EL CAJON — She believes she was Mary Magdalene and that her husband, who died in 1971, was Jesus Christ. She is also convinced of having been, among her 54 other lives on earth, Socrates, Buddha, Charlemagne, King Arthur and Peter the Great.
In this life, she was a Pasadena girl who dropped out of grade school and took a series of hard jobs to help her parents and five brothers and sisters. Her father was a tough, laconic man whom she came to fear. Three of her siblings died young, and talk of their deaths touches her even today.
Now 86, Ruth Norman is founder of the Unarius Academy of Science, which claims 10,000 members around the world. She is also known as Uriel, which stands for Universal, Radiant, Infinite, Eternal Light. Her "cosmic visionary, new world teachings" form the core of what she calls "the dawning of the age of Unarius."
Unarius students--and San Diego County has about 450--believe in past lifetimes on this and other planets. Most attend meetings three times a week and pay $5 almost every time they enter the door. They believe in working out the traumas and tragedies of the present--such problems as drug addiction, alcoholism and sexual promiscuity--by delving into lives lived long ago and finding out what Norman calls "the angels or devils they used to be."
Unarius' block-long headquarters has been in El Cajon since 1972, though Norman said she and her husband conceived "the mission" after they met at a Los Angeles "psychics' convention" in 1954. Unarius centers can also be found in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.; Toronto (which has five); Vancouver, Canada; Nigeria, and Poland.
The group has a book list of 89 titles, and its only paid employee is a printer.
Ranging in age from 14 to 85, Unarius students work at occupations as varied as waiter and registered nurse. Some contribute more than $450 a month, and Norman said that one, who lives in New York, mails in $1,000 each month. She said the same person is now preparing a $25,000 donation.
"Any time I have extra savings, I give it to Unarius," said Daniel Smith, a waiter. He insists the $5 meeting fee isn't mandatory "if you lack the ability to pay."
Smith, 40, moved to San Diego from North Carolina in 1975. He had read about Unarius in an "occult" bookstore in his native Greensboro. He says he was "a serious drug addict," having been hooked on LSD, marijuana and speed before Unarius "found a cure."
He had tried religious movements and once labored as the protege of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in France. Nothing worked, he said, until Unarius.
Decie Hook, 37, said she and her husband, Gordon Hook, 45, are also
Unarius students. Decie Hook works as a hairdresser.
"My whole life changed because of Unarius," she said. "When I went there 11 years ago, I couldn't work, couldn't drive a car--I was on the verge of being committed to an institution. I was alcoholic. When I started understanding what energy was, how past lives influence present life, I encountered immediate change."
Hook repeated almost verbatim a description Norman gave of how past-life therapy works.
"It's done by mental attunement, not hypnosis," she said. "We read and study the Unarius texts. These are written through higher minds--higher beings on higher planets--which are channeled through Uriel (Norman). The answers come naturally, as you see the words and pictures on the pages." She said psychodramas--improvisational plays acted out in class--and stream-of-consciousness writings are also part of the process.
Only two students (the term they prefer to members) live with Norman in her $2,000-a-month rented home in La Mesa. They are Dorothy Ellerman, her personal secretary since 1964, and Louis Spiegel, Norman's "aide-de-camp" and business manager.
Spiegel is the author of "The Confessions of I, Bonaparte," his autobiography of life as Napoleon. In another life, he was Satan, Norman said, pointing out that she "overcame" Satan--converted him to good--in 1984.
Asked how she knew that her husband, Ernest Norman, who died of a throat infection, was Jesus, she replied, "He showed me his hands. He had psychic nail hole scars."
She's aware that some people have trouble believing all of this. Norman said "the large majority" of criticism has come from fundamentalist religious groups. She believes critics were the ones who fired a bullet through the window of the center a few years ago, "shattering the glass and scaring us all to death."
But other critics are materializing. Although authorities in El Cajon, including the mayor and the Police Department, say Unarius has never caused problems and seems "harmless," a local scientist has formed a committee to investigate Unarius, seeing its "new age" teachings as potentially destructive.
Dr. Sheldon B. Zablow, a San Diego psychiatrist who treats former cult members, called Unarius one of 2,500 cults operating in the United States. He said it isn't unusual for people with problems to see improvement--initially--while following a cult.