James Arthur Ray and the deaths in Sedona: Four. Long. Years.
Another year has passed, and here we are at another sad anniversary. Four years after his recklessness* killed Kirby Brown and James Shore, and fatally injured Liz Neuman,** in a phony sweat lodge in Sedona, Arizona, selfish-help guru and star of The Secret James Arthur Ray is out of prison, presumably planning his comeback tour in Scamworld. I still find it appalling that he served less than two years in an Arizona prison for those deaths, and has yet to answer for another death a few months previously, that of Colleen Conaway in a San Diego shopping mall.
A couple of weeks ago I heard from Ginny Brown, the mother of Kirby Brown. She apparently came across my blog by way of doing research into the Kevin Trudeau/James Ray connection. (As regulars know, I've written about the True-dough/Death Ray connection numerous times on this blog, such as here and here. And I have commemorated it pictorially as well.) Ginny wanted me to help spread the word about the nonprofit organization she founded in the wake of her daughter's untimely death. This is SEEKsafely, Inc., and it is dedicated, she wrote, "to educating the public about self-help, empowering seekers and promoting ethical and safe practices in the self-help industry."
I already knew about SEEKsafely, having mentioned it a couple of times on my blog, including on this post from this past July. I promised Ginny that I would mention it today as well, because I had planned to write another commemorative post, as I have done every year since the Sedona tragedy happened. (This was my first commemorative post -- an inordinately long one, framed in a review of Connie Joy's book, Tragedy in Sedona.)
Ginny explained to me that SEEKsafely is trying to take a positive approach to what she and many others see as a very troubling self-help phenomenon. "As long as traditional religions fail to bring people spiritual growth and personal fulfillment, people’s search for meaning and purpose will continue with the self-help industry working to fill that personal need," she wrote. "In the midst of the scams there are sincere teachers who do offer legitimate help and support... While I do not want SEEK to promote, endorse or monitor self-help providers, we do want to create change in the industry and educate the consumer."
Though I have never been a bastion of positivity, I see the value in Ginny's approach. I agree with her that traditional religion has failed us in many ways, and that is why people seek alternatives that sometimes are not safe. I told her I think that because of her own experience and background (she is a therapist and retreat leader, coming from a Catholic background), and of course because of the tragic loss she suffered, she is in a unique position to effect some changes in an industry that is here to stay but is very much in need of change.
I know that here on this blog my own views often come across as much more on the cynical side (though I continue to insist that it a cynicism I have earned honestly), but the truth is that I remain sympathetic to the quest for meaning in life.*** What riles me is the way that the selfish-help and McSpirituality gurus so often take advantage of people's deepest hungers and fears and longings.
And I told Ginny that I think it speaks volumes that so many of the most well-known self-help/motivational/spiritual gurus to whom her organization reached out have still not signed the SEEKsafely Promise. Here is the list of those who have not signed. I told her that I agree with her that there are some good, sincere people in the industry, and actually I think that many if not most start out with the best of intentions (I honestly don't think we can say that about Ray, however). However, it seems to me that this industry attracts many people who, once they reach a certain level of fame and fortune, all too often become more concerned with promoting their "brand" than with anything else.
Perhaps some of the gurus don't think that a pledge such as the SEEKsafely Promise applies to them because they don't conduct "extreme" workshops (or in some cases they conduct few if any workshops at all).
Some may be reluctant to acknowledge that a workshop doesn't have to be physically extreme, on the order of a desert vision quest or a sweat lodge, in order to be dangerous. But as many people have learned the hard way, many of the Large Group Awareness Training events are emotionally and psychologically grueling, and have occasionally been known to spur psychotic episodes in vulnerable people -- sometimes with tragic consequences.
In addition, it is possible that some of the gurus feel there is too much potential liability in signing such a pledge, fearing that by doing so they might weaken or compromise those elaborate "waivers" they have participants sign before their events.
All of this is speculation on my part, of course, but I suspect that it is fairly well-informed speculation.
I told Ginny that I applaud what she is doing with SEEKsafely, and added that although I did not have the pleasure of knowing Kirby personally, I feel I know her, at least a little, through Ginny's words and those of others who knew and loved her. And it seems to me that she would be very pleased with Ginny's efforts to help others...well... seek safely.
It seems to me, though, that in order for people to be able to seek safely, a little negativity is definitely in order. Towards that end, it is up to all of us who care about these issues to make sure that the world never forgets what James Arthur Ray did four long years ago.
Here again is the link to SEEKsafely, Inc.
Update, 13 October, 2013: Saturday, October 12 marked the end of community supervision in Arizona for James Ray. He was expected to return to California, presumably to hit the comeback trail in earnest, so I guess we need to keep our eyes open for his next trick.
Recent and related on this Whirled:
* Technically, James Arthur Ray was convicted of, and served time for, three counts of negligent homicide, rather than reckless manslaughter. Being negligent carries less of a prison sentence than being reckless. But eyewitness accounts point to utter recklessness at best, and at worst... well, anyway, he's out now.
** Kirby Brown and James Shore died on October 8, 2009, and Liz Neuman lay in a coma for nine days before her family finally made the painful decision to withdraw life support on October 17, 2009.
*** As many probably know, I'm actually "on the fence" about many things and, as noted above, I remain sympathetic in general to people's search for meaning. In case you haven't seen these yet, here are a couple of blog posts I wrote years ago, when both The Secret and this blog were pretty new: