Friday, December 31, 2010

Fast away the old year passes...

...and for my friends in other parts of the Whirled, the old year already has passed. Happy New Year to those Down Under and Across The Pond. I'll be singing Auld Lang Syne soon enough myself.

I realize that I've been terribly negligent for nearly three months, with at least a dozen posts still in the hopper, unfinished. Between work and other distractions, I have been starving this poor blog. For some time now I have been uttering my lame promise to return to snarking soon...and now, "soon" will have to be in 2011. But hey, that's less than two hours away in my neck of the woods.

Thank you to all of y'all for sticking with me, and I promise to give you more, much more, in the weeks and months to come. I've got posts in the works about a variety of topics, from neuromarketing to nekkid men, from classic historical hustledorks to contemporary con artists, from profoundly shallow "thought" pieces to more bad poetry... and, of course, I'll have much more about Access, which just gets sillier and sillier as time goes by.

The important point is that I really, really am still here, despite all of the cleaning and clearing and chanting and such that some factions might have been practicing to help make my Whirled go away. It's not workin', guys. Though I haven't really been pulling my weight in the critical blogosphere of late, I have been living a shadow existence as a fairly regular commenter on Salty Droid's blog, and an occasional commenter on Steve Salerno's SHAMblog, so look for me there. But I haven't abandoned this Whirled, either.

Happy New Year to all of you who observe the Gregorian Calendar, and to those who don't, here's a belated or early Happy New Year.

And to all a good night, for now. I'll be here all year; don't forget to tip your waitress. Or your blogger, if you feel so inclined.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Odd-eyed girl

Yes, I know, I know... I've been away from this Whirled for yet another month. I apologize. After this long-overdue eulogy for a departed loved one – a lengthy piece that is, I suppose, both a horror story and a love story – I will get back to snarking. I promise. And you probably know the drill by now: If you think you are in danger of getting screen fatigue, print this out and read it the old-fashioned way. On the other hand, if you really do not like cats, you might consider skipping this piece altogether.
~ CC

“Dogs have a depth of loyalty that often we seem unworthy of. But the love of a cat is a blessing, a privilege in this world.”
~ Kinky Friedman, from a 1993 eulogy for his cat Cuddles

I long ago learned a secret about cats, one which you may know as well, and I share it with all due respect to the Kinkster, who seemed, in the quotation above, to be implying that the love of a cat is a rarer and more difficult thing to earn than that of a dog. It's not that I would ever take a cat's love for granted, but the truth, and I suspect that Kinky knows this too, is that cats are at least as loving (or perhaps more accurately, as emotionally needy) as dogs. They are simply not as inclined as dogs to display it in obvious ways – unless, that is, they are compelled to live their entire lives within the walls of human homes. It is then that we get to see them up close and personal, and vice-versa, and they reveal their truly affectionate natures on a consistent basis.

Or maybe it is simply that the confinement makes them neurotically desperate for stimulation, and we're the best they can come up with. In any case, during my so-called adult life I have seen to it that all of the felines I've lived with have been indoor cats, and while some people may consider that a crime against nature, to me it is nothing more than an expression of concern for the cats' well-being (not to mention consideration for neighbors and wildlife).

Coca Bean Kaye, an odd-eyed, pure white domestic shorthair who died on November 12, 2010, at the age of 16, wasn't always strictly confined to the indoors. In her kittenhood, I hear tell, she occasionally got out and about in the Alaska wilds – dodging rapacious eagles and the occasional meandering moose, or so I like to imagine – but that phase of her life came to an end in the mid-1990s when she relocated with her original companion human to Houston, Texas. She then became an indoor cat for the most part, but her existence was hardly quiet and peaceful, as her human lived with an abusive partner who, fueled in part by a dangerous mix of recreational substances, became more violently abusive as time went by. Given the dynamics of that relationship, and the reluctance of either partner to simply go their separate ways, there was almost no chance of avoiding a tragic ending.

Indeed, it all came to an abrupt halt one terrible summer night in 1996 with the shooting death of the abusive partner by the abused person's sibling – an act of desperate self-defense that was, nevertheless, referred to a grand jury. The shooting happened after a long day of ugly violence, and Coca and the other feline resident, Gracie, a pure white longhair, were right there in the apartment through the entire ordeal.

When Ron and I paid a visit the next day the scene had not yet been cleaned up. I should have been prepared; the rookie news reporter I'd watched that morning on TV had haltingly described the scene as "graphic," and I knew, from the expression on his face and the slight quaver in his voice, that his description didn't begin to do it justice. Suffice it to say that on that day, I learned that it is not the sight of massive amounts of blood that gets to me; it is the smell. The carnage was in the hallway just outside of the apartment; inside, the human survivors of the incident were huddled together, dazed and numb. Coca and Gracie were nowhere to be seen.

In the turbulent months that followed, the survivors – both human and, presumably, feline – struggled to get their lives back in order. The grand jury that convened the following February declined to press charges, but the ordeal was far from over. The mother of the abusive partner, driven by grief, anger, and her own drug-induced mental problems, continued to do whatever she could to make life miserable and more than a little scary for the survivors and members of their immediate families who lived in the area.

Please do not think that any of us lacked compassion for her loss, or sorrow for the way the situation had turned out. It was a tragic state of affairs all around. But her threatening phone calls and letters, her vows to seek her brand of "justice" for the death of her last surviving child (we were told that another child, an infant, had been shot to death years earlier by her ex-husband's drug-dealer buddies), and even her morbid insistence on taking possession of the firearm that had killed her offspring (the weapon had originally belonged to him) were disturbing to say the least. And it was all instrumental in the decision by Coca's human to flee back up to Alaska, sans Coca this time.

We were told that arrangements had been made for a friend to take Coca, though there was no word on any arrangements for Gracie. Ron and I found out after the fact that the friend had backed out, and we felt we had no choice but to go to that sad abandoned apartment and gather two frightened and very hungry white cats to take home with us. It was only meant to be temporary, till we could find permanent homes for them. I was adamant about it being temporary. After all, in addition to five dogs we already had two cats, and I had all the litter box maintenance responsibilities I wanted.

Of course, you already know how this went: Coca and Gracie (whose name we shortened to Grace) stayed. They really had no place else to go, and there was no way we were going to take them to a shelter, which would have almost certainly doomed them. So it was that in that chaotic summer of 1997, Ron and I suddenly found ourselves not only with our two cats and Coca and Grace, but also, for a while, with a cat named Quinnie, who, along with the sibling of Coca's human, also moved in with us for a few months. Quinnie was a pretty but demonic tabby, vaguely reminiscent of a Kliban cat. She had a large body and a disproportionately tiny head (I'm talking about a ridiculously tiny head; we sometimes called her Pinhead). Small as it was, that cat-head was full of evil mischief. But that's probably worth a whole other blog post.

The point is that now there were five cats, and overnight we went from being a one-litter-box household to a three-litter-box household. There were also three more sets of fully functional cat claws to shred the furniture. It's not that we've ever had impeccable furniture – far from it, but the addition of more cats made a bad situation worse, aesthetically speaking. A crappy-looking old '70s-era couch that our then-friend Joe "Mr. Fire" Vitale had given us rapidly became even more crappy-looking. It was apparently more attractive to the tiny tigers than the sisal-and-carpet scratching posts we provided. Joe had also given us an old recliner, the back of which was already well-clawed by his own cats, and ours gleefully added their own contributions.

The extra litter boxes and clawed-up furniture were the least of the problems, though. Our original cats, Sabrina and Bruce (the latter of whom you met briefly here; see link below) were not happy with the interlopers, and vice-versa. Troublesome cat politics erupted, and even after the initial hissing and threatening behavior died down – even after Quinnie the Pinhead and her human moved out, in fact – the politicking continued.

Since cats handle their everyday political issues mainly by peeing and spraying, whether or not they are spayed or neutered, it is hardly surprising that we quickly reached a point where even Febreze and Nature's Miracle couldn't solve the problem. The epicenter of cat politics in our household was an expensive and once-elegant rattan couch that had belonged to Ron's late mother. Bruce, who was unquestionably the head cat, loved to lounge on it – it was his spot – and prior to Coca's arrival, the worst offense he ever committed was the occasional ginormous hairball, easily cleaned away. But Coca had been the head cat in her former household, lording it over timid little Grace, and she had issues with Bruce being the leader in her new home. Bruce was relatively laid back about the whole thing, but he let it be known that he was the supreme feline. He and Coca had countless discussions about this during summits at Camp Rattan. Some of their exchanges were quite vocal (with Coca doing most of the talking), and most, unfortunately, involved bodily fluids.

Over the next year or so, despite frantic efforts to keep it reasonably clean, the rattan couch became so foully saturated that we had no choice but to remove it from our home. Since we lived at the time in an uber-gentrified section of Houston, we knew we would never be able to get away with setting the pee-soaked piece on our front lawn and waiting for someone to pick it up – as much as it would have amused us to see the expressions on the faces of our snootier fellow residents. So we cleaned the couch as well as we could, loaded it into the van, and took it to a spot in front of the Dumpster at the apartment complex where Coca's first human companion, who once again had moved back down to Houston, was now living. As we were leaving a little later that day, we discovered that the couch had already been removed, presumably by someone who thought it might be a lovely addition to their living room. What a find! we could imagine them thinking, and it made us snicker. On a subsequent visit a couple of days later, we noticed that the rattan wonder had been returned to its spot in front of the Dumpster. 

I was frequently frustrated because the task of cleaning up pet messes in our house generally fell to me. (Then again, the task of lawn mowing and fixing things that broke around the house always fell to Ron, so it all worked out.) The dogs weren't really a problem, because even though they stayed indoors with us most of the time, they were house-trained and went outside to do their business. But the cats... well, even absent politically motivated spraying and such, and even when there are no litter box glitches, cats are – I might as well be blunt – filthy little creatures, despite their reputation for being immaculate. Sure, unless they're physically ill or emotionally disturbed, they're constantly cleaning themselves, but where do you think all of that kitty body dirt goes? That's right: on your stuff. 

