Angels Unaware: A Woman’s Powerful Place in Alien Abduction Narratives

By Michael Grasso / August 22, 2017

Two of the most famed alien abduction narratives of the Cold War period were explored through first-person accounts in popular books: John C. Fuller’s The Interrupted Journey: Two Lost Hours Aboard a Flying Saucer (1965), about the abduction experience of Betty and Barney Hill, and Raymond E. Fowler‘s The Andreasson Affair (1979), about the experiences of Betty Andreasson. (For ease of comprehension, throughout this article, Betty Hill will be referred to as “Hill” and Betty Andreasson will be referred to as “Andreasson,” except when those designations would confuse them with other members of their families.) It is noteworthy that each of these prominent abduction narratives not only revolve around women, but also around these women’s experiences as wives and mothers (in the case of Andreasson) during a turbulent era in American history: the 1960s and 1970s. The general similarities yet sharp differences in Hill’s and Andreasson’s experiences, reactions, and paths to understanding are a chance not only to examine women’s place in Cold War-era ufology but also in the larger American society of the time. Indeed, Hill and Andreasson are part of an ancient tradition, stretching back in their shared native New England for centuries, of women being vouchsafed contact with alien beings, and being given a gift that society had not traditionally seen fit to give them: the gift of prophecy, and being the receivers for and interpreters of a spiritual message.

Hill’s Experience

Betty Hill and her husband Barney had their experience on a lonely northern New Hampshire road in September of 1961. On an overnight car trip back from an impromptu holiday in Montreal, Betty, Barney, and their dashchund Delsey encountered a mysterious light that seemed to follow them, which then resolved itself into a craft (with visible occupants) as it approached their car after a chase down the road. Then followed a mysterious set of beeps from the trunk of the car, a prolonged period of vague memories of driving, and the eventual completion of the journey south to their home in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. But for weeks afterward, both Betty and Barney experienced nagging doubts. Betty began having dreams of being stopped at a road block on a lonely New Hampshire road and being taken for a medical exam in a strange place. In Barney’s case, his physical health also suffered, with the aggravation of a preexisting, recurring ulcer.

betty and barney hill

Betty and Barney Hill with Delsey, 1965

Betty Hill: Aftermath

Betty researched UFOs at the local library and reported her and Barney’s experience to Major Donald Keyhoe, author of The Flying Saucer Conspiracy (1955). This letter touched off a series of investigators visiting the Hills, including other members of the National Investigations Committee on Aerial Phenomena, or NICAP (founded in 1956), aeronautical engineers, and a recently retired Air Force intelligence officer who was an acquaintance of the Hills. Amidst this investigation, it was revealed that the journey from Montreal took at least two hours longer than it should have, and the Hills could not account for the missing time that occurred right as the mysterious craft had descended upon them. In the aftermath of the experience and the nagging psychic and physical fallout, the Hills (specifically Barney) sought psychiatric help and the two were eventually referred to Dr. Benjamin Simon, a Boston psychiatrist with hypnosis expertise. During these sessions, memories were uncovered, revealing that Betty and Barney were taken aboard the mysterious craft that was following them, that the occupants—alien beings—gave them each a medical exam focusing on their reproductive systems, and that the occupants spent much time speaking to and explaining themselves to Betty. Barney’s experience was marked by pure terror from beginning to end; he expressed anger and bone-chilling fear while still on the road trying to evade the craft, and kept his eyes shut throughout almost the entire experience. But Betty’s time with the visitors, as revealed by hypnosis, while uncanny and occasionally featuring discomfort and pain during the physical examination, was also a two-sided interface between her and an interlocutor who “spoke” on behalf of the aliens. This “leader” even deigned to share some of the visitors’ wisdom with Betty. They explained the purpose of their invasive examinations (to test if Betty was pregnant) and not only shared a “star map,” but also allowed her to read a book featuring mysterious writing, which the beings pointedly did not allow her to take with her at the end of the encounter.


Artist’s rendering of aliens revealing their “star map” to Betty Hill; from UFOs Are Real, 1979

Betty Hill: Reactions and Analysis

Betty and Barney were a childless couple, and both were working professionals. Betty was a social worker and Barney a postal worker who commuted nightly from Portsmouth, New Hampshire to Boston, Massachusetts for an overnight shift. Throughout the period before their hypnosis sessions, it’s worth noting that Betty was the one who initiated research, contacted both UFO and military authorities, and picked at the nagging memories that would not leave her alone. Barney was content to leave the troubling experience alone, pace his nagging physical and psychological complaints.

