Marianne Williamson: Author, spiritual guru, ex-presidential candidate
Marianne Williamson – New York Times best selling author, activist, spiritual guru. Photo / Supplied
Marianne Williamson – #1 New York Times bestselling author, political activist, and spiritual thought leader – talks with Anna Rankin
It is fair to state that Marianne Williamson is the kind of thinker for whom
one is ready or one is not; it’s doubtful there’s an inbetween; but if you’re ready — which is to further submit that in life our decisions, both the terrible and the good, are mostly contingent on timing — her reflections may very well sear your heart and prompt you toward radical change.
In her books Williamson writes convincingly on the role of surrender in – or is it to – life and perhaps it is from consciously adopting this mindset that you find yourself less resistant to her composite theories of the spiritual, the religious; and of self-help, which combined forge a theoretical and materialist orientation toward life that can feel at odds with normative doctrines.
The New York Times bestselling author, speaker, activist, spiritual leader, self-taught psychotherapist, political philosopher and one-time presidential candidate has, over the years, become a singularly unconventional phenomenon. Readers might best recall her magnetic appearances during the 2019 Democratic presidential primary debates where she captivated (and confused) audiences with her dazzling paeans to the power of love and esoteric musings on the moon; going viral for claiming she’d “harness the power of love” to beat former president Donald Trump, whom she famously described as a “dark psychic force”.
In another offbeat viral moment from that debate, she said that as president, her first phone call would be to Jacinda Ardern, inspired by the New Zealand Prime Minister’s commitment to eradicating child poverty: “Girlfriend, you are so on,” she pronounced, submitting that under her watch the United States would, in fact, be the first to do so.
During those debates, a pattern emerged. Describing Trump as a dark entity overshadowed the substance of her politics; more specifically the media overemphasised her unorthodox and often bemusing statements in dismissive if not downright snide tones. In that same speech, Williamson focused on the Flint, Michigan water crisis and its racialised dimensions; she was the sole candidate to call for reparations to black Americans — a policy she has advanced since the 1990s — and committed to critiquing the “sociopathic economic system focused on short-term profit maximisation” at the heart of American political life.
Williamson is on a speaking tour at present, and will be in Tāmaki Makaurau next week. The objectives of the event are a variety of the self-help (how to age miraculously), the practical (how to forgive yourself and others) and the recondite (how to see through life’s illusions). The presiding thematic is to overcome fear in our lives, rewire our perceptions and thinking and resolve to think and therefore live as a collective.
Having turned 70 this month, Williamson is not slowing down. On Facebook, Williamson writes that life until now has “felt like a rehearsal”.
Speaking over the phone, Williamson is candid, warm and erudite. While the contours of her conversation roam and diverge at an organic pace, Williamson returns, customarily, to the healing power of love: it is her fixed star.
Her bestselling 1992 book, A Return to Love, which shot her to fame — famously endorsed by Oprah Winfrey — asks not what kind of god allows human suffering, but what kind of people. This is her underlying premise: that we on Earth are responsible for injustice and inequity and that we apply a faulty formulation concerning the nature of God and of faith.
Is it challenging for her, I ask, to reckon with the tensions between the political and the spiritual? There isn’t an opposition, she says: “The divide has been created by people who want to diminish the relevancy and the power of both. Spirituality is simply the way of the heart. And all human endeavours should express the wisdom of the heart, politics no less than any other … to me, union organising is a stand for justice and the stand for justice is a stand for love.”
When she was a young girl, Williamson’s father took her to Saigon, Vietnam, to highlight the brutal realities of war. She read Talmud, attended synagogue and watched her grandfather cry during temple, moved, as he was. Williamson felt that she ought to cry too, though she wasn’t certain why. At high school she absorbed herself in the philosophy of religion and metaphysics; eventually deciding that God was a crutch she did not need. In retrospect, these accounts offer insight into Williamson’s identity formation and inner development toward a sensitivity to and consciousness for the damning realities of suffering and the vital necessity of the sacred in people’s lives.
