Wednesday, December 15, 2010

ART, LIFE and UFOs by Budd Hopkins

Very early on in reading this book, I stumbled across a sentence* that got me thinking about other aspects of the UFO field and I sent a note to Budd Hopkins, telling him that I was reviewing his book and that I planned on looking mostly at the UFO aspect of it. Budd wrote back saying that the book was not just another of his UFO books, but more of a memoir that covered his life’s work. The UFOs were important, but so was the art and so was his life’s story.

I had thought that his book would be segmented into his early life, his art and his UFO research but it wasn’t. I think of my life with my military career separated from my writing career and my UFO research, but Budd has integrated all parts of his life so that his art is influenced by his UFO research and his UFO research is influenced by his art as he suggested to me and throughout this book.

On page 306, for example, Budd wrote, "...I was keenly aware that few people in the UFO research community had any knowledge of abstract art, mine included, and very few artists cared a fig for the idea of UFOs. I was pained by the disconnect between two groups with which I was so deeply involved..."

In a similar vein, just two pages later, he expressed surprise that science fiction writers have little regard for UFOs. He was writing about two specific examples, Kurt Vonnegut and Ray Bradbury. Vonnegut "coldly dismissed it [UFOs] as ridiculous. Bradbury, it seems, knew little about UFOs, the evidence for them and probably cared even less."

Those of us who have written science fiction and who have moved through the science fiction community know that it is the writers who most often express disdain for the idea of alien visitation, but the fans of science fiction seem to love it. They have a captivation with UFOs that is curiously lacking in the writers of it.

But this book has nothing to do with science fiction and it is certainly more than just a UFO book. It’s about his life and I confess that I was fascinated by the short look into the history of the Second World War through the eyes of a boy too young to join the military and whose father was a soldier involved in that war. Hopkins takes pride in his father’s position and high rank but clearly did not follow in his footsteps as a military officer or in his political philosophy.

In fact, in exposing his liberal leanings (can one really believe that an artist living in New York would be anything else?) he laments using student deferments to avoid the draft in the 1950s as the Korean War wound down, as did George Bush the Younger, Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld in the1960s during the height of the Vietnam War. He didn’t mention Bill Clinton’s attempts to avoid the draft as well. I suppose the argument would be that Clinton hadn’t started any wars but the others had. And, I suppose it should be noted that taking advantage of an opportunity that is offered, when it is offered is not necessarily a bad thing to have done. Especially when it is remembered that the drafted soldier has his life turned upside down for two or more years.

I would have liked more about his early life during the Second World War simply because we have many histories of the war told from the point of view of the soldiers, from the adults who were involved in the war industry, the politicians who made careers at the time, but very little of how it affected the youngsters. At one point Budd tells us of watching military aircraft that is going down and he could clearly see one of the men in it, just before it crashes. This must have had a major affect on him but he writes relatively little about it.

Budd moves into his high school career and then onto college where we learn more about his sex life than I care to know. But this is his memoir and he’s telling us what is important to him.

But he also talks about the "fights" with his father over his choice of career and the college he would attend. This seems to be a fairly normal exchange driven by a father who would like to see his son succeed and a belief that art might not be the best, or the most lucrative of career paths to follow. Here Budd proves that some who have visions of art actually succeed at that as an occupation.

In fact, it seems that he is successful enough that he has a home away from Manhattan and I mention this only because it provides the backdrop for Hopkins’ UFO sighting.

As I say, I was more interested in his history with UFOs and it’s deep in the book when this begins to appear. He finally talks about his UFO experience, giving us all the details, including that it was a lens-shaped object that was clearly visible. He thought that it was as large as a car but also knew that size of objects in the sky without points of reference are difficult to judge accurately.

Budd wasn’t alone during the sighting. There were two others in the car including his wife at the time, Joan, and Ted Rothon, described as "a young English social worker." Budd eventually stopped the car and all three of them got out. They watched as the UFO began to move, into the wind, at the speed of a light plane.

This was 1964 and after the sighting, which changed his perception of UFOs he didn’t do much about it. He talked with friends who told of similar experiences in the area. He talked with his father who took the sighting seriously and he wrote to the Air Force, which did not. I also wonder if his listening to the famous Orson Welles 1938 War of the Worlds broadcast, to which he devoted a short chapter might also have influenced him.

A decade later, Hopkins learned of another UFO sighting, this one in North Hudson Park. He knew the witness and interviewed him. He then set out to find other witnesses and was successful. All of this might not have been important, but he eventually met Ted Bloecher, a long time UFO investigator who was interested after Hopkins told him about the sighting.

All this became important because Budd would eventually write an article about it for the Village Voice which later appeared in Cosmopolitan. This told people that he was interested in UFO sightings and as so often happens, once they have a point of contact, they will call with their UFO stories.

Yes, we do get very abbreviated stories of abduction research, telling those interested where to find more about it. This book is not a UFO book so that evidence to prove the UFO connections just isn’t included in it. Is that a flaw here? Not at all. It provides an interesting background for his UFO research, provides some insight into his thought processes, but in the end, this is a book about Budd Hopkins and not about UFOs or art. Besides, he tells us that it was all detailed in one of his other books.

