” and then goes on to recount a series of encounters with a feral man-child, events already described, point for point, in a chapter in Solving the Communion Enigma. This sort of error goes beyond mere editorial oversight.

Far more significantly, Strieber resorts to seemingly deliberate concealment of his sexual history, on pages 96 and 103–4, when he writes: “Prior to meeting my wife, I was sexually intimate with a woman only once . . . when I was about sixteen, I was briefly touched by a girl, and touched her in return. Although I was as eager for sex as any boy, the manners of the time and place meant that I never went as far as to make love. Until I met Anne, that is.” Yet elsewhere, Strieber has described, in lurid detail, an encounter with a mysterious Irish woman named Róisín, in Italy of 1968, with whom he had highly unorthodox sexual congress that included penetration, ejaculation, and manipulation by a group of unknown persons throughout the act! (I have written about this in depth — in chapter 10 of Prisoner of Infinity — and its apparent relation to Strieber’s involvement with The Process Church.) Strieber’s only reference to this meeting in his latest book, however, is summed up (on page 212) as “a couple of weeks in Florence, we had a lovely time, living together in chaste intimacy” (italics added).

Towards the end of the book (on page 366), Strieber describes himself as “almost pathologically honest,” then adds: “I am not a liar.” Yet what else are we to call it when someone deliberately misrepresents their past? Like everything Strieber touches, this book is not what it appears to be. It seems aimed at the critical establishment as an argument against materialism but it’s written in an overly simplistic style that falls far short of anything resembling rigorous analysis. It’s populist nonfiction, and its target audience is certainly not the “cultural elite” which both Kripal and Strieber grumble about throughout the book. The target audience, I suspect, is New Age readers who already reject the materialist paradigm, but who want to feel like they are being treated as intelligent, critical-minded thinkers. Rather than challenging religious or scientific orthodoxy, it seems designed to validate and reinforce a growing belief system that, despite all of the two authors’ claims, is anything but marginal.

One element in this book that might be considered new is Kripal’s “traumatic secret.” This is what first kicked off my Prisoner investigation, and it can be summed up as the belief that severe abuse (especially childhood sexual abuse) can “open the door to transcendence.” When I first read Kripal’s exposition on this idea, in an essay he sent me on George Bataille, I tried to point out the flaws in his argument but Kripal seemed either unable or unwilling to understand my points, and the dialogue went nowhere. In The Super Natural, he addresses it again in a significantly toned down, more user-friendly manner, which I will get to in a bit. For his part, Strieber, who advocated the use of trauma to accelerate evolution in Solving the Communion Enigma, seems to be practicing some post-Prisoner of Infinity damage control, such as on pages 208–9, when he more or less sums up, in very simplistic terms, my own thesis:

“[T]here is some sort of process of sublimation involved in transferring unacceptable and incomprehensible memories to more bearable fantasies. A brutal rape by a beloved parent might become a brutal alien abduction, as the mind seizes on the most believable and acceptable alternative in order to avoid facing what it cannot bear to see. This might explain, at least in part, the proliferation of close encounter memories, including some of my own. I doubt that it explains them all, but that possibility should not be discounted, either. If such a process exits, it is likely that it has always existed and might well be one of the primary generators of folklore. A rape by a father becomes a visit from a god. Leda didn’t get ravished by daddy — too unbearable to contemplate. No, it was a swan, and that swan was a god. This might explain many of these experiences, but it should not be used to explain them away. The shattering of expectation that accompanies trauma doesn’t just cause transference, it opens a door.”

In Prisoner, I argue that the sort of “transcendence” brought about through trauma is largely or entirely inauthentic because it is the consequence of a dissociative defense strategy on the part of the traumatized psyche. This implies that, even if the “super natural” realms being accessed are “real” (and I freely allow they may be), the way in which they are being accessed, interpreted, and applied, is in defense of an ego identity that has been formed by and through the trauma. All such experiences become “stories” — tales of the ego fragment’s aggrandizement and/or debasement: the kind of stories Strieber is so gifted at telling, but that Kripal seems rather less comfortable spinning into quasi-academic arguments for transcendental trauma. In my own view, this sort of transcendence is equivalent to going into the jungle to capture exotic wildlife, then bringing it back to civilization in a cage (as in the movie King Kong) as proof of one’s prowess and adventurous spirit. It may be proof of having been to the jungle; but the wildlife being presented is no longer wild (though it may still be exotic). It is not part of the jungle anymore but part of the civilization that has captured it. It has become a prisoner of the traumatized psyche’s self-protective strategies.

