Twenty Things You Probably Didn’t Know about Marianne Williamson

Author Marianne Williamson and former Colorado governor John Hickenlooper during the second night of the first Democratic presidential candidates debate in Miami, Fla., June 27, 2019. (Mike Segar/Reuters)

The new-age guru-turned-long-shot presidential contender has led a wild, colorful, controversial life.

One: Marianne Williamson told New York Jewish Week late last year that “had she received a better Jewish education she might have become a rabbi.” She was born in Houston, Texas, to a Jewish family. Her father, Sam, was a “Russian immigration lawyer who’d changed his name from Vishnevetsky.” She “grew up in Houston attending Congregation Beth Yeshurun, a Conservative synagogue that was hit hard by 2017’s Hurricane Harvey. She went to Hebrew school there while attending local public schools and recalled joining a Jewish sorority while at Bellaire High.”

Two: Williamson majored in theater and philosophy at California’s Pomona College, but dropped out in her junior year, 1973, moving to New York City to pursue a career as a nightclub singer. “I didn’t leave thinking I wouldn’t be back,” she told the college paper in February. “I thought I was just leaving for a semester or two, and then life just sort of took [me] elsewhere.”

Three: Those early adult years were a tumultuous time in Williamson’s life, but she was on the verge of what she came to see as a life-defining spiritual breakthrough:

She returned to Houston in 1979, opened a new-age bookstore, got married and divorced almost immediately — a “15-minute mistake,” she says. She was in therapy five times a week and nearing a nervous breakdown when she turned to the book that changed her life. 

It was A Course in Miracles, the thousand-page new-age bible. A Course in Miracles was written in the ’60s by the late New York psychologist Helen Schucman, who maintained she was merely taking dictation from an inner voice that urged her to “write this down . . . this is a course in miracles.” The inner voice, Schucman came to believe, was Jesus.

Four: By the mid 1980s, Williamson was preaching in Los Angeles, and attracting an audience among Hollywood’s gay community, which was attempting to cope with the burgeoning AIDS crisis. She described that early stage of her career in her book, A Politics of Love: A Handbook for a New America:

We went from a small room on Saturday mornings to the auditorium on Tuesday nights to a church in Hollywood on both Tuesday nights and Saturday mornings. We continued to need more space. Gay men in Los Angeles — suddenly terrified — were looking for miracles, and with good reason.

Day after day, guests at someone’s party turned into attendees at someone’s funeral. Western medicine played various cards, but it was clearly stymied. In the early days of the epidemic it had nothing to offer, and organized religious institutions at the time were oddly quiet. One can see why a young woman talking about miracles, and about a God who loved everyone no matter what, was just the ticket for many. Most of my audience was young, and at the time, I was too. None of us knew what had hit us, but my faith in miracles was strong and I was glad to share it.

Five: In 1991, she officiated at the wedding of Elizabeth Taylor and Larry Fortensky, Taylor’s seventh and final husband. Michael Jackson was the best man; attendees included Nancy Reagan, Eddie Murphy, Liza Minnelli, Arsenio Hall, George Hamilton, Merv Griffin, Quincy Jones, and Macaulay Culkin. Taylor declared, through a spokeswoman, that Williamson’s “sense of spirituality triggered off my own.”

Six: In 1992, the Los Angeles Times called Williamson the “New Age guru of the hour.” The same year, her first book, a spiritual self-help tome entitled A Return to Love, spent 39 weeks on the New York Times best-seller list, and Oprah Winfrey claimed she had experienced 157 miracles after reading it. Some mocked Williamson, but she was also credited for launching Project Angel Food, a service that delivered more than 300 hot meals a day to housebound AIDS patients in Los Angeles, and in March 2016 served its 10 millionth meal.

Seven: In a 1992 interview with Simon Sebag Montefiore published in Psychology Today, Williamson was offended by a question that suggested Hollywood stars needed moral regeneration more than anyone else: “That’s an arrogant perception! The fact that people in Hollywood are open to what I teach is not because they’re more desperate than anyone else, but because they’re more touched by it. That’s not their weakness. It’s their strength!”

That profile also included this eye-opening description: “In the flesh, Williamson is a tiny, highly charged packet of sexuality. In her lectures, she brings all the excitement, comedy, and passion of sex to religion: not for nothing is she a former singer. She uses the language and attraction of sensuality to hold an audience. Her charisma is sexual and humorous. Watching her perform is more like wrestling naked with Venus than kneeling with the saints.”

There’s a lot of talk about sex in the interview itself, too:

“Can promiscuous sex contain love?” I ask.

“Absolutely. Usually, people associate promiscuity with quantity, but that really has nothing to do with it. If there’s love, a genuine soul connection, then it is not promiscuous. On the other hand, you can know someone for years and have sex many times, but it can still be promiscuous if it doesn’t contain love!”

Eight: Williamson frequently weighed in on political matters with unpredictable and unexpected views. A 1993 profile by Knight Ridder News Service declared, “If it were up to Williamson, President Clinton would have summoned a group of new-age leaders, say, even Williamson, to talk to David Koresh in spiritual terms, to encourage a peaceful solution” to the Waco standoff.

In 2007, she objected to Don Imus being driven from the airwaves after he made racially charged comments about the Rutgers women’s basketball team, declaring that a “left-wing thought police scares me just as much as a right-wing one does, and the idea that anyone — Al Sharpton or anyone else — is planning to ‘purify the airwaves’ doesn’t just offend me; it horrifies me.” That same year, when Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad traveled to New York City to speak to the United Nations, Williamson wrote, “When he said he wanted to go to Ground Zero and pay his respects, I think we should have let him. He didn’t perpetrate the horrors of 9/11, any more than Saddam Hussein did! What’s going on here?”

