Depending who you ask, Marianne Williamson is either an icon of early HIV/AIDS activism, or a huckster who put lives at risk by convincing people they could visualize and spiritualize their way out of sickness.
The Democratic presidential candidate has been gaining attention after her first two debate performances—one widely deemed off-the-rails and the other considered a marked improvement—as well as her unorthodox style as an interview subject. She recently implied Vice President Mike Pence might be gay, which didn't work out so well for another straight "ally" in Patti LuPone, who has faced charges of homophobia as a result of telling Sen. Lindsey Graham to "come out."
With the spotlight comes the glare, and her beliefs around health and healing are key among criticisms by her detractors.
Williamson has been pushing new age, law-of-attraction type beliefs for years, which is the concept that you can create your own reality by your thoughts and wishes. During the HIV/AIDS epidemic, she attracted a large group of devotees eager to hear her simplistic and optimistic message.
She created, alongside friend and fellow self-help and self-healer colleague Louise Hay, the Los Angeles Center for Living, where she would give talks to terminally-ill people, or as she called them, those suffering from "life-challenging illnesses."
Williamson and director Alek Keshishian attend an AIDS charity party at the Los Angeles Center For Living.
According to a 1992 Los Angeles Times feature, the self-help guru told an HIV-positive man and his wife, "The AIDS virus is not more powerful than God."
A particularly damning article by The Daily Beast, by reporter Jay Michaelson, sums it up by saying:
The results were predictable. Some people went off their medication, since taking medicine showed you didn’t really believe that you could cure yourself, and if you lack perfect faith, it’s not going to work. Some even died.
More recently, she has tweeted a suggestion that one could heal themselves of swine flu, with an assist from God, as well as criticizing depression medications for children.
In her book A Course on Weight Loss, she recalls a man she knew in an AIDS support group asking her if he really "had to forgive everybody," to which she replied, "Well, I don't know...do you have the flu, or do you have AIDS? Because if you only have the flu, then, heck, just forgive a few people...but if you have AIDS, then, yes, try to forgive everybody!"
Just last month, Williamson had had to walk back remarks she made calling mandatory vaccines "Orwellian."
She also is not in favor of Medicare for All, which many living with HIV could benefit from, although she admitted to The Young Turks' Cenk Uygur after last night's debate that she is coming around a bit on that issue.
On the other side of the argument stands her HIV/AIDS activism, which came at a time when many were afraid to even be in the same room as someone who was HIV-positive, let alone someone dying from AIDS complications. She founded Project Angel Food in 1989 to deliver food and provide other services, like hospice care, to those with terminal illnesses. Again, like with the Los Angeles Center for Living, of which the program was an extension, most of those the organization served were suffering from HIV/AIDS.
Williamson has been quick to point this out, an article published on Medium, written by her friend David Kessler, titled "When Everyone Else Stepped Back, Marianne Williamson Stepped Forward," has also been republished on her own website.
She also addressed the controversy late last month on Twitter, pushing back against suggestions she encouraged people not to take necessary medications.
Williamson also denied the accusation in an interview with Vanity Fair, saying of her comments quoted in the LA Times piece:
Whatever context that was in, I never told anyone not to go to the doctor. I spent hours and hours and hours driving people to the doctor. When a clergyperson, a faith leader, prays with someone, or leads them in a guided meditation—this is not in repudiation of medicine. Body, mind, and spirit. In today’s world, the oncologist is liable to be the first person to suggest that you get yourself over to one of those spiritual support groups, because serious spiritual practice has been proven to boost the functioning of the immune system. And by the way, when I was working with AIDS patients, a lot of that was at a time when there was no medicine yet.
This entire idea of me as anti-medicine and anti-science could not be further from the truth. I’m a Jewish woman. You could read my last blog, “I’m a modern woman. Of course I go to the doctor...”
In that blog post she writes:
I’m a modern woman, and of course I go to the doctor. Of course I take pharmaceuticals when they’re called for, and I am as grateful as anyone for the advances of modern medicine.
I do not judge pharmaceuticals, and I do not judge anyone who uses them - including for depression.
What I do criticize - and I cannot understand why anyone wouldn’t - is predatory practices on the part of big pharmaceutical companies.
"Marianne is an easy target, because she embodies so much of the Southern California touchy-feely vibe that is ripe for ridicule," HIV/AIDS activist and writer Mark S. King, who maintains the blog My Fabulous Disease, tells NewNowNext.
"Her debate performances have made her a curiosity who has sometimes hit the nail on the head, such as her speech about reparations. As a former West Hollywood gay—her center was two blocks from my condo—I will admit that her flighty stream of consciousness can make me cringe. But there's something in her legacy that I will not allow to be forgotten: she started delivering meals to people dying of AIDS, largely gay men, and she did it early in the crisis when others were turning their backs," he reflects.
Williamson with Judith Light.
"She could have had a perfectly fine career as a spiritual guru, which she has, without helping the likes of us. She did it anyway. I never heard her say a word about going off HIV meds, although she has stressed the importance of loving ourselves and others.
"It was bloody war, and Marianne pulled up her sleeves and got to work on our behalf. She should always, always be remembered and honored for that. While her current political moment may be fleeting and easy to satirize, I won't deny Marianne Williamson her due when it comes to her devotion to us in our darkest hour. I wish we had had a hundred more like her."