Photo: ZUMA Press, Inc./Alamy
At the assemblage near Madison Square Park — a 48,000-square-foot “coworking, coliving, and community space in New York City for those who believe in doing well by doing good” — close to 200 people are gathered in the ground-floor lounge area, beneath the soaring ceilings, sitting on Moroccan rugs and patterned floor cushions and ordering juices and tonics and elixirs and teas from the nonalcoholic bar. “The vegan tacos, do they contain soy?”
In the crowd, at least two men with shaved heads and knitted ponchos are leaning into their respective conversations, which are both about Burning Man. There are a number of astoundingly thick beards, Greek fisherman caps, turbans, and well-defined, chaturanga-toned deltoids to be looked at. On the wall is a massive, living mural: a hodgepodge of hieroglyphics and a big, all-seeing eye carved into a thick green layer of moss.
This is a campaign event for Marianne Williamson, the self-help author and now semi-serious Democratic candidate for president. She’s very much in the “long shot” category, but she has gathered enough support to qualify for the first debate — which is more than the sitting governor of Montana and a congressman from Massachusetts can say. She’s a friend of, and former spiritual adviser to, Oprah Winfrey; the person who officiated Elizabeth Taylor’s wedding to Larry Fortensky; and a onetime congressional candidate from L.A.’s 33rd District whose supporters included Kim Kardashian, Katy Perry, and Chaka Khan, and whose campaign anthem was written by Alanis Morissette (“We’re going down / Unless we move to new ground … Unless we revive this Constitution / From sure disintegration / Live out this revelation / Today”). In that race, she also received an endorsement from Dennis Kucinich, who remains an admirer. “Marianne is brilliant, insightful, and spiritually aware,” he says. “She is a true leader and does not require an office for affirmation, which is why she speaks with such compelling candor at a time this country desperately needs truth-tellers.”
In June, Williamson waded awkwardly into the vaccination debate, calling mandatory vaccines Orwellian. The next morning, she attempted to backpedal on The View, but her position was a bit hard to parse — she compared the vaccination conversation to the abortion debate and announced that she “distrusts propaganda” from both Big Pharma and the government.
America has a long attachment to the notion of self-help, the idea that a better version of you already exists and need only be excavated with the right combination of a positive attitude, pep talks, and expert advice. Williamson is the first candidate to make that same pitch the center of a presidential campaign, though among the contemporary constellation of gurus, she isn’t even the most obvious choice: She is well known but not massively famous, and her persona is less super-charismatic than appealingly and approachably basic. But there is this widespread spiritual yearning out there — the sense that we are broken as a people, an idea, a country, that we somehow need to heal — and Williamson’s specific mixture of recovery culture, old-fashioned religion, and the law of attraction is finding an audience. It’s not hard to imagine America at least browsing the self-help aisles at a big Barnes & Noble, looking for something, anything, to help them cope with Trump. So if the actual Oprah won’t run for president, maybe her spiritual adviser is the next best thing?
In March at the Assemblage, the crowd hushes as a turbaned woman takes the stage to introduce Danny Roth, an entrepreneur and Williamson supporter. “I feel so honored to introduce you to a woman who has been a spiritual teacher for over 35 years,” Roth says. Last year, he was in the Bay Area when “a millennial who goes to Burning Man” told him Williamson was running for president. “At that point, I felt like my childhood self and my idealistic Burning Man self pulled in. I sent Marianne an email, and I got on the phone, and she said, ‘What is it in you that’s having you reach out to me?’ And I said, ‘I want to see you win. I want to see you win.’ And she said, ‘I’m glad you don’t want to just see me elevate the conversation.’ ” The crowd laughs. “Marianne has written 14 books, and four of them have been New York Times best sellers. Deepak Chopra called A Return to Love a classic.” Roth takes a minute to let that sink in. “Deepak Chopra called it a classic.”
Williamson, a small, trim woman, is wearing tight jeans under knee-high suede stiletto boots and a narrow, fitted blazer, and when she takes the stage, she is swift and businesslike; there is nothing of the playa about her. Her watch pokes out from her sleeve and twinkles as she strides forward and seizes the mic.
