It is a weekly celebration for people with AIDS, their friends, lovers, relatives and anyone else interested in attending. And though it may be hard to imagine a place packed with AIDS patients being even remotely cheerful, participants insist it is the most joyful place in town on any Wednesday night.
They call it a "Hayride," after its ringleader, Louise Hay, a metaphysical counselor who began the meetings in her Santa Monica living room with six AIDS patients in January of 1985. Three years later, the meetings have become something of a phenomenon, drawing 600 to 700 participants every week to the auditorium at West Hollywood Park.
In fact, Hay's drawing power is such that other AIDS-related groups and organizations schedule around her.
Book Sales of 400,000
"When I began my organization last year, everybody said to me, 'Don't schedule anything on Wednesdays. Nobody will come,' " confirms John Hutson, founder and president of AIDS ISSUES--What You Can Do!, an organization devoted to the politics of AIDS.
As Hay's reputation has grown--her book "Heal Your Body" has sold about 400,000 copies and been translated into 10 languages--AIDS patients from across the country and the world have shown up at the Wednesday meetings to hear her optimistic and controversial message that AIDS is not necessarily a death sentence, that it is the physical manifestation of a lack of love in one's life.
"It's almost magic," says Bill Misenheimer, the former executive director of AIDS Project L.A., who's now in charge of special projects for the American Foundation for AIDS Research .
"Every time I've ever been there, I've thought 'This is unbelievable.' " This evening, as usual, the hundreds packed into the auditorium are mostly gay men though there are a few female AIDS patients present and several parents. They sit attentively on tan folding chairs facing Hay, who is dressed in flowing silk the colors of the sunset. She sits atop a pillow on a table on one side of the room.
Two men wielding microphones are poised to roam the audience a la Oprah Winfrey and Phil Donahue, on whose shows Hay is scheduled to appear in upcoming weeks.
Most of those in the audience don't look sick; a few have lesions on their skin, patches of hair missing as a result of chemotherapy or tubes taped to their nostrils. Occasionally, participants arrive in wheelchairs or are carried in on stretchers.
The free public meeting starts promptly at 6:45 p.m. with announcements.
One man is looking for a roommate. Another issues an invitation to a new syphilis support group. Yet another plugs an upcoming AIDS bike-a-thon.
There is a reminder to deposit food in the barrels at the back of the room for Aids Project L.A.'s Necessities of Life campaign. But when the promoter suggests the audience check their cupboards for donations, Hay interrupts. "Come on now, go shopping!" she urges. "We're talking about people who literally don't have money for food or toilet paper."
A radiant, energetic woman who looks far younger than her 61 years, Hay permits no tape recorders or cameras at the meetings and she reassures her audience--one-third of whom she estimates to be AIDS or ARC (AIDS-related complex) carriers--that though a reporter is present no one will be personally identified. (Many are still in the closet, she explains later, and it's an act of courage for them just to show up.)
Hay says she never knows what will unfold when the microphones are opened to the audience and people are invited to say anything they want.
A man who is crying takes the mike and tells the group that his lover, whom many of them know, is dying: "He cannot talk or see anymore. The doctors have said, 'All you can do now is make him comfortable.' But I knew he could hear me and so I said to him, 'I'm going to Louise Hay's tonight and I'm going to ask them to send all their love to you.' When I said that he squeezed my hand."
Power of Love and Forgiveness
A tear trickles down Hay's face as she hears the news and she asks the crowd to visualize the dying man: " . . . see him comfortable, peaceful and surrounded by love, making his transition in the perfect time/space, see him smiling, joyously happy and totally free. . . .
"Yes, it's true that many people are leaving (dying)," Hay says, noticing that some in the audience are also crying, "but some are getting well. . . . Love is the most powerful stimulant to the immune system. What we're doing here is practicing love, unconditional love."
An ordained minister of the Church of Religious Science, Hay claims that 10 years ago she healed herself of vaginal cancer by releasing the resentment she carried into adulthood after having been sexually abused as a child. Her message, that AIDS, too, can be healed with love and forgiveness, is partially an outgrowth of her own experiences, she says.
As the meeting progresses, several audience members get up to announce that they are celebrating anniversaries of either normal T-cell counts or testing HIV-negative after having previously tested positive. One man celebrating three years of testing negative declares, "I just keep getting up and fighting it if for no other reason than so I can vote against the Republicans." He gets a loud round of applause.
Healing Techniques Used
During the course of the evening, which began with a round of singing and a brief visualization/guided meditation led by Hay, about 40 people will come forward to use one of seven "healing tables" situated on the auditorium stage. The healings are supervised by practitioners who work with Reiki (a Japanese method), crystals and other techniques such as laying on of hands.
A man approaches the microphone to say that his fears about dying have increased since he began coming to Hay's meetings. He recalls that when he found out that Hay advocated inner (psychological) work, he felt that this might be even more difficult to accomplish than ridding his body of disease.
"You feel it's overwhelming to heal the inside?" Hay asks and receives a fast but sheepish nod.
She wants to know if the guy has ever cleaned a house. He says "yes" but his place hasn't been cleaned lately.
"If you begin to clean your house, it doesn't matter where you start," she advises, suggesting that he begin working on his inner and outer houses simultaneously. "If you do a little bit at a time, it will eventually get done."
While cleaning, Hay wants the man to remind himself, "I'm cleaning up all that garbage within me."
"You don't have to do it all before you can get well," she reassures him. "If you just do some, you'll begin to feel better."
At the end of the evening, folding chairs are stacked against the walls and participants usually sit on the floor, holding hands in concentric circles. They intone the sound "Om" and "send their love" to the center of the circle, where those most in need are lying.
