20 Years Later, Some Followers of Guru Still Keep the Faith

Times Staff Writer

Norman Paulsen has shown a remarkable ability during his 20-year career as a guru to preach asceticism and live in comfort.

While most of his followers live in Utah and work long hours for low pay in one of the commune’s small businesses, Paulsen lives in a waterfront Oxnard condominium a short walk from the group’s 78-foot schooner, where he can sail every day and ponder cosmic issues without distraction.

Paulsen has also persuaded his followers that he must be free from the constraints of daily labor, so members help support him, some tithing their income.

While many former members of his Brotherhood of the Sun commune--once based in Santa Barbara--claimed in a lawsuit that they were hornswoggled by Paulsen, his current followers draw from a seemingly limitless reservoir of faith in Paulsen’s claims of knowing the secret to the “tunnel to eternity” and “cosmic consciousness.”

At one time the Brotherhood owned a 3,000-acre ranch in Santa Barbara and was one of the nation’s most prosperous communes. Commune members called their businesses Sunburst Farms, and they were the largest shippers of organic produce in the country.


But by the late 1970s, the commune, beset by controversy and problems, began to collapse. Some members were frightened by Paulsen’s decision to stockpile weapons and conduct military training drills at the commune. Others were disillusioned when Paulsen, who preached abstinence, became addicted to drugs.

Hundreds defected; some sued. By 1980, the Brotherhood could no longer make the payments on its ranch and lost the property.

Despite the tribulations and a move from California, the Brotherhood has survived. There are about 35 members still with the group, the last of the true believers, men and women approaching middle age who joined almost 20 years ago and have persevered, working in the commune’s small businesses in Utah and Nevada.

“All religions have been started by someone who has had a breakthrough in cosmic awareness,” said Jonathan King, 39, a portly, gray-haired man who bears little resemblance to the ethereal seekers once associated with the group. “Men like Jesus and Mohammed had that breakthrough. And so has Norm. He still has a lot to teach us.”

In 1963, Norman Paulsen’s visions landed him in the psychiatric ward of Santa Barbara County Hospital. A few years later, his visions made him a guru.

The man and the era had met.

Paulsen was working as a bricklayer in Santa Barbara in the early 1960s when he says he passed out after taking a few sleeping pills before retiring for the evening. At the hospital, while surgeons performed a tracheotomy, Paulsen said he had a “near-death” experience. He later told followers that he watched his body float above the room, saw three “ethereal men in robes” hovering about and was confronted with a “swirling vortex of light . . . the tunnel to eternity.”

The doctors “thought I was wacko,” Paulsen says now, and he awoke in leather restraints in the psychiatric ward. He was transferred to Camarillo State Hospital for psychiatric observation and released after 90 days.

In the years afterward, he began talking about this experience and others. But this time, instead of staring into the arms of a straitjacket he found a receptive audience of young seekers open to bizarre ideas, mystical experiences and Eastern religion.

Melanie Arcudi was 19 years old, had just moved to Santa Barbara from the East Coast and wanted to learn how to meditate. She heard that Paulsen was leading meditation sessions at his home, a converted ice cream warehouse in downtown Santa Barbara. Arcudi, like many of the hippies, surfers and students who gathered at Paulsen’s house in the late 1960s, was seeking a direction in life.

“A lot of people were coming out of the turmoil of the 1960s,” Arcudi said. “Many of us came from broken homes and were searching for the security we never had in our own families. At that time, Norm was a very strong father figure for all of us.”

Spiritual Seeker

Paulsen commanded respect, Arcudi said, because he was older than the others (40 when he started the group); bigger (6-foot-4 and 275 pounds), and had greater experience as a spiritual seeker. He had been a disciple for a few years in the Los Angeles ashram of an Indian guru. Paulsen learned a meditation technique from the guru, Arcudi said, and enough Eastern religion to sound authoritative to a group of American teen-agers.

Arcudi, Paulsen and a few of the regular meditators decided they wanted to live communally, grow their own food and form their own alternative society. They purchased 160 acres in the Santa Barbara mountains, using as a down payment, Paulsen said in an interview, a $6,000 worker’s compensation settlement he had received. But Arcudi says her mother contributed $50,000 toward the down payment.

The early years, Arcudi said, were a glorious time.

“For a while, it was like Camelot,” said Arcudi, who left the group in 1979 and now works as an acupuncturist in Santa Barbara. “We were successful in everything we tried. We’d open a store and it would succeed so we’d open another one. We lived on a beautiful piece of land. More and more people were joining. It was a very exciting time.”

In 1976, the group purchased a spectacular 3,000-acre ranch, adjacent to spreads owned by Ronald Reagan and John Travolta, and turned it into the largest organic farm in the country. The commune eventually owned four markets in the Santa Barbara area, two restaurants, a bakery and had more than 300 members.

