Sunday, March 22, 2015

The return of James Arthur Ray. The method is the madness?

AFTER 20 MONTHS IN PRISON and an equivalent period of self-imposed exile from Gurudom—served concurrently—James Arthur Ray is back among us as a somewhat rebranded, slightly “lite” version of the New Age shaman he once was. It was in October 2009, you may recall, that Ray cajoled and coerced disciples through an interminable sweat lodge ceremony billed as the capstone of his $9695-a-head Spiritual Warrior weekend in Sedona, AZ. He exhorted followers displaying obvious signs of heat stroke to stay the course, to “play full on,” as if by sheer willpower they could squelch the breakdowns that were occurring in their bodies amid temps estimated at near 200 degrees; they needed "to surrender to death," he told them, "to survive it." Three who surrendered did not survive; their names were James Shore, Liz Neuman and Kirby Brown. Later Ray himself was forced to surrender to authorities; in November 2011 a jury found him guilty of negligent homicide.

Less well known is that the Sedona casualties were not the first deaths associated with a James Ray event. In fact, during a “pretend-you're-homeless” exercise at a program just months before Sedona, a female attendee, Colleen Conaway, suffered a mental breakdown and jumped to her death from an upper level in a San Diego shopping mall. The program proceeded on schedule, as did the after-party, even though a member of Ray's core team had evidently witnessed and, uh, live-tweeted the death.

A buddy of mine offers this fragile joke: Question: How do you avoid confusing James Earl Ray with James Arthur Ray? Simple, James Earl Ray killed only one person.
Before his comeuppance, Ray was embraced by self-help's (then) eminence grise, Oprah Winfrey, as the most charismatic of the Universe-is-your-friend set spawned by 2006's blockbuster book and video, The Secret. By 2008 Ray had his own best-seller, the derivatively titled Harmonic Wealth: The Secret of Attracting the Life You Want. As heir-apparent to Tony Robbins, James Ray played to SRO crowds in amphitheaters. He collected six-figure sums for one-on-one mentoring.

And now he's back. Recognizing that he can't simply rewind to where he left off—as if Sedona never happened—Ray has made lemonade out of the lemons of 2009. His patter, now, is more subdued and, he would have you believe, is informed by, enriched by, the deaths in the desert. He riffs on the lessons of his incarceration, packaging himself as the ideal person to lead his flock through life's adversity, at times seeming to cast Sedona as a misfortune that chiefly befell him. “In October 2009, my world changed dramatically," he told a recent audience. “I lost my business, I lost my home, I lost my relationships.” What he has not lost, clearly, is the messianic/Ray-o-centric world-view that had him referring to himself as “God” in prelude to the sweat lodge ceremony that would kill three people who'd placed their faith in him.

Despite such excesses—or because of them?—Ray is again finding a following. He may be starting small, in community centers rather than the likes of the Hollywood Bowl, and it may be for “just” $500 per person, but success-minded Americans are once again hanging on his words. They're even alibiing for him, maligning the “unfairness” of it all: that Ray was prosecuted for “an accident” involving clients who gave “adult consent.” (No matter that the Sedona victims were psychologically bullied every step of the way, or that they trusted their spiritual leader to know the limits.) And after all, doesn't everyone deserve a second chance?

But before discussions of second chances looms the larger question of why a guy like Ray was given a first chance. His regimen was always an inspirational trompe l’oeil—anchored in magical-thinking nonsense that seemed to posit a Carrie-like mastery of the physical universe via the mere projection of desires. He and his fellow Secret alumni preached a designer reality: You are what you believe yourself to be. The world is what you believe it is. The kinds of notions that, once upon a time, in a more serious-minded America, got people a prescription for Thorazine.

It would be one thing if it were just harmless silliness, but didn't Sedona prove otherwise? Pre-prison, Ray’s events, like others in the large-format genre, were emotionally claustrophobic affairs in which people's defenses are shredded and subcutaneous feelings are dredged up in the most confrontational of waysall of these stressors amplified in the mass-psychology environment.

The resulting risk of untoward events, up to and including death, should not surprise anyone, given the haphazardly conceived nature of so many of these so-called transformational programs. Consider that in Sedona, in the days immediately prior to the sweat lodge disaster, each participant spent 36 hours alone in the desert sans food or water. Self-help has a long and inglorious tradition of serving up “pathways to change” that have never been vetted for safety or efficacy; and seldom if ever are there qualified medical or mental-health professionals on-board to deal with any unintended consequences. 
Too often, in self-help, the method is the madness.
Still, our culture finds story lines about personal redemption irresistible. We believe steadfastly in reinvention; we root for those who've been kicked in the teeth. But is Ray's comeback really redemption...or something more like recidivism? On his blog of March 1, he writes, “Please remember that passion is the Latin word for suffering. If you choose to become great, you must be willing to suffer for your mastery.” He then writes, "If you haven't found something to give your entire life for, you'll never truly live." Note how closely such sentiments echo his oft-quoted entreaties for his Sedona attendees to “play full on” and “surrender to death.”

James Arthur Ray is building a second career out of the literal ashes of the first. In essence he has turned Sedona into a marketing op, a fresh hook on which to hang his metaphysical hat, complete with a core message about Overcoming that he deems himself uniquely qualified to deliver. Reflecting on the wider lessons of Sedona, he asked his recent audience, “If you never had a bad day, what would a good day be?”

For at least four people who fell under the spell of James Arthur Ray, there will be no more days, good or bad or otherwise. Their only redemption lay in our repudiation of the Pied Piper they followed to their deaths.

9 comments:

Cosmic Connie said...

