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ALEX BEAM

Mack the life, and maybe a film

Harvard professor Dr. John Mack died in 2004.

Harvard professor Dr. John Mack died in 2004.

John Mack is back.

Dr. Mack, a decorated Harvard Medical School psychiatrist and winner of the Pulitzer Prize for his brilliant and controversial biography of T.E. Lawrence, suffered a silly and ignominious end: While visiting London in 2004, he stepped off a curb, checking for traffic over his left shoulder. A speeding driver struck him from the right, killing Mack more or less instantly.

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At the time he was at the apogee of his fame, or the absolute nadir of his self-abasement, depending on whom you talked to.

Mack had achieved notoriety by investigating “experiencers,” men and women who claimed they had been abducted by aliens traveling to earth on spaceships. “These people are not lying, and they are not crazy,” he declared. Mack wrote a best-selling book, “Abduction,” appeared on “Oprah,” and became the target of a secret Harvard Medical School investigation into his activities.

Now Hollywood filmmaker Denise David Williams wants to make a feature film about Mack, using materials that his family has so far kept hidden from view: an unpublished manuscript about the Harvard investigation; a full transcript of the secret inquiry; and Mack’s complete archive of interviews with purported abductees.

Williams spent over a year partnered with Robert Redford’s Wildwood Productions, but left, she says, “when the direction they wanted to go veered too far from [my] vision of the film.” Now she’s trying to raise $1 million by crowd-sourcing on the Internet, a long shot, but not an impossible task. The recent “Veronica Mars” movie siphoned up $5.7 million in 30 days.

Mack is hard to parse. I met him a few times and, like many psychiatrists, he had an almost hypnotic ability to bend you to his will. I never took much stock in his abductees’ tales. To me, the experiencers seemed like serial hallucinators, or people battling with mental illness. That’s pretty much what the world thought, too.

Mack thought otherwise, and he radiated an infectious curiosity about the world that was hard to resist. Harvard’s hysterical overreaction to his work made for great copy, and was a permanent blot on the university’s reputation. Mack quickly learned who his friends were, as colleagues trooped before Dr. Arnold Relman’s ad hoc committee to denigrate him.

Dr. George Vaillant was a rare defender, as was Harvard Law School professor Alan Dershowitz, who opined: “There is an establishment at Harvard; angels — yes. Extraterrestrials — no. There’s a lot of harrumphing that goes on: ‘We don’t want to be identified with this kind of science.’ ”

After the Harvard inquiry blew over in 1995, there were some hints that Mack may have fine-tuned his thinking. “I can see now that I had to a large extent created my problem with the literalness that I had treated the encounter phenomenon in the 1994 book,” he wrote in a manuscript excerpt published by Vanity Fair. “It is possible that in some cases people are taken bodily into spacecraft. However, the question is more subtle and complex.”

Psychiatrist Dr. Jeffrey Rediger knew Mack at the end of his life. “By the time I knew him, he believed that he had been misunderstood by the public and by Harvard,” Rediger says. “The culture focused on the exterior manifestations — the flying saucers, and so on. His private beliefs were much more sophisticated. It was like he was exploring a new terrain but lacked a map. It was confusing for him and confusing for many who knew him.”

Ten days before Mack’s death he told a colleague, “If anyone asks, tell them I’m not crazy.” I’m not sure if we will ever know.

Globe contributor Alex Beam is the author of “American Crucifixion: The Murder of Joseph Smith and the Fate of the Mormon Church.”
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