Amazing as it may seem, however, throughout this trenchant subcultural travelogue, Heard never stoops to ridicule his subjects. As one reviewer puts it, "Heard's real achievement may be that he makes us carein a way that is more than voyeuristicabout the colorful characters he meets on the road to the new millennium. He takes these people seriously, allows his assumptions to be challenged, and lets himself find that some of their beliefs and fears reflect his own" (San Jose Mercury News).
Apocalypse Pretty Soon will appeal to science fiction fans and students of subcultures, as well as anybody interested in way-out alternatives to the brave new world.
Amazing as it may seem, however, throughout this trenchant subcultural travelogue, Heard never stoops to ridicule his subjects. As one reviewer put it, "Heard's real achievement may be that he makes us carein a way that is more than voyeuristicabout the colorful characters he meets on the road to the new millennium. He takes these people seriously, allows his assumptions to be challenged, and lets himself find that some of their beliefs and fears reflect his own" (San Jose Mercury News).
Now in paperback, this book will have an audience well beyond "millenniamania," from science fiction fans to students of subculture, and anybody interested in way-out alternatives to the brave new world.
Related collections and offers
|Publisher:||Crown Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.75(d)|
About the Author
Alex Heard is an editor at Wired magazine. He has also edited and written for The New York Times Magazine, Outside, The New Republic, Slate, and many other publications.
Read an Excerpt
Welcome, Space Brothers
What would happen in a world, when upon impacted soil, an angel
touches down to stay a while?
--from Forty Years of Love and Light, a video eulogy for
Ernest and Ruth Norman, co-founders of the Unarius Academy of Science
On December 27, 1974, in a moment that must have cheered somebody up at the Los Angeles offices of the Internal Revenue Service, a completed IRS form 1023 arrived by mail from a California-based outfit called Unarius-Science of Life. Form 1023 is mandatory paperwork for groups seeking tax-exempt status, and one requirement is "a narrative description of the activities presently carried on by the organization." Most people keep that answer short and straight. (Why brag when you're asking for a favor?) The Unarians did too--by their standards--but their unique mission demanded a splash of Technicolor:
Planned and masterminded by millions of super-intelligent beings from higher worlds, Unariun [sic] Mission formally began in 1954. ... [Its teachings] could most accuratly [sic] be described as containing more information, knowledge, and wisdom than would be contained in any known pricepts [sic] of human knowledge. This Interdimensional Science exist [sic] now in 30 bound volumes and was delivered to the earth world by Dr. Ernest L. Norman and his wife, Ruth E. Norman.... Here ... can be attained the science of the future....
The IRS doesn't require nonprofits to demonstrate that their work will benefit the United States government. Unarius tossed that in anyway, giddily bragging that it could help the country win the cold war.
"The Unariun Science could factually ... place the United States far ahead of [the] U. S. S. R. in all scientific findings," the application said. Since the previous August, Ruth Norman had received "mental transmissions" from "over 159" departed luminaries, including "Albert Einstein ... Iwan Petrovich Pawlow [sic] ... Robert Oppenheimer, President John F. Kennedy, Eisenhower, T. Roosevelt, etc., etc." In the process she had recovered the lost secrets of the Tesla Tower, a 2,000-foot-tall wireless energy-transmission machine--attempted and abandoned on Wardenclyffe, Long Island, in the early 1900s by Nikola Tesla, the late, great engineering genius--that the Normans planned to build using "crystalline substance and gold."
"There are no limitation [sic]," the statement concluded, "to the great aid we can extend to the suffering humanity."
Unarius won its tax exemption, listing both Ernest and Ruth on its initial board of directors. This was rather a stretch in Ernest's case--he had died in 1971--but Ruth definitely made a mark. In 1975 she purchased a building in El Cajon, California, east of San Diego. There she nurtured a remarkably durable utopian group that has worked tirelessly ever since to spread her bizarre but joyous message about mankind's future, which she saw as one of imminent millennial salvation at the hands of "space brothers." Over the years, she attracted dozens of devoted students who helped Unarius find its place in a world that has tended (almost unanimously) to ignore or mock her prophecies, particularly her most famous one. In the mid-seventies she announced that sometime soon, thirty-three spaceships (representing thirty-two other worlds and Earth) would touch down in an interlocking stack near El Cajon. Each would contain infinitely wise extraterrestrials who were coming to launch a New Age university that would usher in perpetual peace, wisdom, and harmony.
To prepare the way, Ruth bought sixty-seven acres of land outside of town and put up a sign that clearly stated the parcel's function: WELCOME SPACE BROTHERS. At one point, so confident that she placed a substantial bet with a London bookie, she announced that the landing would happen in 1976, but when that prophecy failed she remained unruffled and came up with the year 2001. These pronouncements and flubs made Ruth something of a fringe-world superstar. At various times, print and television reporters from all over the world came to catch her act, which was jazzed up by her speaking style--a cheerful, high-pitched warble--and her wardrobe. As Queen Bee of Unarius, Ruth dressed the part, wearing gaudy gowns and tiaras assembled by loving Unarius students.
