Self-help regulation: necessary safeguard, or Nanny-state nonsense?
Here's another post I've had in the hopper for a few months. It's one of those more "serious" pieces. Frankly, I'd rather be snarking, but once in a while I have to shed the snark-skin and join the larger conversation. So on a whim, I dragged this thing out of the archives, shook the dust off of it, threw in a few updates... and, well, here it is. The focus of this post is not on "new news"; rather, it is a summary of various perspectives on the James Arthur Ray sweat-lodge tragedy and the self-help industry at large. The big issue it addresses, in an admittedly circuitous fashion, is one that won't go away: whether or not the self-help biz should be regulated.
As I've done with previous lengthy offerings, I'll warn you right off that, well, this is long. Painfully long, maybe, almost like an LGAT session (except free, and you can leave whenever you want). I know that the sensible thing to do would be to break it into two or more parts, but I wanted to publish it all at once, since it is, in a sense, paving the way to a multi-part post I will be publishing soon. But hey, at least I divided it into sub-headed sections. You can just read it in bits and pieces if you want. Feel free to skip over the stuff you already know (but at least read the "'historical' perspective" section. You might find it interesting.).
And remember, if screen fatigue threatens to make you as blind as a Russian wish dolly, you can always draw an extra pair of eyeballs on your lids, or, better yet, print this thing out. Just circle the links that look interesting to you and follow 'em later.
In the wake of the infamous incident that has alternately been called Death Lodge, Sweatgate, and the beginning of the end of the self-help industry as we know it, there's a big question being bandied about: Should the self-help industry in the U.S. be regulated? If you have Libertarian or pro-business leanings you might frame the question like this: Is throwing more legislation at the problems going to fix them, or will more stringent oversight simply strangle the industry? In lieu of government regulations, should there simply be more self-policing?
These issues have been discussed in various ways on numerous other blogs and, increasingly, in the mainstream media, such as ABC's Nightline. CNN has tackled the matter too, one example being the link below regarding Deepak Chopra.
For a few who are involved in the industry – specifically, those who have engaged in online marketing scams – the question is moot because the party is pretty much over. The Federal Trade Commission's new disclosure requirements, implemented on December 1, 2009, have put a bit of a damper on deceptive online marketing, which, of course, has significant overlap into the self-help world, and not simply because most of the self-help gurus market their stuff online. There's also a "cultural overlap," if you will, as well, mostly in the form of some incestuous joint-venturing and cross-promoting. Also affecting some businesses were new credit card policies that became effective earlier this year. Thanks to those new regs, a few online scammers have had their merchant accounts canceled.
However, those new laws and policies were targeted to Internet marketing, not the stuff that goes on at week-long "spiritual" retreats. More than likely, none of the new initiatives would have prevented the tragedy at Sedona in October of 2009, the one in San Diego in July 2009, or any number of other deaths and injuries related to self-help events over the years.
In other parts of the world – Australia, for instance – there's a movement afoot to exert tighter controls on the multi-billion dollar self-help industry. If you've been hanging around some of the "critical" blogs for any length of time, you're probably familiar with the sad case of Rebekah Lawrence, whom I wrote about in September of 2009. Rebekah was a young Australian woman whose psychosis and resulting suicide in December 2005 have been linked to a Large Group Awareness Training (LGAT)/self-help program called The Turning Point. A couple of other suicides have also been linked to the same program. "Turning Point" seems an apt name, as the Rebekah Lawrence case, and the spotlight on those other tragedies, did indeed seem to mark a turning point in the way Australia deals with the self-help industry. Even before Sweatgate made world news, there was considerable buzz in Oz about stricter regulations and licensing requirements. (On the other hand, the Aussies are apparently not having a lot of luck pursuing a formal parliamentary inquiry into the Church of Scientology. The stumbling block is that CoS is an organized religion, and Australia has much the same reluctance as the US when it comes to the state interfering with religion.)
So what about the good old U.S. of A., the epicenter of selfish-help/New-Wage/McSpirituality?
Right off the bat, I know a few folks who will say, "Hell, yeah, Cosmic Connie, the self-help industry should be regulated! Where have you been for the past few months?" Well, I've been right here in front of my computer, and I know that many have spoken out for more controls. One of the most vocal is Terry Hall at the Bizsayer blog. Terry and his wife Amy, a former employee of James Ray International, arguably have more inside information on which to base their opinion than do many of the rest of us. Helping to put the reins on the dangerous aspects of the industry has pretty much become the Halls' mission in life. In a December 2009 post Terry makes a case for regulation, framing it in a discussion of the retrospectively disturbing "waiver" form that participants in the fatal Sedona event had to sign. He notes that such waiver forms are common in the industry.
(Here, by the way, is Terry's response to a detractor who apparently thinks Terry is just going to go away if James Ray is cleared.)
I think that at one point I may have exasperated Terry and perhaps some of my other allies by consistently expressing the opinion that the last thing we need are a bunch more rules, regulations, licensing requirements, and whatnot. Believe me, this opinion doesn't come from any lack of sympathy for the victims of self-help gurus, and certainly not from any sympathy for the victimizers. At any rate, in a comment he made this past January to my long James Ray post (comment #240, which may not show up on the initial screen), Terry wrote:
- It's interesting to see your shift about seminar regulation. The seminar/self-help industry is already subject to FTC guidelines and it has not prevented financial, emotional and physical harm to their customers.
