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The New Age of Marianne Williamson
Can the best-selling self-help guru persuade Angelenos to send her to Washington?
Marianne Williamson is competing for attention with a Malibu sunset. It’s nearly 6 p.m. on a Sunday, and about 200 people—from tanned and toned locals to model Amber Valletta to Todd Phillips, the guy who directed the Hangover trilogy—have come to a supporter’s oceanfront cottage to hear the New Age guru talk politics. Just moments ago singer Jason Mraz had warmed up the crowd with his hit “I’m Yours.”
Now, having topped off their glasses of chardonnay, the guests turn to the fit, striking woman who, thanks to a wall of windows, is bathed in golden light. Specifically, they want to hear how she plans to shake things up if this month’s congressional primary goes her way.
“I’m running because I’m concerned,” says Williamson, her angular face taking on the expression of a mom checking your forehead for fever. What worries her exactly? Diminishing civil liberties, for one. Expanding corporate influence. Voter apathy, political corruption, and the rise of domestic surveillance. Added together, she says, these threats constitute “such a powerful force of darkness that it could put American democracy in a death spiral.”
Her listeners tap into her urgency with vigorous applause and a few “woo-hoos.” It’s clear from their smiles that they already know Williamson and appreciate her heady rhetoric. She talks fast, making a few seconds of eye contact with everyone in her audience—one by one. Her style toggles from chummy to authoritative. “We’re doing fine. We’re cool,” Williamson says of the American people. It’s the U.S. government that is bringing us down, she adds. Five minutes later she raises her fist and her voice to exclaim, “It’s time for us to repudiate an aristocratic system!”
Dressed tonight in a tight black-and-white sheath dress and three-inch-high ankle booties that make her five feet five inches tall, Williamson could pass for a stylish Capitol Hill shark on House of Cards. But once she gets going, her stump speech is fueled with terms like “the politics of conscience” and “spiritual conversation.” She calls her push to represent California’s 33rd Congressional District, which extends from Malibu to Palos Verdes and includes other wealthy communities such as Holmby Hills and Brentwood, a “mindful campaign.” For Williamson, who was L.A.’s most famous spiritual teacher in the early ’90s, it is also nothing short of a mindful comeback.
There was a time when the 61-year-old author of ten books, six of them New York Times best-sellers, was the confidant of world leaders (during the Clinton administration, she once consulted with Bill and Hillary at Camp David). Back then, a list of Williamson’s devotees had more boldface Hollywood names than the credits of a Wes Anderson movie. David Geffen and Cher were among thousands who would line up to hear her weekly lectures on modern-day metaphysics at the Harmony Gold theater on Sunset Boulevard. She officiated at the wedding of Liz Taylor and Larry Fortensky at Michael Jackson’s Neverland Ranch in 1991, the same year Vanity Fair proclaimed her “a new prophet for the New Age.” In 1992, Williamson appeared on Oprah Winfrey’s show to promote her first book, A Return to Love, and quickly rose to self-help stardom. (Winfrey has said that she experienced 157 personal miracles after reading it.) That book alone has sold more than 1 million copies.
You might think that Williamson should be overseeing an empire by now, like Deepak Chopra with his Center for Wellbeing or life coach Tony Robbins, who charges up to $2,600 for a weekend of fire walking, goal setting, and energy renewal. Instead, in 1994, at the height of her popularity, Williamson abruptly left the city that made her famous and stayed away for 15 years.
Can Williamson, a lifelong Democrat now running as an independent, rise again? As she heads into a June primary against 18 opponents, including former L.A. city controller Wendy Greuel and Democratic state senator Ted Lieu, the answer depends in part on how well she explains not just her belief system but her peripatetic relationship with the city she hopes to represent.
