The Queen of the New Age

New York Times/May 4, 2008

Louise Hay is one of the best-selling authors in history, and none of the women who have sold more - like J. K. Rowling, Danielle Steel and Barbara Cartland - owned a publishing empire. They did not change the spiritual landscape of America and several of its Western allies. They were not pregnant at 15 and they did not lack high-school diplomas. Finer writers they may have been (depending on your taste), and wealthier women, but it would be hard to argue that any was more interesting than Louise Hay.

In any event, none of them ever touched my arm so intimately.

Late in February, Hay greeted me at the door of her small weekend house in a new subdivision outside San Diego, grasping my biceps rather sensually, then pulled me across the threshold, hooked her arm into mine as if I were her escort and moved me along. I felt we were together in a conspiracy that might end in mischief. She is 81 years old, thin, blond and ebullient: the hip older aunt rather than the sensible grandmother. She swept me through the house to the back door and onto the patio to look at the view of Batiquitos Lagoon - only then did she let go of my arm - and brought me around the side to see her organic garden, where she has planted broccoli, brussels sprouts and a Meyer lemon tree. Once back inside she sat me at her glass-topped dining-room table, gave me a plastic bottle of spring water and insisted I could ask her anything, anything at all.

Over the next hour and a half, Hay told me the story familiar to tens of millions of her devoted readers. She was born in Los Angeles to a hard-luck mother who soon married Louise’s brutal stepfather. There was violence within the house and without: when she was about 5, Louise was raped by a neighbor. Ten years later she dropped out of high school, became pregnant and, on her 16th birthday, gave a newborn girl up for adoption. She moved to Chicago, worked at menial jobs and in 1950 left for New York, where she took on a new name - she was born neither Louise nor Hay - and was, to quote "You Can Heal Your Life," the 1984 book that made her rich and famous, "fortunate enough to become a high-fashion model," working showrooms for Bill Blass, Oleg Cassini and Pauline Trigère. In 1954 she married the English businessman Andrew Hay, with whom she "traveled the world, met royalty and even had dinner at the White House."

When after 14 years of marriage Andrew Hay left her for another woman, Louise was devastated. But soon she found her way to the 48th Street home - it’s still there - of the First Church of Religious Science, one of many early-20th-century groups that heralded the transformative power of thoughts. "I heard somebody say there, ‘If you’re willing to change your thinking, you can change your life,’ " Hay told me. "My jaw dropped. I said, ‘/Really/?’ And I, who had never been a student, became an avid reader." What she read were metaphysical tracts by 1920s-era authors like Frances Scovel Shinn, who said that positive thinking could change people’s material circumstances, and the Religious Science founder Ernest Holmes, who taught that positive thinking could heal the body. In the early 1970s Hay became a Religious Science practitioner, leading people in spoken "affirmations" meant to cure their illnesses. She became popular as a workshop leader, and soon she moved beyond Religious Science, studying Transcendental Meditation with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi at his university in Fairfield, Iowa.

In 1977 or 1978 - she can’t remember which - Hay found out she had cervical cancer, and she concluded that its cause was her unwillingness to let go of resentment over her childhood abuse and rape. She refused medical treatment, she says, and with a regimen of forgiveness, therapy, nutrition, reflexology and occasional enemas, she claims she rid herself of cancer. There is, she says, no doctor left who can confirm this improbable story - "It was years ago!" - but she swears it is true.

In 1976, Hay wrote a small pamphlet, which soon came to be called "Heal Your Body." It included what became her famous list: a chart of different ailments and their "probable" metaphysical causes. For example, Hay would claim, a probable cause of Alzheimer’s disease is "a desire to leave the planet. The inability to face life as it is." A probable cause of "anorectal bleeding" is "anger and frustration." A probable cause of leprosy is "inability to handle life at all." By 1984, Hay had included her "Heal Your Body" list in her book "You Can Heal Your Life," which also contained such affirmations as "it is essential that we stop worrying about money and stop resenting our bills." She began leading support groups for people living with H.I.V. or AIDS. Her "Hay Rides" grew from a few people comforting each other in her living room to hundreds of men in a large hall in West Hollywood. She grew famous for her work with AIDS patients and was invited to appear on "The Oprah Winfrey Show" and "Donahue" in the same week, in March 1988. "You Can Heal Your Life" immediately landed on the New York Times best-seller list. More than 35 million copies are now in print around the world.

