‘Secret' guru James Arthur Ray led three people to their deaths... and now he's at it again
December 4, 2013
When James Arthur Ray lifted the heavy tarp door and beckoned his devotees into a wood-frame dome, they obeyed. Tall and confident, Ray watched them enter one by one, more than 50 of them. Stooping under the low ceiling, they crowded into the dark, windowless space and sat in two tight rings around a pit filled with heated stones.
Many had spent more than $10,000 to be there, in what Ray called his “sweat lodge.” It culminated five days with the self-proclaimed “catalyst for personal transformation” at Angel Valley Spiritual Retreat, a ranch near Sedona, Arizona. During his “Spiritual Warrior” program, he’d asked participants to shave their heads, spend 36 hours in the desert meditating without food or water, and play the “Samurai Game,” in which a white-robed Ray, playing “God,” declared people dead, forcing them to remain motionless on the ground.
Before they entered the dome, he warned them his final test was a symbolic death. "You are not going to die. You might think you are, but you are not going to die," he said, according to several attendees. Around 2:30PM on October 8th, 2009, he lowered the tarp, closing off the only source of light and oxygen. The ceremony began.
James Arthur Ray had gone from obscure motivational speaker to self-help superstar. After more than a decade of writing and lecturing, he’d appeared in The Secret, a 2006 film touting "the law of attraction" — a belief that "thoughts become things." Positive thoughts attract positive outcomes, The Secret promised; a dream life awaits anyone with a properly focused mind.
Oprah gushed over the film, twice showcasing its stars and telling her audience, "Watch it with your children." The Secret became a cultural phenomenon; a companion book sold 19 million copies. Ray soon appeared on Larry King Live to say, "Well, Larry, science tells us that every single thing that appears to be solid is actually energy. Your body is energy. Your car is energy, your house, everything, money, all of it is energy." The Today Show, Fox Business News, and local network affiliates followed. He toured the country while guesting on smaller venues from Tom Green’s internet talk show to Coast to Coast AM with George Noory. He even judged a Miss America pageant. "Whatever you fear or love will come into your life," he’d repeat for his agreeable hosts.
But not everyone embraced The Secret. Newsweek called it "deplorable," with psychologist John Norcross condemning its "pseudoscientific, psychospiritual babble." Beneath its rosy view of a universe shaped by human will, critics noted a darker corollary: if your life was in shambles, that too resulted from the law of attraction. Negative thoughts produce negative outcomes, tragedy strikes those who somehow attract it, and the poor need more positive thinking. Dubious ethical questions aside, many commentators noted that The Secret didn’t actually present anything new. Instead, it repackaged self-help nostrums as old as Ralph Waldo Emerson, using misleading quotations to bolster its claim to a historical lineage. (Winston Churchill, for example, was not aSecret follower.)
Still, criticism didn’t dissuade the millions who believed, and Ray’s popularity rose alongside The Secret. A smitten 2008 profile in Fortune magazine called him the "next big thing in the highly competitive world of motivational gurus," offering "a frothy concoction of spiritual wisdom, life lessons, and get-rich advice — all carefully attuned to today's fragile zeitgeist." He made no secret of his ambition, aiming to become the first self-help billionaire. He bragged about his financial success and promised it to his followers. He drew on esoterica from shamanism to quantum physics, but his most compelling support came in the form of Ray himself: tanned, confident, and rich.
So they followed him, into Angel Valley and into the darkness of a makeshift sweat lodge draped with tarps and blankets. And James Arthur Ray closed the door behind them.
Two and a half hours later, emergency responders arrived at what one first took for a mass suicide, according to a witness. Many participants were dazed and disoriented, speaking or yelling deliriously. There was vomiting and crying; people frantically doused others with cold water. One man had fallen into the heated rocks, badly burning his arm. Medics performed CPR on at least three unconscious participants.
Kirby Brown had followed Ray into the lodge. Discovered there unconscious after the others had exited, she was dragged out with another group member, James Shore. Both died of heatstroke. A third member, Liz Neuman, slipped into a coma and died of organ failure nine days later. Eighteen others were hospitalized with burns and dehydration, kidney failure, breathing problems, and heat exhaustion.
The tragedy and ensuing prosecution drew international media attention. After a four-month trial, James Arthur Ray was found guilty of negligent homicide and sentenced to two years in prison. Now he’s back on television, recently sitting down with Larry King’s successor, Piers Morgan, for a one-hour solo interview. From all appearances, James Arthur Ray intends to return to his self-help career.