It should be mentioned that Betty and Barney Hill were an interracial couple in early 1960s America, and certainly their respective reactions to the experience reflect this in some ways. In examining their respective backgrounds, Fuller notes that Betty’s family was old Yankee stock, her family line including Quaker nonconformists and labor agitators. Barney’s background was rural and fairly comfortable for a young Black man of the time, but he also spent time during his youth in big cities in the North, where he encountered both bigotry in the educational system and gang activity. Undoubtedly, Betty’s history and background had given her more opportunities (even considering she was a woman in this era) to be assertive and persistent in pursuing a troubling experience like this UFO encounter. Because of this, she was willing and able to call upon the support of a wide array of outside experts without fear of being ignored, mocked, or ridiculed. Betty’s curiosity and open-mindedness are on display throughout The Interrupted Journey, and she even displays under hypnosis a desire to remember and bring back the evidence of her encounter:

“And I am all ready to go down the ramp when some of the other men—not the leader—but some of the men are talking. I don’t know what they are saying, but they are very excited. And then the leader comes over and takes my book. And I say—ohh—I’m furious.

(She is very intense, almost crying.)

And I said, “You promised that I could have the book.” And he said, “I know it, but the others object.” But I said, “This is my proof.” And he said, “That is the whole point. They don’t want you to know what has happened. They want you to forget all about it.”

(Now she speaks as if talking to the leader.)

“I won’t forget about it! You can take the book, but you can never, never, never make me forget! I’ll remember it if it is the last thing I do!”

Betty’s strength of will, her curiosity, and her dogged determination to retain the evidence of her encounter are central to her narrative and her hypnosis sessions, and are echoed interestingly in the case of Betty Andreasson, published 13 years later.

Andreasson’s Experience

Betty Andreasson’s experiences occurred only a few years after Betty Hill’s, in December of 1966. Unlike the Hill events, the so-called “Andreasson Affair” began in the Andreasson home and involved the entire family: Andreasson, her children, and her parents, who were staying with them as Andreasson’s husband James had been hospitalized due to a recent car accident. The family’s experiences involved a group of alien beings physically entering their home by materializing through the front door. Andreasson conversed at length with her alien contingent’s leader (who called himself “Quazgaa”), much as Hill did with the perceived “leader” in her earlier encounter. This leader led Andreasson to a liminal space, which Andreasson construed as a spacecraft. In this craft, Andreasson was, like the Hills, subjected to an intrusive and uncomfortable physical examination (including the removal of a preexisting “implant” in Andreasson’s nasal cavity and a needle entering her navel precisely as in Hill’s case). But beyond the initial conversation and physical examination, the aliens put her through a long, surreal set of experiences. This gauntlet began with her being locked inside a strange, plastic-seeming throne that flooded with a liquid that completely subsumed her. Andreasson felt this immersion fundamentally transformed her experience. When released from the chair, new vistas onboard this supposed “ship” were revealed to her. She was left to explore tunnels and mysterious chambers that she felt instinctively were actually inside the Earth. The experiences that followed exposed Andreasson to baffling visions, including abstract geometrical patterns, vistas of vast cities, swarms of beings that resembled crawling alien monkey-lizards, and a final, expressly mystical image of an eagle or phoenix that triggered in the devoutly Christian Andreasson a powerful set of emotions.

andreasson affair lemurs

One of many bizarre visions given to Betty Andreasson during her abduction experience; by Betty Andreasson, The Andreasson Affair, 1979

Betty Andreasson: Aftermath

Andreasson waited longer than Hill to seek help for the events of December 1966; it wasn’t until 1974 that her memories were triggered (while reading a supermarket tabloid), and she subsequently reached out to J. Allen Hynek at the Center for UFO Studies the following year. Andreasson and her daughter Becky were put under hypnosis by Harold Edelstein, a prominent hypnotist and then-director of the New England Institute of Hypnosis. In The Andreasson Affair, Fowler expressly references the Hill case, which does make one wonder if Betty Andreasson was familiar with the specifics of the Hills’ case before going under; however, given all the unique elements of Andreasson’s abduction experience, it seems that any influence of the Hills’ narrative on Andreasson’s recovered memories was minimal at best (perhaps limited to the amniocentesis-type exam where the aliens probed both Bettys’ navels).

