Mar 10, 2011

James Arthur Ray Sweat Lodge Trial: Day 8

Crossposted from Reflections Journal.

Much has been made of the "cult indoctrination" question. The other day, Luis Li again tried to have all the spiritual content excluded from the trial and strip it down to matters of physical causation. He argued that including Ray's spiritual beliefs and teachings was, in and of itself, prejudicial. Then he really went off on a tangent, saying that there was no foundation for the entire cult brainwashing assertion. Personally, I would tend to think that this is the kind of thing that should go to a jury because it is not a matter of obvious fact, but rather one of interpretation. As evidence that it was ludicrous, he pointed to Laura Tucker who was asked by the defense if she thought she had been brainwashed; a suggestion which she rejected as a "massive distortion." Li's argument? A participant was asked. She answered no. Case closed.

As I said before, Tucker's hostility to the idea is understandable because no one likes to think of themselves as brainwashed. But here's the thing: If you stopped a Hare Krishna or a moonie on the street and asked them if they were part of a cult and had been brainwashed they would say, no. No one thinks they're brainwashed when they're brainwashed. No one thinks their church or organization is in any way cult-like. Once a person starts to suspect that they're being manipulated in that way, that's the point at which they start thinking about leaving. And it's really only when you get out of a thing and have some time and distance that you begin to really process and understand how influenced your thinking may have been and how you may have been manipulated.

I had reason to really consider some of these cult dynamics during my college years as I processed my own break from a religious movement. When I was in high school I became a born-again Christian and was very intensely involved in that for a period of years. When I started college and was forced by my curriculum to really exercise my critical thinking muscles, I went through a process of disillusionment with my fundamentalism. Once that transition was complete, I went through a long period of anger at just how manipulated I had been by a belief system that controlled me through a fear of hell and promises of miracles. I got over that, too, and am long past the bitterness. But I will never be the same. Today, I question everything and am very wary of group-think and anything that smacks of being a cult of personality. But when I was within that paradigm, I didn't question it. I couldn't, because to question it would have meant damnation and that all the wonders I was promised wouldn't occur. It would have meant missing out on a lot of fun, music, and emotionally intense experiences. Leaving all that behind also meant giving up friendships, acceptance, and love within a group context. Independence can be very lonely.

As a college student, I processed a lot of that grief and anger by doing research on cults; in part, to understand what had happened to me. As a communications major, I had ample opportunity to pull apart the dynamics of the "rhetorical events" that made up varying degrees of cult indoctrination. And it is, in my opinion, a matter of degree. The way I broke it down in one of my class presentations was as a range:

Persuasion --> Manipulation --> Coercion

Obviously, persuasion is something we all do all the time. ("All communication is rhetorical.") But when a speaker/leader starts to become manipulative, we start to have cultish elements. On the extreme end we have coercion, wherein members of a group are threatened with physical, sometimes life threatening, consequences if they don't comply with a leader or group's directives. There are also many gradients between each of those main elements. There are, for example, subtler forms of coercion. When a leader, for instance, tells you that you will go to hell for not complying with his interpretation of Biblical scripture, that can be experienced as a metaphorical gun to the head.

I don't think James Ray was a cult leader on the level of a Sun Myung Moon, Bagwan Shree Rajneesh, or Jim Jones. His students didn't live in a compound. They lived on their own and had unquestioned access to their families and friends. It just wasn't a cult in the sense that many of us think of as cults. But those examples are on the very extreme end of cult-dom. There are different levels of indoctrination and influence. Many groups, including some which have no association with religious or spiritual beliefs, have cult-like elements. From everything I'm hearing and reading about JRI, I have to say, it's cultish.

One of the things that has made Jennifer Haley's testimony so compelling is that, to my eye, she is currently going through the process of disillusionment with a group and belief system in which she had been very invested. On the one hand she describes her total trust in Ray to keep them all safe. On the other she gives voice to her own anger and frustration over things like the wine incident, and even at one point describes her increasing questioning about her trust in in Ray's leadership. The wine incident also shows her falling out with the group itself and how rejected she felt for speaking her own mind in Ray's presence. She received a sort of tribal shaming. As she describes her attempts to help people during the sweat lodge she describes many instances in which she was chastised by Marta Reis for not being down with the program.

Personally, and this is very much a matter of opinion, I think Haley was "divinely guided" (her words) to Dream Team the Personal Warrior event. Her description of being led by dreams rings true to me. Of course the talking heads on In Session thought it made her seem flaky, but being a new age flake, myself, I get it. We are sometimes divinely guided to things that we assume will be wonderful; else why would we be guided? They end up being some of our most difficult and painful lessons; experiences we would never have chosen without that push from spirit. Haley even said, "I didn't wanna go. I didn't believe in that seminar." I think Haley was called to an experience that is forcing her to free her mind from something she is realizing was a form of indoctrination. Again, my perception. I can't speak for her or what she will ultimately take away from this experience.