- The Real Estate, Financial Services, Insurance, Contracting, Massage Industries have been licensed due to their propensity toward unethical business practices and behaviors which have caused harm to consumers and the general public.
- While licensing does NOT ensure the public is protected, it does provide a "code of ethics", "business standards & practices", "a barrier to entry", "a grievance process" and "stipulated recourse for violations" which serves to protect consumers from charlatans.
- The $11,000,000,000 self-help & personal growth industry, in my mind has proven that it will not "self-regulate" and continue to take everything it can, including human life from their customers.
- Thank you for your thoughtful comment, Terry. Actually I haven't shifted on my position (not yet, anyway); being the quasi-Libertarian I am, my first tendency is to advocate freedom of information rather than more laws and restrictions.
Am I being too idealistic? Maybe. It is one of the questions I've been weighing since long before the James Ray debacle came to light. On the one hand, there is the prospect of a "Nanny State," which I find a bit unsettling. How far are we prepared to go to protect people from their own choices?
On the other hand, I realize that consumers aren't necessarily making *informed* choices when they sign up for an event and aren't told ahead of time exactly what will occur during that event. (The waivers that participants are made to sign don't count.)
I also realize that businesses have a tendency to try to get away with anything they can get away with in order to make a profit. Sometimes it does seem that it takes a heavy hand to keep this impulse in check, to prevent people from being scammed or physically harmed, and to give victims some recourse.
So I can certainly understand why many people think there should be more regulation of the self-help industry. I'm just not prepared at this point to say the government should put a stranglehold on the industry.
I think the issue is further complicated by the fact that so many of the gurus deal in the realm of the spiritual as well as more mundane areas such as, say, finances and fitness. So I wonder if freedom-of-religion issues would come into play. [Kind of like the problems that Australia is currently facing with the Church of Scientology. ~CC]
The issues are complex and I am open to more discussions about this. And I want you to know, Terry, that I respect what you and Amy are trying to accomplish, and it looks to me as if you are both motivated by a desire to help people.
On the other hand, another vocal advocate of regulating the self-help industry is the (in)famous Deepak Chopra, who seems to be more interested in protecting his turf than in protecting consumers. That's how it looks to me, anyway. My sense is that he feels that because he is an M.D., he would be insulated from any attempts to clip *his* wings. Never mind that in the opinion of many other M.D.s (and other folks as well), he is pushing an insidious form of pseudoscience...
Anyway, thanks for weighing in on this important issue.
When thinking about Chopra and other industry insiders who might possibly be in favor of more regulation, I wondered if more regulations might possibly have some unintended consequences for consumers as well as speakers or workshop leaders who might not have the "proper" credentials, licenses, or whatever (or, more realistically, the money or desire to join all of the "proper" organizations). Although the analogy is far from perfect, I couldn't help thinking of the recent discussion over IRS plans to regulate and control tax preparers in the U.S. Of that issue one blogger wrote:
Unsurprisingly, major industry incumbents have voiced their support for the new policy, because it will mean that they “won't be competing against people who aren't regulated”. Caught between increasingly burdensome taxes and IRS prohibitions on alternative services, taxpayers will have little choice but to do business with them.
Ah, the Iron Triangle between regulators, established interests, and consumers. Guess who gets the pointy end?
As I said, the analogy isn't perfect, but it's something to think about.
It's easy to vilify Mr. Ray, however, the consequences of his actions are now in the hands of the judicial system... but what of the REST of the self-help "industrial complex?" I respectfully submit that we (consumers and producers of self-help) establish the Association of Self-Help Professionals or whatever name seems most appropriate to elevate the professional and protect the public. All that is lacking now is the motivation and leadership. If you consider yourself a self-help expert OR if you are a consumer of self-help products, I urge you to consider working together to turn the Sedona Sweat Lodge deaths into a legacy that salutes the work of the earliest self-help experts like Napoleon Hill, Norman Vincent Peale and Dale Carnegie, honors the efforts of well-intentioned, self-help professionals of today and turns the deaths of those who died in the Sweat Lodge... Liz Neuman, Kirby Brown and James Shore into a legacy for the betterment of the self-help profession and society.
On the discussion on Abel Pharmboy's blog, Salty Droid responded:
@DrCurtis :: I echo your cry that this incident be used to cast a harsh light on the "self help" "industry" as a whole. But I wonder if the underlying science is objective enough to keep an association from becoming a part of the problem over time. Bernie Madoff as the head of NASDAQ comes to mind. Associations have a dangerous tendency to become cartels.
On a discussion on his own blog (here's the link to the post, and you seriously need to check out his video on that post, if you haven't already), the Droid responded to an "absolutely nameless" detractor who seemed to be the same one who had made some snide and nebulously threatening comments on the blog previously. "Nameless" told Droid to "show some 'nads" and either come out and say James Ray is guilty of first-degree murder, or shut the f--k up. (This discussion took place before James was officially charged and arrested.) Droid responded that it is clear that James will not be prosecuted of first-degree murder, so that point is moot, and he is not going to shut up, because...
