clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Why Marianne Williamson’s most famous passage keeps getting cited as a Nelson Mandela quote

The most well-known passage Marianne Williamson wrote has some disconcerting implications.

Marianne Williamson speaks during an AARP forum on July 19, 2019, in Sioux City, Iowa.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
Constance Grady is a senior correspondent on the Culture team for Vox, where since 2016 she has covered books, publishing, gender, celebrity analysis, and theater.

Since Marianne Williamson — author, self-help guru, and spiritual advisor to Oprah — announced her campaign for the 2020 Democratic nomination for president, the conversation around her candidacy hasn’t been particularly focused on her policy positions. It’s mostly been focused on her rhetoric: her Katharine Hepburn-esque accent, her New Age-y speeches about harnessing the power of love; that time she described herself as a “bitch for God.”

But one of Williamson’s most famous pieces of rhetoric, a passage from her best-selling 1992 self-help book, A Return to Love, often isn’t attributed to Williamson. For almost 25 years, Williamson’s quote has been consistently misattributed to Nelson Mandela.

“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate,” Williamson writes in A Return to Love. “Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small doesn’t serve the world.”

It’s a stirring, inspirational passage tailor-made to remind people to be their best selves, which is probably what led commencement day speakers to pounce on it. In 1998, the New York Times reported that Hillary Clinton, astronaut Mae C. Jemison, and former Spelman College president Johnnetta B. Cole had all quoted Williamson’s “deepest fear” passage during graduation speeches — and all of them had attributed the quote to Nelson Mandela.

Clinton and company weren’t the first or the last to make that error. The website Quote Investigator (essentially a Snopes for quotes) has found examples of the misattribution going back to 1996, when a columnist for the Nashville paper The Tennessean credited the quote to Nelson Mandela’s inauguration address. It showed up, attributed to Mandela, in the 2006 movie Akeelah and the Bee and the 2005 movie Coach Carter. As recently as 2017, CNN put it in their CNN Heroes Awards Show, citing Mandela. Both Williamson herself and the Nelson Mandela Foundation have issued official corrections about where the quote comes from. Yet it continues to persist.

But while the quote might not tell us anything about Nelson Mandela, it says a lot about Marianne Williamson. Embedded in her most famous quote are the ideas that are fundamental to Marianne Williamson’s appeal — and make her a disconcerting choice for president.

People like to match famous quotes with also-famous people. That’s why misattributions happen.

The writer behind Quote Investigator, who uses the pen name Garson O’Toole and is the author of Hemingway Didn’t Say That, says that this kind of misattribution is common. O’Toole’s theory is that people like to attribute popular quotes to celebrities whose public personas seem to “fit” the quote — and since Williamson’s “our deepest fear” passage is all about striving through doubts to be one’s best self, it requires an inspirational figure to match it.

On a superficial level, if nothing else, Mandela fits the bill. That assumption might not bear close examination (can you imagine Nelson Mandela exhorting his listeners to believe that they are gorgeous and fabulous?), but if you’re just taking in the general idea of the quote as being something about believing in yourself, well then, who better to give that advice than Nelson Mandela, who overcame so much?

“In the popular mind Nelson Mandela is a figure of inspiration who was the leader of a successful struggle of liberation. He transitioned into the role of a president and statesman,” O’Toole said in an email to Vox. “The quotation suggests that one can overcome internal fears and achieve success even when the path forward is difficult. The arc of Mandela’s life provides an illustration of the quotation’s message.”

Williamson herself, however, wasn’t quite such a good match for those looking for the speaker of a straightforwardly inspirational quote. She’s not a household name the way Mandela is, and although she’s famous in spiritual circles, she’s also a controversial figure. “Using a quotation from Williamson is riskier,” says O’Toole, “because some listeners will not recognize her name, and other listeners will not embrace her spiritual viewpoint.” That’s not exactly a dilemma a graduation speaker wants to have to deal with when they’re looking to end their address on a note of easy uplift.

But now that Williamson has announced her candidacy for president, wave after wave of articles has descended to make it clear that she is the author behind “our deepest fear,” not Mandela. Which means that now, the quote has to be reconciled not with Mandela’s popular legacy, but with Williamson’s — and with the potential for a Marianne Williamson presidency.

A Return to Love argues that we have a responsibility to love ourselves. If we don’t, we’re contributing to the world’s problems.

A Return to Love is often read as a standalone self-help book, but it was first conceived of as a supplementary religious text. It’s a response to the 1976 book A Course in Miracles, whose author Helen Schucman claimed to have taken dictation directly from Jesus. (The book was published without Schucman’s name.) Williamson, who was raised Jewish and continues to identify as a Jew, says A Course in Miracles changed her life.

“I had been waiting for someone to explain to me how to fight the fight, or to fight the fight for me, and now this book suggested that I surrender the fight completely,” Williamson writes in the preface to Return to Love. “I was surprised but so relieved.” The fight here is the fight to get ahead in the world — to have a successful career, to marry well — but, Williamson says, she learned in the Course that she didn’t need any such thing.

It is perhaps ironic, then, that the book Williamson wrote upon finishing the Course, Return to Love, launched her into wildly successful superstardom. It was a giant best-seller, and it saw Williamson launched into the Hollywood stratosphere, officiating at one of Elizabeth Taylor’s weddings and counseling Oprah.

