Self-Help Author Imprisoned For Sweat Lodge Deaths Is Making a Comeback
Standing in the kitchen at the back of the Tatum Ranch Community Center in suburban Phoenix, James Arthur Ray hears the rolling chorus of Paramore’s Ain’t It Fun start to play in the background.
That’s his cue.
He jogs out of the kitchen to a standing ovation from around 30 name-tagged men and women who last week shelled out $495 for his daylong presentation on “Resources for Epic Living.”
Six years ago, Ray wouldn't run out of a kitchen unless it was to speak to thousands of people—or the audience had paid four figures each for the privilege. After being featured in the book and movie of self-help sensation The Secret in 2006, Ray was propelled onto the national stage. At the time, he was touted as the latest in a long line of prominent self-help gurus who claimed to hold the keys to living a happy and successful life. Two appearances on Oprah followed, as well as his 2008 New York Times best seller Harmonic Wealth: The Secret of Attracting the Life You Want. The price of joining Ray's World Wealth Society—a program of one-to-one mentoring—peaked at $90,000, and he bought a luxurious home in Beverly Hills. A glowing profile in Fortune magazine dubbed him heir to Tony Robbins’s motivational-speaker throne.
Then, in October of 2009, three of Ray’s followers died.
In Sedona, Ariz., as many as 75 men and women who had paid $10,000 each for one of Ray’s weeklong programs participated in a sweat lodge ceremony that involved successive sessions inside a makeshift hut draped with tarps and blankets and heated by scalding rocks. As temperatures soared to 200 degrees Fahrenheit, several people inside started passing out. Kirby Brown, 37, and James Shore, 40, died of heatstroke that night. Eighteen others were hospitalized for everything from burns to kidney failure. Nine days later, Liz Newman, 49, died of organ failure.
Witnesses say Ray encouraged people who were passing out, hallucinating, and vomiting—symptoms of extreme heat stroke—to fight the discomfort and stay in the lodge as long as possible. Those seeking a true spiritual awakening, he told them, needed “to surrender to death to survive it.” In November 2011, Ray was sentenced to two years in prison after being found guilty of three counts of negligent homicide.
Since his release more than 18 months ago, Ray has largely stayed out of the spotlight, focusing instead on private clients and online courses. He rarely speaks in public.
“I. Am. Responsible,” Ray begins to his captive Phoenix audience, pausing between each word for effect. “You’ve got to think to yourself, ‘What would happen if I took complete and total responsibility?’”
Ray looks much younger than 57. His full head of dark hair is streaked blonde, slicked back, and long enough to curl at the nape of his neck. Once a competitive bodybuilder, Ray is now much smaller, but still stands with his shoulders back and his barrel chest out.
He begins his session by addressing the deaths in Arizona, but without referring to his victims by name—only describing the event as “a terrible tragedy.” “In October 2009, my world changed dramatically,” he says, his voice somber. “I lost my business, I lost my home, I lost my relationships.” (He now lives in a “modest condominium” in Los Angeles with his girlfriend.)
Almost half of Ray's eight-hour talk is dedicated to the “tragedy,” his time in prison, and the notion of responsibility. The rest is largely what he preached before 2009: His theory of “harmonic wealth,” the idea of energy fields attracting similar energy fields, and “attracting the life you want.” He’s a powerful speaker and pauses often to smile widely, showing his perfectly white teeth. He alternates between being near tears to showing borderline fury.
Ray says he initially blamed everyone but himself after his arrest. He felt betrayed—as though he were an unfair target for something he couldn’t have prevented. It was the first case in U.S. history in which “adults participated willingly in an event and then the organizer of the event was brought up on charges,” he says. He vividly describes his time in prison, which he says was the “worst time in my life," and he always returns to his idea of responsibility.
“This is the dark side of pursuing your power and your passion. Sometimes life out-and-out freaking sucks. But if you never had a bad day, what would a good day be? ... The fact is, it happened. I messed up. I missed some things."
Donnita Parker, a life coach from Phoenix who followed Ray for years before his prison stint and attended his talk last week, believes Ray is now even more qualified to give advice. “From a tragedy like this comes a teacher who has experienced life from a totally disempowering perspective,” she says. “He might be able to help someone else as a result.”
“I don’t think it was fair ... what he went through,” adds Kevin Steele a marketer who also attended the Phoenix presentation. “It was just an accident. People were adults, were in adult situations, having given adult consent and signed agreements. Did anyone set out to murder three people that day? Absolutely not. So it’s water under the bridge today.”
One person not ready to forgive is Ginny Brown, whose daughter Kirby Brown was pronounced dead on arrival after being airlifted from the scene of the sweat lodge in 2009. Brown has since launched Seek Safely, a nonprofit that aims to educate the public on dangers of getting in too deep when it comes to practices preached by motivational speakers.
“The question I would ask him is, if he’s responsible, why hasn’t he paid restitution?” she says in a phone interview from her home in Westtown, NY. “How does Ray take responsibility for the fact that he told people to ignore the signs of heat stroke at the sweat lodge?”
Ray declined an on-the-record interview with Bloomberg Business, but did answer one question from me during a scheduled break in Phoenix: Why has he never tried to make contact with the families over the tragedy? He says Ginny Brown has taken out a restraining order against him—an assertion she denies. He doesn't mention the families of James Shore or Liz Newman.
After seven hours, Ray opens the floor to a Q&A. The audience asks about how to improve their lives and how to continue following his teachings. Ray had already advertised upcoming events and programs, including a six-hour, $15,000 private mentoring session.
I manage to get in one more question before the end. Why would Ray, after being held responsible for the deaths of three people and serving prison time for it, go back to the same pursuit that led to his downfall? There is nothing else that can bring him fulfillment, he replies. There is, he says, “a power that works through” him—a faith, not in his “finite abilities,” but in his “clarity of purpose” and his power to captivate audiences.
“If you see any level or mastery in my abilities, it’s not me. It’s something that was given to me that I developed.”
To give up on that power, he says, “would destroy me.”