On the first night of the Democratic primary debates at the end of July, the Detroit crowd saved its biggest cheer for Marianne Williamson and her answer on reparations for slavery. National political commentators such as Ezra Klein and New York Times deputy Washington editor Jonathan Weissmann cooed over her mid-Atlantic accent and impassioned delivery. After the debate, CNN anchor Chris Cuomo talked about how much he loved her books, and another reporter admitted to being acquaintances with her. Callers to the radio station WNYC reportedly gushed over Williamson the next morning. On Google, she was the most-searched candidate in every state but Montana.
Marianne Williamson is a smooth-talking self-help guru who has made millions selling books and giving workshops centered around the message that, with enough self-love and the correct relationship with the divine, all your problems will go away. These problems include personal struggles with romance or poverty, but also with diseases and disabilities. It's a pretty standard New Age message and one with an ample audience. But now that Williamson is shifting from inspirational speaker to presidential candidate, there's a big problem: pretty much everything she's ever said about health.
Concerned about Williamson's growing popularity with ratings-seeking pundits, a number of analysts have unearthed disturbing statements she's made about anti-depressants, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, weight loss, cancer, AIDS, vaccine safety, and other health issues. The disability community online, often loosely organized around the #CripTheVote hashtag, has reacted with particular vehemence. These activists think Williamson's conviction that divine love can triumph over disability is dangerous, especially from someone who wants to be in charge of enforcing the Americans With Disabilities Act.
As a person who relies on anti-depressants (and therapy) to achieve relatively safe mental stability, I find Williamson's argument on a podcast with actor Russell Brand that people like me are merely "sad" to be deeply offensive. She did appear recently on MSNBC and laughed off the anti-depressant line, saying that she had just wanted to "impress Russell Brand" and noting that she wasn't a candidate at the time. But the podcast with Brand was only in 2018. This isn't ancient history. Moreover, in the same appearance on MSNBC, Williamson linked the rise in rates of chronic illness to the bundling of vaccines, then implied that pharmaceutical lobbyists were conspiring with the government to conceal negative consequences of vaccination.
Williamson has strenuously denied—including directly to me on Twitter—that she is an anti-vaxxer, but this kind of innuendo seems calibrated to sow doubt about the safety of vaccines, a key approach of the antivax movement.
The threats that Williamson's ideas present to disabled people are not just hypothetical. Over email, Clare (a pseudonym) describes the harms she experienced as a child because her mother believed in Williamson's message of miracles over medicine. Clare writes that her mother was a devotee of A Course in Miracles, a product of 1970s New Age theology that Williamson promotes on her website; for a $25 annual fee, Williamson will send you a daily course of study. "Both A Course in Miracles and Williamson's work based on it have basically the same theme," Clare writes. "All suffering is an illusion caused by humankind's imperfect understanding of our relationship to the Divine. When we focus on centering ourselves in Divine love, we can defeat these illusions." In Clare's family, as with Williamson's views on conditions such as HIV and cancer, centering divine love is more important than medicine.
When Clare was eight, she fell off the monkey bars at school, suffering a concussion and torn bicep, both of which healed, but she "developed shooting pains down my right arm, muscle weakness, and lack of coordination on that side. I never saw a doctor once for those symptoms. In fact, I don't recall seeing a doctor at any point between that accident and age 11, despite the fact that we had excellent health insurance. Whenever I complained," Clare says, she was told, "'You need to work on loving yourself more.' Or, 'You're blowing it out of proportion.' Or, 'If you think about it, it'll keep happening.'"
As it turned out, she had a cervical spine dislocation, a condition that has led to medical complications well into her adult life. Clare writes: "I know my mother is the primary culprit here, but I don't hold Marianne Williamson or A Course in Miracles guiltless, either. Mom was very clear where this 'You just need to love yourself more' approach to my medical needs came from."
As of right now, there's no reason to believe that Williamson is a threat to win the Democratic nomination for the presidency. But she has exposed a vulnerability on the left in the same way that Donald Trump, a billionaire real estate and infomercial grifter, exposed one on the right. Conservative Americans are evidently attracted to his gold-plated lifestyle; monied, would-be hippies on the left are willing to spend heavily seeking good vibrations. Sadly, love is not all you need. Sometimes you need prescription medicine, a detailed health-care plan, and robust public investment in science.
Williamson's bet on the presidency has paid off remarkably in just a few months, getting her massive exposure to potential new markets thanks to her most recent debate performance in particular. We can be sure that, just as Trump is not the last of his kind to run for the Republican nomination, Williamson won't be the last on the left. Are you ready for #GOOP2028?
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