Hay House, the company she founded in 1987 to market her books, soon began publishing other New Age and self-help authors. Today the company turns out books, CDs, calendars and card decks by many of the titans of the large world that booksellers are now calling "Mind/Body/Spirit," a category that includes the literature of psychics/intuitives, angel therapy, positive thinking, New Thought, water therapy and motivational speaking. Wayne Dyer, Suze Orman, Deepak Chopra, Marianne Williamson, Sylvia Browne and Doreen Virtue are all Hay House clients. Last year, Hay House - which is owned jointly by Louise Hay and the company president, Reid Tracy, 45 - sold 6.3 million products, taking in $100 million, 8 percent of which was profit.

Though you may not know it, you live in Louise Hay’s world. Are you a black man who thinks psychics are nonsense but reads the affirmations of Tavis Smiley? Hay House has a special imprint just for Smiley. Are you a TV-loathing snob who occasionally condescends to watch PBS. The pledge-drive specials that Hay House has produced for Wayne ("Inspiration: Your Ultimate Calling") Dyer have helped raise more than $100 million for public television - they are one of PBS’s most-successful fund-raising tools.

The announcement of the National Book Award finalists means nothing at Hay House. The hundred-odd employees at Hay House headquarters in an office park in Carlsbad, Calif., are not the publishing girls and guys of New York. They do not talk hip fiction while cadging food at after-hours book parties. But they are brilliant students of spiritual hunger, a symptom of modernity that, along with oil and war and sex, may be one of the best business models of all. For all the books and tapes and cards Hay House has already sold, the hunger seems in no danger of being sated.

Without the Aids epidemic, Hay House wouldn’t exist. Louise Hay would be another workshop leader taking predominantly middle-class white women on retreats where they recite affirmations, short statements meant to bring a new, desired reality to fruition. (Examples include "I now create a wonderful new job" and "I live in the perfect space.") There are hundreds of these workshop leaders and authors; their seminars are advertised in New Age publications, on the Internet and on the bulletin boards in health-food stores and at yoga studios. Most of them never become rich. Like the aspiring motivational speaker played by Greg Kinnear in "Little Miss Sunshine," they work a minor-league circuit, trying to develop a following and maybe land a book deal. AIDS gave Louise Hay a following.

Hay moved to Los Angeles around 1980 and began seeing private clients for spiritual counseling. "I had several gay men in my practice," Hay told me. "One day, one of them called me up and said, ‘Louise, do you think you could start a group for gay men with AIDS?’ A few men came for dinner one night, and I said: ‘I have no idea what we’re doing, but I know what we’re not going to do. We’re not going to play ‘Ain’t it awful.’ So we talked and did affirmations and ended with a song. The next day, one of them called me and said, ‘Last night was the first time I slept in three weeks.’ The next week we had 90 men, and soon someone gave us a space in a gym in West Hollywood. For two years we met, but we outgrew the gymnasium in a month and a half." The city of West Hollywood gave the Hay Rides, as they were soon known, a bigger space. "Soon we had 850 people every Wednesday night. We had mothers who came, and whenever a mother came we gave them a standing ovation, because so many mothers weren’t speaking to their sons." Her eyes teared up noticeably. "The fathers almost never came - they couldn’t forgive." Hay often presided at the men’s funerals. "Who else was going to do it?" she asked me. "Religions wouldn’t touch them."

Or, rather, traditional religions wouldn’t. Hay’s Religious Science is an example of what the scholar Catherine L. Albanese calls metaphysical religion, a tradition that began spreading in America in the mid-19th century. "For metaphysics," Albanese writes in "A Republic of Mind and Spirit," "religion turns on an individual’s experience of ‘mind’ (instead of ‘heart,’ as in evangelicalism)." Metaphysical religion includes intuition or psychic work, clairvoyance and channeling otherworldly figures, and forms of it have been popularized in, for example, Christian Science, which its founder, Mary Baker Eddy, said would allow people to cure disease with prayer, and books like "The Power of Positive Thinking," by the preacher Norman Vincent Peale. What they all have in common - Christian Science; its cousin Religious Science; Peale’s 1952 megaseller; and contemporary best sellers like Rhonda Byrne’s "The Secret" - is a conviction that proper thinking, rather than religious faith or fervor, is the key to metaphysical power.

