Marianne Williamson, Spiritualist Trailblazer & Founder of Project Angel Food Champions the Positive Side of the Epidemic, Heralding Unity, Change & Love
by Dann Dulin
Photographed Exclusively for A&U by Alina Oswald
The day is radiant. The early summer sun surges through the window. The light gently caresses her face as she settles back in a plush Louis XV armchair at a hotel room in Beverly Hills. One cannot be in the presence of Marianne Williamson without engaging her tranquil incandescence.
This celebrated author and lecturer did not attain this recognition overnight. The genesis of her mission began in the late seventies after she read A Course in Miracles, written a decade earlier by Helen Schucman. A philosophical and spiritual guide for living, it’s a book some have called “the New Age bible.” Marianne clarifies, “It’s a psychological study in surrendering a thought system based on fear and accepting a thought system based on love. All that exists is love. Everything else is illusion.”
By 1983, the AIDS epidemic was exploding and Marianne was working as an administrator at L.A.’s Philosophical Research Society. A fellow worker suggested she lecture on A Course in Miracles—and her life journey was set. “Gay men in L.A. gave me my career,” she asserts, explaining that metaphysics and spirituality were also covered in her lectures. “Western medicine had nothing to offer [at that time] and organized religions took time to work through their stuff. There was radio silence from all of them for a long time, and here was this young woman in her early thirties, over in Los Feliz [the eastern district of Los Angeles], talking about a God who loves you no matter what—and miracles.”
Recently moving to New York City from her home in Los Angeles, Williamson has returned to L.A. for tonight’s lecture. Looking pensive, she’s in a reminiscent mood.
Marianne offers me refreshments. I request water. She calls room service, orders water for me and tea for herself, and snuggles back into the chair, supported by a plumpy pillow that thrusts her to the edge of the cushion. Marianne possesses that genteel Audrey Hepburn elegance and her soft-spoken voice is articulate, with a soothing, cottony texture. Wearing minimal jewelry and little makeup, she embodies a bohemian spirit, with a dash of entrepreneurial businesswoman.
Meeting her in the lobby a few minutes earlier, I was surprised at her five-foot-two-inch frame and low-key speech, which belies the fact that, when Williamson lectures, even though she maintains a mild tempo and soft voice, her delivery belts a wallop to your core.
From the beginning, word spread about Marianne’s lectures. Her audiences grew so large that she began holding her talks in a Hollywood church.
“I remember during one of my lectures on The Power of Forgiveness this young man said to me, ‘Do I have to forgive everybody?!’ And I said, ‘Well I don’t know. What do you have? Do you have the flu or do you have AIDS? If you only have the flu, just forgive a few people. But if you have AIDS, yeh, you might want to take all the medicine.”
[pull_quote_center]Then one Sunday, one of the guys said that he wasn’t going to go to the support group that day because he had a good week and was doing fine. I remember saying to him, ‘Well today maybe you should be there to give support to someone who did not have a good week.’[/pull_quote_center]She continues. “Then one Sunday, one of the guys said that he wasn’t going to go to the support group that day because he had a good week and was doing fine. I remember saying to him, ‘Well today maybe you should be there to give support to someone who did not have a good week.’ I won’t forget the look of empowerment on his face. He did show up at the group that day!” she relates energetically. “A support group doesn’t mean just where you go to get support but it’s where you also go to give support.”
The bell rings and Marianne continues the conversation as she answers the door. “A Course in Miracles was beneficial during AIDS.” The waiter sets the tray of drinks on the coffee table. “There is no death,” she offers. “Knowing this helped these guys die peacefully. The body is just a suit of clothes. Death is not the punishment; death is the reward. So many young men would say to me, ‘But I didn’t have the chance to do anything.’ I’d say, ‘Did you love?’ They’d answer, ‘Yes.’ ‘Then you succeeded in this life,’ I’d reply. The teachings were very helpful for them.”
She lifts the teapot and pours water into her cup. Opening the teabag, she dunks it in the water as she speaks. She adds honey then licks the spoon, wiping her hands on a napkin.
