The year 2016 has been dubbed "post-truth" by the Oxford English Dictionary, "an adjective defined as ‘relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief’." Ladies and gentlemen, may I present Exhibit A) Enlighten Us: The Rise and Fall of James Arthur Ray.
The CNN produced documentary is slick, compelling, and far more revealing than its subject probably intended, but it is also very nearly fact free. Director Jenny Carchman wove together media footage and personal interviews without commentary. The lack of narration, which can be a very effective documentary style, meant, in this case, that one outrageous falsehood after another went unchecked. The passive narration was particularly troubling, given that the victims' families were completely excluded.
Jean Brown, sister of the late Kirby Brown, was quick to respond to James Ray's lies about her sister and her family, posting the above video the day the documentary aired. (see above) It is unfortunate that she was not given the opportunity to do so in the documentary itself. And it was not for lack of trying. As discussed here, both Jean and her mother Ginny took it upon themselves to contact the director, but Carchman evinced no interest.
Kirby Brown, James Shore, and Liz Neuman, were little more than footnotes in this story of their gruesome deaths. Make no mistake. This documentary is entirely about how their deaths affected the man who caused them.
Ray has demonstrated an odd mix of self-pity and self-congratulation, in the wake of this horrible tragedy. Carchman indulges him by presenting him as a pitiable character, a one-time rising star in the lucrative self-help industry, whose desired comeback faces daunting challenges.
It's not that the documentary offers no dissenting voices to Ray's predominating narrative. Four of the survivors of the 2009 sweat lodge tragedy are interviewed – Brandy Amstel, Laura Tucker, Beverly Bunn, and Julie Min – as is Det. Ross Diskin, the chief investigator. While they are very articulate and make some excellent points, what critical commentary they offer makes up a very small percentage of the documentary, and does not directly rebut a multitude of bizarre assertions.
According to Salty, Ray thought this documentary would make him look good. It doesn't. Even with the lack of fact-checking, many of his statements are so ludicrous and his manner so disturbing, that any discerning viewer would recognize his narcissistic detachment from reality.
Ray's epic, but unquestioned, bullshittery dominates the film from beginning to end. As a public service, and to provide some necessary context, I've compiled some excerpts. These range from absurd to deceptive to jaw-dropping.
In footage from a 2007 event he says, "I studied with the Q'Ero Indians for three years, who are the direct descendants of the Inca, at 16,500 feet in the Peruvian Andes mountains. I studied in the mystery schools of Egypt and I've crawled through more temples and tombs than probably anyone you'll ever meet. And I've studied in the business schools of AT&T, which kinda means I'm eclectic."
It also kinda means he must have a time machine, because the Egyptian mystery schools haven't existed for thousands of years. His vaunted Peruvian "shaman" turned out to be more of what you'd call a tour guide, as Connie Joy learned during a disillusioning trip to Machu Picchu. The closest thing to a rebuttal to these weird claims, during the airing of the documentary, is a Verizon ad, in an obvious bit of product placement. Take that, AT&T!
One of the more troubling interviews I watched in the course of the trial was with James Ray's mother Joyce. I observed at the time that despite her quavering voice and curling lip, she never shed a tear in that interview. In this documentary, the camera closes in on James Ray's face as he "weeps" on camera. Much like his mother, Ray exhibits all the physical and vocal demonstrations of emotional breakdown, except for two. He doesn't fight back his tears. Most people do, because crying is uncomfortably vulnerable. There are no tears to fight back. Look closely at his eyes and cheeks as he warbles and whimpers. He really looks like he's working it, trying to squeeze out a few tears for a the camera, but he just cannot do it.
Revisiting the courtroom was actually stomach-churning for me and brought back much of sadness and frustration I had felt during course of the trial. Most excruciating was listening to Luis Li's wild distortions of reality once again. Ray definitely law of attracted the perfect defense team, people almost as smarmy, manipulative, and deceptive as he is.
"The state said that people had died from heat stroke, but looking at the medical records, at the time, the doctors who were treating the people were saying that these people'd been poisoned, from like an insecticide. One of the first things that you would do if you thought somebody had poisoning is you would do a drug test on them. They didn't do that," explains Li, as they cut to courtroom footage of him blathering about organophosphates.
This, like so many outrageous claims made in the course of this documentary, is never challenged. It is also patently false. Chemical causes were suspected, initially. But they were all ruled out based on clinical symptoms, except for carbon monoxide. CO was tested and ruled out by blood work. The defense did manage to float the red herring of organophosphate poisoning throughout much of the trial. It could not be conclusively ruled out by the attending physician or pathologists who testified, because it had not been suspected or specifically tested. They all testified that the victims were killed by heat-related illness. The organophosphate question was laid to rest by the expert testimony of Dr. Matthew Dickson, to the great humiliation of Li's co-counsel Truc Do.
