Mar 21, 2011

James Arthur Ray Sweat Lodge Trial: Day 15

Crossposted from Reflections Journal.

When I was a kid, my family and I had an extended visit with my aunt and uncle in Idaho. It was my introduction to "dry heat." I marveled at how long I could play outside in temperatures twenty degrees higher than I was used to. How was it that I could play croquet in the backyard for hours in temperatures over a hundred degrees when the high eighties made me wilt back home? My family's explanation: You feel the heat more when it's humid. Not explained to my child mind's satisfaction was why. But I did note that my aunt kept a bottle of lotion near her at all times and could go on at some length about the relative merits of various moisturizers.

This memory came back to me when I was researching the question of heat exhaustion in James Arthur Ray's sweat lodge. Short answer to Ray's defense team: No, you don't have to be dehydrated to suffer heat related illnesses, up to and including heatstroke. Anything that interferes with the body's natural cooling system can cause heat related illness. That includes temperatures too high for any bodily process to combat and high humidity. When an environment is humid perspiration cannot evaporate off the skin properly, which is how perspiration cools the body down. Jeanne Armstrong was wearing a Nike Dri-Fit, moisture-wicking sports shirt. It may have saved her life. It almost certainly made her experience more comfortable.

James Ray poured way too much water on the rocks. Someone called Rubies explained in a recent comment on the Salty Droid:

I have been in screaming hot lodges before (Lakota teacher) but the difference was there was always a cool down in between rounds and only 4 rounds. We have had over 100 rocks in a smaller lodge and the only water put on the rocks was from an eagle fan dipped in water and dripped onto the rocks not gallons and gallons that Ray dumped on the rocks. The man knows nothing of a ceremony. It was not a ceremony it was a sweat event.

In my limited experience of sweat lodge ceremony, that was also the case. The water was sprinkled and the air was just moist enough to make it breathable and comfortable. But Ray's objective always seems to be discomfort and the endurance of it.

Also, as my husband has said repeatedly, Ray created a perfect storm. My husband is not an expert on heat related illness, either. But he is a Marine and protecting yourself against the dangers of hyperthermia is one of the first things you learn in military training. A single episode of heatstroke can cause a member of the military to be medically separated because you're body's thermostat never functions the same way thereafter. My husband has also done a lot of survival training in addition to his military training. Here's his breakdown as to why this was a disaster waiting to happen. There are five ways the human body sheds heat: perspiration, respiration, radiation, conduction, and convection. That sweat lodge was set up in such a way as to negate every one of those mechanisms.

Perspiration would not evaporate because of the heavy steam. as discussed. Respiration would have been compromised because this lodge appeared to be more airtight than a traditional sweat lodge. (Yes, the "blue material" is still a matter of dispute.) The reduction of air flow cuts down on oxygen. And the high heat would cause people to take shallower breaths. You'd be taking in superheated air that wouldn't cool the body. The air was hot, stagnant, and carbon dioxide-heavy. When it comes to radiation -- that's the body emitting heat into the air -- these were a bunch of hot, wet, nearly naked people radiating heat into a hot, wet environment, where that radiated heat was not being ventilated. Heat was radiating from the rocks, the bodies, and the sun -- because it was daytime -- and that heat had nowhere to go except to concentrate in the lodge. Conduction is when you sit on the ground and radiate your body heat into the coolness of the earth. This sweat lodge was so hot that a woman burned herself from touching ground. So it was more like a kiln. Convection is air circulation and there wasn't any. Many people have testified that even when the flap was open they couldn't feel a breeze. There were no cross-currents.

Someone called anonymous also passed along this article. In it, a sauna expert has calculated the oxygen depletion, based on air volume, number of bodies, amount of steam, etc. My one bit of confusion with that article is that they refer to carbon monoxide replacing oxygen. I can't see that happening unless there was a source of carbon monoxide. Burning natural materials such as wood releases some carbon monoxide. Burning tobacco releases carbon monoxide and some people have testified that tobacco was among the herbs thrown on the rocks. In that environment even a small amount of carbon monoxide could have been disastrous. But I know that in at least one medical report -- I believe it was Stephen Ray's -- they suspected carbon dioxide poisoning. Human beings exhale carbon dioxide so in that enclosed environment, I would imagine there was a glut of carbon dioxide and a paucity of oxygen.

Listening to Laurie Gennari

Late in the day on Friday, Laurie Gennari started her testimony. I needed to take the weekend to process that because it was very rich testimony. In Gennari's case, Judge Darrow has agreed to her request not to appear on camera. (This may have been the discussion before Lou Caci testified, previously attributed to his appearance.) So Gennari appears throughout as a disembodied voice, which is a little frustrating, but it does provide more camera time to James Ray's reactions to that testimony. And the testimony is damning.