Marianne recalls visiting a man in the hospital who had been diagnosed with AIDS. When she walked into his room, he said, “Oh Marianne, did you see the boat outside the hospital?”
“Marianne, don’t tell me you didn’t see. It’s right there—and you didn’t see it? You couldn’t go into the hospital without seeing it! Go to the window.”
Marianne walked to the window and looked down. There was no boat.
“Marianne…there’s a huge ship!”
She later learned it’s quite common to see a car, a ship, a train, or a plane when one is dying. We discuss Steve Jobs’ last words, “Oh wow. Oh wow. Oh wow,” and speculate about what he saw. Marianne mentions a book by her friend David Kessler titled Visions, Trips, and Crowded Rooms. An expert on healing and loss, Kessler worked closely with Elizabeth Kübler-Ross (author of the groundbreaking On Death and Dying), also helping Marianne with one of her projects, Center for Living. Williamson met Kessler when he volunteered his apartment for her support group. “He was the yang to my yin, the business counterpart to my vision of what could be.”
Around the time of her growing popularity, her sister was dying of cancer. This prompted Marianne to found Center for Living in Los Angeles, a non-medical support for people dealing with life challenging illnesses. “For me, it was not specifically AIDS-focused,” she clarifies. One of the first fundraisers for the organization was held in her apartment. “We served an elegant little dinner and I sang cabaret. I know!” she self-mocks, even though she used to be a lounge singer in New York.
Another fundraiser was held at another venue, and the majority of those present were guys who were attending Williamson’s lectures. “One of the things I still believe strongly about is that seeking spiritual growth without service becomes narcissism. Helping others was a way for those who attended my lectures to deepen their spiritual journey, as it was for those who were being helped. But remember, it all became the same community.”
David Geffen attended one of her lectures. Later that day, he called her.
“Marianne, I heard you say you want to rent a house and start an organization for people who could be dying. Tell me about what you want it to be.” She responded, “Well, you know, a place where people could get therapy. They could get a massage, watch TV, attend support groups, and get fed. It would just be a place for people to go so they wouldn’t just be at home, scared and upset.” He responded, “Okay that’s great. How much money do you need to do that?” She didn’t quite know how to reply. “Well, I think I need $5,000.” He repeated the figure back to her. “Yes,” she said, explaining to Geffen that she would need a first and a last month’s rent. Recalling it today, Marianne laughs evenly, “Here I am trying to inform David Geffen!” After a little more discussion he agreed. About an hour later Marianne’s doorbell rang. A messenger handed her a check for $50,000! Marianne’s eyes are misty as she retells the story.
Eventually, a house was rented on Sierra Bonita Avenue in West Hollywood for the Center for Living. A couple of years later, a new idea struck Marianne. “What started happening was that I’d go to the house [Center of Living] and ask where [a client named] Bobby was. He wasn’t there because he couldn’t get out of bed. How was he going to eat?!” Then I said, ‘We’ll have to take him food.’” She called David Kessler and told him about the situation. He contacted APLA (AIDS Project Los Angeles) and floated the idea past them. They didn’t deem it necessary. Marianne countered, “I wouldn’t be feeling it this deeply, David, unless we needed it.”
[pull_quote_center]Project Angel Food was kind of like the child that ate the parent. When you say to people, ‘non-medical support services,’ they say, ‘Oh that’s nice.’ But when you say ‘food,’ they get it![/pull_quote_center]Williamson trusted her intuition and in 1989 established the outreach program Project Angel Food (PAF), hiring volunteers to cook and prepare the food and then deliver the meals to those who were homebound. The project ultimately took on its own life. In 1993, the Center for Living merged with Project Angel Food (PAF). The organization is still around today and recently served their ten millionth meal!
