Why Marianne Williamson won’t let the haters stop her from casting her strange magic in America

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click to enlarge Williamson made a name for herself as a self-help guru, including a stint leading Warren’s Church of Today. - COURTESY PHOTO
Courtesy photo
Williamson made a name for herself as a self-help guru, including a stint leading Warren’s Church of Today.

When Williamson arrived in Detroit for the Democratic debate in 2019, it was a warm return home for the spiritual leader.

Williamson supporter Katlyn Erdman of Ferndale told Metro Times during a debate watch party at the State Bar and Grill that Williamson was their pick because "she is us and she is everyone." To commemorate the event, Erdman also made a custom campaign shirt for her 2-year-old son Elvis on the morning of the July 30 debate.

"We support a conscious love infatuated political conversation," the shirt read.

Dozens of purple- and pink-wearing supporters gathered in a designated Marianne-zone across from the Fox Theatre, where their candidate for TV healer-in-chief would soon deliver her heavily Googled "Love Is a Battlefield"-sounding pitch for president, and where she earned some major local applause when she did some "radical truth-telling" with regard to the Flint water crisis.

"Flint is the tip of the iceberg," Williamson said during the debate. "I was in Denmark, South Carolina, where there is a lot of talk about it being the next Flint. We have an administration that has gutted the Clean Water Act. We have communities, particularly communities of color and disadvantaged communities all over this country, who are suffering from environmental injustice."

"I assure you, I lived in Grosse Pointe," she added. "What happened in Flint would not have happened in Grosse Pointe."

Following the release of her fourth book — Healing the Soul of America, which aimed to demonstrate the power of turning "spiritual conviction into a political force" — in 1997, Williamson had grown tired of the "manicured lawns" of L.A. and longed to get some "dirt under her fingernails" again. When offered an invitation to serve as an interim minister at a New Thought megachurch in Warren, where she would lead a congregation of 2,500, Williamson accepted, and she and her daughter India moved to Birmingham and, later, Grosse Pointe.

"I went there for a year and stayed for eight years," Williamson says. "But when I first went there, it was to be the interim minister at a place called The Church of Today. And that was a very important part of my life because I met many, many people who were doing everything right, working very hard, playing by the rules and were having too hard a time. And that's what I saw start to happen in this country about 20-25 years ago."

Almost immediately into what would become a controversial guest role at the Church of Today, Williamson began merging her worlds: unapologetic spiritual leader from Hollywood and best-selling author and bitchy boss businesswoman with big ideas as to how to suck the infection from America's wound. This included incorporating her social-justice principles from Healing the Soul of America into her new ministry practice. She doubled down on her belief that we were well overdue for "mass collective forgiveness of what went before" and that in order to move forward we must take "moral inventory." 

"Wouldn't it be wonderful, Abraham Lincoln paved the way, if we could just make one, huge, simple apology to all Black Americans?" she wrote in A Return to Love. "On behalf of our ancestors, we apologize for bringing you as slaves from your native home. We recognize this terrible pain this has caused generations of good people. Please forgive us."

“Flint is the tip of the iceberg. ... I assure you, I lived in Grosse Pointe. What happened in Flint would not have happened in Grosse Pointe.”

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In addition to some flashy shake-ups within the church, like booking surprise musical guests (most notably Aerosmith's Steven Tyler, who delivered a very Tyler-esque rendition of "Amazing Grace") and hiring an in-house Black gospel-style choir (a decision she said was perceived as being too "radical" of an idea and likened its reception to her initiating a World War), it was Williamson's "racial healing circles" that stirred up the most dust among longtime members.

"I think the average American is woefully undereducated about the history of race in the United States," Williamson says. "We had a lot of racial healing circles when I was at the Church of Today. That was a large part of my ministry because, you know, when you start talking about political issues, which I have always done, even within my role as a spiritual speaker, you don't have to inform Black people as to what's going down in America. Black people know what's going down in America, " she says with a noticeable soulful affectation. "When I was at the church, it became pretty quickly multicultural, ethnic, multiracial, which was what made it a very powerful place to be on Sunday mornings."

A healing circle looked something like this: After delivering a thumbnail sketch of America's history of race, Williamson would first invite Black church-goers to stand if they wished to participate, then the non-Black members would rise to face their Black neighbors, some placing hands on shoulders and smalls of backs as Williamson led an apology on behalf of the country for the atrocities of slavery and the oppression, humiliation, and injustice that followed and continues to persist.

"I think it makes white people feel better," Sheila Wright, a Black Church of Today member told Metro Times in a 2001 cover story. "I believe in forgiveness, and I think some things are symbolic. But it is one thing to apologize and another to process that and move forward from that. I think that if people had come knowing that that was going to occur ... it might have had a more dynamic effect."

