Marianne Williamson, the “dark psychic” horse of the 2020 Democratic primary, has used much of her time in the Democratic debates to promote a holistic solution to the crisis in the American health-care system. Amid other discussions on “healing,” Williamson told the crowd in Detroit, “We need to be the party talking about why so many of our chemical policies and our food policies and our agricultural policies and our environmental policies and even our economic policies are leading to people getting sick to begin with.”
As an author promoting spiritual self-help and alternative healing practices for almost three decades, Williamson has engaged with some of the more spurious health ideas that have come and gone in the New Age. (She once said that in order to dodge swine flu, people should “pour God’s love on our immune systems.”) The presidential candidate’s history in the field has left her with something of a secular-spiritual Biden Problem: She must convince potential voters that disconcerting past comments on HIV, vaccines, and antidepressants don’t represent her current views on health.
The author is surely the only 2020 candidate whose campaign has had to release a clarifying statement “on Science, Mental Health, and Antidepressants” and drop omni-directional defenses like this:
As Williamson spends the next month fundraising and retail-politicking in an attempt to qualify for the third debate, she may also have to allocate some of that time to damage control. After the second debate, when some Democratic viewers began vocalizing a semi-ironic passion for the author’s left-field charisma, others were more wary of her appeal.
To help clarify past comments and recent hedges, we’ve compiled all the times Williamson’s “radical truth-telling” intersected with medical practice.
Vaccines Are “Draconian”
Discussing vaccines at a campaign event in Manchester, New Hampshire, in June, Williamson told her audience: “To me, it’s no different than the abortion debate. The U.S. government doesn’t tell any citizen, in my book, what they have to do with their body or their child.” She added that mandatory vaccinations are “draconian” and “Orwellian.”
The next day, Williamson retracted her comments in a statement that mirrors the doubt-casting, post-truth language of the anti-vaccine crowd.
In a statement to the Daily Beast, she added: “Public safety must be carefully balanced with the right of individuals to make their own decisions. I am sorry that I made comments which sounded as though I question the validity of life-saving vaccines. That is not my feeling and I realize that I misspoke.”
Williamson’s “Orwellian” remark may be the most damaging moment in her campaign thus far. But it wasn’t the first time she’d questioned the importance of vaccination: In a 2015 appearance on Real Time With Bill Maher, shortly after her failed run for Congress, Williamson said that “the facts are in about measles,” but she still harbored “a skepticism, which is actually healthy, on this issue of vaccinations.”
The topic came up again on Saturday at the AFSCME Democratic presidential forum, only this time Williamson associated vaccines with the opioid crisis and suggested she would challenge the vaccine industry as president. Per HuffPost:
“Vaccines work. That has never been my issue,” Williamson began, before immediately pivoting. “We also, however, have an opioid problem in this country,” she said, expressing her concern for the “over-sale [and] over-marketing of painkillers.”
[Asked if she] was comparing vaccines to the opioid crisis, Williamson continued criticizing “Big Pharma,” which she said she would subject to “legitimate and responsible oversight” by the federal government.
Asked to answer a “simple yes or no” to whether she believed school districts should be able to require parents to vaccinate their children, Williamson answered in the affirmative.
“I’m fine with that,” she said. “And when I’m president, we will have far more independent research having to do with the amount of vaccines, having to do with bundling, and none of that will be paid by Big Pharma.”
[Asked backstage] whether a President Williamson would tell all American parents to get their children the vaccines recommended by their doctors, she said yes. Then she declared her intention to increase the Food and Drug Administration’s budget to review unspecified drugs, suggesting she holds doubts on their safety.
Some of Williamson’s most trust-in-the-spirit comments on health come from passages about HIV patients in her 1992 book Return to Love. Williamson, who worked as an advocate for people with HIV and AIDS in the 1980s, wrote: “Cancer and AIDS and other serious illnesses are manifestations of a psychic scream, and their message is not ‘Hate me,’ but ‘Love me.’”
In a tweet from June most likely meant to counter the book’s passages, Williamson stated:
An “Awakening” on Anti-Depressants
Last year, on the day of fashion designer Kate Spade’s suicide, Williamson tweeted:
During a November appearance on Russell Brand’s podcast, she called clinical depression “a scam,” adding on Twitter:
In 2014, she also suggested that antidepressants contributed to Robin Williams’s suicide. And in 2008 the author claimed on Facebook that women suffering from postpartum depression were attempting to “numb” their pain.
In her weight-loss book Healing the Soul of America, Williamson lamented that patients “drop antidepressants today as though they were candy.” Years later on Twitter, she added that “there was no stigma to depression until it was medicalized.” And last summer she suggested that on Twitter antidepressants could be linked to America’s plague of mass shootings.
In an interview with Anderson Cooper last week, Williamson hedged again, apologizing for saying that clinical depression was a scam (it was a “a glib comment” that was “wrong of me to say.”) She did not, however, walk back her use of “numb” to describe the use of prescribed antidepressants. Per CNN:
When asked by CNN’s Anderson Cooper about her use of terms like “numb” and “mask” to describe antidepressants, Williamson came out against telling a seriously depressed person that taking an antidepressant would numb them.
“I think that would be a not good message and I think I’ve never given that message. That’s just never the way I’ve spoken and it is a complete mischaracterization of my commentary,” she said, adding that she had commented on “a normal spectrum of human despair.”
Williamson argued that “there is value sometimes in feeling the sadness” of difficult events as a part of life.
“So what I speak to is not serious – what is today called clinical depression, although I have questioned sometimes how that is looked at,” she said.
Calling for an end to the “sickness care” system in America is an alluring message, delivered with perfect outre-candidate candor, in a field battling over big ideas in health care. But a candidate acknowledging that she’s “questioned sometimes” the efficacy of diagnoses of depression is far less productive. Williamson’s prescriptions for the structural, spiritual revival of the body politic often fail when it comes to the human body.