At the risk of sounding hopelessly petty and self-involved, I will confess that despite my compassion for the plight of the rescued cats, and my continued love and concern for their former owner, I sometimes felt resentful. There were times I looked on the white cats as a symbol of what I viewed as their first human's irresponsibility and my own lack of choice in the matter. I think, though, that at my core I was also feeling residual guilt over the fact that I too had abandoned a couple of cats when I was much younger. I was a teenager at the time, still living at my parents' home, and the cats in question had "difficult" personalities.

At some point I decided I simply didn't want to take care of them any longer, but I couldn't find a home for them, so I had them taken to the local SPCA, where, despite my attempts to convince myself that I had done what was best for them, they almost certainly met their end. I still feel guilty about my choice to this day. Taking in Coca and Grace so many years later could, I suppose, be looked upon as either payback or a way of making amends. Either way, from my perspective and those of the others involved in the situation, it was indisputably the right thing to do.

In any case I never took my occasional resentment out on the rescued cats or anyone else, but one day, in a fit of frustration after cleaning up more cat spray from odd corners of the house, I did declare to Ron, "Either the white cats go, or I go!" And he calmly said, "Okay. 'Bye." Of course he didn't mean that, and of course he knew that I didn't mean what I'd said either. Issuing fake ultimatums isn't my style, and he had simply called me on it. What is important is that for the most part we all learned to live in peace together. Eventually the kitty politics dissipated, the spraying all but stopped, and I found that I had fallen hopelessly in love with both Coca and Grace.

* * * *

It occurs to me, this far into my essay, that I've really said precious little so far about Coca as an individual, a being who had a life apart from the chronicle I've shared of violent death, unsettled human lives, and ruined furniture. If you've read any of my previous writings you probably weren't expecting a sweetly sentimental
Rainbow-Bridge sort of tribute, but maybe you're thinking I should focus on Coca herself for a bit. All right, then.

Coca was an individual and she did have a life, of course, but she was also very much a part of our lives for more than thirteen years. She had an unusually strong personality and after recovering from the initial shock of coming into a new household, she was not at all shy. She was in fact quite forward and had no problems whatsoever with clambering all over anyone, even casual visitors, who came to our house and sat down for a moment. Even so, for a long time she wasn't what I would have called inordinately affectionate, and certainly she wasn't as cuddly and flirtatious as Grace.

Coca also had no problem with making her likes and dislikes abundantly clear. As is the case with many cats, she did not suffer extensive petting mildly. She would put up with it for a certain amount of time and then suddenly and quite without warning turn on the offending hand with a hiss and a quick slap, if the person was lucky. I learned early on when to back off. Later on, however, she became more tolerant of being touched for extensive periods of time, and even got to the point where she was as affectionate and hungry for touch as Grace. And although in the early years with us, Coca didn't like to be picked up at all and always protested loudly at the indignity of actually being carried anywhere, in later years she came to tolerate and then actually enjoy being in human arms. Especially mine. She even got to the point where she would let me pick her up and hold her upside down – one of the ultimate signs of trust from a cat. (Crazy Bruce, whom I probably continue to unfairly employ as the gold standard of felinity, used to love being held upside down and even swung gently about at times. But he was not at all a normal cat.)

Nearly everyone who met Coca commented on her odd-colored eyes: one green orb and one blue one. Having two different-colored eyes is actually fairly common among domestic cats and, for that matter, some breeds of dogs such as Siberian huskies and Malamutes. Coca was perhaps one blue eye away from being stone deaf; pure white cats with two blue eyes very often are. But there was nothing at all wrong with Coca's hearing, either on her "green side" or her "blue side."

There was nothing wrong with her voice, either, and she liked to use it; judging from its tone and timbre, there was a fair amount of Siamese blood coursing through her veins. Though not as generally conversational as Bruce, and not possessing his range, she was considerably louder than he. If Bruce was the head cat, she was definitely second in command.

She grew particularly attached to me, and would come to me when I called her name. She got to the point where she would respond to hand signals as well. Anyone who ever doubted that a cat can be as responsive as a dog in every way never knew a cat like Coca.

* * * *

Life became easier for all of the cats as time went by, but it was not always so easy for the troubled humans in their midst. There was still fallout from that awful night in 1996; the bereaved mother continued her campaign of harassment for a few years. When the two people whom she felt to be responsible for her son's death weren't available for harassing (they moved back and forth between Alaska and Houston several times), she aimed her harassment at Ron and me. We would find trash on our lawn – boxes of cards, letters, and other mementos of the doomed relationship between her dead son and Coca's original parent.

One evening, as we were leaving the house to go out for dinner at a local restaurant, Ron and I found a very large, very dead, and very smelly snake on our porch; obviously it had been tossed there by someone, and we were pretty sure we knew the source. And somehow PsychoMom ended up in Las Vegas one Mother's Day weekend during the same time Coca's former companion and new partner were there. PsychoMom happened to spot them in a crowd at a popular Las Vegas hotel (really, what are the odds?), and began shouting and screaming, then pushed her way through the throng and proceeded to beat up on the target of her wrath before security personnel were able to separate them. Scary as that was, it could have been much worse.

Even that blew over, though, and life went on. Ron and I moved from the snooty neighborhood to a more comfy suburban area, leaving Joe Vitale's ruined couch behind in the old house, which was soon demolished and duly replaced by the requisite McMansion. But we did take Joe's old recliner, which the cats continued to slowly and methodically shred, although the really awful-looking part was hidden from our view because we tucked the chair into a corner of our living room. The four cats settled into our new digs with a minimum of fuss, and over the next few years they all became much closer, even to the point of growing quite fond of each other. Harmony prevailed.

But time just never stops, and cats, even well-tended indoor types, are on a shorter cycle than the large lumbering bipeds who tend them: a cruel trick of nature to be sure. In early 2005, ten days before my birthday, Bruce left us at the age of almost seventeen-and-a-half years. I still haven't really recovered. His nearly-lifelong pal Sabrina, sixteen, followed a little over a month later, two days after Valentine's Day. I was heartbroken, and more grateful than ever for the two white cats who had insinuated themselves into our household eight years previously. I became even closer to Coca and Grace.

Over the following months I toyed several times with the notion of getting a kitten – maybe a little boy, preferably from a shelter. But I was in no big hurry and did nothing about it, and one bright Sunday morning in October of that year a tiny dilute-orange and white tabby showed up in the bushes under our bedroom window, crying like a lost bird. I scooped the kitten up and brought it into the house, and then proceeded to ask around the neighborhood, but there were no takers. It appeared to be a girl, and though I'd wanted a boy, Ron and I welcomed it into the fold and I named it Kyra. A couple of weeks later I was holding Kyra and noticed "she" had manifested some parts that hadn't been apparent in the beginning. Well, then, I had my boy after all. We scrambled for a new name, and Ron came up with "Sabu."

As Sabu grew to tomcat-hood lust took over, and, since he had no access to outdoor girlfriends, Coca was his target. Grace, usually so sweet and calm, had despised him from the beginning, even when he was a wee lad, and hissed whenever he came near her, so he knew to stay well away from her. Sometimes Grace would pick fights with him, just for the hell of it. But Coca was much more tolerant of his attentions, and in fact she rather liked him. Both Coca and Grace were spayed so there was no danger of kittens, although Coca did occasionally lose patience with Sabu's repeated efforts to grab her by the scruff of the neck with his teeth and climb aboard. "We need to get Sabu neutered," Ron and I kept saying, and kept putting it off. 

In early 2008 we slipped the surly bonds of crowded suburbia and finally moved out to the country, to The Ranch at the Edge of Nowhere. I'm almost embarrassed to say that we still had the clawed-up chair Joe Vitale had given us many years ago; because the damage had been hidden, we hadn't really paid attention to how truly awful its back side had become over the past decade or so. In the large and many-windowed living room of the ranch house, there was no corner for the chair to hide in anymore, no wall to back it up against, and its ugliness stood out in a particularly embarrassing way. (Oh, God, had the movers really seen that?!?) Although one of Joe's fans had previously and in all apparent seriousness offered me $100 for the chair, it was too much of a hassle to work out the logistics. We exiled it to the garage, and paid $20.00 to have Stacy, our trash lady, haul it off. I did feel morally obligated to inform her that the chair had once belonged to the world-famous Joe Vitale, and she looked at me, puzzled, and said, "Who's that?" before she and her partner heaved it into the back of their truck with the other country folks' trash. Another fab money op lost, no doubt.

We all settled happily into life in the sticks, our joy marred only by losing our big dog Rex a couple of months after we moved. The cats were particularly pleased with our new home because not only did they have a much larger area to live in, but they had many more windows to look out of. Grace still had serious issues with Sabu, though, even after we finally got him neutered and he became more sweet and mellow. But Coca and Sabu remained close, and became even closer as the residual hormones faded and Sabu grew larger and lazier.

In the last year or so, however, Coca gradually started keeping to herself more, and Grace began warming up to Sabu. Over the last few months of Coca's life, Sabu and Grace actually became quite close. Perhaps they sensed that before long, they would only have each other. It was in those last few months that Coca began losing weight, fading away, and becoming, as people used to say, a mere slip of a thing. It was a combination of conditions, common among older cats – kidney failure, mainly, and we simply didn't have thousands of dollars to pay a vet to temporarily slow it down. But she didn't seem to be in pain, and she was still sweet and affectionate, still eager to climb all over me whenever I was in the living room. She would stretch herself across my newspaper in the morning, and relentlessly use me as furniture when I was on the couch watching TV at night. 

