February 17, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 22
In case you were wondering, things in California just got a little weird. Okay, maybe not “just.” Let me be more specific: The congressional election in California’s 33rd District, a coastal tract encompassing some of the wealthiest, most liberal quarters of Los Angeles County—Bel Air, Santa Monica, and Beverly Hills, to name a few—just got a little weird. On January 30, Henry Waxman, the district’s long-serving and notoriously cantankerous representative, surprised everyone by announcing he would retire at the end of this term. Since arriving in
Congress in 1975, Waxman has been a dogged champion of progressive causes and a frequent irritant to Republican administrations. During George W. Bush’s term alone, Waxman, from his perch on the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, launched investigations into everything from the handling of Hurricane Katrina to government contractors in Iraq to Republican National Committee email ethics. Generally speaking, he has been a pain in the collective GOP hindquarters for nearly 40 years.
But with Waxman bowing out, how will things change? A television producer named Brent Roske has declared his candidacy, but it’s purely symbolic, and he’s not actually campaigning. Sandra Fluke, the Georgetown law student who made a name for herself by complaining that the Jesuit school’s health plan didn’t cover birth control, floated her name as a possible candidate and then decided against it. There is a possibility that conservative Bill Bloomfield, who gave Waxman a run for his money in 2012, will give it another shot, but he has yet to announce (Waxman beat him 54-46 in a district Obama carried 61-37). The field remains wide open. In fact, at the moment, there is only one candidate running anything approaching a real campaign. Well, maybe “campaign” is the wrong word. It’s more a vision quest. If you live in Waxman’s district, Marianne Williamson doesn’t just want to represent you. She wants to save your soul.
Though perhaps not a household name, Williamson is something of a celebrity: Her self-help books have earned her national recognition, and her weekly lectures on spirituality have made her a fixture in Los Angeles for over 30 years. Back in October, having at long last grown tired of politics as usual, frustrated with the Democratic party of which she has been a member all her life, and armed with a large grassroots following (she claims more than 400,000 Facebook fans and 200,000 Twitter followers), she announced her independent candidacy for Waxman’s seat and has been kissing proverbial babies ever since.
New Age spiritual teacher, guru to movie stars, friend of Oprah—she is both self-actualized and self-made. Born to a Jewish family in Houston in 1952, by the late 1970s, Williamson confesses, “I was a total mess.” After bouncing “from relationship to relationship, job to job, city to city, looking for some sense of identity or purpose,” she found herself living in New York, “seeking relief in food, drugs, people, or whatever else I could find to distract myself.”
She wallowed in this depression until stumbling across a book that she credits with transforming her life. That book was A Course in Miracles, a 1,300-page spiritual manual (complete with student workbooks and instructions on how to teach it) written by New York psychologists Helen Shucman and William Thetford and published by the Foundation for ParaSensory Investigation (now the Foundation for Inner Peace). Williamson heeded the book’s call to become a “miracle-worker.” In 1983, now living in Los Angeles, she began lecturing on The Course (as she calls it) at the Philosophical Research Society in Los Feliz. She developed a large following, particularly among Los Angeles’s gay community, which was then being ravaged by the initial outbreak of AIDS. By the end of the ’80s, she had helped to found the Los Angeles Center for Living and Project Angel Food, both nonprofits providing assistance to people suffering from HIV, AIDS, and other life-threatening illnesses. A few years later, she had to resign the leadership of Project Angel Food after a controversy erupted when she fired several employees for their attempts to unionize. In response to numerous media reports of her explosive temper and overbearing management style, Williamson, ever ready to embrace her own weaknesses, nicknamed herself “The Bitch for God.”
In 1992, she wrote a self-help manual, A Return to Love, expounding on excerpts from The Course. A Return to Love’s overall spiritual lesson is that we as human beings are in fact all one being, not under but with God, that all of our minds are actually one mind, and that we have tricked ourselves into thinking we are separate from one another, thus creating fear, which dominates us and throws us into collision with everyone else, who, we need to remember, are really also us. According to Williamson, there is only one way out of this destructive cycle, and that is (spoiler alert) a return to love.