Ruth accomplished all this as a very old woman. She was born in 1900, so she was already seventy-four when Unarius began growing in the mid-seventies. At her death in 1993, Unarius's annual filings with the IRS showed a healthy bottom line. The group owns its headquarters, which includes a large meeting space where Unarius students gather for weekly classes, video-production facilities where the students make unintentionally kitsch dramas that bring Ruth's teachings to life (shown on cable-access channels all over the United States), and an endless stream of Unarius publications and books. Unarius's total assets in 1992 bettered $500,000. That's not much by the standards of, say, the Church of Scientology, but it's not bad compared with a more famous outfit whose teachings shared several basic themes with Unarius: Heaven's Gate. During the years that Unarius was attaining Rotarian plumpness, the followers of Marshall Herff Applewhite and Bonnie Lu Nettles were essentially vagabonds living out of cars and in cheap hotels.
As for Ernest Norman, dead or alive he deserved a place of honor on the Unarius roll of honor. Though Ruth's saucer prediction got the media attention, the primary interest of Unarius students, then and now, is a concept Ernest added to the mix in the fifties: "past-life therapy," the study of how your soul's (alleged) past physical incarnations affect you psychologically and spiritually in the present. Unarius students are taught that they've lived many times before in exotic civilizations like Atlantis, ancient Egypt, the planet Vixall, and a distant, long-ago galaxy called Orion. They also believe that by using recovered-memory techniques to examine these lives, they can work toward a more perfect self, a process known as "progressive evolution." In this scheme, the Normans have special distinction. They are both archangels (Ernest's archangel name was Raphiel, Ruth's was Uriel) who came to Earth out of sheer generosity to show debased humans how to advance to a higher level.
But alas, these facts don't fully convey the Unarius style, which was personified by Ruth Norman, a true American original who combined the couture sensibilities of a drag queen with the joi de vivre of a Frisbee-chasing Irish Setter. She translates best on film and videotape, but even on the printed page her strange vitality leaps out.
Take, for example, A Beginner's Guide to Progressive Evolution, a book-length transcript of a 1978 class in which Uriel guided Unarius students through the wrenching pain of their past-life involvement with drug and snake cults on the lost continent of Atlantis. In it, she assures them that the painful memories are worth the agony: the students are all part of a "nucleus" of Unarian love and light that will eventually brighten up the entire sorry Earth.
"The problems!" she exclaims. "If you stockpile all the problems of the earth world ... and put them all percentage-wise, and really analyze them, it would make you feel like walking off the end of the pier."
Suicide has never been the Unarian way, so Uriel railed mightily against despair: "[B]ut of course we know that doesn't solve anything and what this world needs now, is Unarius! Well, the majority of the people haven't arrived at the point where they have heard of us just yet but ... just wait!"
The Unarius students believe it, and they observe the Space Brothers' pending arrival every year with a lavish pageant called Interplanetary Confederation Day. In celebration, they sing a metrically challenged song, "The Vehicles of Light," in which they pledge allegiance to their belief in Ruth's vision:
From out of the Spiraling Galaxies,
From the Roaring Seas
Of Connected Energies
Come the Vehicles of Light!
The Prince of the Realm
Ordains Great Gifts
For People of Earth to Change
And All There-in the Space Ships
Are Lovingly Laden!
The Spacefleet Coordinator,
Uriel Extends the Lighted Hand
Harken to the Welcome Hum
I first heard about Unarius in 1987. I was idly flipping through a directory of "experts and spokespersons" and came across the face of Louis Spiegel, an old man whose smiley, droopy features were capped by a badly fitting wig. The ad explained that Spiegel was a Unarius higher-up who had written a spiritual autobiography, a 536-page masterchunk, published in 1985, called The Confessions of I, Bonaparte. It appeared to be about his past life as Napoleon. Given Napoleon's timeless status as a role model for the institutionalized, that sounded like a joke. I phoned Unarius and got Spiegel on the line. It wasn't a joke. In a resonant monotone, he told me all about it, sounding as if we'd been friends for years.
"Greetings, Alex, and may I suggest that your call could not have come at a better time? This is an auspicious moment for our organization, and it may be that you, too, were moved to contact us, for reasons that you do not yet fully comprehend!"
Spiegel explained that Unarius was an acronym for UNiversal ARticulate Interdimensional Understanding of Science. Meaning? He said that it was nothing less than "fourth-dimensional physics" and that I should "come visit immediately to gain a first-hand understanding." That wasn't possible, so to begin my education he generously mailed a copy of I, Bonaparte. A baroque, lumbering work, its opening page revealed a Miltonian theme that was heavy on the curative powers of multiple reincarnation.
"I am eternally thankful to my Spiritual Teacher, Ruth Norman," wrote Spiegel, "for the 'immensity' of her accomplishment with the magnitude and significance of my healing! This is clear in my willingness to write and publicize the extensive nature of my previous lifetimes as the negative force, Satan!"
Satan? Yes, and not just him. Spiegel believed he'd been quite a few world-historical figures, his spirit having traveled a long and rocky astral road. It took a while to make sense of it, but with help from him and his book, I finally got the picture.
It all began millions of years ago, at a time when the entire universe was at peace, overseen by goodly beings like Uriel, Raphiel, and their two colleagues Michiel and Muriel. Trouble started on a faraway planet called Tyron, which was experiencing problems with a dawning Ice Age and what Spiegel calls "10-story-high mammals and dinosaurs." An advanced being named Antares observed Tyron's plight and descended to the planet, in physical form, to help out. This was a mistake. According to Spiegel, Antares's decision to "manifest physically" condemned him to an existence away from the realm of light.
