Another moment of silence
Today, October 17, is the one-year anniversary of the passing of Liz Neuman, James Arthur Ray's third victim from the Sedona sweat lodge. Liz, who had been a faithful follower of Ray for more than seven years, suffered multiple organ damage and lay comatose for nine days in a Flagstaff, Arizona hospital, until her family finally made the wrenching decision to disconnect her from life support. In those nine days she didn't receive a single visit from Ray, who had claimed to be her friend. She had no ID on her at the time she was admitted to the hospital, so she was admitted as a Jane Doe. Her family learned of her admission through a news story 24 hours after the fact.
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Connie Joy, whose book, Tragedy In Sedona, I wrote about at some length in my previous post, tells a story towards the end of her book that I find both haunting and disgusting. A mere eight days after the Sedona travesty, James Ray gathered the troops for his annual World Wealth Summit in San Diego. The World Wealth Society (now defunct, as this link seems to demonstrate) was Ray's most expensive offering, costing $60,000 per year for an individual membership, though couples could join the elite group for a mere $75,000. Though their hearts were no longer in it, Ms. Joy and her husband Richard had made a previous commitment to attend the 2009 Summit. For a number of reasons, however, the Joys had also made the decision to dissociate themselves from Ray, and they had actually made this decision before the sweat lodge tragedy. Their purpose for attending the Summit was partly to hear the guest speakers, but mainly to support and be supported by their similarly shocked and stunned fellow members, who needed each other more than ever.
Before the event there had been some speculation among members about whether or not the Summit would be canceled. It wasn't. Then there was speculation about whether or not Ray would show up. After all, this was the one event that the members could pretty much run themselves, without his presence, and they figured that in light of the deaths in Sedona, Ray might have more pressing matters on his plate. But he was there, and in fine form. While many members were expecting some sort of official apology from him for what had happened, and/or some promise of financial support for the families of the victims, there was none of the above. His eyes did well up with tears few times, but since Ms. Joy had seen him cry on cue before, she was understandably suspicious. "He could be crying because he majorly screwed up his company and his money flow," she writes. "When I hugged him, I felt no emotional energy coming from him. I usually have to work to keep myself from being overwhelmed by people's emotions, especially when they are under extreme duress, but this time, I felt absolutely nothing."
It wasn't that Ray refused to acknowledge the fatalities. On the second morning of the event, October 17, he began the day with a group meditation for the families of Kirby Brown and James Shore, whose funerals, he said, were going to be held that day. At this point, Liz Neuman was still lying in a coma in Flagstaff. Immediately after the remembrance meditation, though, the event switched back to pep-rally mode. As the egregiously overplayed Black-Eyed Peas anthem, "I Got a Feeling (That Tonight's Gonna Be A Good Night)" played loudly, Ray stood up on stage and started clapping and dancing, yelling at the audience to do the same. In this audience were several survivors of the Sedona sweat lodge, who looked rather dazed and confused. Although a few people, including the Joys, could not bring themselves to get into the pep-rally spirit, others were not similarly troubled.
And amazingly, some people were still signing up for World Wealth Society membership, which Ray continued to promote heavily during the two-day event. Ms. Joy writes, "They replayed an old slide show of photos taken of us at WWS activities, set to the Queen song 'We Believe.' When it came to the part where they sang about a hero who is 'a man or a woman who knows how to say they're sorry,' they showed a photo of James. How ridiculously ironic!"
That afternoon, Ray was speaking on stage when Josh Fredrickson hurriedly came up and handed him a note. This was not something Josh or anyone else would normally do while Ray was in the middle of a spiel, so it must be something pretty serious, Ms. Joy thought. She watched Ray's face carefully but saw no display of emotion whatsoever, nor did her friend Edward, who was also observing the situation closely. Ray simply continued his talk, though he called for a break a few minutes later. Many participants wondered if perhaps the police were waiting for him backstage, and some of them thought he probably wouldn't return. He did, however, and the event continued and then wrapped up with no further interruption.