Both her book and The Course make liberal use of Christian theological terms, but deploy them as merely symbolic of universal spiritual truths. “The concept of a divine, or ‘Christ’ mind,” we learn, “is the idea that at our core, we are not just identical, but actually the same being.” Christ, you see, “is a psychological term” and “ ‘Accepting the Christ’ is merely a shift in self-perception. We awaken from the dream [that] we are finite, isolated creatures, and recognize that we are glorious, infinitely creative spirits.” And, not to leave anyone out, Williamson’s book also includes a smattering of references to other religious and cultural traditions:
In Taoist philosophy, “yin” is the feminine principle, representing the forces of earth, while “yang” is the masculine principle, representing spirit. . . . In Christic philosophical terms, Mary symbolizes the feminine within us, which is impregnated by God. . . . Through a mystical connection between the human and divine, we give birth to our Higher self.
And so on. And so forth.
Despite its mealy-mouthed pan-denominationalism, Williamson’s counsel is not, as these things go, all that bad: We should try to think of others more than ourselves; we should try to treat people with kindness; we should try to replace our selfish and fearful thinking with love. It is all just fuzzy enough about specific directives to appeal to spiritually minded folks who might be turned off by having to do anything, besides think happy thoughts, to achieve enlightenment. Perhaps as a result, the book spent 39 weeks on the New York Times self-help bestseller list and brought Williamson national attention (not to mention a lot of money).
In the intervening years, she has published nine more books (five more bestsellers), including, in 2000, Healing the Soul of America: Reclaiming Our Voices as Spiritual Citizens. The book is really a political manifesto, glorifying the protest politics of the 1960s and lamenting, “The invisible order that shot our heroes [i.e., JFK, RFK, and MLK Jr.] did not keep shooting, but began providing goods and services as quickly as possible to distract a grieving generation from our psychic pain.” The result of this materialist conspiracy, Williamson feels, has been a disengagement from politics, and Healing offers a broad indictment of the American voting public’s apathy and ignorance. “Today’s average American is more apt to rebel against a tennis shoe not coming in the right color than against the slow erosion of our democratic freedoms,” she declares. “Today, most Americans are too cynical, or tired, or both, to even approximate our Founders’ courageous repudiation of injustice.” The overarching message is that we need to slough off our materialistic chains and apply our great spiritual wisdom, above all our innate love for one another as human beings, to the political problems of the day. All we need, in other words, is love.
On my way to meet Williamson at a restaurant in Brentwood, I’m not quite sure what to expect. I’ve never seen a guru before, let alone had lunch with one, and my East Coast prejudices are already starting to get the better of me. I’m half-expecting her to glide into the dining room in flowing saffron robes and to answer my questions in New Age hypno-babble. To be honest, I’m kind of hoping for it. But I find her sitting at a corner table dressed neatly in a black pantsuit, mundanely sipping a cup of coffee.
Clearly, Williamson is not your straight-from-central-casting hippie-dippy-California spiritual type. She is tall, brunette, beautiful, and quite squarely put together: sharp features, a strong chin, a firm handshake. Her bearing is businesslike and utterly without pretension. The spiritual life has clearly been good to her. She speaks confidently, rapidly. She is relentlessly on message, and her message is simultaneously aggressive and unifying. “I think there’s a basic disintegration in our democratic foundation which is not being addressed by either major political party,” Williamson tells me. “Part of the problem I have with the status quo is that they only speak to the selfish interest of the American people, and I believe the American people are better than that.”
Her primary concern is that “Americans are feeling locked out of the system.” When I gently point out that the 33rd District, locus of countless Obama fundraisers and home to some of L.A.’s richest, most famous, most beautiful souls, ranks fairly low on any scale of locked-outness, she immediately agrees. “This is definitely one of the least locked-out districts.” That being said, “We are more than economic creatures. We have a soul.” She continues, benevolently, “I am not speaking to the rich in you, or the poor in you. I am speaking to the American in you.”
“Don’t get me wrong,” she says with a smile, “capitalism has been good to me. But what is happening today is that too many people can’t get in the club, there has to be enough access. There has to be enough access to opportunity for America to be a stable democracy.” All in all, she exudes an aura of moderation, and her frequent references to America’s most popular political icons only add to it. “The Constitution doesn’t mention political parties; Washington warned us against them,” she declares. “JFK said, ‘Let us not seek a Republican answer or a Democratic answer. Let us seek an American answer.’ ”
What, then, is the American answer that Marianne Williamson seeks? Well, despite the promise of her campaign’s slogan to “Create Anew,” it is pretty much warmed-over, social-justice, progressive, liberal blah blah blah, with a little California crunchy-wackadooism thrown in. Prison reform, climate change, shutting down nuclear power plants, and ending the “corruption of the food supply” are high on her list of priorities. Above all else, she is intent on getting the money out of politics and views Citizens United, the 2010 Supreme Court decision easing restrictions on campaign contributions, as perhaps the greatest threat to democracy that America has ever faced. But even while condemning both political parties and the state of our democratic system in general, while complaining about incarceration rates and Monsanto and “moneyed interests,” she somehow still sounds quite reasonable, lacking the stridency of MSNBC and the outright incoherence of the now-defunct Occupy movement (RIP). After just a few minutes, I can’t deny that Williamson is a knockout of a candidate: smart, eloquent, passionate, and considerably more telegenic than her, um, rodentine predecessor.
