A self-help guru who killed three in his sweat lodge says the experience has helped him “find himself.” His rhetoric shows he has yet to move beyond the problematic structure of his ideology.
James Arthur Ray, for a time the most flamboyant figure in the ultra-flamboyant world of self-help seminars, last made headlines in October 2009, when he parboiled 56 disciples during a botched sweat-lodge ceremony intended as the climax of his $9,695-a-head Spiritual Warrior retreat. On the day of the parboiling, Ray badgered people who were already vomiting, hallucinating, or passing out to “play full on!” as he liked to say, urging manic commitment to the exercise at hand. Attendees remember him thundering at one point, “Today’s a good day to die!” Three of his followers took him at his word, while 17 others suffered from burns, severe dehydration, and/or kidney failure. The guru ultimately spent 20 months in prison for negligent homicide.
Ray and his Sedona, Arizona, Waterloo are now the subject of Enlighten Us, a heavily promoted CNN documentary out Thursday. [Update, Dec. 1: CNN announced it’s pushing back the release to Saturday.] Despite its whimsical title, the film examines Ray through a surprisingly credulous lens, making him seem almost as much a casualty of “shit happens” as a convicted criminal. Viewers hear Ray’s explanations of how personal growth always entails risk; they are shown his desolation at having watched his thriving $10 million business go up in literal smoke.
In both the film and in life, Ray is poorly cast as the martyr of self-help culture. He’s far from it: Ginny Brown, mother of 38-year-old victim Kirby Brown, recalls that when Ray finally reached out to her after her daughter’s death, a full five days later, he kept saying over and over, that he “couldn’t believe this had happened … to him.” Seven years later, Ray does not seem to have changed—indeed, he is currently petitioning to have his conviction set aside. The state of Arizona is countering the motion vigorously, as are families of those killed.
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Article by Steve Salerno
Photo illustration by Lisa Larson-Walker. Photos by Astrid Stawiarz/Getty Images, Thinkstock.