Fourth grade isn’t exactly a walk in the park, but for Evan Jacobs, having a dad who knew a lot about space aliens was the ticket to social acceptance. It’s been mostly downhill from there.
My father, Dr. David Jacobs, is a professor of American history at Temple University. He’s also the world’s leading researcher of UFOs and alien abductions. He’s studied the subject for 50 years, written multiple books, appeared on hundreds of television and radio shows, is cited in the works of nearly every other UFO researcher, and teaches the world’s only class on UFO phenomena.
He’s been on Howard Stern, NPR, SyFy, and the History Channel. People recognize him in the street and sometimes ask for his autograph. He is the biggest fish in a pond that couldn’t fill a shot glass.
Originally a skeptic, he’s come to believe wholeheartedly in UFOs and abductions. His research might or might not be valid—but that’s not important. What matters is that I am his son.
His research has been detrimental to his professional and personal life—it has affected me, my mother, and Alex, my brother.
It’s not that he could be a lunatic—I don’t think he is. Most scholars in the field are conspiracy theorists and raving psychotics. At worst, my dad may just be a mediocre researcher who refuses to accept that his life’s work is a psychological phenomenon. (“I wish it were,” he says, “because then I could have led a normal life.”)
It’s not even the crazies that pop up every now and then in our home life. Not exactly. In the late ’80s, a woman who claimed to be an abductee turned out to be an undiagnosed schizophrenic making up stories to get attention. She called our house over and over again until he finally cut ties with her. Years later, another woman began calling five times a day with “emergencies.” When my dad told her to quit, she undertook a smear campaign against him, sending letters to Temple University, radio shows, TV stations, and other UFO organizations in an attempt to ruin him.
These aren’t lone incidents. They come with the territory of his work. His having lunatics as peers has nurtured a tendency in Dad and me to get extremely defensive about our sanity. Me, I’m proud of his accomplishments. I essentially believe that his work, not just his scientific method, is valid. But I know that talking about it is going to elicit strange responses. To this day, I’m wary about telling people about what my dad does. But my need for attention and validation from others, combined with my need to impress and entertain, usually overrides the instinct to keep my mouth shut. So I tell anyone who will listen.
Telling people about my dad’s work usually prompts one of six responses:
1. “That’s amazing. Tell me more about it.” This is my favorite. I like talking. I like people who like listening to me. Everyone’s a winner.
2. “Cool. Hey, did you see Mad Men last night?” This is my second-favorite response—it allows me to change the subject and talk about virtually anything else. I’m known to ramble on about my dad, and I recognize that this can be boring for the listener.
3. “I have to go now.” I understand and even respect this response. UFO research does sound crazy, especially in bar conversation. I don’t expect anyone to take it seriously. Actually, when they do, I get wary. (See #4)
4. “Oh my god. I know him! I’m obsessed with aliens!” Anyone who can out-UFO me is a freak. I stay away.
5. “That explains a lot about you.” This mostly comes from my comedian friends. Har har.
6 . “Everything you believe is bullshit, and I’m going to mock you.” The problem with this response is that I am suddenly put in a position to defend my father. My dad gets this response on countless radio and television shows, when the producer decides to hire whichever astronomer happens to be free that day to provide the counter-argument.
The fact that most media outlets believe that any old astronomer is capable of refuting 50 years of research just off the top of his or her head is naïve, not to mention insulting. Of course, that’s the life Dad chose, and one he didn’t want me to have. But he’s still my dad, and like any son, my instinct is to defend him. This is the response my dad warned me about. It usually ends in a lot of drama. Or it did—when I was a kid.
I went to grade school in Blue Bell, Pennsylvania. I was friendly with most of the kids there, although I was a something of an outcast, due to my rampant ADHD and several personality quirks, such as befriending girls, not enjoying sports, and throwing tantrums.
I first remember being conscious of my dad’s research in third grade. His world-renowned scholarly abilities fascinated my brother and me. You want to talk aliens? My dad can talk aliens—for hours and hours. He and his friend, Budd Hopkins, another UFO researcher, would tie up the line for up to four hours at a time. When they were through, he’d hang up the phone, turn to me, smile, and say, “Wrong number.”
When Dad would talk to me about aliens, he tended to end each lecture (he called them “conversations”) the same way. “Evan, remember, you shouldn’t tell people what I do. They’ll make fun of me, and they will make fun of you.”
“OK,” I always said. But it wasn’t OK. His being a UFO researcher was all I knew—and it was beyond cool. I couldn’t keep it quiet. Even if I didn’t find it awesome, everyone else did.
