Marianne Williamson is on the phone from Los Angeles explaining how she had the nerve to do what she had long urged other women to do and throw herself on the mercy of voters.
Her decision to run for Congress after two decades as a best-selling author of spiritual books came in part from her upbringing in Texas, where she saw a respect for independent women, learned admiration for anyone who showed strong entrepreneurial drive and got her first taste of progressive politics, once very much a part of the state's political scene.
It came from her family, where strong women were the norm and children were encouraged to do something with their lives to make the world a better place.
And it came from her generation, imbued with a sense of mission and free of the limitations sometimes placed on their parents and grandparents. She remains very much a proud boomer.
"I think there are many of us - and we aren't gone yet - who still want to make good on the promises imprinted on our hearts," Williamson said.
And so, with the same chutzpah she showed when moving from Houston to LA to reinvent herself as someone with a message about God and love, the 61-year-old Williamson declared her independent candidacy for the seat held by Henry Waxman, the stalwart California Democrat who had rarely faced serious opposition. Her announcement was met with plenty of smiles and raised eyebrows. The "New Age Spiritual Guru" goes to Washington? Seriously?
Political analysts quick to discount her perhaps should have taken a second look at her résumé since she closed her Heights bookstore, said goodbye to family and friends, and headed west in 1983. On her own, with no money or experience, she started a charity that fed and offered spiritual comfort to people with AIDS, in so doing attracting the attention of everybody who was anybody in Hollywood.
Then she became one of the nation's most highly sought spiritual speakers and widely read spiritual authors, with 13 books to her credit, six of them best-sellers. Her message resonated with millions of people less interested in religious doctrine and theology but eager for a way to have God make sense to them and to transform their lives. She even headed a large Unity Church in Michigan for five years. Not for nothing did a 2006 Newsweek poll name Williamson one of the 50 most influential baby boomers.
Maybe she won't win. But maybe she's no joke, either. And with Waxman's unexpected decision to retire from Congress, who knows?
"It is definitely not a symbolic thing," Williamson said of her campaign. "This is not a time for symbols. I am not naïve about power and the limits of power of any one particular congressman. One woman will not change things. We need a movement of independent-minded candidates around the country to change things."
If only her parents had lived to see her on the stump, passionately arguing for social change in much the same way they did 50 years ago. Sam and Sophie Williamson never doubted their daughter's intellect or potential, only her commitment. After graduating from Bellaire High School in 1970 and then leaving Pomona College with a lot of course credits but no degree, she wandered. For years.
Williamson was bright enough to have followed her dad into law or make her mark in a dozen different ways. Other young women from her Braeswood neighborhood were becoming doctors, businesswomen, architects. And it wasn't as if she lacked the drive that usually translates into achievement. She was nothing if not driven, as she later showed. But she lacked both path and destination.
This child of the '60s found herself, as she later described it, sidetracked by "bad boys and good dope," spinning her wheels in jobs that never translated into any purposeful career, moving from city to city and relationship to relationship. Nothing clicked, including a short-lived career as a New York cabaret singer.
Her cousin, Martha Kaplan, who has been close to Williamson since they were girls, was in New York attending law school during the 1970s and spent a lot of time with her. The lack of any discernible career path did not keep Kaplan from remaining impressed, by Williamson's potential if nothing else.
"She was just this brilliant, beautiful, funny, charismatic, popular person - you knew she was a leader," said Kaplan, who moved to Houston after law school. "What she can take in and process is just amazing. She is not limited by any particular strain of thought."
But being open to anything made it harder to settle on something. Williamson's funk widened and she slid toward despair. More than ever, she later wrote, she felt like an "alien," someone who could not crack the code of "making it" in the modern world. When her brother mentioned one evening that people thought she was weird, that she suffered from some unconventional "virus," the description pushed her close to panic.
Describing herself as a "total mess" by her mid-20s, Williamson careened toward a nervous breakdown. As it happened, that confused bottoming-out is what paradoxically saved her, preparing her for a new life that was as much calling as career. Seeking a purpose that went beyond a paycheck and an upward ladder, she came across "A Course in Miracles," a self-help spiritual guide by Helen Schucman and William Thetford that, loosely speaking, reinterprets Christianity in a nontraditional way to achieve personal transformation. The effect was profound.
"This was my personal teacher, my path out of hell," she wrote in "A Return to Love," her best-selling first book.
When she opened a bookstore in the early 1980s after returning to Houston, it was less a typical retail shop than a venue for a new brand of spiritual authors, many of whom had gained a wide audience as the New Age movement began to spread across the nation and Unity Church provided venues for alternate religious worship. Williamson eagerly brought them in for book signings and lectures.
Houston, however, offered a less than ideal environment to pursue her newfound passion. As with many new trends and movements, California was ground zero for a changing religious landscape. So Williamson closed her store and packed up what she had once again and pointed her car west on Interstate 10. She did not have a precise plan when she got to LA, but she did have something close to a sense of mission.
"A Course in Miracles" not only brought clarity and peace to her life, it set her on a path that allowed her to put incomparable speaking skills to good use. What started as simple lectures to explain "the course" became increasingly popular. She was charismatic and self-deprecating, with a stand-up comic's sense of timing. Her informal and impromptu speaking style connected immediately with an audience open to her simple, personal spiritual scheme that emphasized love, the unity of all people, the corrosive and self-destructive effect of guilt and judgment, how to bring God into one's life in a transformational way, and, of course, how to see the self and the world around us in different ways.
