Marianne Williamson’s job is helping people find heaven, but right now she’s mad as hell. Not that she isn’t grateful for what God has brought her lately. After growing up a wealthy lawyer’s kid in Houston, she blew her youth on bad boys and good dope (”I don’t know anybody who doesn’t have a lost decade,” she jokes). Now, at 39, she’s found herself — and Jesus, of whom she is the most eminently eccentric Jewish exponent. Williamson is a New Age guru, gorgeous and successful, connected to some of the top names in Hollywood. Though not rich or famous just yet — she lives modestly in L.A. with her toddler daughter, India, whose dad she declines to identify — Williamson was blessed on Feb. 4 with a bully pulpit: a guest spot on Oprah Winfrey’s show.
Oprah went all out to get every one of her 14 million viewers to buy Williamson’s new book, her first, the snappy mystical tome A Return to Love. ”I bought a thousand copies!” exclaimed the talk-show titan, who experienced ”157 miracles” in her life as a direct result of reading it.
Oprah’s imprimatur sold out the 70,000-copy first printing that day, propelling the book to No. 1 on The New York Times‘ self-help best-seller list. Coast to coast, thousands are thronging to hear Williamson lecture on ”miracle-mindedness” at $10 a head; she officiated at Liz Taylor’s recent wedding and reportedly led such superstars as Penny Marshall and Michael Ovitz in prayer at megamogul David Geffen’s birthday party last year. Such celebrities as Anthony Perkins and Tommy Tune attend her lectures. There are 725,000 copies of Return to Love in print. If they all sell, and each buyer gets the uncanny return on the investment that Oprah got, the book will provoke 113,825,000 miracles — and make its author rich in more than spiritual wisdom. As Williamson says in her book, ”Seek ye first the kingdom of Heaven, and the Maserati will get here when it’s supposed to.”
But now that Williamson has hit the fast lane in spirituality, controversy is homing in on her like a heat-seeking missile. Several leading publications, including the Los Angeles Times, have publicized the internal squabbles of her organizations, the Centers for Living, and made much of the irony that a woman who devotes her life to a gospel of love stands accused of imperiousness and irritability. One insider vilifies her ”despotic, tyrannical streak and inability even to hear dissent.” He says she uses her good works — the Centers, which she founded in 1987, are two organizations for people with AIDS and other ”life-challenging” illnesses in New York City and L.A. — to ”sell her book and increase her own fame.” While the L.A. Center’s Angel Food service undeniably helps people, delivering about 350 meals a day to homebound AIDS patients, its honcho is said to be uncharitable to the helpers themselves. The same source says, ”Pure human interchange shouldn’t be where you bark orders, scream at people, have contempt for them, tell them they don’t know what they’re doing when they’re volunteers — she’s disgusting.”
Sally Fisher, who started the AIDS organization Northern Lights Alternatives, 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.”
”The most pain for me has been that so much of the criticism has come from a community I’ve done my best to serve,” says Williamson, nattily lounging in designer sweater and leggings in a swank San Francisco hotel, taking a break from her grueling book tour. She’s also functioning as a coast-to-coast mystic lecturer, supervisor of the schism-scarred Centers, and beleaguered single mom. ”I never thought being famous would be wonderful, but my limited exposure to celebrity has shown me the dark side big-time. You really see how bitchy people are and how unkind they can be, but my challenge is to practice the principles I teach and to forgive people because, truly, they know not what they do.”
The principles Williamson teaches are based on A Course in Miracles, a 1,200-page scripture dictated between 1965 and 1972 by a disembodied voice to the late Helen Schucman, a psychologist at Columbia University. Like the New Testament, the Course advocates the perfect love that casts out fear. ”I’ve heard it referred to as a ‘freed Christianity,”’ says Williamson, who believes it appeals to ”people who seek Jesus, but without the judgment, the guilt, the punitive doctrine.”
Jesus is by no means the only name Williamson likes to drop. ”A Course in Miracles helped me access something on a much deeper level than I ever had before,” she allows, ”but I’ll refer to Buddhism, Jung, Abe Lincoln, Gandhi, Star Wars — you can find truth anywhere.”
But whatever the source, love is where it’s always at: ”Your screenplay should spread love. Your hair salon should spread love. Your agency should spread love. Movies can be instruments of enlightenment.”