I’m much more interested in showing how this was a long term pattern of abuse :: how it was just business as usual. The public deaths were an above average mistake :: but they only serve to illustrate how dangerous and horrible the situation with ConMen has become.
Of course, showing “nads” on that subject will be super bad for all the other “gurus” :: because they would like nothing more than to label Death Ray [an] aberrant bad apple. But that’s not the case. He’s just one of many cogs in a sick machine.
And Droid is busily and happily attempting to deconstruct that machine even as I write this. It is a rare and wondrous thing to see a blogger who loves his work as much as the Droid does.
Defending the faith
Everybody and his or her dog knows by now that James Ray's defense team has been very busy, as evidenced by these "white papers" that were released to the public earlier this year. In case you and your dog missed it, here's the link to White Paper No. 1 and here's the link to No. 2. From the beginning it all sounded like "number two" to most of us. Nevertheless the legal eagles did their job with great care, meticulously painting James as a hero of personal growth and all of his followers as strong, educated, capable people who knew exactly what they were getting into and willingly did so. If anyone was to blame for the terrible accident, it was those awful folks who built that darn sweat lodge. Of course, as we now know, the whitewash papers didn't prevent James from being charged on three counts of reckless manslaughter for the Sedona tragedy.
While James Ray's defense and PR teams are doing their lawyer-ly and spinny stuff, and James himself continues his own bizarre nattering on Twitter, his colleagues in the self-help biz are still, for the most part, reticent. Although a few of his close associates and fans have steadfastly defended him and continue to do so, and beleaguered Aussie Secret star David Schirmer said early on that he is in James' corner, the silence among most of his colleagues has been deafening. With the exception of Deepak Chopra, who made the dubious claim that he'd never really, truly heard of James Ray before Sweatgate, very few in the top tier of the New-Wage/selfish-help/McSpirituality industry have made any public statements about the matter. Most who have made public utterances have been as neutral (and yawn-inducing) as possible. Bob Proctor, for example, who was one of James' earlier mentors, said James is basically a good person who is dedicated to helping people, adding that he, Bob, hopes James will learn from the experience. (See what I mean? Yawn. Here's the link to the article quoting Scientist Bob.)
Several people have mentioned that so far there seems to be no official statement from the gurus' secret society, the Transformational Leadership Council (TLC), of which James Ray was a founding member. (I briefly visited the TLC when they were in Bermuda in July 2009, and mentioned them again in January of 2009 when discussing the New-Wage kinky-sex experiments of one of their esteemed members.) While there may be no public statement from the TLC, though, James Ray's name is no longer listed on the appropriate "Members in Good Standing" page.
The discretion among the gurus is understandable, of course. While I'm sure that most of them would say they simply have better things to do with their time than focus on negative stuff, my take on it is that it's good old professional courtesy, and it's good business too. They want to keep all of their options open. If James is completely cleared of any wrongdoing, those who have any sort of joint-venture deals or cross-promotional schemes with him will want to get back to business as usual as quickly as possible. Should a genuine backlash against the current wave of self-help criticism arise as a result of James being cleared, he could end up being the poster martyr – a true hero in gurudom – and they'll all want a piece of that. I know many of y'all think such a scenario is unlikely, and you may be right, but I'm not ruling out any possibility at this point. If he is convicted, then the gurus can officially cut all of their ties with him and either denounce him or just pretend he never existed. If he isn't convicted of criminal charges but has to spend the rest of his life and all of his resources defending civil suits, and is no longer a "player" in the New-Wage biz, they can still turn the page on him and forget he ever happened. For now, it's really better for them all around if they just sit on the fence.
But not everyone has been silent or even particularly discreet. A few apologists have shifted out of neutral, declaring that both the mainstream media and blogopshere critics have seriously overreacted to the tragedies. Sweatgate, some of these apologists claim, was just one isolated example in a basically benign industry. Well, okay, it was one of two examples, if you count the Colleen Conaway suicide at a James Ray wealth event in San Diego in July of 2009. Or...well, all right... it was one of maybe a few examples, if you count the broken bones and other injuries suffered by others during exercises at various James Ray events. (Naturally, all of those unfortunate events are neatly 'splained away in the aforementioned "white papers," and I'm sure the defense team is honing their 'splanations as I write this.)
I admit to a certain annoyance myself at some of the mainstream media for hammering away at this matter. But that's mainly because some of the same media outlets that expressed such shock and outrage over Sweatgate were the very same ones who provided a platform – essentially, free publicity – for James Ray and his colleagues for years, particularly after The Secret became such a hit. But I suppose I should keep in mind that the news divisions are more about ratings than about taking a stand, to say nothing of a consistent stand. ("Just like you, you incoherent, illogical little mosquito," I hear at least one of you muttering to me.)
Some defenders of the self-help industry claim that the critics are illogically arguing that because people died at James Ray events, all self-help is dangerous or destructive, and therefore the entire industry needs to be eradicated. Although in my opinion such an argument would indeed be illogical, the truth is that very few if any critics are actually saying they think we should do away with the industry entirely, and throw the baby out with the bathwater, as it were. That is simply a straw man that enables some self-help apologists to more easily dismiss or demonize the critics.
