Maintenance Phase

Marianne Williamson

September 14, 2021
Maintenance Phase
Marianne Williamson
Show Notes Transcript

Last year, spiritual leader Marianne Williamson made headlines when she ran for president.  But 10 years earlier, she wrote a bestselling book that promised to teach readers how to “surrender" their weight forever. This week, Mike and Aubrey take a deep dive into Williamson’s life story and her 2010 book, “A Course in Weight Loss."  Along the way we talk nonprofit drama, Eleanor Roosevelt and gays for Marianne. Plus, Mike’s got a message for the twinks.


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Mike: Welcome to Maintenance Phase, the podcast that thinks your aura looks a little purple today. 


Aubrey: [chuckles] Oh, I like it.


Mike: Because we're talking about wellness--


Aubrey: [laughs] 


Mike: --crystals.


Aubrey: I'm Aubrey Gordon.


Mike: I'm Michael Hobbes.


Aubrey: If you would like to support the show and our crystals, you can do that on Patreon and you'll get a bonus episode of us yelling into microphones about Shallow Hal, the 2001 Farrelly Brothers’ masterpiece. [laughs] 


Mike: The worst thing that's ever happened to me. 


Aubrey: You can also get shirts and tote bags and mugs and masks and all kinds of things at TeePublic. Both of those links are linked for you in the show notes and are at maintenancephase.com.


Mike: As usual, if you don't want to support us, that is also chill.


Aubrey: We're here if you want to support us, and we're here if you just want to listen and hang out.


Mike: If you just want to listen hang out.


Aubrey: Delightful. 


Mike: Today, we are talking about one Ms. Marianne Williamson.


Aubrey: Yeah. The self-proclaimed Bitch for God. 


Mike: Wait, really?


Aubrey: That's a phrase that she used to describe herself quite a bit in the early 90s, I learned.


[laughter] 


Mike: The Lilith Fair did something to a whole generation for Gen-Xers.


[laughter] 


Aubrey: Mike, for the uninitiated, what would you say about Marianne Williamson? How did you come to know of her existence?


Mike: Okay, I kind of am the uninitiated. I think I must have first heard of her in last year's election, where she was an out-of-left field, dark horse candidate who showed up on the debate stage and then made a bunch of weird zingers. She was just like a kooky, anti-vax, adjacent, left wing woo-woo stuff. I remember my overall impression, people I knew from the East Coast were like, “Who is this woman? She is totally off her rocker.” People I knew from the West Coast were, like, “A person like this is my medical doctor.” That was the American divide at that time.


Aubrey: [laughs] She's the human equivalent of one of those t-shirts, that's like a wolf howling at the moon. 


Mike: Yes. [laughs] 


Aubrey: Marianne Williamson, I would say, is best known for her work as a spiritual leader. She is in her late 60s now. So, she's like a-- [crosstalk] 


Mike: Oh, wow.


Aubrey: -white lady. She has written 13 self-help books. 


Mike: Oh, my God. 


Aubrey: Four of those are New York Times number one bestsellers. She fills stadiums for her lectures. She has a huge cadre of celebrity supporters. I'm so excited to take you through all things Marianne Williamson from jump.


Mike: Do it. Take me.


Aubrey: Marianne Williamson was born in Texas. She's from Houston, Texas. Folks who have heard her speak, we will hear her speak throughout the course of this episode, will note that she has a little bit of Texas twang and a little bit of Mid-Atlantic accent. 


Mike: Like Jackie Onassis on the ranch. 


Aubrey: Her maternal grandparents were Russian-Jewish immigrants. Her immigrant roots are very important to her. They were also an upper middle-class family. Her mom was a homemaker. Her dad was an immigration attorney. She went to pretty nice fancy high schools, and went away to Pomona College in Southern California, which is one of those liberal arts colleges that ends up on all of these lists of the best liberal arts colleges you've never heard of. 


Mike: I think you were going to say it's one of those colleges that shows up on breitbart.com of, “These liberal students did this thing.”


Aubrey: [laughs] You would know that better than I would. [laughs] 


Mike: That’s my world. 


[laughter] 


Aubrey: She went away to Pomona for a couple of years. She studied theater and philosophy for two years, and then she dropped out. It was not for her. She spent the next decade living in California and New Mexico, Texas, New York, all over. She calls this her “lost decade,” where she was swayed by “bad boys and good dope.” That’s how she talks about that.


Mike: Okay. 


Aubrey: Sure, man. 


Mike: That sounds great. 


Aubrey: Living up, Marianne. 


Mike: What years were these? 


Aubrey: This would have been the 70s. 


Mike: Okay. She missed the 60s. She missed the peak Haight-Ashbury years, but she's there in this immediate aftermath. 


Aubrey: Yeah. And she's in San Francisco for a short period. Actually, that short period is in 1976. She's in San Francisco and she picks up a book called A Course in Miracles. A Course in Miracles is quite a famous spiritual self-help book, that’s focused on the power of forgiveness. It relies really heavily on Christianity and is constantly referring back to God the Father, and Jesus and all of this stuff. The author was a psychologist and psych professor, her name is Helen Schucman. She also said that the book was dictated to her by Jesus. 


Mike: It's amazing she doesn't have a diet named after her. 


Aubrey: We'll get there. 


Mike: Oh, good. 


Aubrey: I am going to send you a little quote from the LA Times to read out about A Course in Miracles. Hang on just one second. 


Mike: It says, “The course offers a variation on so-called New Thought, the American metaphysical movement that dates back to the 1880s, resting on the belief that the only reality is God, and that negative things like poverty, sickness and fear are unreal, as Melton put it. The course advocates surrendering to God’s plan and approaching life in a loving, nonjudgmental way. The change in perception is said to produce miracles.” Ooh.


Aubrey: Yeah. Tell me your reactions to that.