Metaphysical religion has frequently stepped into the breach where Western medicine and Western religion will not or cannot go. When I asked The Rev. Wade Adkisson, the current pastor of Hay’s old Church of Religious Science, why as a new church in the 1930s it appealed to people, he said: "At that time the medical world was very basic. A doctor carried with him two things: a bottle of whiskey and a knife. So people were looking for alternative methods of healing." Of course, Adkisson says he believes in those alternative methods of healing. If, as he says, "cancer is merely the outpicturing of one’s emotional state," then it can be cured with prayer. But he also admits that for marketing mind cures in the 1930s, it helped that traditional medicine was so impoverished.

So it was in the 1980s, as the AIDS crisis presented unmet medical needs. David Kessler, who wrote "On Grief and Grieving" with Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, recalls that as a young hospice worker he sometimes ran the Hay Rides when Louise was out of town. "When I look back," he says, "it was such a time of desperation for so many people. It was also one of those times in history when the medical world didn’t have much to offer. ...I was strictly Western medicine. But in that world of providing services to these people dying, our models just weren’t working for this population. . . . They were being left to die at the end of the hallway in hospitals. Their food was being left outside the door. There were few welcome mats anywhere. And to say she had a welcome mat would be an understatement."

Marianne Williamson, whose 1992 book "A Return to Love" is now a New Age bible, also developed an early following among AIDS patients in Los Angeles, and she knew Hay. "AIDS introduced a situation where, at that time, Western medicine played its cards and came up empty," Williamson says. "That didn’t make people say, ‘I’ll go home and die’; it made people see other models."

Hay’s ministry revolved around the large-scale encounter session. Hay listened and facilitated as men talked about their fears. They sang songs. They did "mirror work," looking at their own reflections and offering words of forgiveness and encouragement, letting go of guilt, overcoming despair. "I sat in this group with 500 guys," recalls Daniel Peralta, who first attended a Hay Ride in 1986 and is now a close friend of Hay’s. "They started to chant this song: ‘Doors closing, doors opening.’ It was unbelievable. It was the first time I was in a room with so many men and it wasn’t a gay bar."

Does all that positivity save lives? Hay says she cured her own cancer, and she says that thoughts can repel all kinds of illness, but according to Kessler she never promised to make AIDS go away. "I heard at the time," Kessler says, "some people would say she might be offering false hope or a cure that’s not there. So I decided to go and see what this lady was doing. . . . I was impressed. She was so clear: ‘I’m not here to cure anyone or help anyone or do anything.’ . . . She said whether or not there’s a healing depends on you, and the healing may not be of the body."

But while Hay may have hedged about whether positive thinking could cure AIDS, in her writings she was adamant that thoughts - not just sexual behavior - could help cause it. "Venereal dis-ease," Hay writes in "You Can Heal Your Life," using her eccentric spelling, "is almost always sexual guilt. It comes from a feeling, often subconscious, that it is not right to express ourselves sexually. A carrier with a venereal dis-ease can have many partners, but only those whose mental and physical immune systems are weak will be susceptible to it." And that mental weakness can be self-loathing, hating one’s looks or just a fear of aging.

In person and in print, Hay mentions these causes only to play them down: "In no way am I trying to create guilt for anyone"; "this is a time for healing, for making whole, not for condemnation." But she cannot escape her own logic: if our thoughts create our circumstances, then we are always, in the end, to blame. When I asked her if, since people’s thoughts are responsible for their conditions, victims of genocide might be to blame for their own deaths, she said: "I probably wouldn’t say it to them. I don’t go around making people feel bad. That’s not what I’m after." I pressed harder: Did she believe they are to blame? "Yes, I think there’s a lot of karmic stuff that goes on, past lives." So, I asked, with a situation like the Holocaust, the victims might have been an unfortunate group of souls who deserved what they got because of their behavior in past lives? "Yes, it can work that way," Hay said. "But that’s just my opinion."