As our conversation winds down, she suggests I check out her weekly spiritual lecture, you know, “so you can see me in front of an audience.” I am happy to oblige, and when I show up at the Saban Theatre in Beverly Hills on a Monday night, taking my seat in the back among a crowd of several hundred spiritual seekers, I am not disappointed. Williamson writes in A Return to Love that “the spiritualization process . . . is the cultivation of personal magnetism,” and if she were any more magnetic, people’s fillings would be flying out of their teeth. As spirit guide, she is softer than in her candidate persona, but she talks just as quickly and fluidly and with as much conviction. “May we be lifted above and beyond to the endless love and peace that is beyond,” she prays from the stage, concluding, after a dramatic moment of silence, “And so it is.”
She talks for about an hour to the rapt crowd about a passage from The Course dealing with the idea that “I am as God created me.” Her talk is quite soothing, and she implores us to “discover within your mind the self that is the son of God.” She reminds us that we “are perfect and changeless, and so is everyone else,” that “the universe is invested in your self-actualization,” and that our “function is to be the light of the world.” The overall effect is pleasantly soporific, and by the end of the lecture I get why everyone here loves her so much. I mean, I feel fantastic; I had completely forgotten how perfect I was. After the closing prayer, after we “gently pour ourselves back into the awareness of the human body,” she gives us another “And so it is.” This time the audience calls back in unison, “And so it is. Amen,” which, I’m not going to lie, is pretty odd.
In fact, it’s almost as odd as some of her supporters. At the campaign’s weekly volunteer meeting, held at The Source Spiritual Center in Venice every Thursday, the first person I encounter, among the crowd of about 50 volunteers, is Steve. A self-described fiscal conservative and social liberal, Steve is the founder of GRIP—Get Rid of Incumbent Politicians—an organization with the modest goal of removing every single incumbent in America from office. Steve starts to tell me how he got involved with the Williamson campaign (“Have you heard of Dirty Wars?”), but our conversation is interrupted when an airy woman with flowing blonde hair grabs a microphone on stage and starts welcoming us to The Source. “Let’s just take a moment of silence and sit in gratitude for a moment and take a couple of breaths together just to get present in this moment. This is all we’re ever in, this is all we have, and that’s where all power lies.” She closes her eyes, inhales deeply, exhales, inhales deeply again, and exhales before inviting us to check out “the amazing soundbath The Source has on Saturdays,” with a promise that afterwards we can go to the “café and elixir lounge” downstairs, if we like.
She hands the mike over to Rob Nelson, Williamson’s campaign coordinator. Wild-eyed and meticulously unkempt, Nelson paces the stage back and forth like an uncomfortable comedian, the front of his sweater inexplicably tucked into his boxer shorts, which stick out of the top of his designer jeans. He and the campaign’s political coordinator, a nebbishy young fellow named Ben Eisenberg, go through a simple training session on how to register people to vote, and they dutifully deal with the volunteers’ innocence about the process. One supporter, for example, is horrified to discover that some of the people they register might vote for Waxman (he was still in the race at the time). Another asks if she has to stay in her own neighborhood, or if she can register voters in other parts of the district, to which Eisenberg responds, somewhat wearily, “If you live in Santa Monica, but you want to register voters at a farmer’s market in Malibu, that’s totally okay.”
There’s a brief pause in the action before everyone breaks into smaller groups to discuss canvassing specific locations, and I flinch when a pair of large hands suddenly begins massaging my shoulders from behind and a face pops into my peripheral vision. “Oh! I didn’t mean to startle you!” my new friend, an African-American man wearing a UCLA cap, says with a smile. “How’s the universe treating you?” I let him know it’s treating me just fine and ask how it’s treating him. “Oh, just living in the attitude of gratitude! So are you ready to create anew and achieve the dream?”