Over time, Antares got revenge by incarnating as Tyrantus, a Ming the Merciless-like ruler of the planet Tyron and the larger Orion Empire, an advanced, Star Wars-y confederation of planets that existed for eons, starting 800,000 years ago. Through the ages, Antares also existed as, among others, Hannibal, Julius Caesar, Nero, and Cardinal Richelieu--strong men who were all overwhelmed by pride. His last incarnation was less remarkable: in 1921, he was born as Louis Saul Joseph Spiegel, the son of a Jewish family living in Toronto. (Spiegel has used different first names over the years, but most often he calls himself either Charles Spiegel or Antares.)
This all sounds insane to outsiders, but it's important to remember that this prehistory is as real to a Unarius student as Jesus' life and death is to a Christian, and for a select few individuals this belief system is very real--and sacred.
Obviously, it's a rarely acquired taste. Unarius recruits energetically, using magazine advertisements, the World Wide Web, exhibits at New Age expos and on college campuses, television, radio, direct mail, and word of mouth, but most people just laugh and walk away. Or run. Counting "home study" students in the United States and abroad--there has even been a minuscule Unarius mission in Kenya--there are probably only a few hundred believers at any given time. They study a "science" (the Normans rejected labels like religion or faith) that is a lively, eclectic grab-all, drawing on Hindu ideas about karma, the esoteric practice of past-life therapy, and a New Age presumption that higher-level spiritual beings populate the universe. The Normans believed that Earth is a lowly spiritual place--"a kindergarten," Spiegel says--where backward souls are sent to pursue spiritual self-improvement. The hows and whys are complicated, but basically, if a student works at being good in each lifetime, improvements accrue and he or she evolves toward enlightenment. Unarians apply themselves to this task through home study, group discussions, and past-life reenactments called "psychodramas," in which they play-act their actions in earlier civilizations. In the process, they learn that their current behavior and problems are always "relivings" of ancient negative deeds.
Spiegel, of course, piled up more negatives than most people. To cut straight to the worst: he was Pontius Pilate, so he crucified Jesus, who, according to Unarius lore, was a previous incarnation of Ernest Norman. Photographs in I, Bonaparte show Spiegel and Unarius students in biblical garb and fake beards, reenacting the fateful trial in Jerusalem. "I had the opportunity at that time," Spiegel laments, "to work with the higher Spiritual Forces and take a stand against ... the negative forces that lived within the memories of man."
Soul-wrenching though it is, the real message of I, Bonaparte is the redemption Spiegel earned through the tender mercies of Uriel and the Brothers, who travel through space and time helping humanity. (Among Uriel's previous identities are Socrates, Peter the Great, Charlemagne, Queen Elizabeth I, Quetzalcoatl, and Mary of Bethany, "the betrothed of Jesus and the 13th disciple.") Sometimes, though not always, Uriel was assassinated and tortured during her intercessions. Unarius belief has it that in various epochs and on various worlds, she was thwarted or murdered, usually at the hands of Antares or other similarly debased Unarius students. For example, in the ancient civilization of Lemuria (the Pacific Ocean counterpart to Atlantis), Spiegel was Ta-Nu, an initially wise and good ruler whose spirit degenerated over time. Uriel appeared on the scene as Ra-Mu, a wise man who established a temple devoted to progressive evolution. One fateful day, Ta-Nu summoned Ra-Mu to his palace, ostensibly to celebrate this new wisdom. After a great feast, Ra-Mu was led into a room "for a private showing of art objects," Instead he was zapped by a "high-energy disintegrator."
Happily, Uriel's spirit prevailed. Uriel declared in the mid-eighties that Spiegel had become "good" Antares again. "Now, as Antares," Spiegel exults in I, Bonaparte, "I pledge to assist all persons who formerly suffered at my hands, and help them cross over the 'Rainbow Bridge of Light,' to continue their progressive evolution!"
Uriel's word was law in Unarius, but even for believers, this transition must have been jarring. How could Uriel be sure that after all those millennia of impishness and evil, Antares was truly reformed? Couldn't it be just another trick?
Uriel addressed this in a preface to I, Bonaparte: "You may quest or wonder how he can be sure that he has overcome the many horrible ... tyrannical pasts. Well, the proof of this is in the fact that now he can talk about any or all of the pasts without the usual guilt feeling."
That didn't sound too convincing when I read it, but it certainly increased my desire to visit Unarius. Unfortunately, that had to wait until 1994, when I received an invitation that I couldn't pass up, to the "40th Celebration of Love and Light." Every year, Unarius celebrates the founding of the science, which coincides with the Normans' first meeting around the time of Valentine's Day 1954. The fortieth promised to be especially significant because, after a long and painful decline, Ruth Norman had died in her sleep the previous summer at age ninety-three. This was shattering for two reasons. First, obviously, the Unarians had lost their beloved friend and leader. Second, Uriel had stated repeatedly that she would be on hand to greet the Brothers when they arrived in 2001.