*

“As we approach wild creatures, they struggle, they react with terror, they have to be subdued . . . exactly as I did, initially. But over my years of contact, I was tamed.” Whitley Strieber, The Super Natural

MKULTRA is not mentioned in The Super Natural, not once. This is despite Strieber’s acknowledgment of participating in a secret, Nazi-run US program for gifted children in the early 1950s: exactly the time, place, and players involved at the inception of MKULTRA. Strieber’s experiences are mentioned primarily to show that his psychic prowess and otherworldly encounters are rooted in massive childhood trauma, and that he is the exception who proves, not the rule, but that MKULTRA’s methods — using extreme trauma to endow children with psychic abilities — occasionally worked.

Strieber makes no bones about this when he writes: “Were the Nazi scientists trying to re-create those conditions in their lab in Texas? If so, perhaps it sometimes works. My life would certainly suggest so.” Is this the message embedded in The Super Natural — the bitter pill inside all the New Age sugar? Since it’s about the only thing shockingly new about it, the book begins to look like a delivery device for this one idea. Yet MKULTRA was not about creating enlightened beings, shamans or prophets. It was designed to create programmed killers, sex slaves, psychic spies, and possible “lifetime actors,” operatives who worked for a shadow government implementing political, social, cultural, and quasi-religious agendas. People like Whitley Strieber, who shows all the symptoms of dissociative identity disorder, was by his own admission part of the MKULTRA program, and who has publicly acknowledged, in more ways than one over the years, his close ties to the CIA.

Following this track a little further into the abyss, one of the things Kripal commends Strieber for is how he allows for every possible interpretation of his contact experiences, even down to brain-tumor-generated hallucinations. And yet. . . There is one viable interpretation of all the unexplained events of his life which Strieber never posits, namely, that his experiences were induced in him (and thousands, maybe millions, of others) as part of a large-scale, MKULTRA-linked, military-intelligence operation that spanned decades and several continents and involved drugs, hypnosis, special effects, and officially undisclosed forms of technology. Unlike most or all of Strieber’s explanations, this interpretation could conceivably account for all of the variables and inconsistencies in his accounts. I am not saying it would — there does appear to be a truly “magical” element to Strieber’s experiences — only that it works considerably better than most of the other explanations, even while remaining conspicuously absent from both Strieber and Kripal’s roster: just as if it is not worth mentioning. Kripal does refer to military operations in the last chapter, as an apparent afterthought, but only in regard to UFO disinformation. In the same chapter, in his closing paragraphs, he assures us he does not “do conspiracy,” that he doesn’t trust “the wild conspiracies that are constantly spun out of this material.” It’s too bad, because if he did, The Super Natural would have been a very different animal entirely: an uncaged gorilla. In his enthusiastic chasing after miracles, Kripal has trampled over the real mystery.

Strieber and Kripal want us to believe they are battling on the front line of super natural gnosis to overthrow the twin enemies of materialism and religion and defy the authority of the gatekeepers who want to define our reality and prevent us from recognizing our ultimate natures. Yet my own investigations would seem indicate that the reverse is closer to the truth. On page 150, Kripal writes:

“What was Whitley Strieber’s crime? What did he do that was so wrong, that merited so much shaming and condemnation on the part of the literary elite and the religious powers that be? And yet, why did his story resonate so powerfully with millions of readers and come to indelibly mark, perhaps even shape, a new emergent mythology well outside the reach of the cultural and religious gatekeepers?”

My own investigations indicate that this “new emergent mythology” is being marked, and even shaped, by the same cultural and religious gatekeepers Kripal indicates, but does not identify, being that they are the ones he claims not to believe in: those behind Esalen, for example, or the Institute for Noetic Sciences, which for a time served as a front for the CIA’s experiments in remote viewing.[4] Perhaps he has good reasons not to identify them, if he is working on the same team? As for Strieber, with several best-selling books and three major Hollywood productions under his belt, and a new TV show coming in 2016 from the producer of The Walking Dead (Alien Hunter), for Kripal to try and paint him as cultural reject is more than a little rich.