In late October of this year, she seemed to fade even more, though she rallied briefly, but then in November she developed a respiratory ailment. At first we thought it was a mere case of the sniffles; all of our cats had had this at one time or another and it was never anything serious. But Coca was not getting better and we decided to make a vet appointment to take care of the respiratory issue and perhaps give her a little more time with us. On the morning of the day the appointment was scheduled, Ron called the vet and canceled. There were unmistakable signs, he explained to the woman answering the phone. Cheyne-Stokes respiration. The telltale gurgling. The death rattle.

We sat with her all that morning. At some point it was apparent she couldn't see us any more; her eyes were glazed over, the green and the blue barely discernible any more, but she could still hear us, and we talked to her. And intermittently, she would talk back. Some cats go into that good night quietly. Bruce had. Sabrina had. Coca did not. She still had things to say. But by mid-morning, she was finally silent, and we buried her in silence too. We've talked of maybe planting a tree on her spot in the spring. It's too soon to think of doing much else right now.

* * * *

And the world moves on. Some time ago, Coca's first human found happiness at last with someone truly wonderful, and they were married a few months ago in Alaska. The sibling who shot the abusive partner is also up there, reportedly happy, though we rarely hear from him. I hope he finds his way back to us someday, and even if he doesn't I hope he really has found happiness. The last we heard, the bereaved mom was living somewhere up in the Texas Panhandle; we haven't heard from her in years (knock on wood).

And here at the Edge of Nowhere, Texas, we are once again a two-cat household, if you don't count the eternally wary self-owned gray tabby who lives outside, mostly under our house, keeping skunks, snakes, and other vermin away. Inside the house, Grace and Sabu are now as thick as thieves, eating out of the same bowl without trying to kill each other, and cuddling close together on the couch, or on me, when I'm lying on the couch. Cat politics are a thing of the past. Peace prevails. Christmas is creeping up on the ranch now, approaching on little cat feet (as the late poet Carl Sandburg might have said), and look, there's Coca at the top of this page, with Christmas-colored eyes, an artifact of flash photography. All is calm, too calm really, with no raucous Siamese-inflected songs streaming out from the cats' part of the house. Though our girl has been in the ground for more than a month, on occasion I still find myself searching, briefly, for an odd-eyed face when I'm doing a head count as we all settle into the living room at night to watch TV. Head counts have become easier over the past few years as our family has grown smaller.

"Grief is the price we pay for love," we're told. Among the countless others who've said that in one form or another, England's Queen Elizabeth II reportedly did while addressing a church congregation after the 9/11 attacks. Given the context, she no doubt had in mind the love and grief we feel for the humans in our lives. Almost certainly she was not talking about cats; the queen does not strike me as being much of a cat person. But she does love her Corgis, and I'd be willing to bet that she has experienced the grief, more than once, of losing a beloved animal.

Some people, once they've lost a pet, say they will never get another because they know they would just be setting themselves up for more heartbreak. To me a much worse heartbreak would be to have to make our way through this life without any four-legged companions. And many people who say they can't bear the pain of loving and then losing an animal overlook the fact that we endure much the same cycles of love and loss in our human relationships; the difference is that the latter are generally longer and infinitely more complicated than those we share with our animals. What the bonds with our animals lack in longevity, they more than make up for in their utter purity. I wouldn't miss that experience of pure love for any amount of money, and Ron wouldn't either, though our hearts have been broken repeatedly and will almost certainly break again.

And, given the opportunity, if we had to do it over again, I think we would both gladly welcome Coca Bean Kaye into our home – grief, aggravation, and ruined couches and chairs be damned. I've always thought that furniture was over-rated, anyway.

Other resources that might be helpful:
And finally...
  • A violent relationship will almost invariably have a tragic ending unless you get out of it. The National Domestic Violence Hotline (US, Puerto Rico and Virgin Islands):
* * * * *
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Friday, November 19, 2010

I'm still here

Good Goddess, it's been over a month since I've blogged! Don't worry, I haven't gone away. (Or, depending upon who you are, do worry; I haven't gone away.) I have been preoccupied with chasing the Almighty Dollar, reorganizing my home office and library, and tending to various other matters of consequence. Ron and I have also unfortunately had to say goodbye to another one of our four-legged companions: our eldest cat Coca. I have a half-finished blog post about her, which will go up within the next few days.

And after that, I'm returning to Snarky Town, so get ready.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

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.

* * * * *

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.

* * * * *

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.

Friday, October 08, 2010

Musings on a tragedy and its meanings

It is hard to believe that the one-year anniversary of James Arthur Ray's fatal sweat lodge in Sedona, Arizona is upon us. A year ago at this time, Kirby Brown, James Shore, and Liz Neuman had excitedly embarked upon what they were told would be a breakthrough experience in the high desert. Instead they lost their lives – Kirby and James on October 8, and Liz nine days later. This is a story that has been burning up the blogosphere and, to a lesser extent, the airwaves, ever since it broke. (Naturally I weighed in as well.)

Yet another contribution to the conversation is Connie Joy's new book, Tragedy In Sedona: My Life in James Arthur Ray's Inner Circle. Below is the very long and drawn-out version of my commentary on this book and on some of the issues surrounding James Ray and the self-help/spirituality industry. As is always the case with these looooong posts, you might be best advised to print it out and take it to the "reading room." (And I apologize in advance for going on so much about myself and my thoughts, but that's just how I am.) I'll be posting a simpler and much shorter review on Amazon and will provide the link once it is up.
There is a pivotal anecdote in Tragedy in Sedona that to me illustrates not only James Ray's narcissism and callous disregard for everyone but himself and the grand and pricey shows he was putting on, but could also be a metaphor for the multi-billion dollar self-help (or selfish-help, as I sometimes like to call it) industry and culture of which he is a part.

The incident took place during Ray's July 2008 Practical Mysticism retreat in Tahoe, California. The author of Tragedy in Sedona, Connie Joy, was a "Dream Team" volunteer at this event. Dream Teamers were tasked with coaching other participants through various exercises, as well as with managing logistics to help ensure that everything ran smoothly. Through no fault of their own, things were not running very smoothly as they prepared for a "sacred fire ceremony" one evening. Although every moment had been planned out in careful detail, Ray, who was supposed to lead the ceremony, threw a wrench in the works when he apparently decided to turn his hike up to the ceremonial spot into a race. He arrived far ahead of the scheduled time, and the hapless Dream Teamers and James Ray International (JRI) employees scrambled to make adjustments so the ceremony could begin. As they frantically worked with last-minute preparations and the all important fire-building they were met with glares from Ray, who was clearly not happy about what he perceived as a delay. Never mind that the delay was his doing. He barked out contradictory orders that probably just made things more chaotic and confusing.

Once the fire had been started with the help of several cans of lighter fluid, and the participants had been arranged around it more or less to Ray's satisfaction, he still wasn't happy. He stomped over to Edward, another Dream Teamer, and told him to make the fire bigger. Ms. Joy writes that it was already a huge tepee-shaped flame, but Edward followed Ray's orders and put on more wood. That still wasn't good enough for Ray, who repeated his order in no uncertain terms. "Edward and Carol started piling even more logs on the fire," writes Ms. Joy. "It was huge and sparks were flying everywhere – while forests surrounding Tahoe were burning from wildfires."

Indeed, during this time Northern California was being plagued with more than 1,400 wildfires, a couple of which were choking parts of the Sierra Nevada foothills, and there were fires in the Tahoe National Forest that threatened communities where tens of thousands of people live. The author writes that smoke almost obscured Lake Tahoe. And yet here was James Ray, yelling at his minions to "Make the fire bigger!" Ms. Joy, other Dream Teamers and even an employee of the hotel where they were staying frantically ran around stomping out sparks. This only earned more glares from Ray, who wanted everyone to remain still and silent because this was, after all, a solemn, sacred ceremony.

Momentary comic relief (for Ms. Joy, anyway) ensued when Ray's big fire suddenly collapsed into a pile of coals, shrinking the flame to about a tenth of its original size. Ray was visibly ticked off, and the Dream Teamers looked at each other, knowing they would probably bear the brunt of his ire when it was all over. Yet Ms. Joy had to stifle a giggle as Ray began his ceremonial spiel anyway and the fire continued to shrink even more, despite the volunteers' efforts to revive it. Then the battery on Ray's mic went out; apparently he had accidentally left it on while he was hiking to the fire spot. His brother raced back to the hotel to retrieve a replacement battery, and once it was in place Ray resumed his talk. His lecture centered around the theme of "not wanting to carry your life's story around with you," and he wound it up by inviting the participants to cast into the fire the pieces of paper containing the "life maps" that Ray had had them create earlier.

Because there were twice as many attendees as the previous year Ms. Joy had attended, there was twice as much paper to burn, and the flames shot up again. Before long disaster threatened once more; sparks and pieces of burning paper were everywhere on the hill. Ms. Joy writes:
When I looked down the hill, the sight of many small fires starting on the hill freaked me out! We were in the middle of a forest, in a terrible drought and extremely high fire danger, most of the firefighting resources were battling the forest fire at the other end of the lake, and at least five different small fires were starting from numerous pieces of burning paper that were still raining down. I ran down the hill to help the hotel employee stomp them out. The brush cut me up because I couldn't see it in the dark, and I twisted my ankle, but we managed to put out the numerous small fires. We looked at each other, sighed, and shook our heads...
...I returned to the top. The group prepared to head back down. When James passed me, he issued me another dark glare. Yes, I thought, I broke the sacred circle when I ran down the hill... get over it. Sometimes this man has no common sense of what is really important at the time. He gets so wrapped up in "his ceremony" while other more urgent issues, with possible disastrous effects on others or the environment, are going on around him. He is oblivious to what else is going on, and he gets mad at you if you don't ignore everything else as well. This made me think of his frequent admonition, that if we don't pay attention then we will pay with pain. I remember thinking he needs to pay more attention!
After Ray and most of the participants went back down the hill, Ms. Joy and the other volunteers and staffers circled to say a few words and officially close the ceremony. Though the Dream Teamers were sure that they were going to get blasted for their "sloppiness," Ray's Director of Operations, Megan Fredrickson, beamed and said, "That was the best Fire Ceremony we ever had!" Ms. Joy and her friend Edward looked at each other, flabbergasted. If that was the best one ever, what could the worst have been like?