There are two major revelations that came out during Gennari's direct questioning. The first is that Ray badgered participants out of taking unscheduled bathroom breaks; more echoes of EST training. The second is that Ray prevented Gennari from leaving the sweat lodge when she made for the door.

Gennari's testimony was also explosive because she's very insightful and describes things in colorful, poignant language. I found myself deeply impressed with her intelligence and relating far too much to her perceptions. I've been where she was and I've been where she is in processing this experience.

From the beginning of her testimony, Gennari nailed the dynamics in a way that other witnesses have noticeably struggled to. When Polk asked her what the phrase "play full on" meant to her, she replied, "Mostly, to me that meant, do as he says. Do what he wants."

Gennari went along with most of what Ray wanted but she did not shave her head. She explained in her testimony what she had explained to numerous seminar participants. She'd already done it twice in her life "for no apparent reason." It wasn't meaningful for her and she knew she wouldn't get anything out of it. She compared the reaction from other participants to being shunned in junior high school. She experienced a lot peer pressure for her lack of conformity over what is purported to be ego annihilating exercise. Irony thy name is a James Ray seminar.

Gennari doesn't think she got more than three or four hours of sleep any night that week. She explains the lack of sleep as being tied to Ray's direction to do a lot of writing "because you won't do it at home." So I guess the point of the seminar was not about learning self-discipline. What would be the value in teaching a self-help practice that he doesn't expect people to carry over into daily life? What occurs to me is that it fosters dependency on James Ray. He's positioning himself as the discipline structure rather than teaching choice and self-reliance.

Gennari had done Holosync meditation on her own with the cd's which she describes as producing a "wacky meditative state." According the literature it induces a delta brainwave pattern. That's a very deep level of meditation; actually the level of deep, dreamless sleep. Most meditation and journeying techniques induce a low alpha to theta range and even that can be a bit much over an extended period. Ray had them doing double sessions. She believes that on one occasion Ray actually had them doing three straight hours. Said Gennari, "If it's possible to overdose on meditation, that's what we were doing."

Yes it is possible to overdose on meditation and it says so right in the Holosync FAQ. I posted this earlier in regards to Dennis Mehravar who had also OD'd on Holosync. It bears repeating. The recommended usage is to build up to one hour a day. Listening for an extended period can be overwhelming.

Listening for extended time periods can give the brain too much input and bring too much unresolved unconscious material to the surface, just like too much exercise can be harmful to the body. Listening all night, or even for several hours, can often create a state of severe overwhelm. Again, it is best to follow the instructions closely.

As with everything else he makes his participants do, Ray pushes the envelope. If an hour of meditation is good, two hours is better, and three is phenomenal. If a normal sweat lodge is a beautiful healing experience, jacking the heat up to nth degree is total transformation. He has no concept of subtlety.

Worse, he induces people to stop listening to their own instincts or honor their own process. When people start having trouble with a spiritual process, the answer is never really as simple as "push through it." Pain, whether physical or emotional is the body's warning system. It's important to listen and assess.

Like many of the participants, Gennari did not believe that yoga was optional. The woman who didn't go one day was bullied by Ray. Here, her testimony gibes with Bunn's. And like Bunn she found the experience very intimidating and reinforcing of her desire not to be singled out in the same way. She decided to "pretty much keep my head down and stay off that radar... by going along with what was going on and not making waves."

Gennari is clever and she quickly grokked that the theme of the week was "death." Although she appreciated the poetic appeal death and rebirth symbolism. But she felt that Ray was not helping people use their innate tools better and more selectively. It was more about throwing half your tools and personality traits away because they're bad. She also thought it was dramatic and over the top.

Over the course of the various events, what I had seen was that when people had stood up with questions and had tried to explain that they saw things differently, they would get, not just shot down, but told that the reason their life was a mess was because of that point of view they had. And it always, I was always conflicted about that. 'Cause on the one had I could see where certain thought patterns or personality traits were the things getting in my way. But in other ways I could see that they were, they worked for me as well. And I felt like there wasn't a nuanced enough view of people and who people are.

So if you disagreed with Ray's views something was wrong with you. That's really what it comes down to. Disagreement is flipped back on the person. And, since we're all flawed and not where we really want to be life, that lack of satisfaction is leveraged by Ray to make people question their own inner truth. Result: Increasing dependence on Ray for guidance.

Gennari found Ray to be compelling and entertaining. But she was "always also waiting for the other shoe to drop. That, that I knew, you know, the Jekyl-Hyde moment would come." After much maneuvering this observation was stricken.

The Samurai Game was a little silly according to Gennari. But for Ray it was the gold standard of life. "However we showed up in the game is how we showed up in the world." This only served to make her feel as if she wasn't good enough because she didn't particularly feel like jumping in with both feet .

In other words, what matters to James Ray, what he thinks is a good game, is the barometer for all things. It couldn't just be that you didn't like the game.

