Opinion: Marianne Williamson’s Gift for Grift

Marianne Williamson was challenged on her record regarding vaccines, medications for depression and more on Anderson Cooper 360, August 1, 2019. / Image via screen shot

Irony isn’t dead yet, but it seems to have a warped sense of humor.

At Tuesday night’s second round of Democratic presidential primary debates—with night two, featuring former Vice President Joe Biden, U.S. Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ) and more, following last night—one candidate received plaudits for a few poignant, well-articulated responses amid this overcrowded field.

Self-help author Marianne Williamson, whose new age-y vibe has generated loads of memes on social media, gave one of the strongest answers of the night on the subject of reparations to Black Americans, among others. Payments would be paid out to people today in recompense for the injustices and ongoing economic damages wrought by centuries of slavery, Jim Crow, segregation and other government-backed or –perpetrated forms of discrimination.

In a blockbuster Atlantic article from 2014, “The Case for Reparations,” writer Ta-Nehisi Coates explained in great detail the unbroken history of Black Americans’ subjugation and exploitation throughout U.S. history. He emphasized state-sanctioned discrimination and expropriations which endured long after the Civil Rights Amendments of the 1860s formally brought Black men (if not women, quite yet) under the canon of constitutional civil rights and liberties. Coates concluded, however, many abuses never ended; rather, they evolved into rather insidious forms, such as the racist and race-delineated patterns of predatory lending in the run-up to the housing market crash presaging the financial crisis of 2008 and ensuing Great Recession.

Whether or not one already buys into reparations as a federal policy goal (full disclosure, I am among those who do, with my ongoing research on legacies of systemic racism), the multi-generational damage of racism and racist policies, governmental and private, exists. The subject of racism in politics is endemic, impossible to ignore in 2019, no less in the days after another mass shooter in Gilroy, California, has been linked to white supremacist online forums and “proto-fascist” ideology.

In fine, these are weighty subjects of present concern. At the very least, any serious presidential candidate should have a cogent view of the issues involved and some vision of how the country might move forward. Enter Williamson’s response to CNN moderator Don Lemon, transcribed verbatim:

Don Lemon: Speaking of reparations, Ms. Williamson, many of your opponents support a commission to study the issue of reparations for slavery. But you are calling for up to $500 billion in financial assistance. What makes you qualified to determine how much is owed in reparations?

Marianne Williamson: Well, first of all, it’s not $500 billion in financial assistance. It’s [a] $500 billion … payment of a debt that is owed. That’s what reparations is.

(Applause)

We need some deep truth-telling … We don’t need another commission to look at evidence … It is time for us to simply realize that this country will not heal [and that people] heal when there’s some deep truth-telling. We need to recognize that when it comes to the economic gap between blacks and whites in America, it does come from a great injustice that has never been dealt with.

(Applause)

That great injustice has had to do with the fact that there was 250 years of slavery followed by another hundred years of domestic terrorism.

(Notably, Sen. Bernie Sanders, after Williamson, explained he prefers a reinvestment plan targeting the “rebuilding [of] distressed communities in America” and aggressive desegregation of American schools, with a tripling of funding for the most-underfunded schools and a floor income for teachers of “at least $60,000 a year.” Beto O’Rourke, meanwhile, explained earlier his emphasis on both a “new Voting Rights Act” in the wake of recent Supreme Court cases and his support for Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee’s extant reparations bill, which would establish the kind of exploratory committee Williamson rejected in the quote above.)

At first blush, Williamson seems to grasp the moral and historical core of pro-reparations arguments, and she spoke with a singular intensity on this topic. Again, putting aside one’s individual preferences on reparations policy, she spoke more forcefully than anyone else on the debate stage, and she resonated with those on the left who take these issues seriously and prioritize them accordingly.

Williamson’s problem has never been one of resonating with marginalized communities. For decades, she’s spoken countless labyrinthine prosaicisms which echo empirically grounded insights (“there was 250 years of slavery followed by another hundred years of domestic terrorism”) while evading material disputes (“We need some deep truth-telling … We don’t need another commission to look at evidence” – Coates, for his part, has “expressed optimism about how the dialogue” has moved since his article was published, but seems to view it as a process designed to include stocktaking, not an arbitrary transfer of federal funds).

Like many other areas of the vexing Ms. Williamson’s career, her almost-insights on reparations, while garnering loud applause, are reductive. There are enormous complexities in whether and how to calculate harms against Black Americans; how to repay debts once calculated; and how to administer what would be a massive public program, assuming everything works in the interim.