But that wasn't the only pushback Williamson received from disillusioned church members and leaders. She changed the church's name to Renaissance Unity Interfaith Spiritual Fellowship and, later, attempted to dissolve its affiliation with parent organization, the Association of Unity Churches. Lawsuits were threatened.

"I looked forward to hearing her ideas every week, but she was like an egomaniac control freak," David Wenger told Los Angeles Magazine in 2014. Wenger, a church member and one of the attorneys behind the group lawsuit, was among those who suspected Williamson had her sights on creating a massive spiritual compound to better her business as a lecturer and author, though Williamson has said she never went to Warren to "build an empire." For her, it was about the people.

"I touched a nerve that I didn't know was there," Williamson said in a statement that followed her announcement that she would be stepping down from the church. "And I regret that so much energy went into what should not have been considered such a big issue. If I had known the nerve was there, I would not have touched it."

Williamson officially ended her tenure in 2002, but she and her daughter stuck around until 2008. Then, her mother, who remained in Houston, fell ill and was dying. Around the same time, the housing crisis struck, and Williamson reportedly lost $2.7 million worth of Grosse Pointe property. Nevertheless, according to Williamson, her time in metro Detroit remains close to her heart. Within the last few years, her daughter told her that she had a happy childhood in Detroit.

"I will always, in addition to having met wonderful people there who I will never forget — some of whom are lifelong friends — the fact that my daughter had a happy childhood in that place makes me forever grateful," she says.

It's also where her socio-spiritual teachings were actualized as she bore witness to what she describes as the "chronic economic tension and anxiety" working-class Detroiters experienced, many of whom had "done everything they were supposed to do," yet remained with few options.

"If a woman comes into therapy or to spiritual counseling, and she's very oppressed over the fact that she had to go to work after the birth of her child when she knew it was too soon, when every cell of her being knew 'it's too soon for me, it's too soon for the baby,' she might think that this is just about her. It's not just about her," Williamson says. "It's about the fact that we don't have paid maternity leave and that is played over and over and over again, and issue after issue after issue. And Detroit is a place where I learned about that very deeply. I began to realize how often this was simply the result, not of their poor choices, but [of] bad public policy.

"I wasn't thinking at that time about ever running for office. I certainly was involved in issues when I was there, such as poverty issues, things that were political issues, but I didn't see myself as a political figure," she says, adding she supported Governor Jennifer Granholm during her campaigns. "The idea of running for office didn't strike me as my dharma in any way until a few years later."

click to enlarge Marianne Williamson’s political aspirations got a boost from celebrity endorsements. - COURTESY PHOTO
Courtesy photo
Marianne Williamson’s political aspirations got a boost from celebrity endorsements.

It was 2014 when Williamson was declared "the Kardashian Kandidate."

"I went to hear @mariannewilliamson speak the other night w/ @kourtneykardash & @rachel_roy," Kim Kardashian posted on Instagram. "Very inspiring!" 

Having finally decided to scratch her political itch, Williamson launched her first long-shot (and unsurprisingly star-studded) campaign to unseat longtime Rep. Henry A. Waxman of California's very wealthy — and very white — 33rd congressional district. She ran as an independent, despite having previously described herself as a "lifelong Democrat," and railed against the immorality of drone strikes, called to limit powers of pesticide makers, and expressed concern over the Fukushima nuclear incident in Japan.

"Should we or should we not agree with the U.S. government that none of that radioactive energy is making its way here?" she said in 2014. "Hello!"

The Kardashians weren't the only celebrities feeling Williamson's message. Katy Perry, Nicole Richie, Eva Longoria, and Marcia Cross attended fundraisers, Orange Is the New Black's Taylor Schilling shared her endorsement on social media, as did Glee star Jane Lynch, who allegedly helped collect donations. Singer Alanis Morissette took her support a step further and penned "Today," a song that in any other context could seem like a parody, but is in fact 100% sincerely inspired by Williamson's brand of social and emotional activism.

"We're going down, down, down," Morissette sings. "We're going down unless we move to new ground, unless we start a revolution, awaken from this frozen, start the mending of our union today."

Morissette tunes and star-powered fundraising events weren't enough, however, as Williamson earned just 13% of the vote and landed in fourth place (of 18) in the primaries. She was also out $2 million.

