From the window of her Foothill Boulevard office, a few doors down from La Cañada Flintridge City Hall, Yvonne Smith often watches children play in Memorial Park and wonders what's more real — the parents and kids on the playground, or the person in her office recounting repressed memories of an alien encounter.
"What's real?" Smith ponders. "Is what's happening out there reality, or is it beings or experiences from another world, or parallel universe or another planet?"
In the past 23 years working as a certified hypnotherapist, the Glendale resident estimates she's seen more than 700 clients, the bulk of whom report having had some kind of experience with aliens and alien abduction. Though details of their stories vary, what she hears from patient to patient is eerily similar.
Most have been traumatized by what they've witnessed and, almost miraculously, find their way to La Cañada from cities all across the country. They need to talk to someone, to make sense of what's happened and, somehow, find a way to go on with their lives.
Smith's attempt to maintain a safe place for abductees to share their experience led her to create the nonprofit Close Encounters Research Organization, a group that offers private support groups and aims to educate the public about just how common these encounters are.
On May 31, CERO International hosts a conference at Culver City's Veterans Memorial Complex. The featured speaker will be pilot Steve Allen, who says he was a witness to UFOs sighted in 2008 by many residents of Stephenville, Texas over the course of several months.
Though she has never had a personal encounter, Smith wants people to know they can happen to anyone. Her clients are doctors, engineers and stay-at-home moms. Some are children, while others hold high ranks in the military.
"It really is an equal-opportunity experience," she says.
Some say they've seen a spacecraft or similar visions. Others are haunted by dreams or memories of being abducted, examined or of having their eggs or sperm harvested or strange objects implanted in their bodies. Still others report receiving troubling omens, about Earth and the human race.
"I basically regress a person back to the time and place where they had their encounter," Smith explains of the process. "Usually these experiences first occur in childhood. It can be very traumatizing in the beginning, because they don't know what happened, they just know something strange happened."
That was the case for Dawn Cussins, a client of Smith's from 1993 to 1997 who was actively involved in CERO International for several years afterward.
Cussins, who now lives in Arizona, was just 7 or 8 years old watching TV in her parent's bedroom when she and her baby sitter saw a spacecraft in the trees outside her Malibu home.
"All I remember doing is screaming and running out of my parents' bedroom," recalled Cussins, now 46.
For years afterward, she dreamed of "intelligent spiders" with white heads and big black eyes peered down at her curiously. It wasn't until she saw the book "Communion" by Whitley Strieber — an abduction autobiography with a classic "gray" alien face on the cover — that Cussins connected her spider dreams to extra-terrestrial beings.
After that, she became obsessed over the recurring experiences. She had to talk to someone.
"It was the first thing I thought about when I woke up and the last thing I thought about when I went to bed — and I was just done. It was driving me bananas, and I wanted a normal life," she said.
In her sessions with Smith, Cussins was immediately put at ease. Having someone to talk to relieved a pressure and anxiety that had built for years.
"She allowed me to open my mouth and talk about all those little weird, idiosyncratic things I'd been thinking about and couldn't tell anyone," she said. "Once I went under hypnosis, all I know is that I felt better. I could deal with it better."
Brent Smith, Yvonne's 29-year-old son, said he admires his mother's work on behalf of people who've been traumatized and have nowhere to go. A writer who lives in Silver Lake, he is copy-editing his mother's second book, "Coronado: The President, the Secret Service and Alien Abduction," due out in June, and attends some CERO International events.
Though he's not as skeptical as his older brother, Brandon, Brent Smith said he believes in the existence of phenomenal manifestations.
"I certainly believe there is something happening," he said. "We don't have any clear answers, because we can't ask them. We don't know why, and we probably never will."
He said he hopes to see the work of CERO International continue and admits that while he's experienced strange images and sensations in the past, he doesn't know they're alien in nature.
"I know a lot of people need an answer, but over the years I've been happy not seeking answers," he said.
Despite her son's pragmatism, Yvonne Smith can't help but search for the meaning behind her life's work. The more she hears, the more she questions why this phenomenon keeps spreading, why the sense of urgency her clients report seems to be growing.
And, as always, she wonders at concepts like "real" and "normal."
"What is normal?" she asks. "What I've been doing for 23 years is normal. There's so much more to life — people put themselves in a little box; they go to work and they go home. They're scared to look past that, to know that there's something else."
For more information on Smith and CERO International, visit www.cerointernational.com.
Follow Sara Cardine on Twitter: @SaraCardine.