Connie Joy, it would seem, went through that process of disillusionment after 2007. She shares it in her book, which I have yet to read. Yesterday Vinnie Politan interviewed Dr. Carole Lieberman on this question of whether or not Ray's followers may be brainwashed. Short answer: Yes. Lieberman's comments really just restate what she said in the forward to Joy's book and can be read here.

Dennis Mehravar Cross Examined by Luis Li

Today, in his cross examination of Dennis Mehravar, Luis Li went over both waiver forms (JRI and Angel Valley) pretty much in their entirety. This was probably the most tedious examination I've seen... ever. And I once sat through a car accident trial that devoted well over an hour to testimony on the asphalt... with diagrams.

Mehravar admits that he did not read the waivers in advance or read them carefully. He explained that he had done many James Ray events and he'd never seen anyone hurt and that signing off was necessary for his participation. That's the thing about legal forms like that. Most of us don't understand them, find even the most basic legalese impenetrable, and sign them without really understanding them. We want to do the thing, whatever it is, and forms like that seem fairly perfunctory... because they are. As I said before, those release forms are to protect JRI; not the participants.

A question that has been gnawing at the back of my mind came into focus today as I was listening to Li's line by line reading of the forms. Probably because I slipped into a sort of fugue state at a certain point. The question is this: When did participants first see those forms? This is an important question because the risks to participants are nowhere else even partly addressed in any other written material that I've seen. Mehravar testified that he got his packet in the summer before the event; so that would be a month or two before the event. Fair enough. But this is where it gets really dicey. The packets which contain those waivers only go to participants after they've already signed up and as near as I can tell, paid. And Ray's cancellation policy isn't good. From the time of the transaction -- from the time they register and pay participants have three days -- to cancel if they wish to receive a refund.

You, the buyer, may cancel event transactions at any time prior to midnight of the third business day after the date of the transaction. See the Notice of Cancellation Form for an explanation of this right. Due to administrative costs, salaries, coordination activities, materials printed, materials acquisitions, hotel contracts and all other business expenses incurred for a public event, following three business days, all event registration fees are a non-refundable purchase. No exceptions to the refund policy will be made after midnight of the third business day after the date of this transaction.

That would mean that registered participants were already financially committed before ever seeing the only information addressing, in any way, health and safety concerns. And, as discussed, the waivers don't adequately address the kinds of risks involved. They look like any other, basic waiver. There is no health questionnaire, no requirement of a physical examination, no request for a doctor's note in the case of specific health conditions; things that are standard when one is talking about a rigorous, physically challenging event. And the form wasn't required, or discussed with staff until the event itself. That's after people have taken planes, trains, and automobiles to get there, paid for their lodging, and shown up expecting to participate in an event. So, even if the staff had done some sort of health intake or questionnaire, which they didn't, it would have been way too late to benefit anyone who needed to cancel due to health consideration.

As addressed in yesterday's testimony, Mehravar hated the Holosync meditation. And as expected, Li tried to tell him that he was exaggerating a bit, "no disrespect." But Mehravar responded, "At that time, that's what I felt and that's what I said." No exaggeration.

The single most stunning admission from Mehravar clearly threw Li for a loop. Asked if he had known someone was dying, would he have stopped the ceremony to help that person, he responded thusly:

Li: My question isn't whether you knew, given how hot and uncomfortable you were, whether you knew somebody was dying and whether you would have tried to help them under those circumstances. My question is a little more simple... If you knew, like knew, I know the guy next to me is dying, are you saying, is it your testimony to this jury that if you knew... I mean if you know the person next to you is dying, is it your testimony today to this jury, that you would have done nothing to help that guy?

Mehravar: I would have probably wait 'til the the round is over and then ask for help.

Li: Okay. You would have tried to help, right?

Mehravar: Again, I don't think I would interrupt the ceremony, but I would wait 'til the ceremony is over and then ask for help, yes. [Li puts his hand over his face in a gesture of total frustration and disbelief.]

Li: [Pauses and shakes head] You would have tried to stop the ceremony, right?

Mehravar: I don't think I would. I know it doesn't sound logical but I don't think I would have stopped the ceremony, no.

On redirect, Mehravar explained why he would not have interrupted the ceremony. He thought "Mr. Ray" would have been upset.

Some other interesting tidbits from Mehravar's testimony on redirect:

He remembers James Ray saying, "You are more than this. You are better than this,"  when people started leaving the sweat lodge. This directly affected his decision to stay in the sweat lodge.

Asked if anyone had ever told him that Lisa, who attended to him outside, was a nurse, he said no. He's still not sure if she's a nurse.

Michael Olesen

Michael Edward Olesen is a sturdy fellow. He doesn't require much sleep and he didn't find the sweat lodge that hot for the first several rounds. He had had some inkling that the sweat lodge was coming. Ray didn't want people to know what events were coming but things "leaked out."

By the fifth round, Olesen realized he was flagging so he crawled/was carried out and after being hosed down and drinking electrolytes throughout the sixth round, felt good enough to rejoin his wife inside. He wanted to be there for her in case she was having problems. She was okay, but other people weren't.