Plucking a number from nothing and condemning good faith efforts to investigate further what would be needed is the kind of distracting oversimplification and “truth-telling” at which Williamson excels. Cloaked in memes (yes, sometimes quite funny ones) and the “quirky-but-nice aunt at a family reunion” mystique she actively inculcates, Williamson’s insidiousness—her weakly walked-back stances on science and medicine above all—is hiding in plain sight. In our perpetual reality show-esque primary races, though, you wouldn’t know it.

(Seriously, the CNN debate offered a resounding case against this format for deciding who is a serious primary election contender. To wit, the mind-numbing affairs Tuesday and Wednesday were broadly, and rightly, savaged across the ideological spectrum.)

Still, here I must confess I fell into the trap of laughing along with the meme-ification of Marianne earlier in the primary cycle. Just over a month ago, my recap of the first round of the Democratic debates used her eccentricities to lighten the mood after discussing the intense exchange between Biden and Sen. Kamala Harris over busing and racism in contemporary America.

I was wrong. Williamson is no laughing matter, and her shapeshifting ability to speak truisms with “heart” mask the same kind of insidiousness—the same opacity and dodging—that marks Scientology and multilevel marketing schemes. It’s past time to lift the veil of staged atmospherics, cementing what’s really known about Williamson and illuminating the (many) remaining gaps in her profile.

Love and Heart: How a “New Age Guru” Became a Divisive, “Alienating” Force

She was there for gay men at a time when few others were. That’s in part the framing given to a Los Angeles Times feature on Marianne Williamson from way back in February 1992.

By the early 1990s, a decade into the ravages of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, Williamson had shot to fame as a “new age guru.” Among gay men—and in Hollywood broadly—she had “been mentioned in the same breath as Mother Teresa for her work on behalf of people with AIDS.”

But the forms and content of her support demand much more scrutiny now that we have the benefits of a fuller record of her career – and of clear-eyed hindsight.

It’s true Williamson founded organizations dedicated to supporting those with AIDS long before most others, in or out of government. As the LA Times noted almost three decades ago:

Many of the entertainment industry’s biggest names have helped raise money for Project Angel Food, a service launched by Williamson in 1989 that now delivers more than 300 hot meals a day to housebound AIDS patients in Los Angeles.

That kind of material support, largely for gay men ostracized and all but ignored as the epidemic peaked under the Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations, provided a rare lifeline to those at the margins of society.

At the same time, Williamson’s new age empire—and her individual approach to proselytizing—had a harder edge. She also hustled self-help and “pop religion” books and, after an endorsement from rising megastar Oprah Winfrey, hit the bestseller jackpot.

Her 1992 debut, A Return to Love, “sold 750,000 copies in hardback, an equal number in paperback, and spent 39 weeks on the New York Times best-seller list,” wrote Lynda Gorov in prickly Mother Jones profile from 1997. As Gorov summarized of Williamson then:

Offering religion without rules, salvation without sacrifice, the former cabaret singer has remade herself into the perfect priestess for a culture steeped in pop. “Love conquers all” is no cliché to Williamson and her readers. Focus on feelings, she reiterates in book after book, and the rest will follow — from a good man to a great salary to a God-fearing nation. Forget the fuss and muss associated with actual effort.

Yet “effort” underlies Williamson’s successes from the late 1980s through mid-90s, too. Gorov noted that, despite her “blessing” of one of Elizabeth Taylor’s marriages and invitation “to the White House to share her thoughts with Hillary Clinton,” her fame put her “in the awkward position of promoting emotional accessibility while hiring handlers to keep unpleasantness away. Publicists want to know in advance what Williamson will be asked” and various refusals “to provide sales figures for her books and cassettes,” the term “elusive” was applied to Williamson liberally.

That 1992 LA Times profile, though, brings Williamson’s darker facets (partially) to life:

[Just] as nationwide fame is within reach, there are signs that Williamson, who preaches a message of love and forgiveness, has become carried away with her own success and has alienated some of the very show business figures who were catapulting her to stardom. Last year, director Mike Nichols and other prominent New Yorkers defected from her Manhattan charity and set up a rival organization. She has had major blow-ups with producer Howard Rosenman and photographer-producer Michael Childers, among those most responsible for pulling in big names like Bette Midler, David Hockney, Meryl Streep and Anjelica Huston to her star-studded fund-raising events.

And last month, the staff of her Los Angeles AIDS charity revolted after she fired the most recent in a series of executive directors.