Kirby Brown’s parents find that unacceptable. After suing Ray for negligence, fraud, and wrongful death, they shared with the other victims’ families a $3 million settlement paid out of Ray’s insurance. But that money comes second to preventing similar tragedies — the Browns want to fundamentally shift the self-help industry toward greater honesty, to hold practitioners accountable, and to help strivers like their daughter, as they put it, "seek safely." That means taking on Ray, calling out Oprah and other enabling media figures, and reforming an $11 billion self-improvement market.
"It’s just terrible that our daughter had to die before we could see how dangerous someone like Ray really could be," says Kirby’s mother, Ginny. "But this is bigger than James Ray. This is bigger than our daughter."
My intent is to get you right on the border of chaos and order by showing you what we now know in the study of the brain, psychology, biology, even metaphysics.
— James Arthur Ray
Kirby Brown grew up with her parents, George and Ginny, and three siblings in Westtown, NY, a one-stoplight community about 70 miles northwest of Manhattan. There was a small, man-made lake called Lake Nirvana in her backyard and hunting grounds within walking distance. They’d moved there in the late 1970s, concerned about rising crime and racial tension in their native New York City. They wanted a rustic home, with a vegetable garden and forests for hunting. Kirby, though, balked at leaving her school and friends. But she’d always wanted a pony, and George promised her one in Westtown.
He kept his promise: a chestnut Arabian with a white blaze and a brown dot at the center. Kirby named her Happy Dot; as a teenager she began volunteering on a horse farm. Though she considered a career working with horses, she decided she didn’t want to limit herself.
She attended a state school, graduating with an English degree in 1993. She briefly returned to manage the horse farm, but soon moved to Manhattan to drive limousines — the first in a series of out-of-nowhere transitions. She managed a restaurant, then a ceramic studio, then took a restaurant job in Lake Tahoe.
Then a restaurateur invited her to Cabo San Lucas. She moved into a house overlooking the ocean, among the lavish hotels favored by celebrities and Fortune 500 CEOs. She started a business in high-end interior decorating that led to a sense of stability she hadn’t known since high school. She became a dedicated surfer.
In 2008, though, Kirby turned 37. Engaged twice, she’d never married. Her business had plateaued. She felt stagnant.
A sex scandal in her childhood church had turned Kirby away from her parents’ devout Catholicism. She considered herself spiritual but not religious; a free spirit but not a hippie. Sure, she had an artistic bent, wore tie-dyed clothing, and loved hanging out with musicians. But she didn’t spurn material comforts, either. She liked expensive restaurants; she wanted to own a boat and to travel.
And like millions of others, she loved Oprah. When the talk-show host began proselytizing about The Secret, Kirby took notice. James Arthur Ray had Oprah’s imprimatur, and his ideas, combining quasi-scientific spirituality with promises of great wealth, appealed to Kirby.
She was curious enough to attend his free, two-hour introductory course, where he claimed years of training with a Peruvian shaman. But he wasn’t just a shaman or a mystic, he said; he was also pragmatic. He was a business advisor as much as a guru, a personal guide for anyone interested in a rich spirit and a well-funded bank account.
He called it "Harmonic Wealth." He’d say, "Energy flows where attention goes," repeating it like a mantra. He claimed science supported his gloss on "the law of attraction."
Kirby signed up for Ray’s weekend of meditation, self-hypnosis, and confidence-boosting exercises. She invited her parents to one in San Diego, chiding them for neglecting their finances. They had a nice life, but, she thought, with some help they could be rich — or at least a little better off. They were nearing retirement, after all, and her father had recently been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease.
Reluctantly, they agreed to attend.
Ginny, 5 feet, 5 inches tall with short brown hair and brown eyes, is a youthful 64 years old. She spent much of her career counseling troubled teenagers. She immediately recognized much of Ray’s program — not just the basic business philosophies echoing Dale Carnegie and others, but the psychological premises. She saw how Ray had cobbled together his seminars: the "hero’s journey" from Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces; bits of William Glasser’s Reality Therapy; exercises from Neuro-linguistic Programming and Holotropic breathing. They seemed harmless, these repackaged insights that deeply excited her daughter.