Her death represented what scholars of millennial movements have called "disconfirmation." That is, her prophecy--that she would be around when the New Age dawned--was shown to be false. Disconfirmation is often fatal to millennial movements, but sometimes the loss can actually lead to consolidation and strength. (For example, many non-Christian observers of Christianity think of it as a group that used the myth of resurrection to gain strength after its prophet was killed and failed to rise from the dead.) I wondered: Which would it be with Unarius?
Whatever happened, it would occur under a dramatically different leadership. With Uriel gone, that old devil Antares was now the top entity.
After discussing the mission with my wife, Susan--"Find out if any of her old tiaras are for sale," she demanded--I flew to San Diego, rented a car, and pointed it toward Ruth World. The Unarius headquarters sits in an old, one-story commercial structure on South Magnolia Street in El Cajon, a city of 75,000 people about fifteen miles east of San Diego. El Cajon is a typical semi-arid Southern California sprawlville. The long blocks are crammed with the usual SoCal effluvia that everyone carps about--too many cars, too many shopping centers, too many muffler outlets and burrito stands. But if you come from someplace with gray skies and skinny, bumpy streets--I was living in Chicago at the time--it's a nice change of pace. If nothing else, you can get away with driving 50 in town.
I nosed my rental car into the Unarius parking lot early on Friday afternoon, hoping to poke around before the reunion crush began. The Unarius exterior hints but does not scream that something different is going on inside. A large plastic sign out front reads UNARIUS ACADEMY OF SCIENCE, and one side of the building is slathered with a New Agey mural, "The Eye of the Infinite," which depicts spaceships whizzing about in an other-worldly landscape, all rendered in Easter egg colors. Once you pass through the front doors, though, you've unmistakably crossed a perceptual divide. Walking under a columnar arch hung with fake ivy, a wind chime, and a small disco ball, I saw a bright, airy decorative pastiche that was equal parts outer-space kitsch depot, meditation garden, mad-scientist's lair, branch library, and church meeting hall. The largest room, the meeting space, contained several rows of chairs, a softly burbling fountain, various neoclassical chubbies standing on pedestals, a portable chalkboard, and simple bookshelves groaning with Unarius titles. A narrower room--to the left, on the other side of a row of spaced faux-Corinthian columns--was crowded with strange displays, including a model of a futuristic urban area ("Crystal Mountain City") protected by a plexiglass pyramid. Mounted on the rear wall was a two-dimensional plywood-and-colored-lights representation of the 2001 saucer landing. Up front stood an eight-foot-tall gizmo that resembled a Tesla Power Tower.
And so it was. Tesla is a crucial figure in the fringe world because he combined undeniable genius with equally undeniable crackpotism. Among his achievements, he built the first motor that utilized alternating current and designed the power-generating facilities at Niagara Falls. Among his missteps, he laughed off the research of atomic scientists (calling them "metaphysicians") and claimed to have invented a death ray, a means to split the Earth in half, and (some say) a source of universal free energy that could be transmitted throughout the world without benefit of wires.
Unarians revere him without reservation. They believe, as do many non-Unarian Tesla buffs, that his lost inventions share basic principles with the lost technology of Atlantis, and that Tesla devices will thrum again in the utopian, intergalactic future. "The Tesla Tower," a poem written by a Unarius student, celebrates this dream, saying that the Tower will "Interconnect the vast Inter-Galactic Space Confederation into one united whole."
Hoping that Spiegel would meet me at the center, I'd called him from my room before coming over, but he chucked me a curve. He was at the Light House, a residence leased by Unarius, and he casually mentioned that he wouldn't be coming down "until later." He told me to ask for Carol Robinson, a middle-aged woman who managed the office. After stalling a minute at the bookshelves, I approached an older Unarius student who was reading at a table and asked where to find her. He looked startled and scurried off through a door. He came back with Carol in tow. She looked crabby. No doubt she was busy, and I don't think Spiegel told her I was coming.
"Now, what is it you were wanting?" she said, studying me with the smiley-frowny, quizzical look of Dr. Zaius in Planet of the Apes.
"I'm here for the weekend. Mr. Spiegel said I could come down this afternoon and look around."
"What is it you wanted to look at?"
Well, in fact, only one thing: the file cabinets full of transcripts. Each Unarius class is taped and typed, and I especially wanted to see how students reacted when Ruth Norman died. Starting with that didn't seem wise ("Fetch me the Uriel death log!"), so I vaguely asked to look at old scrapbooks of press coverage. Carol brought three and whumped them on the table. I started in on a puffy volume that bulged with yellowing clips protected by plastic.
The earliest clips were random science curiosities collected, probably by Ernest, in the early sixties, with headlines like "Scientist's Tests Show Bugs Think" and "Man, Mice Have Much in Common." Before long Ruth takes center stage, and it's easy to see why. In photographs, Ernest wears a charcoal suit and looks kindly, earnest, and dull, like a high-school science teacher circa 1955. Ruth virtually leaps off the page, and it's not just because she's wearing a rainbow mylar empress gown and carrying a scepter. (Though that helps.) There's also an inner glow at work, a star quality, and people noticed. When Ruth became a media darling in the seventies, reporters showed up for a laugh--which they got--but they usually left charmed. She spoke in high-pitched eruptions of dottiness, sounding like a combination of Julia Child, Aunt Clara on Bewitched, and a bossy little girl telling other little girls the rules of her playhouse.
