Sun. Sep 25th, 2022


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Opinion | She Believed Self-Love Was the Antidote to AIDS

10 min read


Louise Hay’s controversial brand of self-love drew in thousands during the AIDS crisis.


Another Hayride

Self-help guru Louise Hay’s “Hayrides” drew in thousands during the hopelessness and government neglect of the AIDS crisis.

“Love is the most powerful healing force there is, and the pathway to love is through forgiveness. Forgive yourself first, so that you can forgive others. Free yourself. You deserve to be well. You deserve to heal. You deserve love.” “Six by a foot. Anyway, call me back. Bye.” “I was 24 years old, and I went to Los Angeles to audition for pilot season. I didn’t know a soul. I was walking down Melrose Avenue, and I physically ran into this friend that I had gone to school with. He smiled at me, and he said, Hey, what are you doing Wednesday night? And I thought he was inviting me to church. Truth be told, I had an enormous crush on him. I got to this thing called the Hayride started by Louise Hay. I was raised in a very fundamentalist Christian background. I associated the word church with shame. There, there was literally no shame.” “We don’t — you know, I don’t heal anybody. That’s not what I do. I just provide a space where we can uncover how absolutely wonderful we are. And many people find that they are able to heal themselves, and this is very heartwarming to all of us. I started out in January of this year with six men with AIDS in my living room, and look where we are today. You’re perfect as you are right now, and yes, of course —” “I began to understand what it meant that you cultivate your own family. I was hooked.” “Just because your father may have been a big macho man and wouldn’t ask anybody for help doesn’t mean that you have to be that way. None of us are capable of doing it all by ourselves all the time. Stop scaring yourself. How often do you choose to think thoughts that literally terrify you, right?” “This is actually very empowering. Because if I could actually give myself AIDS, well take it one step further, then I can take it away. I absolutely feel that I am overcoming this disease, and every day that I am here shows me and shows the world that I am overcoming AIDS.” “You know, we’re not limited by the medical opinion. It depends whether we choose to do that or not. I think it’s a terrible shame that at the moment, the medical community is telling everybody that they have to die, because it’s just not true. We know that 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 can not buy into the fear.” “Louise was classified as a new-age guru.” “How was your body reacting to the things you said you were willing to release? What will you have to change? What will you have to choose to believe in order to let these old limitations go? Are you willing? How willing? I cannot tell you exactly what your future will be like. But I know that, if you choose to be negative and resentful and fearful and guilty, you are going to have an uncomfortable life before you and perhaps illness too.” “Her signature thing was mirror work.” “Let’s use the mirror to check our resistance level. Look into your eyes and say, I am willing to change. I am willing to change. Are you hesitating? Do you feel that it’s not true? What is the belief that’s in the way? Remember, it’s only a thought, and a thought can be changed. — awareness that you have right now.” “I was studying and watching her lift people out of an unprecedented despair, a pandemic, a violation of humanity.” “Do that for yourself. It’s an act of loving yourself. I know a lot of people here are looking for a savior. The place to look is right here in the mirror, right here, honey. This is the savior that you’re looking for. What do you want to say to him?” “I’ve looked at you so many times, and I’ve even told you — I’ve even told you that I wanted you to hurry up and die rather than admit. I just wanted — I’ve got too much pride or something.” “That sounds like your daddy.” “Just to ask to hold somebody’s hand. I don’t want you to die, and I don’t want you to live so uncomfortable all by yourself.” “We’re going to be on TV Monday.” “I heard. Oh yeah.” “I worked with some friends to do the technical part of the Hayrides. Then they said, Louise really wants music to go along with the message, an opening act. And this group alliance, we would laugh and say that we were the first new-age boy band.” [MUSIC PLAYING] “Everybody, wake up into the morning into happiness.” “Hello, world.” “It’s a different way of living now.” “Thank you, world.” “We always knew that we’d be free somehow.” “I would ride next to Louise in the van when we would go to places.” “It’s such a change for us to live so independently.” “She was like my mom, and I didn’t have to hide any feelings that I was having. I never had that kind of parental love before. When the book ‘You Can Heal Your Life,’ came out, things really started exploding beyond the gay community.” “I love you. Let me see you do it. Let me see you do it.” “I love you.” “A lot of people in Los Angeles have been exposed to you, so your name is sort of on the grapevine. And for at least a year, I’ve had various people come to me who have been to your sessions and say that they have been healed.” “You know, I’m not a healer. I don’t heal anyone, but I run a support group for people with AIDS.” “You said to me during the break —” “There was a New York Times reporter that said, if it wasn’t because of AIDS, Louise might be just another woman teaching workshops on how to love yourself.” “I teach people to love themselves.” “And that you’re not going to cure the AIDS epidemic with self-love, that anger is necessary to bring our activism out.” “I read your book, and I enjoyed it. Now, I think that somewhere down the line, it’s not just your inner