“Do you want to go see Louise Hay?” I said. “She could be something to see.” “Quite a show, I’m sure,” said my friend Tony, archly.
This was in the eighties, and it was Louise Hay’s first visit perhaps to Australia. She was addressing an audience of HIV positive people and their supporters.
“What would she have to offer anyone?” asked Steve, with bitterness in his voice.
We sneered past the merchandise table like a flock of crows and took up some of the last available seats, in the back of the auditorium. We were keen to see this famously successful woman — she was a phenomenon — but would barely admit it.
The auditorium had a tense and desperate atmosphere. The audience was mostly gay men with their partners and friends. It was packed with accumulated grief and inexpressible fear. Many of us were traumatised people hurting ourselves with internalised homophobia. We felt we lived in a society that wanted us (and our friends and lovers) dead, or at best didn’t care or know how to care. We considered ourselves a generation that knew all about love and tragedy but was surrounded by ignorance and banality. Many of us had tried to self-annihilate with alcohol, drugs, intellectualism or other addictions. There was a lot of black leather in the audience, many haggard faces. People smelled of smoke.
“I like my soft toys. I have a teddy bear and I cuddle it.” Louise said. “You should have one, too.” She was as coiffed and glamorous as a drag queen could wish to be. Her age — she was already middle-aged then — gave her grace and poise. She had a long table full of soft toys and mirrors. She was like a charming carnival hostess. “I love mirrors. I use my mirrors to say ‘Hi there, gorgeous, I love you.’" She smiled sincerely at herself, holding the mirror over her shoulder so that we could see the reflection. “You see, I have a whole collection of them. My favourites are heart-shaped.”
It was hard to know what to think. We were trying hard to dislike her but I was fascinated. In spite of the simplicity of her message, she had experience and depth. Louise talked about the retreats she was running in the US to provide solace and succour — she dared to say ‘Joy’ — to people in the midst of the plague. They sounded like great places to go. I looked to Tony, the oldest and most experienced of us. He was a world-weary 28 year old.
“Well,” he began hesitantly, “What she says is what any good social worker or psychologist will tell you, you know,” he said. “About loving yourself and all that.” I’d never spoken to a counsellor or social worker but I knew Tony had. I was relieved that we were allowed to like what Louise said. “I’ll bet she charges a lot of money for those retreats,” said Steve, still looking for reasons to be angry. “We should ask her how much it all costs. We should ask how much money she’s made off of people with HIV.” “True,” said Tony. “It might crack this whole consensus open if we asked about the money.” But question-time came and nobody did.
“You’ve really got to stop terrifying yourselves,” Louise said. I remembered her words through the years. What an outrageous thing to say! I remembered the courage she showed in being gentle and nurturing.
My friends and I believed then that to be fearful was essential to survival. To be fearful was to be alert for the truth and the truth was dangerous. The truth was that the world was spiralling into ever more chaos. Wars and poverty perpetuated each other. Human ignorance and cruelty were inestimable in their scale and to live without paying vigilant attention to these things — moment by moment — was to waste one’s life.
Equating spirituality and religion as refuges for the uneducated and desperate, I looked to science as the key to the cold, hard truth. But even science was warped by the interests of the companies who provided the money researchers depended on. Companies, driven only by profit, whose interests corrupted scientists’ results and biased the publication of their earnestly gleaned results. These were my strongly held beliefs. And here was someone suggesting that love could be a force for good in the Universe? I dismissed it as a pipe dream. I was quite confused about what love was actually; I even wondered if it really existed at all.
Decades later, I recognise these attitudes in the medical culture I work in as a doctor. Where compassion is practiced, it is often tainted by weariness, despair and bitterness. One of the basic tenets of current mainstream medical culture is that fear is the only response appropriate to disease. Without that fear, how would medical culture discipline the people in its care?
I have examined the beliefs that I held dear a long time ago: that humans are fundamentally flawed, that we are doomed to recurring disaster, that intuition and the body are to be treated with skepticism. I have worked to integrate my observations with my individual experience, as an artist does. I have changed my mind. We have come far, Louise Hay and I. Her latest book speaks about the nutritional value of bone broth in the evenings. I no longer begrudge her the heart-shaped mirrors or her enormous wealth. And I have learned that love is no pipe dream, it is an everyday miracle. We didn’t know it then but as we walked out of the auditorium that night, my friends and I were more willing to love ourselves because of the work Louise Hay did as a teddy bear-wielding warrior.