* * * * *

The fire story is just one of many eyebrow-raising tales in Tragedy in Sedona. Those who are looking for validation of their view of James Arthur Ray as a self-centered, money-obsessed egotist will not be disappointed. Ms. Joy shows us a master manipulator who could often get his way via shameless tactics such as "covert hypnosis" techniques, crying on cue, and just plain bullying. Above all, Ray emerges on these pages as a hypocrite who may have taught some good material but didn't walk his talk.

But this book is not a single-minded indictment of the fallen "transformational rock star"; although there is plenty to make the infamous White Papers, issued in late 2009 and early 2010 by Ray's lawyers, look even more like Whitewash Papers, Ms. Joy also attempts to document the positive aspects of her association with Ray and the benefits this relationship delivered. I was eager to read her account for the very reason that she is not a snarky blogger or armchair critic, with whose views I am quite familiar (being among that reviled lot myself); rather, she is a former James Ray loyalist. In the weeks and months following the tragedy I had read the transcripts of interviews between investigators and Sedona sweat lodge participants, and I had seen the TV interviews with various once-devoted followers, but I looked forward to sitting down and reading an insider account that was more carefully crafted than an interview transcript and less sound-bite-ish than television fare.

And Ms. Joy delivers the goods with countless details about Ray's actions during his events, as well as the way he ran his organization and (mis)treated employees and especially volunteers. (Dream Team, indeed. The author's descriptions of her own experiences as a volunteer at his events make it sound more like a Nightmare Team.) She also writes of Ray's questionable treatment of his "point people," whose jobs involved getting Ray whatever he requested during an event, escorting him to and from his hotel room or the airport, and so on.

Sometimes the job entailed recruiting dates for him from the women in the audience at his events. Although Ray was a single guy and within his rights to date, he was, as Ms. Joy points out, also someone who had set himself up as a spiritual leader, and as such he should have held himself to a higher standard of behavior. In his failure to do so he is of course no different from many other "spiritual" gurus or other people occupying a unique position of power over others. During the later years he became increasingly less discreet with his dalliances, and it seems that many women were only too happy to accommodate him. Ms. Joy describes seeing one woman sitting alone in the back of the room sobbing during one event; curiously, none of the Dream Team members were trying to console her. It turned out that this woman had been led to believe she had a dinner date with Ray that night, but he had canceled when he found someone else.

It appears that, at least in the later years, James Ray engaged in a puzzling and sometimes hurtful elitism. Ms. Joy tells the story of a point person for one event who was given the assignment of riding to the airport with the hotel manager to pick Ray up, and was instructed, presumably by a JRI employee, that under no circumstances was she to talk to Ray unless he specifically asked her a question. Writes Ms. Joy, "She sat in sad silence for the entire ride back as James engaged in a lively conversation with the hotel manager. This volunteer had not only taken his seminars, but was now donating her time and paying money to help him. She was not worth acknowledging – yet a stranger was okay to talk to."

Tragedy in Sedona also does a good job of documenting what appeared to be Ray's growing obsession with death, and in light of what happened in Sedona, that in and of itself is pretty damning of Ray. Most of us who have followed this case have read various riffs on the Death Ray theme on critical forums and blogs such as Cassandra Yorgey's – the latter of which is one of Ms. Joy's sources for some of the information in Chapter 18 of the book – but Ms. Joy offers a firsthand confirmation. What may have begun as metaphorical or symbolic exercises morphed to ever-increasing levels of literalism, even in the relatively short time that Connie Joy knew Ray. Although not strictly about the Sedona tragedy and its aftermath, her book illuminates what happened in Sedona by providing a back story, at least one that covers the few years preceding the titular tragedy. We'll have to leave it to those with a more journalistic bent, and not so much skin in the game, to write a more comprehensive back story. Meanwhile Ms. Joy's revelations provide plenty of insight.

Putting on my critics' hat
And yet, as much as I wanted to unreservedly adore this book, I had mixed feelings about it as I read it. I had issues with some of the content and a few picky issues with the style, all of which I'll get into (eventually). Don't get me wrong; I think Tragedy in Sedona is worth reading, and Ms. Joy seems like a very nice person who, though she didn't lose her life or suffer permanent physical damage from her association with Ray, appears to have been through her own type of hell because of her emotional investment in Ray's teachings. 

Although a number of flaws prevent her work from being a five-star effort in my view, she presents a revealing close-up look not only at James Ray but at his fan base as well. Though she says her purpose in writing the book was not to do a hatchet job on Ray and was emphatically not to indict the entire self-help/pop-spirituality industry, I think Tragedy in Sedona paints a rather unflattering portrait of both Ray and the industry.1 Unfortunately a little of that unflattering paint splatters onto some of Ray's followers and, especially, a few of his employees as well.

I am not by any means implying that Ray's followers are culpable for the well-documented tragedies in Sedona and San Diego, although certain employees, such as the aforementioned Megan Fredrickson and her hubby Josh, are a different story, in my opinion. On the other hand there were employees such as Melinda Martin and Amy Hall, who resigned their positions in disgust as soon as the news sank in and their boss began to show his true colors; I think these people are to be commended.

Ms. Joy was not a JRI employee but was part of Ray's inner circle from 2007 through late 2009. She seems to be one of those particularly hard hit by the Sedona tragedy, having been a friend of one of the Sedona victims, Liz Neuman (who had followed Ray for seven years). On the Acknowledgments page she notes that her book was written in memory of Liz, Kirby Brown, James Shore, and San Diego victim Colleen Conaway. She certainly seems shaken by the deaths and appears to be still working her way through her shock and grief, as I imagine is the case with many former Ray fans. I do not question the sincerity of her emotions or those of any of the other disillusioned followers. And although the fire story above could, as I suggested, be construed as illustrative of the narcissism of self-help culture in general, it could equally be a demonstration of the reality that within this culture are caring individuals who are able to look beyond themselves. After all, as the Great Death Ray held forth on that fiery hillside, seemingly oblivious to the disaster that was waiting to happen, several other people, including Ms. Joy, were scrambling to avert that disaster. They succeeded and earned only dark looks from the master, but were not discouraged from their continuing efforts, within the limits that were feasible for a committed follower of James Ray, to do the right thing.

What some readers may question is that, according to her account, Ms. Joy was taken aback by numerous happenings at Ray events long before the fire incident and afterward as well, and yet kept right on signing up for more. Several times she mentions being put off by Ray's hard-sell tactics, and by his apparent deceptiveness and broken promises, particularly in regard to his very pricey – and now defunct – World Wealth Society (annual price of membership: $60,000 per individual, $75,000 per couple).

And then there were the broken bones and crushed hands and other injuries suffered by some participants during various board-smashing exercises – not to mention the one Ray sweat lodge that Ms. Joy attended during Spiritual Warrior in September of 2007, which left her more than shaken and after which, she says, "some of my trust in James had eroded forever" (more on that momentarily). The road to her disillusionment was filled with a series of shocks and wake-up calls, with the beginning of the end being an outrageous and clearly unethical stunt Ray pulled during a guided meditation in early 2009. But she still couldn't manage to sever the ties entirely until the latter part of 2009.

How much of the narrative in this book is informed by 20/20 hindsight and how much is actually a reflection of Ms. Joy's real-time impressions as she moved through one Ray event after another is not always clear, but the book reads as if much of her negative as well as her positive observations were real-time, adapted from her own notes, journals, and emails that were written at or around the time of the experiences. The exceptions are the very last chapters and epilogue, where she quotes extensively from participant and witness interviews conducted by investigators after the tragedy. What does seem apparent to me is that she detected red flags around James Ray from the beginning, and the obvious question in many readers' minds will be: "Why on God's green earth did you keep giving this a--hole your money?"

We'll get to that in a little while.

Across the Great Divide
There's no denying that a Great Divide of sorts exists between the author of Tragedy in Sedona and many of the critics of James Ray and the self-help industry in general. I want to discuss this matter in some detail because it is at the heart of so many online discussions, some of which get quite adversarial.

From the beginning of the book it is clear that Connie Joy is no stranger to the personal-growth workshop circuit, and she appears to openly embrace it. She has obviously been to many seminars and events besides Ray's and seems accustomed to the built-in upselling, which is probably why she was relatively tolerant of some of Ray's blatant sales tactics in the beginning. Granted, in several places in her book she expresses dismay at his progressively mercenary tendencies (and she also writes of several occasions where, despite his claims of wealth and success, Ray betrayed some deep worries about his own monetary situation). What made me go, "Hmmmm," as the late George Carlin might have said, is that the aggressive upselling was apparent to her from the very first event she attended and still wasn't enough to discourage her, as it might have been for many people.

This becomes a little more understandable when you consider that both the author and her husband are apparently successful real estate brokers in San Diego. (They also have a side business selling "Kangen water" filtration systems, sold through an MLM program that they were introduced to through other James Ray followers.) The real estate industry is arguably more infested with motivational rah-rah culture than just about any other except for the self-help business itself and, possibly, direct sales, particularly multi-level marketing. With real estate, I suppose the motivational foundation makes some sense in light of the tangible big-ticket items involved and the fact that, since commissions are everything, it generally takes an enormous amount of psychological and emotional energy to be successful in the field – particularly in a sluggish economy. You can't just show up at an office every day and sit on your butt; you gotta move property, and those who hope to make a go of it probably feel they need every edge they can get. I would go so far as to concede that real estate is one field in which the results of any self-help or motivational tools one uses can be pretty clearly measured.