healing. It’s not your concentration only. There’s other factors than just from within yourself. So I think that there are a lot of factors out there that are around you that are important, and that they are not just alone.” “Are you saying you don’t think it can be cured? Are you saying you don’t think it can be cured —” “Oh no, I think it can be cured, but I don‘t think just by meditation.” “No, that’s no guarantee at all. If you come to our group, and we’re now running almost 600 people every Wednesday night, you will feel better about yourself definitely. We’re going to play a little music and do a special visualization. Get comfortable, close your eyes, and really relax. Begin to visualize yourself as a little child of 5 or 6, and look deeply into this little child’s eyes.” “I think people with trauma find and seek each other out.” “My early childhood gave me many opportunities to create self-loathing. When I was 18 months, my parents divorced, and I was put into a series of foster homes. And when I was 5, I was raped by a neighbor, and then my mother remarried. And my stepfather both battered and abused me.” “That trauma, that sadness, that violation, it weaves itself into your soul. Self-love is the only thing that saved her and me.” “About seven or eight years ago, I was diagnosed as having cancer myself. And I realized that I was being given a chance to do some work on myself. Because I knew that cancer comes from a mental pattern of having a lot of resentment about the past, and also having a lot of feelings of not being good enough.” “That diagnosis is the thing that moved her into this spiritual boot camp. She started looking at everything that was unloving, and she believed that worked. Because the cancer was gone.” “Love is the big healer. When we can really get down to loving who we are, our life changes, and it’s amazing the diseases we don’t need.” “People were dying, and I watched that crowd grow. Not necessarily out of inspiration, but out of desperation. The funeral and the memorial service, one after another, after another, after another. I mean, Alliance, we must have sang at 70 memorials in one year’s time. I watched how this subset of society was clawing and grabbing at her to fix it.” “A person comes along, like Louise, or a group, like this group, who support you and say, yes, I know you can get well. Yes, I know you can survive this, overcome this, and even achieve greater health than you’ve ever known before.” “People that are getting well are the ones who are really taking responsibility for their health.” “When you’re in the middle of a storm like that, people want to be fixed. People want it to go away.” “And see in front of you a new door.” “We all miscalculate. We do it because we want some kind of hope.” “And while you may not know exactly what that door holds —” “When people didn’t get fixed, when people died, I think it could produce shame. Some people felt her approach was harmful. All I know is that there was a pure intent there.” “And so it is.” “So it is.” “Good evening, hello, I’m Louise Hay, and welcome to another hayride.” [MUSIC PLAYING] “I think it’s important to emphasize, too, because a lot of people think that that’s what’s wrong with our country is everybody’s loving themselves too much, that there is a difference between loving yourself and being selfish. They’re absolutely the opposite.” “Exactly. I’m certainly not arrogant. I love who I am, exactly who I am, and I’ve created a wonderful base around me. And people who I’ve surrounded myself in a very totally loving group.” “Mhmm. Doc?” “That I’m not powerless in the world, that I’m not a victim of any disease that might come along, that I have some say in this and some power, and that I’m not alone.” [singing] “I love myself the way I am. There’s nothing I need to change.” “I loved her. I loved her deeply.” [singing] “There’s nothing to rearrange.” “I can see that there’s a difference between curing and healing. We were looking for hope, and Louise helped other people in their own despair. That was healing.” “Wake up to your own potential. Realize how divine and magnificent you are, and realize you have the power to make changes. You are not stuck. You can begin to make changes by changing the way you think. And above all, go to the mirror, and look in your eyes, and say, I love you. I really, really love you. It’ll work miracles.”

By Matt Wolf

Mr. Wolf is a filmmaker.

In January 1985, six gay men gathered in the self-help author Louise Hay’s living room to discuss a terrifying new disease. At that time fewer than 8,000 cases of AIDS had been reported in the United States. Yet as the deadly epidemic rapidly expanded — within 10 years, over half a million cases would be reported, and over 300,000 deaths — so did Hay’s “Hayride” support group meetings.

Hay began using her platform to tell gay men that they could overcome AIDS through self-love. Naturally those claims — a reflection of the spread of new-age philosophies about positive thinking — were met with pointed criticism for being unscientific and even harmful. Her message came, though, at a time when people with AIDS faced deep stigmatization. A 1985 Los Angeles Times poll found that a majority of Americans supported a quarantine of AIDS patients. Some respondents even favored marking them with tattoos.

In a time of hopelessness and government neglect, people cope on their own terms, and resilience can take unusual forms. The short documentary above explores how, for a number of people confronting trauma caused by a homophobic society and familial rejection, the Hayrides provided solace in the face of an almost certain death sentence.

As the film’s narrator, David Ault, says of the Hayrides, “there’s a difference between curing and healing.”

Matt Wolf is a filmmaker based in New York.

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