Many years ago I was dragged along by an actor friend to a small pub theatre in north London to see a one man show featuring a burly, six foot two transvestite whose roots lay in a traditional Nottinghamshire mining family. My sole memory of the performance was a scene in which he dressed up in a frock to deliver an impersonation of Louise Hay gently rocking on a garden swing, reciting affirmations to the general amusement of the predominantly gay audience. Later, in the bar, I overheard this strapping young man continuing to mock and deride Miss Hay, again to much mirth from his coterie of friends and admirers.
For those who aren’t familiar with her, Louise Hay is the queen of the mind body spirit world. Having just celebrated her 87th birthday, she is best known for her 1984 book “You Can Heal Your Life”, which to date has sold over 40 million copies in some 30 languages (I could be so lucky). From her headquarters in Carlsbad, California, she oversees one of the largest and most profitable independent publishing empires, whose stable boasts many of the heavy hitters in this field, with the likes of Wayne Dyer, Marianne Williamson and Christiane Northrup firmly under her maternal wing. You can follow the Hay House conference circuit around the world, treat your inner child to a Hay House cruise and even bring out your very own healing or recovery book through their self publishing arm.
With her positive outlook on life and emphasis on saccharine affirmations (try staring into a mirror and saying I love and approve of myself ten times), Louise Hay presents a tempting target for a confused, self loathing young man with deep unresolved gender issues to take pops at. It was only much later, when I learnt more about this remarkable woman, that I fully appreciated the irony of that otherwise tedious evening.
When AIDS first hit the west coast of the USA in the mid 1980s, it triggered elemental, widespread panic. People diagnosed as HIV+ were treated like modern day lepers, often disowned by their own families, and certainly shunned by society at large. Such was the extent of the hysteria guests began to bring their own cutlery and glasses to parties out of fear of contagion.
Into this climate of stigmatisation stepped Louise Hay, then practising as a private therapist in the Los Angeles area. Where many so called professional healers and carers didn’t want to know, she embraced these terrified men (at the time most of them were men) and set about creating a support group for them, which rapidly grew and eventually became known as the Hayride.
It’s a chapter in her life many evangelical christians, who have been scathing about Hay’s scornful stance towards original sin, guilt and the need for redemption, might do well to contemplate. It is hard to think of someone who embodied Jesus’s admonition “Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me” (Matthew 25:40) with greater authenticity and dedication. Where were you, hellfire and brimstone preachers spewing damnation and judgement, when these people reached out for help?
Yet beneath the hugs, the warm, fuzzy affirmations and the soft rainbow colours of the Hay House aesthetic, there’s steel in Miss Hay’s spine. The central message in “You Can Heal Your Life” and its multiple spinoff volumes is that our thoughts create our reality. The implications behind this seemingly innocuous statement are massive and profound, and the principal reason why, alongside her diehard fans, she arouses such anger and contempt, particularly within the academic and theological communities.
What these critics find so offensive is that Louise Hay places responsibility for one’s life firmly back in the court of the individual. If your life sucks, stop blaming everyone and everything else for your problems. Abandon the pose of victimhood and wallowing in your misery; identify the root causes of your troubles and do something about it.
Liberals are another group who find the Hay medicine difficult to swallow. They have invested a huge amount of emotional energy in the opposite idea, that people’s thoughts and feelings are a direct consequence of their reality, usually a reality that has been imposed upon them, be it by corrupt governments, multinational corporations, global capitalism, abusive families, take your pick. It’s all very well for Louise, sitting on her mountaintop surrounded by her wealth and fawning acolytes; what about the single mother struggling to feed and clothe her child on welfare, the refugee from war-torn Syria, the baby abandoned in a Swaziland AIDS orphanage?
Rich and famous though she now is, Louise Hay has been no stranger to adversity. A child of the depression, she was raped when she was five by a neighbour, suffered sexual and physical abuse as a young woman, was cast aside by the husband she had finally learnt to trust when he tired of her, and experienced long periods of financial struggle and professional adversity.
It made me wonder how the heroine of my novel Francesca would respond to her. Could Louise Hay help her heal her life? Is it possible for a human being to “get over” something as traumatic as the holocaust, or being caught up in the horrors of a military invasion and its subsequent mass murders, such as that visited upon the people of East Timor by the Suharto regime? And what about the idea that somehow you might be responsible for these atrocities you suffered, that you manifested them in your life as a direct consequence of your thoughts? That’s a tough one, even for the most ardent Hay supporter.
I like to think the two of them would get along. For all their differences in background and culture, they share a remarkable life force, a willingness to accept life on its terms combined with a will to fashion it according to their desires. I think when they stared into each other’s souls they would see a reflection of the greatness and the power that lay within them both. I think they would share a common understanding of what it is to be human, to suffer, to force oneself to look at the very worst man can do to man, and yet still not be discouraged from reaching out to embrace the love, the goodness and the light.
You can order your copy of Francesca here.