Williamson in April, at her Brentwood apartment. Photograph by Bryce Duffy
The woman who would eventually epitomize California’s devotion to self-awareness and self-love was born in Houston to Sam Williamson, a Russian immigration lawyer who’d changed his name from Vishnevetsky, and his homemaker wife, Sophie Ann. Marianne had a comfortable childhood—the youngest of three kids in an upper-middle-class Jewish family that valued speaking your mind. “My father was this amazing larger-than-life figure who was like a cross between William Kunstler and Zorba the Greek,” she says, referring to the radical civil rights lawyer and one of fiction’s most heralded free spirits. “He would say, ‘Beat the system! Beat the system!’ ”
Williamson’s first taste of California was a two-year stint at Pomona College, where she studied drama and was the roommate of future film producer Lynda Obst. It was a time of opportunity for women; the feminist movement was in full swing, and previously closed doors were being forced open in medicine, law, and academia. Williamson had trouble finding her passion. She dropped out and drifted around the country—making a living as a cocktail waitress and a temp—and honed her stage presence as a cabaret singer. She moved to New York in 1973, in her early twenties, and was sidetracked, as she once put it, by “bad boys and good dope.” Salvation came four years later in the pages of A Course in Miracles, the self-study spiritual curriculum written by New York psychologist Helen Schucman and published in 1975. The books, a gift from Williamson’s boyfriend at the time, spoke to her as few things had before. She pored over the 365 lessons included in the workbook section—think Werner Erhard’s est meets Plato’s allegories. Here’s lesson 1: “Nothing I see in this room [on this street, from this window, in this place] means anything.”
“My mother used to say that I studied it like it was a menu,” she says with a grin, recalling how she then returned to Houston and continued her immersion in Schucman’s teachings. She ran a coffee shop-bookstore to spread the word for a while. Then one day, Williamson says, she had a “flash” that she should close the shop and go to L.A. “It was nonrational, which doesn’t mean irrational,” she says. She picked up and moved. It was 1983, and she landed a job in the bookstore at the Philosophical Research Society on Los Feliz Boulevard. When the president of the society asked the 30-year-old Texan to lecture about her Course studies, she was thrilled but scared. “I had no idea that it would change my life forever,” she says. “How many people were there? I don’t remember. Not many.”
Word quickly spread about the “young woman talking about a God who loves you, no matter what,” she recalls. The message resonated particularly strongly with gay men who were grappling with the AIDS epidemic—a scourge made more horrible by the lack of a reliable HIV test and a largely uneducated public. “She was doing A Course in Miracles at a little church on Fairfax,” says Howard Rosenman, a film producer and longtime friend of Williamson’s. “We called it the ‘handsome boys’ religion’ because all these good-looking guys flocked to her. Marianne made spirituality hip, which nobody was doing back then. She was so sympathetic and charismatic.”
Unlike many New Age thinkers who preceded her, Williamson didn’t build a headquarters or mother church to centralize her flock. (“I don’t think of people as my followers, by the way,” she quickly corrects me when I use the word one afternoon over a carrot-ginger juice in Beverly Hills. “I think of them as my audience.”) Instead, in 1987, she founded a support organization for the terminally ill called the Los Angeles Center for Living, with a $50,000 contribution from David Geffen, the music and movie mogul. The center came to include Project Angel Food, begun in 1989, a program originally geared to the AIDS community that now serves more than 600,000 meals a year to the housebound. A sister center in New York City soon followed. But within a couple of years, high-profile members of the East Coast branch, such as the film director Mike Nichols, became dissatisfied with Williamson’s imperious and overbearing demeanor. They left to form a rival organization.
“What some people call ‘ego,’ I call ‘personality.’ I have a habit of saying what I think. That is a professional strength but sometimes a personal weakness.” — Marianne Williamson
By the summer of 1992, it was reported that Williamson had stepped down from the board of Project Angel Food amid rumors of power struggles. “I have a gruff side,” she admitted in one article around that time. David Kessler, who cofounded the Los Angeles Center for Living with her, says that Williamson handed over a check for $50,000 and graciously walked away. “It was hurtful to her to create something and not be properly thanked and have it be criticized,” he says, pointing out that Williamson is now an adviser to the organization. Rosenman, who worked with Williamson on Project Angel Food (though she later ousted him from the board) has this to say: “Marianne is not a god. She’s a human being. She has, you know, insecurities and fears, and she gets angry when things aren’t done right.”