“Project Angel Food was kind of like the child that ate the parent. When you say to people, ‘non-medical support services,’ they say, ‘Oh that’s nice.’ But when you say ‘food,’ they get it!,” she exclaims. PAF’s first fundraiser was held by Marianne, David Kessler, and Louise Hay [A&U, April 2010], who was conducting her own filled-to-capacity “HayRides,” a joyful support group for people living with HIV/AIDS. Hollywood showed up! Some of the guests included, Bette Midler, Tony Perkins, Elizabeth Taylor [A&U, February 2003], and Howard Rosenman [A&U, Dec 2009]. They brought in $11,000.
(In 1992, the Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation provided PAF with its first grant of $150,000.)
Two years later, Williamson opened Center for Living in New York City (she received another $50,000 from David Geffen). One also opened in Palm Beach, Florida, though not by Marianne. The Palm Beach Center for Living’s first fundraiser was held at Mar-a-Lago, an estate owned by Donald Trump. Marianne was then living in Manhattan and had a young daughter, India. (Her daughter is now twenty-six and studying at Goldsmiths College in London for her master’s. She plans to be a history professor.)
One evening as Marianne was leaving the Center for Living, she received a call asking if she was going to attend the fundraiser in Florida. She said she wasn’t, that she was going home to take care of her child. The caller added that Donald Trump had stated the only reason he was allowing Mar-a-Lago to be used was so his wife, Marla Maples, could meet Marianne. He solidly pressed on, stating that, if Marianne didn’t attend, he would cancel the event.
“I remember being very upset and feeling bullied,” she specifies, looking rakish dipped in black form-fitting jeans, a flowing blouse, and swaddled in a jacket that’s draped over her shoulders. “That’s why I attended the event. Whoever took the call said he was very serious. And I’m glad I did go.” She shifts her lithe body and takes a drink of tea. “What would be touching about these fundraisers is that these guys would be in tuxes or very dressed up and had Kaposi’s [purple lesions] all over their bodies,” she says, contorting her face with a sad grimace. “But let me tell you about Marla. She stayed up with these guys very, very late, sitting with them until the last one left. I had never met her before and I just looked at her…” Marianne’s voice is strained with emotion. “She was so present. She just didn’t give her home, she gave of herself. I have never forgotten that. Marla Maples is a wonderful woman.”
Marianne adds more honey to her tea, then stirs it with her spoon, clinking the sides of the cup as she tenderly yanks her coat forward, which has slipped off her shoulder. “I was honored and privileged to know many,” Williamson spiritedly revs, “who dwelled within the AIDS experience with such bravery and aplomb and elegance.
“Hope is born of participation in hopeful solutions. The people moaning and groaning and going on about how awful it was,” she notes in a singsong impish way, “did not tend to be the people who were helping.” Williamson lets out an exhaustive gasp, “We were too busy at support groups and starting an organization and attending funerals to be overwhelmed.” Marianne crosses her legs, exposing her chic white-pointed heels, decorated with colorful pop art flowers.
“I saw heroism among people who themselves knew they wouldn’t live to see the fruit of their labor in terms of these organizations we were starting—and through that and with that I saw great Love, which works miracles. It was a collective experience about suffering,” she pinpoints with passion. “No one was under the impression that ‘it was just happening to me.’ There was a reaching out, a sense of ‘what we can do, how we can be there for each other.’” She balances an eggshell-white teacup on her lap.
“One miracle is the community that was formed here in Los Angeles and other places, as well. I was always saying to people, ‘We have to envision and pray for the day when it becomes a chronic manageable condition. That’s what it is today.”
Marianne’s empathy was developed early on in her hometown of Houston, Texas. Her father was an immigration lawyer and her mother was a homemaker and she was raised in a “traditional Jewish home.” Though her parents have passed, she maintains the core values they taught her, which was “to give” and “to be there for others.”
“We used to put clothes in a bag and give [it] to Salvation Army and my mother used to make us not only iron the clothes, but fix the clothes if a hem was torn or a button was missing. My mother used to say, ‘Think of what it’s like. You’re already getting second-hand clothes. The least you can do is make them lovely.’ Back in the day people would come to our door, looking for charity. I never heard my mother say, ‘My husband gave at the office’ and close the door. She’d say, ‘My husband gave at the office but I will give a little something as well.’” Her mother was head of the volunteer corps at the main charity hospital in Houston.
