Compared to her fellow presidential candidates, Marianne Williamson has a striking agility with the language of health and illness. In her first debate, she proclaimed that America has “a sickness care system” instead of a healthcare system, and lamented the scourge of “unnecessary chronic illnesses.” She has written books about weight loss, the psychology of midlife, and “spiritual healing for the modern plagues of anxiety and depression.” She often uses metaphors of illness and wellness to discuss abstract policy—money in politics is “the cancer that underlies all the other cancers,” for example. Her campaign slogan is: “Heal the soul of America.”
Williamson’s woo-woo wellness rhetoric has generally prompted eye-rolls from election-watchers. But some people with disabilities and disability rights activists see something more sinister at work: a campaign whose big idea is that positive thinking is a political and physical cure-all, and that illness and disability can be caused by negative vibes. When Williamson emerged from the second round of debates this week with bona fide momentum, those critics grew increasingly concerned. “To see her rising to prominence is really worrying to me,” said S.E. Smith, an editor and writer on disability issues. “She wants everyone to think themselves well, which is a damaging message we have heard for a long time.”
First, there’s Williamson’s apparent skepticism of mainstream medicine, especially “Big Pharma.” She tweeted earlier this summer that the main cause of mental illness is a “disconnection” from community, nature, and the arts, for example. “The message that many disabilities are just in your mind and can be overcome with love, or with better self-actualization or a better relationship with the divine, is not a message that supports structures for people with all sorts of disabilities,” said David Perry, a writer who takes medication for depression and who has a son with Down syndrome and autism. A president’s rhetoric on those issues matters tremendously, Perry pointed out: Federal policy has a huge impact on disabled people’s lives, from housing to education access to Social Security. (A representative for Williamson’s campaign said Friday it would send a statement, but did not follow up by press time. She told the New York Times in July that she does not judge anyone who takes anti-depressants.)
It’s not just Williamson’s rhetoric that troubles disability rights activists. The candidate’s 15-point health care plan has provoked criticism, too. “Williamson’s ideas around health policy make me believe she has a phobia of illness and disability,” Imani Barbarin, a writer with cerebral palsy, wrote in Rewire this week. Williamson’s plan focuses on prevention, which in itself is unobjectionable. But “there is little acknowledgement of the existence of disabled people.”
[Support Slate’s 2020 coverage. Join Slate Plus.]
According to another Rewire piece, Williamson is also one of just a few candidates who have committed to reinstating Obama-era regulations that would restrict people with psychiatric disabilities from buying guns. Those restrictions were opposed by many disability rights groups on the grounds that they stigmatize people with mental illness, restrict rights without due process, and, they say, do little to prevent mass shootings.
Other missteps suggest Williamson is simply not paying attention. For the 29th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act last week, her Instagram and Twitter accounts posted a statement that praised a controversial nonprofit where intellectually disabled workers earn less than minimum wage, and used the phrase “differently abled,” which is among the euphemisms rejected by many disabled people.
Williamson has tweeted that the “spirit self, which is the true Self, cannot be disabled.” She has suggested we should “pour God’s love on our immune systems” in defense of swine flu.
In an interview last year, she referred to clinical depression as a “scam,” a claim for which she apologized this week. Williamson has attempted to walk back her documented skepticism of vaccines, too, explaining that she’s “pro-vaccine” but merely raising “questions about the role of predatory Big Pharma.” But few people in the anti-vaccine movement state directly that vaccines are harmful, Perry pointed out. Most simply “raise questions” and cast suspicion.
As Williamson has risen in prominence, her critics in the disability rights community have grown more vocal. “Disabled people are shouting from the rooftops that she is a danger to us,” activist Sarah Blahovec tweeted recently in a widely shared thread. “It’s not cute, it’s terrifying.” “We can see the dangers Williamson poses to our community,” an activist and writer named Liz Moore wrote in a Bustle op-ed this week.
The question now is whether Democratic voters will hear Williamson’s critics over the voices of those who find her refreshing, amusing, or both. “One thing that has been distressing is watching other progressives who find her message on reparations positive, or think she’s cute and funny, ignore the voices of disabled folks and allies,” Perry said. “if you’re not listening to these messages of warning, why not?”
Support our independent journalism
Readers like you make our work possible. Help us continue to provide the reporting, commentary, and criticism you won’t find anywhere else.Join Slate Plus