One evening at a party in New York, she came across a large blue volume with gold lettering just sitting on a friend’s coffee table. This was “A Course in Miracles,” and it became the basis for all Williamson’s dogma. It was written by Helen Schucman, a psychology professor who said it was dictated to her by Jesus. Williamson read it and knew that this was the way to live a meaningful life of goodness — you needed only to shift your perspective just enough to see how love infiltrated the world. This shift in perspective was, she said, “the miracle.”
She got an administrative job at the Philosophical Research Society in California and later began lecturing about her gospel at the Methodist Church, at a Unitarian church, at St. Thomas Episcopalian. She attended to communities that most people had forgotten. She started a nonprofit that provided nonmedical services to AIDS patients and another that organized food delivery for the bed-bound. “Gay men gave me my career,” she told me.
Then, in 1997, she got a call from a Unity church in Detroit, asking if she knew of anyone who could minister the church. Her answer was herself. There, she did private counseling; she did couples counseling; she helped lead prayer services to promote racial healing, in which white members of a congregation turned to black members and apologized for the many years of oppression they endured and still endure at the hands of their ancestors and themselves.
Williamson bridged the gap between traditional religious practice and a nebulous New Age spirituality that didn’t revolve around ritual or a formal institution. She prescribed what we would now call a basic gratitude practice, or a meditation practice, or rudimentary empathy and compassion toward others. She talked about nothing less than how to make a better world, which was to understand that the people who inflict pain do so because their own pain hasn’t been addressed. She wrote radical, beautiful things, like: “In every community, there is work to be done. In every nation, there are wounds to heal. In every heart, there is the power to do it” and “The goal of spiritual practice is full recovery, and the only thing you need to recover from is a fractured sense of self.”
She went on “Oprah,” back in the days when just using the word “spirituality” got Oprah bombarded with letters saying the word was meant for Sundays. Williamson and Oprah spoke about the splintered world, and Williamson suggested a prayer for healing. “If I’m a conservative, God, heal me of my thoughts that liberals are the problem. If I’m a liberal, God, heal me of my thoughts that the conservatives are the problem.” She said we were at “emotional civil war” in this country, where the rich blamed the poor (and vice versa) and the white people blamed the black people (and vice versa). “Everybody seems to agree that the immigrants are the problem. I’ve never seen anything like it.” This was decades ago.
She ministered to whomever was listening — her readers, her congregants, the people who traveled to listen to her, people who live-streamed her — in the language of self-help, which is the language we are mostly all fluent in now. Just ask the billion-dollar, steep-growth field of life coaching. Just ask the billion-dollar field of motivational speaking. Just ask the meditation app on my phone. Just ask yourself if your first reaction to the word “consciousness” is about the acknowledgment of that which surrounds you, or of being awake.
Still, she didn’t assume running for president would be easy. She mustered a campaign staff of seasoned professionals with a long history of Democratic success in campaigns both establishment and long-shot. She knew that the other people who were running for president had been preparing for this their whole lives. They didn’t have, say, tweets that read: “All the films were good, but ‘Avatar’ has changed the world. He didn’t win an Oscar tonight, but James Cameron deserves a Nobel Peace Prize.” Or: “Yin is feminine, earth; yang is masculine, sky. When God is seen as He, the soul is seen as She. Just archetypes. Spirit impregnates soul.” Language like that doesn’t play so great in a presidential race.
In August, I followed Williamson to an event called the Wing Ding, where Iowans ate barbecue and listened to each of the Democrats speak for five minutes. They talked about the working class, the wage gap, ending the war in Afghanistan, the middle class. They talked about women’s rights and L.G.B.T.Q. rights and racial equity. Cory Booker said, as he brisk-walked into the event, that he admired Williamson as the thing she was before declaring herself a presidential candidate — a guru, a spiritual leader, a faith healer, an author, whatever. “I think she’s said some really beautiful things,” he said carefully. He had memorized a quote of hers that he said is often falsely attributed to Nelson Mandela: “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us.” That quote is from Williamson’s 1992 book, “A Return to Love,” Booker said. Booker, an actual vegan who has read Williamson’s books, has received zero laser-eye memes at my last count.