Mike: If she was a man, I would be waiting for the sexual assault allegations at this stage. It's just standard 'the things in your life that are getting you down are effectively your fault.' If you have the right beliefs, then all of those things will go away. It is another example of the stories that wealthy people tell themselves about how the world works to justify their own position, even though they don't realize that's what they're doing.


Aubrey: Yeah. You can see how this is helping lay the groundwork for The Secret and a bunch of the next wave of prosperity gospel stuff that's starting to come our way. The other thing that stands out to me about this is Marianne Williamson, someone who's very rooted in an immigrant experience, but particularly a Jewish immigrant experience, for family, and A Course in Miracles is extremely Jesus-y. Initially, she talks about feeling put off by the amount of Jesus in this book, but she comes around, and in 1991, she tells Vanity Fair, “A conversion to Christ is not a conversion to Christianity. It is a conversion to a conviction of the heart. The Messiah is not a person, but a point of view.” So, she's starting to make some room for herself to both embrace her Jewishness and also embrace this very Jesus-y self-help book.


Mike: Which is totally fine, until you start selling it to other people, or promising that it's going to change other people's lives.


Aubrey: What we'll get into is selling it to other people in a diet book, by the way, is what we're talking about today.


Mike: Yeah, I forgot the premise of our show. I was like, “Ah, this is interesting, kind of random stuff.” 


Aubrey: We're not just going through primary candidates-


Mike: [laughs] 


Aubrey: -for the 2020 presidential. [laughs] 


Mike: Next episode, Dick Gephardt.


[laughter] 


Aubrey: She read this book in San Francisco in 1976, and she starts taking in these lessons about “miracles” from A Course in Miracles. In 1979, she has this epiphany that she wants to move back to Houston, Texas, which is her hometown. She moved there and opened this metaphysical bookstore/coffee shop. She does that for a few years, until she has another epiphany, she calls it a flash, when she decides to move to Los Angeles. She moves out to Los Angeles in 1983. She shared an apartment with a roommate when she moved there. She talks very proudly about moving out to Los Angeles with $1,000 in her pocket. 


Mike: That sounds fake. Those stories are always fake. 


Aubrey: They're always fake.


Mike: Wasn't she running a successful business? She would have had enough money to do this.


Aubrey: She moves to LA, she gets an apartment, she gets a roommate. That roommate is 17 years old and she was 31, which is a little odd. 


Mike: Oh, wow.


Aubrey: That roommate is also Laura Dern. 


Mike: No way. 


Aubrey: [laughs] 


Mike: Ah, icons. An episode full of icons.


Aubrey: True icons. The name dropping in this episode alone, you're going to get a backache from reaching down to pick up all those names. 


Mike: [blows a raspberry]


Aubrey: Around this time, she starts hosting prayer groups in their apartment that are focused on A Course in Miracles, the self-help book that she's read. Over time, those turn into lectures, and over time, she starts breaking from the Christianity-only approach of A Course in Miracles. She starts weaving in Judaism and Buddhism and pop psychology. She’ll weave in some 12-steppy kind of stuff. She at this point is giving these lectures in these prayer groups for a suggested donation, and she didn't turn people away for lack of funds. Based on everything I've read, that remains her model today, which is honestly cooler than a lot of self-help people.


Mike: Yeah. It sounds like she's adapting this a recipe. She's found this base thing, and then as she goes along, she's tweaking it to her own preferences and her own worldview.


Aubrey: Yeah, this is where it feels like it links up to moon juice with me where you just imagine someone like going through an orchard and taking something off of one tree and something off of another tree, but not really watering the trees or caring for them or tending to them or understanding how they work or any of that stuff. Her profile continues to rise locally, but she really blows up in the 90s, and media coverage of her work really blows up in the 90s. She gets a bunch of press coverage that sexualizes her a lot and in really weird ways. 


There's a Mother Jones piece that describes her wagging her finger during a comment and also comments on her “nicely muscled arms.” There's another reporter who calls her “a sexy little guru.” It's so weird. As she's getting sexualized by this weird press coverage, she's also calling that out, and she's like, “This is weird. You guys are talking about me in a really different way than you would talk about a man,” which is true. But also, she talks about women's leadership and sexuality and attractiveness in really weird ways. She's given this quote a couple of times about how she suspects Eleanor Roosevelt could have made a bigger impact if she'd just worn makeup. 


Mike: Ooh.


[laughter] 


Mike: Let's go ahead and leave Eleanor Roosevelt out of this. 


Aubrey: [laughs] 


Mike: As soon as you said Eleanor Roosevelt, I just had a mini stroke. 


Aubrey: As she's having the rise to spiritual leader stardom that's happening pretty slowly over the course of the 80s, she's also doing a bunch of work in nonprofits. In the late 80s, she cofounds the Center for Living, which focused on providing services like guided meditation, massage, meals, that kind of thing to people with terminal illnesses, and particularly, it's focused on people with HIV and AIDS-


Mike: That sounds good.


Aubrey: -because at that point, in the late 1980s, a bunch of direct service programs, a bunch of hospitals, a bunch of people are just refusing to provide services to people with AIDS or people who are HIV positive. The seed funding for that is provided by David Geffen of Geffen Records. 


Mike: What?


Aubrey: Yeah, totally. 


Mike: Okay. 


Aubrey: She is definitely in the LA milieu at this point. She's surrounded by celebrities more and more and more. She's actively seeking out those connections. Around this time, this is now the early 90s, the LA Times reports that there has been a big staff and board clash, especially over her leadership style. Staff under the condition of anonymity describe her as controlling, they describe her as someone with a big temper. They also say she wants to lead meetings with prayer, and then she frequently references religion and God in work settings, and folks were just uncomfortable with that level of religion in the workplace.


Mike: You and I have both worked at NGOs. 


Aubrey: Yeah. 


Mike: Eventually, we have to do an episode that is just all NGO drama. Turf wars, the board turns on the CEO, you can't keep the interns.


