In March, 2009, my daughter, Kirby invited me to be her guest at the two day Harmonic Wealth seminar in Jersey City. The seminar was given by James Ray, internationally known motivational speaker, self-help guru who was a repeat guest on Oprah and author of the book “Harmonic Wealth”. I was excited to spend the time with Kirby, always anxious to learn new ideas and curious about ray’s presentaion style. When we arrived, we were asked to sign a waiver and told, “Don’t worry, it’s just legal stuff when there’s an event. No big deal.” I didn’t think anything of it. After all, we have become a litigious society and signing waivers is pretty common. When we entered the room a group of people were dancing and jumping around, raising the “energy level” in the room. It seemed “over the top” to me but everyone seemed to be having fun. Before Ray began speaking, his “dream team” began making testimonials about how his teaching had affected their lives. I didn’t question their enthusiasm. When Ray began listing his credentials, his impressive experiences traveling around the world, studying with amazing teachers and all his diverse trainings in spiritual modalities, I didn’t think to question the veracity of his claims. When we were given limited time to eat and sleep was discouraged, being touted as over-rated, and the room was cold, I was caught up in the moment and didn’t question these practices. When the sales pitch for tapes, CDs and other events was intense and there was pressure to sign up immediately or lose out, I didn’t question motives and tactics. When repeatedly asked as a group to reiterate a concept or idea after Ray with energetic affirmation, I didn’t think of that as “mind control”. When he presented on stage for hours with few breaks with incredible energy, I didn’t question or wonder if he was on any substances to make him “hyped up” or “high”. I went to be open, to learn, to expand, not to judge or be negative. So I didn’t question whether I was being “set up”. I didn’t consider that I was being subtly encouraged or manipulated. I didn’t think that less food and sleep might affect my judgment. I didn’t reflect on the impact of all those attending who also came to be open, to learn, to be positive. They wouldn’t question either, reinforcing my blindness. I didn’t ask, “if I am being asked to sign a waiver and take a risk, what is Mr. Ray doing to minimize that risk and provide protection if there is a problem?” And now I know that I should have questioned those strategies… As a Licensed Clinical Social Worker, trained to provide therapy for individuals and families,when Ray exposed deep, personal experiences in some volunteers, I admit that I was impressed by his insightfulness but uncomfortable with the public nature of these revelations. I know that it can be harmful for an individual to publically disclose painful emotions. I remember speaking to one such volunteer, encouraging her to talk to a professional after the seminar to properly process her revelations. Yet at the time, caught up in the “positive vibe” of the event, I didn’t consider his approach “dangerous,” just one I never would employ. The cold room, loud music, over the top testimonials, the high pressured up-sale, sensory deprivation from lack of sleep and proper nutrition, public exposure of raw emotions, group affirmation… were these all aimed at growth or sales??? Was this help to expand my dreams or was this the practice of Machiavellian power through clever manipulation? I know that many of those same tactics were employed even more dramatically on the 5 day “Spiritual Warrior Retreat” which resulted in my daughter’s death. In fact, these tactics are common at self-help events. But I am an open, positive, trusting person who loves learning, is fascinated by new ideas, enjoys people, appreciates adventure and is always seeking ways to improve myself and grow. I like who I am and don’t want to change. I don’t want to become cynical and distrustful; however, I now know that I have to be smarter, more discerning, and ask more questions. What about you? Are you aware of these “red flags” when you are at an event? Do you know if the claims of the speaker are true? Can you discern manipulation? Many scientists who study the phenomenon would say clear thinking in a manipulated environment is difficult at best, more often impossible. Do you place yourself at risk? Can Kirby, James and Liz’s deaths teach us to be more aware, more careful, to ask more questions and demand assurances of safety? We may not always be able to ascertain if a speaker is “harmonically” bankrupt, unable to live the lessons being taught, a person with little regard for the safety of those trusting in his leadership, as was James Ray. But maybe their deaths will help us to be a little more skeptical, a little more careful so that we can be safer and live our lives more fully.
Thank you for this thoughtful piece. I am very sorry about your daughter. Last night I watched the documentary “Enlighten Us” and I was appalled at his lack of responsibility for the tragedy. It is laudable that you are helping to educate others; what you say applies very broadly to many of the charismatic leaders out there in various capacities, at least those who are also sociopaths.