When Williamson announced her presidential campaign in January 2019, she was wearing an all-black ensemble fit for a funeral and/or a coven. The witch was back. She delivered a shaky 45-minute speech to an enthusiastic audience in Los Angeles while standing against an American flag so big, Williamson looked like a flea. In that instant, the spotlight had grown 10 times the size it was when she was running for the 33rd District and, as is the case with anyone running for the highest office in the land, followed by an unearthing of an entire career's worth of problematic sentiments. For Williamson, this included dangerous and unfounded anti-science statements, the belief that, through the power of prayer and positive thinking one can do everything from redirect hurricanes and burn body fat, and claims that there is "an art to navigating depression," as she said during a 2018 appearance on Russell Brand's podcast.

The Kardashians weren’t the only celebrities feeling Williamson’s message. Katy Perry, Nicole Richie, Eva Longoria, Marcia Cross, Jane Lynch, and singer Alanis Morissette supported her.

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"I've lived through periods of time [that] by any means today would be called 'clinical depression,'" she told Brand, "but even that's such a scam because all that means someone in a clinic said it."

Williamson has also, via Twitter, blamed the suicides of designer Kate Spade and Robin Williams on Big Pharma's over-prescription of antidepressants, suggesting that medication serves as a numbing agent, or a mask, and is not intended to treat everything along the "human spectrum of despair." She received additional backlash for having shared a link from a Scientology website to support her point.

"There is value sometimes in feeling the sadness, feeling that dark night of the soul," Williamson explained to CNN's Anderson Cooper when pressed on her mental health beliefs.

Following the heated interview, she later defended herself on social media: "So let's state it again. I'm pro medicine. I'm pro-science. I've never told anyone not to take medicine. I've never fat-shamed anyone. And today there's a new one: no I don't support Scientology. The machinery of mischaracterization is in high gear now. Gee, did I upset someone?"

But, perhaps the tweet of Williamson's that has aged the worst: her take on God and the swine flu.

"God is BIG, swine flu SMALL," Williamson tweeted in 2009. "See every cell of your body filled with divine light. Pour God's love on our immune systems. Truth protects." 

When asked about these sentiments, Williamson says she was misunderstood.

"I didn't call vaccines draconian or Orwellian. I called mandatory vaccines [draconian or Orwellian]. Remember, the federal government doesn't set mandatories for that reason. It's left to the states. So where I feel it was sloppy to call mandatories Orwellian or Draconian, I never made an anti-vax statement," she says. "Now ... everybody's talking about a COVID vaccine, but notice, included in the conversation is that it not be rushed so it will be safe. The entire conversation going on about a COVID vaccine includes the issue of the safety of the vaccine.

"Now we are living at a time when attorney generals all over this country have been indicting predatory pharmaceutical executives for their known role in the opioid crisis [for] over-marketing pills on the basis that they're not ... addictive when they absolutely knew that they were. So my point was, why should we just automatically assume that in every other area that the pharmaceutical companies are pure as the driven snow?" she says. "People say it's anti-scientific. What could be more scientific than to say there should be more independent scientific research?" 

She again apologizes for calling clinical depression a scam, adding it was "sloppy and wrong" of her to say, but doubles down on her attack on Big Pharma creating markets that may or may not "be aligned with the legitimate needs of people, but rather more aligned with their profit-making capacity."

"That healthy skepticism is legitimate," she says. "And for me, I would want a president or any political leader to have that healthy skepticism."

Many, especially those in medical fields, strongly disagree and believe Williamson's statements could prevent people from seeking the treatment they need.

"Discouraging parents from putting their children on medications that they may need for mental illness, for example, could keep kids from treatments that could truly help them, and it's grossly irresponsible to say some of the things that are still easy to find in her Twitter history," said pediatrician and Slate columnist Dr. Daniel Summers following Williamson's viral debate performance. "Nobody should be supporting her as a candidate because it's bad enough having one anti-science blowhard currently occupying the Oval Office."

To be clear, Williamson has never owned a crystal.

"I've never had a crystal, I've never written about crystals. I've never talked about crystals. I've never had a crystal onstage with me," she said in 2019.

It would be easy to assume that a woman who preaches forgiveness, love, and light, and, whose most famous quote (which just so happens to be frequently misattributed to Nelson Mandela) states the belief that "our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate; our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure" would be more of a crunchy, granola earth mother. The opposite could not be more true. Williamson wants us to toughen up, ditch #selfcare, rewrite our trauma, and urges the Democratic party to do some serious soul searching.

"We are collectively traumatized," she says. "But we also need to toughen up. You think that the people who walked across the bridge at Selma were not traumatized? They didn't know if the police were going to send the dogs, send the hoses, or even start shooting. Do you think the women's suffragettes who marched for the right for women to vote, who were thrown into prison where the conditions were so horrible that they went on hunger strike — and then the response to the prison officials was to send men into their cells who put metal contraptions around their necks in order to force-feed them. You think they weren't anxious? You think they weren't traumatized?"