And Williamson was protective of her fame. In 1992, People magazine reported that Williamson was outraged when the LA Times published an article criticizing her. “You’re fucking with my livelihood,” WIlliamson allegedly told her staff, warning them not to speak with reporters. “I’m famous — I don’t need this, damn it!”

Part of what made Williamson and her book so famous and so successful is that Return to Love is full of empowering affirmations like the “our deepest fear” passage. But in context, when Williamson tells her readers that they are the children of God, she means something specific. A central tenet of the Course in Miracles, and hence of Williams’s philosophy, is that God is love, and that as children of God we are an extension of God’s love. Therefore everything in the world that is unloving — fear, war, hunger, poverty — does not really exist.

“That’s what this world is: a mass hallucination, where fear seems more real than love,” Williamson writes in A Return to Love. “Fear is an illusion. Our craziness, paranoia, anxiety and trauma are literally all imagined. That is not to say they don’t exist for us as human beings. They do. But our fear is not our ultimate reality, and it does not replace the truth of who we really are.”

Essentially, Williamson is saying that because God is love, and we are all children of God, the reality is that we are all brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous. Our fear is hiding that reality from us.

And where does that fear come from? Only from ourselves. “The government isn’t holding us back, or hunger or poverty,” Williamson explains. “We’re not afraid we’ll get sent to Siberia. We’re just afraid, period.” Because fear is the opposite of love, it is responsible for all of the world’s sorrows: “anger, abuse, disease, pain, greed, addiction, selfishness, obsession, corruption, violence, and war.” Therefore, to create the best version of the world that we can and be one with God, we have to release ourselves from our fear.

There’s a tricky bit of doublethink to this argument. In many ways, it boils down to the following: You are perfect (brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous), but because you do not believe in yourself fully, you are also personally responsible for all of the problems in the world. You the reader, you specifically, are everything that is good in the world and everything that is bad with it.

When Williamson says our fear hurts us, she’s being extremely literal. She thinks sinful thoughts will manifest on our bodies.

Williamson’s philosophy is seductive. It places the individual at the center of the world, and it appeals to our sense of grandeur. “Ah yes,” you might think, reading, “I really am the most important person in the world; I always suspected it.”

But this philosophy can also lead to its adherents blaming themselves for every terrible or even just mildly unpleasant thing that happens, both in the world in general and to themselves in particular. It’s in that spirit that A Return to Love features a long section in which Williamson explains how she brought a vicious sore throat upon herself just after moving to a new city, before she had established herself with a regular doctor.

Williamson had just been in three separate car accidents before the incident in question, she says. During each accident Williamson had retained her faith that she “was not subject to the effect of worldly danger” (because worldly danger is an illusion), and hence “was not harmed or hurt in any way.” But she found that after her accidents, she received special attention from her friends, who “rubbed my neck and back gently” and “oozed gentleness all over me.”

The attention felt good,” Williamson writes, in horrified italics. “Being sick made people love me more.”

Williamson’s enjoyment of her friends’ sympathy, she writes, was a “sin.” It led to her seeing herself “as a body rather than a spirit, which is a loveless rather than loving self-identification.” And it was because of this weakness of her mind that she was paid the wages of her sin, she concludes triumphantly: “Thus my sore throat.”

But luckily, as soon as Williamson repented before God, he healed her. She stopped at a bar, and when a man began to try to chat her up, she decided that in the spirit of the Course in Miracles, she should listen to him rather than blow him off. (Williamson’s understanding of the Course contains rather a lot of advice about women submitting to men and how that submission is a sign of true strength.) And who should that man be, but a doctor with a prescription pad and a sense of ethics flexible enough that he immediately wrote Williamson a prescription for her sore throat on the spot?

This is a miracle!” Williamson told the doctor. “I prayed for healing, and I corrected my thoughts but the Holy Spirit couldn’t give me an instantaneous healing because I’m not advanced enough yet to receive it — it would be too threatening to my belief system — so He had to enter the level of my understanding, and you were there, but if I hadn’t opened my heart to you I would never have been able to receive the miracle because I wouldn’t have been open!”

The belief that it is our own individual unloving and fearful thoughts that make us ill and that create sadness in the world — and also give us sore throats — might make sense for a self-help author in the business of selling books about learning to love one’s self. But for a presidential candidate, it is more troubling.

If we are personally responsible for the bad things that happen to us, then we are personally responsible when we are the victims of crime, of war, of illness and poverty. Structural inequality isn’t to blame for those problems: we are.

That questionable belief does not carry through into many of Williamson’s proposed policy ideas. She was an early proponent of offering reparations to black Americans, and she supports programs like universal pre-K and free college.

But fundamental to what Williamson is selling is the idea that everything that is wrong and bad in the world comes from individual people, and that our sins will be manifested on our bodies. That’s why, in the end, the most important line of Williamson’s most famous quote isn’t, “Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?” It’s that brisk, admonishing corrective that follows it: “Actually, who are you not to be?”

Sign up for the newsletter Today, Explained

Understand the world with a daily explainer plus the most compelling stories of the day.