Sunday, October 25, 2009

For James Ray—if not for all of his followers—life goes on.

I'm amazed at the fact that James Arthur Ray, Spiritual Parbroiler, has made so few concessions to the sweat lodge deaths. By which I mean that the marketing copy on his site remains unchanged, or largely so. And his few attempts at damage control seem poorly conceived indeed. He just sounds so utterly detached from the tragedy, right from the opening line of the main text of his solicitation for new business: While things have appeared to calm down a bit, right now is your perfect chance.... Granted, he's referring to the status of the economy, not to the ongoing inquiry into the Sedona tragedy, which has become a formal criminal investigation. But how do you leave a line like that up on the site, given its callous overtones and the way it's going to be read by at least some people?

Then there's his most recent note (dated October 20) to "those affected by the tragedy in Sedona," which sounds more like a nice little pity party for himself ("people are throwing out accusations and disparaging me and our mission"). He confesses that he has "taken heat" for his business-as-usual demeanor, which has to be one of the most awful and unintentionally gack-worthy word choices on record. (Is no one counseling this man on PR?) He also says of the victims, "I believe the best way to honor their amazing lives and everlasting memory is to continue this important work." That may be truethe man may even be sincerebut again, it sounds terrible. It sounds like something you say when you're looking for a plausible excuse to continue to rake in the profits while people are dying.

That note, by the way, is found on an interior page of the site; you reach it by clicking a small black banner at the top (perhaps meant to be inconspicuous to visitors who somehow haven't heard of the tragedy?) Is it cynical to theorize that he doesn't want to put any lengthy reference to these events on the main page, where it might sour his near-giddy pitch for new business?

In other public statements, Ray has said he's "being tested" by all this, which demonstrates a rather solipsistic lens on a tragedy in which other people weren't just tested, but were killed. And at a Denver event the other day, when a few in the audience admonished him to "tell people the truth, James!", he replied dismissively: "This isn't a press conference." To be fair, one wouldn't necessarily expect him to cancel his speaking schedule and
tear up his entire business plan because of what happened. But..."this isn't a press conference"? Something a tad warmer or more understanding of people's frustrations would've been a nice touch. (This, from a man who, like so many of his SHAM brethren, purports to be oh-so-plugged-in to the human psyche.)

And the capper? His pitch for next year's "Spiritual Warrior" retreat, which takes place September 18-23 back in New Agey Sedona, still at "ONLY $9695 per person,"* ends with the inspirational tagline:

There is no sacrifice—only greater and more magnificent results, wealth, adventure and fulfillment.
Oh, I don't know, James. I think some folks might quibble with the "no sacrifice" line. (I also wonder if next year's event will include a sweat lodge.)

By the way, I received an interesting email from a fellow journalist, Nina Rehfeld, who's been looking into Ray's willingness to bastardize and/or trash Native American folkways in the name of profits—or as she calls it, "the shameless rape of the traditions of the Native American people and other cultures." And Ray isn't the only one doing it, of course. I'll have more on that score, and other developing aspects of the Sedona tragedy, in the days ahead.

* emphasis (caps) present in original.

24 comments:

Anonymous said...

I hope you will keep following James Ray and writing about him on your blog and at the Wall Street Journal. He needs to be prosecuted for the deaths and damage he has caused to his "followers." I don't think they were dumb people, just likely fragile and seeking some higher truth. Unfortunately they were blinded by this guy's slick salesmanship and could not see his true motivations - power and greed. He is another Bernie Madoff in many ways, though one could argue that Madoff did not kill anyone - just made their retirement years miserable.

BR

Cosmic Connie said...

Native Americans have been screaming for years -- DECADES -- about how affluent white yuppies have bastardized their spiritual traditions. And yes, James Ray is far from the only one to be doing this. There's even a well-known term for Ray and his ilk: plastic shaman (emphasis very much on the first syllable, yes?). In the past I've had quite a bit of fun at the expense of some of these shamanoids, one of the most snarkworthy being a Maui-based joker who goes by the name of Dreaming-Bear, and claims to be part Cherokee, part Palestinian, and all about "love and tenderness."

As for Ray, as I've noted on my own blog, it is appalling that when the dissidents raised their questions at his Denver event, they were shouted down by the audience, and Ray got the standing ovation and accolades after the protesters left.

The LA Times article you cite almost paints Ray as a hero, bravely soldiering on in the wake of a personal tragedy. (A friend of mine suggested that it's almost as if some of Ray's lawyers and/or PR folks were behind the piece.)

