Octomom has nothing on Louise Hay. Mothering fourteen children is certainly a formidable feat, but Louise has been a mother to thousands of boys—and her boys battled a deadly virus and endured social stigma.
As one of the founders of the self-help movement, Louise blazed trails in the earliest years of the AIDS epidemic. “It just fell into my lap,” she says humbly of her Hayrides, the mid-eighties support group for those infected with the virus. What began with a few people in her Santa Monica, California, living room grew into nearly a thousand who attended her weekly sessions in West Hollywood, California. “I was there six and a half years in the trenches,” she sums up of those times. “There was a lot going on. If you were diagnosed with AIDS, it was considered a death sentence. I have memories like you wouldn’t believe….”
One eidetic memory was the time she barred a CBS camera crew from one of the groups. “I had to protect my boys!” she exclaims. “They came to do a piece, they showed up at the door, and I confronted them.” Louise sits up in her chair, arches her chest, and loudly reenacts the scene, “‘You can’t come in and touch my boys!’ They said, ‘Oh, we’re from CBS.’ I said, ‘I don’t give a fuck! I don’t care who you are, you’re not touching my boys. But what I will do is go in and tell them that you are here and if anyone wants to come out and talk to you, they’re free to do so.’ Everyone knows that in those early days you could lose your job [if you were known to be HIV-positive].”
Speaking from her San Diego penthouse, directly across the street from historic Balboa Park, Louise is a fusion of calm, elegance, and spirit. I briefly wait for her in this inviting spacious, bright and airy living room, whose panoramic windows afford a jaw-dropping nearly 360-degree view of the park and the airport. As she descends from a spiral staircase to greet me, she seems to glide, not like skater Apolo Ohno, but more like the late Queen Mum, without the pretentiousness. This is Earth Mother with class and humor! When asked later to give one word to describe herself, she replies, “Nutty.” Then added, “I’ve always been known as, ‘That Crazy Lady’!”
Dressed in a flowing, dark azure blue tunic and darker blue lamé pants, a fit Louise—she does yoga, Pilates, and Escogue—blends nicely with her tropical décor home that’s splashed in rich, vivid, cheerful colors. Light incense drifts throughout. Of course it does—this is the Queen of New Age! At a youthful eighty-three, she radiates energy and agility.
The Hayrides were born when a private client of Louise asked her to start a group for people with AIDS.
“I said to him, ‘Oh, well, we don’t know what we’re doing, but let’s do it.’” Louise is a firm believer in being aware that opportunities hide in banal places. Six people showed up at the first meeting and she told them, “‘We’re going to do what we always do, which is to work on forgiveness, releasing anger and resentment, and loving ourselves.’ But I added one thing, ‘We’re not going to sit here and play ‘ain’t it awful,’ because that is not going to help anybody.’”
The next day one of the guys called Louise and said, “Louise, it’s the first time I’ve slept in three weeks.” The next week ten people attended, the following week twenty. “Within six months there were ninety people hanging out my doors and windows in my house. I mean, I only had a small place then, not like this,” she chuckles, with a sweep of her hand. “Then we moved down to one of the gymnasiums in West Hollywood.”
The Hayrides were attended mostly by men who had AIDS, but their partners, friends, and family members were also welcome.
“If a mother was there we’d give her a standing ovation,” says Louise, who found that scores of men had families who had deserted them when they found out that their son was gay. The group environment provided safety, acceptance, and hope under the credo of loving oneself. Some guys even brought their teddy bears. Louise says these groups would work in conjunction with their doctors, acupuncturists, and other professionals.
“I don’t heal anybody. I just provide a space where we can uncover how absolutely wonderful we are and many people find that they’re able to heal themselves,” she explained in the 1985 documentary, Doors Opening: A Positive Approach to AIDS. (The film is available again on DVD and proceeds go toward the Hay Foundation, which donates to numerous charities including HIV/AIDS. Louise began the Foundation in response to the AIDS crisis.) In the film, she asserts that many PWAs have pent-up hatred and resentment and that, by turning those negative feelings around, they have the power to make changes. “AIDS has turned out to be a very positive thing in the lives of many people. It enables them to change direction.”
Doors Opening transcends the subject of AIDS, spotlighting forgiveness and releasing fear and anger. It also lays out tools on how to achieve inner peace. This film needs to be seen by anyone who wants to live life to the fullest! The director of the film is Nicholas Frangakis and the producer is Colin Higgins, who wrote and directed the films 9 to 5 and The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, and penned the screenplay for Harold and Maude (Louise’s favorite movie of all time). Colin himself was HIV-positive and died in 1988. The assistant cinematographer, Russell Carpenter, went on to win an Academy Award for Best Cinematography for Titanic.
“I wanted to do the film to let others see what we were doing instead of what they were doing—which was to moan and groan. We were getting results; people were feeling better,” recounts the former New York model. Louise herself packaged the VHS’s and mailed Doors Opening to other national AIDS organizations, hoping to shed light on how support groups could help those infected.
“Far too many people died and I did far too many funerals, but those who died who had come through us, died peacefully. That was the one thing we could do for them so they weren’t shrieking that they were going to go to hell. At that time if you had AIDS you were told you were going to hell.” Louise crosses her slender legs and rests her arms on the maroon club chair that’s delicately woven with a tiny diamond shaped pattern. “One guy who was so covered in lesions,” she remembers, “came to us the day before he died and we got to do his whole memorial for him.” Louise’s voice breaks. Tears come to her eyes. She takes a deep breath and halts to regain her composure.