Ms. Joy mentions real estate motivational leader Brian Buffini, describing him as her and her husband's real estate mentor and coach.2 More than once she cites Buffini's integrity in comparison to Ray; Buffini, she says, would never resort to hard-sell tactics to push his products and events, and he strongly discourages people from overextending themselves financially in order to take his courses. Buffini apparently has his own detractors and skeletons, but like most in the motivational field he certainly has fans, many of whom swear that his teachings have helped them increase their income.

I understand all of this. I also get that that one of the messages the author hoped to convey in this book was that James Ray was an aberration and there is much good to be found in the personal-growth industry. Despite this understanding I found the resolutely pro-self-help perspective a little distracting in places.

Early in the book, for example, Ms. Joy discusses a Ray construct called the Harmonic Wealth Wheel, comparing it to a faintly similar model by Buffini. Now, I personally find it difficult to take either model seriously, and I have the same problem with all such models and diagrams, as they are almost invariably gimmicks that the respective gurus either made up out of thin air or borrowed from more inventive predecessors and embellished with a few proprietary touches. Many people seem to find these contrived models helpful, or at least worthy of memorizing and teaching others, but I just find them rather annoying for the most part. Other readers may not have this problem, and some may think I'm overstating my case. In fact some of you might be saying, "I get it, Cosmic Connie; you're not a fan of self-help stuff, but you did say, after all, that you wanted to read the perspectives of someone other than your lot of snarky bloggers and armchair critics, right?" Right. But I had to get past little details like Ray's wheel versus Buffini's in order to really get into Ms. Joy's story.

To make the Great Divide even wider and perhaps deeper for some readers, Ms. Joy is a nearly lifelong spiritual seeker who at a relatively young age gravitated towards the mystical and the arcane, and seems to embrace the usual hodgepodge of new-agey beliefs. Those of a more snarky or critical bent may take issue with her metaphysical explanations of events and her unquestioning acceptance of many standard pop-spirituality concepts.

Particularly off-putting to some may be the fact that she is, or was, apparently a fan of The Secret (which is how James Ray really came onto her radar), and she is or was an admirer of the controversial psychic Sylvia Browne (for that matter, what commercially successful psychic isn't controversial?).

Evidence of those new-age beliefs is woven throughout the anecdotes, particularly in those about the mystical rituals in which Ms. Joy participated under James Ray's guidance. She describes one ritual during the World Wealth Society trip to Egypt in late September and early October of 2008:
We headed over to the statue of the scarab beetle, which represents rebirth and was dedicated by the pharaoh to the God Khepri, also known as the god of the morning. We walked clockwise seven times around the statue while meditating on our intentions. Then we stopped, stomped our left foot (side of spirit), sealed the requests and walked perpendicularly away. As we stomped our foot, we said to ourselves, "When the intention is clear and the commitment is strong...So be it....It Must Be So!"
James warned us to be very sure of what we were asking for, because it would happen, along with the anti-intentions. He told us he was nervous about doing the ritual again, and wasn't sure he was going to do it this time. The last time he said the "positive" and "negative" results were extremely powerful. About halfway through my seven circles, I saw James making his circles as well.
Apparently, his desire to participate overcame his concerns. Looking at the "negative" results that showed up in his life just about a year later, it leaves you to wonder what "positive" things he requested as he made his way around the scarab beetle!
The WWS trip to Peru in August of 2009 also featured numerous indigenous-inspired rituals, most with shamans of various stripes, though Ray, clinging to his own sham-anic cred, struggled to maintain his role as their chief spiritual leader and magic maker. Ms. Joy describes a ceremony he conducted in Machu Picchu, on one of the highest points in the city: the Intihuatana Stone, aka "The Hitching Post of the Sun."

Ray began the ritual with his customary invocation of four archangels, but this time it took on particularly dramatic tones. He began by calling on Rafael, the archangel of the East, represented by the element of air. At that moment, writes Ms. Joy, the participants were nearly bowled over by a wind so strong that they had to hold onto each other in order to remain standing. Next Ray invoked the archangel of the West, Gabriel, represented by the element of water. The skies opened up and there was a torrent of rain, although it was still supposed to be the dry season in that area. Then Ray called upon Michael, archangel of the South, represented by fire, and lightning flashed all around. The other tourists went scrambling for shelter and it felt, at that point, as if they were in the midst of a hurricane. The camera crew that had followed them was hanging on to keep from blowing off the top of the hill, and their cameras were soaked and trashed.

Ms. Joy writes that she had attended enough of these invocations to know that the final archangel would be Auriel, or Uriel, the angel of the North, representing the earth element. "James was preparing to call on this Archangel in the middle of one of the planet's most seismically active areas!" she writes. That point had just been driven home a little while ago when the group learned how the Incas had designed their walls to better absorb vibrations during earthquakes. Several people shot Ray a nervous look to communicate that maybe calling upon Uriel wasn't such a good idea.

In response, Ray looked at them and grinned. Then he chose, for the first time Ms. Joy had ever observed, not to complete the invocation, saying he had better quit. His followers laughed in relief, and I bet you can predict what happened next. The moment Ray ceased the invocations, the storm stopped as well, and a huge rainbow arched across the sky directly in front of the participants. The tour organizer Vera and her guides said they had never seen it rain like that during the dry season, ever.

I'll just have to take part of this story on faith, I suppose. I am not questioning the basic account of anomalous weather patterns; weather is getting weirder all over the planet these days, but as you can probably guess (since I am easily as predictable as some of the anecdotes I cite), I have a little problem with the coincidental timing of the archangel invocations and specific meteorological manifestations, and a bigger problem with the implied causation. What is important is that Ray had undeniable power, if not over nature then certainly over his followers, and when nature or other circumstance fell into place that power was only reinforced. Notwithstanding my own skepticism, though, I suspect there are some people who, upon reading this anecdote, will wish Ray had gone ahead and invoked Uriel, and had subsequently been swallowed up by the earth. It would have been too late already for Colleen, but Kirby, James and Liz would have been spared.

Those who are sticklers for tolerance might deem it inappropriate in this context to focus criticism on the author's beliefs, for, notwithstanding the fact that a recurring theme on my blog is the snarkworthiness (in my view) of what I frequently refer to as New-Wage/McSpirituality beliefs and practices, this is supposed to be a book review, more or less. And some would point out that the circling and stomping and such are no sillier than many of the rituals performed in mainstream religions. That may be true, but to me they are no less silly either. Yet at the same time, I acknowledge the place that rituals, religious or otherwise, have in people's lives, and I know that they can be very comforting. (You can just imagine the arguments that are constantly going on in my head.)

In any case this blog is also a forum for discussing ideas, particularly mine, and my perception of this book and any other is inevitably colored by my own ideas. And, tolerance issues aside, I feel that some readers might be a little put off by Ms. Joy's theorizing, however well-intentioned, about the mystical factors influencing this story – particularly her views of the role that the universe and/or guardian angels and/or God may have played in protecting her and her husband from being in the fatal sweat lodge in 2009. These sorts of things kind of alienated me, even though I "understand where she's coming from," as people used to say back in the 1970s.

Money, money, money
There is another Great Divide here too. The last thing I want to do is add fuel to the fires of the self-help defenders (and offenders) who gleefully claim that critics' main motivation for lambasting the self-help industry and its gurus is that we are, to a person, poor, envious, broke losers. Nor do I want to give credence to the absurd critic-basher assertion that "we" loathe money and believe it is evil to earn lots of it.

Even so, I can't help thinking of the struggling middle class – the growing numbers of folks who, irrespective of belief systems or lack thereof, lie awake nights wondering how on earth they are going to keep the lights on or pay the rent for another month, to say nothing of how they might manage such luxuries as needed medical care for themselves or a loved one. (As Salty Droid said recently on his blog, in regard to Tony Robbins: "He has an island :: you have bills you can't pay.") I suspect that some of these folks will find it immensely difficult to empathize with people whose level of affluence allows them to hand over $200,000 – the amount Ms. Joy says she and her husband spent through the years on Ray events and memberships – to someone such as James Ray.

People have the right to spend their own money as they see fit, of course, and this is not about encouraging a blanket resentment of the affluent, which is just as irrational as guru worship and hurts only the resentful one. Furthermore the author is not James Ray or Tony Robbins; whatever one's opinion might be of those water filters she and her husband sell,3 the two appear to have earned their wealth – which doesn't seem all that extravagant in comparison to the really big players – without hurting anyone.

In the book she is also forthright about the difficulties the Joys had with the size of the "investments" they were being asked to make in James Ray's increasingly bloated empire. In fact, in her introduction Ms. Joy clearly states that she and her husband had previously been financially conservative and never intended to spend so much money on their spiritual growth. Ray apparently interrupted their pattern of fiscal conservatism by driving home the notion that decisions, including those on how to spend money, should be made with an eye to future abundance rather than current scarcity. (Towards the end of the book Ms. Joy sums up other factors that prompted many people to spend thousands of dollars on Ray.) Although teaching people to "act as if" is a familiar strategy used by Law of Attraction hucksters who want to separate marks from their money, Ms. Joy's opinion is that basing present-day decisions upon desired future realities does work in some areas. She wryly adds that financially it worked very well for Ray, though not necessarily for his students.

The World Wealth Society was among the most outrageous examples of Ray's misappropriation of his most loyal followers' money, not to mention his betrayal of their trust. You might be wondering why the previously conservative Joys would have joined this eye-openingly expensive group at all, but it seems that they had at least partially altruistic motives; Ray initially marketed it as a powerful vehicle for humanitarian works, although – no big surprise here – he soon began reneging on that promise, and just about every other initial promise regarding the WWS, in very big ways. Soon after the 2009 tragedies, there was no more WWS, period. Did paying members get their membership fees refunded? I think you know the answer to that.
But the fact remains that as painful as it may have been for them, the Joys did spend all of that money with Ray, and I feel that this may make some readers less inclined to sympathize and empathize with them.