Above all there were the Uriel costumes, flabbergasting contraptions that, at their most outlandish, were more stage set than clothing. One of them, "The Cosmic Generator," is a living tableau that illustrates how the planets of the Interplanetary Confederation are linked together. From the waist down, a huge "skirt" of deep blue billows out, studded with bas-relief, brightly colored planets connected by golden star trails. Each planet is labeled with its exotic name: Po, Vulna, Endinite, Severinus, Brundage, El, Deva. From waist level to neck blazes a deep-orange sun "collar," whose far-reaching, glittery flames lick out beyond Uriel's head and shoulders. Her hands are encased by silver mitts twinkling with tiny star lights. On her head sits a tall, swirling peaked cap--also spiraled with lights. The only visible flesh is her pale, contented face, grinning under an ample blonde wig.
It was truly something. My hand cramped just from taking notes about it.
When I looked up, Carol was hovering, clearly annoyed. "Are you finished with those?" she said. Now I was getting annoyed. What was the problem? I decided to counterattack.
"Yes, I am. So I'm ready to look at the files now."
"Yes. The class transcripts. Mr. Spiegel said there was no better way to gain an understanding of the science than to read about the classes in action. He told me to be sure to study them carefully."
Carol didn't like that, but she was temporarily rooked. She escorted me to the office, showed me around, and boiled silently while I pawed. It didn't take long to see that they contained everything I wanted. A class held on July 16, 1993--four days after Ruth's death--was entirely devoted to grief. A summary up top said, "Joseph, Barbara Jarad, David Keymas, Thelma, Lianne, and Neosha give testimonials regarding their experiences with Uriel's ascension." I actually felt overheated.
Unfortunately, trying to take notes on this twenty-nine-page dialogue would be deadly, so I decided to knock off. "Whew!' I sighed, replacing the folders and making a last attempt at good inter-Carol relations. "I am learning so much from these classes." "Yes, well," she said, "good-bye."
That evening the Unarians assembled at the center for "friendship renewal." Spiegel skipped this too, so the master of ceremonies was an affable, nice-looking young man named Joseph Downey, one of several Unarius students who, under Ruth Norman's tutelage, had risen by developing the ability to "subcharmel" the Brothers. About a hundred people showed up--adults of all ages, from all over, local students and far-flung home-study types alike--and the evening percolated with the cheerful atmosphere of a successful family reunion. The men wore jackets and ties and were red with happiness. The women wore churchy prints and lots of makeup and solid-colored dresses--light blue, pink, lime-sherbet green--that hinted at somebody's past life as a bridesmaid.
Many of the out-of-towners came from the East. The hub of Unarius influence there is North Carolina, thanks to the tireless efforts of an intense guy named Dan Smith, who often appears on talk-radio shows touting the science. I recognized Smith as the wide-eyed star of The Arrival, a Unarius-produced video that uses melodramatic sci-fi to lay out the basic tenets. The main character is Zan, an aboriginal earthling who is hooting around the campfire one night when an immense spaceship drops from the sky. The ship contains eleven bald scientists from outer space who communicate with Zan telepathically. They explain that his apish consciousness traces back to an evil deed he committed 200,000 years earlier: as commander of an Orion battle cruiser, he zapped an entire planet, killing 4 billion people.
I took a long, hard look at Dan, a kindly, fuzzy-haired man who looked about as dangerous as a woodchuck snoozing in clover. Could he really believe he had performed such deeds?
Standing in front of the Power Tower, Joseph brought things to order, asking audience members to introduce themselves before he opened the floor to testimonials. He went first, speaking at length about how the Unarius classes had recently witnessed a procedural revolt that had "brought out some rotting things that have been laying in the psychic anatomy for quite some time."
That sounded juicy, but it wasn't. It was, however, a good example of how Unarius students tend to overanalyze even the tiniest moments. Joseph explained that the instructors had been routinely arriving late. In response, the class members got fed up and complained. Uh huh. He continued: this airing of criticism was very significant, a sign that the students were learning to function without Uriel. Criticism had been one of her main functions, delivered verbally or in detailed letters that Joseph said could be "scathing." They sometimes hurt but they were also "very valuable."
"We are learning to do for ourselves what Uriel helped us do for many years," he said. "It's no accident that Uriel left when she did. I believe that she would have remained if she didn't think we were ready to continue the mission."
Several personal testimonies followed. Brian, a sunny-faced blonde who worked as a gardener at the Light House, generically said Uriel and the house itself gave off an aura that helped heal him. Mark, dark-haired and fidgety, said that when he arrived at Unarius, "I might as well have been wearing a headband that read 'Egomaniac' and a shirt that said 'I am the ultimate materialist.'" Uriel cured that as well.
But there was no mistaking this gathering for just any old New Age revival. A longtime student named David Reynolds stood and described a device that, Tesla-like, he had worked on and abandoned some time back. Called the Bensteveray, it was designed to take musical notes and "convert them to light waves of an appropriate color." This harmless plaything, intended as "a healing object," had aroused guilt feelings in Reynolds. He hadn't known why until one day he experienced a vision. He saw himself as an evil scientist in the Orion Empire, giving a public demonstration of a "tower" very similar to the Bensteveray. Among those in the audience was ... Uriel.
