McFarlin Library’s Special Collections Department recently closed its previous exhibit, which showcased the fictional biography of and real-life influence of the ingenious character Sherlock Holmes. In its place is “Astral Traveling in the Nam.” The display uses Bruce McAllister’s book, “Dream Baby,” and a variety of related documents to elaborate upon soldiers’ personal experiences of what seemed to be a kind of out-of-body transcendence and the military’s rather predictable desire to experiment with and ultimately exploit this seemingly supernatural ability.
The novel, which would win a National Endowment for the Arts writing award and finished as a finalist for both literary science fiction awards of Hugo and Nebula, is the product of years of research. This research included, first, years of extensive study involving ESP, OBEs and NDEs. More important however, were McAllister’s 200 plus interviews with American war veterans who reported having paranormal experiences that saved their lives, and his access to classified military contingency plans to end the war in Vietnam. After all that effort, “Dream Baby” seemed to be the story he was “Hell-bent to tell.”
“Dream Baby” centers on the fictional story of army nurse Mary Damico, who “dreams about the future. She dreams about the soldiers who will soon be her patients. She dreams about their deaths before they happen. She is powerless to save them and it is devastating to her, but Colonel Bucannon is only too ready to recruit her for a secret CIA experiment using psychic talents like hers for potential warfare.” Though the story may seem far-fetched, many of its most fantastical details are rooted in reality, or at least some popular misconceptions of the time.
The program ‘StarGate’ is one such example of fact being stranger than fiction. In the early 1970s, two renowned physicists, Hal Puthoff and Russell Targ, began a fruitless search that would cost $25-million and nearly 25 years before being deemed a failure. Its goal was to investigate the existence of paranormal psychic abilities at Stanford Research Institute. “It was federally funded, classified as Top Secret, and of great interest to the CIA, DOD, and others in the intelligence community. The program employed psychics to visualize hidden extremist training sites, describe new Soviet submarine designs, and pinpoint the locations of US hostages held by foreign kidnappers.”
Out of body experiences (OBE), have been a medical anomaly for centuries. In 1912, psychologists reached a tentative and woefully incorrect description of the phenomenon. “OBE experiences are similar to those common in dreams. The subliming mind reorganizes the ESP-acquired information into a hallucination of being in a different physical location.” Carl Jung, a renowned psychotherapist, redefined out of body experiences once again in the 1960s, saying, “Such experiences are part of the individuation process (i.e. of becoming a single, homogenous being) and embracing one’s incomparable uniqueness.” Today, OBEs are generally understood as being an entirely natural and medical occurrence. “One’s cognitive system creates models of reality based on sensory input. When certain conditions disrupt the sensory input models, other models take over, using resources such as memory and imagination.”
The story of “Dream Baby” itself is one of metamorphosis. In its first proposal, it emerged as a soon-abandoned novel, “Little Boy Blue.” Next it was the collaborative screenplay of “Skywatcher,” only to resurface as a short story, which would be renamed once again to “Dream Baby” before finally becoming the final novel as we know it today. Beside these drafts are notes from McAllister himself, in which he makes personal, detailed observations about his earlier works.
Complementing these are letters from Vietnam veterans who helped contribute their personal stories to McAllister’s research. One of these letters begins sentimentally, but quickly moves into genuine conspiracy. “I hope my unusual experience helps you in the writing project. I’ve waited for several years now to write and publish my story, but always stop after 30 to 40 pages. Guess I’m afraid to admit that I wasn’t the All American Boy; Afraid I might shock my family about my former unseemly side… I have accessed rooms of documents concerning CIA and others from days in S.E. Asia and the more unreal it sounds the truer it is. Our government and its associated parties played and continue to play a very dirty game using American servicemen and women.” These notes help to make the exhibit something unique, though I’d argue the subject matter alone already made it worth checking out.
Milissa Burkart, who organized the Bruce McAllister papers for the display, “wanted to highlight this small, but unknown, collection among all those housed in Special Collections.” She was greatly “impressed by McAllister’s depth of research in the topics of Vietnam, the war and the paranormal, and how he was able to earn the trust and deep appreciation of veterans who were eager to share with him such intensely personal stories they’d never before told anyone.” When asked why she chose the theme of this ‘astral exploration’ conducted throughout the Vietnam War, Burkart responded that, “Really, there was no need to fabricate a theme — the material itself set the theme.”