Aubrey: Mike, you might get your wish right here tonight. 


Mike: Hell, yeah. 


Aubrey: [chuckles] In addition to creating this discomfort with staff, there are also reports that her level of focusing on religion and invoking Jesus in particular in this realm of service provision, is that it also hampers their fundraising efforts. The donors who are willing to give to queer people at this point and to HIV and AIDS are not necessarily the donors who are super down with a ton of Jesus talk.


Mike: There's also a broader issue with how many social services in the United States are provided by explicitly religious organizations. 


Aubrey: Yes, absolutely. 


Mike: A lot of the homeless shelters that I spent time at have these like, you have to go to a service to get the free lunch and they're handing out religious literature. It's just a weird system that we've sleepwalked into where it's essentially ideological organizations providing basic services.


Aubrey: It's extra gnarly that she's stepping into this gap where there are fewer service organizations, fewer of them are funded, fewer of them are willing to work with people who are HIV positive or who have AIDS. So, they continue to fight it out in the press. There are profiles in Vanity Fair and People and the LA Times and all of these different news sources, that culminates in this big Vanity Fair story where some of the board members of the Center for Living were critical of what they perceived as Marianne Williamson's desire for fame. Following that story, she essentially dismissed a number of board members who spoke to Vanity Fair. 


Mike: So, like a little purge.


Aubrey: She does a little purge, which is just like, “Alright, if you're not behind me, then bye.” One of the board members that she dismisses is Mike Nichols. 


Mike: Really?


Aubrey: [laughs] Mike Nichols, director of Postcards from the Edge and Working Girl and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf and The Graduate, The Birdcage, bunch of other stuff.


Mike: He got fired by Marianne Williamson.


Aubrey: Mm-hmm. 


Mike: And then, he calls Laura Dern, and he's like, “We've got to talk.”


Aubrey: He calls up some other people and joins with some other now former board members, and they set up a rival organization. 


Mike: Oh, good.


Aubrey: It's such nonprofit battle nonsense. 


Mike: Yeah, it's some good Adidas-Puma stuff. 


Aubrey: [laughs] 


Mike: This is like every NGO I've ever worked at.


Aubrey: Do you understand why I was excited to tell you all of this?


Mike: There's some arcane fight between board members and ends with a fucking mutiny. And then, somebody sets up the same organization, but without Susan or whoever at the top. [laughs] 


Aubrey: And then, they go to all the funders and they go, “That other organization is fucked up.” Basically, all the reports are pretty much the same, which is that she flies off the handle pretty easily. She gets into micromanaging events and projects to the detriment of those projects. Being an executive director of a nonprofit is an extremely hard job, and she is a person who is badly suited to it. In 1989, so around the time that there's all this tumult in the Center for Living, she also cofounds Project Angel Food, which is like God's Love We Deliver. It's like we're delivering meals to people with HIV or AIDS in LA. With both of these organizations, she takes no salary, which I think that sounds like a good and altruistic thing to do on the face of it. But I'm not a fan, I'm curious about your reaction to that.


Mike: Don't get me started on the whole NGO salaries, man. 


Aubrey: Go. 


Mike: If people aren't making money, then you're only going to attract people who have money already. 


Aubrey: Yeah, totally. This one feels a little different because her staff is making salaries, but she's doing a thing where she's like, “No, no, no. I'm not going to take a salary.” 


Mike: But then where's her money coming from? 


Aubrey: Oh, she's wealthy at this point. 


Mike: Oh, from the talks.


Aubrey: From the talks, from her generational wealth, that part's not super-duper clear. There are some reports at this point about her living in a two and a half million-dollar home, and that's late 80s dollars.


Mike: But what do you think about her not taking a salary?


Aubrey: I think it's a thing that sounds good on paper, probably sounds good to donors. Ultimately, it divorces her experience from that of the staff she's supposed to support and supervise. There's now this uneven power dynamic happening, where they're relying on this work for their livelihood, but she isn't. So, she's founded Project Angel Food, and there's trouble there, too. They cycled through four executive directors in five years, according to People Magazine. The best liked among the bunch was the last one named Steve Schulte, and staff are pissed. They knew that they didn't get along. They knew that Marianne Williamson had long advocated for Steve's dismissal. So, they demanded her resignation and they said that if she stayed, they would unionize. 


Mike: [laughs] Hell, yeah. 


Aubrey: Right. 


Mike: Do it. 


Aubrey: Mike, we're getting all the way up to some nonprofit nonsense.


Mike: This is like you needed to give me the content warning at the beginning of this episode, like you were describing half of my human rights career. [laughs] 


Aubrey: Same. She publicly opposes not just the union, but the unionization of nonprofits altogether. She's like, “I don't know about this. I don't think there's a good thing to do.” She goes out hard against unions of people presumably working for the greater good.


Mike: That's a move. That's an interesting choice-- [crosstalk] 


[laughter] 


Mike: Because usually bosses do the thing where they're like, “I like unions, just not at this workplace. I don't think it's right for us.” But she's just like, “Fuck unions.”


[laughter] 


Aubrey: I don't think people necessarily understand the number of people who are working in nonprofits for at or below minimum wage.


Mike: It's unbelievable. I have interviewed people who've left work at homeless shelters to go be baristas because they make like one-third more.


Aubrey: Yes. And there's this whole dynamic as well of foundations that fund nonprofits are now conditioned to expect and conditioned to demand low wages for those workers, who are like, “Hey, man, I gave you all this money. Why am I only getting four staff for that?”


Mike: I know, and they all watch that fucking TED Talk about overhead costs for NGOs out of control. They're like, “What's your overhead percentage?”


Aubrey: Part of what happens then also is, again, funders, nobody wants to be the funder or the individual donor who pays for the internet. It all ranks as frivolous stuff, when in fact, that's a bunch of essential stuff. The things that get determined as creature comforts, or health insurance with a copay of less than $50. 


