Historical essay
Take a Hay Ride: Remembering Louise Hay

Take a Hay Ride: Remembering Louise Hay

On August 30, 2017, Louise Hay died. Hay was a metaphysical healer who began her journey in healing at the First Church of Religious Science in the late 1960s. Her first publication was a 1976 pamphlet that came to be called, “Heal Your Body.” She became a best-selling author and publisher in the 1980s in the midst of the AIDS crisis.

I became familiar with Hay’s work in 1988 when I took a second, part-time job to survive the trickle-down economy of that era. I loved my second job. I was a clerk in a gay-owned bookstore in the Castro District of San Francisco called The Love That Dares. I’m not sure I knew of Louise Hay before that moment, but it became apparent that the store sold Hay’s material more than anything else. The customers buying her books and cassette tapes were gay men hoping to survive the AIDS epidemic, looking for answers or seeking hope.

Even then, Hay had her detractors. Her solutions were not scientific and blamed disease not on viruses or cells gone amok, but on behavior and negativity. In You Can Heal Your Life she wrote, “I believe we create every so-called illness in our body.”1 This is, of course, problematic, and carries with it the insinuation that you are sick because you are not trying hard enough to make yourself well.2

Headshot of an older white woman with blonde hair, pink lipstick, and a wrinkly neck.
Louise Hay in London. (Antoni/Wikimedia Commons)

In 1988, Los Angeles Times journalist Beth Ann Krier interviewed Dr. Michael Gottlieb for a piece about Hay. Gottlieb was one of the physicians who had originally identified AIDS in 1981. He stated, “As a physician, I think that love and acceptance and forgiveness may well be an important component of healing, but AIDS is a viral disease caused by a virus and not by lack of love.” For Hay, lack of self-love was at the center of illness and the center of healing. According to “The List” of dis-eases (as she called them) first published in Heal Your Body in 1982, and then updated for inclusion in her other works, the probable causes of AIDS included “[f]eeling defenseless and hopeless,” and “[s]exual guilt.”3

I have a great deal of skepticism about anything that smacks of cult-like thinking and a great deal of anger about “cures” that blame the victims. Of course, blaming victims wasn’t new in the 1980s; it has a long history. In 1747, John Wesley first published a self-help medical guide that began by blaming disease on sin. At first, man “knew no sin, so he knew no pain, no sickness, weakness, or bodily disorder.” But following the original sin, “The seeds of weakness and pain, of sickness and death, are now lodged in our inmost substance.”4 For Wesley, it was not unconditional love that was the cure, however, but a course of medicine, rest, and “that Old unfashionable Medicine, Prayer.”5

In a self-help book first published in 1803 and entitled, Advice to Mothers, on The Subject of Their Own Health; and of the Means of Promoting the Health, Strength, and Beauty of their Offspring, William Buchan placed the blame of miscarriage squarely on women’s behavior. He advised pregnant women to “be doubly attentive to preserve the utmost sweetness and serenity of temper … and to keep every other unruly passion or desire under the steady control of mildness and reason.” Pregnant women should not be ruled by fear, he cautioned. While they might be alarmed by stories about the dangers of pregnancy, cases of “miscarriage or of death” were rare and “owing to the improper conduct of women themselves.”6

Black and white photo of men marching with a banner that reads "AIDS: we need research not hysteria"
14th annual Lesbian and Gay Pride parade in New York, June 27, 1983. (Mario Suriani/Associated Press)

While statements like these make my blood boil, as a resident of the Castro in the late 1980s, I also realize that people like Hay gave dying men a rope to cling to. It is important to remember that in that era, there was little else. The pharmaceutical giant, Burroughs-Wellcome, patented AZT in 1985 and it was approved as a treatment for AIDS by the Food and Drug Administration in 1987. However, for many men, AZT proved toxic, particularly in the doses in which it was administered, and, by itself, AZT is not enough to prevent HIV or death from AIDS. Additionally, government on all levels was largely ignoring the AIDS epidemic because of the stigma of a disease predominantly presenting itself among gay men and intravenous drug users.

In 1983, Pat Buchanan, then communications director for Ronald Reagan, had called AIDS “nature’s revenge on gay men.” Only six years into the AIDS crisis, in June 1987, had President Ronald Reagan’s administration finally established a presidential commission on HIV/AIDS, while still largely shying away from public discussions of the disease. In 1988, on the floor of the Senate, Jesse Helms defended an appropriations bill amendment that kept funding from AIDS education by stating, “You have got to call a spade a spade, and a perverted human being a perverted human being.”

Add to this neglect and hatred by government, the neglect and hatred of society. Discrimination against gay men was the societal norm and many families disowned their sons when they came out as gay or bisexual and HIV+. Those who survived that era recount that neglect. In a 2003 interview with Mark Harrington, one of the leading members of the New York AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power’s Treatment and Data subcommittee, Sarah Schulman asked, “[W]ere people surprised that people could suffer and die and their families never show up?” Harrington replied, “I was. But, I also — remember, the context of ACT UP was also this incredible homophobia of the Reagan years, and this incredible, sort of, hatred and disgust of gay people. So, given that all those things were going on in the broader society, those parents were part of that hatred of gay people.”

