Kirby Brown wanted what we all seek — love, success and purpose. But the retreat she hoped would change her life wound up ending it. self reports on the scary side of self-improvement.
Kirby Brown was not inclined to give up, easily or otherwise. So as she crawled into a dark sweat lodge in Sedona, Arizona, last October, she had every intention of sticking it out. She was anticipating the most intense experience of her life.
The tent, a makeshift structure in a dusty clearing, covered in blankets and tarps, was small —only 23 feet across to fit the 55 people attending self-help teacher James Arthur Ray’s Spiritual Warrior retreat. It was uncomfortable; Brown and the others squeezed into a circle on the rocky ground, their knees up to their chest. And it became fiercely hot the instant Ray told his assistants to pour water over a pit of fiery rocks — hot even to Brown, who practiced Bikram yoga in 105-degree temperatures and had lived most of the past 10 years under the sun of Cabo San Lucas, Mexico. The air grew thick with steam and sweat, but Brown held firm.
During the five-day retreat in Sedona, Brown had endured a 36-hour vision quest in the desert, with no food or water. She had buzz-cut her flowing hair in order, Ray said, to see herself in a new light. She’d slept little, spending her nights scribbling her fears and dreams in a journal. Now she was primed for the pinnacle event, the sweat lodge that Ray promised would be hotter and more intense than anything his followers had ever done.
“I am a warrior!” Ray shouted near the entrance of the tent. “Yell out what you are. You can push past your so-called limitations. You are stronger than this!”
On 5-mile hikes, she carried a backpack full of water and supplies. She had admonished her friends to take breaks and know when it’s time to stop. “I know that she’d want to test herself, and that if other people encouraged her to stay in [the sweat lodge], she would,” says her youngest sister, Jean Brown, 26, of Vankleek Hill, Ontario. “But only if she expected the person running things would keep her safe.”
Ninety minutes into the ceremony, a nearby man called Brown’s name. She didn’t answer. “She’s passed out!” he shouted. “Kirby’s passed out!”
No one rushed to Brown’s aid. Not the other participants — some were so disoriented they could barely take care of themselves; others were so absorbed in their own experience they didn’t realize what was happening. Not the man who’d called out, who soon became silent himself. And not James Ray, who one witness says told them Brown would be helped at the next break.
How could this have happened?
Afterward, when the press got wind of the tragedy, and then earlier this year when James Ray was indicted for manslaughter, people wondered: How could this have happened? How could someone have stayed in a sweat lodge so long that she died? Forty-year-old James Shore, who was likely the man who tried to help Brown, had also perished. Liz Neuman, 49, had fallen into a coma and died of multiple organ failure nine days later. Some 17 others (a few of whom have sued Ray) suffered from dehydration-related kidney failure, burns or severe dehydration.
Why didn’t they just leave? The victims were not lemmings — in fact, they likely stayed in the tent precisely because they were strong, successful, ambitious adults who were used to pushing themselves. They had invested thousands of dollars and spent five intense days of bonding leading up to the event, learning each other’s secrets and supporting each other after emotional outbursts. They trusted one another. And they trusted Ray. Neuman had been his student for seven years and ran a discussion group in the Minneapolis area for his followers. Brown and Shore had attended his seminars and considered him their teacher, one who could help them move past their limitations.
“This could have happened to any of us,” says Christine B. Whelan, Ph.D., visiting assistant professor of sociology at the University of Pittsburgh, who studies the self-help industry. “If you’re with a group of people for a week, and everyone walks into a situation, you’re going to go, too. And if your leader tells you it’s OK, you’re going to believe him. As you spend time together, a group mentality develops.”
The incident brought Ray’s empire crashing to the ground. Just a month earlier, James Ray International had landed on Inc. magazine’s list of the 500 fastest-growing private companies in America, with $9.4 million in revenue in 2008. He had ambitions to join teachers like Deepak Chopra and Tony Robbins in the ranks of the top 12 motivational speakers, who bring in a combined $354 million a year, according to Marketdata Enterprises, a research firm in Tampa, Florida.
He had tapped into the distinctly American notion of self-discovery and up-by-your-own-bootstraps success that has kept some 50,000 self-help books in print, according to Whelan, and that keeps book sales increasing yearly by about 8 percent. “In any year, more people use self-help than psychotherapy,” notes John C. Norcross, Ph.D., psychology professor at the University of Scranton in Pennsylvania and a coauthor of the Authoritative Guide to Self-Help Resources in Mental Health (Guilford Press).