Williamson’s youth traversed the 1960s and 70s radical movements: she read Marx and Ram Dass, took drugs, attended anti-war protests; dropped out of college, describes her 20s as a lost decade, wasted years. She was, and remains, extraordinarily beautiful, which presents its own set of problems. She drifted in and out of relationships. She was what contemporary therapy might term a chaos addict. She was clever, a searcher. She was spirited. She studied philosophy, she had charisma, she did not know what to do with any of it.
Chancing upon Helen Schucman’s self-help book A Course in Miracles at a party in New York would transform her life. Being Jewish, she initially dismissed the book, alienated by its Christian nomenclature. Yet it resonated and, while living in San Francisco, Williamson furthered her studies in mysticism, devoting herself to the book’s daily exercises. She reconciled her previous concerns by avowing that Christ and his teachings are far from contemporary Christianity; particularly the pernicious nationalist evangelical sect that dominates American politics.
Williamson’s life can at times read as unlikely and dizzyingly outlandish. She roomed with actress Laura Dern, hosting prayer groups in their living room; officiated at Elizabeth Taylor’s seventh wedding. In 1979 she ran a metaphysics bookstore, got married and divorced, had a nervous breakdown — the catalyst for her spiritual transformation, and upon which decided to live on her knees in humility. “Just stay there, Marianne,” she told herself.
In 1983 she worked at the Philosophical Research Society in Los Angeles and began hosting lectures, promoting the book’s teachings through a programme of spiritual psychotherapy, gaining acolytes spanning Hollywood stars and counter-culture seekers attracted to an amalgam of “Christianity, Buddhism, pop psychology and 12-step recovery wisdom.”
She became a pastor, had a baby, and in 1989 founded the well-known non-profit Project Angel Food, precipitated by her desire to support HIV/Aids patients, which delivered more than 14 million meals to dying and housebound sufferers. In a 2019 NPR interview, Williamson detailed the governing tone of the era, where contracting the disease was considered a death sentence — and organised religion turned its back. Gay men came to her, she said, because she was “talking about a God who loves you no matter what, and miracles”.
A Return to Love catapulted Williamson to fame. She has since penned 13 books. Infamously, a quote from her opus, “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure,” was so frequently misattributed to Nelson Mandela that the late South African leader’s foundation posted an online correction.
And on this, it must be noted that Williamson’s involvement in various organisations are frequently shadowed by not necessarily doubt, but certainly scepticism, contesting claims and attendant aspersions of which she is well aware and yet remains surprisingly blithe about. In other words, she is not naive to the fact that she invites dubiety and mocking headlines and nor is she blind to the perplexion with which she is often met. It’s partially her own doing, she offers, referring to her time during the Democratic nomination. It took her a year to forgive herself, but she didn’t fail to see it in perspective. It was a brutal experience.
“Some of it was very painful but a lot of it was exhilarating,” she says. “A lot of people who bought the fairy dust that was thrown into their eyes about me have said publicly, sometimes to my face, that they regret having thought I was someone I was not. In some cases, not all, I expressed myself in a silly way or said something sloppy, and that gave those who wished to mischaracterise me an easy way to do it.”
One conjecture holds that, broadly speaking, society such as it is has not been ready for Williamson and her amalgamation of American transcendentalism, Christic language and the empyreal with progressive socialist politics. A Return to Love is not universally admired but it can also arrive in someone’s life right when they need it — before they know they need it.
The psychic gulf between 2019 and 2022 is such that Williamson’s exhortations arguably function as prophecy, blueprint, guidebook. In a world that continues to be ravaged and inexorably altered by Covid and its damning exposé of attendant issues including mass economic inequality, climate crisis and overwhelming precarity, comes a crisis of faith, a crisis of meaning. The fringe is moving to the centre — on both the Left and the Right. Williamson’s audience, once considered a Venn diagram of Stevie Nicks fans, crystal-consorting astrologers and intellectually open queer young people on the Left is expanding; culture is changing, she observes.
“The universe, from a spiritual perspective, is self-organising and self-correcting and I believe a great correction is going on right now. When we see ourselves from a spiritual perspective we honour the fact that we in our time are called upon to be midwives to a world that is now struggling to be born.”
Here, Williamson borrows from Marxist philosopher Antonio Gramsci’s “the crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear”. Much of Williamson’s speech is liberally peppered with lines from her intellectual heroes, specifically Martin Luther King jnr and Mahatma Gandhi, but she cautions against following too closely the footsteps of an earlier generation’s vanguard.