Were there any real benefits for Ray's participants?
Even in light of my understanding that the point of Tragedy in Sedona is not to make readers shed tears for the author but rather to help us understand why she and so many others followed Ray for as long as they did, I still feel that the factors I've discussed above are potential obstacles, and I'm saying this because they were for me. I got past those obstacles but I still recognize that for self-help critics and casual observers alike, there may be a bit of noise to overcome in this work before stumbling upon the resonant chord that will allow a true understanding – something more than an intellectual acknowledgment – of Ray's appeal for so many intelligent, educated people.

And though Ms. Joy explains repeatedly that she really did achieve some good and measurable results from her few years with Ray, and formed some deep friendships with other Ray followers, the chord of understanding may be faint indeed for some who have not chosen a similar track to self-improvement, or who are simply and justifiably outraged by Ray's actions. For me, the task of understanding might have been a little easier if the author had been more of a "writerly" type and her style a little more engaging. But she is not a writer by trade, as she mentions more than once in the book, and she did have a lot of rocky ground to cover.

What is important to me is that she did make the effort to recount events and explain how they affected her personally for better or worse – and I have to keep in mind that her book is an expression of her perspective, as my blog is an expression of mine. The events themselves were interesting enough to me that I wanted to keep reading to find out "what happens next." Ms. Joy also supplements her perspective with those of other people, especially towards the end of the book where, through a combination of her own observations and quotations from others, she sums up the factors that prevented people from simply exiting the sweat lodge en masse at the first sign of trouble. I wish more people would read and understand that part, because even now there are folks who seem a bit complacent about the whole thing, insisting that they would never be so foolish.

I have a lifelong intolerance for extreme heat and cannot really imagine myself going into a sweat lodge in the first place, but I am disgusted by some people's complete lack of empathy for those who did. Just the other day I read a comment by someone – anonymous, of course – who declared that the people who stayed in the sweat lodge were idiots and were responsible for their own injuries and deaths. To me, statements such as those reveal who the true idiots are.

Regarding the question raised earlier about why Ms. Joy kept signing up for Ray's events despite the red flags she saw from the beginning, she explains the reasons as she takes us through the various events in which she participated. These events offered sufficient positive experiences and benefits to keep her and her husband going back for more.

There were, for example, the giddy highs earned by accomplishing physically and emotionally challenging feats such as bending rebar or arrows with one's throat, smashing a board or concrete slab with one's hand without breaking any bones, scaling steep walls, completing the obligatory firewalk, and so forth. Ms. Joy describes her emotional breakthrough after she completed the wall climbing exercise, with the help of fellow participants – no mean feat since at the time she says she weighed over 300 pounds:
One of the James Ray International staffers came over and said watching me go over the wall was one of the most amazing things she had ever seen, and she congratulated me. I still could not believe it! I was overcome by the love and unconditional support my team gave me. If only it could be that way in the "real" world, where we love and support each other totally rather than always being in competition with each other. I felt like I was seeing and feeling a "snapshot" of our true human potential. Would our race ever be able to actually achieve it someday?
For those such as Ms. Joy and her husband who chose to volunteer at subsequent events, there were also the feelings of satisfaction gained from coaching others through these intimidating experiences and sharing in their triumphs. Then there were the insights gained from marathon journaling sessions and even more grueling emotional exercises. And there were the deeply emotional and spiritual experiences on trips to sacred spots in Egypt and Peru – trips that were only made available to members of Ray's World Wealth Society.

Some people may find these examples unconvincing, even without the 20/20 hindsight of what happened in San Diego and Sedona in 2009. However, having been through (considerably less extreme) LGAT (Large Group Awareness Training) experiences myself, and having had some positive experiences and short-lived breakthroughs as a result, I am willing to give Ms. Joy some benefit of the doubt despite my current distaste for all things LGAT. 

Even so, when reading her firewalking account I also couldn't help thinking of my friend Duff McDuffee's recent blog post about his own experiences with firewalking at a long-ago Tony Robbins event (and, as many people know, Robbins was James Ray's main role model). Duff writes:
Unfortunately few contexts are relevantly similar to firewalking, as I found out the hard way. Achieving most personal outcomes requires patience, persistence, and flexibility, not an intense emotional display and impulsive action.
But this aggressive positivity does work in some contexts. Unfortunately it works by bowling over inner and outer objections. I have a distinct memory once of having a disagreement with someone after UPW [the Robbins event Duff attended]. They had an objection to something I was saying, or some goal I had set for myself. I found myself raising my voice, becoming more passionate and expressive, and they immediately backed down. I realized in that moment that this stuff was dangerous—being aggressively positive in this way was a kind of emotional bullying, getting your way through force of personality. If you get emotional enough, others can no longer think rationally—most either enthusiastically agree or get disgusted with you and walk off. (Luckily I had some meditator friends who had cultivated enough equanimity to continue to rationally question me during this period. Lucky too that I had not been fully indoctrinated so I was willing to listen.)
It took me years to realize that this is also what I had been doing inside. The aggressive positivity of Tony Robbins had appealed to me precisely because it fit well with the self-hate I had already been engaged in. I forced myself to be happy because I didn’t know how to deal with my intense, painful emotions—especially the existential anxiety and despair I had encountered through deep contemplation as a Philosophy major. For me, aggressive positivity was a counter-phobic response to the existential condition…was this also the case for Robbins? How many aggressively positive self-help enthusiasts are engaged in self-improvement as a strategy to avoid confronting the inevitability of death?
Somewhere in there, I think, lies a key to James Ray's own preoccupation with death and death games. We could argue for years about the merits, or lack thereof, of extreme LGAT exercises such as firewalking, rebar bending, and board smashing – and some have been doing just that (take a look at the Rick Ross forums, for example) – but I don't want to stray too far from Ms. Joy's book. Reading her remark about the wall-climbing exercise being, for her, a "snapshot" of what it might be like to live in an environment of total and constant love and support, it is obvious that this was a meaningful experience for her and the other participants. But it seems to me that, all things considered, it was a rather expensive snapshot in more ways than one, not to mention a deceptive one for, as Duff said, few contexts are relevantly similar to the artificial environment created at retreats.

Ms. Joy writes of the uncertainty she and some of her fellow participants felt before embarking on James Ray's firewalk and a number of other personal-growth exercises masquerading as foolhardy stunts (or vice-versa). They continually and nervously reassured each other that Ray, being a businessman, would never offer anything that would seriously harm his clients, because that would be bad for business. Reading this made me wonder, "What about the disclaimers and waivers that participants had to sign before the events and that spelled out in black and white that they might be injured or killed, for which contingencies they agreed to hold Ray and his organization harmless?"

Still, I understand the logic: in a rational world, a good businessman would not deliberately and systematically do something to compromise his money source. Ray's world, however, was one where rationality did not rule.
Ray prepared for his firewalks by calling upon the customary four archangels for protection and chanting in several different languages (which he chose for their "high vibrational quality"), presumably to help shield his herd from harm. But he did not boldly lead the way onto those hot coals. Writes Ms. Joy, "We never saw James walk fire. In fact, we never saw James do any of the activities like bending rebar or breaking a bar with his hands." Perhaps Ray thought he had no further need for those exercises, having long since conquered all of the mental and emotional issues the exercises were intended to address. But he did of course participate in the sweat lodges, and as most of us who have followed this tale are well aware, he always chose a spot next to the opening, where it was possible to get fresh air.

At any rate it seems to me that even viewed in the most charitable light, many of the "exercises" at James Ray events were of dubious long-term value, though I acknowledge that some of the individuals who actually experienced them, including Ms. Joy, may have different opinions. Some activities were unquestionably harmful, and, for an unfortunate few, fatal. However, Ms. Joy documents other personal benefits she gained at least partly as a result of her association with Ray, including her rather remarkable success with handling her serious lifelong weight problem. For that, though, she also got inspiration and motivation from a weight-loss contest sponsored by the owner of her workout club, and additional inspiration from fitness guru Jillian Michaels and TV's The Biggest Loser, as well as from a couple of books she read. But she says that both she and her husband made positive changes that benefited their health and their business, apparently as a result of inspiration and guidance from Ray and from some of the professionals they met at his events. To me that makes her choice to follow him more understandable.

I would most likely not have taken that route, even if I'd had the money to do so, but I am not Connie Joy. (I also admit that I, a person who feels winded after climbing a long flight of stairs, will probably never climb to the top of Huana Picchu in Peru. That was an impressive feat; I get acrophobia just looking at that picture on her web site.) Regarding the weight matter, to her credit, Ms. Joy does not claim that she has found the "permanent" solution to weight management, a point that sets her apart from at least one New-Wage guru I've criticized here in the past. She is very honest about the fact that the weight issue is something she'll probably have to deal with for the rest of her life.

Also to her credit, it seems that she was no starry-eyed follower who gave an enthusiastic thumbs-up to everything that went on at the JRI events she attended. Most significantly, she makes it very clear that her one first-hand experience in a James Ray sweat lodge was distressing to say the least. Ms. Joy was familiar with therapeutic sweating, having been a fan for years of saunas and steam baths – in moderation. But the 2007 Spiritual Warrior sweat lodge she attended was anything but moderate, as she describes in detail in Chapter 8 of the book. She says that following this experience she tried repeatedly to warn others that the lodge was dangerously hot and that eventually someone was going to be seriously injured or killed. The following year the Joys' friend Edward participated in the lodge and nearly lost his life. It turned out that there had been a serious problem at the 2005 sweat lodge as well. Ms. Joy says she expressed her concerns in numerous conversations and emails, but apparently to no avail.

Over the years there were several other issues that Ms. Joy and her husband tried to address by communicating with Ray directly, but he made it very difficult to do so either via email or at his events. As his star continued to rise in the wake of The Secret, with his ego apparently growing proportionately, he kept himself increasingly well buffered with bodyguards and select staff members. The Joys did manage to have some direct interactions with him, but for their efforts they were labeled as "trouble makers." (I've been called that myself on more than one occasion, so I feel a sort of kinship.) Regrettably, however, the Joys never had a chance to talk to Ray directly about their deep concerns regarding the Spiritual Warrior sweat lodge.