But as they expanded, Arcudi said, Paulsen changed. Eventually, she asserted, he came to represent everything the Brotherhood opposed.

Although no alcohol, drugs or even cigarettes were permitted on the group’s property, it was well known in the late 1970s, former members said, that Paulsen had a serious drinking and drug problem.

Paulsen’s addiction was cited numerous times in a lawsuit filed in 1981 by about 100 former members who sought a portion of the commune’s assets. (They eventually dropped the suit.) According to the lawsuit, Paulsen was the subject of a Drug Enforcement Agency investigation in 1982 and acknowledged to DEA agents that he spent $60,000 on narcotics.

But former members who were involved in handling the group’s finances say Paulsen spent more than $200,000 of community funds during the late 1970s and early 1980s. They say he injected Demerol, Dilaudid, cocaine and other drugs obtained fraudulently from doctors or purchased on the street.

Paulsen discussed his drug problems during a recent interview, which took weeks to arrange because he would only meet on the day when his astrological alignment appeared most propitious. “I was trying to catch a moon that was decent,” he explained.”

Although his rhetoric may sound antiquated, Paulsen has a deep, mellifluous voice and a lyrical manner of speech. When he leans back in a chair in the living room of his wood-paneled condominium, clasps his hands over his great stomach and stares into the distance with heavy-lidded, liquid brown eyes, he resembles Buddha in repose.

Paulsen acknowledged that he had been addicted to drugs, but said he has been completely clean for years. His addictions, he said, stemmed from medication prescribed by doctors for migraines and a back injury.

Same Explanation

Paulsen still clings to the same explanation he gave his followers a decade ago when it was discovered that he had drug and alcohol problems.

He blamed them.

By counseling troubled members at the commune, Paulsen claims, he absorbed all their “bad karma.”

“You can’t sit down and talk to someone without exchanging energy with them,” Paulsen said earnestly. “If that person has negative thoughts, that leaves a residue of negative energy on the one who’s trying to help. All that took its toll on me.”

The current followers in Utah and Nevada have accepted his curious explanation, and they now compare Paulsen’s plight with the travails endured by Jesus. Because both Jesus and Paulsen gave too much to others and absorbed all their bad karma, they say, both men had to suffer.

Jesus died on the cross. Paulsen abused drugs.

Michael Ableman was working on a farm in British Columbia in the mid-1970s when friends told him about the Brotherhood. He was tired of the Northwest’s gloomy weather and was “longing for more of an extended family,” so he and a friend hitchhiked to Santa Barbara and joined the group.

Ableman began managing the apple and pear orchards and enjoyed living communally and having the opportunity to learn about organic farming. But soon he began having doubts about the Brotherhood.

Ableman recalls working 12 hours a day and struggling for funds to keep the orchard going, while Paulsen siphoned off money for drugs and drove a Lincoln Continental. Other members recall how Paulsen spent extravagantly on quarter horses, silver saddles and sailboats.

‘Houses, Fancy Cars’

“I was sleeping on a wooden pallet in a sleeping bag while Paulsen and some of the leaders who didn’t seem to do any work had houses and fancy cars,” Ableman said. “A small clique began making all the decisions.”

While Paulsen initially espoused nonviolence, he grew increasingly paranoid through the 1970s. The group stockpiled thousands of rounds of ammunition and dozens of weapons, including Belgian assault rifles and M-14 military rifles. Under Paulsen’s direction, a former Green Beret who lived at the commune began training members in military tactics in preparation for the collapse of society.

One night, after Paulsen was stopped by a sheriff’s deputy for drunk driving, a group of male members gathered at the ranch office and brought out the guns, recalled former member George Sessions.

“Norm started yelling: ‘Let’s shoot up the Sheriff’s Department,’ ” Sessions said. “It was close enough to Jonestown that some of us were pretty scared. Energy was running very high, and I don’t know what could have happened. Norm finally stopped yelling because he was pretty drunk and fortunately, things fizzled out.”

Although several other former members agreed with Sessions’ account, Paulsen rolled his eyes when asked about the incident and muttered, “That’s a joke, an absolute joke.” He declined to comment further.

During the late 1970s, as Paulsen grew increasingly incapacitated by substance abuse, a handful of the commune’s leaders stepped in to perpetuate the oligarchy, former members said. They drove luxury cars, lived in better housing than other members and made all the business decisions.

By 1980, dozens of members had been purged from the ranks and others left in anger. Ableman recalls the day he was exiled.

“Norm was sitting in his house, in a very dark room, with his shirt off, and he was quite drunk,” Ableman said. “He said to me: ‘I am the man they call Jesus of Nazareth. If you believe me you can stay. If not, get out.’ I was told to be out of there by the next day.”

For many, their departure was traumatic. Some had lived in the commune for almost a decade, had worked 12-hour days building the businesses and had given every thing they owned to the group.