Her husband agreed. "I thought, ‘This guy is just remarketing all this stuff, and it’s mostly simple, Business Administration 101,’" says George Brown, Kirby’s father. He’s 69, just under 6 feet tall; gray-haired and clean shaven, he wears a pair of round glasses. A licensed clinical social worker who counseled first responders after the 9 / 11 attacks, he’s also an accomplished woodworker and avid hunter. Parkinson’s has given him a slight tremor and hunch in his back, but his personality emerges in keenly observant verbal bursts. "I just thought, ‘There’s a tremendous amount of ego walking around on that stage,’" he says.
The Browns thought little more about him until August, 2009, when Kirby announced she’d signed up for the "Spiritual Warrior" event. It cost more than $10,000, her entire life savings, and close friends told CNN Kirby had second thoughts. But Ray’s fee was nonrefundable.
During the 24-hour drive from Cabo, Kirby’s father played the human GPS; for three days they talked almost constantly on the phone. "My last conversation with her was on the way to Sedona," George says. "I was talking with her about what a great summer we had all had and really being thankful that we had that summer together." Once she arrived, the Browns didn’t expect to hear from her until the retreat concluded.
"The next thing we heard was someone knocking on the door at about 8:00 in the morning that Friday," he says. "It was a state trooper asking us if we knew Kirby Brown."
Who is James Arthur Ray?
Like many of the things I teach, this isn’t necessarily for the average person. I’m asking people to go beyond average. Remember, no one normal ever made history.
— James Arthur Ray
James Arthur Ray was born in Honolulu, Hawaii on November 22nd, 1957. His father was discharged from the Navy soon after, and the family moved to Iowa, then to Tulsa, Oklahoma. His mother worked at home, and his father became a Protestant minister at the Red Fork Church of God in downtown Tulsa.
In Harmonic Wealth Ray describes sitting in the front row of his father’s church as a child. There he first heard that "it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God." He describes how angry he felt, how that Biblical verse made him question his family’s situation — even question God. His parents didn’t have money to buy nice clothes, or own a home — they had to live next to the church. Rather than pay a barber, his mother would cut his hair. From his upbringing he concluded: "Here’s what I know: it’s a sin to be poor." That belief stayed with him for the rest of his life.
"I was the kid with the big Coke-bottle glasses and buckteeth who everyone made fun of," Ray writes, painting himself as a stereotypical nerd, mocked for his gangliness and lack of athleticism. Later, a classmate told the Arizona Republic that, like much of his "rags-to-riches" biography, Ray’s tale of an impoverished, socially outcast childhood contained embellishments if not outright lies. He dressed well and carried himself with confidence, said the former classmate. "It depends on what you call poor, but his dad made more than my family made."
Ray graduated in 1976; two years later, he earned an associate’s degree from the local community college. (From Harmonic Wealth: "Did you know that 85 percent of the self-made millionaires in our world don’t have a college degree? Eighty-five percent, including Bill Gates! I don’t have a college degree either, and Bill and I are both doing okay.") According to his biography, he became a "workoutaholic." He reshaped his body, but inside felt he "was still that weakling who sat alone in the cafeteria, terrified of his own shadow." Looking to complete his image as a "stud," he bought a motorcycle — and promptly wrecked it. Only while recovering from his injuries (doctors, he writes, told him he’d never lift again) did he realize that bodybuilding had distracted him from the real locus of his problems: his mind. Through his biography Ray offers a parable almost Biblical in its form and simplicity: that of a man lost who chased the wrong life, only to realize through adversity what’s truly important.
At 26 he got married, he writes, "out of guilt and shame because he had just had sex for the first time and was convinced he was going to hell if he didn’t legalize his dastardly deed — not the strongest foundation for a happy marriage." His wife filed for divorce two years later, just after the bank began foreclosure proceedings against the couple. The divorce was finalized by February, 1987.
According to Ray, by then he’d worked for AT&T nearly a decade. He began at Southwest Bell as a telemarketer, selling equipment and services — often cutting-edge options such as call waiting. He also had a knack for managing telephone stores, leading the company to relocate him several times during the 1980s. By the early 1990s, he’d become a trainer at the AT&T School of Business in Atlanta, Georgia.