Regarding the possibility of military intelligence’s involvement in alien abductions, Strieber does mention the implant in his ear, which would seem to come as close to proof of an earthly technological source for his experiences as anything Kripal could reasonably ask for. Yet, through an act of illogic that borders on the super natural, Kripal uses the implant as an example of how we exist in a non-materialistic universe in which non-physical/imaginal/super natural phenomena can, through the medium of our minds, enter into concrete existence! What was it Hitler said about lies? And what would Sherlock Holmes make of Kripal’s ratiocinative methods — or the world of academia that presumably pays his bills? But as I say, the book is not aimed at academics; it’s not really aimed at critically-minded people either. It’s aimed at believers who think of themselves as gnostics — those in the know — people who’ve been primed by decades of carefully shaped and directed pseudo-information about the “non-material” nature of reality, from Blavatsky, Crowley, and Huxley to Leary, Kesey, and Hubbard, to Castaneda, McKenna and Strieber, and what the bleep do we know, on down.[5] Aren’t these the gatekeepers Kripal claims he and Strieber are sneaking past with this apocalyptic book (which he also calls an intervention!)? What I see is just another brick in the pyramid of the Second Matrix.

On the other hand, maybe it’s my own bias speaking. Perhaps Kripal’s traumatic secret really is the head cornerstone the builders rejected. On page 228, commenting on Strieber’s description of childhood trauma and his comparison to the Nazi concentration camps, he writes:

“extraordinary human experiences often occur in the most destructive and dangerous of contexts. None of this is meant to romanticize the evils of Nazism, of war, or of the horrible sufferings of trauma and sexual trauma in their countless destructive and debilitating forms. It is simply to observe that human beings sometimes have profound spiritual experiences amid or after suffering and death, and that trauma sometimes opens up into transcendence. Is this really so difficult to understand?”

That question tacked on at the end — or perhaps it’s an appeal? — struck me when I read it as strangely out of place. Kripal hasn’t recounted any resistance to his formulation, so he appears to be engaged with an obtuse imaginary reader — myself perhaps, or people like me who simply don’t “get” his treasured notion of the dangerous sacred? Difficult to understand? On the contrary, as Kripal frames it here, it is almost childishly simple. But I think it is also untrue precisely because of that over-simplification. Speaking from my own experience now, the truth of trauma is extremely difficult to grasp, because we are all shaped by it to one degree or another, and because perceiving the forces that have determined our manner of perceiving — understanding the ways in which our understanding has been shaped, or impaired — is like trying to pin down the UFO: all but impossible.

What Kripal seems to leave out in his over-tidy little formula of the traumatic secret are the fundamental discoveries of trauma psychologists such as Donald Kalsched laid down in The Inner World of Trauma. What these discoveries indicate is that, as well as, and congruent with, allowing a person to access “transcendental” realms of being, trauma causes fragmentation of the psyche as a defense against further trauma. As a result of this fragmentation, a false self — a constructed identity or social alter — is created. It is this false self — in a case such as Strieber’s — that has access to so-called transcendental experiences and will use them to maintain its own existence indefinitely, at whatever cost to the total being. So if Strieber can’t show us how to escape this dissociated limbo realm in which the floating psychic fragment eternally exists, perhaps it is for the simple, if chilling, reason that he doesn’t want to escape it? Instead, he (with Kripal’s help) can show us how very interesting it is ~ and maybe we will come join him there . . .

I think we are supposed to read of Strieber’s “experiences that crackled with sensuality, that ripped away my ego as a hurricane rips away a city, leaving me in ruins,”[6] and desire them, covet them, for ourselves as the means, the proof, of getting closer to the true nature of reality and ourselves. Yet in the Eastern tradition — which Kripal has studied and written books about — the siddhi-holder is not closer to enlightenment but further from it. The nature of siddhis is to deceive the very elect. They are powerful to persuade both the dissociated self that gets to experience these cosmic states of consciousness and any onlookers unversed and naïve enough to be impressed by them that they are in the presence of “the dangerous sacred.” I think it’s beyond all reasonable doubt that Strieber belongs to the first class of individuals who mistake big, soul-shattering experiences for ultimate reality. I used to believe Kripal was in the second group; yet more and more, it seems as though he is simply too well-versed in the relevant lore to be so easily fooled. So what does that leave?