Her brother, Peter Williamson, recalled being shocked when he heard her speak at Houston's Unity Church.
"It was the most unusual damn thing I'd ever seen," he said. "She just walked out and started talking, like she was talking to some old friends. She never stumbled. She never looked at any notes. But the connection she made to those people was incredible. I saw some in tears. This is why I say she would be dangerous if she had a different message."
Raised in a Jewish family that was mostly secular save for the High Holy Days, Williamson's spiritual message draws on Eastern religious philosophy, psychotherapy, metaphysics and 19th-century New Thought notions on the universality of God and the dwelling of the divine in every person. At the same time, she accepts many Christian precepts and terminology, albeit as interpreted in "A Course in Miracles."
In LA, the growing audiences for her lectures began to be sprinkled with Hollywood actors and producers and industry executives. She gained exposure from her work with the gay community and especially those suffering from AIDS, whom she embraced with compassion and spiritual support. She started a program, Angel Food, to deliver meals to those too sick to go out or too financially strapped to afford it. Word spread quickly, and it became a charity of choice for many in the entertainment industry.
By the time she came out with "A Return to Love" in 1992, Williamson was gaining celebrity status of her own. Oprah Winfrey's early endorsement of the book cemented its popularity, and Williamson was a regular guest on her TV show. She became an officiant of choice for the weddings of a number of Hollywood folk, including Elizabeth Taylor (and scores of regular, unknown people, too, her staff says). Many of the stars who have been fans of her work over the years have been significant supporters of her candidacy.
In recent years, Williamson has become a very public advocate on certain issues, especially empowering women to seek public office.
Which perhaps makes her political pursuit less shocking than it might be. Williamson is confident in what she knows and is comfortable in her own skin. Part of her effectiveness comes from a breadth of knowledge that she can tap at a moment's notice. Her brother said that goes back to the family dinner table. Their father had little use for idle chit-chat about the day's events. Their dinner conversations were serious: politics, current events, civil rights, international news, religion, the life of the mind.
Even as the youngest child, Marianne more than held her own. She was smart beyond her years, widely read, with a catholic taste for knowledge and a curiosity beyond belief.
"She would talk about things kids her age never talked about," recalled Peter Williamson, who, like his father, is an immigration lawyer. "She was marching to her own drum even then. We always knew she was different."
Williamson is not fazed by those who don't take her seriously. With Congress receiving such low public approval ratings and unable to agree on most anything, she decided to present herself as a sane alternative, knowing that some would dismiss her as an unqualified flake.
"I believe the U.S. needs a completely new conversation," she said. "Looking to the status quo to deliver us to that conversation is completely naïve. Monied forces control the institutions of government, so much so that it means that democracy itself is in peril."
Williamson, a single mother whose daughter is now grown, is running as an independent, which might doom her candidacy in many states but is less of an obstacle in California, which has an open primary system. The top two vote-getters June 3 will square off in the general election, regardless of any party affiliation.
When Waxman called it quits, two "conventional" Democratic candidates jumped in, both well-known. But Williamson suddenly did not seem quite so far out in left field, her progressive agenda notwithstanding. She said she noticed a burst of enthusiasm immediately - bigger crowds, more signs, more volunteers.
She has raised slightly more than $1 million, enough to be credible but perhaps not truly competitive. She said she needs close to $1 million more, a sum she acknowledges as "obscene." She is not accepting PAC money or corporate contributions, so every check matters, including those coming from friends and family back in Texas.
Williamson remains closely tied to Houston, where much of her family and many of her closest friends still live. She thinks of herself as a Texan in an essential way. You can take the girl out of Texas ... , she said.
It is Los Angeles, however, that provided the venue for her success.
"I have always felt philosophically and emotionally welcomed in Los Angeles," Williamson said, praising the city's openness to new ideas. "The city gave me my career, and, obviously, I am hoping it will give me a new one."
For the next two months, Williamson's message will concern American politics and reflect an ardently progressive theme, much of it centered on a desire to replace what she calls narrow corporate economic values with humanitarian values. Her speechifying is well-honed and at times not distant from her spiritual messages. And, in theory, it could sell well in California's liberal 33rd Congressional District. Party loyalty could cost her the votes of some who may like her rhetoric, but she hopes to tap into a reservoir of people who have been turned off by what politics has become.
"So many Americans have been sitting out the process for so long, thinking that it cannot be relevant to their lives," Williamson said. "This two-party duopoly that so dominates government sucks the energy out of public discourse."
She admires the fierceness, if not the point of view, of the tea party movement. But it found its place on the right wing of one of the two big parties. For now, she remains a long shot whom the more conventional candidates are largely ignoring. The fact that other unconventional candidates such as Ronald Reagan, Arnold Schwarzenegger and even Sonny Bono found success in California gives her hope that the state will be on the cutting edge of another new trend - the citizen legislator.
"California doesn't do same ol' same ol'. California specializes in starting new conversations. It likes to hear somebody that is different," she said.
For better or worse, that's always been something she has been good.