Mike: It's like human rights.


Aubrey: We'd like to be able to buy shitty pizza for our volunteers once a week or something. It's like really, really not breaking the bank kind of stuff. 


Mike: We want pepperoni on the pizza. Can we have pepperoni?


Aubrey: We're getting into so many classic nonprofit dynamics. And one of the classic nonprofit dynamics is there are many, many different kinds of executive directors, types of people who take on that role. One of them is somebody with a real temper. And by all accounts about Marianne Williamson, she is that person. Her front-facing self is this very divine, woo, religious person who's very much about embracing your imperfections and about growing through change and all that stuff. And then, in her nonprofits, she has a real temper and is really rough with people.


I'm going to read through just a quick little series of quotes. In Entertainment Weekly they say, "Sally Fisher, who started the AIDS organization, Northern Lights Alternative, says, “The bottom line is you're not allowed to disagree with her. She goes ballistic. People go on these boards to take care of people with HIV, not to take care of Marianne Williamson's ego issues.”


This is from that People Magazine piece. “One staffer, the Manhattan Center's board director, Regina Hoover, was put on probation with Williamson's consent last year, one week before Hoover's scheduled double mastectomy. A short time after her surgery, Hoover was fired, then forced to haggle for months over the terms of her medical insurance.”


Vox, they reported that Marianne Williamson shouted at her staff telling them not to speak with reporters saying, “You're fucking with my livelihood. I'm famous. I don't need it, damnit.”


Mike: Man, I need a moment. This is [crosstalk] NGO bosses I had. I had a male boss who referred to one of my colleagues as a C word-


Aubrey: What?


Mike: -in front of two interns that we had just hired that day, and it was International Women's Day. It was March 8th.


Aubrey: On top of all of this stuff with staff dynamics, she is really significantly underperforming on fundraising. If you're a board member or an executive director at a nonprofit, that is ostensibly the biggest part of your job. One fundraiser she has for the Center for Living is budgeted to bring in $2 million at a single fundraiser, which for my small nonprofit brain blew my tiny mind. That event that was budgeted to raise $2 million, only brought in $725,000. 


Mike: 40% of what you expected. 


Aubrey: Uh-huh. I don't know how you have that big shortfall, and don't lay off staff, I don't see how that's possible.


Mike: Or sell some of Marianne’s crystals [crosstalk] in her office this time. 


Aubrey: [laughs] 


Mike: There's also a thing in, I think, the dynamics of NGO specifically can be a little bit like the ends justify the means of outlook. Like, “Well, I'm saving starving African kids.” And it's like, “Well, you are, on a broader level. But on a day-to-day level, that's not what you're doing.” On a day-to-day level, you need to hold this conference and it's actually not okay to yell at the person who's organizing the conference.


Aubrey: Yeah. I do think there are conversations that I have either been in or heard disgust, where management in nonprofits or funders to nonprofits will say, “Well, I thought you were committed to the cause, but if you're asking me for more money, you must not be committed to the cause.” 


Mike: Oh, my God, I know.


Aubrey: That is like, a real thing that happens, that is the weirdest, most coercive nonsense.


Mike: This is another thing with NGO executive directors, is that oftentimes, they are clueless, rich people who aren't used to having people around them, who second guess them. Some of it is just Marianne probably doesn't know what she's doing. 


Aubrey: There's just these disconnects every step along the way, that are born of asking work that happens for the greater good to be self-sustaining and self-funded, rather than being projects of the states or fully funded by private foundations or whatever. Marianne Williamson's response to this criticism is really frustrating to me. She essentially says to multiple media outlets, “If I were a man, I'd be considered a good, decisive leader.”


Mike: Ooh, good card to play. [crosstalk] 


Aubrey: Which I'm like, “Bad faith, Marianne.” Even if that's true, which it's 1992, it probably is true.


Mike: On some level, yeah.


Aubrey: But regardless of gender, that's a bad fucking way to run a team. The goal isn't do things the way that white men do them. What?


Mike: Or also, like, “My bad behavior wouldn't be getting called out if I was a dude.” Well, we should probably be calling this out for everyone. 


Aubrey: She ends up stepping down from both of these nonprofits that she has cofounded in the same year, 1992. And that is the same year that she publishes her first book called A Return to Love.


Mike: It's funny to be writing a self-help book as you're being called out in the pages of Vanity Fair and busting unions. 


[laughter] 


Mike: "Look, I've got it all figured out. I need to share the secret with everybody else."


Aubrey: Well, it's all about leading from a place of love. And I'm like, “Well, Marianne.” 


Mike: Yeah, let's get a fact check in the chat. 


Aubrey: She really launches onto-- at this point in the late 80s and early 90s, she's California famous. In 1992, she becomes globally and nationally famous. In that time, she meets her most famous follower. I'm going to send you a link, I'm going to ask you not to look at the title of the video.


Mike: Okay, I'm opening this link. I'm blocking the bottom half of the screen with my-- Oh, shit. [laughs] 


Aubrey: There's a surprise.


Mike: I got a little freeze frame. Marianne, Oprah. 


Aubrey: Oh, just the bad actors anointed by Oprah.


[video starts]


Oprah: You have been a spiritual friend and counsel to me for years, and I can't remember even what the problem was. I was calling you up crying about something. And you said to me, for whoever it was, had done something to me, it was a deep betrayal. And you said, “You want to change it, pray for them.” I went, “I cannot pray for them. You want me to pray for them?” 


Marianne: I say to people in my lectures all the time, “Okay, here's your homework. Pray for that person's happiness for 30 days. Every morning-"


Oprah: I know.


Marianne: -five minutes if you can, because that's what alchemy is. If I pray for somebody that is causing me harm--


Oprah: Where I feel has harmed me. 