I spent a lot of this summer following Williamson around the country. I had been listening to her on porches and at ice-cream socials. I had shown up at campaign events where I saw my colleagues in the media, who asked me what I was doing there. When I told them, they laughed and said, “Perfect” and “That is going to be hilarious.”
But I wasn’t feeling hilarious about this. I had never seen anything like this before in my life. I’d known about the primary process, obviously, but I didn’t understand how moving it is to see in person: all these people in the first-to-primary states, making decisions for the country and taking the weight of those decisions seriously. They didn’t come in with preconceived notions about anyone, not even Williamson. And if they voted for Bernie Sanders last time, it didn’t mean they were voting for him this time. I hadn’t met anyone who told me his or her mind was already made up.
On the last day of July, a group of Williamson’s followers assembled for the second debate in Detroit. They weren’t as mighty in numbers as Elizabeth Warren’s apple-cheeked, blazered supporters or as sturdy and folksy seeming as Buttigieg’s contingent. (They certainly didn’t stink of weed as much as Bernie’s supporters.) Williamson’s supporters were people who have lost faith in the system, many of whom have felt estranged from any political conversation that’s happened since at least the beginnings of Barack Obama, but probably more accurate, the end of Jimmy Carter.
One person held a handmade sign that said “Love Wins” in girlish script with a heart over the i’s in “wins” and in “Marianne” and around “kindness is free”; one had a sign that said “Mari-Yang,” as in yin and yang. A woman nearby with long gray hair and a backpack told me she was there because she had dated someone who was just like Donald Trump — “a workaholic, a narcissist — I’ve been gaslighted before.” Reading Williamson’s work had healed her, and she was sure that Williamson could similarly heal America from the experience of having, I guess, dated Donald Trump for these three years.
Williamson, meanwhile, was in her green room, preparing. A senior adviser had told her to be herself. “You’ll be fine,” he said, whether he believed that or not. Williamson was nervous. She had gotten very few minutes in the first debate and was feeling breathless with her frustration at anticipated interruption.
A block down the road from where the debate was being held was the Fillmore Detroit theater, where a portion of Williamson’s robust following from her days in the city gathered to watch the debate. A woman glumly ate blueberries out of a large Ziploc bag as the debate began. Williamson raised her finger once or twice to answer a question, only to be bulldozed by another candidate. Having had enough of this, the woman eating blueberries stood up and said, “I came here to hear Marianne talk, and nobody is letting her talk.”
The woman left, and I wondered if she regretted it, considering how things turned out that night. Just a few commercial breaks later, Williamson was asked by CNN’s Don Lemon what made her qualified to determine how much “financial assistance” was due to black Americans in reparations for slavery. She corrected Lemon and said it wasn’t financial assistance; no, it was a “debt that is owed.” “I’ll tell you what makes me qualified,” she said. “If you did the math of the 40 acres and a mule, given that there were four to five million slaves at the end of the Civil War — they were all promised 40 acres and a mule for every family of four. If you did the math today, it would be trillions of dollars. And I believe that anything less than $100 billion is an insult, and I believe that $200 to $500 billion is politically feasible today, because so many Americans realize there is an injustice that continues to form a toxicity underneath the surface.”
Earlier she had talked about how the continuing water crisis in Flint, Mich., would never have happened in her old (wealthy) neighborhood, Grosse Pointe. “Flint is just the tip of the iceberg,” she said. “We have an administration that has gutted the Clean Water Act. We have communities — particularly communities of color and disadvantaged communities all over this country — who are suffering from environmental injustice.” The wind was at her back now. She shook her fists at the heavens as the audience cheered. Even her use of the phrase “dark psychic forces” resonated not just with the meme factory but with voters, who knew that psychic doesn’t always mean psychic; sometimes it just means psychic. People saw that someone was finally calling out white nationalism and anti-Semitism and xenophobia, something her fellow candidates wouldn’t do so consistently for another week, when two mass shootings in one day killed 31 people.
