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
* * * * *
Other remembrances...
* * * * *
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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Yakaru said...

That fire story made me think of this recent twitter from Death Ray:

It's those areas where we think we "have it all figured out" that we place oursleves at most risk.

Of course, "ourselves" should read "others", and it would be a good epitaph for him, coz it's probably the story of his life.

Thanks for the review, Connie.

My sincerest condolences to those who lost loved ones.

Cosmic Connie said...

You're welcome, Yakaru. Connie Joy recounts numerous examples in her book of Ray doing things that were clearly contrary to some of his favorite words of wisdom.

Amen to the condolences to the victims' families. Ray could have at least put a moratorium on the tweeting for today.

Duff said...

Great article, Connie. Very thoughtful review, and made me reflect again about Ray's victims from the homicide in Sedona (I won't call it a "tragedy" though 'cause that's Ray's PR-speak---it was a homicide IMHO).

Regarding compassion, I do think it is easier to have compassion for the victims than the perpetrator, especially when he's a psychopath (let's be honest here). Yet I still think it's a good thing to do to try and have a balance of seeking justice and having compassion for Mr. Ray himself, or else we might become what he has demonstrated himself to be---uncaring and callous.

I appreciate your frank discussion of compassion and the challenges in actually experiencing compassion in the light of this situation, and also appreciate the very thorough book review.

Cosmic Connie said...

Thanks, Duff. It is hard to find balance in this matter, and I can only imagine how much more difficult that is for the people who were much closer to the situation. Homicide or not, I think it is a tragic story so that is why I use that word. From the viewpoint of the victims and their families, even cold-blooded, first-degree murder (which isn't what JAR is charged with of course) is tragic.

I will say that after I read Connie Joy's book I am leaning more towards the "throw him UNDER the jail" camp where Ray is concerned. And previously I had always taken a more moderate stance on this matter. However, her recounting of incident after incident of his manipulative and abusive behavior really drove the point home to me that maybe we really are talking about a sociopath or even a psychopath who does pose a real danger to society. (Wake up, Cosmic Connie!)

That's how I feel today, anyway.

I should reiterate that in the book Ms. Joy was not advocating the harshest possible punishment for Ray; she was trying to take more of a middle ground. But the net effect of reading her book made me lean more towards the harsh-punishment options.

wondering why said...

Connie, I enjoyed reading your review on this sbook..I have been following this (JAR Sweat Lodge Incident) since last year.Yes, I for one am glad for all of your comments,also the comments of Salty's, Yorgey's, Terry and Amy Hall's and all the posters that read their blogs.I am glad that some people care enough to make a big deal of this and not let people forget what happened!

Cosmic Connie said...

Thanks, wondering why. In general it seems that the public has a short memory -- due largely to the fact that there are so many distractions, so much going on all the time -- which is why I think it is especially important to keep this conversation going.

Jean D. said...

This is very well done, Connie. Beautifully written. It is truly a day to reflect on the loss of some wonderful people whose lives should not have ended. I so much appreciate how you emphasize the need for understanding those who follow these crazy "leaders". We humans are complex creatures and the psychology of brainwashing/mind control is definitely a complicated area. Indeed, wonderful,intelligent people can be misled and controlled. You did a great job of presenting this.

As far as JAR is concerned, you know I and others have reported that various individuals, who grew up with Ray, say he's always been a hateful,arrogant bully and was injecting dangerous levels of steroids at an early age. This monster's ego did not simply "grow out of control". He just stopped acting like a semi-decent person because he couldn't maintain the charade. IMO Ray deserves to be locked away from society and prevented from ever hurting people again.
BTW If the person who calls the victims "IDIOTS" posts in all caps, it's the 'Crazy Lee Kuan'.
Again,great post. You had me at hummingbird.

Cosmic Connie said...

Thanks very much for your thoughtful comment, Jean (and for the compliments. :-)). Yes, you and others have been vigilant about reporting accounts from people who knew JAR when he was growing up, and they paint a very different picture than the one he has always tried to present. I didn't really touch on those accounts in my post because they weren't a focus of Connie Joy's book and I was trying to keep it more or less centered on the aspects she wrote about. (And my post was way too long as it was.) But I am glad you brought the lifelong-bully factor up.

