Jul 30, 2011

Tragedy in Sedona

Article first published as Book Review: Tragedy in Sedona by Connie Jay on Blogcritics.

On July 25, 2009, Colleen Conaway plummeted to her death in San Diego's Horton Plaza mall; an apparent suicide. She had no history of mental problems. She was by all accounts very happy with her life and her direction. So how did the Minnesota native meet such a sad and inexplicable fate so far from home? She was participating in a James Arthur Ray "Creating Absolute Wealth" seminar for which she had paid thousands of dollars.

The exercise was one in which seminar participants were directed to dress as homeless people and wander around downtown San Diego. They were not allowed to carry money, identification, or cell phones. In what would become a pattern for those who had the misfortune to be severely injured during James Ray seminars, Colleen Conaway spent many hours listed as "Jane Doe."

Connie Joy's daughter Erica participated in that same seminar and both Connie and her husband Richard attended the final dinner. None of them were aware that a participant had died. Only Ray and his closest staffers knew that Conaway was lying on a slab in the San Diego County morgue. And they weren't telling. People who asked about why she hadn't returned were told that she was fine but wasn't coming back to the seminar. It was over two months later, in the wake of yet another horrific tragedy on Ray's watch, that his long-time followers learned that the unnamed woman who had died in the mall that day was the seminar participant who had never returned from her homelessness adventure.

Less than two weeks after losing one of his students to a deadly fall, Ray had a select group of the high paying World Wealth Society members hiking a mountain trail overlooking Machu Picchu -- blindfolded. When concerned local tour guides tried to steer the hikers away from steep drops and around sharp turns, Ray became irritated at their interference. He was going to teach his students about the value of living life to the fullest by flirting with death and no one was going to stop him. As his group of students removed their blindfolds to take in the view from the cliff they were standing on, he asked, "Are you just taking up space or are you really living your lives?"

Ray's fascination with the theme of death was not new. But it seemed to increase rather than diminish after Colleen Conaway's inexplicable plunge. In early October, just over two months after her demise, Ray would lead his Spiritual Warrior seminar in Sedona, AZ, in which he relied heavily on death metaphors. And three people would die from exposure to extreme temperatures in a sweat lodge ceremony.

When Joy learned of the deaths of James Shore and Kirby Brown and that her good friend Liz Neuman was in critical condition in an Arizona hospital, she was shocked and saddened but not surprised. Joy had been trying to warn people about Ray's sweat lodge since she, herself, had gotten sick from the heat during Spiritual Warrior 2007. She knew the dangers of heatstroke and had long thought it was only a matter of time before someone was severely injured in one of Ray's super-heated sweat lodges.

In Tragedy in Sedona, Joy offers an insider's perspective on what led up to the tragic deaths and multiple injuries that resulted from a sweat lodge that was "too hot for too long." As World Wealth Society members, she and her husband Richard got as close to Ray as anyone but his closest staffers were allowed to get. She also saw that limited access diminish as Ray's star rose. Over a three year period, the Joys attended 27 of Ray's events as either paying participants or Dream Team volunteers.

Joy witnessed numerous injuries at Ray's events: broken bones, a punctured eyelid, and other medical emergencies, for which Ray took no responsibility and implemented few precautions. His recklessness escalated dramatically as his Oprah fueled popularity increased and he began packing his events to capacity. As the number of these incidents mounted the Joys posited that Ray would never really risk anyone's life because, if for no other reason, it would be bad for business. Besides, they knew that Ray was extensively trained by native shamans and other practitioners. Surely he knew what he was doing. But as his recklessness increased, they became less and less convinced that people were safe and increasingly concerned until the World Wealth Society trip to Peru shattered what was left of their trust.

The breaking point came when Joy learned that the hotly anticipated climb up Huayna Picchu would be on a schedule too tight to safely reach the top. Knowing that there was a history of injuries and deaths on the steep trails, the Joys went to work investigating alternative scheduling for participants who, like themselves, wanted to do a complete climb without risking their lives. Their interference in Ray's plans put them on a collision course with his ego. The result was a verbal assault from Ray that finally convinced them that he was not a spiritual leader who was living by his own teachings.