As for the notion that the James Ray-induced tragedy is an aberration, well, see Droid's "sick machine" quotation above.
Going back in time: a little "historical" perspective
I think it's important to remember that at least some of those who have staunchly refused to criticize James Ray, or have even halfway defended him, are veterans of the untamed era of the early human potential movement. Long ago, though not so very far away, before the Internet and smart phones (yes, before cell phones, even!), some really crazy stuff was going on. Those were the days before est became The Forum and then the Landmark Forum, and the anything-goes formats of various encounter groups were shocking the buttoned-down world.
Although numerous bloggers and mainstream journalists have written about the casualties of those early encounter-group days (particularly those associated with the ever-controversial est), I have a feeling that some people, particularly younger ones, still fail to realize how jaded these experiences might have made some of today's defenders of the faith. To some who lived through those wild times and participated in their share of wacko workshops, the techniques and exercises utilized by James Ray and others like him can be summarized in three words: No. Big. Deal.
But it's not just a generational thing; the same NBD attitude seems to exist among some younger participants in "experiential" workshops and other events that have sprung up in more recent years. To those who are into "extreme" activities, a New-Wage retreat utilizing potentially hazardous techniques is nothing to get hysterical about. And although I would like to believe that none of the older encounter-group veterans or younger workshop participants dismiss the Sedona or San Diego deaths as NBD, I suspect some of them think that participant injuries at an LGAT event aren't all that extraordinary. It's all simply part of experiencing life "full-on," as James Ray himself (in)famously liked to say. Yes, you might break your arm or shatter your skull or accidentally end your life. But if you survive, you just might have a breakthrough.
A couple of months ago I was re-reading a story that reminded me of all this stuff. Although I've snarked many times about Joe "Mr. Fire" Vitale, I have enjoyed several of his books, including Adventures Within: Confessions Of An Inner-World Journalist, which he self-published through the print-on-demand company AuthorHouse in 2003. Adventures Within is sort of a spiritual autobiography, and I find it noteworthy for Joe's frankness about his early life as well as his personal insights into various LGAT and cultish organizations. To me it seems a far more honest work than some of his later books and many of his current writings.
In a chapter titled, "The Orange Blossom Train Ride (and Crash) of Rajneesh," Joe writes about his experiences as a disciple of the late guru, Bhaghwan Shree Rajneesh (later known as "Osho"). As you're no doubt aware, to call Rajneesh controversial would be erring very much on the side of understatement. A flamboyant Indian (of the Eastern variety) who owned not one, not two, but one-hundred Rolls-Royces, give or take a few, Rajneesh was easily one of the most notorious spiritual leaders of the 1980s. Even today, twenty years after his death, he has a worldwide following. As a matter of fact, one of the most vocal relatives of one of James Ray's Sedona victims has been known to quote from "Osho" on his Twitter page.
During the more than seven years that Joe Vitale followed Bhagwan, he ran Bhagwan's Houston meditation center, visited Bhagwan twice when the guru was in Oregon, attended some of his discourses, and arranged major publicity events for him in Texas. He writes that he became interested in Bhagwan's work while he was living in Houston and working as a truck driver in the late 1970s. (Yes, I know he says he was homeless on the streets of Dallas in the late 1970s, but perhaps that was the earlier late 1970s. On some of his sites he says he was homeless on the streets of Houston. I have just plain given up on trying to keep all of the stories straight. But that doesn't matter for the purposes of this story.) Joe writes that he received his official welcome-to-the-fold letter from Bhagwan, along with his new disciple name, Swami Anand Manjushri, in September of 1979. He used his disciple name in various capacities for years, even publishing his first book, Zen and the Art of Writing, under the name Manjushri Joseph Vitale.
Like most chapters in Adventures Within, the Rajneesh chapter is divided into sub-headed sections. In the section titled, "Broken Arms, Bloody Noses," Joe describes some of the intensive and extreme experiences to which Bhagwan's followers were subjected. There was, for example, the extraordinarily strenuous hour-long "Dynamic Meditation" that included a lot of maniacal jumping around, screaming, and the like. The days-long "encounter" groups were even more grueling, and offered a hefty dose of what most of us would view as extreme physical and psychological abuse. Joe writes:
Bhagwan's groups became known for their no-holds approach to growth. He attracted some of the most respected therapists in the world, people from Esalen and England, Switzerland and Germany, and Bhagwan gave these leaders freedom. The encounter groups were often so intense that arms were broken. Yet no one -- that I know of -- ever complained. They willingly signed up for the groups and, scared as they might be, willingly went through them.
Emotional and even sexual abuse were not uncommon either in the land of the Rajneeshees. Joe goes on to describe an "intensive" he attended at the Rajneesh meditation center in Austin. He didn't get any broken bones but did suffer a bad nosebleed while watching a new disciple be humiliated in front of the attendees by the group's facilitator.