Williamson tries not to come off in public as the Great Enlightener; she defers to the light itself, the way St. John of the Cross did when he likened the ideal human soul to a pure pane through which God might shine unimpeded by schmutz. ”I know I’m not a great writer,” Williamson says. ”I’m an extremely gifted oral communicator, but when it comes to writing, I’m just a beginner. Still, a lot of metaphysical books have stated the principles better than I and have not been as successful, because they apologize for Jesus. I, on the other hand, will be clean when the cock crows.” She pauses in admiration. ”That’s a good line! ‘I don’t apologize for Jesus — I’ll be clean when the cock crows!”’
This is not the sort of language that tends to win the hearts and minds of the secular press. There is palpable glee in magazine and newspaper accounts of the battles Williamson has waged to retain control of her Centers for Living. She thinks hatchet jobs may be in the offing. In response, she has drafted a furious statement of principle, her own 99 theses, with which she’ll be glad to nail any critic. ”So some of these people don’t like me? Well, I didn’t like them either,” she snarls. ”Does the press think it has a big scoop that a woman who goes around talking about love would fire people who thwart and undermine her in the organization she started? I’d do it again. Does Michael Eisner apologize for making policy at Disney?” Williamson believes the animosity is about antifeminism: ”The burning of the witches was based on the theory that she’s powerful, therefore she must be evil.”
Williamson adds that her course gives her a comforting insight into the dark hearts of her accusers: It’s just their jealousy, fear, and inner pain erupting all over her. ”But it still hurts, and if I were a little less of a Texan or a little less of a Jew, I might just give up and go home.”
Giving up is not her style. ”I have a dramatic personality,” she shrugs. ”If I do things right, it’s a big right; if it’s wrong, it’s a big wrong.” Besides, she claims the internecine conflicts in her AIDS foundation stem from nothing more sinister than her own inexperience in running nonprofit boards — she hadn’t grasped that appointing somebody involved ceding to them a measure of control over the operation. ”How would I know?” she wails. ”I was this woman who started this thing in her living room!”
The thing she started in New York foundered a year ago when the Manhattan Center for Living’s mainstay and celebrity fund-raiser, Cynthia O’Neal, quit, taking many of her colleagues with her. But O’Neal describes as ”bulls—” any allegation that there’s an atom of anger between her and Williamson. O’Neal’s splinter group founded a new Manhattan AIDS organization, Friends in Deed; and thanks to a timely check from Cher, Williamson’s Center for Living endures as well. As for Williamson’s notorious temper, all O’Neal will say is, ”I can’t imagine trying to do as much as Marianne does and stay calm and centered. And she does get a staggering amount done.” She is downright disgusted with reporters who are warmed by the flames of factionalism: ”This kind of press hurts the whole cause,” she says. ”This is too serious — too many people need help too badly to hurt it with gossip.”
Williamson enthusiastically concurs. ”At first, I was in grief over (the split) because there are limits to resources,” she admits. ”But we’re healed! It’s a win for everyone. As a result, there are two organizations, and the Manhattan Center is thriving. So that’s the miracle!”
But menace remains: Will the expected avalanche of bad publicity about Williamson’s L.A. operation rupture her connection with Hollywood’s aristocracy? ”That’s what I tried to tell the person from the L.A. Times — you’re really doing something very destructive to an organization that does very good work. She didn’t care!”
She also bemoans the way journalists routinely link enormous Hollywood names with hers when the connections are often tenuous. A donation to Williamson’s AIDS cause is, after all, not a confession of faith in her spiritual leadership. Few major celebrities actually show up at public Williamson events; her heavy-hitter fans typically encounter her on tape in well-guarded privacy, and their names consequently do not crop up next to hers in the press. As for those who are named, says Williamson, ”I do fear these people will feel exploited and resentful. It’s very important to me that they know I have never purported to be anyone’s guru, particularly the stars in Hollywood!”
What she fears is probably coming to pass: Compare entertainment giant David Geffen’s lengthy, emotional encomium for Williamson in last summer’s Vanity Fair profile of her (”I’m incredibly moved by what she does”) with his cucumber-cool comment about her last week (”I’ve been to her seminars and I think she speaks very well. I don’t want to talk about Marianne Williamson, (but) yes, I am impressed with her work”).
Maybe the real miracle is that despite all the high-strung high rollers involved on all sides in Williamson’s mission, the work continues to get done. She still tends her multiple flocks and is penning a second book, about the healing of America. It may be difficult to determine whether Williamson really means to do good or simply to do well, but so far, she’s done both. God knows how long she’ll get away with it.