Now bear in mind that Kirby Brown played the Samurai Game with such gusto and dedication that she nearly burst her own bladder. The next revelation may provide a little more background into why she would have thought Ray would not make exceptions for the call of nature. According to Gennari, James Ray has a history of chastising people for bathroom breaks. which made her reluctant to hydrate, hydrate, hydrate. She had seen Ray get "very upset" with people at other events for going to the restroom when they needed to rather than during scheduled breaks.

Polk asked if she had known there'd be a sweat lodge, would she have made more of an effort to hydrate. Answer, "Yes."

Later in her testimony she clarified:

Polk: Were you not permitted to leave an event when you wanted?

Gennari: Trying to leave during, while he was talking instead of at a break would usually get somebody hassled for it. We're gonna talk about what you need. You're gonna miss things that are important. They'd get badgered into staying.

Polk: And would that include, did that effect how much you hydrated during the week?

Gennari: Yes.

Polk: And in what way?

Gennari: I, I ran a little dry.

Polk: How come?

Gennari: 'Cause I didn't wanna have to, I didn't wanna have to be the person who couldn't stand it any longer it and got up in the middle of something and got berated.

Gennari hadn't grokked that the sweat lodge would be so hot. She likes heat so what is usually too hot for other people is comfortable for her. In other words, she has a higher than average heat threshold. And yet, she found it nigh well unbearable. She also thought Ray was being overly dramatic in his description of how hot it would be. For instance, Ray had said, "You may pass out but that's alright. We'll get you out."

Said Gennari, "I thought it was hyperbole." Sadly, it was not... well except for the part about getting them out. 

She also had no real interest in doing a sweat lodge. She was already done in by the week's activities and about ready to go home. Polk asked her to explain, then, why she went to do the sweat lodge.

By that time, it, it would never have crossed my mind to depart from the group.... Well, I had arrived expecting this week to be full of different experiences, having paid more money than I've ever paid for anything I couldn't drive. Um, and determined to do as much as I could to get the most out of it. And, the, within the first couple of days the group became very cohesive. Um, and everything we did was, was we. We go back to lecture. We go to breakfast. We go to lunch. We go do this. We go do that. So this was just we go do a sweat lodge. We go change clothes. We come back. We do a sweat lodge. And it was just what was on the program.

So, the three major factors in her formulation as to why to proceed with a sweat lodge she felt too tired for and had no real desire to try were:
  • Getting out of the week what was promised. 
  • Getting her money's worth having spent a lot to be there. 
  • Group-think.

Gennari did not immediately find the heat unbearable but the environment started to wear on her for other reasons. She recalls a Latina who was "whimpering" about how uncomfortable she was. This brought chants from the people around her of "You're more than that. You can do this. You're more than that." She annoyed the still lucid Gennari enough that she whipped her head around towards the woman and barked, "You need to do what's right for you." Shortly thereafter the woman left.

Gennari remembers the incident over light coming into the tent. She said of Ray's outburst, "It's the not quite screaming but you're definitely being yelled at voice."

For Gennari's part, she was just annoyed that the exchange was delaying things. "I recall," she said, "having a fleeting thought about how typical that was for him to get pissed off when something didn't go exactly right." 

Then things really started to go south. Said Gennari, "I think the draggings started somewhere in [round] 3 or 4."

She thinks the first guy she noticed being dragged out was Sean Ronin. He was "raving" and "thrashing." He was punching people as he flailed around. It took a number of people to subdue him and drag him out, but it was not enough to make Ray stop the ceremony.

At another point she heard somebody yelling, "She's not responding." And later, "She's not breathing." Ray responded, "Leave her there. We'll deal with her at the end of the round." I'm guessing this was Sidney Spencer and the episode recounted by Beverley Bunn.

Around the sixth round she started to become concerned about Liz Neuman. But, she thought, Liz was experienced, having done four or five of Ray's sweat lodges before.

Asked to describe the reason for her concern she said, "The look on her face was very similar to somebody who's drunk. Um. She was sort of spacey and lolling her head."

But, she knew from her experiences throughout that week that she had to "let other people have their experience."

Gennari explained that she is normally the kind of person who takes over in high stress situations. She had "suspended normal me" to have the experience she had signed up for. In other words, I guess she was trying to pull a George Castanza and do the opposite, in hopes that she could shift her normally, introverted, defended personality.

Throughout the seventh round, Gennari was really struggling. But Laura Tucker asked for her help in supporting Liz. This is the point at which they propped Liz Neuman up on their knees as earlier described in Tucker's testimony.

Laura Tucker had asked Liz if she wanted to get out and Liz said "No, no, no, no." When Gennari imitates Liz, she slurs her speech a little like a drunk, and analogizes it to "the friend you need to take the keys from and not let them drive home.