The new guy was on all fours in front of the room, bare-chested, and two big men physically restrained him while the leader taunted him. The leader said, "Your wife slept with two other men last night. How does that make you feel?" (Rajneesh's groups were infamous for encouraging promiscuous sex, which was one reason Rajneesh was sometimes called "the sex guru.") As the hapless man struggled to free himself, the leader called for the two men who had allegedly slept with the disciple's wife to come up to the front of the room. They did, and the leader continued to taunt the man, asking him, "What do you want to do?" The disciple answered, "I want to f----g kill YOU!" and he lunged at the leader, but his captors held him firmly in place. The leader encouraged him to "feel the anger" and let it go through him. The man groaned and screamed and howled like a wolf, and finally he collapsed. "My nose was bleeding now," Joe writes. "We all watched as the disciple cried and cried. It was pitiful."
Yet he adds that as tragic and insane as it sounded, the guy was transformed, "feeling better and looking happier" after the incident. Joe writes that the disciple needed to "dump his pain about his wife's infidelity before he could relax." (All of which just raises the question of whether there would have been any infidelity in the first place were it not for the sexually-charged environment of Rajneeshee culture.)
Joe describes other incidents as well, such as watching while the meditation center's leader masturbated an attractive female disciple as about thirty other disciples sat in a circle around her. Since the female disciple was fully clothed, Joe at first thought the leader was doing some kind of "energy work" on her. Turns out he was right. He says that Bhagwan and his group leaders encouraged people to act on their impulses, whatever those might be. Joe writes, "This sort of freedom of expression, as you can imagine, got a lot of disciples in trouble." But he adds, "Despite the insanity in these groups, sanity was usually the result of them. In a paradoxical way the madness led to peace."
He explains that encounter groups "were popular in the sixties and are still done today," adding, "But none of them gave such complete freedom – nearly a license to kill – as did the groups sanctioned by Bhagwan." Joe wrote that despite his flaws Bhagwan was a "super-psychologist" and that there was "an overall divine purpose for going through such intense encounter groups." He adds, "After all, Hemingway said a broken arm is stronger after it's healed. And lord knows I was able to breathe better after the blood came out of my nose." No word on what the long-term effects were for that hapless disciple, though. One wonders if this man or his marriage became stronger as a result of his being cuckolded by his wife and then humiliated in a room full of people by the leader of the Bhagwan group.
Of course, all of this took place a very long time ago, perhaps before some of the people reading this blog post were even born. Joe is no longer a Rajneeshee and has not been one for many years. He had been out of the group a few years at the time I met him. In Adventures Within, Joe writes that although he maintained his love for his guru even during the time Rajneesh's organization was being accused of embezzlement, sexual misconduct, political misdeeds, and even bioterrorism, he did eventually become disillusioned. He thinks Rajneesh was a genuine teacher with a sincere desire to serve, but let his ego get the better of him. "He put himself in a dangerous position – many would hate him, many would love him – but his life would never be ignored. Or forgotten," Joe writes. He says he is grateful that he wasn’t more involved with him; many folks left their families and work, sold all their possessions, and completely redirected their lives in order to be with Bhagwan.
In Adventures Within, Joe also has an interesting chapter about his experience with The Forum, the kinder, gentler version of est. As in the Bhagwan chapter, he describes intensive encounters during the long weekends of the course. At the end of the chapter he says he's glad he took The Forum but would not recommend it to his readers, for several reasons. He explains that too much time and energy were devoted to aggressive upselling and warns that you should "be prepared for a snow job" if you go to one of their introductory sessions. (I know: the grousing about upselling is a bit ironic coming from one of the reigning princes of upselling, but there you are.) He says that the whole thing seemed too random and wasn't all that effective (pp. 115-117 in Adventures Within). Keep in mind that he wrote this in the early 1990s. I believe that was before Landmark bought out the company and Erhard pretended to go away entirely (yes, I'm one of many who believe Erhard still has a few fingers in the pie, particularly since his little brother, Harry Rosenberg, heads up Landmark Forum these days).
As for Joe, his more recent opinions of The Forum seem to be on the positive side. On the promo page for his republished edition of a 1970s work, The Book of est, Joe writes, "I did The Forum and endorse it today. But it's no est." The implication is that it isn't as effective as est, but I'll leave it to you to figure out exactly what he means. Or he can write a comment here and explain it himself. Maybe he does endorse the Landmark version of The Forum today, which seems determined to distance itself from the icky side of Erhard (though the Landmark folks are not above giving some credit to him for setting the foundation so many years ago). Maybe the caveats Joe wrote in Adventures Within only apply to the version of The Forum that he took nearly twenty years ago. However, that version was closer in spirit to Erhard's est than is the modern incarnation, and Joe wrote that he didn't particularly like it...and yet he now seems to be praising est and Erhard on the sales page for The Book of est... and oh, goodness, my brain is hurting again.
Flashing forward to much more recent events, Joe hasn't gone out of his way to publicly defend James Ray, whom he has referred to as a friend on numerous occasions on his blog (mainly by virtue of their being in The Secret together), but he has not publicly spoken out against him either. And he has been a bit snippy on his blog at the mention of Sweatgate. Like most of his colleagues in the top tiers of the industry, he seems to be taking the "let's reserve judgment" tack.