These authors do not promise unlimited wealth if you follow their regimen; they do not promise failure if you stray. Instead, they encourage students to take from them what they find helpful, and skip the rest. “Each of us is an individual,” says Steve Salerno, author of Sham: How the Self-Help Movement Made America Helpless (Crown). “If we want to learn how to better ourselves, does it make sense that we would follow the same rules as everyone else? No one can give ironclad answers.”
But a large segment of self-help purports to do just that, selling a magic bullet for success, as though solving life’s problems were as easy as following a single guru’s advice. The psychological risk of surrendering control is real, but unlike in the world of therapy, there is no American Self-Help Association to license self-help teachers and make sure they are not making false claims.
Phenomena like the 2006 megaseller The Secret — which helped launch Ray’s career — promise wealth, good health and happiness as long as followers strictly adhere to their tenets. In The Secret — and its just-released follow-up, The Power — film producer Rhonda Byrne purports to have uncovered the key, known to successful people throughout the ages, to achieving anything: Decide what you want. Visualize yourself with it. Be open to getting it.
“It is exactly like placing an order from a catalogue,” Byrne writes. The Secret weaves in the teachings of 24 different motivational speakers who understand the so-called secret, including Ray, who’s billed as a “philosopher.” One teacher explains in the DVD that he always gets parking spots because he believes he can. Byrne writes she lost and kept off weight simply because she stopped thinking that food made her fat.
“If you take seriously the notion that everything you attract you have asked for, then rape victims are consciously or subconsciously to blame,” says Norcross, who considers The Secret the worst of bad self-help.
“It can make people feel responsible for events and actions outside their control. That can be dangerous: When it doesn’t work, people blame themselves and become demoralized. And they are being led away from other, demonstrably effective treatments and self-help resources.”
A message that resonated
Regardless, The Secret was good to Ray. A former corporate trainer for AT&T who got his start in self-help by teaching Stephen R. Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Ray had worked in relative obscurity for years. After The Secret hit, suddenly he was everywhere. Between 2007 and 2009, he appeared on The Oprah Show, Larry King Live and the Today show. He traveled 200 days a year, doing speeches, seminars and retreats; selling books and CDs; building on The Secret to promote his particular brand of motivational patter.
His teachings combine a practical prodding of his followers to let go of fear, know what they want and go after it, with the common self-help trope of the law of attraction—the idea that everything you receive is a result of your thoughts and actions. To support this idea, he blends pseudospirituality with pseudoscience. God created man in His image, Ray argues at his seminars, and we, too, have godly abilities to shape the universe. At the same time, he says that he can back up his teaching with quantum physics and the principle that energy’s behavior is changed by observation. (This is a popular metaphor among self-help gurus.)
“Quantum physics is a physics of the gods,” Ray says. “Science and spirituality are sister subjects.”
This message — and his appealing, jocular delivery — clearly resonated. Even after Ray’s indictment, Ray’s Facebook page still had about 5,000 friends, and many followers remain loyal.
“My life went from so-so to amazing by following the teachings of James Ray,” says Kristina Bivins, a 42-year-old software executive in San Francisco.
After a weekend event with Ray in 2008, Bivins says she started running her business with more confidence, which translated to higher sales. At another conference a few months later, Ray showed her she needed to stop trying to fix her marriage and get a divorce. (She did, but is now dating her ex.)
“For the first time in my life, I really looked at what I needed,” she says.
Over the course of a year, Bivins talked with Ray followers around the country, headed a weekly discussion group and attended three more events, including the Sedona retreat. Even a night spent in the hospital because of dehydration has not soured her on the experience.
“I can’t change the fact that those three people died,” Bivins says. “But I can honor their deaths by living my life and taking what I learned and putting it into practice. I consider James Ray a mentor.”
Kirby Brown encountered Ray’s teachings at just the right time in her life.
Raised in rural Westtown, New York, she had moved to Cabo after falling in love with surfing; soon, she was at the vibrant center of an expatriate community of businesspeople, artists and musicians.
“Whenever she met somebody, it was with a full embrace, with a sense of, What can I do for you?” says her sister Kate Holmes, 35, who also lives in Cabo. “That was infectious. You felt better about yourself when you were with her.”
But Brown had her worries. Although she had little debt, she often generously gave away her money as soon as she made it, and she wanted to finally be financially stable; she had plans to start side businesses importing Italian paints and renting high-end golf carts to tourists. She wanted to get married, have a family. While painting with her business partner, Nancy Brazil, she’d listened repeatedly to the audio version of Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus; after hours, when she wasn’t surfing, gardening or hosting parties, she’d watch John Bradshaw’s pop-psychology series Homecoming on PBS. Then she saw The Secret DVD and found something that she connected with.