Whatever might have happened with JAR in earlier years, I think the stardom that came with "The Secret" accelerated the process of his ugly transformation. That, and the increasing amount of steroids and lord knows what else he was putting into his body. (And he had the nerve to masquerade as such a health freak that he famously advised his followers not to drink coffee b/c of its mind-body altering effects.)

I am sure many people will be watching closely when that trial begins in February.

I do miss the hummingbirds...

Bryan Neuman said...

Thank you so much Connie for all your time and effort on this. It blows my mind and really shows you care... unlike some other peeps.

All I wanted James Ray to do today was either keep quiet out of respect or acknowledge our losses and he did neither. I have completely given up on James Ray as a human being. There is NO hope for him IMO.

You, Salty, Yorgey, Duff have all been a million times more compassionate, supportive and caring towards families that James Ray destroyed. I have had personal conversation with all, except James Ray. He's never even attempted to contact me. Keep up the amazing work. Thanks again.

Cosmic Connie said...

You're very welcome, Bryan. I only wish we could do more for you than blog, but keeping the conversation alive is important in its own right.

Adelaide Dupont said...

Sounds like Ms Joy's book will become one of the definitive books on Ray and the tragedy, and add to the self-help literature.

I was very impressed with the review, Cosmic Connie.

Anonymous said...

A great review and commentary on this appalling man and his works, Connie.

And hell, yes-- Let's hear it for the troublemakers.

Enoch_Root said...

Connie - thanks for this great piece. And thanks for staying on top of this.

Bob Reed said...

Very informative and well written: I'll have to include your blog as one of my "regular stops".

I especially like your turn of the phrase, "New-Wage/McSpirituality beliefs". It immediately captures my own skepticism for, and regret that, people seem to fall for, what are in many cases, such obvious connivances.

But faith is a gift from God, and every time I read accounts like this I'm even more thankful for that grace.


Cosmic Connie said...

Thanks, Adelaide. I do hope Connie Joy's book gets wide readership.

Cosmic Connie said...

Anon 7:03: Thank you. And, yeah... yay, trouble makers!

Cosmic Connie said...

Thank you for stopping in, Enoch. I know you are still grieving the loss of your close friend James Shore. It's hard to believe it's been a year now.

Here's hoping for a little justice come February...

Cosmic Connie said...

Thank you for your comment, Bob Reed, and I'm glad you're enjoying this blog. In the interests of full disclosure, I am a devout agnostic who is a tad irreverent about organized religion too on occasion, but that is not my regular beat. In any case most of my snarking is focused on the New-Wage/McSpirituality end of the spectrum.

If faith enriches your life, then it is a gift indeed.

Kathryn Price said...

Connie, thanks for your comprehensive review of this book and tragedy. The term hubris comes to mind in Ray's oblivious fire building episode at the Tahoe Retreat, and of course, in the tragedy at the Sweat Lodge. Having a sense of our limits is not a bad thing, but "limitation" is discouraged to such an extreme by some New Age/self help teachers that it does seem to be pathological, and abusive. I don't think the universe is impressed by superhuman physical efforts; I'm thinking of the many mountain climbers who have died trying to reach Mt. Everest. That is not to say mountain-climbing isn't an achievement, but certainly a sense of reasonable humility and assessing signs of danger are important. In Ray's case, it was others' lives he was playing with, and he should have been especially vigilant on their behalf. The story about his ignoring a volunteer who wasn't allowed to speak to him unless he spoke to her (and he did not) was painful to read, as was the story of this tragedy. I add my condolences to those that have been expressed, to the families who lost loved ones. Thanks, Connie, for writing this.

Cosmic Connie said...

Hi, Kathryn, I'm glad to see you here. I've enjoyed your contributions to SHAMblog and to the Amazon discussion on Rhonda Byrne's latest magnum dopus. And I'm glad to have discovered your blog as well.

(BTW, Connie Joy's book is full of tales of JAR's atrocious behavior; I have only touched on a few.)

"Hubris" definitely applies to James Ray. I can think of a few other terms that apply to him too.

I agree with you about superhuman feats and the universe's probable indifference to same. (However, I've been a lifelong underachiever when it comes to physical feats so perhaps my opinion is suspect. :-)) I think problems ensue when people inflate the importance of these feats.