Ray's hypocrisy had been increasingly evident the Joys for some time. From the very first seminar, they'd recognized deceptive, hard-sell practices. The Joys, being realtors, had seen such tactics before and took them in stride. But over time they noticed that promises made during pitches for the very expensive World Wealth Society membership were changed or discarded completely. In Orwellian fashion, there was often no acknowledgment that many of the offerings were vastly reduced from what had been promised. Since the pitches were always verbal, rather than written, there was no way to prove the change had occurred.

In one telling exchange, Ray publicly excoriated a man for his wife's diligent note-taking during seminars. With increasing frequency, Ray would "flame" people from the stage for asking questions he didn't want to answer or as an opportunity to air grudges they didn't even know he was holding. It was something he did so effectively that many of his students were terrified to take the mic to ask a question and feared being called out. In this case, the offense in question was keeping a record of what Ray said, which he ironically described as not "paying attention" to what he was saying.

Most of Ray's sales pitches and promises were delivered when people were in a suggestible state. His upcoming seminars and packages were sold during other seminars where he would keep people on action-packed schedules that provided little time for sleep and few breaks. Joy even cites one instance when Ray began a pitch as he was leading them in a guided meditation. That was not the only time Joy, a trained hypnotherapist, noted that Ray was using stage hypnosis and/or NLP techniques to sell his events, but it was the most shocking. It was an egregious abuse of trust; one another participant referred to as "black magick." Sadly, Joy noted that it worked. She saw a woman she knew to have tight finances standing on line to shell out $60,000 for a World Wealth Society membership she could not possibly afford. Thankfully, the woman came to her senses before closing the deal. A very good thing because Ray's company had an ironclad no refund policy.

Ray's business practices were among many pieces of information excluded during Ray's manslaughter trial because they were "prejudicial." Jurors would not learn, for instance, that Ray's unwillingness to provide refunds meant that by the time participants received information packets and waivers that gave some, albeit very small, indication of the dangers posed by Spiritual Warrior, they could not have canceled without forfeiting nearly $10,000. Ray's lawyers were free to argue, however, that by signing the waivers, participants knew what they were in for. Jurors did learn that Ray's Dream Team volunteers had to pay for their own travel, lodging, and meals. They did not know, however, something Joy only discovered after Dream Teaming numerous events -- that the group rates offered to participants and volunteers were higher than the regular rates because Ray demanded substantial kickbacks from hotels.

After his contributing role in The Secret and his appearances on "Oprah" and "Larry King Live," Ray's monetary focus sharpened. He now spoke openly of his goal to be "the first billionaire in the spiritual arena." He claimed that he had become a millionaire as a byproduct of following his bliss but this was no longer good enough. He wanted to be billionaire as a way of "keeping score." Joy was floored.

It wasn't just his now open pecuniary focus that belied his spiritual aspirations. There were other unsavory indications of an ego spinning out of control.

Dubbed the "Rock Star of Personal Transformation," Ray relished the limelight. He relished the perks of wealth and stardom even more. Like Elvis's "Memphis Mafia," Ray's "Dream Team" volunteers were required, among other ignoble tasks, to let women know that he'd picked them out of the audience to join him for the evening. In one horrible case, Joy noticed a woman sobbing in the back of the hall. Joy's friend Edward, who was among the volunteer staff for the event, explained the incident. She had been thrown over when Ray changed his mind about which audience pick he expected to join him for dinner.

Ray, who taught that relationships were one of five essential pillars in a balanced life, seemed to have very odd ideas about them. He had said many revealing things about how he didn't believe that people were meant to be together forever and that having children was a vain attempt at immortality. He had been married and divorced and never intended to remarry. Yet he considered himself qualified to teach people about integrity in relationships.

Over time, Joy observed that Ray ran interference in other people's relationships. She kept finding herself separated from her husband Richard during events. During Spiritual Warrior, for instance, couples were split up and assigned same-sex roommates. It was a pattern that started to feel very deliberate, particularly when Joy was volunteering for Practical Mysticism and her daughter Erica was there as a participant. After exchanging a few words with her daughter, she saw Ray whispering to the staffer in charge of volunteers who then pulled Joy aside and gave her a talking to. Joy needed to stay away from Erica and let her "have her own experience."