The article also reveals some of his followers, or potential followers, to be clueless. Many apparently hadn't even heard of the tragedy, and after they found out about it, some still apparently didn't care. One guy (quoted in the LA Times piece) shrugged it off as just one of those things that happen when you try to live life to its fullest. He said he'd rather live "that kind of life" than be a couch potato.

As my own dear Ron said when he read that, "Better a couch potato than a baked potato."

Steve Salerno said...

The Madoff analogy is interesting. These gurus sell a philosophical/spiritual Ponzi scheme. Hmmm...

Anonymous said...

"Better a couch potato than a baked potato." Priceless!!!!

Cosmic Connie said...

The Madoff analogy works not only on a spiritual/philosophical level but also a literal one. Not only are most of the New-Wage gurus involved in numerous multi-level-marketing schemes for various products (whether their own or those of their buddies), but the truly successful hustledorks make most of their money by teaching others the "secrets" to making money. Most of them have some sort of affiliate setups that theoretically allow others to make tons of money too, but the only ones really making any serious dough are those few at the top of the heap.

But never fear; there's a proven seven-step formula for becoming a successful hustledork yourself. Duff McDuffee (writing only semi-facetiously) nailed it:
http://tinyurl.com/6pxxrg

And then there's this hilarious video commentary by another guy. It contains a couple of factual errors (e.g., the date of the sweat lodge tragedy and the timing of Ray's unwittingly prescient "tweets"), but other than that it's spot-on.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NHljZKrjAg4

Elizabeth said...

This is one of the most astounding aspects of the American life for an (non-native) American transplant -- the preponderance of snake oil salesmen and people willing and eager to fall for their schemes.

What is it in the American psyche and/or culture that makes intelligent people so susceptible to such blatant schemes?

Granted, there are charlatans -- and their willing followers -- everywhere else, but not in such numbers and not ever getting such acclaim and wide-spread support.

This is a dissertation waiting to happen, if it has not happened yet.

Amazing. Sadly so.

Elizabeth said...

A rant ahead, be warned.

In that note by Ray, which you linked, Steve, one thing is so striking again -- and it seems to be a consistent thread throughout his actions and spoken/written words (and it is also something typical of gurus of all stripes): his insufferable narcissism.

He begins the note with words, "For me, for the families and friends of the sick and deceased and for many people who believe in the important work we do, these have been the most difficult ten days of our lives."

For me... The important work we (i.e., I) do...

"People are throwing out accusations and disparaging me and our mission."

Well, yeah! What exactly did he expect? But of course it's still about him being disparaged, never mind those people who died. They are in a better place anyway, as he said.

"Yet despite that, and despite considerable criticism, I have chosen to continue with my work. It's too important not to."

A true hero, plowing on in face of overwhelming adversity, scheduling more bogus "harmonic crap" workshops for $$$$. How noble. How brave.

"One of the lessons I teach is that you have to confront and embrace adversity and learn and grow from it. I promise you I am doing a lot of learning and growing."

Translation: continuing my charlatan tricks for obscene amounts of money. But, OK, giving you a benefit of a doubt: what have you learned, specifically, Mr. Ray?

"I have taken heat for that decision, but if I chose to lock myself in my home, I am sure I would be criticized for hiding and not practicing what I preach."

Look at me, how brave and noble I am!

"It means a great deal to me that so many of you have come to see me speak this week and last--that you are investing your time and energy into creating more fulfilling, successful and productive lives. It reaffirms my decision to continue my schedule and these event experiences."

Translation: keep pouring your hard-earned (or not) money into my schemes. I have no desire to change anything just because a few folks decided to croa... I mean abandon their physical bodies and move on to higher planes of existence. (He mentions time and energy, the noble soul -- the word money cannot pass his lips, apparently. Quite telling for someone who teaches about harmonic wealth.)

"I want to use this forum to address the families of those whose lives were lost, James, Kirby and Liz. I have reached out to all of the families personally, but feel the need to say more."

Finally, down the page, something about those whose, oh-so-euphemistically, "lives were lost."

Let's keep something straight: they died because of his apparent greed and negligence. "Lives were lost" completely removes his responsibility from the situation. Nah, it does not even put his person near the "lives lost." He makes it sound like some impersonal abstraction that does not apply to him. And that's actually truthful, I'm guessing, as in his narcissistic mind the "lives (that) were lost" have nothing to do with him.

Contd.

Elizabeth said...

Rant contd.

"I feel your pain."

How? Show it in other ways than empty words.

"I accept your anger."

Ditto.

"And I pray for you all to have some measure of peace and comfort."

Translation: come to your senses already and leave me alone to continue in my merry ways. And whatever you do, don't hold me responsible for this mishap.