While there, he used training material from Stephen R. Covey’s perennially best-selling self-help book, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People — material AT&T had licensed from Covey Leadership. As early as 1996, Ray’s website would tout his "alliance with the Covey Leadership Center." Sometime later, his bio began to mention "four years working with best-selling author Stephen Covey."Harmonic Wealth repeats this claim. For the Fortune profile published in April 2008, Ray "clarified" that he’d taught the techniques at AT&T, later spending two years as a contract employee for Covey. Yet as late as May 2009, his website bio contained the erroneous information. A Covey spokesperson denied Ray ever worked there; Ray later said he’d never claimed to be an employee. It fit an emerging pattern of résumé inflation, whether explicitly or by implication.
As Ray tells it, the AT&T job made him realize he wanted his own business, so he struck out on his own as a consultant and trainer. He began as a one-man shop called the Quantum Consulting Group, then moved to San Diego and became Ray Transformation Technologies, then James Ray and Associates. (At one point, he says, he had an employee who did marketing, but the "Associates" was largely aspirational.) From there he segued into keynote speaking, which he deemed more lucrative and less time-consuming. Soon he was in front of Herbalife and Amway crowds, hired by multi-level marketers to invigorate their affiliates.
He called his seminars "The Science of Success" — at least until self-help juggernaut the Napoleon Hill Foundation informed him it had trademarked the phrase. The JamesRay.com website, dating back to at least December, 1996, initially emphasized his business acumen and sales experience. Only later would it adopt the overtly "spiritual" tone and particular neologisms presented in The Secret.
From 1996–2006, Ray struggled. He never had more than three employees and a high turnover rate. Often, he later told investigators, he made payroll using his personal credit cards. "The tech crash of 2000 brought me to my knees,"Harmonic Wealth reads, implying some unsavvy stock picks by its author, heretofore presented as financially free and able to "concentrate on my teaching and my ever-growing appetite for acquiring more toys." Speaking to lawyers after his release from prison, he offered a more mundane story: the bursting tech bubble had taken his multi-level marketing events with it.
In Harmonic Wealth Ray describes taking a self-imposed exile from his wealth because "a warrior doesn’t have or need anything." He began "by seeking out a wise kahuna in Hawaii and a Peruvian shaman." He writes unspecifically of his studies, which culminated in 2005 with an epiphany at the summit of Mount Sinai. "I was the only one there all night long, shivering from the cold on top of the mountain, and hovering over a tiny candle flame. This is where it all came together for me," he writes, "where the final pieces of Harmonic Wealth and the quantum physics material I had studied for over a decade took form for me in a kind of rapid download into my journal." According to his book, in the same cave where Moses received the Ten Commandments, James Arthur Ray received his own universal laws.
Just two months later in July, 2005, he attended a meeting of the Transformational Leadership Council, which describes itself as a group of "leaders in the fields of personal and professional development." There he was interviewed by Rhonda Byrne, an Australian television producer. He was not compensated for her project, which went on to become The Secret.
Then came Oprah.
A fatal vision
What we must keep in mind is that the master embraces pain and pleasure in the pursuit of his or her vision and intention. An easier life is a fantasy. When we create our dreams, there’s always going to be some part of the creation that isn’t quite what we prefer.
— James Arthur Ray
The morning of the sweat lodge, Ray’s followers returned to their small cabins at Angel Valley. They’d spent the night fasting, scattered alone in the desert — Ray called it a "vision quest." Many had not eaten for days; many had gone overnight without sleep or water. They showered and changed clothes before sitting down to a celebratory breakfast of vegetarian food. Ray explained that vegetarians are "not very grounded" because of a lack of protein. "However," he said, "I don't want you grounded here. I want you off-balance … I want you out of your traditional patterns."
They’d been taken out of their traditional patterns, having persevered through four days of physical challenges: the fasting, the Samurai Game, the head shavings. Ray had led similar activities at the annual Spiritual Warrior event at Angel Valley since 2003. But this time participants were not told beforehand what to expect. When Ray revealed the sweat lodge ceremony — which he described as "hotter than hell" — many were surprised.
Many cultures have sweat lodge rituals, and Ray claimed to have modeled his after Native American practice. Traditions vary, but in all of them tribal elders monitor sweat lodge leaders for years before they’re permitted to conduct ceremonies; the training covers spiritual demands, but also basic safety. High temperatures can impair judgment, causing participants (and untrained leaders) to make poor decisions. Accidents can happen even to trained leaders. Amateur sweat lodges have caused a handful of deaths in the past, whether from heatstroke, suffocation, or smoke inhalation.
