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Deadly woo purveyor out of prison

Cultural appropriationist and charlatan James Arthur Ray, under whose watch three people died of hyperthermia in a for-profit 2009 sweatlodge “ceremony” in Sedona, AZ, just walked out of prison after 20 months.

From that CNN story:

The 55-year-old son of an Oklahoma preacher, Ray built a multimillion-dollar business as a best-selling author and motivational coach. His book, “Harmonic Wealth: The Secret of Attracting the Life You Want,” made him a New Age star. He was was riding high as he planned his October 2009 Spiritual Warrior weekend at the 70-acre Angel Valley retreat outside Sedona.
According to testimony at his trial, acolytes who flocked to Angel Valley’s red rock foothills were willing to shave their heads, meditate in the desert for 36 hours without food and water and then symbolically die and be reborn in the sweat lodge ritual.
Fifty-five people followed Ray into the sweat lodge; three died from overheating and 19 others were hospitalized after they collapsed, vomited, had trouble breathing, hallucinated, foamed at the mouth or fell unconscious.
Ray was convicted of negligently causing the deaths of Kirby Brown, 38, of Westtown, New York; Lizbeth Neuman, 49, of Prior Lake, Minnesota; and James Shore, 40, of Milwaukee. Ray was found negligent, but acquitted of manslaughter charges that could have sent him to prison for 30 years.

Here we have an unusual example of skeptics and practitioners of Native religions on more or less the same side: I learned of Ray’s release from Native friends who have been commenting on desecration of their culture for profit. Traditionally, sweatlodge ceremonies run for far less time, include far fewer people, and are conducted in structures made of breathable materials — not plastic tarps — and run by people who’ve had eight years of training. There’s still plenty there to trip a skeptic’s trigger, of course, but at least people don’t fucking die from sweatlodge ceremonies run that way.

Ray should be watched like a hawk. It’s clear he’s learned nothing and regrets nothing. Gullibility is a shame, but it shouldn’t be a death sentence.

And for fuck’s sake, don’t ever go 36 hours without water in the desert, even if you’re not going to be crammed into a sauna with 60 other people for several hours by a negligent charlatan afterward.

Comments

  1. Rev. BigDumbChimp says

    If anyone needs a way to hallucinate for introspection, email me, I have some tried and true methods.

  2. Anthony K says

    And for fuck’s sake, don’t ever go 36 hours without water in the desert, even if you’re not going to be crammed into a sauna with 60 other people for several hours by a negligent charlatan afterward.

    Also, don’t pee on the sauna rocks. What happens is pretty much what you’d expect, except way worse.

  3. No One says

    I’ve done a sweat. I spent a good portion of the time with the son of the medicine man, lifting a corner flap and breathing cool air. No shame, no blame.

  4. says

    There’s another message in all this, one that reflects on the particularly poor education of USians in one regard. If anyone spouts something like “Native American whatthefuckever”, walk away. There is no “Native American whatthefuckever”. There are Indians, yes. There are tribes, yes. There are nations, yes. Do they all live alike, act alike, have the same traditions, and have the same beliefs? No.

    White people love to get all starry-eyed over “Native American whatthefuckever” and that seriously needs to be slapped out of them, hard.

  5. Acolyte of Sagan says

    Anthony K
    15 July 2013 at 12:39 pm (UTC -5)
    Also, don’t pee on the sauna rocks. What happens is pretty much what you’d expect, except way worse.

    The voice of painful experience?

  6. Azkyroth Drinked the Grammar Too :) says

    Also, don’t pee on the sauna rocks. What happens is pretty much what you’d expect, except way worse.

    The voice of painful experience?

    Insofar as urea decomposes to form ammonia in the presence of heat and water (SCR systems work on this principle, in fact), and even leaving a tank of urea solution in the California sun for a week or two can build up enough ammonia-y fumes to be staggering if you have to, say, install a level sensor in it…\

    Sure sounds like it.

  7. Anthony K says

    The voice of painful experience?

    Fuck no. As soon as I started to smell the result, I booted out of there, took a side stairwell, and then circled around to the change/room sauna entrance, all “Hey, why’s everyone gathered out here?” and “What’s that smell?”

    At the age of eleven, all the best empiricism ends in running and denials.

  8. Anthony K says

    There’s another message in all this, one that reflects on the particularly poor education of USians in one regard.

    I would guess that it’s not much better in Canada, Caine.

  9. ChasCPeterson says

    If anyone needs a way to hallucinate for introspection, email me, I have some tried and true methods.

    hmm…do you also have a connection uh, available source of this stuff wisdom?