Marianne: But if I pray-- your greatest power to change the world, A Course in Miracles says, is your power to change your mind about the world. And all minds are joined. There's really no place where you stop and I start. If I pray for you, if I pray for your happiness, my mind, one of two things will happen. Either you will behave differently or I won't care.


[video ends]


Mike: Oh, my God. 


Aubrey: [laughs] Tell me your thoughts. 


Mike: First of all, the alchemy stuff, I stopped at the alchemy stuff. I don't understand how she doesn't see this is so condescending. It's like that thing on The Real Housewives or whatever, where they're like, “I feel sorry for you.” That's what it feels like to me. It feels catty. It's not really about taking culpability for your own actions, or trying to understand the other person's perspective, or even coming up with a solution. But ruminating on someone you're having a conflict with and thinking about them in the morning and wanting to “help them” like, “Oh, it's so sad,” I don't know. It just makes me feel like there's a slime covering my body.


Aubrey: Well, and I really struggle to figure out what situations they're even recommending this for. 


Mike: I know.


Aubrey: If someone's been sexually assaulted, and you go, “All right, every day for 30 days, I want you to pray for your rapist for whatever--” No, that's not it. It's also just a conversation that thrives in a complete lack of specificity. As soon as you start to drill down and go, “Oh, it's my bad boss,” or, it's this person who just irritates the shit out of me or whatever the things are, it falls apart as soon as you start to apply a particular situation to it, but it sounds vaguely good. 


Mike: Yeah, a lot of this stuff is so generalized as to be totally useless. I guess if somebody was mean to you at the grocery store, finding ways to let go of that anger, because you have no ongoing relationship with that person could be useful. But if you're talking about like, “Oh, my husband belittles me in ways that don't make me feel good,” praying for him is not the solution to that. There's a very narrow range of problems where this is actually prudent advice.


Aubrey: Well, not according to Oprah.


Mike: Yeah, of course. 


Aubrey: Who has Marianne Williamson on her show for the first time in 1992. She proudly announces on the show and to press that she bought 1000 copies of the book herself. She says that she has experienced and “157 miracles” in her life as a direct result of reading this book.


Mike: Round it up, Oprah.


Aubrey: Say 160, Oprah. As a result of being on Oprah's show, they sell out the first printing of the book. They sell out 70,000 copies of the book on that day, and it becomes a number one New York Times bestseller.


Mike: Here we go. 


Aubrey: This book in 1982, A Return to Love, is where we get one of the most famous quotes from Marianne Williamson, that is to this day very widely misattributed to Nelson Mandela. 


Mike: Oh, no.


Aubrey: Yeah, the quote is this. “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 has been misattributed to Nelson Mandela in at least two feature films, and it's Marianne fucking Williamson everybody.


Mike: Isn't Crash and Green Book, the two worst racism for white people movies?


Aubrey: [laughs] Throughout the early 90s, she keeps publishing books, she publishes a lot of books. And in 1998, so we're now in late 90s, she decides once again to make a big move. This time, she moves to Warren, Michigan, to become the leader of a unity church called The Church of Today. There are a couple thousand in-person congregants, but there's also a TV show. And some sources say that that TV show of her sermons, her talks at this church draw 50,000 viewers. Okay, so now she's moved into this realm of being almost like a New Age televangelist. Around this time, she also officiates one of Elizabeth Taylor's weddings. She has Steven Tyler as a musical guest at their church.


Mike: I don't understand how celebrities all know each other, but whatever.


Aubrey: The point at which it gets really tricky, and this is the point at which we've been walking through some like nonprofit history dynamics badness. And now, we're about to step fully into political history badness.


Mike: Oh, no. Does she sponsor the 1994 Crime Bill or something?


Aubrey: [laughs] No. Throughout the 2000s, she focuses on publishing, on giving her talks, on cranking out a bunch of books, all that stuff. Until 2014, when Henry Waxman seat opens up in California, and she decides to run for Henry Waxman’s seat. 


Mike: Oh, I did not know this. Okay. 


Aubrey: She runs as an independent in California's 33rd congressional district, CD33 in California includes Malibu, Santa Monica, Pacific Palisades, Brentwood, West Hollywood. If you are a person who is inclined to believe in caricatures of coastal elites, this is the district for you. 


Mike: I'm imagining a lot of front yards with those signs that say like, “In this house, we believe no person is undocumented,” that list of things. And then right next to it, there's a sign that says like, “Save our parking, we want I to stay the same.”


Aubrey: [laughs] You're nailing it. She gets a bunch of celebrity endorsements for this campaign, including the endorsement of Ben, but not of Jerry, from Ben & Jerry's.


[laughter] 


Mike: And a rift opened up that day. 


Aubrey: [laughs] Really, splitting the ice cream vote. 


[laughter] 


Aubrey: Ultimately, in that 2014 campaign, she finishes fourth. She has 13% of the vote. That seat ultimately went to Ted Lieu.


Mike: Okay, thank God.


Aubrey: Then in 2018, she formed an exploratory committee to run for president. She positions herself as sometimes being in alignment with Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren, and often being to the left of him. But always, always more woo than that.


Mike: Yeah, I feel the left-right spectrum is not all that useful with people like Marianne Williamson, because she's on a whole other dimension.


Aubrey: Essentially, in a lot of ways, she's a very traditional left flank candidate, where she's like, “I'm going to join this race, I'm going to push a bunch of issues, I'm going to push a conversation in a different direction. And then, I'm going to drop out when it's clear that it's not happening.”


Mike: It's a PR campaign more than anything else, whatever.


Aubrey: In that way, she's a very traditional left flank candidate. In some other way, she's really, really not.


Mike: She's the first to recommend vagina eggs on [crosstalk] debate stage?


Aubrey: [laughs] Yeah. A chicken in every pot and a Goop subscription in every email-- [crosstalk] 


Mike: I think you were going to say an egg in every vagina.