During the hypnosis sessions detailed in The Andreasson Affair, Betty Andreasson recovered a wealth of memories filled in great and idiosyncratic detail, as partially detailed above. The main difference between Hill’s and Andreasson’s experiences was Andreasson’s experience with the leader alien, Quazgaa, and the visitors’ explicit insistence that Andreasson would become a messenger to the human race (much as earlier “contactees” like Howard Menger and George Adamski had claimed in the 1950s). Quazgaa gave Andreasson messages of harmony and peace, which appear to be a simple variation on the typical UFO contactee narrative from the 1950s (“They love the human race. They have come to help the human race”). The beings paradoxically also insist that these messages needed to be locked away in Andreasson’s mind, and only “revealed when the time is right.”

Betty Andreasson: Reactions and Analysis

Betty Andreasson’s experience went far beyond her single night of contact in December 1966. During her hypnotic regression sessions, she began to apparently channel one of the entities of Quazgaa’s race, and spoke “live” in this voice to Edelstein and the other investigators present during the hypnosis session. This fits with a pattern seen in the mystical practice of channeling, which has been prominent not only in the world of UFO contactees, but also has been widespread in the experiences of other American mystic figures (stretching all the way back to the Spiritualists of the mid-19th century). In channeling, a contacted entity will take over the body of the channeler. Usually the possessing entities are long dead, or consist of the channeler’s past lives, or are other similarly ascended masters. Occasionally the channeled entities are angels, aliens, or demons.

Andreasson’s channeling experience was triggered as the investigators asked about the mysterious “blue book” that was purportedly left behind in her home for her to study. Andreasson speaks about her memories of having the blue book in the house. The writing in this blue book, like the writing in the book in Hill’s encounter, was indecipherable, but contained familiar-looking symbols and hieroglyphs. The alien entities told Andreasson that she would only have a limited amount of time—ten days—to spend with the mysterious text. Of course, when the book disappeared, so did Andreasson’s primary physical proof of her experience. Andreasson and her daughter kept the book secret until their hypnosis sessions more than a decade later.

It is important that from the very beginning of Andreasson’s contact with the aliens, the experience was explicitly spiritual and religious. Andreasson speaks to the beings in Christian language and they reciprocate, positioning her experience as a prophetic one. As uncanny and fearful as the experience is, Andreasson shows openness to it on a religious basis: “I’m thinking they must be angels, because Jesus was able to walk through doors and walls (sic) and walk on water. Must be angels… And Scriptures keep coming into my mind where it says, ‘Entertain the stranger, for it may be angels unaware.” In addition, despite some moments of discomfort and physical fear, Andreasson acquiesced to the experience and the subsequent memory loss (although she, like Hill, initially wants to know “why must I forget?”). Andreasson told daughter Becky in the immediate aftermath of the experience to not be afraid, but also told her “it really happened,” showing Becky the blue book (against the visitors’ wishes) while it was in her possession.

andreasson affair aliens entering home

Drawing of how the aliens entered the Andreasson home; by Betty Andreasson, The Andreasson Affair, 1979

A Woman’s Space

On the surface, Hill and Andreasson couldn’t possibly be more different. Hill has no children, is a professional woman with a formal education, has a job in the social services, a wide group of friends and acquaintances, and a Black husband. Andreasson was the daughter of an immigrant, married with seven children, and her husband had health problems that forced her to rely on extended family just to get by. Hill didn’t have any overt religious beliefs; Andreasson was devoutly Christian. The two women would therefore have massively different sets of personal concerns; it is impossible to imagine that Andreasson would be able to pick up and go on an impromptu long weekend holiday to Montreal under any circumstances, for example. And for this reason, of course, it’s noteworthy that Hill’s experiences happened on the open road and Andreasson’s deeply involved the geography and circumstances of her crowded home. Hill’s extended social network brought investigators to help her; Andreasson’s experience was intimate, emotional, spiritual. And as the aliens entered Andreasson’s home, the experience implicitly involved all her closest family members.

But in both experiences, the women’s husbands are sidelined: in Hill’s case due to Barney’s paralyzing fear, and in Andreasson’s case due to James’s hospitalization. Also in both cases, Hill and Andreasson would lose their husbands: Hill to Barney’s death in 1969 and Andreasson to divorce—the Andreassons’ separation beginning right around the time she began exploring her experience through hypnosis. As mentioned before, in the Hill encounter, Betty is the strong, stable, relatively fearless one, able to keep her eyes open, and observe and interact with the visitors in a more or less rational fashion. Betty expresses concern for Barney throughout the experience, calling out to him when she sees him “switched off” in the visitors’ examination area and explaining (in a humorously uncanny scene) the reason for and function of Barney’s dentures to the aliens.