“It was worse than a divorce,” said Ableman, 34, who now manages an organic farm in Goleta. “If you leave a marriage you still have friends, neighbors and community. But when we were forced out we had to leave our entire world behind.”

After the first wave of defections, many of the commune’s businesses, which had benefited from an abundance of free labor, could not survive, said Donna Belton, a former head bookkeeper for the Brotherhood. By 1980, the commune was unable to make payments on the ranch and had to sell it. Paulsen eventually discovered a 500,000-acre cattle ranch in eastern Nevada that he was able to purchase with a small down payment.

Those who stayed with the community and made the move to Nevada were faced with great hardship, Belton said. The winters were brutal, the cattle they had purchased were sick and the growing season was so short that they could not raise enough crops to sustain themselves.

Many returned to California. The remaining members struggled to keep the ranch, but, eventually, lost most of the property. On the remaining acres, they created a roadside gas station, a mini-market and a coffee shop. But these small businesses could support only a handful of members, so the others moved to the Salt Lake City area and opened two health food markets and, later, a demolition business.

Paulsen’s drug abuse worsened during this period and the group paid for his stay at treatment programs in Salt Lake City and Las Vegas, Belton said. Paulsen ended up staying in Las Vegas for several years, until he moved back to California eight months ago.

While the current members in Utah and Nevada seem like anachronisms, still following a guru and spouting cliches from the 1960s, the group, in many ways, has adapted to the 1980s.

Many have families and live in the suburbs. They have their own apartments in a slightly ramshackle four-story apartment house near Salt Lake City with barbecues on the patios and children’s bicycles chained to the stairwells.

The men who run the commune’s businesses no longer have the luxury of devoting all their energy to meditation and the search for higher consciousness. The exigencies of meeting a payroll and turning a profit take up much of their time now.

Formal Board Meetings

Jonathan King, general manager of the group’s businesses in Salt Lake City, attends business seminars titled “How to Collect Accounts Receivable More Effectively,” holds formal board meetings and plans to institute a performance-appraisal system for employees at the health food stores.

Recently King, Paulsen and a few others in the group advocated abandoning the central element of the Aquarius Age commune--the sharing of resources--in favor of the prevailing ethos of the 1980s: the bottom line. So temporarily, until the group’s next move, all members receive a salary and manage their own finances.

“When you’re single and 23 years old, it’s easy to get by,” King said. “But if you’re 40 and have three kids and can’t afford a winter coat for them, you’re going to be less inclined to share what you eat with others.”

Although members no longer pool their resources, their life style still is communal in many ways: Members in Nevada live in the same trailer park, and those in Salt Lake City live in the group-owned apartment building; they still gather every day in one of the designated “meditation rooms”; most work for one of the group’s businesses, and they all share the belief that Paulsen is their spiritual leader, a man who has met with God.

While King has the mien and manner of the sober businessman, he is transformed when he discusses Paulsen. Eyes shining and smiling beatifically, King quoted Paulsen 11 times during a recent two-hour interview and described him as “a conduit hooked up to The Light . . . an instrument of divine will.”

Long, Rambling Story

When asked for evidence of Paulsen’s cosmic powers, King launched into a long, rambling story of how he had a headache one day, had two aspirin in his hand and was just about to take them when Paulsen walked into the room. Suddenly, King said, in the fervored tones of a television evangelist, he felt a “transfer of energy coming from Norm right into my eyeballs.” King fixed his visitor with a steady gaze and snapped his fingers. The headache, he said, simply disappeared.

Craig Hansen, 40, joined the commune in his early 20s after dropping out of college. Today Hansen, a gaunt, balding man, works the night shift in the group’s road-stop coffee shop, is paid $600 a month and sends Paulsen a $60 check every month.

Although Hansen and the other followers operate and manage the group’s businesses, Paulsen’s son, who lives in Oregon and never was an official member of the commune, is listed as president and head of the Board of Directors of all the group’s businesses, according to records filed with the Utah secretary of state.

Hansen said he has no interest in financial matters and he trusts Paulsen implicitly. He supported Paulsen’s decision to rename the group the Builders, even though their primary business is a demolition company.

Hansen and other followers say they are now waiting for Paulsen to find a plot of land in the desert where he can begin another commune, a model New Age community that they are convinced will spawn others just like it, until the satellite communities will give the Builders a membership and prominence far greater than the Brotherhood had in its glory days.

Paulsen’s stay in California is only temporary, he said, and he will rejoin his followers when the group makes their move--probably to rural Arizona--within the next few years. There, he said, members will grow their own food and build a “full-spectrum healing center” and meditation retreat.

“I envision a place where all those who were once with us, and new ones as well, will gather and teach and learn . . . a place for those who are getting up in years to retire to.”