It was in late October last year, after an acoustic performance by Alanis Morissette, that Williamson announced her bid for Congress at the Saban Theatre in Beverly Hills. On her Web site a video of the event shows her wearing a sleek flowered dress and speaking passionately to a crowd of attractive fans, many of whom are the type that could wear yoga pants and prayer beads at the office and get away with it. “Anytime…any person or any system does not operate with remorse, does not operate with a conscience, that’s called a sociopath,” she said. Her entrance into the race created ripples. Boldly, and some would say brashly, she was going after the seat of a beloved Democratic incumbent, the 40-year veteran U.S. representative Henry Waxman.
By taking on such a lion of liberalism, she was squaring off against a legislative legacy that included cleaner air, better medical assistance for people with AIDS, and access to affordable health care for all. From the start of her campaign, she gave Waxman his due but called for change. “I think institutional memory has value, but I think fresh ideas have value as well,” she stated in mid-January. She would later say, “I don’t feel in my heart like I’m running against Henry Waxman. I’m running against the political status quo. I’m running against the way things are done in Washington.” While she lauded Waxman’s achievements, she said that she would not have supported the Patriot Act or the National Defense Authorization Act, which Waxman did in 2011 and 2012. Then Waxman shocked everyone when he announced that he was retiring. Suddenly Williamson was a small fish in a pond crowded with candidates of all sizes, from career pols like Greuel and Lieu to a former creative director at NBC Universal, a public radio talk-show host and former Clinton adviser, a former State Department official, and a prosecutor who is also an Iraq War veteran.
All along, Williamson was working to counter what some might label the touchy-feely factor. “I’m sure they’re going to say I’m a New Age nutcase, dragon lady, lightweight thinker,” The New York Times quoted her as saying in a November article about her campaign. It was hard to tell whether she was being strategic or still smarting from an old wound—or both.
When I meet with her in her high-rise apartment in West Hollywood, there are no crystals or Buddhas. Her neutral-tone living room features a tufted sofa with leopard-spotted pillows, lots of piled-up coffee-table books, and a framed print by the artist Katya Gridneva. A glass bowl of shiny green apples makes the space feel more like a hip hotel lobby than a woman’s home. (Notably, weeks after our interview, she will leave this apartment behind and move to Brentwood.)
Williamson tells me that her image as a seeker has long brought her bad press. “There has been a tendency to create a caricature, and it’s very difficult to battle a caricature,” she says with a flat laugh. Perhaps because of this, she has always favored the fitted, tailored looks of a female CEO over the loose layers of a New Age sage, and today is no different. She looks a decade younger than she is. “People say they build you up and then tear you down,” she says. “Well, I missed out on the building-up part.”
This is somewhat disingenuous. No other candidate in the 33rd District appeared, as Williamson did, on Newsweek’s 2006 list of the 50 most influential baby boomers or was featured in Vanity Fair (complete with a moody portrait shot by Helmut Newton’s wife, June, who is known professionally as Alice Springs). Still, it’s true that almost every Williamson profile that was published in the early ’90s highlighted her mercurial temper and unchecked ego. “Marianne is a tyrant. She’s cruel—unnecessarily—and very controlling,” one former associate told People magazine in 1992. “It doesn’t mean that her works aren’t great. They are. But her own ego is going to destroy her.” Several of the people I spoke with for this story conceded that in the past her wrath has sometimes eclipsed her accomplishments.
Nobody questions her intensity or passion, though, and her closest friends all mention a levity that hasn’t been that evident on the campaign trail. “She’s compassionate, and she’s got such a great sense of humor,” says actress Frances Fisher, a close friend who first met Williamson in Washington, D.C., in 2006 and has been a major backer of her political efforts. (Williamson was there in support of then-Ohio congressman Dennis Kucinich’s proposal for a Department of Peace.) “She takes her work seriously, but she doesn’t take herself seriously,” Fisher says.
Her biting wisecracks—usually smart and self-directed—sometimes play better in person than on the page. She once acknowledged her reputation in a Los Angeles Times profile as “the bitch for God,” and in another article she jokingly identified herself as an “unwed Jewish mother.” Though born in Texas, she’s always made California the mainstay of her personal story. “No other city would have given me my career,” she tells me, leaning forward in a wing chair. Why does she think that is? Because, she says, “in L.A. we start new conversations.”