[laughter] 


Aubrey: She is classic lefty in some ways and then in other ways she talks about believing in elements of faith healing. She's using some real anti-vax rhetoric without going all in on anti-vax positions. She said that mandatory vaccines are “Orwellian and draconian.”


Mike: God, this was already a fucking tedious debate before it became “the debate.” Jesus Christ. 


Aubrey: Totally. 


Mike: “I'm just asking questions.”


Aubrey: Around this time, this is clearly the biggest stage she has ever been on. These responses start to come out from gay men who were alive and out in the 80s, who start talking about their experiences with her nonprofits. People start writing on Facebook that she was conning people into “believing they deserved their biological condition, even their deaths because they weren't spiritually fit enough to visualize the AIDS virus away.” 


Mike: Oh, Marianne.


Aubrey: One person said, “I had friends who died in the 80s and 90s thinking they were unworthy because they couldn't love enough.”


Mike: Oh, my God.


Aubrey: She writes about this in her book, Slate has a little recap of here are the things that she says in A Return to Love that apply here. She says, “Cancer and AIDS and other serious illnesses are physical manifestations of a psychic scream. And their message is not hate me, but love me. Sickness is an illusion that does not actually exist. Instead, it's a sign of ‘our judgment on ourselves, not a sign of God's judgment on us.’”


Mike: Wellness guru, read a biology textbook challenge. HIV is actually a specific thing. It's an immunosuppressing virus. We know how it spread, we know how it works. Argh, I hate this shit.


Aubrey: She runs for president. She gets all of these celebrity endorsements. Kim Kardashian, Alyssa Milano, Jeff Goldblum, who I learned dated Laura Dern in the 90s. 


Mike: Oh, my God.


Aubrey: From Eva Longoria Parker, from Jesse Ventura, from Deepak Chopra, from Alanis Morissette, from Jane Lynch. A bunch of weird West Coast support, and particularly support from West Coast gays, like younger gays.


Mike: Sometimes, I want to shake the twinks and explain things to them. 


Aubrey: [laughs] 


Mike: “I was once like you. It's not your fault.”


Aubrey: [laughs] “I'm coming for you Bryan with a Y.” No, I know an actual Bryan with a Y, he's lovely.


Mike: I will also say there is something I think very irritating about gay culture and the reaction to her as Yas Queen icon. I think the fact that she was a little bit campy is probably what recommended her to our people. I just think that we should be careful with that shit. Some of these people who they're good on TV and they're quippy or whatever, are sometimes trying to smuggle in some very bad ideas. 


Aubrey: She's stating public positions in a compelling way. Beyond that, she doesn't appear to have much. In January of 2020, she lays off her staff team. She has a staff team of about 20 at this point. At this time in the election, Joe Biden has 490 staffers, and Michael Bloomberg has 2400 staffers. Marianne Williamson lays off her staff of 20. She tries to run the campaign on her own for a week, and then she packs it in. Since then, she's remained involved in politics, but she's mostly back to spiritual leader living.


Mike: Guruing.


Aubrey: And that is what brings us Michael, to her book, A Course In Weight Loss.


Mike: Which you have been obsessed with for years. 


Aubrey: I truly have.


Mike: You have mentioned this so many times.


Aubrey: I love it and I hate it. It's terrible and it's great. Before we dig in on that conversation, discussing this book is extremely difficult without describing practices of disordered eating and disordered body image because that's actually part of what she's actively advocating here. I would like to let Marianne Williamson introduce her own weight loss book. She made a series of little promotional videos for different chapters in this book, and this is the overall intro. 


Mike: Okay, A Course in Weight Loss, Marianne Williamson 2010.


Aubrey: 21 Spiritual Lessons for Surrendering Your Weight Forever.


[video starts]


Marianne: You know, compulsive eating addictive eating is obviously a problem that many of us have experienced. I'm not a food addict, but there was a time in my life when I was a compulsive eater. I know what it's like to think about food constantly. And like any other problem of this type, we get to a place in our personality where there is some entrenched [unintelligible 00:40:01] almost where we simply are not able to live in our power, our strength, our serenity, our love, and get our needs met at the same time. And so, it's as though we go into this fractal personality, this place where we behave dysfunctionally, where we self-sabotage, where we, in the case of compulsive eating, actually harm ourselves thinking while we're doing it, that we are comforting and nourishing ourselves.


[video ends]


Mike: She's gotten a lot better at public speaking since 2010. There's something weirdly generic about it. It's like I guess God is going to help you stop eating compulsively, but it's not even wacky. It's just a normal speech you'd hear from a suburban preacher or something. It just reminds me of stuff I heard as a kid.


Aubrey: I think the wackiness comes in the book itself. The whole book is centered around this idea of “compulsive or addictive eating.” She sells this book, in large parts, or frames that around the idea that this has been a problem for her personally. I will say I did a lot of research on Marianne Williamson for this episode, I did not come across any images of her that appeared to be any fatter than she is today. She talks about surrendering her weight and letting go of her weight. It doesn't appear that she ever had more weight to let go off.


Mike: Which doesn't mean she hasn't struggled with compulsive eating.


Aubrey: Totally.


Mike: Dealing with a behavior that you're not happy with, is not the same as losing 80 pounds, or whatever she's promising that you can do. 


Aubrey: This is called A Course in Weight Loss. I think it's also worth noting, throughout the course of this book, she's trying to reassure her readers that they're not fat because of impulse control, or willpower, or not finding the right diet or whatever. They're fat because of their brokenness. 


Mike: So, it's shades of the HIV stuff.


Aubrey: Totally. She says, “While overeating would be seen by some as an indulgence of self, it is, in fact, a profound rejection of self. It is a moment of self-betrayal and self-punishment, and anything but a commitment to one's own wellbeing. Why would you be able to commit to a diet if you're not already consistently committed to yourself?”


Mike: I don't even know if she's saying something specific enough for me to be offended. This is empty refrigerator magnets. This doesn't mean anything. It's like when I worked at my community college newspaper, and I wrote the horoscopes.


