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BEYOND the myth

Authors take lucid look at Roswell incident without taking sides

Capsule reviews of books on the Roswell Incident

Review by Anthony DellaFlora
Journal Staff Writer
A good work of non-fiction elevates the level of discussion on a particular subject, provokes new questions, and occasionally provides enough information to solve a historical mystery.
Unfortunately, few of those attributes are apparent in the avalanche of books timed to come out this year on the 50th anniversary of the alleged crash of a flying saucer at Roswell.
But emerging from the slag is the innocuously titled "UFO Crash at Roswell: Genesis of a Modern Myth" by Brandeis University cultural anthropologists Benson Saler and Charles Ziegler, and atmospheric scientist Charles Moore.
The fact is, after reading this groundbreaking book you can't look at the Roswell Incident the same way, whether you're a believer, skeptic or uncommitted.
Saler and Ziegler do not set out to prove or debunk the Roswell story, a common bias in the literature. In fact, that's the least of their concerns. But it's also why the book works on many levels.
What's of more importance to Saler and Ziegler is why the belief that a flying saucer crashed in the desert in 1947 persists, how the story got started, why it's important to a large segment of the population, and what it says about our hopes and dreams.
That is not to say they don't have a theory on what actually happened at Roswell. The authors lean to the Project Mogul spy balloon theory, and that's why Moore, one of the scientists who ran the project, is given a chapter to explain how the balloon ended up on Mac Brazel's ranch. (Caution: this highly technical chapter is only for the most hardcore students of the Incident.)
Changing stories
But to Saler and Ziegler, the balloon crash is just the core of the great Roswell myth.
Taking slightly different approaches, the pair studied the Incident to see how it fits into traditional models of folklore, mythology and religious belief.
Starting from the published accounts from the time of the alleged crash in 1947, Ziegler begins by comparing the six major versions of the Roswell story, based on the most popular published accounts.
Reading Ziegler's summaries of the different narratives, it becomes apparent how essential elements of the Roswell Incident changed dramatically over time. The authors argue that this does not necessarily mean that new truths were revealed, but rather the beliefs of the subculture -- authors and believers -- changed. The stories simply reflect that.
How else to explain the various crash sites, the changing number of alien bodies and their appearance, the description of the alien ship or ships, the appearance and disappearance of witnesses from the versions, and numerous other anomalies in the accounts? Government coverup simply doesn't cut it here.
Their point is that while historic events may be embellished upon and expanded over time, the key points of the story don't change.
Not so with the Roswell story, and there is where it enters the category of myth.
It is at this point that many skeptics may say "I told you so," and close the book, but they should read on. Saler and Ziegler do not have such a cavalier attitude toward believers.
Instead of laying on the sarcasm, they patiently explain the purpose and importance of myth in culture -- mainly that it's a way to deal with transcendental issues.
As the authors note in the final chapter, "Perhaps one of the more useful functions of a myth is that it can serve to remind believers and nonbelievers alike that they are searching for answers to the same questions."
Something for all of us to keep in mind.

  • Anthony DellaFlora, a Journal staff writer, produced the documentary film "High Strange New Mexico," which is about the UFO subculture in the state.

    Capsule reviews of books on the Roswell Incident

  • E-mail a link to this story to a friend