A magician never reveals his secrets... unless he's a down on his luck, ex-con, trying to mount a comeback, and you stick a camera in his face.
Sometimes I miss New York. This is one of those times, because this week's debut of Enlighten Us: The Rise and Fall of James Arthur Ray at the Tribeca Film Festival is an event I'm actually sorry to miss, if only for stunning reveals like the above. You want to see how I played my followers like fiddles? Watch my hands, as I subliminally conduct your thoughts and feelings. See? ACTING!!!
This is not to say that it's a great film. I'm hearing not very good things about its effectiveness in conveying the horror of James Ray's actions, or holding him to account. For starters, the families of his victims were never even contacted by the filmmakers, so their voices and continuing concerns are notably absent. According to The Verge, Virginia Brown, mother of the late Kirby Brown, took it upon herself to contact the director, Jenny Carchman, and met with her over lunch. Kirby's sister Jean Brown's calls were unreturned, and Carchman declined to interview any family members on film. Ginny has posted a letter under the auspices of SEEK Safely, Inc., the organization of which she is a founding member.
We were disturbed to see clips of Ray “at work” before and after his incarceration serving as an infomercial for his comeback. The film failed to look critically at the tactics Ray had used prior to his incarceration and continues to use that put his customers at risk of emotional, financial,and physical harm; the film even omitted important facts such as the suicide of another attendee at a Ray event just months prior to the three deaths in Sedona. Many of these tactics, such as encouraging participants to share about personal trauma in a group setting, are commonly used in the unregulated selfhelp industry and are exactly the sorts of “red flags” SEEK wants to alert consumers to.
When asked at the end of the film how and why Sedona happened, Ray’s declares, “Sedona had to happen. It was the only way I could experience and learn… A test of character. I think I did ok.” Unfortunately, the people who were injured and traumatized, and especially those who died, are not so “ok."
According to this morning's write-up on The Daily Beast, only four of the survivors of that 2009 sweat lodge appear in the documentary.
So, on the one hand, filmmakers recorded James Ray tacitly admitting that three people were sacrificed on the altar of his own personal development. But, on the other, as jaw-dropping as that is, the overall approach was uncritical, never challenging Ray on his outrageously self-indulgent commentary.
"The case that ensued set legal precedent," he insists. It was, he says, "the first time in the history of this country [when] consenting adults participated willfully in a legal activity... an accident occurred, and it was prosecuted as a crime." He later says that the sweat lodge tragedy "had to happen for [him] to learn and grow."
Such scenes in the film are powerful depictions of Ray’s blatant narcissism. But they also represent where Enlighten Us fails.
The implication that no accident has ever been prosecuted as a crime is patently false: airplane crashes, hunting accidents, accidental heatstroke deaths in cars, the BP oil spill. Accidents are prosecuted as crimes all the time, and yet the filmmakers brush right past that, allowing Ray’s willful misdirection to pass as meaningful commentary.
As one film-goer noted, "Carchman’s approach is even-handed enough to give viewers grist to consider him a veritable David Koresh or Ralph Waldo Emerson, depending on their inclinations."
The documentary was produced by CNN Films, so you'll forgive me for not being shocked at the total lack of journalistic scrutiny Ray receives. CNN's history of enabling this huckster will be familiar to readers of this blog. Those who read my trial coverage will remember that Tru TV's "In Session," which initially broadcast the trial, dropped it like one of James Ray's "hellacious hot" rocks, when it became clear that he was guilty and would probably be convicted. They'll remember how trial watchers pleaded with them to continue streaming the trial on CNNLive, to ultimate disappointment. And, they'll remember the free airtime they gave him, upon his release from prison, with Piers Morgan's grotesque, pandering interview.
I suspect that, much as he did with that interview, Ray made his appearance in this documentary contingent upon Ginny Brown and his other critics being excluded. So, once again, the person who throws the biggest temper tantrum wins. I'll know better when I see it, but I suspect gaining that much free rein to run his suck on film is a mixed blessing for Ray, because he seems to have lost any ability to not reveal himself.
There is much that did not make it into the film, like the fact that Kirbry Brown, James Shore, and Liz Neuman were not the only deaths overseen by Ray. Colleen Conaway died from an apparent, but extremely suspicious, suicide at another of his workshops, mere months before the sweat lodge incident. Nor is it made clear that this was not the first sweat lodge to go horribly wrong, only the first to actually kill people.
It's clear that Ray is viewing this documentary as free advertising, as he struggles to restart his career. He told the Daily Beast:
“My main reason for doing the documentary is that I really want to be able to help people in their life,” Ray said. “I feel like if I’m able to turn around, then I can be better equipped to help others turn their lives and businesses around.”
He's still spinning this atrocity and being given the platform to do it. He artfully, sometimes tearfully, takes "responsibility" while still managing to blame everybody else and paint himself as the brave, beleaguered survivor.
Salty Droid, aka., Jason Jones, put it more bluntly:
“Ray seems totally convinced that it was worth people dying for him to become the man he is today,” Jones says. “They made a movie about James Ray stepping over graves into glory, without including a single word from the families of the dead. It’s almost as ridiculous as James Ray still telling people how to find wealth and success… like he did.”