That phrase, "let people have their own experience" was one heard from numerous witnesses during Ray's manslaughter trial. People who were concerned about the labored breathing and apparent incoherence of other sweat lodge participants, for instance, knew better than to interfere in the "experience" of people who were, in fact, dying. Prosecutor Sheila Polk argued that such rules actually trained people away from their natural instincts to try to help each other and to completely defer to Ray's judgment.

After reading Tragedy in Sedona, it occurred to me that it was also a way to discourage normal bonding between participants and ensure that communication during Ray's events was almost entirely vertical rather than horizontal. Too much interpersonal bonding threatened the hierarchy and Ray's position at the top of it. That sense was confirmed for me when I exchanged emails with Mary Latallade, who described for me her sense of isolation in the crowd; particularly when she was seriously injured during the the 2008 sweat lodge.

During the trial, the pressure Ray applied to men and women alike to submit to buzz cuts during Spiritual Warrior was a contentious issue. The echoes of Heaven's Gate and the Manson Family would be hard to miss. Defense attorneys worked hard to diffuse the potential impact on jurors of numerous women being shorn of their locks. Joy struggled with the decision of whether or not to shave off all her hair when she attended Spiritual Warrior in 2007. Ultimately, she accepted Ray's logic: "You are not your hair." Shaving their hair was presented as an opportunity to sacrifice ego. But Ray wasn't leading by example. He didn't have his own head shaved. Worse, when police searched his hotel room, they recovered an impressive stash of pharmaceuticals including steroids and Propecia.

In the forward to Tragedy in Sedona, psychiatrist Carole Lieberman points out that in one of Ray's books he describes the embarrassment he experienced as a boy when his mother would give him buzz cuts on the front porch in full view of laughing neighbor children. And here he was, years later, pressuring people to sit in a public area and have their hair shaved off. So was Ray shaming Spiritual Warrior participants into shaving their heads to experience humility or humiliation? Taken in context, humiliation is about the only explanation that makes sense.

During the trial, it became apparent that participants were humiliated and degraded in numerous ways. Many witnesses visibly flinched as they described flaming episodes when Ray would take any opportunity to publicly enumerate any flaws and air grievances. Some students were terrified of attracting his ire by such things as taking an unscheduled bathroom break. A good number of Spiritual Warrior participants were forced to remain perfectly still on the hard floor for hours, unable to scratch an itch, use the bathroom, or eat dinner, after being symbolically killed by a capricious "God" (Ray) during his twisted version of the Samurai Game. Many people testified to his telling participant Lou Caci to relieve himself inside the sweat lodge on the ground rather than leave the "sacred" space; something he clearly found degrading.

These condescensions from on high became more and more common as Ray's fame grew and he retreated behind body guards and away from any two-way communication with students. Mostly, he criticized them for "not playing full on" if they failed to meet the numerous physical and emotional challenges presented during events. During Spiritual Warrior he criticized them for wanting to leave the intolerable temperatures of the sweat lodge and many of them stayed against their quickly evaporating judgment.

Ray's abnormally hot and abnormally long sweat lodge reduced people to vomiting, paralyzing muscle cramps, babbling incoherence, and unconsciousness. None of that indicated a problem to Ray. In fact, it was the goal. In the aftermath of the 2009 lodge, the hottest he'd ever run, more participants than ever were in such these disabling states. It was a scene that some participants described as looking like a war zone. And as the realization dawned that a number of people were in life threatening distress and participants who were able began administering CPR, Ray sat in the shade with a cooling beverage, and observed the scene. When told by the firekeeper's wife that she needed a cellphone to call 911 because people weren't breathing, he shrugged. He was later seen chatting to someone other than 911 on a cellphone. As the ambulances started to arrive, he shambled back to his hotel room to shower and have a sandwich.