As members were saying their goodbyes after the close of the event, Ms. Joy was hearing comments from some who still strongly supported Ray and were sure that the investigators in Sedona were using him as a scapegoat, in part because one of them was up for re-election. As many of you may recall, this was the same absurd accusation that Ray's then-publicist, Howard Bragman, had been making. The Joys couldn't believe that some folks were still so credulous and seemingly indifferent to the families who had lost loved ones. Then, just as they were getting ready to leave, one of their friends ran down the hall and said he had been looking for them, for he had heard on TV that a third victim, Liz Neuman, had died. The news was not entirely unexpected, but that did not lessen its impact.
"We speculated," writes Ms. Joy, "that the note Josh handed James may have contained the news of Liz's death. I flashed back to the absence of expression on his face when he read the note. Could he really have remained that devoid of emotion upon learning a loyal student who had been with him for over seven years was dead because of him?"
It's difficult for me to fathom what was going through Ray's head. Whether or not that note Josh handed him on stage was indeed the news of Liz's death, I really do not understand why he didn't visit her in the nine days she lay in the hospital. Many have speculated that his lawyers and/or PR people advised him to lie low, but I can't see how making that simple gesture for her family would have compromised him legally. It might have made Liz's family a little more sympathetic to him. In any case, he didn't lie low; that World Wealth Summit was just one example of his efforts to carry on with business as usual in the weeks immediately following Sedona.
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I have the deepest sympathy for the families and friends of all of Ray's victims, and if the grief of Liz's family seems particularly poignant to me I am sure this is because I lost my own mother fairly recently. Three days after Christmas 2007, my siblings and I had to make the same painful decision to disconnect her from life support. We were marginally more prepared than Liz Neuman's family, for our mom was considerably older and had multiple health problems, and her condition had been rapidly deteriorating over the last few days before her death. Still, the decision was painful and her loss deeply felt. And I miss her. Even now I find myself wanting to pick the phone up and call her when I have good news to share, or when a storm is headed our way and I want to make sure she has taken the necessary precautions. As it happens I also know what it is like to lose a parent suddenly and unexpectedly, and to have the person responsible for it walk away virtually scot-free. Many years ago, before today's stricter drinking-and-driving laws, my dad was killed by a drunk driver, a young man from a wealthy and influential family. My mother was "persuaded" not to file charges.
So I can somewhat imagine how Bryan Neuman and his brother and sister felt when faced with the sudden and completely unexpected loss of their mom. And I can imagine how sadness was mingled with joy at the birth of Liz's first grandchild, Lauren Marie Puckett, who was born to Liz's daughter Andrea on September 30 of this year. Bryan wrote to me, "I'm an Uncle now, yay!" He said that Liz had been "beyond extremely excited" at the prospect of being a grandma someday.* Thank you, James Arthur Ray, for depriving her of that experience.
The other night I was watching the new CBS cop show Blue Bloods. The story line centered around an off-duty police officer who had been killed during a diamond heist, leaving to mourn a husband, a young son, and the entire New York Police Department. In one scene towards the end, Linda, the wife of one of the main characters, Danny, is advising her prospective sister-in-law about how it goes down when an officer is killed. There is outrage at first, she explains, and the incident makes the front pages and top news stories for a week or so. There's a lot of noise in the beginning but it quickly dies down, and then the family is left to grieve in obscurity. It is, Linda says, a pain that is handed down quietly through the generations.
Though Blue Bloods is fictional, it is fiction based upon reality. Some might say it is not appropriate to compare the murder of a police officer – fictional or real – with the death of people at a self-help retreat. I say that the results of those deaths are the same to their loved ones. Loss is loss and grief is grief, whatever the circumstances.
Let's not leave the families of James Ray's victims to grieve in obscurity. Let's have another moment of silence, not only for Liz and her family, but also for the families of Kirby Brown and James Shore, and also for the family of Colleen Conaway, who died at a James Ray event in San Diego a couple of months before Sedona. And then, as Cassandra Yorgey suggested in her blog post commemorating the one-year anniversary of Sedona, let us refuse to be silent about the situation – and the man – responsible for these families' losses.
PS ~ The owners of the Angel Valley retreat have said that they will never again host another sweat lodge there. Today, the spot where the fatal lodge stood has been transformed into a memorial, where trees have been planted in honor of the people who died. Rocks in the shape of a heart – the very stones that were used in the sweat lodge – lie at the center of the memorial. A ceremony was held on the one-year anniversary of the event. Here's the story.
* I asked Bryan for his permission to share this news on my blog; I did not want to exploit their grief or invade their privacy.