James Arthur Ray put out a promotional video advising why folks desperate to improve their lot in life should seek counsel from him and others toiling in the charlatan-rich self-help field rather than try to go it alone.
“It’s very difficult to see your own bullshit, quite frankly,” Ray says.
Rings true here.
Ray, 61, has been announced as the keynote speaker for an upcoming tech summit to be held at the regal Reagan Building in Washington, D.C. According to marketing materials for the event, Ray’s talk will focus on “reinvention.” His own summary of “things you might know me for,” and other press releases promoting the appearance, pump up his ties to Oprah, and his having written a New York Times best-seller.
These bios, however, make no mention of Ray’s biggest claim to fame, or infamy, and leave out why reinvention is right in his wheelhouse: Several people who’ve asked Ray for advice on how to live have died on his watch.
Three Ray clients—Kirby Brown (38 years old), Liz Neuman (49), and James Shore (40)—died of heat stroke and related organ failure suffered at an October 2009 New Age retreat that he lorded over. Another 19 attendees at that seminar, titled “Spiritual Warrior” and held outside Sedona, Ariz., were hospitalized with hyperthermia. Ray had ordered his flock of about 50, who’d paid $9,695 apiece, to shave their heads, undergo an extended fast, and then loiter in a sweat lodge, which in this case was a non–Native sanctioned setup featuring a tent converted into a temporary sauna where hot rocks and steam reportedly brought temperatures inside to almost 200 degrees Fahrenheit.
According to the police reports, before ushering them into the sweat lodge Ray told the Spiritual Warrior crowd they must “surrender to death to survive it.” Investigators reported that when Ray was told one lodger was worried that his heart was failing from heat exposure, the guru responded, “It’s a good day to die.”
Ray left Arizona immediately after the event and avoided questioning from the police for a time, but continued giving presentations while the Sedona dead were being buried and the injured recuperated. Ray insisted in messages posted on his website that he wouldn’t take a break from his life-coaching career, and claimed he was keeping on out of respect for his followers. He even bizarrely huffed about how he’d “taken heat” for running away from the wreckage and law enforcement.
“[B]ut if I choose to lock myself in my home, I am sure I would be criticized for hiding and not practicing what I preach,” he wrote.
The deaths put a crimp in a career that started out presenting free and cheesy get-rich-quicker seminars at hotels, but then really took off after a 2006 appearance on Oprah. Idolmaker host Oprah Winfrey treated Ray’s every mockable word as sage advice while touting The Secret, a movie he co-starred in and which inspired the fad book of the same name. While coming off more as an expert in self-aggrandizement than self help, Ray urged Oprah’s followers to look to him and other self-helpers for guidance, the financial cost be damned: “There’s nothing more important that you can invest in than advancing your consciousness,” he said.
At one point Ray counseled a woman in the studio audience that the key to getting out of debt was not only forgiving the ex-husband who left her and her kid with huge bills, but thanking the cad for leaving her miserable.
“True forgiveness is saying, ‘Thank you for giving me that experience!’” Ray said.
Oprah then asked, “How can you do that if somebody did some terrible thing to you?”
“Every single thing has a gift hidden in it,” Ray responded. “It’s just in work clothes sometimes.”
Oprah was so wowed she brought Ray back for another fawning episode, and then went on Larry King’s CNN show to gush some more.
The Oprah appearances would have great comedic value, teeming as they were with complete hokum, if only they didn’t now have so much death associated with them. Oprah’s endorsement meant Ray was soon charging $10,000 a head to attend his retreats.
In the run-up to Ray’s 2011 trial on the Arizona homicide counts, other tales surfaced about the suffering resulting from his bizarre methods. The New York Post reported that Ray had “bullied [a female seminarian] into performing a ritualistic board-breaking exercise” despite her having no previous martial arts training. He egged her on to keep trying to break boards until her hand was broken. A Minnesotan named Colleen Conaway jumped to her death at a San Diego shopping mall in July 2009 while attending a seminar Ray had titled “Creating Absolute Wealth.” The Seattle Pilot reported that Conaway’s apparent suicide came during a “homelessness exercise,” in which participants had been instructed by Ray to “dress as homeless people,” and that he verbally humiliated several them in front of the group. Conaway’s death came mere weeks before the carnage in Sedona.
The trial lasted nearly two months. One of the injured followers, Lou Caci, testified that he tried to leave the sweat lodge but passed out and fell onto the hot rocks, and probably would have died had he not been jolted back into semi-consciousness by his arm burning. In his dehydrated daze, he saw wounded Ray followers strewn all about the tent. “It looked like a battleground,” he said.
Ray was convicted of three counts of negligent homicide and sentenced to two years for each death. The judge let him serve the sentences concurrently, and he was out of prison by July 2013. Four months later, he went on Piers Morgan’s show to officially announce his re-entry to the self-help world.
Ray has never obviously taken responsibility for the deaths. “Sure we were doing something extreme,” he later told CNN of the fatal exercise, “but extreme athletes in our country are heroes.”
In 2017, Ray asked the Arizona court to vacate his convictions. He said cleaning up his record would help him professionally, particularly with regard to travel to foreign events. The request was denied. Outside the courtroom, survivors of the Sedona dead blasted Ray for ignoring the trauma and death he caused by jumping right back into the same career he had when he committed the crimes.
In response to the righteous outrage, Ray said that he had no intention of letting the survivors of his dead customers force him to stop telling others how to live.
“It’s not a career for me, it’s a calling. When you find your purpose, you don’t quit,” he said. “That’s not what I advocate. I advocate getting back up.”
Ray’s scheduled D.C. appearance represents a big step in his comeback. It’ll cost $1000 to see Ray in person or $100 to stream his reinvention address. He’s also released a book, The Business of Redemption. In an interview ostensibly to promote the book, a reporter with the San Diego Fox television affiliate questioned Ray about his decision to jump right back in a career that, well, caused multiple deaths.
Ray then thanked those who died at his seminar for enlightening him.
“Pain is the mother of all growth,” he said. “It really has been horrific in so many ways, and it’s so painful. And yet I’m incredibly grateful, because I’ve learned so much.”
Ray, therefore, was the real victim of Sedona. And to use the same quack parlance that made Oprah swoon, his clients in body bags were really gifts dressed in work clothes.
Ray did not respond to Deadspin’s request for comment.