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Thursday, October 27, 2011

James Ray Sentencing Still Ahead, Sweat Lodge Still on our Minds

Questioner: I'm interested in this because what his book talks about is very good. Very real and very high minded. Seriously. I've never met the guy, am not a "new agey, self help" guy either. The stuff he teaches actually really worked. I found that it really enriched my life. There is nothing wrong with seminar leaders charging such amounts for what they do because that's what the market will bear. He isn't the only one charging that..not by a long shot. The reason they do is because people find value in it and will attend. I agree he f**ked up bigtime. I also know he could be a prick. He should own up to what he actually did and didn't do. But I've see a witch hunt mentality since the beginning of this case. Are people just trying to nab this guy to make an example? Thoughts?

Camille's answer: There is nothing wrong with charging "what the market will bear." There is something wrong with fraudulently portraying what services you will be providing. It's been heavily reported elsewhere that Mr. Ray's claims of having studied with various masters of spiritual traditions is bunk wrapped up in exaggeration. So I won't go into these details here except to say that people were being charged for an Ivy League education while getting a diploma mill curriculum and we generally call that fraud.

But it enriched your life, you say? I accept that without any challenge whatsoever. The mind can be trained, like water running down a mountain, to follow certain channels. There's research on that. If you taught your brain to default towards confidence and positive attitude, instead of fear and pessimism, I have no doubt you felt better and achieved more of your goals.  There's no need to go into the nuances of your particular spiritual path here, I accept that it worked for you. (But you could have learned this in any number of ways, including, apparently, getting a job at AT&T.  A company, which by the way, notoriously lost one of the biggest anti-trust cases in history and I can assure you there were legions of executives and stockholders who were earnestly manifesting victory in that case. Apparently the universe was perversely resistant to the principle of "harmonic wealth" until Mr. Ray started teaching sales seminars there.)

But inspiration can come from anywhere. The dance troupe Stomp found it in brooms and trash cans, Victor Hugo found it in the cathedral of Notre Dame, and you found it in Mr. Ray's writings. I sincerely respect that. I respect the journey of all the people who were looking for some kind of truth. Being a seeker is something genuine and high-minded, just as you say, and I applaud the soul reaching out.

But what's very troubling is Mr. Ray's misrepresentation of the physical consequences of his sweat lodge. He told tourists--and that's what they were, tourists--that they would "feel" like they were dying but assured them they "would not die." Using the psychological trick of charging $10,000, Mr. Ray knew people would trust that he knew what he was talking about. Mr. Ray made them dependent on his leadership by using many other psychological tricks including disorientation, undernutrition, sleep deprivation, etc. etc. etc.

I say they were "tourists" because most if not all had travelled from different parts of the country into unfamiliar terrain with little to no experience with desert conditions. Mr. Ray functioned as a tour operator, guiding them through a spiritual journey that took place in a very corporal environment.

When weakened people entering delirium reached under the tent flap for oxygen from the fresh and beautiful outdoors, Mr. Ray thundered, "that's sacrilege!" and demanded the flap be put back in place, sealing out the life-giving air.  How do you suppose a medically delirious person, pre-conditioned to trust and please him, would interpret such a statement? How does it sound to sober ears such as yours and mine when we realize Mr. Ray himself was receiving regular infusions of fresh oxygen by standing at the door flap?  That the back of the lodge, where Kirby Brown and James Shore died, was significantly hotter and more suffocating than any other spot in the cramped tent? That he told a man to urinate where he was, apparently upon himself, rather than commit the spiritual faux pas of leaving the lodge?

Investigators look over a 'sweat lodge' on the grounds of Angel Valley Retreat Center, near Sedona, Arizona
Over 50 people crammed into this small space, after being assured they wouldn't die.

A common mantra is that Ray was running a business and can't be held responsible for the bad judgment of his customers. But we do that all the time. Would a bungee operator tell his customers "you'll feel like the rope is flimsy but just jump anyway" and expect not to be indicted when people crash head first into an abyss? Does no one remember the terrible night club fire in Rhode Island when the band Great White put on a disastrous pyrotechnic display? The band manager and the two club owners each received 10 - 15 year prison sentences. At least none of them tried to thwart rescue and assistance efforts as Ray did.

Was there a "witch hunt mentality" that dogged Mr. Ray after the sweat lodge deaths?  I have seen no evidence of this. It took four months to indict Mr. Ray. Surveying the briefest of facts about the event it might be easy to wave the "he didn't force them inside" banner. Thankfully, the investigation went much much further than a brief survey. As more and more details were discovered, the narrative of that day became one of a man who gathered lives into his hands and then tossed them away.

The thing is, heat is a lethal weapon. No matter what harmony someone's soul is singing, the universe has laws that cannot be controverted. Heat kills humans. Lack of oxygen kills humans.

These tourists had no way of judging how much heat was being trapped inside the tarpaulins and willow struts. Many of them were becoming medically incapable of understanding oxygen had sunk to lethal levels.  The "spiritual warriors," with their trusted leader watching over them, had already been pushed into an abyss. For three, there was no way to haul them back out.

Finally, you ask if Ray is supposed to be an "example" to others? I certainly hope so. I do indeed.

What does everyone else think? You are invited to post below. 

Thanks to the commenter who posted this thoughtful input. It gives me an idea. To the next person whose comment I use for a post I will send a free signed book!  (If you post as "anonymous" for convenience, try to include an identifying website or name in your remark so no one else can claim your prize!)

 The comment function should be working, but if it "eats" yours, please send me your comment at: a s u d d e n s h o t (at) gmail dot com and I will gladly post it for you. 

Camille Kimball's books:
The Mammoth Book of Tough Guys
Coming soon: Masters of True Crime-Chilling Stories of Murder and the Macabre


  1. Hi Camille,
    I agree with you with sadness. Yes James is a fraud in not having the training that he said he does. He is a fraud in not caring the way his followers thought he would. He owed, at the very least, a duty of care to those who trusted him so completely and unfortunately they trusted him with their life. There has been so much written but what is not being covered in any great detail is the power of the rest of the group. If everyone in your circle state "x" then it takes a brave person to state "not x". Much like the "emperor's new clothes" that we all grew up with. He manipulated others because he was allowed to get away with it. There is no blame in this comment. It is a human condition to bow to the one we consider has the knowledge that we desire. When he combined the information he was peddling with the rule of fear and the rule of instilling in others how fortunate they were to be able to be with him the combination was literally lethal.

  2. What a sad situation for all involved, I can even imagine how scared this people must have been. I have attended sweat lodge ceremonies and yes you are told that you might feel like you are dying but you will not and of course you believe the leader/shaman knows what they are talking about.
    I would never recommend a sweat lodge to anyone. You are degraded if you want to leave and most people who are there are not feeling good about themselves and searching for answers. Sweat lodges need to be outlawed.

    God is kind and loves us, we don't need to prove anything to God