  10. says

    Traditionally, sweatlodge ceremonies run for far less time, include far fewer people, and are conducted in structures made of breathable materials — not plastic tarps — and run by people who’ve had eight years of training.

    Don’t know about the eight years of training, but I’ve been to several sweats that were far more sensibly managed. (Fifty-five people in a sweat lodge? I’ve never seen more than ten at a time! And never more than half an hour without a break.) Never had a problem. And no, peeing on the sauna rocks was never an option. Where the fuck did THAT idea come from?! The point of sweat lodges is to “detoxify,” and inhaling urine fumes is kinda contrary to that purpose.

  11. The Mellow Monkey says

    Caine

    If anyone spouts something like “Native American whatthefuckever”, walk away. There is no “Native American whatthefuckever”. There are Indians, yes. There are tribes, yes. There are nations, yes. Do they all live alike, act alike, have the same traditions, and have the same beliefs? No.

    QFFT

    Hell, there are differences between the Black River Anishinaabeg and the LCO Anishinaabeg here. Lots of interactions, lots of the same blood, lots of the same political battles, still differences in history and practices.

    If someone is talking about some practice and can’t tell you EXACTLY where it came from, walk away. Got some exciting bit of “Native wisdom” they claim comes from the Cherokee? Unless that can be traced back to a specific band, they don’t know what they’re talking about and you have no way of knowing if there’s anything authentic in what they’re spouting.

  12. says

    Anthony K:

    I would guess that it’s not much better in Canada, Caine.

    Probably, but as I’m not Canadian, I can’t speak to that personally. Here in the U.S., the sheer amount of ‘self-help’ con artists playing plastic shaman is damn near overwhelming, and rafts of white people fall for it left and right. A little education could go such a long way. Hell, even a little thought could go a long way.

  13. Randomfactor says

    And speaking of woo getting people killed, Jenny McCarthy’s got a national television platform now. “The View.”

  14. docsarvis says

    The New York interview Chris linked was dated Jan 24, 2010. Unfortunately, Chris only linked to the last page, which does not include the dateline. James Arthur Ray is the most dangerous type of charlatan, and 20 years would have been more appropriate punishment than 20 months, but Chris linking to the last page of a 3.5-year-old article is disingenuous. Ray might have changed his mind in the intervening period. Unlikely, but possible.

  15. Jacob Schmidt says

    Anthony K

    I would guess that it’s not much better in Canada, Caine.

    It isn’t. The problem is a lot of it seems to be from Natives themselves. Maybe they’re cynically getting the gullible to hand over money. Worse, maybe Canada’s cultural white washing internment camps for native kids worked.

  16. says

    The New York interview Chris linked was dated Jan 24, 2010. Unfortunately, Chris only linked to the last page, which does not include the dateline. James Arthur Ray is the most dangerous type of charlatan, and 20 years would have been more appropriate punishment than 20 months, but Chris linking to the last page of a 3.5-year-old article is disingenuous. Ray might have changed his mind in the intervening period. Unlikely, but possible.

    Oh, just fuck right off. Linking to the last page was unintentional, and I will correct that as soon as I finish here. Your assumption that I did so to hide the dateline is just sheer douchebaggery.

  17. says

    Chris:

    Linking to the last page was unintentional, and I will correct that as soon as I finish here. Your assumption that I did so to hide the dateline is just sheer douchebaggery.

    Well, it is terribly important to give the most dangerous type of charlatan, who certainly didn’t receive any sort of proportional punishment for his actions, the benefit of the doubt. After all, he could well have seen the light! Most likely, a Native American Light™!, which he will write about, of course, simply to share it. Yes, share it. In the form of weekly seminars costing thousands of dollars, no doubt.

  18. DLC says

    Been to Sedona. It’s chock full of new agey weirdos, but has some really nice redrock country to hike in.
    I agree wholeheartedly with Chris about Ray. He’s a dirty sleazeball who deserves to be thrown in prison for the next 30 years. I was completely flabbergasted when the jury returned such a crappy verdict on 4 counts of manslaughter. This is a classic case of depraved indifference homicide. James Ray didn’t fast or go without water. James Ray had his own water supply in the tent. He simply did not care if his marks lived or died.
    ———————————-
    Re: desert survival : at an absolute minimum, you need about 2-3 liters of water a day in the desert. going for a day and a half without water would have left people horribly dehydrated and feeling light headed, lethargic and warm. going into an overheated tent with a bunch of hot rocks in the center of it would have been asking to die, but these people were primed for some kind of “spiritual test” and so would not have recognized the dire straights they were in without aid. These people should have been drinking water as fast as safety would allow, and not have been permitted sweets or alcohol.