The ceremony is a communal experience, usually involving meditation and a leader’s spiritual guidance. A "round" might consist of 15 to 40 minutes inside a densely humid room at 150 to 180 degrees Fahrenheit, followed by a cool-down outside. A typical ceremony might involve two to three rounds.
Ray’s sweat lodges disregarded much of this tradition. Instead, he created a kind of endurance test. In 2009, the temperature approached 200 degrees Fahrenheit; maybe hotter, since no one had a thermometer. A typical lodge might hold 5-10 people who would share a collective experience. Ray demanded Angel Valley allow a lodge big enough for 75 people. (The man Ray asked to design the lodge, David Singing Bear, later claimed to have doubts about its size. His qualifications for designing such a lodge have also been questioned.) Few of the attendees even knew one another’s names, but they would be thrust together in the heat and darkness under the dome.
Outside Ray told them they were about to have an experience unlike any other. According to several attendees, he said, "You are not going to die. You might think you are, but you're not going to die." Each attendee should listen to his or her body, he said. Anyone could leave if necessary, but those seeking a higher level of consciousness would complete the experience. No one knew how many rounds that might be. Ray told them they "needed to surrender to death to survive it." Then they entered the lodge.
Problems began almost immediately. Those farthest from the door had trouble breathing. With each round, Ray had more heated stones added. He’d asked for 100 stones to be readied; the next-hottest lodge, according to the fire-tender, had used 30 stones. Typically sweat lodge leaders use a ladle to apply water to the stones; Ray dumped water straight from the buckets. (He also used water from the buckets to cool himself.) As the prosecution later argued, the high temperature and overwhelming humidity made it impossible for the participants’ bodies to cool themselves. As the rounds wore on, people began exhibiting signs of heatstroke: confusion, nausea, and loss of consciousness.
Debbie Mercer was hired by Ray to pass heated stones into the lodge. She stood outside the door and thus saw everyone exiting and entering. After the first round, 12 people exited. From inside, Ray encouraged them to return; one woman cried that she was "disappointing James Ray," but couldn’t bring herself to re-enter the lodge. Ray’s employees placed their hands on her back and began pushing her toward the entrance before Mercer intervened. Others collapsed at the entrance and had to be dragged away from the door. People inside began to lose consciousness; they too had to be dragged out.
One longtime Ray follower received severe burns after falling into the rocks used to heat the lodge. Another began screaming repeatedly, "I don’t want to die! I don’t want to die!" and calling out the names of his two children. Ray seated by the exit closest to the only source of oxygen, remained calm. One witness heard him mutter, "Buddy, you need to pull it together," before jubilantly saying "It’s a good day to die!" — apparently referencing his claim that followers would be "reborn" during the event. One participant testified that even as she passed out, her thoughts echoed James Arthur Ray: "It's a good day to die."
Why did so many people subject themselves to such deadly conditions? At trial, many witnesses seemed ashamed, unable to fathom their own actions. They spoke of assuming they were in capable hands; Ray had told them they might pass out, and that was okay. They’d paid more than $10,000 for the experience, making it hard to back out of many of the activities. They were isolated, both from other sources of authority and from one another — despite being a group, they were very much alone. And they were afraid of disappointing Ray. Whenever someone would challenge him about extreme heat — or ask him to let them out of the lodge — he’d respond with "you’re more than that" and "you can do this."
By the end of the eighth and final round, the event had devolved into chaos. Kirby Brown was airlifted to the Verde Valley Medical Center in Cottonwood, Arizona, and pronounced dead on arrival. James Shore, a 40-year-old father of three young children who practiced therapeutic medicine and played drums in a band, was found beside her in the lodge, holding her hand. Witnesses said he’d dragged out a fellow participant, saving her life, before going back in. He too was dead on arrival.
When authorities tried to question Ray, a note on his door said he would be unavailable because he was in "prayer and meditation." Investigators later said he had showered and was eating dinner when police finally reached him. After preliminary questioning, he flew back to California.
Nine days later, Liz Neuman — a longtime devoted follower of Ray's who had spent more than $100,000 over seven years at various James Ray International gatherings and who had fallen into a coma in the sweat lodge — died of organ failure. By then, Ray was already giving another seminar. On the day of Kirby Brown’s funeral, he conducted a seminar for the World Wealth Society — a members-only group of his most devoted followers, which cost as much as $90,000 per year to join. Connie Joy, an attendee, wrote that Ray told people to dance to the Black Eyed Peas as a way to "shake loose the sadness." Word came to him onstage that Liz had died; according to Joy, he showed no emotion.