“Kirby came to believe that you create your own reality,” Brazil says. “She found a lot of freedom in the idea that she was a blank canvas and could put on it whatever she wanted. She was working to improve her relationships and her relationship to herself.”
In March 2009, Brown took her mom, Ginny, to a hotel in New Jersey, about two hours from where she grew up, for Ray’s $1,300 introductory weekend. The several hundred people in the room were exactly whom Brown had hoped to meet, like-minded seekers who might also make good clients for her painting business—dentists, accountants, business and home owners.
“People who go to self-help seminars are affluent, well-educated, with self-control,” Whelan says. “One of the reasons people get depressed is that they don’t see hope for the future. These people are on the other end of the spectrum. They think tomorrow could be a much better day if they have the tools to make it that way.”
Ray held sway over the crowd for 14 hours a day, like a preacher at a revival, interspersing his lectures with calls for his followers to buy more of his books and sign up for his pricier events. Throughout, he led the group in exercises to help reveal their inhibitions. In the “money game,” he told participants to take a dollar from their wallet and walk around, giving and taking money from the strangers in the room. In the end, those who kept trading ended up with the most; those who grew anxious and stopped fell short. Ray pulled a couple of them onstage. “Why did you hold back? Do you do the same thing in your relationships?” he demanded, and intimate confessions poured forth.
Ginny Brown, a family therapist, felt uneasy hearing personal revelations made so publicly, especially without psychological support on site. Still, Ray impressed her.
“He had an ability to intuit people’s needs. He would ask the sort of follow-up questions that I would with a client,” she says. “He seemed mainstream; the people there seemed mainstream. What he said was rational and reasonable. No one in the family thought this was dangerous.”
During a second Harmonic Wealth weekend that summer — to which Brown took her father, also a therapist — she was interested especially in an exchange Ray had with a woman in the audience who was struggling to understand why she always attracted the wrong men. Ray told the woman she could get the answers she needed at his upcoming Spiritual Warrior weekend. A few minutes later, at a table in the back of the room, Brown signed up.
Events like Spiritual Warrior put Ray into a growing group of self-help teachers who go beyond the word on the page, incorporating physical challenges as a way, they say, to push followers past their known limits. These range from yoga and Ayurvedic retreats with rapid detoxes , restrictive diets and grueling workout schedules to the downright scary Dahn Yoga movement, which is being sued by 27 former followers who claim physical, sexual and financial abuse. (The group has denied the allegations.) T. Harv Eker, a business guru in Vancouver, offers a $6,000, five-day Enlightened Warrior Training Camp, with physical challenges that he says will teach you “how to access your true power at will and succeed in spite of anything.”
Pushing through pain can be powerful in the moment—Ginny Brown says that for her athletic daughter, testing her body’s limits was a big part of the appeal of Spiritual Warrior—but experts question the long-term value. “Followers assume physical challenges will bring about behavioral change,” says corporate-training consultant John Curtis, Ph.D., a former therapist in Asheville, North Carolina, who runs Americans Against Self-Help Fraud. “But what do you learn from walking on coals? What’s often missing is an explication of what you’ve learned and how to apply it in your regular life.”
Ray’s retreats had grown increasingly intense over the years, some regulars say, as though he needed to justify the high price to his repeat customers. He pushed students to break wooden boards with their hands; at least twice, according to a former participant, they used concrete blocks. (In 2005, a New Jersey woman reportedly broke her hand at a workshop and later sued Ray, who settled out of court.) In San Diego in July 2009, Ray sent followers to a shopping mall with no money and no identification to pretend they were homeless; during the exercise, Minnesotan Colleen Conaway jumped off a balcony to her death. (Conaway’s family contends she was not suicidal before the retreat; Ray was not charged with any crime in her death and his attorneys assert that “we are not aware of any evidence that Mr. Ray…could have prevented Ms. Conaway’s tragic suicide.”) At a sweat lodge in 2005, a man fled delirious from the steamy tent, prompting Ray’s company to overhaul safety procedures, including training some staff in CPR.
For Brown, who knew none of this history, most of the anxiety leading up to the retreat was financial: She told Brazil she had started to regret the $9,600 commitment, especially after she learned she’d need another $1,300 for room and board. Throughout the five days, though, Brown seemed to have found inspiration, says Beverley Bunn, an orthodontist from Dallas who was Brown’s roommate in Sedona. Bunn says the morning of the sweat lodge, Brown came back beaming from the 36 hours she had spent alone on a vision quest in the desert, saying she had come to a major realization.