This reporter went to one Hayride. I’d heard friends speak highly of them and decided to attend. What I found was a gymnasium packed with people. No matter where I turned I ended up touching someone. I could see Louise, who was a speck in the center of this sea of humanity. Her voice was soothing and the evening was a moving journey of self-exploration, affection, and affirming one’s potential. At the end, everyone held someone’s hand and we sang in unison. It may sound cliché or Pollyannaish, but don’t underestimate the power of touch. I left the Hayride feeling uplifted and empowered.
“AIDS made me famous,” Louise says matter-of-factly, edging on jest. “If my husband had not divorced me [after fourteen years of marriage] I would have never become Louise Hay. I would have been this little dutiful English housewife. I have no regrets about the marriage. It went as far as it could.”
In 1970, after her marriage dissolved (neither she or her husband wanted children), she began attending services at the Church of Religious Science in New York. She liked their philosophy: change your thinking, change your life. Indeed, she had her own demons to contend with. At the age of five, a neighbor raped her; her stepfather physically and sexually abused her; and, pregnant at fifteen, she gave her baby up for adoption.
Louise soon developed into a speaker and counselor for the church, becoming intrigued with the relationship between mind and body. She assembled a reference guide to reverse illness through positive thoughts. This became the basis for her 1984 bestseller, You Can Heal Your Life. Thirty-five million copies have been sold worldwide. In 2007 You Can Heal Your Life–The Movie was made. “I self-published my book as I didn’t think the Big Boys would be interested in publishing that kind of book, and I didn’t want them to change the wording. I didn’t want to change one word! So I printed it myself,” she says assertively, casting a side glance on the white looming orchid that rests on the table between us. Fresh vibrant flowers embellish her entire dwelling. Louise is addicted to flowers and, in fact, just recently had a rose named after her that’s planted in Balboa Park.
In the seventies, Louise began to lecture around the country and facilitate workshops on loving and healing oneself. Then in 1977, she was diagnosed with vaginal cancer.
“I immediately called my teacher and said, ‘Eric, the doctor says I’ve got cancer!’ Of course, I panicked. He said, ‘Look…you couldn’t have done this much work on yourself to die of cancer. Let’s take a positive approach.’” Where the cancer had lodged made perfect sense to her. Of course it would manifest there! Having been abused as a child, she harbored deep resentment. It was time to rid herself of this negativity. Louise put her beliefs into practice by repeating affirmations, doing visualizations, eating nutritiously, meditating, and undergoing psychotherapy. In six months she was healed of cancer.
“When I started [The Hayrides] there were only two of us in the whole country doing anything about AIDS; me on the West Coast and Caroline Myss on the East Coast. Here we were these two dumb bitches who didn’t know what the hell we were doing; but we were doing something, when nobody was doing anything. Gradually others came in like Marianne Williamson, Sally Fisher, and Sandy Scott. We were all women. It was time to nurture.”
Due to the success of the Hayrides, Louise appeared on both The Oprah Winfrey Show and The Phil Donahue Show in the same week. On Oprah she took five men from her group who were doing well.
“Oprah was wonderful because she allowed us to say what we wanted to say. She never interrupted [or censored]. What we were trying to tell people is that having AIDS doesn’t need to be a death sentence for everyone. We will find a way to come out of this and beat it by taking a positive approach,” she persists.
“Each of the guys related what their version of what was going on for them. The only thing people knew at this time was don’t touch.” It was around this time that Louise went to Washington, D.C., and stood on the Capitol Mall reading the names of those who died of AIDS. “Nobody gave a shit we were there,” she says about the five hundred participants who showed up. “But it was important to me that I march with the guys.” Framed pictures of the event hang on her office walls upstairs, as does her own paintings.
In the early nineties, Louise decided to move on, as there were plenty of national and local AIDS organizations who were offering support groups. Her work was finished in Los Angeles and she devoted much of her time to Hay House, her own publishing firm, which currently publishes works by Marianne Williamson, Dr. Wayne Dyer, and Dr. Deepak Chopra [A&U, August 2001]. Louise stays plenty active. In the next couple of months, she has two books being released, Experience Your Good Now! and Modern-Day Miracles. When Louise left Los Angeles and moved to San Diego, Stuart Altschuler, a former Hayrider, took over the group for the next seventeen years. After Stuart’s departure, the group disbanded a year later.
After the interview, Louise escorts me to the private elevator just outside her front door. She pauses in front of the peace-giving, life-size Buddha from Thailand.
“What I love is wherever I am, I could be in the Midwest, and somebody will come up to me and say, ‘Hey do you remember me from the Hayrides?’ And they’re in good shape and that’s wonderful!” she declares, with a sparkle in her illuminating greenish-blue eyes. “The other day I was walking in Balboa Park and someone said”—Louise nearly gets hysterical with enthusiasm—“‘Oh my god, it’s Louise Hay!’ He couldn’t let go of my hand. Yep, he was a Hayrider.”
I board the elevator and turn around. For a few seconds, Louise stands there as if mimicking the Buddha and then throws me a kiss. As the doors swiftly close, Louise quickly hurls her arms to the sky and loudly bursts in a high tone, “YES!”….or did she say, “NUTS?!” No matter. Coming from Louise, both words work.
Thank you to Kelly, Davy, Shelley, Jacqui, and Mr. R. Sean Black is a writer and photographer based in Florida. He may be contacted by e-mail via his Web site: www.seangblack.com.
Author: Dann Dulin is Senior Editor of A&U