Beyond “Communion”: An Encounter with Whitley Strieber
Interview by
Stanley Wiater
Twilight Zone magazine, April 1988

Whitley Strieber no longer has that look.
     The look of someone who has dealt more with shadows than light, with imagination more than reality. The look of a person who has previously been haunted by vague yet myriad fears – fears which he attempted to purge through the writing of such horror novels as The Wolfen (1979), The Hunger (1981), Black Magic (1982) and Night Church (1983). More recently, he is the coauthor (with James Kunetka) of the best-selling Warday and the Journey Onward (1984) and Nature's End (1986). He has also written the award-winning juvenile, Wolf of Shadows (1985), and a novel about witchcraft, Catmagic (1986).
     But as most readers of this publication are already aware, Strieber has purged the greatest unknown fear from his life with Communion: A True Story. On the New York Times bestseller list for seven months after publication, it is the incredible story of his having been in contact with (to quote the dustjacket copy) “intelligent nonhuman beings in his isolated cabin in upstate New York.” Encounters with “visitors” which, Strieber alleges, have been occurring throughout his lifetime. Since the book was published, he has been on a whirlwind campaign of promotion, interviewed by more than two hundred twenty-five media sources from around the world. Besides mention in such popular magazines as People and US, he has appeared on every major television talk and radio show in the country, from Phil Donahue to Larry King. The subject of abductions by alien or “nonhuman” beings has brought forth a flurry of new books on the subject, with Strieber's best-selling volume remaining in the forefront of discussion. Needless to say, his first-person account has not been greeted warmly by everyone in the literary community. A successful and critically acclaimed author, Strieber is well aware that he took the greatest professional risk of his life by coming forth with such an undeniably fantastic account.

     On the last day of his promotion tour, Strieber invited me to his apartment in New York to spend the afternoon discussing the events outlined in Communion. Having interviewed him before for Twilight Zone (August 1986), it was agreed to touch upon subjects which had been previously omitted from publication. At the time, those incidents seemed simply too bizarre to print – until the even more bizarre events described in Communion were made known. Finally, rather than merely rehash his case, I sought a more personal perspective regarding what has happened to the man since the publication of his incredible account. As always, I found Strieber quite articulate, confident, and candid. Whatever has been happening to him, it has apparently brought him out of the shadows he once seemed destined to always inhabit.

WIATER: Why have you flung yourself headlong into the publicity mill for Communion? Certainly it was a huge enough risk to your career to publish it in the first place.

STRIEBER: It's been a nightmare. But I did it because I felt an obligation to the publisher – and also to the public. Because while there isn't any real way to give you a final answer as to what is happening to me, it's important to me – and the other people that it's happening to – that I bring full and complete attention to it. I've exposed myself to an absolute nightmare of stupidity, nastiness, and criticism. And despite the fact that there was a good deal of that, I've discovered that an awful lot more people, both in the media and in the general public, have been very open-minded and supportive. They're ready to accept this reality – whatever “it” is, Without understanding its exact origin.

WIATER: That may well be the case. However, a review which was violently opposed to your book appeared in The Nation. In it, critic Thomas M. Disch basically declares that the book is an out-and-out hoax, written solely for the money and publicity.

STRIEBER: I've always been a member of the (political) left. And I found that my interest in the left has been shaken by what was done to me in The Nation. It was one of the ugliest and most vicious things I've ever seen done to anyone! The Nation ignored Warday, which was the best selling peace-oriented novel in the past ten years. They ignored Nature's End, which did not sell as well, but was a very important book about the environment. But when it came to something where they could try their best to humiliate me, in fact to try and destroy my career, they lavished five thousand words on THAT effort. And to my mind, that this had to come from the left, which I have been a part of all of my life, as had my family going back for generations, SHOCKED me.
     The other really vicious thing that was done in the United States was in the San Francisco Chronicle. One of the ugliest book reviews I've ever read in my life appeared there, written by a failed horror novelist. It was an outburst of jealous rage so severe that lawyers recommended to me that I sue the Chronicle for defamation of character. I'm under a lot of pressure to do this, and I may yet do it. So I won't say anything further, except that for something that viciously irresponsible to be published in the United States is abhorrent.
     But, for the most part, the media's acceptance of me has been great. A lot of wonderful reviews of Communion have appeared all over the country. The electronic media has been wonderful to me, with the exception of Phil Donahue, who is, well, Phil Donahue.... But the public support has been enormous. And I've gotten a LOT more support from the scientific community that I ever expected. And that's great, because we're going to figure out what this (phenomenon) is, and what it is not. There is no reason why it has to degenerate into superstition.