“Life doesn’t have to be complicated,” Brown enthused to the group. “If you don’t keep things inside, if you let them out and let them go, life will be much simpler.”
Before Ray’s followers entered the tent, he told them to expect a struggle.
“You’re not going to die,” he said. “You might think you are, but you’re not.”
Ray said this feeling was normal, but it is not, says Joseph Bruchac of Greenfield Center, New York, author of a history of Native American sweat lodges. He adds that Ray’s lodge was far too cramped, with four times more people than is traditional.
When Ray ended the sweat lodge after two hours, several participants had to be dragged out in a daze or unconscious. Shawna Bowen, a substance-abuse counselor in Sedona who arrived as the sweat lodge was ending, says people were throwing up in the dirt, their skin burned red; one man called out that he thought he was having a heart attack. Bunn says she watched Ray employees and volunteers pour water on those who were overheated, but it didn’t seem to make much difference.
Amid the moaning and gasping for breath, friends called out for each other. “It looked like a Jim Jones sort of thing,” Bunn recalls, “like a mass suicide attempt.” Former Ray employee Melinda Martin has said that Ray did little to help those who were hurt. Ray could not comment for this article due to a gag order placed by the judge in his upcoming trial, but he has previously stated that he did all he could before being detained by the police.
On the ground behind the tent, Bunn caught a glimpse of Brown’s orange-and-yellow bikini rising up and down as someone tried to do CPR. Her eyes were open, but she never regained consciousness.
No oversight of self-help teachers
No one from James Ray International called Brown’s family to tell them what had happened. They learned of Kirby’s death the next morning, when a New York state trooper came to her parents’ door. “I thought it was a mistake: My sister would have been dragging people out of the tent,” Holmes says. “She was so strong.”
Ray called the family five days later. That night, even before Brown’s body was released by the medical examiner, Ray went onstage in Los Angeles. On his blog, Ray wrote that he was “shocked and saddened by the tragedy.” But he would soon add that his work was “too important” not to continue. “One of the lessons I teach is that you have to confront and embrace adversity and learn and grow from it. I promise you I am doing a lot of learning and growing.” (He sent Ginny Brown $5,000—not even half of what Kirby spent for the retreat. The check remains uncashed.)
Three weeks after the sweat lodge deaths, Ray announced he was suspending his public appearances. He has, mostly in early statements from his lawyers, denied any criminal responsibility. Despite the previous incident at his sweat lodge, he says he had no way of knowing that what he was doing was dangerous. Of course, neither did any of his followers—which critics say is part of the problem. Because there is no oversight of self-help teachers and no standards to meet, Ray could assure his followers of anything without risking censure. Accountability exists only in the courts—after damage has already been done.
As presstime, Ray had pleaded not guilty and was awaiting trial; in the coming months, America’s guru-worshiping culture could face its closest scrutiny yet. Curtis hopes the publicity will prompt respected teachers to form a self-governing body, like the American Psychological Association. Or, Curtis suggests, the Federal Trade Commission could apply its truth-in-advertising standards to self-help promises.
A spokeswoman for the FTC, Elizabeth Lordan, says the commission considers claims like those made in The Secret opinions, which aren’t regulated; however, the agency has sued hucksters who offer specific promises of financial gain, such as get-rich-quick schemes involving government grants.
In the short term, consumers themselves must be responsible for ferreting out which self-help will benefit—and not threaten—them. As Whelan puts it, “Being convinced and eager to try something is totally OK. Blindly following is not.”
Bowen, a self-described self-help junkie who considered Ray a hero until Sedona, says the sweat lodge experience made her realize she needs to be more discerning, rather than follow the lessons offered by her mentors without doing her own research. She says it’s important to remember that the key to self-help is self.
“People looked at James Ray like he was the answer to their prayers,” Bowen says. “But these people don’t have the answers for you. They’re reminding you of the answers for yourself. You cannot leave your own judgment behind.”
Still, the Browns say it was not Kirby’s judgment that failed her. It was Ray. Nearly a year later, they can’t get past the idea that Ray did nothing to help their daughter, or that he may subscribe to the belief that — as his philosophy states — she attracted her own fate. A week after the deaths, Ray held a conference call with some survivors of the Sedona retreat that included a recounting from a Ray volunteer of what a “channeler” discerned after visiting the sweat lodge site. She said Brown and Shore had “left their bodies during the ceremony and were having so much fun, they decided not to come back.” Ray, who was on the call, said nothing.
“That’s one of the things that’s so horrifying,” Ginny Brown says. “What he taught and what I know Kirby believed was the idea of ‘be impeccable.’ That is very different from how she was treated. People should not lose their life for trying to make their life better.”