When three people died and dozens more were hospitalized from the effects of a faux Indian sweat lodge two weeks ago-during a "spiritual warrior weekend" in Sedona, Arizona, for which participants paid nearly $10,000 apiece-a harsh light was cast on the so-called New Age Movement and its greedier entrepreneurs.
The shocking incident has received worldwide attention and revived troubling questions about the harmful potential of pseudo-science, the limitless nature of human credulity-and even the cosmic influence of Oprah Winfrey, who has passionately promoted all manner of unified field theories of health, wealth and spiritual renewal on her television program, in her magazine and on her Web site.
"Oprah has mainstreamed a lot of very questionable characters, in my opinion," says anti-cult therapist Steven Hassan, a former official of the Unification Church who rebelled, escaped and became a prominent debunker (and was himself a guest on The Oprah Winfrey Show in 1989). "I would like to believe that this incident could be something that would cause people like Oprah to do more responsible research and to question whether or not they are serving their viewers, as opposed to just promoting people and ideas that are fundamentally flawed."
It turns out that Oprah-whose multimedia empire reaches an estimated 40 million fans-gave a massive career boost to the New Age guru who was presiding over the lethal sweat lodge. According to news reports, James Arthur Ray was actively dissuading the victims-some 50 of whom were packed into a cramped enclosure, vomiting and collapsing in searing heat-from trying to save themselves. Ray's Los Angeles publicist, Howard Bragman, who has asked for people to wait for the facts and not rush to judgment, declined to comment for this story.
Ray is a handsome, charismatic prophet of profit; during the "warrior weekend"-for which paying customers were required to spend 36 hours in the Arizona desert without food or water-he reportedly offered to sell them Peruvian ponchos for an additional $250 a pop. In early 2007, Ray took over Oprah's couch for two highly-rated shows devoted to The Secret, a New Age documentary purporting to unlock the mysteries of life and the universe, and show the way to happiness and success.
"Science tells us that everything is energy, and so your thoughts are energy," Ray told Oprah's vast audience in a typically glib outburst of pseudo-scientific sermonizing. "Your body, your cash, your car-everything you think is solid, if you put it under a high-powered microscope, it's just a field of energy and a rate of vibration. And so are we. So if you think you're this meat suit running around, you have to think again."
On one level, the 51-year-old Ray-who, the year after his life-altering television appearance authored the runaway bestseller Harmonic Wealth: The Secret of Attracting the Life You Want, and these days is involved in a homicide investigation-is just another Oprah guest gone bad. On another level, he is a wakeup call for anyone who would dismiss all New Age dabbling as merely risk-free recreation, like incense and crystals.
"I look at groups and individuals on a continuum," Hassan says, noting that he is in favor of such practices as meditation and yoga. "On one side, I see ethical people with integrity-leaders who are accountable and responsible and transparent, and who have democratic organizations. And on the other end of the continuum are charismatic demagogues who say they are God or Jesus or hold themselves out as having special mystical powers."
Ray might be somewhere in the middle, Hassan surmises. A hallmark is Ray's apparent belief-which he repeatedly outlines in his lectures and workshops-that all reality is subjective, and subject to the power of the human mind. "It's 'my reality is my reality,' and it's all about choice. Nothing can happen in a negative way if I say so. When you have a belief system like this, you can be in a toxic environment that is literally killing you, like a sweat lodge, and your belief system negates your survival instinct."
Florida psycholologist Michael Langone, who runs the 30-year-old International Cultic Studies Association-a self-described "global network of people concerned about psychological manipulation and abuse in cultic groups, alternative movements, and other environments"-says he sees in Ray's operation a number of warning signs of a textbook cult.
After reading an account of the sweat lodge deaths in the New York Times, Langone emailed me:
"Some of the statements in the article that tweak my 'nose' include:
- 'deaths have not shaken all of Mr. Ray's supporters'-Why are some of his supporters so loyal to this man after such a horrific event? What has been his relationship to his supporters? Has he actively promoted an uncritical adulation? I'd want to talk to a large number of people who have gone through his trainings to determine whether or not a cultic dynamic is at work.
- '[Yana Paskova, an orthodontist from Texas who was in the sweat lodge and told The New York Times she'd struggled to remain conscious] described a game - enacted again at the retreat this month-in which Mr. Ray wears white robes and plays God, ordering some participants to commit mock suicide.'-This adds to my suspicions about grandiosity leading to more grandiosity and ultimately to very poor judgments.
- 'Other people wanted to leave and some did leave,' said Mr. [Ted] Schmidt [a lawyer for a woman who passed out in the sweat lodge quoted in the Times account]. Mr. Ray 'was very intimidating' and discouraged people from leaving, Schmidt added. Did some people assert themselves sufficiently that they left the lodge, even though Ray seemingly was discouraging them? If so, this will probably form part of his defense in legal cases that may arise, i.e., if some people left, then, he may argue, he did not force people to stay. This is a common argument made by manipulators. It ignores the reality that the effectiveness of a particular manipulative tactic is partly a function of the manipulator's 'skill' and the manipulatee's psychological makeup. It also ignores the question of what is the leader's ethical and legal obligations to participants…We have all kinds of laws constraining would-be fraudsters in the business realm, but we have virtually nothing constraining manipulators in the psychological realm."
It is, of course, unfair to point the finger at Oprah for the sweat lodge deaths, and a spokesman for her company, Harpo Productions, sought to distance the daytime television queen from the embattled guru she once warmly embraced: "Oprah has no personal or business relationship with James Arthur Ray," the spokesman told The Daily Beast. "He appeared twice as a guest on 'The Oprah Winfrey Show' in February 2007. She, like everyone else, was shocked and saddened to hear of the tragedy in Arizona and hopes that a thorough investigation will help find answers for those who lost loved ones."
Weirdly, Ray has issued a similar distancing statement, seeming to relieve himself of responsibility for events in which-by most accounts-he was the central player.
"I want to use this forum to address the families of those whose lives were lost," Ray wrote on his blog. "I have reached out to all of the families personally, but feel the need to say more. I feel your pain. I accept your anger. And I pray for you all to have some measure of peace and comfort. I want you to know that I too want to know what happened that caused this horrible tragedy. My team and I are working with the appropriate authorities and have even hired our own investigators to find out the truth."
The truth is out there.