"Suddenly," said Reynolds, eyes widening in his friendly, waxy face, "I saw her to say, 'He's gonna kill us all! He's gonna murder us!' And so she made a mad dash to get out of the room. But it was too late. All the doors were sealed shut and she was doomed at that time to a horrible murder." Pause. "I was the one who pulled the trigger!"
Topping this for sheer gruesomeness was Lianne, Joseph's wife and another Unarius student leader. A dark-haired and stern-looking young woman, Lianne said she had recently suffered a bad flu, so she asked the Brothers for a "reading" about it. They complied and she learned of a past life in which she was a "mean, big, fat king." Tired of her guff, a mob dragged her into the streets and chopped off her head.
"And that's where I got the coughing," she said sweetly. "From my severed head."
Such anecdotes are typical of Unarius therapy in action. Students tend to identify dramatic, often violent past events as sources for ordinary faults or problems like drug use, unemployment, envy, sloth, weight gain, moody pets, general unhappiness, and (an oft-mentioned theme) masturbation. The old anti-Freudian cliche that sometimes a cigar is just a cigar doesn't apply to Unarians. With them, it's more accurate to say that a cigar is never merely a penis. It's more likely to be a 20,000-volt torture probe that was jammed up Uriel's rectum in Lemuria. Examples of how the mundane becomes the macabre are found all through A Beginner's Guide to Progressive Evolution, the book about the Atlantis drug and snake cults. A student named Roberto Gaetan describes a terrible revelatory memory in a restaurant. A person he was with served himself some "red and yellow" Jell-O. Gaetan started to feel sick. He flashed back to an image of himself as a priest at an ancient "sexual orgy," and realized he had ripped a breast off a human torso and "squeezed it like a lemon over my head."
After the evening broke up, I tried to socialize with the Unarians, to gingerly begin the long process of getting to know them, but I got nowhere. I spoke to Dan and Lianne, among others, but beneath surface friendliness they seemed guarded. Dan gave me tense, short-sentence answers until he managed to get away. Lianne was friendly but evasive. She asked what I was writing about. I told her I was interested in people who were interested in the millennium.
"Millennium," she said, tasting the word. "I don't know what that means."
Eventually I gave up and trudged a few blocks to a bar, where I sat drinking and brooding while drunks from a wedding party sang karaoke. I was confused. Usually I had to earn people's dislike. Why had it come so automatically here?
Saturday at the Unarius headquarters turned out to be a long, grueling experience that ended with me whipped and whimpering in the progressive-evolution doghouse. As I realized later, it had been wrong to think the Unarians took a personal dislike to me. They just didn't like journalists in general, and for good reason. But in a few hours on Saturday I made a breakthrough: they definitely disliked me for me.
I didn't mean to be naughty. But I had to see those files without Carol bugging me, so I was on the premises and hard at work, beavering through the cabinets and melting down the photocopier before she showed up. By the time she came, I'd compiled a cubic foot of goods, but I kept chugging anyway, slapping down page after page as her temperature rose. The boil-over happened quickly. Carol made a call (to Spiegel, probably), yanked the copier's plug, and angrily told me to vacate the file room. I skulked out--with the nefarious load, which went straight into the rental car's trunk. After that I went back inside and crept around silently, looking at the exhibits, trying to go unnoticed until the day's big event started, a complete tour of the Unarius facility.
The fun began at the 2-D model of the thirty-three flying saucers, where Lianne told about two dozen listeners--most of whom were Unarians and knew this already, including Dan Smith--that the bigger landing will be prefaced by the arrival of a giant starship from the planet Myton, which will land on an "island mass" rising from the Caribbean. (Later, after people have had a chance to "adjust" to the new reality, the thirty-three confederation ships will land outside El Cajon.) The thirty-three themselves varied in size, but were designed to fit together in a stack. "The way the ships have been constructed," she explained, "the bottom ship will be 3,000 feet in diameter. Can you picture how big that's gonna be? Huuuuuge. And then they reduce in size on the way up, to 300 feet for the top ship."
She rattled off more stats. Exactly 33,000 higher spiritual beings will inhabit the ships' various levels, with the "earth people" granted a place of honor on top. "Surrounding this starship configuration," she added, "will be an entire city that will be built, and you will see a replica of this in the next room."
We shuffled over to the burg-under-glass, Crystal Mountain City. Arthur, an older-gent Unarian, took over and described it as a sort of progressive-evolution enterprise zone, "a halfway house between this world and the higher spiritual world." He gestured sweepingly at the surrounding space, a lavish, mural-lined room that was chock full of Unarian artistic statements. This, we learned later, was the Star Center Room, which had been refurbished ten years before by a former Unarian named Stephan Yancoskie, a talented artist who conceived of the mural. Strangely, despite this obviously large contribution, mention of Yancoskie's name made a couple of people cringe. I later found out why: he was a rising Unarius star who had left the group under a dark cloud years before.
"Is there any reason the Crystal Mountain City is encased in a pyramid?" a woman asked.
"No," Arthur sniffed congenially. "There wasn't any grand metaphysical idea behind it. It was more practical than anything else. The plexiglass is to keep the dust out, and it's easier to make a pyramid than a sphere."