WIATER: Yes, but some of your colleagues in the horror and science fiction fields have told us privately that you've either somehow gone “over the edge,” or you've written this book for the fame and the glory of "celebrity sainthood.”

STRIEBER: A lot of writers are VERY supportive. I have some very dear friends who are writers. It depends on the individual. Some are jealous, openly so. I've pretty much closed off those writers who are in professional organizations, because that seems to be where most of the jealousy lies. I probably won't go to conventions anymore, because I don't feel that's a healthy situation right now. Eventually I hope those people will realize it was an entirely legitimate and sincere effort on my part to write Communion. They have no more reason to be jealous of me than they do of any other writer. I couldn't have plotted in advance – no one can! Especially when my own former publisher, Warner Books, turned me down. I had to write the whole book before I could even give it to another publisher! I wrote it without a contract, and then I submitted it to thirteen houses. And ten of them turned it down, flat. Many with contempt. I accepted the best offer of the three publishers interested.

WIATER: Others may be suspicious of your sincere intentions because you reportedly received a two-million-dollar advance for the book.

STRIEBER: It was one million for the hard and softcover rights. Which is not out of context with my previous work. I received seven hundred fifty thousand for Warday, six hundred thousand for Nature's End. So a million is higher than those were, but it's not the first big advance I've gotten.

WIATER: Even so, there are those critics we've talked to who try to explain the book by stating that for some unknown, twisted reason, you used your considerable talents as an author to make a fictional story sound quite true. In Warday, for example, you and co-author James Kunetka appear as the main characters.

STRIEBER: That's stupid! Anyone who reads Communion and draws that conclusion draws it not from the facts, but because it's what they would like to believe. I think that when people see my next book about this, Transformation, they are going to be forced to conclude that it IS true on some level. Underlying the resistance is very real fear. Because our whole world view is threatened – very deeply threatened – by all this. We don't know what in the hell is here, but it's SOMETHING. And it's not us! I don't personally think that its primary origin is another planet. I think its primary origin is another aspect of reality. I think we're going to be forced to conclude from this that the soul exists, independent of the body. And that all of the consequences of that reality have to be faced by each one of us. That our lives are not lived in isolation. That we are not a secret world between our ears. That what is going in us belongs to some larger reality. And that we are NOT alone, never have been.

WIATER: What about the situation in which Catmagic was originally published in hardcover as “Jonathan Barry with Whitley Strieber.” The idea that you seemed compelled to create an imaginary collaborator for that novel has raised the hackles of some in the ranks.

STRIEBER: It's raising their hackles because they WANT a reason to be angry. It's as simple as that. What happened was perfectly straightforward: it turned out that Catmagic and Nature's End were going to be published at virtually the same time, and I couldn't have two books out at the same time under the same name. So I compromised. “Jonathan Barry with Whitely Strieber,” so it would seem that I had done two collaborations. With the major collaboration in Nature's End first, and the lesser with Catmagic second, simply so I could publish both books. It was a perfectly reasonable thing to do. It was done for ethical reasons so as not to disadvantage the two publishers. It's assumed by people in this society that if you do things for ethical reasons, then you're weak. It's a big mistake to assume I'm weak.