Hay’s appeal has gone beyond gay men: today most of her fans are women, often in midlife and fleeing painful pasts or simply facing life’s challenges. Hay is like the suffering, tragic divas of old, Maria Callas or Judy Garland, say, but with a much happier ending: La Scala with an MGM finale. She lives modestly, considering her wealth, and the Rolls-Royce she drove until five years ago would seem to her fans something that she earned and deserved, a bit of luxury bought with sweat and tears. Her daily existence now is a model of earth-conscious serenity: she paints and cooks and gardens, and she commutes between her downtown condo and her weekend home in a gas-stingy Smart car, "the 47th sold in San Diego!" she told me with pride. She has had boyfriends since her divorce, but there’s nobody special now, and that suits her fine. There are things she lacks - she has no immediate family, and she never had another child. But she doesn’t dwell on what’s missing and glides through her days on a cushion of positive affirmations. The cancer is gone; the ugly times are banished. Souls are reincarnated, so death is not to be feared. Once she was in pain; now she is not. She is a role model, proof that the aches do not have to last.

But an attitude is not a business plan. Hay House was not, in the beginning, very well run. The employees were mainly "people I knew," Hay says, "a friend, or somebody who turned up, or somebody who wanted to work for Louise Hay. Some were students in classes I was teaching." The staff was a cult of personality, admirers only too happy to stuff mailings for Queen Louise. And for a time, the office was in a bad neighborhood and the finances were a mess - longtime employees talk about the early years as the Wild West, a time that couldn’t last even if they wanted it to. Meanwhile, large trade publishers, like HarperSanFrancisco and Tarcher/Putnam, were seeing the potential in New Age and investing heavily. Hay House would have failed quickly, or been bought out, but for the vision of Reid Tracy, who joined the company as an accountant in 1988 and became president in 1998. He invested his own money, too, and now owns 35 percent of the company; he is the sole shareholder besides Louise Hay herself, and everybody at Hay House, including its founder, considers Tracy the true leader.

In a field crowded with visionaries (and intuitives, psychics and angel therapists), Tracy has a strong claim to true clairvoyance. He realized more than 10 years ago that much of the money in New Age was to be made in items other than books: in card decks, audio tapes and page-a-day calendars. Major authors like Wayne Dyer and Marianne Williamson, who first came to Hay House just for ancillary products, later abandoned big trade houses to also do their books with Hay House.

Each product helps drive sales for the other products, making Hay House authors less dependent than most on the whims of book-review editors and the buyers for megastores. "The old book-tour model, with authors stopping at 10 Barnes & Nobles, that’s all these other publishers know how to do," says Nancy Levin, the event director for Hay House. "I often think: When are they going to catch on? Random House, Simon & Schuster. When will they catch on? We have a platform for our authors no one else does."

*T*hat platform is, above all, a literal one. Hay House authors appear onstage, in front of their readers, often. A reasonably successful fiction writer might sell 10,000 copies of a novel but draw only 10 people to a chain bookstore for a reading. The Hay House audience is different. They don’t just want to read Sylvia Browne’s books, or see her do psychic readings on a talk show. They want to see her live. Same goes for Wayne Dyer’s lectures on the mystical properties of the Tao Te Ching: readers want the book and want to see him in person too.

So while it’s hard to imagine a touring show of, say, historians published by Simon & Schuster, Hay House regularly organizes large group events for its stable. Last May, I attended I Can Do It! Las Vegas, a four-day meeting at the conference center adjacent to the Venetian casino. Between breaks to shop at the indoor mall (Kenneth Cole, Burberry, Movado), eat at the Wolfgang Puck restaurant or watch the aria-singing gondoliers ferry tourists down the indoor canals, swarms of women ducked in and out of the large halls and small seminar rooms of the Venetian’s conference complex, where 30 of Hay House’s top authors were giving lectures. With the full-price all-inclusive ticket for $450, attendees - of which there were 7,200 - could enjoy seminars with, among many others, the psychics Sonia Choquette, John Holland and Sylvia Browne; the clairvoyant and "angel therapist" Doreen Virtue; the holistic healer Darren Weissman; and the "renowned Japanese water researcher Masaru Emoto," who presented his "groundbreaking research on how molecules of water respond to human thought and emotion."

