Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Bonus enlightenment. Outtakes from my piece on James Ray.

UPDATE, Jan. 18... An email exchange this morning reminded me of one of the killing paradoxes of self-help Gurodom. Gurus from the exalted Tony Robbins on down to the exiled James Ray will claim wonders for their respective psychic regimens, citing client breakthroughs ranging from simply "getting unstuck" to wholesale personal transformations. And yet at the same time, these same gurus seldom talk about—and/or disclaim responsibility for—any adverse psychological reactions to their spiels. 

But consider, please: Wouldn't a thought system powerful enough to yield the psychic rebirths these guys promise also carry with it potentially devastating side effects, at least for some people? (As is also true of our most potent mental-health drugs.) Side effects like, say, a Colleen Conaway jumping to her death at a James Ray seminar? It's probably a good thing that so many of these programs don't work, that they're little more than time-wasting intellectual masturbation. Because the annals of transformational self-help already include enough stories of breakdowns and other forms of suddenly appearing dysfunction, up to and including suicides (aside from Conaway's). Thankfully most of the breakdowns were temporary. The suicides, alas, were permanent.

The balance of this post appeared originally on December 1, 2016.


Today Slate features my essay on James "Death" Ray* and CNN's Ray biopic Enlighten Us, which will now premiere Saturday, Dec. 3, as per the network. What follows is what I'd intended as a postscript to the piece. I can see why it was cut: Note to young writers, when you label something a postscript on a story that's already running long, it's your signal to your editor, "Cut this self-indulgent crap." I still think it makes interesting points, and the Bob Proctor connection is fun. Read the Slate piece first as a refresher course, then read this and let me know what you think. Also, please let me know if you "get" the allusion in the piece's inside title. My editor was dubious.

Proctor and Ray: Two peas in a fraud.

It bears noting that Ray's best-selling book, Harmonic Wealth: The Secret of Attracting the Life you Want, gave prominent play to a blurb from fellow Secret alum and self-described “metaphysician” Bob Proctor. Proctor is an eye-opening case study in his own right. After the economy tanked in 2008—thus signifying that the Universe had rebuffed a lot of those acquisitive vibes put out by Secret faithful—Proctor began offering his "11 Forgotten laws" download for the low, low price of $97. These were a set of pointers that Secret creator Rhonda Byrne had somehow overlooked...and it was a damned shame, too, because they just happened to contain the very knowledge without which the law of attraction remains stuck in neutral! That's what had gone wrong for all those poor Americans who lost their homes, cars, and credit ratings just two years after The Secret broke. But we digress.

In his fulsome blurb, Proctor says of Ray's book, “Harmonic Wealth is a classic. James Arthur Ray did not just write a book, he went out into the world and made it happen...”

It's a quote that not only drips with dark irony, given some of what Ray “made happen,” but that also reveals more than Proctor intended.

James Arthur Ray is Patient Zero in the cynicism, the narcissism, the utter lack of shame and responsibility at the heart [sic] of modern self-help and its “empowering” liturgy. He sold a philosophy in which selfishness masqueraded as empowerment—and, you see, the empowered person does not amicably abide detours along the path to his rightful place in the order of things. So it was with Ray himself. When Colleen Conaway fell from that balcony in San Diego, Ray could not abide a detour in his program. He could not abide consequences. Same with the sweat lodge. And now, in his legal gambit, he seeks to retrospectively undo the detour of Sedona and the 20 months he spent behind bars. For prison was not Ray's rightful destiny. His rightful destiny was Oprah and CNN specials and the red carpet that he walked at the Tribeca premiere of his film. As though he were Sly or Spielberg.

And the staggering magnitude of the hypocrisy. As one example, for all of Ray's rants about the power of the human spirit and celestial “vibes,” detectives investigating the Sedona episode found in his hotel room a suitcase full of performance-enhancing drugs including steroids, HGH and anti-aging potions. So if his customers needed only their warrior wills, Ray apparently needed a trove of pills. He sent his hopeful dupes out into the desert without food and water and insisted that they learn to harness the power of the mind; meanwhile, he went back to his suite and harnessed the power of something quite different.