With critiques of forceful women, there is often the lingering question, If she were a man, would her behavior have been so vilified? As for those allegations of brashness that always seem to nip at her heels, Williamson has adopted what she calls a “no apology” policy. “What some people call ‘ego,’ I call ‘personality,’ ” she tells me. “I have a habit of saying what I think. That is a professional strength but sometimes a personal weakness.” In the many hours I spent with Williamson, her storied ire never surfaced. She was punctual and friendly and asked to see a picture of my three-year-old daughter. But I also witnessed a high-strung side that appeared incongruous for someone who speaks of unconditional love and meditates twice a day. For example, when I asked about why she stepped down from Project Angel Food, she was more curt than contemplative. “I had the fifth-largest-selling book in America,” she said as her nostrils flared. When I asked why she left Los Angeles—and seemingly all she had worked so hard to build—there was a similar bluntness. “I had a lot going on in my life. I just felt I had to leave,” she said tersely. “I had a baby.”
Williamson says that it was her daughter, India Emma, born in 1990, who inspired her to decamp for Montecito, near Santa Barbara, in 1994. “I didn’t want to raise my daughter as a single mom in L.A. I look back now and think that is ridiculous,” she says. Williamson steadfastly refuses to reveal the identity of the father, leaving a blank space in her political narrative that she understands may cause controversy. (In the late ’80s, she was linked with actor Dwier Brown, who played Kevin Costner’s father in the 1989 movie Field of Dreams, and then movie producer Hawk Koch.) That hole in her personal story doesn’t concern her. “My daughter lives in London, and that is about as far as I will go in discussing her,” she says. “So be it.”
To hear Williamson tell it, after a few years in Montecito, she tired of the pastoral perfection. “I missed the grit of L.A.,” she says, recalling the bourgeois ennui that descended upon her in 1998. “I thought if I saw one more beautiful pool and one more beautiful manicured lawn, I would scream.” Instead of getting on Highway 101 and driving 90 miles south, she sold her $2.65 million estate with its elevator, pool, and olive tree-lined driveway and moved to, of all places, Detroit. Soon she was heading the nondenominational Christian Church of Today.
“They called me, looking for a minister, and I said, ‘How about me?’ It was a lark,” she says. While leading the church for five years, Williamson booked surprise musical guests, including Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler, expanded the bookstore, changed the church’s name, and then tried to sever ties with its parent organization, the Association of Unity Churches. For some in her congregation of 2,500, that last move went too far. “I looked forward to hearing her ideas every week, but she was like an egomaniac control freak,” says David Wenger, a current church member and Detroit attorney who threatened a group lawsuit if she insisted on secession. Wenger, who maintains that he is still a fan of Williamson’s, says he was one of many who suspected that she was trying to hijack the church for her own purposes—perhaps to build a complex like Michael Beckwith’s Agape International Spiritual Center in Culver City. Williamson still returns to the church periodically as a guest minister.
Williamson speaks haltingly when asked to describe those years, which also included some personal financial strife: In 2008, banks foreclosed on two Michigan houses she’d bought. “I got caught in the same unfortunate situation as millions of Americans,” she says of the $2.7 million worth of property that slipped through her fingers in Grosse Pointe, one of the richest enclaves in metropolitan Detroit. “I know the pain of a real estate investment that went south.” As for her break from the church, she says, “I want to be careful. Like, all is forgiven. Someone who has had New York Times best-sellers doesn’t go to Warren, Michigan, to build an empire. I went there to get some dirt under my fingernails again.”
Since 2009, when she returned to Los Angeles, Williamson has been rebuilding her spiritual constituency. “When I came back, I didn’t know at first if it was to reconnect or to reestablish,” she tells me. “The answer is, I’m here to reestablish.” Within a year, she began lecturing from the Course every week. She resumed writing books as well and has put out four since then, including The Law of Divine Compensation: On Work, Money, and Miracles and A Course in Weight Loss: 21 Spiritual Lessons for Surrendering Your Weight Forever.
Williamson continues to lecture on Monday nights at the Saban. In 1992, the suggested donation was $7; today it is $15, but no one is turned away for lack of money. Seeing her stride back and forth on a stage in black leather pants and a silk blouse is like watching a panther on the prowl. She’s confident, fluid, and even funny when she detours from spiritual pop psychology and riffs on relationships, making frequent self-deprecating references to herself. “When you’re attracted to someone, all that namaste consciousness just flies out the window, right?” she says with a knowing grin. The audience of about 300 is a cross section of middle-aged hippies and young actor types. Some take notes. Others nod along eagerly like A-plus pupils. By law, Williamson can’t campaign during her lectures because they are not official fund-raisers, but she does slyly mention her foray into politics. “As many of you know, I am running for Congress,” she says.