  19. otrame says

    Re Caine @5

    Since my claim to Native Americanness is a great grandmother who was the result of the last Comanche raid in the part of north Texas where the family lived (newspapers mentioned “outrages” were committed) I do not claim any actual knowledge of modern Native American culture and any wisdom to be gained therefrom. The most I can claim to have acquired from that little cultural interchange is an ability to tan heavily even though I am very pale skinned (like my other ancestors, who were almost exclusively Celtic and who suffered from severe melanin deficiency) and my shovel-shaped incisors, of which I am stupidly proud.

    Yet I have to admit to the need to control a desire to slap anyone who talks about how Native Americans were “one with nature’. And it causes me physical pain to see all the what-ever tribes doing their Authentic Native Dances in eagle-feather hats because that is what the tourists expect.

  20. otrame says

    @DLC

    As someone who spent a good part of her professional career working outside in South Texas summers, I can agree that Ray should have gone down for the depraved indifference. People who work outside like that here are constantly reminding each other “Have you peed today yet?” and even the most experienced don’t mind the reminders because the very first thing that happens as you become dehydrated is you lose your common sense. You have to watch out for each other.

    I do not blame people who have never gotten near heat exhaustion for failing to recognize the symptoms, since they are subtle at first. I do blame anyone who has supposedly spent time in such environments encouraging water depravation as a means to altered states. To risk the life of people like that for money is the very definition of depraved indifference to human life. For FSM’s sake a little food deprivation and the heat alone would have achieved the desired result in some and the rest would have insisted to their dying day that they had experienced something profound. Woo con-men routinely make use of cognitive dissonance in such scenarios. Ray could have do it too and nobody would have died.

  21. says

    Otrame:

    Yet I have to admit to the need to control a desire to slap anyone who talks about how Native Americans were “one with nature’.

    I think that’s a fine thing, slap away. Every person who ends up a bit more educated is all the better.

    And it causes me physical pain to see all the what-ever tribes doing their Authentic Native Dances in eagle-feather hats because that is what the tourists expect.

    Well…I wouldn’t judge this too quickly. Around here, the UTTC hosts the annual International Powwow, going on its 44th year. It’s not specifically done for tourists, however, it does draw many spectators every year, and the school and tribes make a little money from it. I go when I can, and have done for quite some time now. There’s deep tradition there I would not like to see die.

  22. says

    Otrame:

    Ray could have do it too and nobody would have died.

    He was a control freak. Ray used “Samurai” games prior to the “vision quest” and “sweat lodge”. He had also placed a prohibition on any calls to 911 by staff. It was only because a staff member broke that rule that emergency services showed up and started flying people off to the hospital.

  23. says

    DLC:

    Been to Sedona. It’s chock full of new agey weirdos, but has some really nice redrock country to hike in.

    You have to be careful not to fall into the vortices.

  24. says

    I always wonder what kind of mental state people have to be in to fall for crap like this. What problems do they think this will solve? While I agree with Caine that more education is crucial, there seems to be a willing naivete at play here.
    On a related note, I get angry when people use a traditional medicine for whatever they want on a daily basis because its ‘natural’.

  25. jagwired says

    I recently watched a documentary called Kumaré that exposed how easy it is take advantage of these “new agey weirdos.” The protagonist of the story pretends to be a wise Indian Guru and coincidentally enough sets up shop in Arizona. Maybe there’s disproportionate amount of woo peddlers in AZ?

  26. chigau (違う) says

    Caine
    I have a “Native American whatthefuckever”.
    It’s a small ‘dream-catcher’ with a tiny ‘inukshuk’ hanging from it.
    Purchased in Yellowknife.

  27. says

    Chigau:

    I have a “Native American whatthefuckever”.
    It’s a small ‘dream-catcher’ with a tiny ‘inukshuk’ hanging from it.

    Huh. An Inuit thing in a dreamcatcher, eh? Yep, that’s a “Native Amer whatthefuckever”.

  28. latsot says

    And for fuck’s sake, don’t ever go 36 hours without water in the desert,

    I wouldn’t recommend going 36 hours without water under any circumstances. Who would? Well, dangerous ego-driven maniacs who have no concern for the well-being of their thralls, obviously. I can’t imagine why someone with anyone’s best interests at heart would suggest any such thing. You want some wisdom of the ages revealed by the ticking of the cosmic clock?

    When you feel thirsty, have a fucking drink. Don’t let anyone tell you not to have a drink because they are promising things they obviously can’t deliver.