It was kind of interesting to see footage of an event I wrote about here and to see that it was even stranger than I could have imagined. The new thought church service was rather fittingly held in a movie theater, where James Ray performed the miracle of turning three words into six. "Three words I'll leave you with: start immediately, live flamboyantly, no exceptions!" Then they passed donation baskets through the congregation, while the guest speaker walked upstairs to the bar to begin the hard sell portion of the service.
One thing Carchman does well, intentionally or otherwise, is to juxtapose some of Ray's promises of financial success with his own lack of it. It is also clear that the Harmonic Wealth author never really achieved any, even before the sweat lodge tragedy. He had long been living beyond his means.
"When I look at the event in Sedona, I ask myself, how did that happen. I wonder if you ask yourself that question," says an off-camera interviewer, perhaps Carchman. Of everything Ray said in this documentary, his response to this query has caused the most upset. Hearing his full answer for myself, I can honestly say that it was much worse than I'd anticipated.
"I think I know the answer to that question. It had to happen. Because it was the only way I could experience and learn and grow through the things that I've done. That's what I think is the reason for me. Am I drinkin' the Kool-Aid? Maybe, but ya know, that Kool-Aid works for me. I think you come out of a situation like this and you're either bitter and angry, or you're more awake and grateful, and I choose awake and grateful. And I choose to see it as a test of character, and a test through fire, and I think I did okay."
But the question proffered wasn't WHY it happened. It was HOW. Not only did Ray reframe the horrible deaths of three people as a necessary sacrifice for his own personal growth, he dodged a serious question about just what went so horribly wrong, under his supervision.
It would be hard to overstate how ghastly a thing it is to keep evoking fire imagery, after you've cooked three people to death, but he does it over and over. Is he completely tone-deaf, or is he so twisted that he really sees himself as rising from the funeral pyre that consumed three lives. Does he think he's a Targaryen now? Will he start calling himself the Father of Dragons next?
The Kool-Aid reference is disturbing not just because it's an admission that he has gleefully divorced himself from reality, but because the phrase traces back to the cyanide-laced Flavor Aid that Jim Jones served to nearly a thousand people so that they could kill themselves efficiently. Is he oblivious to the fact that mass suicide was one of the first things people thought of when confronted with the horrors of the Sedona sweat lodge? Or is he reveling in it?
The biggest, bold-faced lie in the course of this documentary comes when he claims before a small gathering that he's taken personal responsibility for the deaths in Sedona.
"In October of 2009, my world changed dramatically. I. Am. Responsible. There were things that were overlooked and missed. I'm responsible. There were people assigned to certain duties, they were trained well, they were paid well, that was their job. Doesn't matter. I am responsible. The case that ensued set legal precedent. The first time in the history of this country, the United States of America, that consenting adults, not minors, consenting adults participated willfully in a legal activity, not drinking and driving, an accident occurred and it was prosecuted as a crime. First time in the history of our country. That doesn't matter. I am responsible."
It's almost awe inspiring the ability Ray has to deflect responsibility while claiming it. His employees – who were, in point of fact, mostly unpaid Dream Team volunteers – dropped the ball. It was the participants who were "willful," not Ray. (I believe this is what we call a Freudian slip.) He's the first person in US history to be prosecuted for an accident, a claim so risible it's hard to believe he made it. But it is only now that we know the extent to which Ray is lying here. Far from taking personal responsibility, Ray is seeking to have his conviction set aside.
The victims' families question Ray's sincerity after he filed a motion earlier this year seeking to restore his civil rights and set aside the judgment of guilt against him. If granted, Ray would regain voting rights and international travel would become easier.
While he'd remain a convicted felon in Arizona, Ray would have the ability to explain to potential business entities like insurance companies that a court set the conviction aside, finding him to be a different person than the one originally found guilty.
In a strange way, Enlighten Us succeeds in spite of itself. Carchman clearly catered to Ray by excluding the families he devastated. I strongly suspect he made his availability contingent on their exclusion, just as he did with his Piers Morgan interview. It still seems utterly craven and her transparent obfuscation, worse. But much as Sheila Polk learned, when she played one recording after another of his lectures to the ill-fated participants of Spiritual Warrior 2009, Ray's mouth is always working for the prosecution.
Recommended Reading (This list may grow.):