Despite self-help's bubbly, non-serious public image, there is an ugliness at its core; danger lurks. In too many cases (especially among "no limits"/Empowerment types) it is a “belief system” constructed on notions that are antithetical to everything we teach our kids. It is a realm where winning is indeed the only thing, and how you play the game matters only insofar as its efficacy at animating that victory. What's more, the people in your orbit are mere props in this quest. They're expendable.

And as Proctor tells us, no one in self-help has done a better job of modeling this behavior than the master, James Arthur Ray himself. He is the proof of his curdled pudding.

* as the inimitable Salty Droid called him.


Jenny said...

Excellent work again, Steve.

Okay, my guess about the title "Like It Never Even Happened": While not specifically pointing to the horrific crimes committed by Death Ray, could you be alluding to the gaslighting we are seeing so much of, here especially in the post-election world?

For example: The Trump campaign’s war on reality made me question what I saw, by Ben Terris, which explores (among other things) the experience of reporter Michelle Fields and how despite eyewitness accounts and later video evidence shows she had been violently yanked by someone identified as "then Trump’s campaign manager," she was basically dismissed and later shamed for "overreacting." ("She was bruised and a bit rattled," Terris writes.)

Fields told Terris: “The Trump campaign did everything they could to get me to question my own reality. You don’t think that will ever happen to you, but it did.”

Terris goes on: "What worries Fields is that if Trump can get people to second-guess their own experiences, imagine how effective he can be convincing people who weren’t even there. It’s the kind of power that can get someone elected president."

Steve Salerno said...

Jenny, as usual you overestimate my intellectual reach, but thank you for thinking I was being really sly and cryptic.

No, the actual origin of the title is a lot more prosaic than that, but in its own downmarket way, meaningful I think. It is the slogan of a company called ServPro, that specializes in all sorts of heavy-duty clean-up projects in industry and elsewhere. They even do the likes of shotgun suicides (which makes it almost as gruesome a job as that facing Trump's press secretary). My editor at Slate didn't get it, either, till she Googled it, which surprised me because ServPro ads have been ubiquitous just about every place I've lived, and I've lived a bunch of places.

My (now obvious) point was that Ray is trying to clean up the grim events of Sedona such that it' it never even happened.

Cosmic Connie said...

Great work, Steve, both here and on the Slate piece. There are several false heroes and martyrs in the selfish-help industry (Kevin Trudeau being one of them -- going to prison just for daring to tell the truth!), but Ray's attempt to paint himself as heroic and martyred is one of the most revolting narratives ever in the entire history of the industry.

And as you (and Salty) noted, Proctor is a real piece work himself. I still get a lot of hits on a December 2008 post I wrote about his "11 Forgotten Secrets." But I think maybe people are misled by the post's title. ;-)

Anyway, good to see you blogging again, and it's good to read your work on other sites as well.

Steve Salerno said...

CosCon, you shameless harpy you. You've always got to work in some sort of sexual reference. I've heard about you, yanno... (wink)

Laurel VanWilligen said...

I get a kick out of Google Maps telling me when I get to my destination, “You have arrived.” I try not to let it go to my head.
I think people like Ray heard that message at some point in their trajectory and didn’t fight hard enough against it. These self-proclaimed ubermenschen seem to believe that whatever comes out of their minds/programs is golden and any criticism or inconvenient deaths should be overlooked as inconsequential weighed against all the otherworldly wisdom they’ve divulged.
I believe that sooner or later life smacks us in the face (if we haven’t already accepted it gracefully) with the fact that we’re not ‘all that’. Clearly Ray is setting himself up for a bigger smackdown still. Just hoping he doesn't cause any deaths next time around.
BTW Steve, I didn't get your allusion either. Too sly by half for me, I guess...