Since it began in 1859, the self-help publishing industry has grown into an $11 billion business that shows no signs of slowing down. There are thousands upon thousands of self-help books, and some are truly terrible. But the worst I’ve ever encountered is the pernicious bestseller You Can Heal Your Life, by Louise Hay, which inexplicably has sold over 50 million copies.
“I believe we create every so-called illness in our body,” declares Hay. If you can limit yourself to having only “joyous, loving thoughts,” she says, you won’t get ill. And if you already are ill, you can cure yourself—all you have to do is “consciously release any mental patterns ... that could express as dis-ease in any way.”
I do believe that the physical and the psychological cannot be separated, despite Western medicine’s tendency sometimes to do just that. There is a delicate interplay between the two—as the book Why Do People Get Ill? argues, we are psychosomatic beings and illness could certainly better be treated in a more holistic manner. And as a counsellor, I have found it can be enormously useful in the therapy room to explore the possible psychodynamic or symbolic meanings of clients’ symptoms.
But Hay goes to the absurd, simplistic extreme of arguing that the cause of any illness—or even any accident or injury—is all in the mind. It’s the kind of rigid cause-and-effect certainty, based on nothing more than Hay’s imagination, that would make that old Scottish skeptic David Hume turn in his grave.
More seriously, Hay rejects every basic principle of biology and medical science—most doctors, she says, only work “in one of two ways: They poison or they mutilate.” Peddling false hope for profit is dangerous and unethical. Anyone who follows her lead and shuns modern medical help in the wishful hope of being able to think themselves better is taking a huge risk. They are taking their life in their hands.
Hay represents a return to the Dark Ages, The Unenlightenment, when disease and disability were seen as some kind of divine retribution for moral lapses or sins. If you’re guilty these days of the crime of not thinking positively enough, of finding life difficult, unfair or frightening, well then, says Hay, you will be punished with some ghastly affliction. So not only are you ill, you must now also suffer the additional toxic burdens of shame and guilt, born of Hay’s oppressive judgement that you did this to yourself.
Here’s an extraordinary excerpt from a 2008 interview in The New York Times:
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, 88, is a former fashion model who was diagnosed with cervical cancer in the 1970s, something she attributes to her fury and lack of forgiveness over the abuse she suffered as a child, including reportedly being raped at age 5. She refused medical treatment for the cancer, and claims to have cured herself with positive thinking, diet and enemas. Writes The New York Times: “There is, she says, no doctor left who can confirm this improbable story.”
She wrote a small pamphlet of “cures” in 1976. This became the book Heal Your Body which spawned a vast New Age publishing empire whose innumerable titles promise health, wealth, and visitations from angels.
A big chunk of the book is “The List”—a compendium of various ailments and their causes:
• Cancer, for instance, is “caused by deep resentment held for a long time until it literally eats away at the body....the individual lives with a sense of self-pity....people with cancer are also very self-critical...carrying hatreds.” How does that message go down at, say, Great Ormond Street Children’s Hospital, or in oncology wards the world over, or among families that have been impacted by cancer, which by the way is most families: cancer will afflict 50 percent of us in the U.K. at some point in our lives.
• I’d like to see Hay address a roomful of people with diabetes and tell them its supposed cause: “Longing for what might have been. A great need to control. Deep sorrow. No sweetness left.”
• Aids is not caused by the HIV virus but from “a strong belief in not being good enough. Denial of the self. Sexual guilt.”
• “Most bladder problems come from being ‘pissed off,’ usually at a partner.”
• Old people increasingly find walking to be difficult, not as a natural consequence of the aging process but because “their understanding has been warped, and they often feel there is no place to go.”
• Strokes are caused by “negative thinking”; miscarriages by “fear of the future.”
• Animal bites are caused by “anger turned inward. A need for punishment”; bug bites by contrast happen when you have “guilt over small things.”
• “Accidents are no accident. Like everything else in our lives, we create them.”
These deranged ramblings would be funny if they didn’t inflict so much pain on vulnerable people who are already suffering. Blaming the victim is an insult to anyone who has ever got sick; to the memory of any family member, friend or colleague who has died of anything other than natural causes. As someone who has struggled with chronic illness I find Hay’s philosophies to be at best highly presumptuous and at worst deeply offensive.
Such irresponsible quackery should come with a health warning.
I emailed the following to Hay's publicity department earlier in the week:
I am writing a story about Louise Hay, specifically the phenomenon of You Can Heal Your Life.
I have some questions for Ms. Hay and would be grateful for a response:
--do you still believe (as you told The New York Times in 2008) that victims of the Holocaust, or indeed victims of all atrocities, accidents, and illnesses, deserved what they got?
--did children with cancer give it to themselves because they held “deep resentment,” “a sense of self-pity,” because they are “very self-critical,” and “carrying hatreds”?
--when a plane crashes and everyone on board is killed, are they all jointly responsible for causing the accident?
--do you believe that all diseases and illnesses can be self-cured without any interventions of modern medicine—and is this what you advise?
--is there anyone that can corroborate your diagnosis of cervical cancer in the 1970s and your claim that you subsequently cured yourself?
With thanks and best wishes,
Needless to say, I did not receive a reply.