Aubrey: Wait, did you? 


Mike: Yeah.


Aubrey: Oh, my God.


Mike: The trick is to write something so empty, that people will project whatever they're going through onto it. So, it's like, “Our impulses are a denial of our true nature. To truly know ourselves, we must become what we cannot perceive.” That doesn't fucking mean anything.


Aubrey: I feel part of what happens when you talk about food addiction or compulsive eating in the same breath as weight loss and size, is that it invites a set of judgments that becomes a framework for understanding fat people. That's the point at which it becomes a problem for me personally.


Mike: That's when you have to start thinking of voting for somebody else in the 2020 [crosstalk].


Aubrey: [laughs] Look, up until now, I was a hard Marianne voter.


Mike: Williamson [unintelligible 00:43:32], Aubrey Gordon.


Aubrey: [laughs] This book is organized into 21 spiritual lessons, and you're instructed to take on these lessons in order. Each day, for 21 days, you have a different thing to do. Those lessons have titles like, “Thin you, meet not thin you.” “Invoke the real you.” “Exit the alone zone.” “Birthing who you really are.” And “Soul surgery.”


[laughter] 


Mike: God, I can see why Oprah loved this shit. Jesus Christ.


Aubrey: And there's other stuff that is straight up stigmatizing. Lesson 1 is called “Tear Down the Wall,” which I assumed was in reference to emotional walls. No, she is referring to “a wall of flesh.”


Mike: [laughs] She’s going straight in. She's like, “Fuck your body.”


Aubrey: She says in that one, “The weight you are seeking to let go of was added to your consciousness before it was added to your body. Your body is merely a screen onto which is projected the nature of your thoughts. When the weight is gone from your consciousness, it will be gone from your physical experience. As the fear is miraculously removed from your mind, its manifest reflection will fall off your body.” 


Mike: Okay, say that again, but say Pisces before you do it.


Aubrey: [laughs] 


Mike: Wednesday. It's fucking gibberish. I don’t even know what the fuck any of that means.


Aubrey: Here's what I took that to mean, “Your body is a reflection of your psyche.”


Mike: What if I have a fat psyche, Marianne? What if my psyche is fit?


Aubrey: [laughs] It's very woo, and it's not really saying anything, but when you can parse a meaning, it's not saying great things about fat people. Chapter “On Loving Your Body,” includes the phrase, “You did this to yourself.” And I was like, “Cool, I'm out. Bye.”


Mike: It's like, “It's not your fault. You're just a huge piece of shit.” 


[laughter] 


Aubrey: Lesson 2 is when she gets real concrete. Are you ready for some concreteness?


Mike: You're sending this to me. I want to read this. 


Aubrey: Oh, you want to read it? 


Mike: I want the text in front of me, so I can try to diagram these fucking sentences. 


[laughter] 


Mike: It's like something from fucking Narnia. I don't know what she's talking about at any point.


Aubrey: Lesson 2 is called “Thin you, meet not thin you.” She wants you to write a letter to your future thin self. And then, she wants you to write a response from your future thin self to your current fat self.


Mike: It just says, “I'm hungry. Help me. I'm trapped.”


Aubrey: She includes a sample letter. She says it's written by someone named Beatrice, but she doesn't really say how she knows this person, but this is the sample letter. This is her recommended way of going about this exercise. Here's the letter. I'm so sorry for making you to read this-- [crosstalk] 


Mike: Oh, my God.


Aubrey: Mike, I told you, you asked for the quote and I gave you the quote. I'm so sorry.


Mike: Okay, so it starts out, “Dear fat ass, I know your lumps and bumps are merely a navigational reminder of where you have been. When bad things happen to little girls, all of that, the story, the events, but now you are the event. You no longer have control over what happens to you, fatty.” Jesus. “The double cheese pizza and nachos are no longer where it's at. You are here. You can celebrate your fierceness that was born with me, skinny you, long ago, when you stood up and spit in his face. Put down the fork and pick up the fight.”


Aubrey: Talk to me about your reactions to this.


Mike: I feel like I'm a better person now in ways unrelated to my physical body than I was in my 20s, but I would not speak to myself in my 20s like this. Having insight on yourself in the past requires, I think, honesty, but I don't think it requires stigmatizing your own self like this.


Aubrey: Yeah, it's fucking awful. Part of what this person seems to be referencing is some pretty kind of profound abuse. Holy fucking shit, if that's the way you're talking about the version of you who was abused, that's also not fucking great. This is not A Return to Love, Marianne. This is some of the most insidious, stigmatizing, anti-fat rhetoric around. This exercise of, your future thin you writing you a letter and your current fat you writing back, or whichever way it happens, is rooted in the idea of inside every fat person is a thin person yearning to get out. The idea is that your fatness and your fat self represent a self-sabotage that is separate from you and from your true and real self. It's a materialization of your trauma and your psychic scream or whatever. This doesn't actually end any of the judgment facing fat people. It just internalizes it. It just invites it into your own brain. Now, it's not just about your body, it's also about your trauma. It's also about, “Can you stand up to the person who abused you effectively? Are you strong enough to do that? The way that you do that is by losing weight.” It's really fuckin' icky.


Mike: Yeah, it's also taking double cheese pizza and nachos away from me. Am I not doing those anymore?


Aubrey: [laughs] Lesson 4 is our next lesson, and this is where this logic intensifies. This is where she gets further into this idea of who's the real you and what's the fake you. Here is the quote.


Mike: “The real you is neither fat nor skinny. The real you is not a body at all, but rather a spirit, an energy, an idea in the mind of God. The real you is a being of light and therefore has no material density. The more you identify with the light of your being, the lighter you will feel. You will materialize a lighter body when you have a more light-filled mind.” This is like the boss text from Hollow Knight. “Fear literally weighs you down, but love enlightens you. Your deepest fear isn't of being fat. Your deepest fear is of being thin. Your deepest fear is of being beautiful.” This is like the Nelson Mandela quote.