WIATER: One thing that still bothers us is that in our previous Twilight Zone interview – and elsewhere – you stated you were on the campus when Charles Whitman went on a shooting spree in 1966. Then, in Communion, you state that you were in fact never there. Which statement are we now to believe?

STRIEBER: I'm now in the position of having discovered that I WAS there. I did a lot of research into this, because of all the supposed “screen memories” (false memories implanted by the visitors] of the past, it was the only one that seemed like a real memory. I took the attitude that I'm a detective, and I'm going to find out if this guy was there or not! What would be my motive for being there? Well, all my motives that I could find directed me not to the campus in Austin, but to my home in San Antonio. Finally, I did find a motive for my being on the University of Texas campus that day. Once I found out what it was, I remembered that indeed I WAS there. It was the hundredth anniversary of Sholz's beer garden, which was a student watering hole that I used to go to all the time. There was a big celebration planned that day, and that's why I was there.
     I also placed a person who was physically near me during the shooting. And I knew him well enough to remember he was there. I asked him if he had seen me, and he hadn't, but then he said he was standing in the exact spot where I remember him standing. And in my opinion, therefore, I was there. I think I had just parked my car and was walking up to the student union when the shooting started. My guess is, and I still don't remember what happened immediately after it was over, I probably got back into my car and drove all the way back to San Antonio without saying a word to anyone. So the vivid memories I have are true memories, and it's a relief in a way, because I thought if memories that vivid aren't true, then I could be ANYBODY. I could be without a past. But thank God thats not the case.

WIATER: In our previous interview, in an incident that was ultimately not published, you described how you could lie down on the couch in your office, and apparently feel as though you were travelling through time, both into the past and into the future. Would you care to elaborate on that now?

STRIEBER: I don't know what it means now, either. Except my relationship to time is something I'm very interested in. I don't think any of us understands the nature of time, and that to a degree the idea of temporal progression is an illusion. And that people are now trying to rattle the doors of that illusion, and that's what I was doing.

WIATER: The other mystifying incident left “off the record” dealt with your statement that you once stepped of f a sidewalk outside your apartment here in New York, and believed you may have stepped out of this time frame, literally into the past.

STRIEBER: That happened, yes. It was an extraordinary experience. I don't know what is was, except that it was some sort of an act of mind. Of what, though? It's certainly not similar to any act of mind I've experienced before or since. I had a vivid impression of stepping off the sidewalk, and for about fifteen seconds I seemed to slip into the past, and ended up in a very, very vivid approximation of what seemed to be a period of anywhere between eighty and one hundred fifty years ago. Right on that corner. And it was so vivid that I saw a piece of paper with printing on it crumpled up in the granite gutter. And as I reached down to pick it up, I felt the most appalling loneliness I've ever felt in my life. Something told me that if I touched that, I would never go home. I froze there, and didn't touch the paper. Then our world just came up around me again. To this day, I don't know what that experience was. I view it as an example of what a really good imagination can do if it wants to. That's what I think it was. But I'm glad it happened, because it's provided me with many hours of interesting speculation.

WIATER: Yet you've also stated previously that “the world I live in is one of memory and imagination. Where imagination may be, in fact, a form of memory.” It's difficult for us to grasp the concept that your imagination and memories are more closely interwoven to reality than most of us would like to contemplate.

STRIEBER: At that time, I think I was coming toward a realization that there was something more real than dreams in my life, and less real than the physical world. What I think I'm dealing with is something that's more substantial than thought, and less substantial than a physical object. There is a life – and an intelligence, at that level of reality. In the past we've called what lives there “the gods.” It's responsible for religious experiences, it's responsible for the fairy-lore, it's probably responsible for such things as Sasquatch, UFOs, for “Nessie” at Loch Ness, and so forth and so on. It's probably responsible for most of those manifestations that have a quasi-real quality to them. Things that can never be pinned down, but have a sort of undertone of evidence that they really exist.

