In 1988, when I received my PhD in anthropology, I was a young gay man and did not know my HIV status. I joined a holistic healing group in San Diego that was organized loosely around the teachings of Louise Hay [A&U, April 2010], a California-based health and spirituality guru. I knew little about Louise Hay but was drawn to the group because it was taking a positive approach to AIDS and I wanted to prepare myself for the possible discovery that I had HIV. Hay advocated looking in the mirror and giving love to a wounded inner child as a response to AIDS. Her approach differed significantly from that of the Christian church—to appeal to Christ for forgiveness of the sin of being gay and becoming infected with HIV because of having gay sex.
Louise Hay (who died August 30, 2017) was criticized for offering gay men false hope of recovery from AIDS and making those who followed her teachings feel guilty because they could not give themselves sufficient love to recover from their illness. But at the time she had a large following of gay men with HIV who practiced her affirmations and mirror work and was held in high esteem by many in the gay community. The group I joined was led by a woman who believed she herself had been healed of a debilitating illness by following Hay’s teaching and practices. At the beginning of my research career in medical anthropology, I decided to conduct a study of this group. My research has since covered adaptation to HIV illness and HIV prevention focused on adolescent cultural knowledge of romantic and sexual relationships.
Medical anthropology is a subfield of social and cultural anthropology that examines the ways in which culture and society are organized around or influenced by issues of health, healthcare, and related topics. This study explored the childhood histories of group participants, their experience of discovering they were infected with HIV, and their current self-help practices including mirror work. The interviews examined the relationship of earlier religious beliefs to current beliefs and practices inspired by Hay. An upcoming book chronicles my experience as a member of this group and consists of edited transcripts of interviews with eight male group members who were HIV-positive or were diagnosed with AIDS, as well as with the female group leader. The study is relevant to those living with HIV/AIDS today who still face challenges of integrating their spiritual expression in a way that supports them in the ongoing struggle to maintain their health while living with HIV.
In 1988, as deaths from AIDS mounted and medicine could offer no effective treatment, a number of gay men formed the opinion that those who contracted HIV had practiced an especially depraved sexual lifestyle. This response was partially an internalization of stigma associated with the disease at the time. As one man described to me, “I would have a real hard time going and seeing somebody who was ill who had actively, like, dressed up in leather and fist-fucked and I knew that and now they were like in the hospital dying. And they were feeling guilty and bad about themselves. I’d have a hard time doing that.”
“What would be disturbing about that?” I asked.
“If that were the case,” the man said, “I would probably think or feel that they were dying of AIDS because they were ashamed. … All that is extreme stuff. To me, it just means that it was all like self-punishment and they were ashamed of who they were. I wouldn’t want to be around that.”
The man continued, “It would be different if it was something that somebody caught in Africa and it didn’t manifest itself in the gay population like it did. It would be a different thing and the feelings about it would be much different. But it’s not. For me it’s hard to separate AIDS from gay. Gay. AIDS. Gay. AIDS. It just seems to me like they’re synonymous. Gay is supposed to be shameful. So is AIDS.”
Some people with AIDS whom I interviewed had internalized shame about having the disease from the Christian church. One person said, “The other day I was listening to this Catholic cardinal and he was talking about three things that are bringing down humanity, and one was homosexuality and another was AIDS. … Here I’m two of the three things that he considers the worst things that could happen. What does that do to people he preaches to? What happens when people receive that kind of a message? It makes it even more difficult and frightening to deal with.”
Stigma concerning homosexuality drove some gay men away from church. Said one man who was raised a Christian Scientist, “I stopped going to church twenty or some years ago. It’s not that I don’t believe it. But just like the Catholic Church, Christian Science does not really accept homosexuality. I felt that if I couldn’t do it 100 percent then I wasn’t really a Christian Scientist.”
With the practice of mirror work, Louise Hay offered a more positive alternative to coping with internalized stigma and self-hate. As one man described, “When you look in a mirror, you’re looking in a mirror to apply makeup or to praise yourself or what have you. In this work, when you’re looking in the mirror, you’re looking inside of yourself. You’re not looking at the exterior that you’re trained to look at when you look into a mirror. You’re looking beyond that. If you look into your eyes, you’ll be looking at your interior instead of your exterior. That’s where you will eventually go. It may take a while before you go there, but that’s what you’re sensing, just a different kind of looking, looking inside—if that makes sense.”
Another man said, “I tell myself I love myself. I tell myself I’m going to take care of you.”
“What’s the difference,” I asked, “between giving yourself love in this way by looking in the mirror, and say when you’ve come out of the shower and you’ve combed your hair and you look in the mirror and say you’re looking great.…Is there any difference?”
“Yeah, there’s a big difference,” this man replied. “The difference is that when I look in the mirror and I look at my physical self and I look good, I immediately get a shame feeling. This is something I’m still trying to work on. When I get that feeling, I look again in the mirror and I look past that shame and I talk to my little child in me. I know that sounds corny. I talk to that little child in me and that part of me that’s very sensitive. Talking to the child has little to do with what I look like. But if I do admire my appearance I tell that person that I really love them and that it’s okay to physically look okay. It’s okay to look good. Don’t be ashamed by your body. It’s been given to you by God. It’s a wonderful vehicle for you to use.”
Psychologically, there is a clear analogy between relating to God through Christ and relating to a self-critic through the practice of the mirror work. With Christianity, moral authority flows from God and is mediated through Christ, who offers love and forgiveness for violations of the moral code. But for some gay persons with AIDS, the mediator, Christ, was contaminated by the church’s homophobia and thus was not available as a vehicle of redemptive love. Afflicted with shame from societal stigma related to AIDS, some people with AIDS whom I interviewed were denied liberation from shame by the complicity of the church with homophobia.
The mirror work offered another way of dealing with moral judgment. The individual took on a mediating role for himself in a new way by oneself saying no, you’re not a bad person, you’re a good person. No, you’re not a selfish person, you’re a loving person. People were able to mediate moral judgment instead of relying on an unsympathetic savior to play the role of mediator. I believe that the holistic religion articulated by Louise Hay was an important innovation that was qualified but not negated by its failure to offer a real cure for AIDS. Condemnation by a stigmatizing savior was here being replaced by love from a savior who could be relied upon—oneself. It is my impression that the accusations of exploitation directed at Louise Hay that have cropped up after her recent death miss the point. As it was actually practiced by some gay men with AIDS, her New Age religious psychology had redemptive power.
Stephen L. Eyre is Professor Emeritus in the Department of Anthropology, History, and Social Medicine at the University of California, San Francisco.