Meet the Candidates 2020: Marianne Williamson

Depending on your point of view and your general openness to culty woowoo nonsense, you may be thinking that Marianne Williamson is the most interesting candidate in the 2020 presidential race. And look, we’re not here to dissuade you of that notion. While she isn’t always the most articulate on the issues (her love of New Zealand notwithstanding) Williamson’s origin story is definitely worth reading up on if you enjoy being entertained and/or want yet another reason to be annoyed with California.

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Though she does have a failed run for Congress under her belt, Williamson is best known as an inspirational speaker and bestselling self-help author. (Notably she is not the author of A Course in Miracles, the tome she’s most widely associated with). The philosophy behind her speaking and writing career is pretty much “think positive” and “love cures all,” but said with a lot more drama. Californians will recognize much of it from the unsolicited new agey lectures that are a regular part of life here and churchy people may recognize elements of prosperity gospel in it. In her political work Williamson’s rhetoric can be hard to follow for the uninitiated since it learns heavily into a lot of the same pseudo-spiritual metaphors and themes as her spiritual lectures. Periodically she stumbles upon a good idea though - she’s been quite effective at making the case that reparations should be more than an idea to be studied at some future date  - but she’s not always been effective at explaining what her vague plan to “harnass love” in our politics will achieve.

The Williamson origin story begins like so many Watergate era stories - with a disillusioned youth who felt she couldn’t be shackled to the system and left college halfway through to go on a spiritual adventure. During her self-described “wasted decade” she did on-brand things like live in a geodesic dome in New Mexico, move to Austin before it was cool, and eventually land in New York with plans to become a cabaret singer. While in the doldrums of the nation’s 70s-era existential crisis, Williamson happened upon a copy of A Course in Miracles. The book was the work of a clinical psychologist at Columbia named Helen Schucman who was slowly losing her mind due to work-related stress and legit believed that the book was dictated to her by Jesus. Williamson was not initially sold on it, not because the story of its writing is insane but because the Jesus connection was challenging to her identity as a Jewish person. When she moved to San Francisco, however, she began incorporating it into her very California pseudo-spiritual practice. That’s when she decided it was okay to take all the Christian-ness in the book as metaphor. (Schucman, oddly, was also Jewish and actually rejected the book before her death, but that’s a conversation for another day.) After a brief tour back to Houston to open a new age bookstore, get married, then get quickly divorced, Williamson headed to the promised land of LA and was soon speaking about the Course to packed rooms because...you know. LA. She was also roommates with Laura Dern in this era, which is just so random and weird and peak Williamson. On the more legit front she found a calling as an AIDs activist and helped found Project Angel Food, so that’s nice.

Despite the myriad pseudo-religions floating around in the post-war era and the fact that the Course very neatly fits within that framework, Williamson continues to insist that the Course is not a religion, it’s a, “self-study program of spiritual psychotherapy based on universal spiritual themes.” Whatever. A few years into her speaking circuit Williamson’s “lectures” became popular enough that she had to rent a church space to hold them so you do the math. She also began writing about the Course, applying it to everything from gender to money to weight loss. Her most famous book is one of her first, Return to Love: Reflections on the Principles of A Course in Miracles. It was published in 1992 and remained on the New York Times bestseller list for 39 weeks. Oprah, a huge fan of Williamson’s who had her on her talk show many times, claimed to have experienced 157 miracles after reading Return to Love so, look, there’s a reason we shouldn’t always trust Oprah. (Also one famous quote from this book is some reason it’s often attributed to Nelson Mandela. That’s just funny.) 

Williamson made millions of dollars on her speaking circuit in the 80s and early 90s but then bowed out of the limelight to have a baby and join the actual, non-pseudo clergy. For several bizzare years she was a pastor/televangelist at the Church of Today in Warren, Michigan, a church affiliated with the Unity Church movement. Then some HIGH drama broke out, including financial chaos, the staff trying to unionize to protect themselves from her alleged temper, and some major philosophical differences between her and the church leadership. She resigned (read: was forced out) in 2003 and returned to California in 2009.

Williamson’s first foray into politics was in 2014, when she decided to run for Congress in CA-33. The seat was open after the retirement of Rep. Henry Waxman, and Ted Lieu won it handily. When she announced her candidacy for president everybody outside of the LA area kind of yawned and asked who on earth she was, but as a celebrity with a cult-like following (sounds like somebody else we know) she was able to make the first few debates and, to be fair, she did make a splash. In her political life she has tried to give visibility to a couple of important and rarely discussed issues like justice for Native Americans, but notably, has no healthcare plan. It’s a mixed bag with her and probably will continue to be. Luckily she’s not in danger of winning any early primary states and probably won't be seen on the debate stage again. That said, she does have something to offer to the field - a lesson in stage presence. A creepy eye contact. And look, that’s more than some of these guys are packing.