What does the medical profession make of all this?
Hay blurts out a popular expletive to describe her perception of most doctors' reaction to her ideas.
Dr. Michael Gottlieb, the former UCLA researcher credited with identifying AIDS as a new medical syndrome, has never been to a Hayride. But he's heard the news through his patients.
"Basically they have described what takes place and they typically feel uplifted," reports Gottlieb, now a clinician in private practice in Santa Monica where he specializes in treatment of AIDS.
"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 a lack of love."
Can the absence of love in one's life perhaps work to compromise the immune system, as Hay believes?
"Goodness no," Gottlieb insists. " . . . People who do not have the AIDS virus have engaged in many of the same behaviors as those who do. I don't see any connection."
On the subject of whether AIDS is curable, he is equally insistent: "There is no instance of a cure of the AIDS virus."
Remission is a word with which Gottlieb is slightly more comfortable. "There are some patients, particularly some with Kaposi's sarcoma (one form of AIDS) who have a very good prognosis for long-term remission. In some instances, those patients have portrayed themselves as cured when in fact the disease is in remission."
The other group he sees describing themselves as cured, he says, are patients "in whom an AIDS diagnosis was made mistakenly."
Hay claims that those who are willing to do "the work" may indeed improve their chances for survival if not actually beat the disease. (That work is considerable and includes improving nutritional habits, completely accepting oneself and others, and creating a nourishing life style.)
"When you're talking about the disease called AIDS, I find you're really dealing with people who have a lot of self-hatred," she says. "They feel they're not good enough. There's a lot of resentment towards their families and very often there's been a life style that's been very abusive for the body. They've not taken loving care of themselves and when this gets turned around, healings take place."
But Hay is careful to emphasize that healing comes in many forms on many levels and may or may not result in elimination of disease.
A Loss of Control
Dr. Peter Wolfe, an assistant clinical professor of medicine at UCLA who has a private AIDS practice in Century City, has also heard reports from patients about Hay's meetings.
"I think the problem with this disease is that people have a sense of loss of control over their lives and a sense of low self-esteem," he says. "Some patients are able to benefit from her message of self-help. Some people seem to feel less depressed and better about themselves, which is good.
"The flip side is that if people get sick, they tend to blame themselves for getting sick and I don't think that's very healthy."
Like Gottlieb, Wolfe sees no real connection between emotional and physical states. "It's very hard to measure that sort of stuff," he says, "but there's only so much I can do as a physician. Psychotherapy and other avenues of treatment are also helpful."
Profession's Mixed Reaction
The medical profession's mixed reaction notwithstanding, word of Hay's "positive approach to AIDS" appears to be spreading fast.
Her sequel to "Heal Your Body," "You Can Heal Your Life," has sold more than 300,000 copies and is being similarly translated throughout the world.
Last month, along with Elizabeth Taylor, Hay received an award from the AIDS Hospice Foundation, which is responsible for the county's first AIDS hospice.
Though she acknowledges her message is non-scientific, Hay is being invited to speak at medical conferences (such as last month's meeting in Phoenix of the American Medical Society on Alcoholism and Other Drug Dependences). And she has teamed up with Bernie Siegel MD, the New Haven-based pediatrician and surgeon whose "Love, Medicine and Miracles" has appeared on best-seller lists for nearly a year. The two will be presenting workshops together on the East Coast later this year.
Though many of those who have attended Hay's meetings have already died of AIDS, the Hayrides frequently feature testimonials from those who say they have reversed the disease process. On a recent Wednesday, for instance, Dr. Glen Carlson, a Northern California pathologist who says he tested positive for the HIV (AIDS) virus two years ago, told how he used the principles and techniques Hay advocates in dealing with his disease. As of last October, he said, all of his symptoms had vanished and he tested negative for the virus.
"I didn't have full-blown AIDS," Carlson explained after the meeting, "but I was on the path to it. In the scheme of the infection, I was symptomatic." He discounted the possibility that he received a false positive on his initial test: "The doctor who did my initial test had told me he was certain it was not a false positive because it was very, very strongly positive."
In Hay's view, the absence of self-love and the resence of self-hatred can actually compromise the body's proper functioning, weakening particularly the immune system. Conversely, Hay teaches that love, forgiveness and self-acceptance are the prime ingredients of self-healing and the groundwork for establishing healthier life-style habits.
She cautions, however, that resultant inner healing may or may not result in an outer, physical cure, and rarely misses the chance to suggest that her work be considered an adjunct to other forms of treatment.
Some physicians find Hay's teachings compatible with their own beliefs.
Oncologist Alexandra Levine, a professor of medicine and the executive associate dean of the USC School of Medicine, says she's never seen Hay in action but has "always strongly believed in the relationship between mind and body."
"My goal has been to offer patients the best of both worlds--everything medical science has to offer and everything in addition that peace of mind and comfort can offer as opposed to fear."
Author and doctor Bernie Siegel, who now treats a large number of AIDS patients, was so impressed with Hay when he met her last year that he wanted to work with her in workshops.
"When she says love heals it doesn't mean it cures everything but it can heal it," Siegel says. "I think we both know that there's a difference between healing and curing people. There are people who die of AIDS who see it as a gift and a challenge because of what it brings into their lives."
Though the notion that AIDS is incurable is still widespread, Siegel claims he has patients in his own practice who have "not only completely eliminated all AIDS symptoms, they've even reversed their (HIV) blood tests."
As for physician response to such ideas, Siegel figures "it's like everything else. Some you drag kicking and fighting. And there are some who are open to these ideas. AIDS is forcing a confrontation because doctors don't have a magic pill for it. Fifty years ago diphtheria killed people. Fifty years from now AIDS will not be an issue."