“If you don’t get real, and you don’t get brutally honest, and you don’t get down to what’s really happening in a situation, and you don’t look deeply at the dynamics and the gaps between people, and the gaps between us and our truths, between us and somebody else’s truth, between us and our own integrity, then things don’t heal, things don’t really move, things don’t really break through to a better place.”
The crowd is engaged, nodding, murmuring assent. Williamson avoids using notes or prompters, never mutters an “um” or an “ah” or a “like.” She starts with the children, who are living in what she calls “America’s domestic war zones,” with their schools poorly funded and violence and starvation at home. She calls out the problem of corporate money in politics as little “more than a system of legalized bribery,” adding that she herself believes in “capitalism with a conscience.” Like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, Williamson supports Medicare for All and a $15-an-hour minimum wage.
She also supports financial reparations for the descendants of slaves. “If you’ve been kicking someone to the ground — particularly if you’ve been kicking them to the ground for two and a half centuries — then you have a moral obligation to do two things,” she says. “No. 1 is to stop kicking. No. 2 is to say, ‘Here, let me help you up. We stopped kicking.’ ”
Williamson has often called for the formation of a Cabinet-level Department of Peace, and she wraps up her talk by articulating her position on national defense, describing 100 B-21 bombers the White House had ordered at a cost of $550 million each: “You think about what that $550 million could do for those chronically traumatized children. Your karmic fingerprint’s on that. The nation gets a karmic blowback from that.
“The only way to defeat dog whistles is to drown them out with angel forces,” she says. “And my job is to place before the American people the option of another way:
To understand Williamson, you have to start with a book called A Course in Miracles, which was originally published in 1976 by an author named Helen Schucman, though Schucman has always claimed she didn’t actually write a thing; she considered herself the “scribe” of Jesus Christ.
“This is a course in miracles,” the book begins. “It is a required course. Only the time you take it is voluntary.”
“Nothing real can be threatened.
“Nothing unreal exists.
“Herein lies the peace of God.”
Williamson found A Course in Miracles around the time of its publication, when she was, she says, “muddling through” her 20s, aimless and directionless. She has said she wasn’t ready the first time she picked it up, but about a year later, while working in the bookshop at the Philosophical Research Society in Los Angeles, she was; she started lecturing about it, initially at the suggestion of the society’s president. It was the height of the AIDS crisis, and there were a whole lot of people looking, and hoping, for miracles. By the mid-’80s, Williamson had a local following, particularly among the gay men most devastated by AIDS. The word on the street was that a woman was proselytizing a nonjudgmental God who “loved you no matter what,” and the audiences came.
Her own first book, published in 1992, was called A Return to Love: Reflections on the Principles of A Course in Miracles, and her subsequent books have been built on its philosophy as well, including A Course in Weight Loss: 21 Spiritual Lessons for Surrendering Your Weight Forever, which suggests that “a way to repair a broken childhood is to allow God to re-parent you,” as well as pasting photographs of your face onto photographs of hot bodies and then taping them up around your house. In A Return to Love, Williamson, channeling the self-doubt of her reader, asks, “Who am I to be brilliant, talented, gorgeous, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God.”
Williamson grew up in Texas, the Jewish daughter of an immigration lawyer (she has said that if her Jewish education had been stronger, she might have been a rabbi). She left Texas for Pomona College, and after two years of studying philosophy, she dropped out and moved to New Mexico, where she took some classes at UNM and lived in a geodesic dome. Two years after that, as Beto O’Rourke would do 20 years later, Williamson moved to New York with dreams of singing on a stage. In her books, she describes a period of dissatisfaction and unhappiness and hints at addictions but does not make the circumstances explicit. “I sank deeper and deeper into my neurotic patterns,” she writes in A Return to Love, “seeking relief in food, drugs, people, or whatever else I could find to distract me from myself.” She acknowledges a “nervous breakdown” and that she was “addicted to her own pain.” She is, like Cory Booker, vague about her personal life. She has described an early marriage as “the best weekend I ever had,” and when it comes to the father of her daughter, a 29-year-old Ph.D. candidate in London, she says simply, “I don’t go there.”