After the seventh round, during the break, Gennari had had all she could take and started crawling out, scraping her hands and knees on the gravel. She went out appropriately clockwise. Asked why she would go the long way when she so needed to leave, she explains that it would not, by then, have occurred to do anything but follow the rules. When she got within about four feet from the door, Ray bellowed at her, "No. You're too late. The door's closing. We're starting again. Find yourself a spot." She dove for the ground and decided to wait it out. The flap was still open and she saw it close. But the ground was much hotter on that side of the tent and she couldn't find a cool spot to rest her face on as she had in her previous spot. Her heart was racing by the time it was over. As Ray began directing everyone out and she tried to figure out her path of exit, she blacked out and missed everybody leaving. As she explained later, she never saw it coming. She had no idea she was passing out until she was coming to. By then they were dragging people out. Someone tried to drag her out. She wanted to crawl out but the woman said she had to "crawl fast." Ultimately the woman "threw" her out of the tent so that she "landed face down in the mud." She was aggressively hosed with cold water, much of which went up her nose.

Why did she not just keep going and get out? "I froze. I didn't stand a chance. I was, I was tired. I was hungry. I was terrified. I was panicking. I just, none of my rational systems were functioning at that point."

What kind of voice did Ray use? "Authoritative."

So Ray prevented Laura Gennari from leaving and the round hadn't even started. I'm going to say this again: James Ray prevented Laura Gennari from leaving.

After she was out of the tent, Gennari's breathing problems dissipated but her heart continued to race for some time afterwards.

As she started to recover she was urged by Tucker to help Steven Ray. His eyes were red and rolling in his head. His nose was running he was breath was rapid. She squeezed his hand and it felt dead. She tried to get him to squeeze his hand but he didn't respond. She stayed with him until the paramedics put him into the ambulance.

No one from Ray's staff assessed Gennari to determine whether or not she should be seen by the paramedics.

She continued to feel very shaky through dinner. She shivered with cold but could feel her skin radiating heat. The next morning she went into Sedona and walked around. She still felt like she was in shock.

Her overall assessment of that week:

Everything we did was about getting an order to do something uncomfortable and carrying through and doing it. And, whether it was the writing, the staying up all night, the, you know, eating a vegetarian diet, uh, you know, having breaks when they were specified. The whole week just, I mean we were, we were well trained (to do what we were told by the end of that week.) [The parenthetical was stricken.]

Intellectually, Gennari understands why she didn't rescue Liz. Emotionally, she's still beating herself up for not picking her up and dragging her ass out of there. Well, as Luis Li says, 20/20 is perfect hindsight.

Luis Li had just started his cross before the end of proceedings on Friday. After a clumsy attempt to build rapport over their mutual California background, it's a lot of him trying to coax a retrospective awareness of self-reliance out of Gennari. All that stuff she did -- the journaling for instance -- she could have just not done it. Here, he picks at Gennari's scab, by bringing up the assignment Ray had given her to write about the issue of her shyness.

Gennari: It wasn't a discussion. He told me to do that.

. . .

Li: You could back go back to your room and write about whatever you wanted write about.

Gennari: Yeah, this was, this was, was, was one more thing to add to the list of instructions.

Li: Okay but I guess this is just a fairly simple yes or no question. You could go back to your room and write about anything you wanted, correct?

Gennari: I don't feel right answering that as a yes or no question... I could have stood on my head in the middle of the place but that wasn't why I was there.

Li: Okay, that's a good point. And I'm not trying to argue with you. You could stand on your head if you wanted to, correct? Yes?

Gennari: Not if I were, not if I were, there to have the event.

Li: Okay, I'm gonna take... let's just talk about free will. Let's just talk about what you can and can't do as an adult. You can do whatever you want can't you?

Gennari: When I have my wits about me.

. . .

Li: You can decide to get in your car and leave.

Gennari: I could.

Li: You can call a cab, go to the airport, fly from Phoenix back to Redwood City, and leave, right?

Gennari: Only if I were to override all the reasons I was there.

Li: Yeah. And those reasons why you were there were reasons you came up with for yourself...

It goes on like that for quite a while.

The irony, here, is that Li sounds less like a defense attorney trying to prove that a witness made independent choices than a cult deprogrammer trying to rehabilitate an escapee. The defense has walked into its own trap.

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. Laurie Gennari also gave the jury this excellent description of what she was doing: she said something like she had "suspended normal me for this experience to come out with a bigger me".

    (Thanks for the excellent coverage!)

  2. @yakaru, Laurie Gennari has a marvelous gift for language. She really takes you there doesn't she? And this without even having a face.

  3. I remember reading something about these people being taken on a 2 day hike in the hills without water, before being stuffed in the sweat lodge.

    If you can survive only 3 days without water, these people had a head start on disaster.

    All because "Death" Ray was playing with things he had no knowledge of, like human physiology.


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