Long before Kris Carr’s “crazy sexy” wellness inspirations and Gabby Bernstein’s spiritual messages, there was Louise Hay, whose wildly popular 1984 best-seller, You Can Heal Your Life, helped kick off a self-help craze. Hay died on Thursday at the age of 90, after a long career that was championed by Oprah and got her dubbed “the Queen of the New Age.”
Her death immediately brought out a flood of loving thank-you messages and testimonials — including from Carr and Bernstein, among others, especially on her Facebook page, where an announcement that she’d “transitioned … of natural causes” was shared more than 97,700 times and inspired more than 27,300 comments. Fans called Hay “profound,” “captivating and authentic,” and “a trailblazer of the mind-body connection, not afraid to speak her truth in a world of skeptics.”
But the news also touched a painful nerve for many who lived through the height of the AIDS crisis.
That stems from 1985, when Hay was largely an unknown counselor and began hosting West Hollywood support groups for people living with AIDS. Her gatherings eventually attracted upwards of 800 people at a time, mostly gay men, drawn to her message that self-love could heal.
“The celebration of life, known as the Hay Ride, was often the only time a person with AIDS might be touched, hugged, or massaged with care, not rough disdain,” noted the gay publication the Los Angeles Blade, in its obituary of Hay, whose own backstory included surviving sexual abuse and curing herself of cancer through a non-medical regimen including positive visualizations.
But her message — which gave the impression to many that AIDS could be cured with love and that therefore if you weren’t cured, then you were to blame for not loving yourself enough — also brought out powerful resentment and anger from many within the gay community, some expressing those feelings with still-fresh hurt this week.
“So long Louise Hay, who made a lot of money exploiting desperate people with AIDS,” noted writer, humanities professor, and longtime AIDS activist Sarah Schulman on Facebook. (Hay’s publishing company, Hay House, grossed a reported $100 million in 2007 alone.)
Schulman’s post unleashed a long thread of discussion, and while a good number thought her assessment to be harsh or unfair, noting that Hay “gave hope to a lot of people,” many more agreed. They called Hay “an opportunist,” “the equivalent of a snake-oil salesman, but with the lives of AIDS sufferers tacked on,” “a fraud,” and, in one particularly concise critique “a subversively toxic presence whose fatuous and ultimately disempowering message indicated how starved we were for care and connection in a criminally careless era.”
Some pointed as damning evidence to a rare Hay documentary, “Doors Opening: A Positive Approach to AIDS,” in which she is seen speaking of AIDS “remissions” and of not relying on medical care. “You know, we’re not limited by the medical opinion. It depends whether we choose to do that or not,” she says. “I think it’s a terrible shame that at the moment the medical community is telling everyone that they have to die. Because it’s just not true, we know that’s not true. There are plenty of boys that are doing very well. You know, we can either buy into the fear or we cannot buy into the fear.”
More critics expressed their disdain for Hay’s approach through personal essays, including LGBT activist Peter Fitzgerald, for Medium, who writes he was hopeful about her teachings until a friend with AIDS was rejected by Hay when he got very sick. “Once again a spiritual fraud had let me and a great many of my people down,” he wrote.
But according to Hay’s longtime friend David Kessler — grief expert and author, who coauthored You Can Heal Your Heart: Finding Peace After a Breakup, Divorce, or Death with Hay in 2015 and who sometimes led Hay Rides for Hay when she was unavailable — Hay’s message has been largely misunderstood. “As far as the false hope, that she was telling people with AIDS that you don’t have to die, that wasn’t true,” Kessler tells Yahoo Beauty. “She was always clear that healing was always possible, and it may not be of the body — that we can find peace, but it doesn’t always mean your body is going to get better. … And men left that room feeling more at peace than when they walked in.”
As far as some believing that Hay blamed people who were sick, he says, “I think the message is that we’re responsible for our lives, but we’re not to blame for our illnesses. … She said, ‘Whether you live or die, you don’t have to be a victim of life.’ It was a message of empowerment.”
Kessler continues: “This was such a horrible time — a time when doctors said, ‘I can’t do anything for you,’ when family was turning on you. Louise was welcoming people and saying, ‘You’re loved and you’re worthy and cared for.’ To me, that was amazing.”
He adds, “Many of the people I met back then who had issues with Louise had issues with spirituality.” But “Clergy weren’t letting [people with AIDS] into their churches. So if you wanted spirituality, it was Louise or Mariann [Williamson, another self-help guru of the time].” Finally, for those who thought Hay “didn’t believe in death,” Kessler points to the book they wrote together, which focuses on grief. So before dying herself this week, he says, “She tackled the subject of death.”
Loved or hated, Hay’s message contained “zero new,” according to Beryl Satter, a Rutgers University history professor with expertise in early New Age movements. The school of thought, she tells Yahoo Beauty, has its roots in the late 19th century, in what’s called “mesmerism,” as well as Christian Science.
“There were healers who put forth the idea that you could control your thoughts through affirmations and denials, and then control the ‘God’ within you — ‘I am healthy, God cannot be sick, therefore I will never be sick,’” she explains. “These were popular healing practices at a time when medicine was in transition, and it wasn’t clear that a doctor would be able help you, which is a parallel with AIDS. You want hope but you can’t get what you need, so you turn to God, meditation, and these practitioners who make claims that they can help you control your mentality and therefore the health of your body.”
Hay was influenced by these early teachings, Satter notes, including that of “religious science” and the New Thought of the 1890s, which paved the way for the broader New Age movement. And everyone involved, no matter what the era, Satter points out, naturally gave rise to controversy.
“It’s always had that double edge of being a source of hope for those who can’t get treatment, and a very ugly self-blaming tendency — because they’re saying ‘you should be able to control thoughts, and anything that happens is because you have not adequately meditated,’” she says. “It’s implicit and explicit: If it’s true that you can meditate your way to health, then being sick is nobody’s fault but your own.”
Satter notes she finds nothing wrong with touting benefits of relaxation and meditation, which can often bring a needed sense of control. “What’s horrible about it is if it prevents you from actually getting medical help, and that it so drastically turns the attention on your inner self and not the world around you,” she says. “It’s no surprise that [someone like Hay] would emerge in this context. It makes sense, and I think it’s a sign of the desperation people were feeling. I doubt she was intentionally hustling and trying to exploit. My guess is that she and most [similar gurus] are fairly sincere.”
Bottom line, she says of Hay’s beliefs, and philosophies that are similar, and the many who are devotees: “Whenever you touch the discourse of attempting to give yourself all power, you are also giving yourself all blame. That is the line that you walk.”
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