Williamson’s interest in spirituality and metaphysics began when she was a teenager. She took a summer class at Phillips Exeter Academy called “Philosophical Approaches to the Question of God” and Marianne was smitten.
In the early seventies, she studied acting and philosophy at L.A.’s Pomona College, but dropped out. She moved to New Mexico and lived in a commune with her boyfriend. After a year, they broke up and for the next decade she meandered from Austin to New York to San Francisco, taking on odd jobs (temp secretary, waitress, and cabaret singer) and boyfriends who never worked out. “I was a complete mess,” she admits. “Whatever sounded outrageous, I did it.”
[pull_quote_center]I think that life is a book that never ends. One incarnation is one chapter.[/pull_quote_center]In the late seventies, Marianne returned to Houston and opened a New Age bookstore. She even tried marriage for about “fifteen minutes.” Nearing a breakdown, she began therapy. “I would do anything to distract myself from the truth. I’d seek relief in drugs, food, people, whatever.” She didn’t discover relief and guidance until she picked up A Course in Miracles at a friend’s home.
“My life works when I practice what I preach,” she declares, her saucer-dark eyes penetrating mine. “As a student of A Course in Miracles, we only get to keep what we give.” Living through the AIDS crisis, Williamson persevered in the trenches, creating solidarity. “Life was at its most raw back then. Life was at its most real. Life was at its most cruel. And, life was at its most miraculous. All at the same time.” She tosses her hair behind her ear and props her foot up on the side of the coffee table.
“I think that life is a book that never ends. One incarnation is one chapter. There’s a chapter where you’re incarnate and a chapter where you’re disincarnate. I think that people who have crossed over beyond that veil are still broadcasting. We just don’t have a set that picks up that channel,” she offers. “I think the resurrection is the opening of the inner eye to the realization that people are still here. As we evolve spiritually, we will see so much light around each other that when we’re told of one’s death, all it will mean is that a shadow is gone. We will have evolved to a point of higher frequency of communication. Most of us have little glimpses of this. I do think we’ll get there as a species. A Course in Miracles says there will come a time when the idea of someone’s death will not bring sorrow to anyone.”
Marianne smiles, touching my hand and remarks, “It’s something to think about. After having lived through the AIDS crisis, to know people who didn’t make it past twenty-five or thirty-five. The gratitude of knowing that some of us got to go to the party and wanting our older years really to be the wiser years, passing along the stories so that other generations can do what they can with it,” she pronounces profoundly, which gives pause for thought. “It’s unfortunate that there seems to be a younger generation who are getting infected. They don’t have the historical memory. Too many of us who have the historical memory aren’t speaking up enough. Every generation really does stand on the shoulders of the proceeding one. The point is to thrive.
“Most Americans have no idea what it means to have to survive something. People with HIV do, but most Americans don’t seem to have a clue what the majority of people on this planet have to live with all day long.”
The phone rings. Marianne answers. It’s Crista, her assistant, who’s just arrived in the lobby. “Tell her to please wait. Thank you,” says the activist, who recently released her thirteenth book, Tears to Triumph, about facing pain and transcending suffering.
I ask what mark the AIDS crisis left. She responds at once. “The gay community in America has a lot to be proud of. Look at the Human Rights Campaign [HRC]. If it hadn’t been for AIDS, none of that would have happened. There was a lot of political awakening from the epidemic, as well. I remember the beginning of the HRC. It grew into such a stunningly organized…,” she halts, not completing her thought then sums up, “Gay marriage would not have happened. And that was all from political strategizing.