Unlike Hill, Andreasson had a household full of family to protect during her encounter, but it is interesting how quickly her concerns about her family fade away as the experience happens and becomes focused solely on her. In one of her hypnosis sessions, Andreasson recalls, “I looked and I saw all my family as if time had stopped for them. And I wondered what happened. But I glanced down and picked up the Bible that was on the end table. I turned and I passed it to the leader. The leader passed me a little thin blue book in exchange.” In the mystical experience of her alien visitation, Andreasson is given charge of a greater responsibility—the mysterious knowledge of the blue book—at the very moment she begins to have the earthly concerns of a mother concerned for her household.

The prominence of both women in their own respective experiences and narratives is, I think, an important one. In Hill’s experience, she is the calm, rational one, able to ask probing questions of the aliens and, while unable in some cases to communicate or understand their motives, a fully conscious and involved participant in the experience. In Andreasson’s experience, she is the center of everything, a prophet vouchsafed a series of incomprehensible visions. And both women unlock the precise memories of these experiences through hypnosis. This is also noteworthy, because hypnosis has a long history in psychiatry of being the venue by which the traumatic experiences of women find their expression, as mediated through the actions of the almost always male analyst.


Bertha Pappenheim, a.k.a. “Anna O.,” 1882

Hypnosis, Psychiatry, and Women: A Capsule History

At the birth of hypnosis therapy in the 1880s, the technique was used to treat female patients suffering from what was then known as “hysteria.” Named after the ancient Greek medical belief that a “wandering womb” could cause women physical and mental ailments, the infancy of psychoanalysis in the Victorian era changed and expanded the terminology to match new social circumstances and theories. “Hysteria” began to be used to describe the general physical and psychological ailments of women, usually linked to trauma. French neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot, the clinician who inspired Sigmund Freud’s exploration of hypnotism in treating hysterics, expressly linked together his diagnosis of hysteria with a patient’s ability to be hypnotized. Hypnosis was both symptom and cure. Charcot’s work eventually expanded the definition of hysteria to include bizarre physical symptoms and behaviors in men as well, but it was his and Freud’s work with women that cemented hypnosis as a treatment venue for the phenomenon.

Freud’s work with patient “Anna O.,” real name Bertha Pappenheim, was the beginning of the “talking cure” in psychoanalysis, thanks in part to Freud’s mentor Josef Breuer and his earlier work with Anna. Freud used hypnosis to lower Anna’s guard and inhibitions, and to allow her to speak freely about her feelings. In these sessions, Anna O. often diverged into fairy tale-like private dramas full of symbolism, speaking in non-native languages, and other states of mind that explicitly recall both traditional female mystical experiences and the UFO abduction narratives seen above. Freud eventually discovered that Anna O.’s trauma had partly to do with the slow death of her father from illness, which echoes the traumas suffered by both Bettys around both Barney Hill’s and James Andreasson’s health. Anna O. was also well-educated and, like Hill, later became a social worker, concerned with the well-being of young Jewish women in turn-of-the-century Europe. This role of caretaker, which both Bettys and Anna either chose or had forced upon them, primes them for a near-mystical experience under hypnosis that centers them and their specifically female concerns, needs, and ailments, while removing and rendering powerless the men whose illnesses have caused them trauma.

Compendium Maleficarum Guazzo witches book

From the Compendium Maleficarum of Francesco Maria Guazzo, 1608

Contactees, Mediums, Witches: The Power of a Woman Holding a Book

The prominence of a book in both Hill’s and Andreasson’s experiences, and indeed the idea of contactees being given instruction or a role as messenger, is certainly not unknown in ufological lore. The 1950s were full of putative “contactees” who allegedly were given the charge to act as heralds for a new age of interplanetary peace and understanding. This thread reaches back through myriad American traditions of spiritual experience, from the Swedenborgians, who brought their mystical ideas to America late in the Colonial period, through the early Mormon church, to the 20th century and figures like Guy Ballard. But those prophets were male, and men who were traditionally given the holy scripture directly from a divine source would go on to found movements and churches. The Christian tradition offers many examples of women mystics who reached divinity through symbolic mystical experiences, from medieval mystics like Hildegard of Bingen and Julian of Norwich to the later Spiritualists and Theosophists. But it is the placement of a book in both narratives that rings alarm bells in the demon-haunted hinterlands of New England. A Puritan divine who read the transcripts of both Hill’s and Andreasson’s hypnosis sessions would know precisely what experience these women had had: a rendezvous with Satan. The symbolism of the book in colonial-era witchcraft involved a pact with Satan in the form of the witch’s signing of the Devil’s book. This pattern of accusation was used both in witchcraft trials in Europe before the colonial period and in Puritan New England.