She continues, "What separates us from other generations is that we are too willing to use that as an excuse to stop trying. We are all wounded, but you don't have to act from the wound. We're all traumatized — or at least a lot of us are, but that's not a reason to give up." 

As for self-care? An industry commercialized by women like Goop's Gwyneth Paltrow who have propped up Williamson as a "spiritual legend" to whom Williamson is considered the "Godmother" of?

"Self-care is a legitimate concept," she says. "On the other hand, it's misused many times today as a cover for old-fashioned selfishness. The trauma of the times in which we're living is an assault on the nervous system. And interestingly enough, COVID aids the process of self-care. Blaise Pascal, the French philosopher, said that every problem in the world can be traced to man's inability to sit quietly in a room alone. We're a whole culture that, even before COVID, was spinning out." 

She adds that true self-care — like reflection, yoga, inspirational reading, meditation, and connecting with loved ones over Zoom — is vital to the act of "reweaving the fabric of our society," which starts with "reweaving the fabric of our own selfhood." 

"You know there's a saying that every problem comes bearing its own solution," she says. "It's very interesting. I mean, some of the changes that are being forced upon us are changes that we needed."

For some, despite her controversial statements, her two failed political runs, and her love of Avatar, Williamson remains the change some people wish to see in the world.

Christian Perry and Eric Tsuchiyama of New York operate two independent social-media accounts in support of Williamson for president.

A collection of memes, interview clips, debate highlights, quotes, and clever use of GIFs, the accounts, @marianne4prez on Twitter and Instagram, were created out of awareness and are, to this day, maintained, well after Williamson ended her bid, as a message of hope.

Perry, 30, an artist who was "fully prepared" to support Bernie Sanders for president, noticed Williamson's name on a long list of candidates while watching the morning news in February of 2019. "I knew and loved her from Oprah, and I immediately searched for her platform," Perry says via email. "When I discovered that she out-left-ed Bernie on policy, I was thrilled because I knew that Marianne could do what I thought Bernie couldn't: effectively pitch a progressive agenda through a moral and spiritual framework. I was immediately fully on board." 

For Tsuchiyama, a 32-year-old graphic designer, his return to Williamson was A Return to Love coupled with feeling let down by the Democratic Party.

"When Christian mentioned seeing Marianne's name listed among the candidates, I jumped onto her campaign website and read every policy," he says. "I was excited to see that her policies strongly aligned with my views." 

By April, Perry and Tsuchiyama had noticed that Williamson was not being mentioned enough among their peers or by the media. Thus @marianne4prez was born. The goal? Generate excitement and support leading up to debate season. At first, they kept it limited to Instagram, mostly because the account had a sense of humor and they felt that "no one has a sense of humor on Twitter," save for Williamson's "iconic clapbacks." A Twitter account, however, was created and is a source of Williamson retweets.

The two have remained active supporters, praising Williamson's "unmatched" oratory skills and the fact that she, unlike most contemporary politicians, doesn't offer "superficial, feel-good fixes." But it was Williamson's desire to get corporate money out of politics, her proposal for a Department of Peace, and her reparations plan that resonated most with the @Marianne4prez creators.

"She barely talked about Trump during the primaries, and that, too, was a breath of fresh air," the two said in a joint response. "She didn't demonize others, and we really liked that. While we adore Marianne and could literally recite her stump speech, on a fundamental level, it's less about her and more about her vision for the world."

As for what held her back?

They believe it came down to money, misogyny, and misunderstanding.

"She, like Bernie, also represented a threat to the status quo, which brought about endless political and personal smears that she couldn't fight," Perry says. "Bernie had decades of political notoriety to handle those challenges. Plus, he's a man. Misogyny played a role." 

Perry adds, "Marianne isn't anti-vax or anti-science. But apparently, the people who believed that about her are anti-context."

As of now, the Instagram and Twitter accounts have fewer than 2,000 combined followers, including Williamson, who follows along on Twitter. On Instagram, the account is followed by several Williamson-support accounts, including @mariannes_dank_memes, many of which have not been updated since January, when Williamson pulled out of the race.

Perry and Tsuchiyama, however, have no plans to abandon their accounts and remain hopeful that they could come in handy in the future, perhaps in 2024.

"While the account has lost hundreds of followers since she ended the campaign, we decided to keep it active because her ideas still need to be shared," they say. "We hope she runs again. It will be ready to go." 

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