All appearances to the contrary, the point of telling those stories isn't to pick on Joe. I've picked on him plenty on this blog, some say unfairly, but that's not the purpose here. Joe's experience with Bhagwan, and for that matter with The Forum, are but two examples of many similar tales of long-time seekers. And that's my point: After hundreds and hundreds of hours of workshops and seminars, of trying one breakthrough technique or spiritual path or LGAT training after another after another, many people do have a tendency to accept as normal what many other folks would think of as pretty disturbing. Crazy becomes the new normal.
This is not to excuse anyone who uses LGAT techniques or any kind of persuasion or manipulation to harm others, of course; it is merely an attempt to explain how some people's attitudes may have been formed. And I think it only fair for me to add that many long-time observers/critics have also developed a certain nonchalance about the wackiness that prevails in the New-Wage world. This is particularly true of those of us who have participated in LGATs ourselves at some time in the past. In fact, I'll even go so far as to say that before Sweatgate, I was pretty complacent regarding what I thought I knew about what really goes on in these events. (I won't presume to analyze other critics' complacency/jadedness or lack thereof; I can only speak for myself.) As I've discussed here before, I've always more or less had the attitude that most of the self-help stuff is more silly or annoying than harmful. That's why Sweatgate took me somewhat by surprise.
And that's why I'm always interested in the perspectives of those who, viewing these issues with fresh eyes, are utterly appalled by some of the things that even I took for granted. Cassandra Yorgey, for example, got a bit of flak for expressing shock about the detailed and intimate questionnaires that James Ray's Spiritual Warrior participants had to answer. She wrote about it on October 29 and October 30, 2009. I'm sure that many people who have participated in or have any extensive knowledge of LGATs might think there's nothing terribly out of the ordinary about this or similar questionnaires. (I still intend to write a post about my own LGAT experiences, but the passing mention in this 1996 piece (under "What I did with a bunch of strangers in a hotel") will have to do for now.)
But really, the sex questionnaires do seem pretty smarmy, particularly in light of what apparently goes on behind the scenes with some of these New-Wage gurus. Even some people who are veterans of the self-help industry agreed with Cassandra, e.g., Andrea de Michaelis, publisher of the Florida New-Age magazine Horizons. In response to Cassandra's October 29 post (October 31, 9:45 AM) Andrea wrote, "No responsible teacher brings up anyone's shame-based, especially sexual issues in an unprotected setting, period."
Given that criterion, it seems there have been an awful lot of irresponsible "teachers" in the business over the years. Here's an example of James Ray being irresponsible with a Harmonic Wealth Weekend participant who had money and grief issues. This seems wrong on so many levels that I don't even know where to begin. But it does remind me of how much has not changed since my own LGAT days.
And yet much has changed over the years. We live in a culture that is more sensitive to things that were more or less taken for granted not so long ago, and our laws and policies reflect this. For example, it almost used to be a rite of passage for young guys to have a fling with an older woman, even — gasp! – a hot young teacher. Today that teacher would be hauled up on charges of sexual abuse of a minor. It would be the top story on the local or even the national news, and the teacher would almost certainly lose her job. More relevant to this post: although encounter groups were certainly controversial in the 1960s and '70s, there was still a certain degree of acceptance of them in the larger society. Maybe it's more accurate to say they were ignored, for the most part, or not taken all that seriously, since they were so non-mainstream at the time. Human potential/self-help hadn't reached a critical mass in our culture. Today, if something bad happens at a seminar and it gets publicized, it's more likely to get lots of negative attention from the media.
Of course, cooking people to death in a sweat lodge, or watching an event participant jump off a balcony and then trying to cover it up, are pretty awful things by yesterday's and today's standards.
Caught between two worlds...
Despite the silence among most of the upper-tier self-help gurus, there are a few people – I guess you could call them the working grunts of the self-help industry – who cut James Ray no slack, such as Michael Port, author of the Think Big blog. In a January post he wrote, "This is not the first time a narcissistic sociopath with a god-complex has lead people to their deaths and unfortunately it won't be the last time." He also writes about how he sometimes feels caught between two worlds....
...the world of traditional, time-honored medical and psychological practices and the world of ontology or the study of being, existence, from a philosophical and personal development perspective. At times these worlds are at odds and at other times they are aligned. I grew up in a psychologically-minded home. As I mentioned above, my father is a Psychiatrist. My mother is also a mental health professional, a Clinical Social Worker, who specializes in early childhood development with almost as many years experience working with psychologically, physically and sexually abused children. My parents operate with a degree of integrity I rarely see displayed elsewhere. I imagine, it's one of the reasons that I'm so upset by what happened in Sedona.
Maybe a lot of it comes back down to the question of whether or not self-help gurus are practicing therapy – or even medicine, in some cases – without a proper license. Michael Port points out that the mental-health professions are regulated because they mess with people's minds. Since so many of the self-help gurus do the same, shouldn't they be subject to stricter oversight?
Much more in-your-face than Michael Port is motivational/sales expert and author Grant Cardone, who threw some potshots at James Ray on the Huffington Post web site a few weeks after the sweat lodge tragedy took place. He wrote that he'd met James at his (Grant's) home in San Diego seven years ago when James was still trying to break into the seminar bidness. According to Grant, he warned James...