There was no shortage of metaphysical significance at our next stop: Uriel's jewelry case, which contained baubles and costume-jewelry crowns. A Unarian named Crystal, a blonde with thin hair and a trembly bearing, explained that each of these "personal treasures" are "polarized to Uriel's higher consciousness." She showed us a red glass rose. "This was one of many gifts the Unarius students gave Uriel in appreciation. The red rose represents the red rose that Ernest Norman gave her--"
At this she started sobbing--hard. Dan Smith stepped up to offer comfort. Giving her a cozy sideways hug, he said, "Crystal's overcome with the love that she's feeling for Uriel and the Brothers right now."
The tour continued, to a second building that contained the pressroom, costume shop, and Unarius's video and sound studios. A Unarian named Dave explained that the studio space was once a trashed-up attic, and that many, many hours of manual labor were required to convert it to its current spiffy splendor. And yes, as usual this tied in with a "reliving." Dave said the demolition crew realized "we were living through negative lives of having destroyed a temple."
But at the moment I didn't feel like snickering about that. I kept thinking about Crystal, and the awful reality of her grief.
"Nooooo, Alex! Don't you see? You're reliving! I suspect that in a past life, you were an evil scribe."
But first, the awful reality of my grief. It was later that afternoon. I was sitting alone in my hotel room, steeped in the lonely odors of boiled sheets and mildewed carpet, taking high, hard ones over the phone from Spiegel, who was madder than a wet Tyrantus. The more I whined defensively, the madder he got.
"But you said I could look at the files. What's the difference between making copies and taking notes? It's just a more efficient way to do the same thing."
"No! You're masking the truth as part of your reliving."
"I'm not reliving anything."
"Yes, you are!" Pause. "Your denial is part of the reliving!"
It went on like that, with specific punishments meted out among the circular chastisement. Spiegel had promised to let me interview him at the Light House and see the fabulous "Space Cad," a customized Cadillac with a flying saucer mounted on the roof, used to transport Unarius dignitaries on important occasions like Interplanetary Confederation Day. That was out. Obviously, I was banished from the file room. I offered to hand the files over as a gesture of reconciliation, but Spiegel said that wouldn't be necessary.
"The photocopies aren't the point"--good, I was bluffing--"I just want you to take some time and examine your motives." Click.
Fair enough. As Spiegel commanded, I did think about it seriously, then and over the next few hours, as I pawed through some unread press clips about Unarius and absorbed the full horror of who Stephan Yancoskie was. In the process I realized why the Unarians might be tense. To them, I was just another in a long line of outsiders come to plunder their sanctuary.
To understand what I mean it's necessary to put Unarius in historical context. The group is certainly distinctive, but it's not unique. It's one of many similar outfits that sprouted on the American scene after the first major reported sightings of flying saucers occurred in 1947. As Jerome Clark explains in The UFO Encyclopedia, Unarius is a "contactee" group, one whose members are less concerned with the hard metal edges of UFOs than the gauzy spiritual significance of their pilots, whom they assume to be not amphibian-fingered ETs but tall, wise, and kindly Space Brothers--essentially, as Clark puts it, "angels in space suits." The details vary, but the Brothers' message (usually delivered telepathically) is that Earth is in trouble and they can help. Anyone who listens is promised enlightenment, salvation, and elevation to a higher level, and as is true with most millennial believers, this deliverance is almost always coming "soon."
That was the basic theme of Heaven's Gate, of course, but that group, founded under a different label in 1972, was a relatively recent arrival. One of the first significant contactee players was the late George Adamski, a California occultist who in 1952 claimed that he had experienced physical and mental contact with an extraterrestrial from Venus. It all started when Adamski and six like-minded friends were driving around in the desert near the California-Arizona border. They saw a "huge, silvery cigar-shaped object" pass overhead. Adamski wandered away from the group and returned later with a spectacular tale. According to the Encyclopedia, he claimed he'd met a "beautiful-looking being of human appearance, with long blond hair and an 'extremely high forehead.'" The being said it and other entities were "coming here in peace, out of a deep concern about humanity's atomic weapons and warlike ways." Adamski used this alleged encounter to launch a long and controversial career as a flying saucer prophet.
Plenty of similar tales and movements followed. The Aetherius Society, founded in 1956 in London and in existence today in Los Angeles, dispenses wisdom channeled from a Venusian, Aetherius, who is part of a larger cosmological brotherhood. On the contemporary New Age scene, the contactee message is so common that it's become almost a bore. Heaven's Gate was a typical contactee group with one very novel element in its theological mishmash: the dark suicidal note. Usually contactees are sunny and harmless, for obvious reasons. They're awaiting a happy fate--angelic blessing.
In terms of understanding Unarius, the most significant contactee outfit was a short-lived but famous group that coalesced in 1954 around Dorothy Martin, a suburban Chicago housewife who believed she received messages from Sananda, an ascended being who, apparently, was the same spirit that inhabited the historical Jesus. Sananda was part of a larger corps of "Guardians" who, Martin was told, were watching the Earth from a higher spiritual plane. They were especially alarmed by the development of nuclear bombs. Eons before, mad scientists on the planet "Car" had blown it up using similar weapons, and this time the Guardians were determined to stop the insanity.