How is it that there is no room for psychology in Kripal’s basis for a “new vision of the unexplained”? He cites modern cosmology, quantum physics, and evolutionary biology as the primary means for reaching a new understanding of these experiences. His seven-fold system of comparison, phenomenology, history, hermeneutics, erotics, saying away, and the traumatic secret likewise leaves psychology in the dust. It might seem strange, considering that psychology is the study of the soul; but then Strieber and Kripal’s idea of the soul is surprisingly materialistic. Kripal calls it (p. 262) “a plasmalike energy that can superpower our imaginal capacities and so generate the movies of visionary experience.” Ironically, this description (no doubt unintentionally) evokes Freud’s model of how early trauma causes the psyche to constantly play out scenes from our past at a subliminal level, in an unconscious effort to resolve the trauma. Morpheus called it “living in a dream world.”

In his wind-up chapter, Kripal cites, and reverses, Arthur C. Clarke’s famous axiom “Any technology sufficiently advanced would be indistinguishable to us from magic.” Might it not be more pertinent at this juncture to say that any sufficiently advanced psychological strategy would be indistinguishable to us from magic — in fact, because it is magic? Psychism certainly seems to exist and to be a protective response to trauma; the problem with Strieber and Kripal’s model is that they do not ask whether psychism is the means to heal the fragmentation that trauma causes. They don’t consider that, like those damned siddhis, it may be merely a side effect, one that when pursued only perpetuates the fragmentation with multiplying, equally fractured myths of wholeness. From what little I have experienced in my own journey through the dissociative realms of psychism to something approaching ordinary (and extremely unglamorous) wholeness, The Super Natural is just the latest variation of broken mythmaking. It’s a carefully designed folie a deux which serves — either naïvely or deliberately — to misrepresent Strieber as a prophet and shaman of a new paradigm, as someone to envy, admire and emulate, someone who has had their ego ripped away and who has gained knowledge and experience of a higher, deeper, truer reality. But what if Strieber is no one to envy, admire or emulate? What if he is rather the tragic victim of violent abuse, trauma, and fragmentation, complete with all the “marvels” that a fully functioning MKULTRA subject gets to experience, and then peddle to the world as a glimpse into higher reality?

If the secret trauma omelet made from all those broken eggs is filled with eggshells, then, like Strieber’s entire oeuvre, it is essentially inedible. You can swallow it — as I did for years, and as Kripal is working hard to get us, the reader, to — but it will never stay down. The mind may mistake it for candy; but the body knows poison when it tastes it.

****

[1] “So now we have seven basic tools or techniques to make sense of the unexplainable: comparison, phenomenology, history, hermeneutics, erotics, saying away, and the traumatic secret” (p. 218–19).

[2] On the other hand, Christians won’t have much time for this book, since it is too scientific and will certainly seem heretical to them. (There is little mention of angels, and Kripal seems to have no time for Jesus; his main citation of him is critical, in reference to the supposed recommendation of castration in Matthew 19:12: “there be eunuchs, which have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven’s sake.”) At the same time, the book is far too religious-minded for scientific or academic researchers, and lacks the rigor even of the afore-mentioned books, most of which could more fairly be considered “groundbreaking,” yet none of which (as far as I recall) felt the need to telegraph their historical importance to the reader in the first lines.

[3] A few chapters later, Kripal gently sets the record straight by stating how Strieber designed the image which Jacobs painted. So why not correct the error?

[4] Lynn Picknett & Clive Prince, The Stargate Conspiracy, Little, Brown and Company, 1999, p. 235, citing Harman’s introduction to The Mind Race.

[5] It’s curious to consider how many of these luminaries were also intelligence operatives. Jan Irvin would say “all of them,” and at least three (Crowley, Leary, and Hubbard) are more or less confirmed. The rest are, at the very least, currently under investigation.

[6] The Super Natural, p. 110.

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