Ask Williamson about the political conversation she is starting and you will hear much about the “transformative power of love.” She notes that the country is in crisis and compares Americans to the loved ones of an alcoholic or a drug user. “Everybody can feel when [the addiction] has crossed the line,” she said in a conspiratorial whisper to an audience of 100 or so at a fund-raiser at the House of Blues last December. “That’s what I feel about the United States government at this point.… What should we do? Who do we call? Who does the intervention?” Even when she raises concrete issues—from GMOs to child poverty to high incarceration rates—she usually defaults to the language of her books. “It’s not what we’re looking at but how we’re looking at it,” she says, sounding more cosmic than civic. “When we don’t see things through the lens of compassion, through the lens of love, through the lens of mindfulness, we think and do stupid things.”
Such self-help talk may elicit guffaws in conservative Washington, but it sits better with those who consider themselves forward thinkers. California has a history of being the epicenter of personal enlightenment and spiritual reinvention. When Paramahansa Yogananda—the superstar spiritual leader and founder of the Self-Realization Fellowship in Mount Washington (and in Pacific Palisades)—arrived here in 1925, he christened L.A. the “Benares of America.” Benares, now known as Varanasi, is the holiest city in India. He was not the only guiding light. Evangelist and faith healer Aimee Semple McPherson had already built her Angelus Temple in Echo Park, which held services three times a day for an estimated 500,000 followers. Aldous Huxley settled in Hollywood in 1937 and went on to write about meditation and mysticism. For a time during the 1960s, the only teacher of Transcendental Meditation in America was a San Diego woman named Beulah Smith.
“California has always been a hotbed of alternative religion because there is less religious establishment and more people who are socially and culturally open to new options,” says Ben Zeller, assistant professor of religion at Lake Forest College and co-editor of The Bloomsbury Companion to New Religious Movements. “An infrastructure for new thought has developed there.”
It is the power of such an infrastructure that Williamson hopes to harness for her movement. In Greuel and Lieu, however, she faces candidates with years of traditional political experience. Her major opponents may not be much more specific on issues than Williamson, but they have hustled in the halls of government and formed the types of alliances that can help pass bills. Williamson’s political organizing experience seems to consist solely of an L.A.-based weekend conference called “Sister Giant,” which she organized in 2012 and was aimed at women in politics. She also wrote a civic-minded treatise titled Healing the Soul of America: Reclaiming Our Voices as Spiritual Citizens. That was in 1997. In an interview on public radio during that time, she spoke out but made no mention of getting involved: “Obviously our political system is profoundly corrupted by, among other things, the influence of money. But at a deeper level the current structure is flawed because it looks to citizens for only two things—votes and money.”
Some see Williamson’s inexperience as an insurmountable obstacle to victory. “Once you get into assembly and state senate runs, you’re dealing with political professionals,” says Raphael J. Sonenshein, executive director of the Edmund G. “Pat” Brown Institute of Public Affairs at California State University, Los Angeles, and author of The City at Stake: Secession, Reform, and the Battle for Los Angeles. In this race, he notes, we already have a major woman candidate (Greuel) and a major state legislator (Lieu). “Marianne Williamson,” Sonenshein says, “has no chance on earth.”
But others say she shouldn’t be counted out. “While I have no polling to support this inkling, I get a vague feeling that in the current environment, there might be nothing more powerful than an authentic voice,” Mark Leibovich, the chief national correspondent for The New York Times Magazine wrote in a recent analysis of the race. “Whether Williamson represents an ‘outside the box’ diversion or a welcome departure remains to be seen, but if your candidacy rests on that question, there are worse places to be running for office than California 33.”
This feature originally appeared in the June 2014 issue of Los Angeles magazine.