The Times went on to explain the hollowing out of her charity in grim detail, with no fewer than three executive directors leaving her charity over the five years leading into 1992. The organization was a tensely divided combination of true believers in Williamson’s “spiritual program” and those who wanted to help people, but failed to “buy into” it fully – or at all. The firing of one skeptical director, former West Hollywood Mayor Steve Schulte, led to an insurrection:

Rallying around the popular Schulte, the staff has called for his reinstatement to the $60,000-a-year post and for Williamson’s resignation as chairman of the board of directors. A majority of the 18-member work force has voted to join a union. They also want the current board–all Williamson loyalists–replaced by people without ties to her. Several complained that last September’s elaborate and time-consuming “Divine Design” auction, although it netted $700,000, fell considerably short of its goals–an assertion Williamson does not dispute.

Williamson, then-former and –current colleagues claimed, had an “explosive temper,” “control freak” tendencies and demanded conformity to her views. Accused of always “becoming involved in every detail” and decrying being “upstaged or challenged,” Williamson deflected in response: “I understand the irony of the bitch for God.”

“Your Soul Is Not Sick”

Williamson’s counsel to the afflicted—like so much else—sounded kind and magnanimous at the time, but was neither: “Some of Williamson’s listeners … attend her weekly support group for people with the HIV virus, where she counsels them that ‘your soul is not sick.’” Superficially, these are words of comfort. But Williamson’s writing—now making the rounds again across social media—betrays a baffling, allegorical view of the virus: “AIDS, for instance, can be thought of as ‘Angels-In-Darth-Vader-Suits.’” It doesn’t make any more sense from there, but the gist seems to be an invitation to not fear the virus in one’s own body.

Indeed, this rather unusual approach to managing one’s illness has a surface-level appeal, but it’s also given rise to persistent accusations of Williamson “suggesting that prayer and meditation is an adequate replacement for medication” or professional treatment.

As Out reported just days ago, she vehemently denies this. But, at the very least, her links to the late “New Age entrepreneur” Louise Hay, who died in 2017 at 90 and was widely confirmed to spout such nonsense, demands a clearer, verified accounting from Williamson than we’ve received to date (as well as the accusers, for the matter).

This vagueness reverberates beyond the 1990s, all the way through eerily similar debates of 2019.

“Love and Prayer Will Save Individuals and Maybe Even the World” – But Maybe Not

Even in the lines of a recent, mostly gentle Vanity Fair interview, Williamson was forced to reckon with her past statements expressing skepticism on vaccine science. As reported in The Daily Beast, the candidate analogized vaccines to abortion in a privacy/bodily autonomy sense and called vaccine mandates “Draconian” and “Orwellian” during a June campaign event in New Hampshire.

Amid escalating outbreaks of measles around the country and the elimination of herd immunity from some school districts, any equivocation on vaccine science is automatically alarming – and another echo of a certain vaccine science denier-in-chief. In Vanity Fair, Williamson again appears at first blush to walk back her comments—“No, I totally think we should trust mainstream science,” she says—but then she immediately borrows from the “anti-vaxx conspiracy playbook,” as Jay Michaelson put it in The Daily Beast. Williamson continues:

We’re living at a time right now when attorneys general all over the country are indicting pharmaceutical executives for their clear role in creating the opioid crisis, where due to the fact that billions of dollars were to be made, and a complete lack of effort, people died. What is it in us that would see that, but then in every other area of their function, just assume that Big Pharma is a paragon of pure intention and concern for the common good?

I’m very pro-science. I’m so pro-science; I want more scientific research. I want independent scientific research that is not tied only to big pharmaceutical companies. And is not suppressed by them. If anything, I’m the one asking for a greater array of scientific perspective. [Emphases mine]

Vaccinations have absolutely no relation to the opioid crisis, and Big Pharma—granted, evil!—has no bearing on how to craft policies so herd immunity isn’t lost. Vaccines, Michaelson explained, have been “approved by … every reputable scientific and medical organization on the planet” and the one published study which contradicted this—and which anti-vaxx activists seized upon—was “found to be unsafe by a single non-specialist whose medical license was subsequently revoked, who committed deliberate fraud, and whose completely invalid study was retracted by the journal that published it.”

Again, the second paragraph reifies Michaelson’s other point that Williamson has—repeatedly—“implied that some conventional [vaccines] are not” safe. “I’m the one asking for a greater array of scientific perspective,” she defends, despite scientific consensus on a medical-scientific revolution exceeding any other from the last century. This is doublespeak intended to coddle and affirm the anti-vaxx supporters she has carried with her for decades.