After the debate, she arrived to greet the press, triumphant. Chris Matthews was doddering around. Last time, he wouldn’t interview her on the post-debate panel on MSNBC (“We were too unclean for him,” a campaign staff member told me). Now he shook her hand warmly and congratulated her. There was a line of media waiting for her — CBS, Bloomberg, the Young Turks, a kid reporter who wanted to know what kind of pet she had. (A cat; it died a few years ago.) She’d been scheduled to go on the post-debate panel on CNN at 1 a.m., but the kingmaker Jeff Zucker himself had called down and asked that she be put on earlier, so there she was sitting. Was it perfect? No. Did Anderson Cooper ask her whom she’d been supporting in the election, so that she had to politely remind him that no, really, she was running in it, too? Yes. But he was warm, and smiling, and there she was, sitting right between him and Van Jones.
When Williamson walked into the Fillmore, it was nearly 1 a.m. Her loyal acolytes had been waiting in vigil, singing “Amazing Grace,” and they erupted in applause and hugs when she entered. One of the several political reporters who had made fun of me for doing a Williamson article texted me to ask how I’d seen it coming. Across the room, Williamson talked about angels and Abraham Lincoln and took selfies. A few campaign staff members danced around in victory a little. David Brooks said, in this newspaper, that while some of her ideas were “wackadoodle,” she might be the miracle the Democrats, and this country, needed.
We probably will never know. Right after the second debate, just as love seemed to be making its mark, a rash of alarming articles came out, based on things Williamson had written and said in the past, that seemed to spell the end for her. They included a response to an audience question she had answered while campaigning in which she called mandatory vaccines “draconian” and “Orwellian.” These articles quoted from her book “A Return to Love,” in which she said she believed that “sickness is an illusion” and that “healing doesn’t come from the pill. It comes from our belief” and that “cancer and AIDS and other serious illnesses are physical manifestations of a psychic scream.” People had dug up old tweets and were passing them around — tweets like, “How many public personalities on antidepressants have to hang themselves before the F.D.A. does something, Big Pharma cops to what it knows and the average person stops falling for this? The tragedies keep compounding. The awakening should begin.” She was accused of telling AIDS patients not to take their medication. She was accused of shaming people who took antidepressants. Someone tweet-quoted highlights from her book “A Course in Weight Loss,” implying she was a fat-shamer.
Patricia Ewing, her campaign manager, was certain that the timing wasn’t a coincidence. Williamson, she felt, was being swiftboated by someone who felt threatened by her — you could see it in the way all the think pieces about how anti-science she was had the same talking points in the same order, which, to Ewing, always meant opposition research, but what could she do? Williamson had given strict orders to never go on the attack.
You can preach for people to love their illnesses in self-help; you can tell them that their healing is in their hands. People who look for those books pretty much know you’re speaking about the suffering of the mind, not the body; they understand the metaphors and know how to derive wisdom from them. The people who sought Williamson understood her language of angels and demons and miracles. They understood that those things didn’t take place on an unproven plane of the universe: The angels were our decisions to do better; the demons were our resolve to never try; and the miracle was just that tiny shift in perspective, that tilt toward love, that would change the way we think and act and believe.
But now everyone could hear her — the anti-vax nuts, the science crusaders — not just a self-selecting crowd of spiritual seekers. Her words were suddenly subject to the kind of scrutiny that a presidential campaign must learn to abide. Her life in self-help, which had brought her fame and the loyalty of millions, was being weaponized against her.