Some may wonder why they didn't make more of an effort to do so, despite Ray's resistance, but I think this is another one of those questions borne of 20/20 hindsight. As Spiritual Warrior 2009 approached Ms. Joy was still concerned about the sweat lodge issue, but apparently had enough faith in Ray's willingness to learn from his mistakes to believe that the problems would be corrected, particularly after the previous year's near-disaster. She and her husband were also still more or less operating under the assumption that because Ray was a businessman, he surely wouldn't do anything that would harm his participants. Knowing Ray as she and many others have portrayed him, however, they could have regaled him for hours about the potential hazards of his sweat lodge, and more than likely he would have gone on and done just as he pleased. That seemed to be his pattern, anyway; apparently he was too firmly set on his own egotistical, push-people-past-their-limits path to listen to the concerns of others.

One phenomenon that I think Connie Joy does a good job of demonstrating is that in the last years before the San Diego and Sedona horrors, even as it became more apparent to some in his inner circle that Ray's empire was on shaky ground, he was able to maintain a substantial following and retain the trust and even the love of many people. He accomplished this through a combination of charisma, aggressive salesmanship, and an ability to put on those impressive shows. There was something else going on as well: Ms. Joy explains that the friendships formed among like-minded seekers were just as important as, if not more so than, the interactions with their charismatic leader. These were deep bonds for some people and they were certainly instrumental in keeping some coming back to Ray's events.

But Ray was always at the center of those circles of friendship in one way or another; he was the one factor all of these friends had in common, and some people who left the fold after the Sedona tragedy did so with mixed feelings. Some still loved Ray, though they were shocked by the deaths and puzzled or revolted by his seemingly cavalier behavior. (His actions at the San Diego World Wealth Summit a mere nine days after the fatal sweat lodge – the day that Liz Neuman died, as it turned out – seem particularly egregious to me.)

There are lessons for all of us in this. I don't think any one of us is immune to placing deep and perhaps unfounded trust in a teacher or leader. As the saga of James Ray makes painfully clear, we need to pick and choose our teachers with great care. It's fine to talk about separating the message from the messenger, which is the tack that people often take when trying to rationalize their own adulation for teachers or leaders (including political leaders) who have been caught with their pants down in one way or another. Still, "separate the message from the messenger" is good advice in a general sense, although, as I've discussed on this blog before (such as here), it is often a challenge when brand-happy, money-hungry "messengers" insinuate themselves so thoroughly into every lesson – and when, in some cases, the message itself is suspect.

By "suspect" messages, I am not merely referring to the quantum silliness and pseudoscience that appear in moviemercials such as What the Bleep?!? and The Secret, and are touted by just about every New-Wage guru worth his or her salt these days. I am referring also to the targeted messages that prey upon people's vulnerabilities, not to mention their bank accounts – messages in which the messenger claims to feel the pain of his or her targets and to be looking out for their interests, when the guru's own self-interest is the prevailing motivation.

Ms. Joy certainly went through the message/messenger quandary with James Ray, and learned the hard way that he didn't always, or perhaps ever, have his followers' best interests at heart. Yet she doesn't think that everything he taught was nonsense. She writes, “Independent of how I feel about him personally, I have to acknowledge that James taught us some really good stuff. Too bad he didn’t pay attention to his own material.”

One more point, regarding the money issues I touched on earlier: After completing the book and thinking about it, I see this as another area in which Ms. Joy tried to do the right thing, within the limits possible for someone who was still semi-committed to James Ray. Even though she and her husband spent lots of money with Ray, in my view they made up for it somewhat by discouraging others from overextending themselves. Most notably, they discouraged people from signing up for Ray's most costly events. At one time he had structured and promoted his events more or less as a progressive series, with the less pricey workshops and retreats being prerequisites to the "pinnacle event" and most expensive of the lot, Spiritual Warrior. In later years, however, as he apparently grew more desperate and greedy, he was pushing Spiritual Warrior more aggressively to everyone, damn the "prerequisites."

I have seen this corroborated elsewhere. For example, as reported by Salty Droid, Colleen Conaway had signed up for Spiritual Warrior 2009 during a Harmonic Wealth weekend – "the lowest level program in Death Ray's manipulation curriculum," as the Droid put it, adding:
But for some {evil} reason Colleen just couldn’t wait until October to be back with James Arthur Ray. She added two other Ray events to her schedule on short notice. Taking unexpected road trips :: spending money she didn’t have. One event was in St. Cloud, MN :: The other in Chicago. At the Chicago event Colleen participated in the damaging ‘board-breaking’ exercises that have been reported elsewhere. She came back injured :: and changed. Suddenly she seemed more serious. She eliminated all ‘negativity’ from her life :: filtering out news and events that weren’t in conformity with her new “Harmonic” views...

For her part, Ms. Joy says she was very forthright with people who asked her for advice, recommending that they not make such a significant investment at the outset but that they try one of the less expensive events first. It seems that Ray got word of that and was not pleased.

Let's hear it for the trouble makers.

Style: non-fatal flaws
At this point I'm going to get a little pedantic, so bear with me for a few moments. I think this book could have benefited from more careful copy editing. I was distracted here and there throughout the book by misspellings, inconsistent spelling, and the occasional tense (as in past-present) confusion (the latter was mostly an issue in Chapter 1). There was nothing egregious, just a few glitches that were noticeable to me, anyway.

The Sedona chapters that appear towards the end of the book are packed with important information but are a little rough around the edges. Granted, the author relies for a significant part of that information upon transcripts of interviews, which make for awkward reading, as the spoken word very often does, and I'm not faulting her writing for that. However, in some places it appears that paraphrasing is integrated with direct quotations from the transcript, which I thought was a little confusing. I also wish she had been more specific in some of her citations, e.g., when quoting specific journalists or reporters, I think she should have named them. A listing of source material at the end of the book would have been helpful too. As is explained in the Publisher's Note at the beginning, there is a listing of references and sources on the Tragedy in Sedona web site (, but I think it would have been good to have them included in the book too.

Overall the Sedona chapters are somewhat rambling, as if the author had been trying to get all of the relevant information into the chapters without much attention to flow. I don't think this will be too problematic for most folks who are familiar with the story, especially those who have followed it online from the time it first broke, but others might find these chapters confusing in places. When reading online, one can always follow links within the piece, and/or conduct an independent search for more information. But a print book is a more permanent and static medium than a hyperlink-rich web site, and therefore I think that a little more fleshing-out of context is necessary. After all, there are still thousands of people out there who are not familiar with the sweat lodge story, and I think the book would have been improved by the inclusion of explanations for the benefit of readers who don't know the details.

In places Tragedy in Sedona reads as if it were a rush job, which I imagine it was to a certain extent, as the publishers probably wanted to get it "out there" before Ray's manslaughter trial began (this would help explain the lack of references and sources in the book; it is of course far easier to add and update such things online). As it turned out, however, they had a little more time on their hands, since the trial has been postponed till February 2011.
Stylistic flaws aside, I think that the work is generally well organized and the chronology of events is clear, and from a design standpoint the book looks very professional. And the substance of Tragedy in Sedona is "meaty" enough that the stylistic problems were not a deal killer for me.

Worth the journey, bumpy as it isDespite my mixed feelings about this book as I was reading it, I think that the journey across the Great Divide, or Divides as the case may be, is a worthwhile one even for the most adamant critics and cynics to make, and I feel it would be a mistake to reject Tragedy in Sedona on the grounds that the author is an affluent believer who spent a lot of money to be part of James Ray's inner circle. However you or I may feel about self-help and pop spirituality, Ms. Joy claims to be getting something good from her self-improvement journey, and thousands of others make that same claim for themselves. Where it comes to James Ray, however, Ms. Joy is clearly in the camp of the disenchanted, so I think we have some common ground to work with here.

And there are, I admit, certain places in the narrative where I was momentarily able to separate myself from what I perceived as the author's credulity regarding new-age rituals and beliefs, and I found myself slipping into a more literary frame of mind that allowed me to appreciate, at least on a rudimentary level, the symbols woven throughout the accounts. I could almost look at some of the anecdotes as a sort of magical realism, even as I wondered if they literally occurred exactly as told.

One symbol that stood out for me was the hummingbird, that tiny but hardy jewel that can hold steady in the fiercest storms, making it a convenient symbol of strength and perseverance, and that rouses itself every morning from a literally deathlike state called torpor, rendering it, inevitably, a symbol of resurrection. I cherish hummingbirds more for their own wondrous selves than for their symbolic value in religion and the arts – sometimes, a hummingbird is just a hummingbird, and I'm fine with that – but I can appreciate the symbolic aspects too. In any case, the hummingbird figured into Inca religion and was therefore part of one of the walking, or rather climbing, meditations in which Ray and his followers participated in Peru.

The hummingbird has an abiding personal meaning for the author as well, which she also reveals in the Peru chapter and rather poetically invokes again at the very end of her book. Appropriately, the designer used a hummingbird as chapter end marks and section dividers, which made me smile a little when I first opened the book. I had just said to myself the previous day, while reviewing the activity around my hummingbird feeders, that I was glad the birds were back but I wished there were lots more of them. Then the next day I received a book full of the little buggers.