The kids at school wanted him to speak to the class. He agreed, and one day he delivered a funny and eloquent lecture that left the kids—and my teacher—in awe.
For the first time, I felt validated and accepted—and that’s putting it lightly. I felt like I had just made the game-winning touchdown at the Super Bowl. My classmates telling me my dad was cool? They might as well have hoisted me up on their shoulders.
That was in fourth grade. At the time, not only had my dad just released his first book through a major publisher, but he was touring, and they even had a show about him at the Franklin Institute’s planetarium in Philadelphia. It was objectively, empirically cool. Everyone loved him. Everyone loved aliens. Everyone loved me.
“Trust me, it won’t always be like that,” he told me.
He was right.
Fifth grade. Enter Seth.
Seth, the new kid, was tall, skinny, good-looking, and a huge jerk. He was completely unaware of the dynamics of the class. Sure, I’d been a social outcast, or at the very least tremendously unpopular, but kids would at least talk to me and knew who I was.
Nobody, except my only friend, Kalen, wanted to hang out with me outside of school, but at least they were cordial, even friendly at times. Seth knew none of this. Surely, this rookie would be put in his place by the established social order.
But Seth was a revolutionary. His personality was as large as his wit, his confidence was that of a much older sixth grader, and he was able to accrue followers by rallying them behind a common enemy: me.
I’m not sure exactly when it started, or how it started, or what exactly he said, but through constant remarks, derisive laughter, and egging on the others, Seth gradually turned the opinion of the class from “Evan’s dad is cool” to “Evan’s dad is a whack job.”
And thus I became more of a loser than I ever was.
I didn’t fight back—that wasn’t my nature. Although I didn’t agree with this new interpretation, I understood. They were no different from the many regular adults who didn’t believe in my father’s crazy theories.
“You should never get into a fight,” my dad, who had never been in a fight, would say. “But if you do, always throw the first punch.”
My situation got steadily worse as the year went on, to the point where I dreaded going to school. But what was I supposed to do, fight Seth? No, it was much safer to hate him from a distance. I wasn’t quick with a clever comeback. My responses were limited to “Nuh-uh!” or “No, I’m not!”
To make me feel better, Dad suggested Seth had been abducted and was now lashing out at me, afraid we’d uncover his secret. I didn’t care. Seth was still an asshole.
It was hopeless. Recognizing my difficulties, my parents made the decision to put me in a different school for sixth grade.
Then, at the end of the year, the dam broke. There was a fair at school—a here-comes-summer party—with tents, games, and arts and crafts. Parents and siblings were invited. My brother came. At the time, Alex was a pale 5-year-old with a shock of black hair. He was cute, precocious, and although I spent every day berating him, teasing him, and punching him, I was an extremely protective older brother.
Seth was waiting in a line, perhaps for face-painting, or lemonade, or some other innocuous childhood activity, when he saw me walking nearby with my brother—my defenseless 5-year-old brother.
“Hey Evan, is your brother an alien?”
It was at that moment when I was able to focus all the loneliness, frustration, injustice, and Tae Kwon Do lessons I’d had over the course of those years into one action. Seth smiled proudly as I approached him. He didn’t expect me to grab him by his shoulders, put my right foot behind his legs, and topple him over. Mercifully, I guided his shoulders down to the ground; he ended up on his back with me standing above him.
Sure, I hadn’t hurt him. I’m not a violent person. But I had shown him that I could have done whatever I wanted to him.
“Don’t make fun of my brother,” I growled.
He was shocked, and he never spoke another word to me, or about me, again. But then, it was the very last day of school, so he may have spent the next year speaking of me at length. But in my imagination, he never forgot how I stood up to him, and was so deeply affected that he began his own UFO research and now plans to take my father’s place when he retires.
Most often, I live happily with our family’s unique niche in the scientific community. After 50 years of research, however, my dad can’t say the same. He mentions often that he regrets getting into the alien business in the first place. Ever since his career was nearly sabotaged, he’s been depressed. My mother is now equally afflicted.
I have no regrets. The greatest thing my young self ever did was tell the world about Dad, the alien expert. I would do it again—even knowing that Seth, possibly reeling from a repressed extraterrestrial probe, was about to swoop down and ruin me. I’d do it again because the Jacobses got the last laugh. If all Seth wanted was to get me to admit that my dad was wrong, he failed miserably—he got me to realize that I cared more about my family than grade-school popularity. And that I was actually, kinda, sorta, really proud of my crazy dad.
Reprinted from The Good Men Project