In the midst of this neglect and hatred, many of the men I knew who were infected with HIV looked in many directions for a solution. My friend Phil, one of the members of the affinity group to which I belonged, and with whom I protested in front of the U.S. Supreme Court on October 13, 1987, was a member of a macrobiotic society. Phil swore that the combination of coming out to his family and a macrobiotic diet was making him better. In one of our affinity group’s first meetings, he told us that the thrush from which he had suffered had disappeared, and that he felt healthier than he had in years.

People in dressing gowns crossing their arms to join hands with each other representing patients with AIDS.
People in dressing gowns crossing their arms to join hands with each other representing patients with AIDS; a public service message about the need to know about AIDS by the National Association of Social Workers.
(National Association of Social Workers/Wellcome Museum |
CC BY 4.0)

While Hay blamed the ill for their illnesses, she also preached love. “Louise Hay, an advocate for unconditional love and forgiveness during the height of the AIDS crisis, died peacefully Wednesday morning of natural causes,” is the first line of Hay’s obituary in the LGBT Los Angeles Blade. In a blog called, “My Fabulous Disease,” Mark S. King wrote that Hay’s “message of self-love and unconditional acceptance—of our lives and other people—resonated like a beacon to the frightened gay men of Los Angeles.”

It was in Los Angeles in 1987 that the Hay Rides started, gatherings of people with AIDS, mostly gay men, looking for an answer or, at the very least, loving human contact. Some came away from the Hay Rides in despair, but others came away with self-love that was hard to find as a gay man in the 1980s. As Hay wrote, “Often what we think of as the things ‘wrong’ with us are only our experiences of our own individuality.”7 This message, alone, was a powerful one.

The End, but Not the End I Meant to Write

Over the last two months, I have thought a lot about Louise Hay and her legacy. When I conceived of this piece, I thought my conclusion would be a mixed one: that blaming the ill was harmful, but that, perhaps, for some of the sick and dying the good of being loved and touched in an era marked by hatred and loathing outweighed that harm. I was almost finished writing and thought I would ruminate over the conclusion while I walked the dogs, coming back mid-morning to write that there was bad and good.

Before heading out the door with my furry companions, I checked Facebook. In response to a righteous rant from a young friend of mine, there was this reply, “I believe the words ‘sexual assault’ and ‘sexual harassment’ are thrown out way too loosely. Victim mentality is the problem and that’s the real issue. You can only be a victim if you allow yourself to be one. Regardless of who you are. Man, woman, gay, straight, etc.”

Reading those words, so stark on my screen, I thought: No. Louise Hay did more harm than good. Building an industry on the message that “DIS-EASE CAN BE HEALED, IF WE ARE WILLING TO CHANGE THE WAY WE THINK AND BELIEVE AND ACT!” perpetuates the cultural belief that harm is chosen, consciously or unconsciously.8 People have AIDS because of denial of self. Brain tumors are caused by refusing to change old patterns. Women are raped because they act like victims. For decades we have tried to rid ourselves of those ideas with little, or no, success.

Less than a month after Hay’s death David Groff published a piece for Slate entitled, “How Louise Hay’s Spiritual Pseudoscience Harmed a Generation of Gay Men.” Although Groff acknowledged that Hay “offered open if judgmental arms,” he concluded that, “The last thing people with AIDS needed to hear was that they had caused their own illness.”

My friends who lived and died before the era of effective treatment reached for visualization, meditation, diet, vitamins, and snake oil. In some cases, they survived the early years of the plague, and in others, they did not. There were no magical outcomes. Those who caught the virus are not to be blamed for their illness. Those who did not survive are not to be blamed for their deaths. There is still stigma, but activists and medical health professionals have worked to rid our society of that. Perhaps some of the dying needed Hay’s love in the 1980s. If only she could have offered it without blame.


  1. Louise L. Hay, You Can Heal Your Life Gift Edition (Hay House, 1999), 151. Return to text.
  2. Several Nursing Clio writers have commented on this in previous posts. For instance, check out Agnes Arnold-Forster’s “Metaphors and Malignancy in Senator McCain’s Cancer Diagnosis.” Return to text.
  3. Hay, You Can Heal Your Life, 177. Return to text.
  4. John Wesley, Primitive Physic Reprint Edition. (London: Epworth Press, 1960), 23. Return to text.
  5. Ibid., 29. Return to text.
  6. William Buchan, Advice to Mothers, on the Subject of their Own Health; and on the Means of Promoting the Health, Strength, and Beauty, of their Offspring (London: T. Caddell and W. Davies, 1811), 31-32. Return to text.
  7. Hay, You Can Heal Your Life, 101. Emphasis in the original. Return to text.
  8. Ibid., 239. The shouting caps are in the original. Return to text.

Sarah Swedberg is a Professor of History at Colorado Mesa University and a lifelong activist.