“Another point of light to surface from the darkness is the emergence of the holistic medical model—the ‘integrative approach’—that came directly out of the AIDS crisis. The U.K. and other countries were ahead of us. When AIDS occurred, Western medicine said there was nothing they could do. It’s not that they weren’t trying or that they didn’t care. They had no other cards to play. I don’t doubt how hard they were working,” she expounds. “People just didn’t say, ‘Oh, I’ll just go home and die now.’ That’s when people started participating, such as in spiritual support groups like myself, Louise [Hay], or others.” Marianne concentrates, clears her throat. “There is statistical verification of the fact that people with life challenging illnesses who attend spiritual support groups live on an average twice as long after diagnosis. In those days, this kind of work was trivialized, even mocked.”
[pull_quote_center]The AIDS crisis taught me that the spiritual path is more than ‘I can get whatever I want.’[/pull_quote_center]Williamson’s sister, who had cancer at the time, advised her to ask her oncologist what he thought about her joining a spiritual support group. Her doctor tartly replied, “What medical school did your sister go to?” Marianne believes that oncologists would be more open today.
“This new way was first called ‘alternative medicine,’ then ‘complementary medicine’ and it finally landed at ‘integrative medicine,’” informs Williamson. “It’s because so many people were looking for something, at least complementary to the medical model, at a point when the allopathic medical model had nothing to offer. This came out of the crisis.”
Marianne takes a sip of tea, glancing out the clapboard Mediterranean shutters onto the patio that overlooks Wilshire Boulevard.
“The AIDS crisis taught me that the spiritual path is more than ‘I can get whatever I want.’ Concentrating on lack, what you don’t have is a diseased mentality. Buddha said, ‘It’s your attachment to getting something, that is your suffering.’” Marianne elaborates: “Your suffering is not going to end when you get it. The suffering is going to end when you are no longer attached to getting it, which by the way, is when it comes. Forget about it…and you can have it,” she notes soundly in a timbre reminiscent of Lauren Bacall.
“Before I met you, I had lunch with a friend. After this interview I will meet with Crista [her personal assistant], and then give a talk tonight. It’s all the same. Each thing is perfectly planned for the maximum growth opportunity, not only for myself but everyone else involved,” Williamson emphatically enforces. “In the human body, cells have a natural intelligence by which they collaborate with each other. When a cell disconnects from that intelligence and just seeks to go off and do its own thing, that’s malignant. It’s malignant in the body and it’s malignant in consciousness. That’s what has happened to the human race. We’ve been infected with a malignant consciousness where everybody’s out to do their own thing: What can I get instead of what can I give?
“Twelve-thousand children are starving everyday and we have such horrifying irresponsible environmental policies….” Marianne freezes in frustration. She takes a breath and momentarily places her finger between her teeth. “These horrors are the manifestation of our present state of consciousness. Through the growth and evolution of our collective consciousness, we can eradicate these horrors, including disease. AIDS was a situation where people finally woke up and said,” Marianne hesitates for effect. “‘We…must…do…something!’”
For more information about Marianne Williamson, log on to: www.marianne.com.
Dann Dulin interviewed singer/songwriter John Grant for the July cover story.
A Course in Marianne
She was referred to as the “celebrity guru,” hanging out with eminent figures.
For thirty years she delivered sermons to capacity-filled venues.
She officiated at the wedding of Elizabeth Taylor and Larry Fortensky.
Her first book, A Return to Love, was the fifth-best selling nonfiction book of 1992, topping The New York Times best-seller list for thirty-five weeks.
She appeared on many television shows, including Oprah and Charlie Rose.
In 2014, she ran for the House of Representatives in District 33 of Los Angeles, as an Independent. (At the time of the interview, she stated that she was a Bernie Sanders supporter.)
She founded several nonprofits, Center for Living (both in LA and NY), Project Angel Food, and The Peace Alliance.
Ms Williamson gives a one-word reaction to those who have touched her life.
Michael Jackson: Pity.
Louise Hay: Respect.
Elizabeth Taylor: Affection.
Barbra Streisand: Admiration.
David Geffen: Gratitude.
Whoopi: Off the record.
Bill Maher: Respect.
Deepak Chopra: Affection.
Laura Dern: Love.
Katy Perry: Gratitude.
Hillary Clinton: Respect.
Judith Light: Gratitude.
She gives one word for herself: Myself.