How did so many seemingly intelligent people follow James Arthur Ray into the sweat lodge that day? "Many times in my work, people will say to me, ‘What kind of person gets involved in this stuff?’" responds Rick Ross, a cult-intervention specialist. "My answer is, ‘It could be anyone.’" He says Ray uses "large-group awareness training," or LGAT, where a single leader trains a large group in a particular worldview. Leaders like Ray, Ross suggests, see themselves as more than trainers. "They all have this kind of zealous, almost evangelical view of their philosophy as being an end-all and a cure-all for the participants," Ross says. And if something goes wrong, it’s not the leader’s fault.
In Ray’s case, things had gone wrong before. As far back as 2000, those close to him had voiced concerns about his overzealousness, likening his seminar style to a strength competition rather than a self-help talk. He encouraged participants, regardless of physical brawn or training, to break plywood with their fists, or to bend rebar using only their necks. Predictably, this led to injuries.
His previous sweat lodges had also caused problems. In 2005, Daniel Pfankuch turned irrational and violent after spending almost four hours in the lodge — confusion is a symptom of heatstroke. Ray refused to call 911, and argued loudly with the Angel Valley owner when she did so. Pfankuch went to the hospital, where he received IV fluids for hours. Afterward, he believed he’d had an out-of-body experience from which he’d never fully returned. He went from a six-figure income to being unemployed, unmarried, and homeless. Asked by detectives in 2009 whether Ray realized that the sweat lodge could be dangerous, Pfankuch replied, "He certainly knew afterwards. He told me that his ego got in the way and he needed to sit down and learn from this."
At trial, the husband and wife hired to manage Ray’s sweat lodges testified to what they’d seen. Debbie and Ted Mercer described participants vomiting, collapsing into the mud, and acting disoriented. In 2008, Ted Mercer had helped subdue an apparently delusional man who tried to remove his girlfriend from the lodge; irate and raving, the man later remembered nothing of the incident. Debbie Mercer recalled a woman in a pink bathing suit who, even 45 minutes after leaving the lodge, could not remember her own name. And in 2009, she said, she told Ray that three people had stopped breathing and that she needed a cell phone to call 911. Ray shrugged. Later, when Debbie Mercer returned from her house after calling emergency services, she saw James Ray talking on his cell phone. There is no record of his having called 911.
The reluctance to contact authorities also fit a pattern. As part of a two-day seminar just a few months earlier, Ray had instructed his participants to pretend they were homeless. Soon after, one attendee, 46-year-old Colleen Conaway, jumped to her death from the fourth floor of a shopping mall. A yet-unsettled lawsuit in San Diego claims that Ray knew Conaway had gone missing, but ordered the group to leave the mall without her. He and his employees did not contact police until six hours after Conaway’s death — and after leaving concerned-sounding messages on her cellphone, which she’d turned over to Ray’s staff before the homelessness exercise. She’d also given up her driver’s license, which led authorities to label her a Jane Doe until Ray’s people eventually faxed over a copy of her ID.
Yet whatever went wrong, Ray’s authority among his followers remained virtually absolute. Much of that authority came from his charisma — his image as a tanned, handsome, and articulate alpha male. He worked hard to maintain that persona. When police searched his suitcase in Sedona, they found a large collection of medications, including testosterone, human growth hormone, steroids, and Propecia, typically used to treat an enlarged prostate or to fight male pattern baldness.
But most of his authority came from his business success and his spiritual credentials. Under scrutiny, however, many of his qualifications withered. He claimed initiation in three shamanic traditions in Peru, each of which could have taken a decade. In actuality, he’d been "initiated" into all three at once, along with a number of United States tourists; his much-vaunted spiritual mentor was a tour guide. He said he’d been initiated into Huna, a Hawaiian spiritual tradition (and itself a target of criticism over its dubious authenticity). He’d taken four classes, then begun teaching the material, much to the consternation of his instructor. He had a similar degree of training in Neuro-linguistic Programming. He joined the Rosicrucians through a correspondence class. His Samurai Game was copyrighted by someone else; the originator of Holotropic breathing told Ray to stop using it. And he had no apparent training in running a sweat lodge.