"I want you to know that I too want to know what happened that caused this horrible tragedy."

Oh, my goodness... The deep mystery of starving, dehydrating and cooking people to death. What could have happened there? The causes are most mysterious.

"My team and I are working with the appropriate authorities and have even hired our own investigators to find out the truth."

Translation: do our best to obscure the truth and absolve me of any responsibility.

"I believe the best way to honor their amazing lives and everlasting memory is to continue this important work."

Well, of course. At $10,000 a pop it is important.

"Please join me in a moment of silence to pay homage to their lives and to pray for the speedy recovery of others taken ill."

A moment of silence may sound good, but what's needed even more so is screaming from the rooftops about the slickness of snake oil salesmen and gullibility of their victims.

Rant over. Ugh.

Steve Salerno said...

Eliz: Nice point-by-point dissection.

I'd also like to ask Mr. Ray: If your work is so cosmically important that you must not waver, you must not weaken, you must persist in the face of this terrible tragedy...then why not do it for free? Just for a while, as a show of your own commitment and good will?

Elizabeth said...

Yeah, really. I think for free is a phrase that would make him sweat and pass out, no lodge necessary.

This, below, is probably the most galling (apart from starting his letter with the phrase "For me"):

"I believe the best way to honor their amazing lives and everlasting memory is to continue this important work."

Whoa... So, in his mind, the best way to honor his victims' deaths... oops, these people's amazing lives that ended in being starved and cooked by Ray's "harmonic" method, is to continue starving and cooking more people, or at least fleecing them out of their money.

This must be some super-duper enlightened learning, something you get combining money with narcissism.

Steve Salerno said...

You also have to keep in mind that the first person these cult-type gurus brainwash is themselves. It's like that a-hole preacher out of Houston, Joel Osteen. I do believe that, by this point, he believes his own mantra, and sees no contradiction between the gospel of Christ and, say, his wife's layering of jewels upon herself. I think that a guy like Osteen could say he'll come and pray with you and your organization on behalf of the homeless, demand $250,000 for the privilege, and feel no sense of moral contradiction whatsoever. These guys have mastered Orwellian doublethink and put any such qualms well behind them.

Frances said...

Here's a detail I found of one of Ray's Denver events (AFTER the sweat lodge incident), from Cosmic Connie's page-- that really got my hackles up. Emphases are mine:

In the second case, Ray said that to achieve financial wealth you must provide a service of great value. Sports and entertainment stars provide that value, he cited as an example, and are compensated accordingly. But what of teachers and others providing a different sort of value? Is there any wealth for them, he asked of himself? You might expect him to speak to the nobility of teaching and the benefits that it accrues to all of us. Instead he suggested that teachers might consider being more entertaining to increase their financial compensation.

So, teachers-- and anybody else unlucky not to have as much charisma as James Ray-- you brought your economic predicament on yourselves, by not being entertaining enough! You weren't attracting enough wealth there!

This guy keeps showing more and more ugly every time I see him...

--Frances

Cosmic Connie said...

Just wanted to remind y'all that tonight, October 26, at 9 PM Eastern Time on CNN, Larry King will be speaking with the family of Kirby Brown, the 38-year-old woman who died in the James Ray sweat lodge incident. Kirby's family thinks the deaths were not accidental, and they want answers.

Meanwhile, folks who want to send questions and comments to Larry King Live can do so via this link, which is published on the LKL web site:
http://www.cnn.com/feedback/forms/form5.lkl.html

Elizabeth said...

Frances 'n all, the more details emerge about this guy, the worse the story looks.

And the more I scratch my head, asking the "Why on Earth...?!" question. Intelligent, seemingly thinking people blindly following a narcissistic, unscrupulous scam artist. Incomprehensible.

Last week, I listened to an interview with a lawyer suing Ray on behalf of a woman who participated in the fateful "ceremony." Don't remember her name, but during the event, she was between the two people who died in the lodge. The woman was not interviewed, only the lawyer, and he mentioned that the sweat lodge part was a surprise addition to the retreat -- i.e., the participants did not know about it in advance.

So after starving and being deprived of water for many hours, they were herded into the lodge in order to further "test their limits." There were many who did not like the prospect, but were too weak and confused to protest. The conditions she described in the lodge, via the lawyer, were harrowing.

The interview was on NPR; I tried to find it and send you a link, but couldn't (find it).

It is beyond me how Ray can act as if this was some unfortunate event unrelated to his actions and without major consequences, and continue his business as usual. If that does not tell his followers what kind of a person he is, nothing will. These people are sheep. Sorry.

Cosmic Connie said...