This is Tony. He’s been a follower of Marianne for a while, and when he heard she was running for Congress he signed right up to help. In fact, he even wrote a “musical poem” for her campaign. Based on the ’90s hip-hop song “I Got 5 on It,” the poem combines the Williamson campaign slogan “Create Anew” with the generally great life slogan “Achieve the Dream.” According to Tony, he got the idea from Gandhi’s grandson, whom he recently met on a trip to India. When I tell him I’m a reporter writing a story on Marianne, he asks excitedly if I think “America is ready for amazing grace on seis tres,” referring in Spanish (for obvious poetic reasons) to June 3, the date of California’s open primary, when the voters will decide which two candidates get to face off in the general election. When I tell Tony I’m not sure, he shakes my hand with a smile, tells me it was great to meet me, and vanishes almost as abruptly as he appeared.
A few days later I find myself in another bustling crowd, this time at the Santa Monica Bay Woman’s Club, where we are assembled for the Williamson campaign’s first monthly issues forum. Tonight’s topic is the all-important “Getting Money Out of Politics,” and Marianne has brought in special guest Adam Winkler, a UCLA law professor, to give a talk. As I enter the hall, I run into Whitney and Caroline, a pair of sixtysomething students of The Course. Even though they live just outside the 33rd District, they’re big supporters and plan on urging all their friends in the district to vote for Marianne. “She is a self-actualized person,” Whitney tells me, “Which is a good thing to bring to a body of people like Congress.” Caroline, the more talkative of the two, is more forceful in her endorsement. “It’s like Marianne says, it’s either love or fear. Do you remember what Eisenhower said?” I assure her I don’t. “Beware the military-industrial complex,” she says with a stern face, before adding, casually, “I believe in the Illuminati and all that.”
The room is packed by the time our guest speaker is introduced. Winkler, for his part, gives about as interesting and humorous a talk on the legal history of campaign finance reform as one could expect. Then Marianne joins him on stage, and the floor is opened for questions. “Waxman, while he has been good, has shown a penchant for the military-industrial complex,” the first questioner begins. “Why is impeachment of the Supreme Court not viable?” asks another. “How can we stop Grover Norquist?” “Is there a shadow government?” “Would you support efforts to eliminate all nuclear weapons from the face of the earth?”
Williamson handles these questions with aplomb, working the crowd, delivering lines that frequently elicit applause. Perhaps not surprisingly, she is less conciliatory here than in her sit-down with me. These are her people, and she is serving them red meat. Or whatever the vegan equivalent of red meat is. “Waxman says fracking is bad, but he won’t do anything about it. How many more studies do we need to realize we are raping our planet?” she asks, to much applause. She announces, to more applause still, that she supports a bill creating a Department of Peace and making its secretary a cabinet-level position. “The phrase ‘shadow government’ doesn’t feel helpful to me,” she says at one point. “It sounds like something over there that we can’t do anything about. They’re doing it in the light of day!” The crowd erupts. “We repudiated aristocracy in 1776. It is time for us to repudiate it again!” she shouts, to the loudest cheers of the night.
Throughout all this, she still manages to talk about America’s founding principles and the greatness of the American experiment, about the urgency of reengaging with the democratic process, at one point even referring to Tocqueville, all while making the case for her candidacy. “The House of Representatives is the people’s house—the artist, the philosopher, the shoemaker should all serve terms,” she says. “I think my election to Congress would be the best thing to happen to the Democratic party—it would make them get their soul back.”
And it is the soul after all—be it the Democratic party’s, America’s, yours, or even mine—that Williamson is most concerned with. After a question on the compatibility of spirituality and politics, posed toward the end of the forum, Williamson grows a little quieter, a little softer, assuming her spirit-guide mantle yet again. “Spirituality is the path of the heart, it should influence everything we do.” She concludes, simply, “We need a politics of conscience, we need a politics of heart, we need a politics of love.”
As we file out of the Woman’s Club—our political apathy most heartily rebuffed, a nascent sense of brotherhood among us, the energy of a newfound love for our fellow man propelling us merrily toward the parking garage next door—a bearded, burnt-out-looking man sporting a grungy flannel under his “Marianne for Congress” T-shirt asks if anyone can give him a ride to a place called Café Gratitude in Venice. An awkward silence ensues. Nobody in the crowd responds, or even makes eye contact with him, doing their best to ignore his existence.
And so it is.
Zack Munson is a writer in Los Angeles.