We do get to see some of his beliefs. On page 287, he wrote, "One of my favorite comments of Mark Twain is his statement that ‘always telling the truth means never having to remember anything.’ For a deliberate liar or an emotionally confused confabulator to avoid mistakes in later testimony, he must first memorize many irksome, even trivial details from what he has claimed so far..."

But confabulation in not deliberate lying, but more of the mind filling in lost details. So, while the point about lying is valid, the detail about confabulation is not... and that, I suppose, would be one of those trivial details that I caught. A tiny misconception that means little in the greater scheme of things.

We move through these later chapters, one dealing with UFOs and another focusing on art, but we also see the intermingling of these two important facets of one life.

One thing surprised me about this book. Budd wrote, "But the truly bad news was the fact that my press and TV appearances on the UFO abduction phenomenon were apparently having a negative affect on the way that people – dealers, collectors, and even some fellow painters – viewed my work."

As I say, I found the book to be captivating, and while much of the UFO related material can be found in Budd’s other books, the condensed version here made it all easier to understand. It brought a bright light on his introduction and then immersion into UFOs and abductions. He had displayed here, simply, and compactly his thoughts and his beliefs.

At the beginning of the book I wasn’t all that interested in the art world aspects of this, but now that I have worked through it, I found that it was worth the challenge. Budd has provided a glimpse into a world that I would never have entered simply because I’m not an artist.

Those familiar with the UFO community know that Budd and I disagree on some major points, but this was a fascinating look into the man. Make no mistake. This is not a UFO book, but a book about one man’s life including his political beliefs and his observations on life. It’s about his struggle as an artist, his insights into that world and his eventual understanding of his father’s personality. He wrote, about his father’s, or rather the household lack of the positive confirming cliches such as "You should try to be a leader and not a follower," that "...he preferred us [Budd and his siblings] to be obedient rather than independent and to follow his dreams rather than our own," which, I think, is the attitude of many parents of the time.

So, in the end, we have a fascinating book about Budd Hopkins. We have a book that is necessary for the student of UFOs, but also for the student of the Arts. We learned how he arrived at the point he reached and if I have a complaint, it is that he skipped over what I think of as the turning points without providing any real motivation. He might have insisted on a career as an artist to spite his father, but if that is a motive, it is a relatively minor one for it is clear that he loves the world of art. His choice was made, not so much in defiance, but in love of art.

He was drawn into the world of the UFO because of his own sighting, but where most let it go at that, he searched for more meaningful and deeper answers. He found an interesting aspect of UFOs with the abductions, providing us all with an understanding of how he got there and what he believes.

There is also an undercurrent of his political beliefs throughout the book. Hints here and then until he reveals late that he is a liberal Democrat to his father’s somewhat conservative Republican beliefs. This seems to be an important point to Budd, but I’m not sure that it is important to the reader. Some might take offense, but the rest of us understand that people have a wide range of beliefs and values and to reject someone because of a political philosophy is to reject so much more without rational reason. And, of course, injecting one’s beliefs into a work sometimes alienates the reader, which is the right of the author to do and the right of reader to reject.

This, however, is a book that should be read by those interested in UFOs, in art, and in the human condition. It also provides, though I don’t think it was intentional, a history of the evolution of American society from the end of the depression to the point we have reached today. His review of his life seems to suggest that we are improving, and though there are bumps in the road, we’ll eventually get there. This, if for no other reason, is a good excuse to read the book.
You can find the book at

*For those who are interested, the sentence that sparked the email was a note that Charles Hickson had been awarded two Purple Hearts for service in Korea and I wanted to know where that information originated.


KRandle said...

Jerry Clark wrote to say that he was having trouble posting his comments, so I said that I would do it for him. Following is what Jerry had to say about Budd's book.

Budd's political liberalism, which I share, is an important part of his life, as it is in mine. It is an immediate topic of conversation whenever the two of us meet. Budd couldn't tell an honest story of his life if he failed to give it prominence. Fortunately, my politics and my father's were
in tune (though Dad turned against the Vietnam war before I did, which
didn't happen in many families); so I was spared the conflicts Budd so eloquently recounts. You are being generous, by the way, to Budd's father, whom you characterize, rather blandly, as "a somewhat conservative
Republican." From that, one would not know that the book depicts
cringe-inducing episodes of open racism and anti-Semitism. One might attempt to excuse him by saying that his was a different, less enlightened generation, but I never heard those kinds of prejudices expressed in my own

I found Budd's account of the New York art world, mostly unfamiliar to me except in broad outline, more interesting than the UFO material, to which he doesn't add much ufologists don't already know. In the same vein I enjoyed
your comments about the science-fiction world, which I know even less about. If anyone's interested, my full (and favorable) review of Budd's memoir
appears in the July/August 2009 issue of Fate. I'd be happy to send a copyto anyone who cares to read it.

Finally: As a lifelong student of American history, I was fascinated by Budd's recounting, for the first time anywhere, of Richard Hofstadter's extraordinary UFO sighting. Among the most influential American historians
of his generation, Hofstadter wrote the still often-cited "The Paranoid Style in American Politics" on the rise of the conspiratorial right. Though
published in the mid-1960s, "Paranoid Style" is uncannily prescient in its depiction of the dreary political excesses, many once fringe, now mainstream, that we are experiencing in early 21st Century America

Bob Koford said...

I would not have been so interested in checking this book out had I not read this article(coupled with Mr. Clark's comment.)

I felt it was very thoughtfully written.