Olesen is convinced that there were seven rounds, total, and he was sticking out that final round. Shortly after returning, though, Ray instructed people to lie down on the ground because the next round would be really hot.

But someone he knew to be named Linda did not lie down when everybody else did. She was leaning against the wall of the tent, unconscious and unresponsive, with "stuff coming out of her nose." He tried to revive her and couldn't. He called for help several times but nobody responded. The flap was open. The next round had not begun and people could see, but no one came to assist him. Finally James Ray responded to his concerns. He told him, "Leave her. She'll be fine." Then he told Olesen to lay down, which he did. "In hindsight," says Olesen, "I wonder if I should have done something different, but I wasn't running the show."

Like Dr. Wagoner, Olesen saw the light coming into the sweat lodge and and assumed it was someone lifting up the flap for relief. And heard James Ray scream, "Stop it. It's a disrespect to the ceremony."

At the end of the ceremony Olesen went into action. He helped to remove people from the tent who weren't leaving... or conscious. He and someone else, possibly Lou Caci, dragged poor Linda out. Another girl whose name he didn't know, was clinging to a piece of string that was hanging from the lodge. She was "in a different state" and wasn't leaving. So they took her out as well.

Outside he helped cool people down and assist in any way he could. He was there for quite a while helping the unconscious, the delirious, and the not breathing. Asked if James Ray had checked on anyone or attempted to assist? No. He hadn't. He did briefly respond to a girl who was screaming his name. (This may have been a girl Jennifer Haley referred to who was also screaming about her sexual desire for Ray. I'm not sure.) Ray did go over to the girl. He said, "She's fine. She's just having an [out of body] experience," and walked away.

On cross, Kelly tried to get Olesen to agree that JRI is not a cult, that indoctrination wasn't the experience of the participants. He said, "to me they weren't." But he refused to speak for anyone else's experience no matter how Kelly tried to pin him down.

Kelly tried to get him to agree that Ray told them to leave, if they needed to leave, in a clockwise manner and be careful of the rocks. Olesen said, that's not all, and clarified that he understood it to be, "only when the round was over."

Kelly asked many questions about how people had the freedom to make choices and could have brought water on the vision question or lifted the flap of the tent. Olesen says more than once that it would have been "cheating." He was in choice not to cheat but knew people could and that was their choice.

This really is my problem with the defense's whole line of reasoning on choice. Their choice comes down to whether to "cheat" or not; whether to follow the game plan James Arthur Ray laid out. More than that, to "cheat" would be to not meet James Ray's expectations, expectations he communicated explicitly and implicitly over and over again. Those expectations were expressed in shaming statements like "You are more than this. You are better than this." Ray made it clear what was accomplishing goals and what was giving up, failing, or "cheating." The whole point of this seminar was to push through barriers and self-imposed limits. Every event was a metaphor for meeting and pushing through challenges in life. And implied, if not outright stated, was that not pushing through those discomforts was a metaphor for failing at life.

On redirect, when asked if he would be willing to interrupt the ceremony, he said, it was "not a good idea." After years of knowing Ray, he knows that the he doesn't like to be interrupted and can get "very angry." So, like Mehravar, and probably a lot more of Ray's long-time students, Olesen is clearly too intimidated by Ray's temper to do little things like interrupt his ceremonies in emergencies... like people dying.

All information on the trial comes from news articles with provided links or live courtroom footage on TruTV's "In Session" or CNN's live feed. All quotes and paraphrased statements that are not linked to a source document are my best attempt to transcribe material from live broadcasts.


  1. I would like to ask the author:

    Do you see any difference between believing James Earl Ray's promises and a nation believing that Obama (or Romney) is going to create a million manufacturing jobs?

    Face it - Humans are little more than talking chimps in a poorly designed zoo throwing feces at each other - and in America, prone to deadly shopping mall stampedes!

    For instance, Americans say nothing at all when corporate guru's make on average 475 times more than the average employee - Or that National Banks and the privately owned Federal Reserve Bank are allowed to create all the money it wishes out of thin air!

    From Dr Phil to Jim Jones, sheeple are eager to look for and follow the instruction of the head guru!

    Cognitive Linguists (like Peter Lakoff) have proven that man is NOT a rational creature. Neurophysiologist have proven that man's unconscious mind makes his strategic decisions - And NOT his conscious mind!

    Sheeple are eager to give anything to the master that promises to hold-them-by-the-hand in life!

    By the way, as a result of the MF Global fraud, the Appellate court ruled this year that the US FDIC no longer must cover any financial losses due to bank fraud!

    So who is your personal savior now?

  2. @ Cesare, I basically agree with your premise and have said so in numerous posts on this trial and similar topics. Humans seem to be hardwired to give their power away to authority, hence my numerous references to Milgram and Zimbardo. Some leaders, who shall go nameless, try to remind people that they are the change they have been waiting for, and yet people continue expect those leaders to be the answer. Totally hardwired and very hard to override.


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