Hay House’s underlying message, the metaphysical power of our minds to improve our lives, is apparent in another part of "the platform," Hay House Radio. The Web-only radio station, started in 2005, offers 30 hours a week of original, hourlong radio shows hosted by Hay House authors. "To the best of my knowledge, we’re the only publishing house to do live radio five days a week," Summer McStravick, the director of programming, says. "Others do podcasts."

McStravick, who studied English literature at the University of California, San Diego, is an author and radio host herself, and she insists that Web radio has proved a good marketing tool. Her book, "Flowdreaming," the basis for her radio show of the same name, has sold "at least 15,000 copies," in part, she says, because listeners who tune in for another author stick around to hear her show too. "Nobody would have heard of ‘Flowdreaming’ without this, but now they have all over the world," she said. "And that’s happened for all our authors’ shows. Now when they come to town to do a seminar, people want to go."

Hay House authors do those seminars time and again, with punishing travel schedules. Nancy Levin, the event director, was on the road with one author or another 200 days last year. John Holland toured 23 weeks last year, Sonia Choquette 19 weeks. Esther and Jerry Hicks are on the road all the time: they live in their touring bus. At the events, the speakers’ paraphernalia are sold. Doreen Virtue, for example, is known less for her books than for her decks of angel "oracle cards" that can be used as a divination tool. (Hay House has sold eight million Doreen Virtue card decks, in 12 languages.) At the I Can Do It! event in Las Vegas, the sales floor comprised not only the Hay House concession but also dozens of independent merchants, hawking crystals, rocks, jewelry and "bellydance and Goddess wear."

Hay House has created enthusiasm for such disparate authors not just by identifying a unified audience but also by creating one. Different New Age movements have had vague affinities for 100 years now; the descendants of New Thought, theosophy and other metaphysical movements are today distant cousins, but cousins nonetheless. Hay House is hosting regular family reunions, helping to renew ties among the relatives. "Interested in buying our book on psychic power?" they’re saying. "Then do we have a book on holistic medicine for you."

Louise Hay’s famous list of negative thoughts that cause diseases has expanded with time. The original list does not, for example, give the causes of carpal tunnel syndrome or cellulite, but the 1999 edition of "You Can Heal Your Life" does (anger is a cause of both). I was curious what sort of research Hay does before adding new items to her list. "I seem to do my best channeling on the computer," she told me. "People would write me letters: ‘What about this?’ ‘What about that?’ I’d just type and send it off and people would write me back and say, ‘How did you know?’ "

That technique - it was once called channeling, although the term fell away as New Age became more mainstream - is still a favorite in the Hay House family. Wayne Dyer has written 33 books by going where his pen is led. "I write them by hand and without an outline," he says, "and I have written them by just letting it come. I know about automatic writing. I don’t know where it comes from. . . . I am just an instrument, and it keeps flowing."

Hay House has a complicated relationship with traditional scholarly credentials. The company’s literature never fails to mention Wayne Dyer’s or Joan Borysenko’s doctorates, nor the medical degrees earned by Christiane Northrup, David Hawkins and Mona Lisa Schulz.

On the other hand, nothing would be worse for a writer like Wayne Dyer than to suggest that his insights derive only from the latest in scholarly research. A major premise of Hay House wisdom is that it can be gleaned by anyone with the time and desire to connect to other levels of reality. And a minor premise is that traditional Western learning, as codified by universities that bestow fancy degrees, is woefully incomplete, sometimes harmful, and must be supplemented by other ways of knowing. Hay House wisdom is what Wayne Dyer gets when he moves beyond his Ph.D.; it’s what his readers may have inside them even if they never had the time, money or inclination to acquire a Ph.D.

This ambivalence about credentials shades into an ambivalence about what most of us would call truth. Nobody at Hay House, including the founder, says that they endorse everything each author writes. I asked Louise Hay if she likes the work of Doreen Virtue, and her answer was very telling: "People love her," she exclaimed. What about the TV psychic Sylvia Browne? "Now don’t ask me that," Hay replied. "She’s one of our most popular authors."