Aubrey: Yeah, totally is. She just subbed out fat for power and whatever. 


Mike: But this is so fucking stupid. “Your fear isn't of being fat, your deepest fear is of being thin.” No, what is that even--? What are you talking about? That sounds deep, but no, people are pretty straightforwardly afraid of being fat, because fat people are stigmatized.


Aubrey: This is part of what I find really fascinating and troubling about this quote is that, in this section of the book, she's talking a lot about like, “When you were thin, you might have been sexually assaulted. When you were thin, you were abused. So, now you've gotten fat to protect yourself,” which again, any physical manifestation of fatness is the sign of brokenness or of trauma. The lesson itself for this section, would you like to know what the lesson is? 


Mike: God, it's going to be pushups or something? 


Aubrey: Oh, my God, Mike, if it was pushups, I don't know that we'd even be recording this episode. The lesson itself is that you're supposed to find a picture of the body that you want.


Mike: Oh, no.


Aubrey: Whether that's a younger version of your own body, or a picture of somebody else, a picture of a model, a picture of an actor, a picture of a person you know, whatever. Then, you're supposed to cut out a picture of your face and put it on that body.


Mike: Shut up. This is the most asinine idea. This is like a teenager in a sitcom writing down the pros and cons of going to his friend's birthday party or something. Who does this?


Aubrey: A lot of people with active restrictive eating disorders do this.


Mike: [crosstalk] people with eating disorders.


Aubrey: “Make copies of that picture of your face atop a beautiful body, and put them in various places around your home. Make your kitchen and bedroom of visual homage to these images. Every time you look at that picture, you're inviting your inner thin person to come forth. Your ‘inner thin’ doesn't represent a false value, a superficial or shallow image created by fashion magazines just to taunt you. Your desire to be thin is a valid desire.”


Mike: [laughs] Oh, my God. Me and you have only hung out in person once. What if you came over to my house and I had all these shirtless photos of Jake Gyllenhaal or somebody with my face on them?


Aubrey: [laughs] 


Mike: All over my kitchen?


Aubrey: Oh, no, Mike.


Mike: Images of models and actors and stuff are super unrealistic, 99% of people can't look like that, which is why those people are famous. So, why would you constantly compare yourself to some literally unattainable beauty standard? That's so unhealthy.


Aubrey: Yeah. She is so proud of claiming feminism. And then, she comes up with shit like this, where she's like, actually, “Fashion magazines are right. Your body image isn't bad enough, make it worse. Put it everywhere. Remember what Rebecca Romijn looks like.” This whole thing of your desire to be thin is a good and valid desire, not just for your own body image, but it's also spiritually healthy, is so deeply fucked.


Mike: Her whole worldview is about achieving enlightenment, but within socially defined parameters. It's just weird to be doing all of this spiritual enlightenment stuff that seems to be transcending our earthly bodies. But then, she's explicitly telling me to change my earthly body. Isn't it more graceful and enlightened to just be happy with who you are? Or, maybe try to help others, and not deal with your physical appearance and not think about it that much?


Aubrey: She's talking out of both sides of her mouth throughout this book, where she's like, “It's not about weight," but the title is A Course In Weight Loss. "No, this is about your spiritual health and your physical, bodily choices, but also, it's about you being fat, and that fat bitch is an imposter."


Mike: That’s some weird Jesus stuff in here, too. I really don't think Jesus gives a shit how much I weigh. I don't think Jesus is monitoring that.


Aubrey: Totally. She throughout this book is talking about fat people without talking about fat people. It's a book that is extensively designed for thin people who believe themselves to be fat, which is going to disproportionately be people with body dysmorphia and people with eating disorders. And she does that with all of these weird rhetorical flourishes that are like, “It's not your fault, but also being fat is terrible, and it means that you have lost your path with God. Your body is a screen onto which your own thoughts are projected and your own experience is projected.” I'm like, “Boy, oh boy, Marianne, fat bodies are a screen onto which you are projecting all kinds of fucking shit.”


Mike: It's very LA too. 


Aubrey: Extremely.


Mike: Most fat people in the country are poor people and people of color. The audience for this book does seem more the real housewife demographic, or whoever Marianne Williamson is hanging out with at this time. 


Aubrey: Yeah, it's Kim Kardashian and Laura Dern and Oprah, and whatever. It's folks who feel ill at ease with their own bodies. It is people who want to eat less and who want to want to eat less. And solving that set of problems, the problems of body image and the problems of your relationship to food is different than weight loss. She has written a book that is ostensibly a guide to spiritually driven weight loss, when the problems that she's actually trying to solve are problems of self-image, body image. To which I say, if you want to write a self-help book about getting people in alignment with their own desire for food and their own body image, God bless, go forth. But this business of like, "I'm going to write that book, but say it's about weight loss" and write all this weird fuck shit about fat people, is just bizarre. 


Mike: Just admit that your book is for borderline hot people who want to be hot. It seems like that's the actual audience here.


Aubrey: Mike, I didn't check the dedication. It's dedicated to the Ladies of Roni, no?


[laughter] 


Mike: [unintelligible [00:56:32].


Aubrey: [laughs] I'm going to bring us in for a landing and just say Marianne Williamson gets read a lot of different ways by a lot of different people. I'm not here to take away a framework that helps people. But there is a set of practices built into this book that even if they don't harm you personally can harm a lot of people a great deal. What I wanted to talk about today is a little bit of like, “Hey, you've heard these good quippy things from her. Here's the rest of the story," and the rest of the story is rough. It's rough for workers. It's rough for fat people. It's rough for people with eating disorders. It's rough for people who don't have the means and resources that she does. It's tough all around.


Mike: Yeah, it's tough for NGO workers who can't form unions and haven't eaten pizza in years.


[laughter]


[music]