Elizabeth, I want to second Steve's opinion: you did an excellent point-by-point dissection of James Ray's lame excuses. I love Ray's passive language and abundant use of euphemisms to completely remove himself from the dirty, ugly reality of being the instrument of some good people's very unpleasant deaths, near-deaths, and nightmare experiences. No doubt the purpose of these rhetorical strategies is threefold: to salve his own conscience (providing he has one); to preserve his image so the rubes will keep shoveling money in his direction; and to continue his charade of zero liability in this matter.

I imagine that where the families of the fallen -- and their attorneys -- are concerned, he's going to have a tough time with that innocence charade. He can spout all the soothing New-Wage euphemisms he wants, and maybe that will work for the clueless crowds who haven't (yet) been harmed by him, but the families of the dead participants aren't being soothed. And I imagine his own lawyers are twitching nervously every time he goes out in public and performs his grief ceremony.

Steve Salerno said...

Good on ya, Connie--an excellent bit of programming info, and a good suggestion, too (the questions and comments).

As it happens, I'll be on Australian radio at the time, doing a nationwide hook-up on the subject of envy, and how the self-help movement feeds it. But I'll tape King for subsequent viewing.

Cosmic Connie said...

Knock 'em dead in Oz, Steve. A growing number of Aussies are disillusioned and disgusted with the self-help movement, The Secret, etc. I hear from them all the time. I think you'll have a receptive audience.

Steve Salerno said...

Thanks, Connie. Perhaps our friend James Ray will soon have some firsthand experience with Oz--and I don't mean Australia.

Duff said...

When Ray came to Denver to sell his seminars just days after people had died because of them, a friend and I stood up to challenge his notion that the best way to honor the dead was to continue to do what killed him. He did not have any response, and we were promptly asked to leave by his large bodyguard-like staff.

Duff said...

Oh, and Ray personally didn't say "this isn't a press conference" in the Denver event--his followers did.

More worrisome than Ray himself was the fact that there was cheering as we were escorted out. Challenging a suspected murderer who uses coercive persuasion to dominate his seminar participants until they die from it is apparently just too rude for some folks.

Steve Salerno said...

Duff: Email me off-blog, please. Interested in talking with you.

Cosmic Connie said...

Steve, since you mentioned Joel Osteen in one of your comments on this thread (10:15 AM), and since I know he's long been a sore point with you, I thought you might be interested to know that Pastor Joel is coming out with his third soon-to-be-bestseller this Tuesday (November 3). It's called, "It's Your Time: Activate Your Faith, Accomplish Your Dreams, and Increase in God's Favor" (Free Press, $25, 320 pp.). The book is all about "supersizing your dreams," which is something we apparently should all be doing even in these here hard times. On Tuesday, launch day for his book, he'll be all over the media, including "Good Morning America" and "The View."

In an interview with the Houston Chronicle's Diane Cowen for the Chronicle's "Belief" section (published today, Oct. 30), Ms. Cowen asked Joel what his dreams were, now that he's accomplished so much. One of the things he wishes for: "There are some things I want to do to have a bigger impact in the secular media."

Uh-oh.

Elizabeth said...

"It's Your Time: Activate Your Faith, Accomplish Your Dreams, and Increase in God's Favor" (Free Press, $25, 320 pp.).

Hilarious, Connie. One couldn't make this stuff up even if one tried.

"It's Your Time," he hollers, while charging 25 bucks for the privilege of hollering it to "you." And 320 pages will take up a chunk of your time, but hey, it's all for good.

Accomplish Your Dreams, eh? I would like to introduce Joel to some working-class people who, I'm sure, would appreciate his gospel of prosperity and dream accomplishment the way it deserves to be appreciated: with a hearty laugh.

And Increase in God's Favor -- now, Joel surely would know how to do this, being God's favorite child himself and in constant direct communication with The Man.

That's the holy trinity for the American religious crowd: combine fundamentalist faith with sanctified greed and the gospel of self/wish fulfillment.

Marketing perfection, you gotta give it to JO.

Anonymous said...

It's happened before in Australis.
David Jarvis got off scott free because S.O.T.E.M.S. really knows how to spin a tragedy.
This is interesting reading here:

http://www.courts.sa.gov.au/courts/coroner/findings/findings_2007/cooke.finding.htm

http://www.news.com.au/perthnow/story/0,25198,21870954-5005361,00.html

James Ray has hired the PR firm of Fabiani and Lehane to spin the story in his favor.
http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?file=/chronicle/archive/2002/05/19/BU144937.DTL

The Master of Disaster helped get the Clintons out of hot water and messed up several Democratic campaigns.