I can see how stretching beyond perceived physical limitations can, at least in the short term, increase a person's confidence or give that person a sense of achievement, even if it is short-lived. But people should embark upon risky adventures with their eyes open. To do that they need to be adequately informed, to the extent possible, of the risks they are taking.

After that, it's up to the individual (assuming she or he is competent and of age) to determine whether the risks involved are worth it. But the choices should be the individual's to make, and the risks should be his or hers to take.

Ray's followers were apparently NOT adequately informed of risks up front. They might have thought they were making informed choices but as you noted, in reality they were being pushed into harm's way by a master manipulator with his own agenda.

Yes, Ray should have been extra vigilant on behalf of his flock. But that sort of vigilance seems to be beyond his capabilities.

Dave said...


Well written review, and not incoherent at all. :-)

I think it's interesting that Ms. Joy's book was able to push you more towards condemnation of JAR than all of the other accounts you have ready of his sociopathic ways. Must be a powerful book indeed. From your review, she does confirm that he was a train wreck waiting to happen. I just don't understand why people like him end up hurting others before they are seen as a danger. Even more appalling is that he did kill one person and kept right on going.

Your fellow hater/loser,

Cosmic Connie said...

Thanks, Dave. I've had exactly the same thoughts regarding the irony that Ms. Joy's book was seemingly able to make me lean towards a harsher view of JAR than all the other accounts. I'm sure there's a cumulative effect in play here as well; perhaps the net result of all of the damning testimony is finally sinking in, and the poignancy of the one-year anniversary of Death Lodge has played a part too. (Plus we have to take my mood swings into account; I tend to vacillate on some issues.)

But you are correct that Ms. Joy's book represented kind of a turning point for me. I think one factor that really hit home was that she and her husband were people who did contribute so much money to JAR's coffers, and they enthusiastically participated in nearly 30 JAR events over a relatively short period of time -- and yet JAR still treated them like crap.

I was also looking over my review and thinking that in all of the verbiage of mulling over "issues" I had with some of the things Ms. Joy wrote about, I might have actually understated the extent of her disillusionment with JAR. And that was certainly not my intention. At the very end of her book she writes, "We saw the illusion James wanted us to see. Now, especially in the aftermath of Sedona, we know he is not the illusion, but the little man behind the curtain. James can continue to bellow all he wants, and try to pull our chains and push our buttons to manipulate us, but most of us have had a paradigm shift and there is no going back to the way it was."

JAR and his lawyers and PR team have expended their own efforts in trying to get former loyalists back on JAR's side... but good luck with that, guys!

Anonymous said...

As a former JRI participant, thank you for a well balanced and thoughtful review. You pretty much covered the all bases.

P Benson said...

Arent all these guys sociopaths and psychopaths? People who have others well being at heart who actually do run a legitimate business do not treat people like these guys do. Its like as if they consider themselves far above every other human being somewhat like a God. They act like schoolyard bullies, always answer back, no never means no. I feel so sad for the families involved in this because it is such a tragedy. There really is no other word for it. JR must be removed from ever doing business in the personal development area again if he isn't put behind bars (which I believe he should be even for the sake of the families involved in all of this). In any case he and his mates from the secret movie who have been exposed as frauds and deceitful bastards will never be able to do business effectively again. All the people who have been affected by these people will never allow them to do business effectively ever again.

Kathryn Price said...

Connie, last night I was reading somewhere on your blog and followed a link to a youtube video of James Ray, in which he brought a man named Steve onstage and talked to him for about 20 minutes. This was apparently at a Harmonic Wealth seminar. (This is all new to me, so I ask for patience if I don't have the seminar in question identified correctly.) The video was painful to watch, and what I don't understand is how the people in the audience, who are presumably seeking to be empowered--although perhaps Harmonic Wealth has a different focus than empowerment--become so NOT empowered. Watching the expressions on their faces, the automatic clapping, the fascination with which they're watching Ray--this does not strike me as empowerment. Of course, I realize my insight is hardly profound or breaking news. But since I am new to this, I'm still somewhat dazed by what I'm seeing.