The picture of Ray that emerges from Tragedy in Sedona and in the many hours of courtroom testimony is not just that of an overblown ego. There are glimpses of something truly sadistic. Ray seemed to enjoy watching people do what he told them to do even when it was degrading... and when it was horrifically dangerous.

Ray is certainly not the first spiritual leader to exploit followers sexually and emotionally. He's not the first to accrue massive wealth at the expense of financially struggling followers. He's not the first to take advantage of volunteers. He's not even the first spiritual leader to conflate sacrificing the ego to God with submission to his leadership. What sets James Arthur Ray apart from the average flimflammer is that he was playing a game of chicken with other people's lives. How else to describe someone who would blindfold people on a dangerous a mountain trail and retool a traditional sweat lodge into an inferno so as to induce heatstroke for its mind altering affects?

Ray's students followed his lead because they trusted him to know what he was doing. He had established credibility with them by being a published author, by being part of The Secret, and by claims of having trained under established spiritual teachers and shamans in numerous traditions. But tales of his vast, multicultural training turned out to be lies. After the Joys had their final confrontation with Ray, the whole facade came crumbling down. In Peru, he'd hedged when his students wanted to meet the shaman he'd told so many stories about. Joy asked around and learned the man in question was not so much a shaman as he was a tour guide. Stan Grof, the psychiatrist who developed Holotropic Breathwork had never heard of James Ray until after he'd made headlines for his deadly sweat lodge. Grof's institute had no record of his having been trained to facilitate the breathwork. Most of his knowledge of shamanism came from Carlos Castaneda books; a fraud being led by a fraud.

For all her disillusionment, Joy writes without rancor, and with a sense of gratitude for what good came out of her experience with James Ray -- even though it came with a whopping $200,000 price tag. Tragedy in Sedona began as a chronicle of her journey of spiritual growth and healing. Ray stole from good teachers as well as bad and some of what she experienced was valuable; even transformative. It is, after all, the message not the messenger that matters.

Joy learned that she'd be writing a book when she was in Egypt on a World Wealth Society trip. While communing with the Sphinx, she was told that part of her destiny was to write a book. A math person and "digital" thinker, she never considered herself a writer. But her higher self knew she'd have an important story to tell and indeed she did. The driving narrative, the power of that story, more than makes up for any lack of linguistic flair.

For anyone who wants to understand how apparently intelligent, educated, and accomplished people could fall pray to Ray's long con, the book makes essential reading. Joy, herself, is such a person. Her vulnerability to Ray lay in some of her highest aspirations -- a longing to understand the workings of spirit, to align all aspects of her life with her spirituality, and to make a solid contribution to the world. Joy bridles against media reports that characterize Ray's followers as a "cult." She makes the point repeatedly that they were not "mindless cult" members. I would take issue only with characterization of cult members as mindless. Not even members of Heaven's Gate, the People's Temple, Hare Krishna, or other well known cults could be fairly described as "mindless." They were simply subject to a higher level of manipulation, even coercion, than Ray's organization offered at its height. All cults target smart, accomplished members because that's where the money is. They all target people with appeals to their idealism. And they all break people down by leveraging their insecurities, emotional vulnerabilities, and innate deference to authority, just like Ray.

Tragedy in Sedona makes essential reading for anyone seeking to understand how it is that three of the best and brightest wound up getting cooked to death in an abomination of a sweat lodge. It's a warning to pay attention to every red flag and not excuse or minimize questionable behavior from those in whom we invest our trust. Else we may pay with more than our wallets.

James Arthur Ray was convicted on three counts of criminally negligent homicide on June 22, 2011. An original sentencing date that would have eerily coincided with the death of Colleen Conaway, was changed to allow for more of the extensive legal wrangling that characterized the very long trial. A presentence hearing is currently scheduled for August 16th in which Ray's attorneys will argue for a mitigated sentence. Ray's multiple attorneys have also filed for a new trial claiming prosecutorial misconduct. The State has responded with a lengthy rebuttal and the defense attorneys have replied. Ray is also facing still unresolved lawsuits and possible legal action from the family of Colleen Conaway.

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