"Don't confuse me with some of the guys out there. I teach valid measurable business skills that can be transferred. We teach companies sales skills and best practices and implement measurable processes for the company. We don't do fire walks, board breaking, trust walks, or use tricks to sign people up...Guys that do these things are not experts at anything and harm people by giving them illusions of power with no valid improvement in skills." Now, I sort of have to take this tale with a grain of salt, especially since Grant seems a bit on the hustledorky side,and I am being kind here. Of course, his area of expertise is sales of high-end items such as cars, so hustledorkiness kind of comes with the territory. He certainly doesn't seem to be above performing fear-conquering gimmicks himself, such as eating fire, but apparently he doesn't make his seminar participants do it (though he does seem to love "Eat the fire!" as a metaphor). Still, I have to agree with his conclusion about James Ray and his ilk.
What these individuals [such as James Ray] provide is certainly impressionable, but not transferable. Experiential and memorable, absolutely, but unusable[.] [O]n Monday when the seminar is over, if you live through it, it's gone. These guys aren't gurus, but frauds who are short on valid teachable material that is applicable in the real world and will resort to anything and everything to electrify the audience, creating a false sense of power and making it easier to sign them up for future events.One obvious point here is that people such as Michael Port and Grant Cardone are not in the top echelon of the self-help/motivational industry, and arguably don't have nearly as much to lose by throwing James Ray under the bus as, say, Bob Proctor or Joe Vitale. But it is precisely for that reason that they have more license, if you will, to speak their minds. So I think they're worth listening to, even if in some cases their own agenda to promote their products and services is...well...searingly obvious.
"Outsiders" with "inside information"
For those who don't want to listen to someone who has a dog in the self-help hunt, there are journalists and commentators who, though on the critical side of the fence, have some interesting things to say about the industry. Start with the aforementioned Steve Salerno, author of SHAM: How The Self-Help Movement Made America Helpless. (And by the way, Steve just completed a three-part piece on SHAMblog about The Landmark Forum. Here's the link to Part 1. I think that the discussions following the posts are as interesting in their own way as the posts themselves.) Or try Barbara Ehrenreich, who tackles the positive-thinking movement in her book, Bright-Sided: How The Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America. Both Steve and Barbara tend to take a more serious view than I do about the insidiousness of the self-help/positive-thinking culture.
If you want the perspective of someone who is more spiritually oriented than many of the critics but still has no patience for hustledorks, my own Rev Ron (who, by the way, coined the word "hustledork") has published a blog post about James Ray's possible pathology. Ron doesn't think that more regulations are necessarily the answer, and here's his reason:
I don't propose establishing a system of strict regulation to oversee the self-help industry, mostly because it wouldn't work. Remember: You can't idiot-proof the system; they'll just come up with better idiots! The scammers would simply find ways to work around the rules, and their marks would just rationalize that some malevolent "they" are trying to deny humanity of its birthright. If you doubt the second statement, just go to your favorite "guru's" website and compare the bold-headline promises with the fine-print (and frequently difficult to find) disclaimer statement. What you'll find is a deft volley, in response to the FTC's latest serve. And if you're willing to lend as much credence to the former as you are willing to put "faith" in the latter, there's little chance you'll be hoodwinked, wounded, or even killed.
Above it all?
Since we've been discussing the various attitudes that may ultimately help determine future policy or legislation, no discussion would be complete without a nod to those who scoff at the selfish-help/New-Wage industry but also look down their noses at the victims for being weak or stupid or gullible. The categorically unsympathetic seem to be in the minority, but were quite assertive in the time immediately following the breaking of Sweatgate. There are a few October 2009 posts on the Belch.com site that, out of respect for the victims and their families, I'm not going to link to here. You can look them up.
Blogger/law professor Ann Althouse is another person who wrote that she just couldn't understand how people could be so "stupid" as to stay in the sweat lodge when things were clearly going wrong. In a post written two weeks after the tragedy happened, she wrote, "...50 people can push one man out of the way. As they should have done, after the first hurl."
While I admit I have gotten a chuckle at some of the Belch.com blogger's other posts that so clearly portray his impatience with the human species in general, I have to say I wasn't amused at all by the James Ray posts. As for Ann Althouse, I can only hope she's modified her views somewhat since more information has come to light, but, judging from a more recent and very succinct post, I tend to think that neither she nor most of her readers have wasted much energy on compassion for anyone involved in this tragedy.
People who lack sympathy for victims of New-Wage gurus or other persuasive leaders overlook the fact that any one of us could be susceptible to coercive persuasion techniques under the right circumstances. I think Cassandra Yorgey did a fine job of summarizing this topic as it relates to the James Ray tragedies. It has also been discussed at length on the James Ray thread on the Rick Ross forum. That thread is nearly 80 pages long as I write this, but if you haven't been following it, here's a pretty good place to start, and then you can go forward or backward as you wish.
Those with a really personal stake
However you may feel about the wisdom – or folly – of more oversight of the self-help industry, it's difficult to ignore the pleas of the families of James Ray's victims. The family of Kirby Brown, one of the first two who died from the Sedona sweat lodge, has created a foundation in her name to explore regulation of the self-help industry. The site presents a pretty balanced view, all things considered:
There is value in this industry, and experts in it who genuinely have something to offer in a safe and responsible way. However, there are others in the industry who abuse the platform they have created, simply for their own gain. In seeking their own ends, they exploit their customers and even put these customers in danger, using psychological techniques they are not certified in, therapeutic treatments they are not trained in, and orchestrating dangerous physical challenges without proper safeguards in place.