Nine: In 1997, the liberal magazine Mother Jones wrote a scathing profile entitled “Marianne Williamson is full of it,” declaring:

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.

(The Psychology Today profile quotes her telling an audience, “You’ve committed no sins, just mistakes.”)

Ten: In 2009, a new variation of the flu virus, H1N1, was detected in California and branded “swine flu.” Williamson helpfully suggested, “God is BIG, swine flu SMALL. See every cell of your body filled with divine light. Pour God’s love on our immune systems. Truth protects.” Separately, the Centers for Disease Control developed an H1N1 vaccine.

Eleven: Her proposal for addressing the oil spill from the Deepwater Horizon platform disaster was unorthodox: “Visualize the oil spill plugged. Close your eyes for five minutes and see angels coming over it, filling it with sane and sacred thoughts.”

Twelve: On March 11, 2011, a massive earthquake and tsunami damaged the Fukushima nuclear plant in Japan. Two days later, Williamson tweeted, “Let’s see angels surrounding the nuclear reactors, pouring cold water over them, keeping radiation from escaping into the atmosphere.”

Thirteen: In 2014, Williamson chose to run for Congress in California’s 33rd district, which includes Beverly Hills, Brentwood, Malibu, and Santa Monica. The issues Williamson focused on in her congressional bid were a mix of the familiar and unfamiliar: “child poverty, mass incarceration of blacks and Latinos, government spying, a growing gap between haves and have-nots, even the ‘corruption of our food supply’ via genetic modification and high-fructose corn syrup.”

Time’s Joe Klein asked, “I wonder: Could Williamson be the harbinger of a wave of Independent candidacies in 2014? Are people so sick of the two existing parties that they’re ready to go shopping for something new? We’ve been doing this two-candidate thing for a long time, but we’ve reached a point of paralysis–a very un-American state of being–and something is going to come along and shock the system back to life.” It didn’t happen in 2014 – Williamson finished fourth on Election Day, with 13.2 percent of the vote — but Donald Trump did come along the following year and shock the system.

Fourteen: One guest at a fundraiser for Williamson’s congressional bid was one of the preeminent advocates for last year’s First Step Act, criminal-justice-reform advocate Kim Kardashian West. Kardashian called Williamson “very inspiring.” She was also endorsed by former governor of Minnesota Jesse Ventura and former governor of Michigan Jennifer Granholm.

Fifteen: Alanis Morissette wrote a song for Williamson’s 2014 bid for Congress entitled “Today.” Among the lyrics: “Unless we start a revolution, awaken from this frozen, start the mending of our union, today. . . . Unless we revive this Constitution, from sure disintegration, live out this revelation, today. . . .”

Sixteen: The Washington Post, the New York Times, and other major newspapers did profiles of Williamson during her longshot congressional bid. They were usually somewhat mocking portraits of a wacky, new-age guru-turned-politician. But Williamson also showcased an ability to charm most of her profilers and sound surprisingly commonsense when speaking in generalities. Here she is in an interview with The Weekly Standard from that time:

“Don’t get me wrong,” she says with a smile, “capitalism has been good to me. But what is happening today is that too many people can’t get in the club, there has to be enough access. There has to be enough access to opportunity for America to be a stable democracy.”

Seventeen: In a 2006 radio interview, Williamson discussed the idea of instituting “speed bumps” for women contemplating abortion, including a mandatory three counseling sessions. In a subsequent interview, Williamson claimed the idea grew out her experience counseling women who were trying to decide whether to terminate a pregnancy. “I counseled them not to make the decision impulsively or casually,” she said. By the time of her 2014 congressional campaign, Williamson said she no longer supported the concept.

Eighteen: In 2018, the day the news of designer Kate Spade’s suicide broke, Williamson appeared to blame antidepressants:

How many public personalities on antidepressants have to hang themselves before the FDA does something, Big Pharma cops to what it knows, and the average person stops falling for this? The tragedies keep compounding. The awakening should begin. . . .

There was no stigma to depression until it was medicalized. If you yourself were helped, that’s wonderful — but it doesn’t change the fact that most antidepressants are being prescribed by Dr.s [sic] who aren’t even mental health professionals, & many times when people are simply SAD. . . .

Later that same year, she tweeted that:

There is no blood test for depression. Anti-depressants are overprescribed, often for situational depression that is part of a normal range of human despair. As far as brain chemistry is concerned, meditation is known to affect/change it.

Nineteen: Earlier this year, Williamson was criticized for her stance on vaccinations. “To me, it’s no different than the abortion debate,” she said. “The U.S. government doesn’t tell any citizen, in my book, what they have to do with their body or their child.” She went on to describes vaccine mandates as “draconian” & “Orwellian.”

After the remarks caused controversy, she attempted to walk them back:

I understand that many vaccines are important and save lives. I recognize there are epidemics around the world that are stopped by vaccines. I also understand some of the skepticism that abounds today about drugs which are rushed to market by Big Pharma. I am sorry that I made comments which sounded as though I question the validity of life-saving vaccines. That is not my feeling and I realize that I misspoke.

Twenty: Her 2020 presidential platform calls for:

. . . repurposing the tremendous talents and infrastructure of our military-industrial complex in such a way as to leave us strong enough to deal with America’s legitimate needs for military preparedness, yet moving on to the urgent task of building a sustainable society and sustainable world. From massive investment in the development of clean energy, to the retrofitting of our buildings and bridges, to the building of new schools and the creation of a green manufacturing base, it is time to release this powerful sector of American genius to the work of promoting life instead of death.

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