This aid would come with a price, however. Martin was told that on December 21, 1954, terrible floods and earthquakes would disrupt the entire planet, killing billions of people and reshaping the Earth. Anyone wise enough to heed the warning would stand a chance of being beamed into flying saucers and saved at the last moment.
Contactees are usually well-meaning people, and Martin decided it was her responsibility to warn the world, so she sent out a press release. Martin and her tiny band thus came to the attention of reporters and townspeople who, as the months rolled by, subjected them to ceaseless ridicule as they monitored the crashing failure of her prophecy. (The same thing happened in March 1998 to members of the Chen Tao group, a Taiwanese saucer cult that moved to Garland, Texas, in anticipation of the arrival of God that month.) She also came under the gaze of three academics, Leon Festinger, Henry W. Riecken, and Stanley Schachter. In short order, using graduate students and department staff posing as believers, they infiltrated Martin's group and documented its rise and fall.
The result was When Prophecy Fails, a classic 1956 sociological study of the dynamics of millenarian belief. The authors were careful and fair--they changed the names of everyone involved--but from the believers' perspective the book must have seemed cruel and inhuman, especially since they had been spied on. Even in the antiseptic language of social science, they came off as buffoons.
Consider, for example, this description of the night before the predicted catastrophe, when a dozen or so believers gathered in the home of "Mrs. Keech" (Martin's pseudonym). Sananda had said that all those planning to board the saucer should remove any traces of metal from their persons, so they got to it: "All the believers complied painstakingly with this order. Arthur Bergen ... carefully unwrapped the tinfoil from each stick of chewing gum in his pocket. Coins and keys were removed from pockets and watches from wrists.... At about 11:15, Mrs. Keech received a message ordering the group to get their overcoats and stand by."
By 4:00 A.M., with no saucer in sight, despair crashed down. "Mrs. Keech broke down and cried bitterly. She knew, she sobbed, there were some who were beginning to doubt but we must beam light on those who needed it most and we must hold the group together. The rest of the group lost their composure, too. They were all, now, visibly shaken and many were close to tears. It was a bad quarter of an hour."
Mrs. Keech tried to keep up her spirits. At 4:45 she called everyone into her living room and announced that she had received a good-news message: the cataclysm had been called off. Why? Because God had spared the world, moved by the faith of the believers. "Not since the beginning of time upon this Earth has there been such a force of Good and light as now floods this room," the message said, "and that ... now floods the entire Earth."
The authors of When Prophecy Fails called this "an adequate, even an elegant, explanation of this disconfirmation." That it was, but it didn't keep the group from disintegrating. As disappointed believers drifted away, Mrs. Keech started taking heat from local authorities. Her neighbors complained about the ongoing mob of curious spectators, schoolboys, and hecklers who assembled at her house. Threatened with forced deposit in a mental hospital, she moved away.
Thinking about Dorothy Martin made me realize two things. One, it's amazing that Unarius even exists. Founded in the same year that Martin's saucer group rose and fell, it ran on vapor for twenty years before it finally amounted to something. Two, for Unarius believers, the publicity that Ruth generated probably has been a mixed blessing. At best it has brought attention, new members, and the sort of way-out stardom that she seemed to thrive on.
At worst ... well, there were two varieties of that: cold-blooded academic scrutiny and what might be called journalism-with-intent-to-kill. By the eighties, academic study of contactee groups was commonplace, and Unarius was discovered by two southern California academics, R. George Kirkpatrick and Diana Tumminia, who as usual worked hard to be fair and objective. But the Unarians hated what they published, which they found wrong, stupid, and offensive. One typical paper is called "Space Magic, Techno-animism, and the Cult of the Goddess in a Southern California UFO Contactee Group: A Case Study of Millenarianism." Among other things, it concludes that Unarians are low-watt losers, usually holding "working-class jobs" and often in recovery from drugs and alcohol: "From all indications, the majority ... have a troubled background which may have lead [sic] to their susceptibility to the collective fantasy of flying saucer contact."
But that indignity was nothing compared with "The Gods Must Be Crazy: The Latter Days of Unarius," a 1991 article published in the San Diego Reader, an alternative newspaper. The piece was written by Adam Parfrey, a prolific and funny chronicler of fringe groups who visited during a dramatic period. Parfrey dropped in on Uriel at the Light House and described her as an incontinent and ridiculous old bat with a "broken leg elevated, [and] a bladder bag hidden discreetly behind the Barcalounger." Worse, he elicited a scandalous tell-all from Stephan Yancoskie.
As Parfrey explained, Yancoskie was a favorite of Uriel's and had risen high in the group. By the time Parfrey found him, he had departed after a feud and was ready to debunk every aspect of Unarius's holy image and dump on his former pals. He said he'd accelerated through the ranks easily because "the other members were weak ... washouts." He also said Unarius was teeming with dysfunctional homosexuals and that he had served as Uriel's boy toy and wardrobe designer. The article never made it clear whether handsome young Yancoskie and old, bewigged Uriel were lovers--I doubt it, but mainly I try not to think about it--but he spoke in a leering sneer that left an impression of her as a vain and grotesque hag.
"I did her from top to bottom," Yancoskie sniped. "When I first came, she looked something like a country singer down on her luck. Then I designed her dresses, her wigs, the whole thing. She loved what I could do for her."