When the New Age entrepreneur Louise Hay died at 90 on August 30, the internet lit up with people praising her healing powers for often-desperate physical and psychological ailments, prescribing healthy living and major doses of self-love. But the people celebrating Hay largely ignored or brushed past the pernicious side of her prescription—the place where self-love slides into self-blame. Hay’s spiritual schema had its reasons for being, and it helped some people. But it failed to offer its era a genuine and enduring spirit of care, perhaps in no case more so than that of gay men and those who loved them during the desolate early years of AIDS.
More than most other gurus of the 1980s and 1990s, Hay wove a gossamer of pseudoscience into her spiritual beliefs. She was best known for her 1984 book You Can Heal Your Life, in which she ascribed physical diseases and syndromes to lack of self-love and other psychological causes. You had to take responsibility for your “dis-ease,” as Hay dubbed it, because you caused it. And if you dealt with your “dis-ease,” you could cure your illness.
Hay claimed she had cured herself from cervical cancer after she confronted her childhood sexual abuse and other traumas. In her 1998 book Heal Your Body A-Z, she gave a systematic and exhaustive list of what “mental pattern” led to which disease. If you were sick, then you had some feeling that you hadn’t dealt with. For Hay, these emotions were not metaphors, or even contributing factors; they were true origins of illness, attached to a simplistic understanding of the afflicted body part. Kidney stones, for example, were caused by “lumps of undissolved anger.” Acne was the result of “not accepting the self. Dislike of the self.” As for cancer, she asked, “Deep secret or grief eating away at the self.”
Got a cold sore? You had because you had “festering angry words and fear of expressing them.” Does your child have leukemia? Then she is “brutally killing inspiration” and asking “What’s the use?” The reality of, say, having acne because of hormones, or getting cancer because of environmental or hereditary reasons, did not interest Hay. There was no place for viruses.
And there was no place for the virus that caused AIDS. Which is ironic, because it was the advent of HIV that thrust Hay into prominence in the mid-1980s. Her exploding popularity was fueled by the explosion of a disease of the immune system that had no known cause, for years had no treatment, and still has no cure.
It’s hard now to imagine the extent of the fear, paranoia, and ostracism in the early years of the epidemic. People with AIDS were absolute pariahs. To health professionals, they were hopeless cases, to be offered palliative care and denied hope. To a scared society, they were disease vectors, to be condemned for their disease and, if they were gay, for their sexuality. For their families, they were often embarrassments, to be secreted away when they returned home to die, or else cast into the wilderness, thanks to what writer and activist Sarah Schulman has defined as “familial homophobia.”
Enter Louise Hay. As Schulman has pointed out, certain figures of the early AIDS era like Louise Hay slipped into the role that many mothers of children with AIDS had shirked. When Hay emerged, there was little love and care, maternal or otherwise, to be found for people affected by AIDS—especially from any institutional or spiritual authority. Religious institutions, which might have adapted their beliefs and practices enough to rise to the challenges of the faith they professed, largely ducked their duty. Science and medicine offered obstacles, not answers. And of course the Reagan government didn’t give a shit. Little in social, spiritual, governmental, medical, and science systems was available to sustain those who had AIDS or cared about them.
To these desperate people Louise Hay offered open if judgmental arms; emotional group encounters known as Hayrides; teddy bears to cuddle; mirrors in which you could affirm your worth no matter how bad your Kaposi’s sarcoma lesions; a simulacrum of science; and spiritually nutty notions. Certainly some people found in Hay the support, recognition, and nurture that they couldn’t find elsewhere. But others were wounded by Hay’s subversively pernicious judgment, rooted as it was in a tragically fatuous view of the body that made the medieval science of humours look like third-year Harvard Medical School. The last thing people with AIDS needed to hear was that they had caused their own illness.
Some of Hay’s disciples, believing they had failed to follow her dicta well enough, died ashamed, disempowered, and betrayed. Many AIDS survivors and caregivers have testified to the tragic personal cost of Hay’s philosophy, and what some have called her brutal dismissal of actual people with AIDS, including the poor and people of color, as well as her willingness to profit personally through the pain of the sick, the psychically unsettled, and the terminally ill. Activist and filmmaker Peter Fitzgerald saw Hay in action with his desperately ill comrades. After her death he said, “I understand that she provided hope at very dark times to a great many people, I also know all too well that her clay feet were deeply mired in the guilt of being an AIDS profiteer, a disloyal friend and purveyor of false hope. Namaste, bitch.”
Hay faded out of prominence among people with AIDS—as people with AIDS and health care activists built their own systems of support, care, spirituality, and political action. The most vital of those communities was centered around organizations like ACT UP, the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, which used direct action to seek an end the AIDS crisis—challenging the government, demanding new drug protocols, protesting the Catholic Church and religious fundamentalists for their organized hatefulness, and generally bringing people together for a cause that was life-or-death to each of them but that transcended the personal to become a common urge toward justice.
To be sure, group activism was not (and is not) for everyone; some people need, then and now, to tend to their personal gardens, and they have every right to do so. But thanks to Hay, too many people were subjected to an absurd, blame-the-victim pseudo-science and what was, in essence, kitsch spirituality.
The aims of AIDS activism are political and social, but they are also ultimately spiritual. To live a proactive life when you’re in dire straits, to come together for direct action, to advance the truths of science and health, to find your solace in what you can change not just in yourself but in the world—that is the basis of an authentic spirituality that can sustain us today.