But there are standards. For every psychic Hay House publishes and promotes, there are many others whom it turns away. Reid Tracy knows his audience. He is one of them. Before coming to Hay House he did not read anything like the books he now publishes, but today he is a central figure in New Age culture. "My best friend of all of them is Wayne Dyer," Tracy says. "I talk to him probably every single day." (Dyer returns the favor, and ups the ante: "Reid’s my closest friend in the world. We speak four or five times every day.") Tracy knows that not just any book will read as authentic psychic guidance, say, or as offering valid "energy secrets." When Esther and Jerry Hicks write, in several wildly popular books, about the "infinite intelligence" they channel from "the beings who call themselves Abraham," readers go along, but those same readers can be mercilessly skeptical of other channelers.

There are fashions in New Age literature, too, and Tracy does his best to anticipate them. He says that self-help for young people may be the next frontier, and so he encouraged Wayne Dyer to write a series of children’s picture books (they were written with Tracy’s wife, Kristina). For the teenager, Tracy is developing a book with the Junior Attractors, as Matthew Ashdown and Brad Morris call themselves. Morris was born in 1984, Ashdown in 1978, and they convey an irrepressible youthful vigor as they encourage their audiences to "manifest awesomeness!" When Hay House isn’t ahead of the curve, it is close behind it. Financial self-help is the rage, Suze Orman does her books with another company, so Hay House signs Ben Stein (who appeared in "Ferris Bueller’s Day Off" and writes a money column for the Sunday New York Times) to co-write "Yes, You Can Supercharge Your Portfolio!" Flush with cash, Hay House can now lure authors with advances that rival those from the major houses. The sums vary, Tracy says, from $10,000 to $1.5 million. "We’ve given probably five or six advances over a million" - an extraordinary sum. That Hay House can already afford these prices helps explain why Tracy has turned away the investment banks that, he says, have approached him on behalf of larger publishing houses looking to make a purchase. "And," he adds, "we do it for more than just the money."

For 18 years, until he hired an acquiring editor in 2007, Tracy selected all the material the house published, up to 100 books and tapes a year in recent years. And while his employees are in awe of his eye for talent, they are some of the talent he has picked best. His team clearly understands this material. Christy Salinas, who started in Hay House’s design department in 1994, used affirmations to find her job. "I had been turned on to a tape of Louise’s called ‘How to Love Yourself.’ . . . I listened to it every day for three weeks, and it totally changed my life." Salinas and a friend began to take walks every day at lunchtime, and they would repeat an affirmation: "We now manifest a place where we work together in a positive environment and we make more money than we ever thought possible." A few months later, Salinas was offered a job at Hay House, and her friend soon followed. "We totally manifested this thing," Salinas says, "and we learned to do that from Louise. I’d never known you could just manifest what you wanted and it would come true."

In the end, the test of a Hay House author is not what she can prove, but how many people say they’ve been helped. Authors earn their credentials through testimonials. Summer McStravick, the Hay House radio director, did not have a medical or science degree before arriving at her theory of flowdreaming, which she calls a "powerful, easy and effective new way to manifest anything you want - whether that’s lots of money, relief from anxiety, the perfect romantic relationship." But the book has sold well and her radio show has listeners. There are, it seems, people in the world who believe that flowdreaming has helped them achieve their goals.

And we know those people exist because they have bought her book. It’s a wonderful world, this world in which, to quote Reid Tracy, "who decides" authors are experts are "the people who read their books." Legitimacy is conferred by sales, and sales are earned by seeming intuitive, connected and wise - legitimate. Louise Hay is thus a wise woman for the ages, because 35 million readers literally cannot be wrong. Is this circular logic? Yes, but Hay’s readers prefer it to the logic of the experts who, for all their remarkable scientific advances, still have not found a way to make every last person healthy and happy. "You can go to Harvard and have 10 degrees and you write a book and no one reads it, then you haven’t helped people," Tracy says. "But as of right now we’ve sold over 40 million products in the U.S., and we think a lot of those people have been helped. You hear people coming up to our authors, and the way they thank them, you know they’ve been helped."

At You Can Do It! events, when Hay signs her books, she stands behind a lectern; when I asked her why she would stand for hours on end, signing hundreds of copies on her feet, she was surprised I needed to ask. "Because," she said, "they all want to hug me."

Mark Oppenheimer is coordinator of the Yale Journalism Initiative and editor of The New Haven Review. He last wrote for the magazine about the philosopher Antony Flew and his reported religious conversion.

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