Finally—and contrary to Williamson’s cultivated underdog guise—another option for Democrats and for those in media especially would be to simply listen to the many health, mental illness and disability advocates, writers and scholars who vigorously oppose her and examine their concerns more systematically. Really hear the warnings from those who have, since the beginning, decried this candidate and offered instances of alarming statements and behavior, no less their many reminders from last night alone:

And, on the dangerous indirect effects of Williamson-isms:

 

Getting Serious

We had some fun for a bit because memes can be funny—often in that inherently nihilistic way—and because Williamson somehow offered the best answer on a topic or two last night, as well as a persona diametrically opposed to what currently lumbers through the West Wing. But it’s time to get serious.

Williamson is keenly aware of her followers’ Very Online habits, regularly re-sharing memes on social media, including this, well, questionable reframing of economic theory. / Image via Instagram.

Offering comfort as a friend is a good thing to do, but taking on the patina of expertise—or using legitimate expertise in the guise of hawking new age tinctures, á la Dr. Oz, or new age psychobabble, á la far too much of Twittter—is repulsive.

From the LA Times profile, a scene of Williamson offering advice to a couple struggling with a husband’s seemingly terminal AIDS diagnosis is illustrative:

An older couple, newcomers to this group, disclose that the husband’s illness, stemming from a blood transfusion, is causing strains in their marriage. Frustrated because he is almost always too tired to be good company for his wife, the husband has withdrawn from her.

Never at a loss for a quick response, Williamson advises the husband, a retired aerospace administrator, that his illness need not impinge on his relationship with his wife. He can still listen to her fears and concerns, Williamson says; letting her express them will make her feel better.

“The AIDS virus is not more powerful than God,” Williamson assures the couple in her throaty voice, asserting that the man’s “transition” will not be “the end of the story.”

This is the quote that seemingly most riled Williamson during her Vanity Fair interview. As interviewer Sonia Saraiya began to suggest that perhaps Williamson gnaws at those who have a “fraught relationship” with spirituality, and thus triggers a visceral reaction on matters of science and medicine, the candidate abruptly cut Saraiya off:

No, it doesn’t [speak to fraught relations vis-à-vis spirituality]. It speaks to a deliberate effort to marginalize and minimize and mischaracterize my campaign.

A few questions later, Williamson again describes interviews and record-checking as a form of literal violence. Regarding her terse presence on The View, it was “an act of assault and attack.” On journalists who “simply repeat stories or mischaracterizations”—in other words, refer to the record?—Williamson characterizes them as “clearly lazy” and, in comparison to the “very serious journalists who do their own thinking,” are then, reflexively, not serious. Sound familiar?

This inability to absorb or meaningfully respond to journalists doing their jobs and the doublespeak-laden refusal to define any objective reality brings us back to our present unreality – that of Donald J. Trump’s presidency. These are shared qualities, as even Williamson’s fans have pointed out favorably in Washington Post op-eds. It should be seen as a glaring warning sign.

All of these concerns avoid the many, many specific instances of dubious to outright awful statements littering Williamson’s long public-facing road to the primaries. She has called “clinical depression” a “scam” diagnosis (in an interview with recent fellow convert to new age evangelism Russell Brand, no less). And, as Marlow Stern noted in The Daily Beast just last week, she has also “claimed in her book A Course in Weight Loss that obesity can be conquered through love and ‘surrendering your weight to God,’” understandably prompting condemnation from many as fatphobic  and, of course, anti-scientific.

Image via Instagram screen shot.

Anderson Cooper, last night on CNN, was one of the first to dig into Williamson’s conflation of depression and grief, depression and mere sadness, and her responses hardly cut it. Watch below.

Her shtick can be summed up as: “you’re not broken and not wrong, but if you listen to me—and only me, she who has singularly figured this out—I can fix you and heal you anyway.” A more-eloquent version of “only I can fix this,” but substantively the same, tailor-made for our age of anxiety.

This is not to say Williamson is a “Trump of the left” in the meaningful sense of posing an outsider threat; she’s polling in the low single digits (at best), while by this time in July 2015, Trump had just surged to lead Jeb (!) Bush at the top of GOP polls. From August 2015 onward, Trump would maintain significant leads for the overwhelming majority of surveys throughout the rest of the primary cycle.

So, Marianne? It’s not impossible, but it is highly improbable. But those in the media, those who should really know better by now, might consider avoiding a repeat of the many mistakes of 2015-16, just in case.

This, though, ought to soothe some of the apocalyptic-ironic humorists among us. I will take no such changes, tyvm.

Whipsawing from one know-nothing grifter to another, just of a different party, is not a good outcome. And like her would-be predecessor, Marianne Williamson just might be among the worst of grifters — the one who alights on the most vulnerable among us as she lines her pockets.

This essay is the opinion of one of the contributing writers of Instinct Magazine and may not reflect the opinion of other writers or the magazine.

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