WIATER: Are you saying that you believe a single theory can explain all the unknown or mysterious phenomena reported on this planet?

STRIEBER: I suspect that, not only is there a theory, but a technology somewhere available to learn to manipulate this level of reality in ways that are productive to humankind. Thought has a very indeterminate relationship to the “real.” And, to a degree, the way we think, the way we perceive the universe, may be able to profoundly alter the way in which it manifests in our reality. In other words, we may be able to make choices which make the universe more accessible to us on a certain level I hope I'm making myself clear – I'm not at all sure that I am. I don't think the universe is as it seems. I don't think time is what it seems. I don't think WE are what we seem.... This is not the world as it is; this is the world AS IT SEEMS.

WIATER: Another aspect of Communion that bothers the skeptics is the fact that you are far from the first person to have claimed to have met extraterrestrials. Others have claimed contact with space beings for decades, from George Adamski in the 1950s to Betty and Barney Hill in the 1960s.

STRIEBER: When people talk about Communion, they inevitably talk about “extraterrestrials." However, right in the front of the book, there is this statement: “This book is about forming a new relationship with the unknown.” Not with extraterrestrials, but with the UNKNOWN. “Instead of shunning the darkness, we can face straight into it with an open mind. When we do that, the unknown changes. Fearful things become understandable, and a truth is suggested: the enigmatic presence of the human” – not extraterrestrial – “mind winks back from the dark.”
     People amuse themselves with fears of extraterrestrials, and fear of flying saucers. In the case of a lot of intellectuals, that fear is expressed as contempt. But what they really fear is what is true. And what is true is that the real unknown is IN OUR MIND. Not out there. The inner man is in a great darkness, and we don't know what's moving around in the shadows. When we look up at the skies, we're in the same position, dangling between two unknowns. They like everything to be safe, and secure, and sure. But there is no way to get out of the mystery in the end; every one of us is going to die. And the barrier has never been crossed – we don't know what's on the other side. So every one of those pompous, vicious people have the same problem I have: and that is that we live in the unknown.

WIATER: Your book states that both your wife and young son also went through similar experiences with the “visitors.” Following the events described in the book – and since you released this information publicly – how has it affected you and your family?

STRIEBER: All three of us were shocked at first by what happened, what BEGAN happening (with the visitors). But we got used to it, I don't fear it at all anymore; I'm fascinated. And so is my wife. For my son, it's a small part of this reality. It's not central to him at all. It's something he will gladly talk about, and something he thinks about sometimes. But he's never lost a night's sleep over it, and has had only one bad dream about the experience. It's a strong family. We were strong before this happened, and we're stronger now. As far as my personal life is concerned, my real friends got closer, and stood really close, and the others went to hell. Our experience was not negative. Anyone who turned away from me, who used to be a friend, and isn't now, was just an acquaintance. I haven't received a single piece of hate mail from the public, and I've made many, many new friends.

WIATER: You've included a mailing address at the end of Communion so anyone who has had a similar experience can contact this network of professionals who aided you in coming to grips with this phenomena.

STRIEBER: Yes, what I'm really interested in is getting people access to professional help. Especially professional help that's centered in the scientific community, but open-minded. That's real important to me, because I don't want them to go to psychiatrists who say, “Well, it's schizophrenia and here's some Thorazine.” I want them to have access to people who are open-minded, who are willing to say, “We don't know the origin of this experience – yet. We don't know what it is. But you can learn to live with it, with a combination of therapy and support." That's the truth. It need not be a sanity-threatening experience. That's what I'm looking for: to change it from something which devastates a person's perception of reality, and threatens their sanity, to something that is viewed as a terribly interesting thing that happens from time to time to some people. And if it does happen, then they would ideally be eager to talk about it, and their friends are eager to hear about it, and they would be able to integrate it comfortably into their own reality.
     If we can manage that, we will defeat two things. One, something that could become a form of mental illness. Two, we reduce the likelihood that superstition – unproven and unprovable belief systems – will be attached to this experience. We don't know where it comes from. And until we use our best tools – biology, behavioral sciences, physics – on this, we're never going to come to any kind of final answer.