Imperfect as it is in parts, the sum of Tragedy in Sedona works not only as a testimony to the arrogance and recklessness of one self-help guru, but also as another cautionary tale about the dangers of putting too much trust in any type of guru. I think it is also an accurate depiction of the kind of stuff that goes on at many if not most personal-growth LGAT trainings that draw upon the worst traditions of hoary old est by using what can only be described as brainwashing techniques: ridiculously long days and nights, sleep deprivation, tightly controlled meal and bathroom breaks, and the like. While the topic of LGAT techniques and their effects on participants has been discussed endlessly on critical forums, I have a feeling that there are still many people who are unaware of what really goes on in those hotel conference rooms.4

As for the man at the focus of this story, there is another important message as well, which can be gleaned from the pages of Connie Joy's book and from all of the conversation surrounding these tragedies: I don't think we can safely say at this point that James Arthur Ray is down for the count. Many, including some of his former followers, think he is still dangerous. He is clearly still trying to gather followers and resurrect what is left of his career, and is succeeding to some degree, if the fawning comments in response to his inane ramblings on Twitter are any indication. (His detractors' smart-aleck responses are much more amusing; you can easily follow them on the right-hand side of Salty Droid's blog, under the "Topical Tweeting" section.)

This past June, ABC aired an excellent report, as part of their Mind Games series, about Ray, his followers, and the fatal sweat lodge. (Here is the link to the companion Web article, which also contains links to related articles and videos.) Among other things the episode brought home the point that even some of his event participants who ended up flat broke and, by most people's standards, worse off after their experiences with Ray, still remained loyal to their guru and declared that they'd do it all over again. Salty Droid wrote, in a post published a couple of days after the broadcast:
The most compelling :: and depressing :: part of the story is in the last segment when several Spiritual Warrior participants tell [reporter Dan] Harris that they are still in the market for helping themselves to death. [Kristina] Bivins and Brian [Essad] actually say that they’d attend another Ray event! I mean seriously? What the f--k? If that doesn’t illustrate the disturbing severity of this problem … then nothing does.
Bivins could have died. When help arrived to the scene of the crime :: she was foaming at the mouth and screaming out James Ray’s name. Her brains and vital organs may have been permanently damaged :: and a couple of years were probably shaved off her lifespan. In the months that have followed :: hard facts and sad stories have revealed Ray to be a sick and uncaring charlatan. Yet she still sees these expensive {in every sense of the word} experiences as positives :: and is ready to get right back in line.
Even if one has issues with the author's belief systems and her interpretations of events, or with the stylistic flaws in the book, Tragedy in Sedona is a worthwhile addition to the literature, if for no other reason than that it is a reminder of James Ray's insidiousness. But, as I noted towards the beginning of this long post, it's not all doom and gloom and pointing the finger at Ray. Tragedy in Sedona is also worth reading for the author's simple, common-sense suggestions, at the end of the book, of ways the self-help seminar industry can be reformed without destroying it. Ms. Joy writes that she has learned and grown tremendously over the past few years because of self-help and spiritual teachers, and she would hate to see most of these types of opportunities disappear just because of James Ray.5

What is left
If there's one other important takeaway from Tragedy in Sedona, it is that compassion should occupy a central place in this whole tangled story. I'm not a Buddhist but my guy Ron is, and last year – not long before the Sedona story broke, as it happened – we took a tour of
a new Buddhist center on the outskirts of one of the small rural towns near us. Our guide, a delightful Asian woman, happily drove us around the spacious grounds on a golf cart, stopping at many points of interest along the way.

One point where we lingered a while was an enormous statue of Kuan Yin, pretty much in the middle of nowhere on the property, or so it seemed to me. "Look at her face," our guide said, turning to me. "What do you see?" I didn't need any prompting to answer, "Compassion," and I wasn't just being polite. For a moment, I think I really got it. It wasn't enough to make me turn to Buddhism, but something hit home, for a moment anyway. I thought briefly of the lyrics from the song, "If It Be Your Will" by singer, songwriter, poet, novelist and longtime Buddhist Leonard Cohen:

If it be Your will / If there is a choice / Let the rivers fill / Let the hills rejoice
Let Your mercy spill / On all these burning hearts in hell / If it be Your will to make us well...

Anger at James Ray and those who served as his enablers is understandable, and it's very healthy to be deeply skeptical of the personal-growth industry and the culture of self-indulgence that has richly fed Ray and his colleagues for so long, but the other force we all need to embrace, for our own sanity, is compassion. Without that, no one can make us well, not even G_d-if-there-is-one. I expect that many people figured this out long ago, and I am also willing to bet that some of you who have ragged at me for being so snarky on this blog and engaging in "character assassination" of my various snargets will think I am being hypocritical, or at the very least inconsistent – or incoherent, as one of my snargets has said of me – for preaching about compassion at all. 

Whether you are right or wrong about me, I find that even a year after Sedona I am having trouble working up much compassion for Ray; I guess those tweets and videos of his are really getting to me. Especially on today of all days, the one-year anniversary of Death Lodge, his apparent lack of respect for his victims' families is appalling. I am not saying he is undeserving of compassion, just that I can't feel much of it for him right now. But compassion for his victims and their families comes easily, and despite my grousing about details I also have compassion for others who, though they didn't lose their lives, invested time, money, energy, and emotion in his teachings, and now regret it on some level.

Furthermore I sense that Connie Joy's compassion, not to mention her residual survivor's guilt, are genuine, and apparently her book has been enormously helpful for other former Ray followers, including some who attended Spiritual Warrior 2009. Where Ray's fate is concerned Ms. Joy seems to take the middle ground; she's not out for his blood the way some critics are accused of being, but she wants justice for the victims. Some people may be disappointed that she and other former Ray followers aren't more regretful of the choices they made, and that they aren't all taking more of a hardcore stance against Ray and the entire self-help industry. Here's where I think a little compassion and understanding are definitely in order. After reading Tragedy In Sedona I'm much more willing to give Ms. Joy a pass than I am, say, someone like Josh or Megan Fredrickson, or even some of those fawning @JamesARay followers on Twitter.

And let's not forget the people who are at the real heart of this story. Subtract the furor around James Ray, take away the rancorous exchanges about the good, the bad, and the ugly in the personal-growth industry, strip away the questions about the motives of the people who offered up their love, their trust, and their money to Ray; and what is left is the pure raw grief of those whose loved ones were taken away from them because of him: the young man who lost his mother and wrote to me that he isn't ready yet to read Tragedy in Sedona, so I'll just have to read it for him; the angry family of a strong, healthy and relatively young woman who should not have died because "she was not done living"; the young family abruptly deprived of a devoted husband and father; and – lest we forget – the aging parents and loving siblings who were left with more questions than answers after learning their daughter and sister had plunged to her death in a San Diego shopping mall. The latter may never see justice done, and there's still a big question as to whether there will be any justice for the families of the Sedona victims.

Of necessity I have listed only a few of the bereaved; each of the people who died was part of a large web of other family members and friends who are still reeling from their loss. Nothing we say or write will bring back the departed, but, contrary to what one of my favorite detractors has said, this does not mean that what we say and write about Death Lodge is useless because the dead can't read or hear it and no one else is listening or reading.

So, from one Connie to another, shouting or whispering across the Great Divide: I hope this book helps you and other survivors of the James Ray train wreck find the peace you are looking for. I hope also that it helps others make some sense of the devastation that Ray has left in his wake, and that it contributes, as you have said you wished, to improving an industry that is very much in need of improvement.

What the future holds for James Ray is anyone's guess at this point, but there are many of us – the critical and the credulous, the cynical and the disillusioned, the believers and the nonbelievers, and most especially the bereaved – who are keeping a close eye on this story. I will continue to do so and will either report or link to reports of updates.

Right now, though, I am going to go out to our front porch and take down the hummingbird feeders, after which I will carefully wash them and put them away for the winter. It is time. I haven't seen or heard a single hummingbird in several days, although I have watched and listened closely for whatever might be left of their iridescent tribe in my neck of the woods. They were here for a few weeks in late summer and the earliest days of fall, buzzing around and fighting over the fake nectar we provide for them in gaudy plastic feeders to aid them in their frenetic preparation for the arduous and solitary journey to their winter home. Ron and I and a fortunate few of our city friends enjoyed them as we always do, but after the first real cool snap hit a week and a half ago, their lot thinned out considerably. We have long summers here, and relatively mild winters, but our winters apparently are not warm enough to overcome the powerful pull of lands further south. Though one or two stragglers hit the feeders for a few days after the cool front came through, I see no sign of them now, and the trees that were filled with their fussy chatter have gone silent. I'm just going to have to accept that the hangers-on finally submitted to the lure of the south as well and are now probably soaring somewhere over the Gulf of Mexico.

But, unlike the utterly irreplaceable human beings who were ushered too soon out of this life because of a money-hungry, out-of-control egomaniac, they will be back again next spring.

Amazon page for Tragedy in Sedona
Tragedy in Sedona web site
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Other remembrances...
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1. Yes, I know that we all see what we want to see; accordingly, if you're more of a believer or self-help fan than I, your perceptions will almost certainly vary.
2. If you do research on Brian Buffini you will probably see mention of his
Turning Point program. This seems to be geared towards real estate sales and, as far as I can tell, is not to be confused with the Turning Point/People KnowHow program that was apparently at least partially responsible for several psychotic episodes and suicides over the years.
3. For
a more skeptical view on "Kangen water" check out what Orac, the physician who writes the Respectful Insolence blog, has to say.
4. Regarding LGAT techniques,
here is just one of thousands of other examples documented in print and on the Net. Also see Steve Salerno's excellent SHAMblog series on the Landmark Forum (and his pieces on Lifespring and Legacy).
5. Some time back
I wrote another long post about my own (and others') views regarding self-help regulation and reform. I've also discussed some other issues pertinent to the self-help industry, personal responsibility, and our culture of expectations in my "Conversations With Peter Wink" series earlier this year. Here's a link to Part 3, and you can follow the tag link at the end of the post if you want to see the others.6. "If It Be Your Will" is on the 1985 album Various Positions. Copyright (c) by Leonard Cohen Stranger Music. Apparently Cohen likes hummingbirds too, as one is featured on the cover of what I consider to be his finest work, his 1992 album The Future.

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