Marcel Proust’s mistaken ideas about smell memory have soaked deeply into popular culture—so deep they are used to support the authenticity of alien abduction stories.
Whitley Strieber’s Communion: A true story (1987) is the narrative of his abduction by aliens in a UFO, followed by his realization under hypnosis that such visitations had been occurring throughout his life. While Strieber remained coy about whether his “visitors” were, in fact, extraterrestrials, most readers made the leap and drove the book to #1 on the New York Times bestseller list (in nonfiction!). Two years later it became a movie with Strieber played by Christopher Walken.
The details of Strieber’s story emerged only under hypnosis. According to the “recovered memories” crowd and the Freudians who aid and abet their nonsense, memories that have to be teased out through hypnosis are more accurate and trustworthy because they have been sealed away, untouched, behind a wall of “psychological repression.” Scientists, in contrast, see hypnosis as an invitation to psychological suggestion: the hypnotist can cue, and the subject can “recover,” whatever type of memory they hope to find.
In his novel In Search of Lost Time, Marcel Proust portrayed sensory memory as uniquely true because, unlike other forms of memory, it doesn’t change with time. To Proust, smell memory is immutable and inherently trustworthy. Smell-evoked memories are unimpeachable links to past events. Whitley Strieber takes the Proustian ball and runs with it: he repeatedly invokes smells as evidence that his abduction was real.
Strieber’s “abduction” took place on December 26, 1985. When the aliens proposed to insert a needle into his brain he objected, fearing brain damage.
One of them, I think it was the one I had identified earlier as the woman [alien], said, ‘What can we do to help you stop screaming?’ [. . .] My reply was unexpected. I heard myself say, ‘You could let me smell you.’ I was embarrassed; this is not a normal request, and it bothered me. But it made a great deal of sense, as I have afterward realized.So what does an alien visitor smell like?
The one to my right replied, ‘Oh, OK, I can do that,’ in a similar voice, speaking very rapidly, and held his hand against my face, cradling my head with his other hand. The odor was distinct, and gave me exactly what I needed, an anchor in reality. It remained the most convincing aspect of the whole memory, because that odor was completely indistinguishable from a real one. It did not seem in any way a dream experience or a hallucination. I remembered it as an actual smell.
There was a slight scent of cardboard to it, as if the sleeve of the coverall that was partly pressed against my face were made of some substance like paper. The hand itself had a faint but distinctly organic sourness in its odor. It was not a human smell, but it was unmistakably the smell of something alive. There was a subtle overtone that seemed a little like cinnamon.In the weeks that follow, Strieber is distressed about the incident and begins to doubt his own sanity.
The next thing I knew, there was a bang and a flash, and I realized that they have performed the proposed operation on my head.
Then, quite suddenly once afternoon, I recalled the smell. Their smell. It came back to me as clearly as if I had inhaled it not a moment before. More than anything except discovering that I was not alone with my experience, that totally real memory saved me from going stark raving mad.Thank heaven for the solid anchor of Proustian smell memory!
Three months later, Strieber recalls his abduction under hypnosis:
I’m sitting on a bench in a little room. [Sniffs.] And it smells funny. Smells somethin’ like cheese in here. Smells kind of nasty, to tell you the truth. It’s not clean in here.Cheese? What cheese? Here’s all he said about smell in his original description: “I seem to remember that the room was stuffy and the air quite dry . . .” So this olfactory detail—that the UFO’s reception room smelled like cheese—is an entirely new feature brought up under hypnosis. Strieber has just revised his “totally real” smell memory. Later, in the course of reflecting on the hypnosis session, he revises it even further:
The space I entered smelled like warm Cheddar cheese with a hint of sulfur. This sulfur odor has been reported by others.So “stuffy” becomes “cheese” which becomes “warm Cheddar cheese with a hint of sulfur.” In other words, he subtly re-tunes his story to agree with other published accounts of alien abduction.
Meanwhile, Strieber introduces another Proustian revelation: the alien’s clothing “opened the door to the past. And it did this via my sense of smell.” How? Back in his apartment after the abduction, he senses the visitors again:
I felt their presence. It was palpable. Most upsetting, I could smell them. I could smell a distinct odor as if of smoldering cardboard, and it was familiar from the past. [...] Until now, though, I had not understood its significance.The significance is that 12 or 13 years earlier he smelled smoldering cardboard one night and saw a small figure with a red light in its hand dashing through the house. He didn’t realize it at the time but this was his first brush with aliens.
Once again, Strieber edits his supposedly unshakable Proustian smell memory. The smell of the visitor’s coverall—originally a “slight scent of cardboard”—has now become “a distinct odor as if of smoldering cardboard.” (Smoldering? Were the alien’s clothes on fire?)
The effect is to buttress his newly revealed past of lifelong encounters with aliens. Or, as he puts it,
Odor is an excellent trigger of memory, and the odor of smoldering seemed to unlock a lot of doors.Indeed. How convenient for Whitley Strieber that smell memory—a la Proust—is always true, even as he shades the recollections of it to suit his purpose.