WIATER: But there are those who say that your life-long interest with the occult and science fiction may have biased you to more readily believe that UFOs and alien beings exist.

STRIEBER: Belief simply isn't an issue in my case. I'm not a “believer.” I don't “believe” anything! My book never asserts any beliefs at all. What it does is try to open up a lot of questions – and good questions, I think. Very valuable questions. I don't think I was necessarily abducted aboard a “spacecraft” by “extraterrestrials.” Nor do I think that I had a real bad dream! Something else may have happened – I'M NOT SURE WHAT. It could be any number of possibilities. Maybe some we haven't even conceived of yet.*

WIATER: An obligatory question: Any motion picture plans for Communion? We know you were not overly pleased with the film versions of The Wolfen and The Hunger.

STRIEBER: Yes, it's being made into a motion picture, with director Philippe Mora and I owning the production company. We're producing the movie, and it's already been financed and it'll be distributed by one of the majors. I wrote the screenplay for it, and I will write the screenplay for all my movies in the future. I will never again sell another book to be written by somebody else. We may be doing Catmagic as well.

WIATER: Obviously this experience, whatever its true origin may ultimately turn out to be, has changed your life forever. Yet, wouldn't you have rather waited until you could have come forth with some hard, physical evidence to better substantiate your claims?

STRIEBER: I'm indifferent to that issue. I'm not interested in “proving” things to people. That's not what my work is about – somebody else has to do that. I'm going to communicate what has happened to me, and what that means to me. THAT'S IT. And I will be glad to work with people who have had similar experiences. I'm not much interested in the source of the experiences – only in their effects. And as far as whether other people believe me or not, it's a matter of indifference, too. Because if they haven't had the experience it doesn't matter very much if they believe me or not, and if they HAVE had the experience, then they'll already believe me.

WIATER: From our viewpoint, you seem to have gone through this entire experience remarkably well. You certainly no longer have that look of someone who had previously spent his life somewhat “haunted” by fear.

STRIEBER: I know what the effect of the visitor experience has had on me. A lifetime of hiding from it, turning away from it, of being terribly frightened – has ended. I've become incredibly empowered by facing it. I'm happy. I have a very happy family. I'm living the life I want to live, which is life as a creative person, and now I also have a measure of notoriety and respect in the common community. These are things that are just absolutely priceless. It certainly hasn't hurt me at all! I've gotten a lot of money because of it as well, which for a writer is always a wonderful and surprising experience. ~

Beyond “Communion”: An Encounter with Whitley Strieber
© 1988 Stanley Wiater.
All rights reserved.
Reprinted by kind permission of Stanley Wiater.

* Whitley Strieber later wrote, in an open letter published in the June 1988 issue of the MUFON UFO Journal, that he had not been given an opportunity to correct the transcription of this interview, and that had the opportunity been presented he would have amended some lines:
     “...In it I stated that I 'don't necessarily think I was abducted aboard a spacecraft by extraterrestrials...' Omitted was the phrase, 'but I'd be very surprised if I wasn't' ... The sentence “Something else may have happened – I'm not sure what” should have read “Something else may have happened, but if it did I'm not sure what it could have been.” (Strieber, Whitley. “A Response to Critics”, MUFON UFO Journal, June 1988, pp. 7-8)

An expanded version of this interview featuring material from both of Stanley Wiater's Twilight Zone interviews with Whitley Strieber as well as never before published material is available in the book: DARK DREAMERS: Conversation with Masters of Horror by Stanley Wiater, Pocket Books, 1990. (This book is currently out of print but may be available secondhand with a little searching. When searching, be careful not to confuse it with the similarly titled Dark Dreamers: Facing the Masters of Fear, which is a photo book with a commentary by Stanley Wiater and photographs by Beth Gwinn).