In Cotton Mather‘s “after-action report” on the Salem Witch Trials, The Wonders of the Invisible World (1693), he discussed the common assumption around the Devil taking on pleasing forms and offering a pact in the form of a book:

These our poor Afflicted Neighbours, quickly after they became Infected and Infested with these Dæmons, arrive to a Capacity of Discerning those which they conceive the Shapes of their Troublers; and notwithstanding the Great and Just Suspicion, that the Dæmons might Impose the Shapes of Innocent Persons in their Spectral Exhibitions upon the Sufferers, (which may perhaps prove no small part of the Witch-Plot in the issue) yet many of the persons thus Represented, being Examined, several of them have been Convicted of a very Damnable Witchcraft: yea, more than One Twenty have Confessed, that they have Signed unto a Book, which the Devil show’d them, and Engaged in his Hellish Design of Bewitching, and Ruining our Land.

Mather was a prominent minister who had advised the Salem judges to admit so-called “spectral evidence,” but with care and diligence. In recent historiography, study of the Salem Witch Trials has revolved around feminist and materialist analyses of the women (and in some cases men) accused, and these two lenses fuse in the discussion of the “book” motif in the folklore around witchcraft. Writing and signing one’s name to deeds and contracts was a male privilege in the 17th century, and moreover mostly a male landowner’s privilege. Women were party to contracts in Britain and Colonial America at the time, but they were largely deprived of the ability to read and write their names. Male anxiety over women being able to freely choose their fates revolves around women falling victim to trickery, as the Devil comes in the form of entities who look “innocent” (again, recall Andreasson’s belief the aliens were angels in disguise). The witch asserts her identity and right to spiritual self-determination by defiantly signing a book.

But of course, in Hill’s and Andreasson’s cases, it’s not a book being signed to demonstrate their pact with the aliens; it’s a book being read. In neither case can the women keep the book. The book would offer incontrovertible proof of their experiences and allow them to spread the visitors’ word directly. But in each case the writing is literally indecipherable. Although both women give the impression in their hypnosis of a vague understanding—of somehow beginning to comprehend how to translate it—the ability to do so is beyond them at the moment of reading. In this way the book is a symbol of the experience. It is not a pact with the aliens, as in witchcraft lore, but a missed opportunity, a symbol of the essential mutual incomprehension between alien and human. Is the book a symptom of a deeply-internalized block, inculcated by the patriarchy so dominant in this era of Cold War America? Moreover, were these women’s abduction experiences, so closely tied to the intense emotions around their spouses and families, triggered by the larger social changes surrounding women and marriage in the turbulent 1960s?

Even if these mystical books are unreadable, there is still power and significance for women purely in the symbol of the book. As part of the gradual process of women’s liberation in the modern period, literacy has been an essential building block in the development and exercise of their political power in a society dominated by men. Going back to Puritan New England, the right to preach publicly was systematically denied to women (but not the right to read Scripture, interestingly). Fear of women’s possession and use of the word of God culminated in persecutions like the execution of the Quaker Mary Dyer and the exile of “heretic” Anne Hutchinson. It is not for nothing that in anti-feminist dystopias such as Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985), the power of reading is one of the first privileges stripped from women at all levels of society. A holy or mystical book, in the hands of a woman, represents power. It is interesting that even within Cold War-era UFO lore in America, where female literacy was nearly universal, the idea of a book, even an indecipherable one, would be such a central symbol of mystical power and secret knowledge. Deep in the collective unconscious where such symbols reside, it is still a powerful and in some ways forbidden symbol for a woman to take and to hold.

Grasso AvatarMichael Grasso is a Senior Editor at We Are the Mutants. He is a Bostonian, a museum professional, and a podcaster. Follow him on Twitter at @MutantsMichael.

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7 thoughts on “Angels Unaware: A Woman’s Powerful Place in Alien Abduction Narratives

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  2. I’m not terribly well read on UFO abductions, but the Andreasson case sounds a lot like the Joseph Smith narrative regarding the gold tablets given to him by an angel. (Although, of course, Smith also claimed to have the means to interpret his tablets). But it;s a really interesting idea to link “signing the devil’s book” and the “books with strange writing” mentioned in UFO contactee narratives. I would never have thought of that connection. A great article.

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