When we meet in the lobby of a hotel in midtown Manhattan, I mention that I’m confused about her home base. When I first reached out to her campaign, I was told that she lives in New York, but I had been under the impression that she lived in L.A. — she did, after all, seek a congressional seat there. She tells me she raised her daughter in Michigan but is evasive when asked exactly where and why.
When I ask why she is staying in a hotel, she says, “I live in Iowa,” where she has rented an apartment in order to campaign. (The consultant Paul Begala tells me, “For long shots like Ms. Williamson, Iowa is everything … If I were Ms. Williamson, I’d be all Iowa, all the time.”) But where’s your stuff? I ask her. “I have an apartment in Des Moines,” she says. “It’s lovely!” Then: “Every moment I’m in Los Angeles or New York is a moment I’m not in Iowa.”
Williamson ended her appearance that March night by asking for donations — she was, at that point, only about halfway to her goal of at least 65,000 unique donations, which was the threshold for qualification to enter the Democratic debates. When we meet at the hotel, she is just 10,000 donations short. Soon thereafter, she will cross that threshold.
She arrives at our interview without an entourage, without even a single aide, moving through the city less like a serious presidential contender and more like just another person who is freaked out about what is happening to the country. Her lack of political experience is not as glaring as it might once have been, given the current occupant of the White House.
“I think the Founders had it correct,” she tells me. “They said a president had to have lived here for 14 years, been born here, and had to be 35 or older. That’s it. If they wanted to say you had to be a congressman or a senator or a governor, they would have said it.
“I’ve had a 35-year career addressing people’s trauma and how to turn that trauma into transformation,” she continues. “All that a country is is a collection of people, so the same psychological and emotional and spiritual forces that prevail within the journey of an individual prevail within the journey of a nation. The political Establishment is so blind to the deeper psychological and emotional factors at work. Our feelings do more to drive our behavior than does our intellectual analysis. Where people are not loved and not supported, despair arises, and large groups of desperate people are one of the most dangerous sociological elements possible. Desperate people are more vulnerable to ideological capture by genuinely psychotic forces.
That’s true whether it’s a corner of an American city, where people are vulnerable to gangs, or the whole United States, where people are more vulnerable to an authoritarian demagogue.”
In February, Williamson hired a campaign manager named Maurice Daniel, who has experience working for Al Gore, Human Rights Watch, and a D.C. political firm, and her early difficulty getting press began to dissolve. Daniels brought in a few aides from the Gore days, and together they’re formulating a far-fetched case, one that has to do with Williamson’s appeal being both geographically and ideologically diverse: “Marianne has been working with the entire country her entire career,” her communications director, Patricia Ewing, says. “Millions have read her books and come to her events over the years.” She continues, “Her message of inclusion — for example, reparations — appeals to regularly voting Democratic-primary voters. Her message of comity appeals to a nation that has been through the wars of political division and coarse discourse for the last few years.” She doesn’t mention what constituency is served by her message equating anti-vaccination activism with pro-choice advocacy.
It may seem more realistic for Williamson to “change the conversation” than to actually become president, but she is careful to say her goal is the second. “I don’t think anyone reaches this decision impulsively,” she says. “It was a good year and a half for me processing this. I was aware of the inevitable humiliation, the inevitable mockery, the inevitable mean-spiritedness, the inevitable bad pictures. I’m not at a point in my life or my career where I’m looking for a way to make a fool of myself.” So why do it? “This is a different moment,” she says. “Nothing is as it was. I already work in another way, and the problem doesn’t lie outside the political sphere. Outside the political sphere, we’re a cool country. It’s inside that the problem exists. But I know very well that if you really want to transform your life, you can’t just tweak things on the outside. You have to take a deep look at yourself. America has to take a serious, fearless moral inventory, whether it’s a Catholic going to confession, or a Jew on Yom Kippur, or someone at a recovery meeting knowing you have to take a really honest look at your character defects. If America is going to transform — genuinely transform — we need to do more than tweak things here and tweak things there.”