Most people don’t know that this isn’t the first time Williamson has dipped a toe into political waters. In 2010, she hired the consulting firm Laurel Canyon Media Group to gauge the likelihood of her winning a congressional seat in Southern California. The probe lasted just a few months, and during that time Williamson often referred to herself as “Obama 2.0.” Julie Buckner, the strategist who worked with her, says that Williamson’s Achilles’ heel is her arrogance. “She came at the 2010 race with big ego and a drive for power,” says Buckner, explaining that her firm quit abruptly after Williamson became abusive toward her and the staff she had assembled. “Her intention was fame, not service,” says Buckner. In the end, Williamson chose not to run in Southern California, including Santa Barbara.
When I ask why she settled on the 33rd District, Williamson acts as though she had never explored running outside of L.A. “You don’t shop for a district the way you shop for a pair of shoes,” she says, bristling. “I am authentically and organically related to that district. I feel that many of us have read the same books, participated in the same cultural dynamics.” So far she’s raised more than $1 million, compared with Greuel’s $672,000 and Lieu’s $621,000 (as of April 18). Williamson can’t boast major Hollywood supporters like Geffen or Winfrey (although the latter “sent me a ‘You go, girl!’ e-mail,” she claims). Actresses Frances Fisher, Jane Lynch, and Marcia Cross have all cohosted intimate fund-raisers.
Williamson, who championed the rights of gay men when AIDS was becoming an epidemic, with artist David Hockney at the Los Angeles Center for Living in 1991. Photograph courtesy Richard Perry/Corbis
More recently Williamson has been endorsed by a certain segment of young Hollywood: Nicole Richie backed her in a video, and Kim Kardashian took to Twitter to express support, urging her followers to vote for Williamson in the primary. Scoff all you want at validation from an overexposed, voluptuous reality star, but with her tweet Kardashian reached 20.9 million people in mere seconds. (With a few keystrokes, another Williamson supporter—singer Katy Perry—could reach another 52 million.)
For her part, Sarah Silverman let her 5 million tweeps know where she stands in a tweet that said, “A brilliant thinker in Congress? Yes, please!” The comedian tells me she’s been a Williamson fan since she read A Return to Love early in her career. “When someone isn’t just brilliant and informed, but has lived and continues to live an examined life, I believe this is what the country needs. There’s a great force and strength in it,” Silverman says. “Long wars have been started and continued over chips on shoulders and daddy issues…. It’s just plain true.” If Williamson “is actually willing to be in Congress,” she continues, “we should let her and thank her.”
Williamson campaigns tirelessly, with a nonstop schedule that includes sunset cruises, talks at public libraries, and house parties with live acts like Steven Tyler and Chaka Khan. At these events she consistently stresses such hot-button issues as universal preschool and cleaner air. But she never articulates a specific blueprint for change. Rather than view that as a weakness, her supporters herald it as a strength. “There is no lip service,” says Lynch. “She’s not some made-to-order candidate. She’s really going to be herself.”
Being herself is not necessarily a good thing. Williamson can come across as manic when she talks about democracy. (“I don’t want shackles. I don’t want chains. Get out of my face. We want liberty.”) And the way she dismisses conventional questions about what issues she will champion and what precisely she will do if elected can be confusing. “I’m going to Washington with a state of being as well as a state of doing. It’s not like I’m incapable of doing,” she says. “But what we lack now as a government is the capacity for understanding and deep analysis.” Anyone who paid attention to the federal government shutdown last fall will have a hard time arguing with that. But can pure idealism triumph over brass-tacks practicality? Do Angelenos want a congresswoman who seems more focused on speaking spiritual truths than effecting concrete change? The religious scholar Zeller notes that Williamson’s spiritual credentials and insistence on a kinder, gentler approach to campaigning aren’t without precedent: “Martin Luther King wouldn’t have used the word ‘mindfulness,’ but he would have called for an awareness of what is right or wrong.”
No matter the outcome in this month’s primary, Williamson has started a conversation about at least one thing: herself. She has raised her profile significantly and has reached a new, younger demographic. For the first time her name now resonates outside New Age circles and the self-help sections of bookstores. “I have been back here for five years, and I’m running for Congress,” she says. “Clearly I have reestablished myself.”
This article has been updated.
This feature originally appeared in the June 2014 issue of Los Angeles magazine.