Once when I was barely past 20 years old and looking for ways to earn additional money, I went with a friend to a Tupperware rally. I was thinking I might sell it at parties, like my friend. At the rally I was so freaked out by people rising en masse to sing odes to Tupperware that I never looked back. Tupperware is innocent enough (or is it?), but I knew I could not sing songs in praise of plastic containers. Yet everyone else in the group did so heartily. This is not to say I haven't been caught up by group dynamics in my own life. I have been, by a religious leader whom my mom trusted when I was a teenager, and I did, too. He was charismatic, and it took me a few years to recognize that he was manipulative...but oh well, that's another story. I can understand from that experience how someone can be taken in, how you can make excuses when you feel twinges of misgivings about someone, and find a way to explain away their behavior to yourself to preserve their presumed decency in your mind.

I'm also surprised by the number of commenters at my Power review who write that maybe Byrne is in it for the money, or teaches a simplification that is misleading, but they sorta really don't care; they still think it's okay. They just want to have fun, and think it might work. Is there not an expectation of ethics around these teachers or their teachings? I guess that's a rhetorical question.

You mentioned my blog--thanks. I had almost forgotten about that until I typed in my google id, was startled by a photo of myself suddenly popping up, and found the link to my own blog. I had started it some time ago with the intention of collecting some stories there and then realized there were others already doing that and doing it well. So I let it sit, thinking I might import it into a new, more topical blog, for which I also planned to write book reviews. I set up the new blog on wordpress, but then was swept up into the vortex of grad school. So now they both sit. But I'm thinking maybe soon I really will get a blog up and running!

I am enjoying yours. I just wish maybe not so much...I was up late last night, unable to tear myself away!

Cosmic Connie said...

Anonymous Monday, October 11, 2010 9:39:00 PM said...

"As a former JRI participant, thank you for a well balanced and thoughtful review. You pretty much covered the all bases."

Thanks, Anon. Judging by other participants' responses to Connie Joy's book, she did a pretty good job covering the bases of what went on at those events.

Cosmic Connie said...

P Benson (Oct. 12): I've heard JAR and numerous other New-Wage gurus described as sociopaths and/or psychopaths. Whether or not they are by clinical definition, I agree with you that there are some who should never again be allowed to be in a position where they can take advantage of vulnerable people.

Cosmic Connie said...

Kathryn Price (Oct. 15): Thank you for your comment. I too was appalled by that video of the JRI participant and the way the audience was contributing to the situation. And yet, having attended LGAT sessions myself many years ago, and having seen and participated in the same kind of public faux-psychotherapy (usually referred to as "processes" or "exercises"), I believe I have at least a rudimentary understanding of the dynamic involved. More than anything else, I think, people play along because they want to be "good" students or participants and don't want to be singled out as *not* playing, because then they have to face a whole round of crap from the LGAT leader(s) and other participants.

At least that is what was going on with me those many years ago, and I had the strong sense that the desire to fit in was the main motivation for many if not most of my fellow participants as well. As a matter of fact some of us confided that motivation to each other. (I still need to blog about those experiences.)

After the phony psychotherapy session or whatever you want to call it is done, the person in the hot seat is amply rewarded for his or her courage and "hard work," and there is a collective sigh of relief that it is over, and a sense -- strongly encouraged by the leader(s) -- that *something* has been accomplished and a genuine breakthrough has been achieved. It is all so very contrived, and there seems to be little honesty about the real effects, both short- and long-term, of the exercise or process. It's just a dramatic little story with a beginning, a middle, and an end. Then it's on to the next exercise.

I smiled at your tale of the Tupperware cheerleading. Then I thought of what Wal-Mart employees are notoriously made to do at those embarrassing employee pep rallies, and I stopped smiling.

I too think that the rationalizations about Rhonda Byrne's motives are interesting. If there ever were any expectations about ethics around Rhonda Byrne, those expectations should have been crushed when the news first came out three years ago about the way she screwed over the people who helped her create and market the original DVD of The Secret. But true Secretrons didn't care then and don't care now. And the New-Wage gurus whose fame and earnings skyrocketed because of Byrne don't give a hoot either.

Anyway, I'm really glad you're enjoying this blog, Kathryn, and I hope you do seriously consider getting your blog up and running again.

PS ~ The thought of singing Tupperware songs is silly, but I can't begin to tell you how much I appreciate Tupperware now that we have a mouse in our pantry again. Thanks to various pieces of Tupperware and a few cheap imitations thereof, we are able to protect our vulnerable foodstuffs from the ministrations of Mister Squeaky. Time to set another trap, I fear...