Growing up, I watched a lot of television. Not the good stuff; I’d gambol home from elementary school to watch hours of Designing Women reruns. I realize I could have been playing soccer, learning piano, or going to sleep-away camp, but my televisual years were not entirely wasteful, because they resulted in one explicitly formative thing: I bore firsthand witness to Unarius.
During my manic commercial-break channel flipping, I often came across a public-access program hosted by a woman named Uriel, a kind of New Age Tammy Faye Bakker. Dripping in crystals and silk, she would ramble incoherently about “the interplanetary conclave of light,” scored by fuzzy synthesizer music, against a backdrop of glowing pyramids, iridescent comet tails, and lucite UFOs. In short, a total mind-fuck for an already sugar-high eight year old.
The public-access program was a truly psychedelic experience for me, years before I understood what such an experience represents. It was, I discovered much later, the primary proselytizing arm of the Unarian Academy of Sciences, a New Age movement based in the San Diego suburb of El Cajon. Unarius—UNiversal ARticulate Interdimensional Undestanding of Science—was founded by Ernest and Ruth Norman, two former spiritualists who met at a psychic convention in the mid-1950s. The pair spent their lives studying the “interdimensional science of life,” with a little help from advanced intelligent beings, whose missives Ernest channeled and published in over 90 volumes with titles like The Infinite Concept of Cosmic Creation and Have You Lived on Other Worlds Before? Vol 2.
Within the group, the Unarian system of knowledge, acquired through individual contact with entities beyond our plane of reality, is referred to as “The Science,” i.e. “The Science of Life,” which asserts—among other things—that everything in the universe is energy, from the atoms which form our bodies to the shape of our memories and experiences. Tapping into that energy allows students of Unarius to connect with past selves, chat with aliens and interdimensional beings, and heal themselves of mental and physical illness. If you clear away the language and the high-concept addenda, the Unarian worldview shares more than a few cornerstone concepts with the more rarefied ontologies of theoretical physics.
Unlike other spiritual groups from the first half of the 20th century, Unarius was resilient, modifying its dogma and distribution model in step with the times.
After Ernest passed away in 1971, Ruth Norman rebaptized herself Uriel (Universal Radiating Infinite Eternal Light) and steered the group to newfound visibility, overseeing a fever-dream video production studio that disseminated Unarian content to a vast network of public-access channels all over America, including my hometown. Unlike other spiritual groups from the first half of the 20th century, Unarius was resilient, modifying its dogma and distribution model in step with the times. As millennial fever spread around the world, the Unarians touted the imminent arrival of Space Brothers from the planet Myton, who would land like doves on the ruins of Atlantis to guide the human race into a new and peaceful era.
The Unarians are currently celebrating their 60th anniversary, and they’re still kicking: a robust presence at New Age expos, they still lead Past Life Therapy classes twice weekly at their New World Teaching Center in El Cajon, which are streamed free online for curious seekers. They’re even taking over the Los Angeles repertory cinema Chinefamily this month for two weekends of workshops and films from their vast, soft-focus archive: a meta-strategy, perhaps, of exploiting their own kitsch appeal to gain new, younger converts.
I made a pilgrimage to the New World Teaching Center in 2006—five years after the Space Brothers failed to turn up, and long after the death of the archangel Uriel, who so haunted my childhood TV set. El Cajon is a monochromatic wash of strip malls soundtracked by the unremitting hum of the freeway. The Unarius building is wedged between a Salvation Army thrift store and a gas station, but it’s far from unassuming. The walls are festooned with murals, and a large display window containing a costumed dummy of the inventor Nikola Tesla faces the street. Residents of El Cajon walk placidly by, accustomed to Tesla’s presence. His eyes are hand-painted a crystalline blue.
Tesla’s presence is representative of the Unarians’ inventively revisionist relationship to science. The Serbian inventor, like Leonardo Da Vinci and Jesus, is part of the Unarian canon of saints and prophets, an “Elder Brother” whose contributions to the design of the modern alternating current “brought light to planet Earth” and “raised the consciousness of our planet, so that humanity could begin to understand its interdimensional and spiritual design.” The Unarians imagine a future where versions of Tesla’s famous Wardenclyffe Tower—a massive structure Tesla built in upstate New York to demonstrate his ideas for the transmission of wireless power—provide free energy to the entire planet.
It makes sense: Tesla’s utopian notions of wireless transmission click right into the Unarian wordlview, where invisible and heretofore untapped energies resonate just beyond our grasp. A mini-Tesla tower is the primary feature of “Earth’s Future City,” a diorama in the lobby of Unarius’ El Cajon teaching center. A triumph of hot glue and kaleidoscopic plastic beads, it gathers dust under a sign reading “Welcome Space Brothers”—the model supposedly represents what cities would have looked like on Earth after receiving enlightenment from those extraterrestrial no-shows. If you ask an employee to turn it on for you, Christmas lights embedded in the plastic structure flicker to mild effect.
Unarius has something in its catalogue for almost everyone; the organization’s resilience can be partially attributed to systemwide redundancies. If you’re not particularly interested in the 32 planets comprising the Intergalactic Conclave of Eternal Light—represented in El Cajon as a star map made of ping-pong balls and glitter—you may appreciate learning about the lost civilizations of Lemuria and Atlantis, or discovering the “truth about Mars.” Do you believe in past lives? Unarius proudly advertises past-life therapy as one of its myriad services, and has published autobiographies of both Jesus and Napoleon written by their present incarnations. If you don’t buy that, then the paintings in El Cajon’s art gallery, done by students channeling the higher mental energies of Leonardo DaVinci, are crowd-pleasers.
For an organization that releases peace doves from a UFO perched atop a 1969 Cadillac Coupe d’Ville every year on the occasion of the Interplanetary Conclave of Light, there is something genuinely pragmatic about Unarius. For example, if the tenets of Unarian science rely so profoundly on transmissions straight from the mouths of the aliens, then there must be a way of measuring, quantifying, the process. How do you know when you are channeling a higher mental energy? I remember asking Carol Robinson, the Unarius representative I met that afternoon in El Cajon, the question. She pointed to the many water coolers dotted around the room.
“You get thirsty,” she said.