The last time I saw her, it was in Iowa, at her apartment. I had joined her at the state fair there after a brutal week in which she was subjected to relentless questioning about her stance on vaccines and antidepressants and whether or not she had killed AIDS patients. She had ultimately conceded that herd immunity was more important than any vaccine skepticism, but she is also very wary of the way medicines — including antidepressants — are conceived and tested and prescribed and how few checks there are on these companies. She kept responding to the questions, rather than moving on or explaining that she had released statements that explained her points of view clearly, and with every additional comment, she created more headlines about vaccines and not about love.
This wasn’t how to win, Ewing told her. This wasn’t how to campaign. And maybe she finally understood that, because now, with me, she weighed her words carefully and took innocuous things off the record. When I complimented her home, she wanted to make sure that I understood and would make clear that she moved to Iowa because it was practical; she was going to be campaigning, and her lease in Manhattan was up — no flash, no calling, no voice of her late father sending her on her way.
Later that day, she went to Central City, Iowa, and spoke to a group. She told the story of David and Goliath again, and when she got to the part about hitting him where he wasn’t defended, she didn’t use the phrase “third eye.”
She left the stage and said to Ewing, “I bet you were worried I was going to say ‘third eye’ again.” Ewing laughed and said that yes, she was. (But the story doesn’t make as much sense if you don’t talk about the third eye.)
By then, she was beginning to wonder if this system was broken — if, in fact, a presidential campaign was designed to keep outsiders out, which is the opposite of democracy. “People would say, ‘You’re out of your depth,’ ” she said. “I feel I’m in my depth. A deeper conversation is in the depth. I’m the only one who mentioned American foreign policy in Latin America. I’m the only one who mentioned that our health care system is basically a sickness care system. I’m the only one who mentioned what Donald Trump is actually doing, collectivizing fear, and what it will take to override that. So was I out of my depth? Or is the conversation that was being promoted there not chronically superficial? And any conversation which is in fact of depth is made to appear silly?”
Two weeks later, she had reached the grass-roots fund-raising quota but not the polling requirements by the deadline for the third debate. She called me up, upset because she felt she hadn’t been given a chance. “The overt and covert message to people like myself is you’ve had your fun now, go home,” she told me.
Maybe it is the system. Or maybe the country wasn’t ready for self-help. In Iowa, at the Wing Ding, I asked one of her fellow candidates if a message of love could win. He shook his head no, “because we’re an emotionally constipated country.” Yes, a campaign of love sounds silly when taken against a background of serious words and immediate policies and $1,000 a month for life. It sounds crazy on Twitter, and it would make me laugh to see it in the New York Times headline typeface.
Or maybe it’s just so radical you have to hear it for yourself. A lot of the ideas I heard on the trail were that way. I tell you, when I sat there, listening to these candidates on porches and under canvas tents and on an apple crate and in Adirondack chairs, it seemed to me that it was only something you would believe if you could stand there and look the person in the eyes and hear his or her sincerity and good intentions. At the Wing Ding, I heard all the candidates talking about their Democratic ideals, about being “the party of the working class,” of not being “afraid of equal rights” and overcoming “darkness with our light” and about how no matter who you are in America, “you ought to have a chance to build a secure future.”
It was easy to get carried away. I clapped along with the voters of Iowa, all of them sitting and willing to listen to anyone who might have a good idea. A political reporter sitting next to me said, “Taffy,” and put her hands over mine to stop my applause. But when she looked at me to scold me, she saw that I was crying. “Dear God,” she said. I knew it was untenable for everyone to get to see this up close, to understand that there is something strong that is still intact in our democracy — that devotion to these ideals is a kind of love.
In Williamson’s apartment, I told her I wondered if it was possible for America to ever become a country that prioritized love. I didn’t understand why if the only complaint I ever heard was that there was so much hate, why love was so hard to swallow. There at her dining-room table, she leaned forward and said something that was beautiful to me about the way the universe restores order to itself. It was filled with the kinds of words that start memes. She asked that it stay off the record, but I wish she hadn’t, because it did what it was supposed to do, girlfriend, which is that it helped me feel better.