What the Hay?

Written by Ethan Epstein on . Posted in Posts.


IT WAS A crisp Sunday morning in September when people began to file into the Javits Center for a dose of hope. The “You Can Heal Your Life” seminar is just the sort of optimistic approach these 2,000 women and men—mostly women—needed. And it almost seemed possible since personal finance superstar Suze Orman was there to shore up the more dubious self-help nostrums. Black women and white, Latin and Asian greeted each other like old friends. Many were middle-aged, and had been here before for the same lessons in bootstrap survivalism. A few twentysomethings and geriatrics filled out the sea of Talbots-style sweaters and relentlessly sensible shoes crowding the convention center.

“You Can Heal Your Life” was organized by Hay House, the book publisher and event tour producer, which is named for its founder, the California-based self-help sage, Louise Hay. The 83-year-old Hay, who claims to have cured her own cancer some 20 years ago, looked resplendent in a floral-patterned blouse at the New York seminar. And not a day over 82.

Hay House is a financial powerhouse. Although Suze Orman and guru Deepak Chopra may be the only Hay House figures that are household names, in 2008 the company grossed over $100 million in sales of its books, CDs and event tickets.This is but a fraction of the larger self-help industrial complex: Forbes has reported that in 2008, “Americans spent $11 billion on self-improvement books, CDs, seminars, coaching and stressmanagement programs.”

In recent years, Orman has gained a reputation for dispensing “common sense” and sound financial advice. She boasts a longtime affiliation with Hay House, however, and her personal finance kits and CDs are published under its imprint. Her affiliation with Hay House indicates a more tawdry reality since Hay House is a hotbed of hokum and enough pseudoscience to make even the author of The Secret blush.

With the aid of a PowerPoint presentation and lots and lots of hair gel, Gregg Braden bellowed to capture the attention of his groggyeyed public. He opened with a recitation about the end of a “New World Age” and Mayan calendar predictions that in 2012, “something big is going to happen.”

“Global extremes,” Braden screeched, “are coming to a head.” In order to bolster his case, Braden referred repeatedly to his former career as a geologist or, more generally, to his role as a scientist. “Science shows that the world’s energy field is going to realign on December 21, 2012,” Braden repeated.

As Braden tells it, you and I have the ability to positively affect what that “something big” will be. Braden’s claim goes well beyond the comfortable Ghandian dictum of “being the change you want to see in the world.” No: Braden claimed that, “We can change world events through the electromagnetic field.” And how can we change the world’s electromagnetic field? By thinking. Really hard. By thinking hard enough, Braden claimed, we can literally change the course of world events.Taking this argument to its reductio ad absurdum, Braden counseled the audience to “think positively” about “upcoming IAEA negotiations with Iran” in order that the Mullahs may disarm. (At that point, your humble correspondent started thinking really hard about Gregg Braden losing his voice.)

Braden’s message of control over the external world was evidently a hit. He received a boisterous standing ovation, and hundreds lined up to purchase his latest tome, Fractal Time, which argues that “everything from war and peace between nations to the patterns of human relationships mirror the returning cycles of our past.”

At “You Can Heal Your Life,” Braden’s appearance was only the beginning of the flimflam routine. The seminar, after all, was an all-day event: It featured a lineup of four speakers and one lamentable postprandial calisthenics exercise.The $45 to $125 ticket price gave one the opportunity to see speakers Braden, David Hamilton, Cheryl Richardson and Orman. The crowd was so heavily female—at least 80 percent—that Braden asked for a round of applause to be given to the few men in attendance. (This reporter froze in terror as 1,800 women turned toward him and clapped mightily.)

Braden’s message to his audience had been simple: that individuals have control over what is plainly uncontrollable.This proved to be the theme of the day.

Scotsman David Hamilton, whose topic was the “power of mind to influence the body,” told us that “visualizing destroying [one’s] tumors” is an effective means of curing cancer. Furthermore, Hamilton claimed, “thinking about, or imagining yourself exercising,” can be

just as effective a weight-loss technique as actually using an elliptical trainer.

Cheryl
Richardson promised women an escape from domestic drudgery. Enough with
“doing dishes and laundry,” if only they would “live an energy-driven
life,” harness their “soul’s energy,” “piss off one person per day” and
“refuse to take constructive criticism,” their situation would improve.

It
was the ostensibly sensible Orman’s appearance that was the most
striking. Eschewing her TV and print media persona as a no-nonsense,
straight to the point “money lady,” Orman told the crowd to greet each
day with a declaration of “I am great!” and “I am powerful!”Why?
Because, Orman said, “power attracts money.”