Excellent, Steve. I've shared this on Facebook on my own timeline and on some of the ex-GIN/ex-Kevin Trudeau fans' forums, e.g., GIN Network Truth. Trudeau, who is currently in prison, spoke up on behalf of Ray after the Sedona tragedy, saying Ray was being singled out because the government has it out for the self-help industry. And while he was in prison, Ray (or rather, his marketing machine) promoted Trudeau's big scam GIN. Scammers: they have each other's backs.

Steve Salerno said...

Great to see you on my blog, Connie! We've missed you (he says in his finest Royal We fashion). You've done a much more diligent job of staying on top of that whole Trudeau/GIN/net-marketing-scam miasma, and you deserve a world of credit for it. I single out Ray as a kind of follow-up to my ABC special, and because he (demonstrably) caused people to die (though it seems likely some of the others may have been responsible for deaths, too, including one fellow with medical pretensions who's a huge fan of yours, you shameless hussy!!)

(For those following along at home, who may not be familiar with some of Connie's travails, this is sort of an inside joke, though a not-very-funny one given what Connie has been put through over the past year.)

Anyway, I'll be curious to see how far Ray can take his comeback. I was stunned by some of the statements made in support of him in the Bloomberg piece--but no more stunned than I was by some of the quotes his Sedona fans gave Dan Harris, wherein they made it sound (one lady in particular) a little bit like the people who died simply weren't up to the challenge...they weren't sufficiently in touch with their warrior spirits. Craziness.

Anonymous said...

I recently had a "free telephone coaching" session from James Ray - and purchased a "Book", which was actually a pamphlet with some questions and a few lines of commentary. When I Stated my opinion, that it did not have any content and I was disappointed, he disclosed confidential information we had discussed in my coaching session and became completely irate at my finding his work less than acceptable. This self aggrandizing man has the conscience of an ant, and the ego of a Bull, he literally disclosed confidential information about me and our session out of anger at my "disappointment" over the "Book!", a complete overreaction The man clearly has a disproportionate reaction to life events when faced with any criticism and reverts to verbal abuse when confronted. I personally think this man is a danger to the community and others as a whole. I think the man has a mental disorder! I had been on the fence about past events, but this personal interaction left me with no doubt, the man has no conscience.

Steve Salerno said...

With regard to the experience reported by Anon (May 31) above: Although clearly there is no love lost between Mr. Ray and myself (or the self-help realm and myself), I am never fully comfortable with publishing reader complaints that make specific allegations about specific acts/improprieties committed by one of the gurus. It's one thing to say "Based on my experiences I think James Ray is a sleazeball," or even "I bought his book and I feel like I got hoodwinked," but it's another matter when one makes allegations such as those reported here by Anon (i.e. Ray's unethical disclosure of personal info...and to whom was it disclosed?). People will say all kinds of things when they're unhappy with a product or service (or unhappy with another human being), and obviously in any contentious situation, we tend to see the facts that support our own position. Through the years blog readers have written to complain to me that a given guru touched them inappropriately, made death threats against them and/or their loved ones, etc. So while I think Anon's complaint deserves a fair hearing, and it's certainly wise to be dubious about Ray's general sincerity, I urge readers to look at Anon's remarks in context. (Anon: That does not mean I think you're making this up! It just means what it says.)

Anonymous said...

James Arthur Ray deserves to be cooked to death, as he cooked his 3 followers in 2009. Death to James Ray!

Steve Salerno said...

I'm just the moderator, folks. But I can understand the extremity of emotion.

John Caruana said...

Dear Steve...

First, thank you for your article on the current activities of James Arthur Ray. I, for one, was unaware of them. Very well and passionately written.

Now, I'm asking you to contact Kirby Brown's mother Ginny Brown at: reply2ginny@hotmail.com. Also refer to the Seek Safely organization she is struggling to build (http://www.seeksafely.org/). I don't know how aware she is of Ray's current activities but I do know that she will want to stop him from having any new career built upon her daughter's death. Ginny is not a businesswoman or media specialist. Plus, she's getting older and has a husband with Parkinson's to take care of. She is, however, the greatest voice you can have in keeping Ray and his ilk under the rocks from which they crawled. Anything you can do to help her get her message of "seeking self-help but in a safe manner" would be greatly appreciated. A name, an email address...anything...

I have been a friend of Ginny's since 1965 and held a newborn Kirby in my arms. You have no idea how much grief this man has caused to good people. Please help her.

Thanks...

John Caruana {...the last name rhymes with the stuff Clinton said he didn't inhale...}
jjcaruana@gmail.com

Steve Salerno said...

John, thank you for weighing in. Ginny is well aware of Ray's post-incarceration activities and has been working actively to prevent Ray (and charlatans like him) from regaining the traction they had before Sedona. (Thankfully--small favors--Sedona did make a difference, not just for Ray but for for the magical-thinking hucksters as a class. So in that sense, the deaths were not in vain.) Ginny may not be a businessperson or a media specialist but she has gone above and beyond to get the word out. As you know, however, the media has a very short memory and an almost nonexistent attention span nowadays. In fact, Dan Harris--who collaborated with me on an hourlong ABC expose about Ray and the New Age--himself went to write a New Agey book on meditation. Bottom line, it takes a lot of money and almost superhuman energy to keep these things in the forefront.

Too bad Ray didn't come out as a transsexual; then CNN would be all over it.

What touching imagery: you holding the newborn Kirby in your arms. How especially personal this must be for you.

thunderheart said...

https://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100014535061697

the link above is a facebook page to discuss narcissist james ray on real time. This scammer, exploiter needs to be exposed.