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 tough jobs to help her parents and five brothers and sisters. Her father was a tough, laconic man she came to fear. Three of her siblings died prematurely, 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, and her "cosmic visionary, new world teachings" form the core of what she calls "the dawning of the age of Unarius."
About 450 Believers
Unarius students--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' blocklong 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. 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 pay 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 San Diego 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 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, "I took him to San Bernardino, and he showed me his hands. He had psychic nail hole scars."
She's aware that some people have trouble believing all this. Norman said "the large majority" of criticism has come from fundamentalist religious groups.
But other critics are materializing. While 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.
And 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.
"They sometimes give up drugs and alcohol but sacrifice the ability to think and reason," he said. "The group becomes the focus of their entire lives. The most disturbing thing is, these are people with serious emotional problems."
"Cults are big numbers and big business," he said, adding that because of its "liberal tax and finance structure," California is an "easy target."
(Norman denies that Unarius is a cult. "They all deny it," Zablow said. "If they admit they're a cult, they deny the reality of what they believe.")
Unarius has received publicity in the past for one particular aspect of its beliefs. Norman has predicted that a fleet of 33 interlocking spaceships bearing 1,000 aliens each will land on an isolated patch of wilderness near Jamul, in the southeastern part of San Diego County, in 2001. She purchased the 73-acre plot several years ago, saying "a spirit from the past" entered the body of one of her aides and told him "this was the place."
Norman said she has lived 55 lives on Earth, which she called "a lowly way station, a kind of General Motors proving ground for the cosmos." In other lives, she claims to have been Bathsheba, Johannes Kepler, Mona Lisa and Maria Theresa.
Unarius students talk often of having been world leaders in former lives--at the least, pivotal public figures around whom history turned. Has anyone ever been, say, a plumber from Schenectady, just trying to make a buck?
Norman seemed irritated by the question. "I've also been a scrubwoman," she said, "but it's been so long ago, it's no longer in my subconscious memory. Hey, buddy, nobody gets to start out at the top. No way!"
Norman punctuates many of her sentences, written or spoken, with exclamation marks. Her smile, which is radiant, is disarmingly youthful for her age. Her students call Norman endearing, charismatic, loving.
But one former student, Stephan Yancoskie, 35, says of Unarius: "It is a cult." Yancoskie, an artist "excommunicated" by Norman in 1984, painted almost all the surrealist paintings that adorn the walls of the El Cajon center.
His departure from the group was so bitter that Norman later published a book about Yancoskie called "Effort to Destroy the Unarius Mission Thwarted." Yancoskie said he has contemplated legal action for accusations made against him in the book.
Another critic is Elie A. Shneour, director of the Biosystems Research Institute of La Jolla and former faculty member at Stanford and UC Berkeley. He also heads San Diego Skeptics, a local branch of a national group called Committee for Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal.
As scientists, Shneour and his colleagues are concerned over the boom of what he called "new age" enterprises, terming them "nothing more than frauds." Shneour recently formed a committee to investigate Unarius.
Norman, however, said Unarius is a science "of cause and effect." She said the cause of what a person was in past life--whether dope addict or dictator--is a reflection of what they are, what they're struggling to go beyond.
Unarius students seem, for the most part, sensitive and kind. They disavow worship of Norman--though Yancoskie says that's what they're doing--and deny, sometimes heatedly, that Unarius is a cult.
Norman said she is "not a religionist" but "a Christian, in the truest sense of the word." As Mary of Bethany (the name she prefers to Mary Magdalene), she was "engaged to Jesus," whom "they crucified before we could (wed)." Jesus was sentenced to die, she said, by Spiegel, her aide-de-camp, who claims to have been Pontius Pilate in another life.
Ruth Norman--born Ruth Emma Anna Nields in Indianapolis at the turn of the century--says she has always been "an ambitious gal." She and her parents moved to Pasadena when she was 3. She was the oldest of six children. Norman's father worked as an upholsterer and interior decorator.
As long as she lived at home--and she rushed out to marry as soon as she turned 18--he ordered her never to speak to neighborhood boys, much less see them on dates, she said. She was soon sneaking out to go to dances, and one night met a boy who not very long afterward asked her to marry him. The union lasted 2 1/2 years and she gave birth to a daughter. But a split soon followed, spurred, she says, by her husband's extramarital affairs. She gave him custody of the child.
She appeared near tears in telling of times she would see her daughter on short, grimly unsatisfying visits.
Norman's daughter has given her four grandchildren and one great-grandchild. She and her daughter "just haven't had the kind of close relationship I'd like."
Norman dropped out of school in the eighth grade, saying she couldn't see (and still can't) how algebra and geometry were important. She worked a variety of jobs--domestic, short-order cook, nanny to a flock of children--all before her 18th birthday.
In 1954, at a "psychics' convention," she met "the moderator," the man she would marry. She believes their mission won't be complete until the spaceships fall out of the sky, when she'll be 101.
She expects to live one more century--in this life.
And how does she know this?
"Why, the spaceships," she said with a dazzling smile. "I wouldn't miss those for the world!"