Because of several court rulings, the jury heard only some of Ray’s problematic history with sweat lodges. It was not enough to find him guilty of manslaughter, but after 10 hours — and four months after his trial began — the jury returned a verdict: guilty on three counts of negligent homicide, a lesser charge. He was sentenced to serve two years in prison, but was released after 18 months in July, 2013.
‘Drunk on life’
Those are times when your purpose, your inspiration is speaking to you. Yours will be different from mine and mine is different from the next person’s. But that’s where you need to start paying attention.
— James Arthur Ray
George Brown calls Ray’s sentence "a damn joke." He and his wife established a nonprofit organization called Seek Safely intended to provide seekers like their daughter with guidance about authors, leaders, and motivational speakers. The project’s core is the Seek Safely Promise, a six-point pledge to provide customers with accurate, truthful information; to respect and protect customers’ autonomy and privacy while providing a safe environment; and, finally, to live by one’s own teachings.
Ray told people to "‘live impeccably, take responsibility for your actions, live with integrity and honesty, and, if you do, you’ll be successful," Ginny Brown says. But she sees that as a facade, one to which Ray was not held accountable until it was too late. Too many media outlets, from Oprah to Larry King to The Today Show, promoted Ray without knowing his real background. "Everything he did that week that he claimed to have training in and experience in and knowledge about — completely untrue," says Ginny.
Ross, the cult intervention specialist, agrees that the media has a responsibility to its viewers. Oprah brought James Arthur Ray into millions of homes, asking her audience to trust him. She made him wealthy and famous. When James Frey admitted to fabricating portions of his Oprah-endorsed memoir, she publicly chastised him for duping her. When three people died following a teacher Oprah endorsed, the Browns point out, she remained silent. According to Ross, she failed her viewers, and without apology continues to promote "these kind of fringe people that could do the public harm."
And in the United States, it’s largely caveat emptor when it comes to choosing a teacher. As Ross points out, the $11 billion "self-improvement" industry is largely unregulated (which even market researchers admit is probably hampering it). First Amendment protections offer broad protection for self-help claims. Kevin Trudeau, a late-night infomercial pitchman who claimed mystical connections similar to James Arthur Ray's, was recently jailed for contempt of court after the Federal Trade Commission accused him of false advertising — including the idea that "coral calcium" cured cancer. But he’s an exception. Most self-help promoters make claims so vague as to be beyond the reach of the FTC or fraud laws.
That puts the burden of being informed on consumers, and the Browns worry that people will find it too easy to blame their daughter for her own death. They fear that people might consider her to be naive or gullible. "‘A middle-aged woman in Sedona, Arizona, who was an idiot, did this stupid thing and is dead,’" George Brown says. "We weren’t going to stand for that." Kirby was curious, ambitious, and hardworking. As Ginny describes it, she was "drunk on life." Like Ray, she was constantly reinventing herself. Those characteristics led her to James Arthur Ray.
The Browns worry that their daughter’s death has changed nothing. And they worry that Ray, now a free man, will simply return to his life as a spiritual guru.
In his first interview since leaving prison, last week Ray appeared on Piers Morgan Live. (Morgan’s manager, John Ferriter, is Ray’s current media contact. He also wrote a letter of support to the judge during Ray’s trial, concluding, "As a tax paying US citizen and a supporter of our legal system, I would ask that you allow James to return home so that we can all start healing and give him the opportunity to start a new [sic].") Morgan asked whether Ray would return to self-help work, suggesting, "You could be in an even better position now to help people who had been through a nightmarish experience."
Ray didn’t answer directly, but said, "Some people entertain, some build business, some teach, and my personal belief is that the universal intelligence which many people call God sends situations to you to help you learn and to become a better person." He described the sweat lodge deaths and his subsequent prison time in terms of a "lesson" about "when is good enough, good enough." He hadn't really wanted to do the sweat lodge, he said, but there were contracts; he felt compelled because "some people were looking forward to it."
The Browns watched the interview, but, they say, were not invited to participate — Ray stipulated he could be the only guest. Ginny Brown watched, looking for some evidence of a changed man. "If he doesn't understand that he caused this, he's not a safe person to follow. I do believe that he's sorry that Kirby and James and Liz are dead. I think he's sorry that this tragedy happened. But he doesn't understand that he needs to apologize, that he caused this to happen. And I don't think he'll apologize for that," she says. She and her husband have asked James Arthur Ray to sign the Seek Safely promise.
He has refused.