Like It Never Even Happened

A self-help guru who killed three in his sweat lodge says the experience has helped him “find himself.” His rhetoric shows he has yet to move beyond the problematic structure of his ideology.

Slate/December 1, 2016

By Steve Salerno

James Arthur Ray, for a time the most flamboyant figure in the ultra-flamboyant world of self-help seminars, last made headlines in October 2009, when he parboiled 56 disciples during a botched sweat-lodge ceremony intended as the climax of his $9,695-a-head Spiritual Warrior retreat. On the day of the parboiling, Ray badgered people who were already vomiting, hallucinating, or passing out to “play full on!” as he liked to say, urging manic commitment to the exercise at hand. Attendees remember him thundering at one point, “Today’s a good day to die!” Three of his followers took him at his word, while 17 others suffered from burns, severe dehydration, and/or kidney failure. The guru ultimately spent 20 months in prison for negligent homicide.

Ray and his Sedona, Arizona, Waterloo are now the subject of Enlighten Us, a heavily promoted CNN documentary out Thursday. [Update, Dec. 1: CNN announced it’s pushing back the release to Saturday.] Despite its whimsical title, the film examines Ray through a surprisingly credulous lens, making him seem almost as much a casualty of “shit happens” as a convicted criminal. Viewers hear Ray’s explanations of how personal growth always entails risk; they are shown his desolation at having watched his thriving $10 million business go up in literal smoke.

In both the film and in life, Ray is poorly cast as the martyr of self-help culture. He’s far from it: Ginny Brown, mother of 38-year-old victim Kirby Brown, recalls that when Ray finally reached out to her after her daughter’s death, a full five days later, he kept saying over and over, that he “couldn’t believe this had happened ... to him.”Seven years later, Ray does not seem to have changed—indeed, he is currently petitioning to have his conviction set aside. The state of Arizona is countering the motion vigorously, as are families of those killed.

Legal maneuvers like the one Ray is attempting rarely succeed in homicide cases. But the hubris of even trying reaffirms that far from offering a story of redemption, Ray remains the epitomic reminder that self-help culture may be less about bettering the self than about creating alternative realities in which your unimproved self is just fine.

Ray came to prominence when he caught the eye of Oprah Winfrey during a cameo in the 2006 blockbuster DVD The Secret. (In those days, if you were a guru who caught Oprahs eye, and she gave you a platform on her uber-hot show, you were golden. Ray became golden.) The secret to The Secret’s success was its “law of attraction,” the literal belief that if you send the right vibes out into the universe, you will receive in return your heart’s desire. Ray’s proprietary shtick (every guru is required to have one) was a Secret derivative called “harmonic wealth,” an arcane system of spiritual time management that supposedly merged the law of attraction with quantum physics in vowing to keep followers’ finances, relationships, and physical and mental health in perfect balance. Early in the titular book, Ray observes that everything in the universe “is perfectly orchestrated for your betterment, growth, and evolution whether you’re consciously aware of it or not.” (The astute reader might wonder, why do I need this book?)

People often flock to gurus like Ray to learn to be more focused and less conflicted; often those conflicts are in areas of ethics, or people require a certain mental and emotional toughness that assigns a lower priority to the wants of others. In exchange for his exorbitant prices, Ray proposed to furnish his followers with self-talk—this mantra largely consisted of code for rationalizing mistakes, damage to others, and other messy details of daily living. Well-aware of his need for a competitive advantage in a genre that seemed to spawn new gurus daily and to keep people interested enough to attend each new event, Ray kept adding new and ever-more-eccentric winkles to his programs. There has always been a pronounced tendency in self-help circles to equate eccentric with cutting-edge, despite the fact that there is, for example, zero science vetting a mystical outreach to the universe. There is, however, plenty of evidence testifying to the psychological dangers of stripping away people’s egos and defense mechanisms in a group setting. Ray would add more evidence to the latter as he began holding court over getaways and physical escapades that went far beyond his mantras.

Ray’s followers probably gave insufficient thought to the fact that their intrepid leader, too, was focused on a goal—his own enrichment—and had assigned a lower priority to the needs of others: specifically, them. Indeed, his followers continued to make ever-larger purchases of more and more materials and seminars, following Ray to a netherworld of financial and emotional investment where only he knew the endgame.

By 2009 Ray’s rugged good looks and sexy bluster had made him the matinee idol of the motivational set. He presented his large-format, upselling spiel to standing-room-only crowds in venues that on other nights might host conventions. His eponymous company went to $10 million in revenues in about two years.

Three months before the sweat lodge, during a Creating Absolute Wealth event (which absolutely created $4,000 worth of wealth per customer for Ray), a woman named Colleen Conaway apparently had a psychotic break and leaped to her death from an upper level in San Diego’s Horton Plaza shopping mall during an exercise in which Ray ordered his followers to channel the mindset of the homeless. (Participants had to dress up in worn clothes and leave their money, cellphones, and IDs behind.) Conaway was by all accounts happy and well-adjusted prior to the event—in no way suicidal. Her sister, Lynn Graham, has blamed the tragedy on Ray’s “heavy-handed tactics” and “brainwashing.” Ray was never formally accused of being responsible for the death. But consider his response: Evidence suggests that Ray himself, who was lunching at the upscale mall, knew about the incident within moments. Nevertheless, Ray and his crew stonewalled other participants about the whereabouts of the missing attendee during the rest of the day’s activities, none of which were canceled. They even went on with the customary after-party—there are pictures of the gaiety.

And then came Sedona.

Whether or not you believe 20 months in prison is a just punishment, Ray has also now been reduced to coaching entrepreneurs one on one or presenting to cozy gatherings in hotel banquet rooms that are a far cry from his former haunts. But even in the wake of his sentencing and prison stint, he deflects responsibility for his crimes. He continues to alibi for the sweat-lodge death by way of offhand analogies to other adventuresome undertakings. He’ll ask, “Why do people sky-dive?” He does not address whether they’d still sky-dive if they knew that an inept instructor had failed to properly rig the chute. (Despite the serious conditions, there were no medical personnel on hand at Sedona.) He’ll argue that his followers were adults who knew the risks and were willing to go the extra mile for personal empowerment.

He has said repeatedly, and says again in the CNN film, “An accident occurred, and it was prosecuted as a crime.”

Except it wasn’t a mere accident. As Ginny Brown retorts, “He orchestrated the event that made death inevitable. He was told the year before that if you keep doing this, people will die.” Indeed, prior Ray sweat lodges had sent people to the hospital with heat stroke. There were other red flags, along with Conaway’s suicide: The prior year, participants broke bones during a karatelike brick-breaking exercise held as part of Ray’s Hawaiian Modern Magick event.

His brochures and materials made his events sound like masterworks of planning and forethought, when, in reality, he committed almost astonishing oversights. There were no formally trained martial-arts personnel on hand at Modern Magick, just as there were no medical personnel in Sedona.

And yet, seven years after that awkward phone call to Ginny Brown, Ray continues to make the Sedona deaths sound like footnotes in a disaster that principally befell him. He blogs about losing his “entire life savings,” his home, his reputation.

In hindsight, though, he’s grateful for the opportunity the sweat-lodge deaths gave him to “grow.” Again, this is the raw core of Ray’s teachings—look inward at yourself, no matter the cost to others—even if the cost to others is death, apparently.

“I found myself,” he writes on his site.

How lovely for him.

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