Sunday, May 9, 2010

Idea Garage Sale: Married to a Contactee

Although the first UFO abduction was documented in 1966 by John G. Fuller in The Interrupted Journey: Two Lost Hours "Aboard a Flying Saucer," concerning the Betty and Barney Hill case, as long ago as the early 80s the big names in UFOology were still contactees - people who claimed direct contact with "space brothers" bringing messages of peace, love, and how we better shape up or ship out. Folks like George Adamski and Billy Meier met tall, slender aliens who resembled Tolkien elves, received messages, wrote books, took UFO pictures, and acted a lot like gurus.

The trip to Medina Lake jogged my memory of a book I considered writing way back in those days, before anal probes and therapy and little gray aliens with big eyes. I had been reading a book about Billy Meier, and how his UFO photos, contact stories, and non-profit foundation changed his lifestyle. Sorry, but that's what I chiefly remember! He attracted followers who filled his home, and his wife was placed under a lot of stress - I particularly remember one scene where she had a strong hysterical episode and was taken care of by one of the followers, with whom she had no common language. Money came in via the UFOs; but I was struck by how isolated, silent, bewildered, and marginalized this woman was in the midst of all this fuss. Did she believe her husband? The overwhelming impression I was getting is that he was faking for profit, but that he hadn't confided in her; that in fact he seldom told her anything. And when we went to visit one of my husband's co-workers on Medina Lake, I found myself looking at the setting for this novel.

It was a brilliant psychological thriller, if I say so myself - at least the shining perfect version in my head was. You'd have a standard working class Texas family living, not on the expensive waterfront, but in one of the small communities fringing the lake. Like my husband's co-worker, the family would own a small former vacation cottage, in need of a great deal of work to make it comfortable year round. If I recall correctly, this cottage had no insulation; windows opened by being pushed straight up into the wall above them; and space was at such a premium that one child essentially slept in a closet, with her clothes hanging above her. Unlike the co-worker, however, my characters would not be getting by.

The husband would be suffering from some disability and the wife would be working too hard to bring in less money than they needed to cover medical bills (no insurance!) and fix the house. They would be under tremendous financial pressure and desperate for a way out. The husband would spend more and more time out of the house; and one day would start bringing home UFO pictures and strange stories. He'd publish these and, with some canny publicity, become one of the contactee gurus, complete with book, news interviews, followers showing up on the doorstep, fame, suspicion, and fortune.

The POV character would be the wife. The husband always tells her the same stories he tells everyone else. The money is good, he's always been a good husband, and she loves him - she has to believe him. Yet, the stories are so far outside her experience she can't wrap her mind around them, and she never quite manages to see a UFO or an alien for herself - she finds believing him impossible. Strangers fill her house, making work for her and interfering with her children; strangers build a new room for her daughter, load her husband with enough money to get out of debt, tell her he's brilliant. He evades confrontation and behaves as if the most bizarre events are normal as a walk in the park. He develops relationships with female followers that seem closer than his with her; yet if he's lying, he's probably lying to them even more. Over time she will find evidence that he's faking, but he has a plausible explanation for everything and acts bewildered and hurt when she questions him. Is he crazy? Is she? What is all of this doing to her children?

One of the characters would be an investigator with whom she gets closer as the rift with her husband widens, but she was not going to cheat on her husband. The investigator would show her evidence - models perhaps - that would convince her that her husband was lying to her; but in the climax, a flood he predicted and in which he behaves heroically, alternate explanations for the evidence would arise, and the husband would disappear, permanently, leaving her more financially secure, and less certain of what was real and what wasn't than ever. The ending would make readers across America throw their books across the room in disgust, but they'd never be able to shake it.

I didn't write this for a number of reasons. At the time I conceived it, I could tell it was way too ambitious. For one thing, I wasn't even married yet (my husband and I were together five years before we did that). Though I had once been involved with a man I realized afterward was an habitual liar, who made unprovable claims every bit as weird and grandiose as the husband in this book, I knew enough to know that marriage is different, especially once you have kids, and that I would be dealing with complex, intense emotions that were way outside my experience.

The motivation to believe unbelievable things said by certain people is powerful, whether that person is spouse, parent, lover, or mentor. That was the idea that interested me most - the faith we invest in other human beings, and how far that can be tested before we break. It would be 20 years before I could approach this matter as more than an intellectual exercise; and in the meantime, I discovered that this isn't my sort of book. It would have to be dense, psychological, dark, and intense. Worst, it would be an adult book. All the concerns in it are adult concerns. The necessary style and approach to character would be suitable for adults, not children or teen-agers. I don't even read these books anymore. I sure wouldn't know how to peddle it. I could easily spend two years of my life writing this and never circulate it because the idea of breaking into the adult novel market didn't appeal to me.

I suppose I could rework the story from the POV of one of the children, but I find I can't get into it. The thing is, the wife's story is the specific one that attracted me. The children would be under tremendous strain for similar reasons; but ultimately they aren't responsible for their father or the financial well-being of the family. Their mother is. And whereas the kids have no choice about being the children of their parents, their mother gets up every morning and chooses anew whether to remain her husband's spouse.

We all have our limitations. I believe I know mine.


  1. It's a fantastic story, though, Peni.

  2. All stories are fantastic when they exist only in the shiny perfect versions in my head! But the best idea in the world can be spoiled in the execution - and I would. If you can make it into what it ought to be, feel free to go to town on it.