This
was more than a little strange considering that Orman is typically seen
on TV with her blond football-helmet hair, tan cheeks and cheery white
grin preaching the gospel of austerity and that CDs, mutual funds and
term life insurance attract money—not self-proclaimed declarations of
ones’ purported “power.” Orman’s was a remarkably charismatic presence,
and she conducted herself like a rock star. She (lamentably) entered
the room accompanied by Bon Jovi’s “It’s My Life.” She then greeted the
crowd with a lusty, “Hello, New York!” Once she launched into a rant
about the importance of performatives—that is, when she claimed that
“words create or destroy” and that the problem is “thinking that you
don’t have power”—I almost wanted to believe it was really that simple.
Despite the fact that Orman was billed as a “finance expert,” she spent
more than half of her allotted time dispensing platitudes about the
importance of “feeling powerful” and avoiding the trap of thinking of
yourself as a victim. “You are not victims!” she hollered.

It’s
a nice message, and one that that people (and in particular women, it
appears) deeply crave: a sensation of control, of agency. While Braden
pedaled the fairy-tale notion that we can positively affect frightening
geopolitical realities, Hamilton claimed that people can cure deadly
diseases with just enough mental effort. And Richardson told putupon
women that they can escape their unhappiness by—of all
things—essentially being more self-centered.The fact that many who
attended the seminar obviously knew each other from previous events
left me wondering about the efficacy of Hay House’s purported healing
powers.

That’s why
Orman’s affiliation with Hay House actually makes perfect sense. The
recession, after all, has been a profoundly traumatic event for
Americans. This isn’t the way things are supposed to be! Homes aren’t
supposed to lose value, 401(k)s aren’t supposed to shrink.

In
the face of this profound and inexplicable dislocation, Orman offers
her audience the illusion of control. Indeed, even if her CNBC show is
not as explicitly preposterous as her appearance at “You Can Heal Your
Life,” it’s still predicated on the same lie. Contrary to what Orman
typically spouts, it seems we are—financially at least—victims.The
recession is a result of forces we had little do with and, indeed, are
hard-pressed to understand.

Orman
understands how to work the recession to her advantage. Along with
bankruptcy lawyers and Wal-Mart executives, the recession has probably
been best to her. Indeed, the personal finance guru has become,
according to a profile earlier this year in The New York Times magazine,
something of a “trusted national advisor” in these troubled times. Her
books are mega bestsellers, she’s a frequent presence on TV gabfests
like Larry King Live and the ratings for her own Saturday night
CNBC show are now higher than those of the Wall Street cheerleaders who
crowd the rest of the cable network’s schedule. Orman is the epitome of
sound, right-thinking Midwestern common sense, according to the Times
and others. She’s just what the spendthrift commoners need. Our
cultural gatekeepers, one suspects, have not spent much time at Hay
House events.

Orman’s CNBC show makes for compelling
viewing. She has a natural charisma, a quick wit and an easy rapport
with the financially troubled souls who call her for advice. She often
bestows the appellation of “girlfriend” on her female callers. When
people at “You Can Heal You Life” asked her questions, she retained the
habit (referring to the male callers as “boyfriend” is a bit more
linguistically awkward for the out lesbian, but just as seemingly
genuine). Furthermore, unlike Judge Judy or Dr. Phil—two figures who
cloak themselves and their respective programs in righteousness but
actually publicly exploit and humiliate the downtrodden—Orman appears
genuinely to care about her callers and readers. “You Can Heal Your
Life” was just one of the many public appearances Orman makes in any
given year. She dispenses financial advice (and, presumably, Hay House
nostrums) in packed halls and convention centers across the world. BusinessWeek has
reported that she is the top motivational speaker in the country, and
in the past few years, she has appeared at dozens of events across the
United States and beyond. (She even appeared in Xujiahu, China, last
year, leading many to wonder how one would say, “You should roll your
standard IRA into a Roth IRA as soon as possible,” in Mandarin.) The
public speaking circuit, it seems, is a veritable gravy train for Orman
and her Hay House ilk. And so it goes.The Hay House website lists
scores of upcoming events: seminars in Chicago, Philadelphia, Orlando
and New York, again.

All of this, of course, leaves me wondering about
the efficacy of the Hay House method. One would think that, at a
certain point, one would no longer need to heal one’s life. But many of
the women at “You Can Heal Your Life” have attended Hay House seminars
for years. Maybe that’s to be expected. At the end of Cheryl
Richardson’s speech, which was ostensibly devoted to describing how to
“heal your life,” she shouted, “See you next time!”

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