Some claim that the victims of self-help fraud are weak. But anyone who knows Kirby knows she was far from weak. Many experts on the issue note that it is not just "weak" people who can become victims of this type of fraud. All types of people from all different backgrounds are susceptible. The issue is complicated, too, by the fact that the mainstream media can legitimize these fraudulent members of the self-help industry, simply by giving them the opportunity to promote themselves.
There is a great need for far more scrutiny on this industry, by both the public and the government. These people are breaking laws that already exist. It is very likely, though that there is also a gap in public policy to adequately regulate this industry. Our goal now is to bring attention to this issue, and call for some action--both in applying existing legal protections to the industry and developing new ways to help protect people from this type of fraud and recklessness.
Others who were deeply affected have spoken out in their own way. Among the most recent to raise his voice is Bryan Neuman, the son of one of the Sweatgate victims, Liz Neuman. He has been a participant on Salty Droid's blog for a while, and more recently has made some poignant and pointed remarks on Twitter, mostly in response to James Ray's own seemingly insensitive tweets. James is getting a lot of angry responses to those tweets, by the way, and seems to be responding to some of them in a rather passive-aggressive manner. (I know: big surprise that a New-Wage guru would be passive aggressive.)
Back to the issue at hand...
Since this post has gone on more than long enough, I'll just bring it back to the original question (I warned you it might be circuitous): Should the self-help industry be regulated more than it is under existing laws? If you think it should be, what does "regulation" mean? Many people agree that there should be more safeguards in place, but exactly what are proper safeguards?
On the other hand, do you think that we might be opening up another can of worms, and running some genuinely good and well-meaning folks out of business (or preventing some from even going into business in the first place), by trying to impose new rules and regulations on yet another industry? Is calling for more regulations on the self-help biz paving the way to more government control of everything that every one of us does, says, or publishes?
Arizona blogger Trudy W. Schuett, publisher of the AZ Rural Times blog, summed up the quandary pretty well in a January 2010 post:
I think what would be called for if this industry were to be regulated in any way would require, ironically enough, not only the wisdom of Solomon but also a crystal ball to identify potential difficulties, while not impinging on the autonomy of the individual’s right to his or her beliefs. [Yep, there's that freedom-of-religion issue again. ~CC] There will always be people who are looking for shortcuts to wealth or spiritual growth, and unscrupulous providers of same. It may not even be possible to determine who those unscrupulous individuals and groups are before they cross the line into causing harm and breaking laws.
I still lean towards Libertarian-ish views myself (I'm stubborn that way). I think Ron's quotation above pretty much summarizes how I feel. But I can definitely see Terry and Amy Hall's points about some issues, particularly the need for full advance disclosure about events, so people can know ahead of time what they're getting themselves into. (Actually, even Terry says he is pretty much Libertarian-ish for the most part.)
On the issue of transparency and disclosure, Salty Droid, in his usual "fabulously hilarious" manner, gets right to the point on his March 9, 2010 post. He contrasts what the Spiritual Warrior participant guide – sent out by James Ray in July 2009 – actually said about the event...
Keep in mind that we will be working diligently to make this event memorable. For this reason, it is important that we do not disclose any further information regarding the event schedule or planned activities. However, we will tell you that it is going to be an exciting, unforgettable, and transformational week!
...with what it perhaps should have said:
Keep in mind that previous iterations of this event led to dreadful calamity and serious injury. Broken bones, broken bank accounts, brain damage, and long term health problems are all previously encountered outcomes. It is also important to note that nothing new will be learned, and that your guru for this event has not been trained in ANYTHING … EVER. He’s just a douche bag salesman with his own serious mental health issues. However, we will tell you that some people are going to die during this event … and it just doesn’t get any more transformational than that!
There's a lively discussion on that one, too. Naturally.
Even absent licensing requirements for anything marginally related to the personal growth industry, it seems clear that at the very least, consumers would benefit from more transparency regarding gurus' and coaches' credentials and qualifications, and certainly from more transparency about what to expect during a workshop or retreat. As a guest blogger on Terry Hall's Bizsayer blog wrote in February of this year:
Every professional field has the burden of being marred by idiots within that field....Hence: licensure. Even so, there are licensed idiots out there causing havoc in people’s lives. So I wonder sometimes if it is really possible to fully regulate any field that claims to help others. Ultimately, people will have to regulate themselves when they sign up for an experience (whether it is free or they are paying an obscene $9000+). But how can they do that without FULL DISCLOSURE? Doesn’t seem the attendees of JRI have full disclosure, nor did they receive their “waiver” in a timely manner!
Amen. I'm just not so sure we should get the government deeply involved. In any case, I really am interested in all opinions about this issue.
Meanwhile, I wish peace and healing – and justice – for the families of Kirby Brown, James Shore, Liz Neuman, Colleen Conaway... and anyone else whose lives have been torn by the actions of James Ray or any other selfish-help gurus.