“I never have ascribed to any external economic or social institutional reality, pointed to that and said, ‘That’s the answer,’ because I don’t believe that it is. There are great ideas and it is the job of every generation to take the great ideas wherever we find them and apply them to answering the challenges of our own time.
“Hope is a moral imperative. Cynicism is just an excuse for not helping. It’s our job to march onward, not fall backward like whiny wimps who think the world failed us. Other generations don’t owe us anything, every generation has its own pain, its own challenges and its own wisdom, and the generation of adults alive in this time need to ask ourselves what are we doing. When your hearts are filled with that question, when we wake up with that question in our hearts: how can I help?”
Williamson has, in a sense, been vindicated by history. While she’s not bitter about being unfairly maligned or misunderstood, she’s aware that, like those medieval female mystics whose writings and philosophies lay dormant for years only to be picked up by later generations of feminist scholars, perhaps the language she uses and the ways in which it is expressed was born too soon.
In the intervening years between the Trump administration and today the world — and we in it — feels raw. With decolonial methodologies and a reckoning with the privileging of white, Western culture comes a singular moment in history — a chance to start again. It is fair to state that despite the qualms some have with Williamson, specifically instances of her uniquely white woman approach to race relations (see: her stagey public apologies between black and white Americans), her contemporary televangelist persona and her unassailable role in the New Age to wellness influencer, blurring astrology, therapy-speak and blond wood interiors. Resistance is to be expected. But she’s right when she states that “when the New York Times columnist David Brooks pens something about spirituality it’s considered profound. If I say something like that, it’s considered woo-woo.”
Talk of the Great Resignation abounds; people quitting their jobs in droves in favour of “new values” — a choice, one suspects, belonging to those with enough time to argue discursively about it on Twitter; the parallels between them and the hippies of Williamson’s time too easily drawn. Williamson, however, situates this phenomena within the category of young people, who “are not 20th century creatures, they’re not 20th century people and they should not live their lives at the effect of bad ideas from the 20th century.”
“People are recognising that our entire economic system is based on the primacy of property rights — too often at the expense of human good. We are going through a tumult because we are living in a time of major historical transition and whenever that is true the times are dramatic and filled with turmoil.”
In such a time there are clear moral choices to be made. Williamson notes that more recently she’s seeing an increasing number of people in the religious world realise that they can no longer justify an apolitical posture, just as she sees her friends from the world of politics realise there’s an internal element required to effect societal political and economic transformation.
“On the Left we talk about the moral dimensions of allowing 1200 children to starve on the planet every day, the moral dimension of economic injustice, the moral dimension of invading a country. Issues of war and peace should be considered moral issues, issues of economic justice should be considered moral issues, how we treat the Earth should be considered a moral issue.”
In her run for the Democratic nominee, as in her writing and in her life, Williamson campaigned against the corporate stronghold within American politics, and her critiques of the neoliberal agenda were trenchant.
“It claims that a corporation’s fiduciary responsibility is to increase the financial benefits of the stockholder and it’s somebody else’s concern what effect that might have on the worker or the community or the environment. An amoral system, however, always has immoral consequences.”
Williamson is a brilliant interlocutor and in conversation she is exceptionally generous, forthright, and perceptive. At 70 she’s as sharp as a 30-year-old on the campaign trail — or the pulpit, for that matter. She is an exhorter possessed by zeal, a merchant of ideas—one feels buoyed by her presence. It’s surely no accident that she studied theatre; what writer, after all, didn’t first desire to be an actor? It is surely the same instinct.
To finish, she leaves me with a stirring requisition: “We are the ones who must make that transition from a world that is not just to a world that is. The issue of faith makes a tremendous difference in this decision-making. When we come to that place we begin to attract more and more people who are feeling the same way, behaving in the same way, and that to me is the zeitgeist of this moment; humanity is going through a growth spurt; one world is dying, and another is being born.”
An Evening with Marianne Williamson, Evolution: Now is our Time, is on Tuesday, August 2 at 7:30—9:30pm at Auckland’s SkyCity Theatre. Tickets can be found at eventbrite.com.