    That advice seems to have passed the test of time. Hardly anyone who died of thirst recommends thirstiness.

  29. whakkamol says

    Is woo with some historical and cultural significance attached to it – Indian ayurvedic medicine, Chinese traditional medicine, various Native American sweat rituals – not considered as bad as outright charlatanry by New Age types?

    Reading up on actual Native American sweatlodge rituals, it seems like the leader of the ritual has to go through a helluva lot of “qualifications” before he’s allowed to conduct one… qualifications like going on a vision quest, understanding sacred languages, learning to talk to dead ancestors. It’s like pouring more woo on woo.

  30. vaiyt says

    Is woo with some historical and cultural significance attached to it – Indian ayurvedic medicine, Chinese traditional medicine, various Native American sweat rituals – not considered as bad as outright charlatanry by New Age types?

    New Age types care about charlatany at all?

  31. Vicki says

    Especially not in the desert, but heat and dehydration can kill in other situations. I’m visiting the not-at-all-Frozen North, and the heat warnings include reminders to get plenty of water. I’ve been reminding myself “Rule 1, stay hydrated.” If I’m not hungry because it’s in the 30s and humid, OK, but in conditions like this it isn’t even “when thirsty, drink,” it’s “have you had water lately? No? Go get some, now.” (I like Environment Canada and the U.S. National Weather Service: they have information, and they are doing their best to get it out there to keep everyone alive.)

  32. docsarvis says

    Go ahead and replace this with another bunny video. PZ should be ashamed of you.

  33. John Morales says

    [meta]

    docsarvis, you are a whiner — and you whine about a stupidity, at that.

    To reiterate:

    Cultural appropriationist and charlatan James Arthur Ray, under whose watch three people died of hyperthermia in a for-profit 2009 sweatlodge “ceremony” in Sedona, AZ, just walked out of prison after 20 months.

  34. chigau (違う) says

    docsarvis
    “the world” is not reading this blog, let alone your comments.
    Square your shoulders and get on with your life.

  35. Nerd of Redhead, Dances OM Trolls says

    I am amazed at how everyone can so deftly ignore my main point about Chris’ logic error.

    Which means there is an error in your logic. Find it off-line. Nobody cares about your opinion. Get real, and get over yourself.

  36. says

    docsarvis:

    PZ should be ashamed of you.

    PZ isn’t his daddy, Cupcake. You should be ashamed of yourself – you opened with a stupid, irrelevant comment, and now seem to be incapable of shutting down your whine factory.

  37. says

    PZ should be ashamed of you.

    Oh, he is. He is. You should see the chiding emails I get. All kinds of “more in sorrow than in anger” stuff. I’m on Sekrit Tentacle Probation already.

    PZ isn’t his daddy, Cupcake. You should be ashamed of yourself – you opened with a stupid, irrelevant comment, and now seem to be incapable of shutting down your whine factory.

    I have helped him shut it down. This is because

    1) I am a giving kind of person, and
    2) Ed Abbey would puke to see such a tendentious shitwad using his character’s name as cover.

  38. David Marjanović says

    Fixed link to Kūmāré. The URL goes in the href part, not the title part.

    People who work outside like that here are constantly reminding each other “Have you peed today yet?” and even the most experienced don’t mind the reminders because the very first thing that happens as you become dehydrated is you lose your common sense.

    Around the same time, you lose the feeling that you need to pee, because there’s simply not enough water left for your kidneys to draw out of your blood. I’ve been there. (Paradoxically, the weather was so humid that I simply sweated more than I was used to drinking.)

  39. woodsong says

    I’m prone to heat exhaustion. The weather doesn’t even have to top 90° here in central NY to knock me down for a while if I have work to do outside. I can’t imagine even considering trying to go without water for that long in hot weather anywhere–hell, I wouldn’t let myself go one hour without a drink under those conditions!

    I can understand tourists not knowing the dangers that an environment can pose. I think it’s a bit foolish to go to a different climate without looking up what the main local hazards are, but I also know that a lot of people make that mistake. I’ve made it myself, travelling to different altitudes. It can be amazing how much the difference in elevation between the Adirondacks and the Rockies can affect you when you’re mountain hiking with a backpack! But that was easy to fix–just stop and breathe for a few minutes, and continue at a slower pace.

    My father made a similar mistake with elevation in Denver, CO: he went jogging up a mountain, wearing clothing suited to the warm weather at the foot of the road, and realized when he (unexpectedly) had to stop for breath that it was freezing up there! He was in a situation where he was in danger of hypothermia because he didn’t have the appropriate clothing, and couldn’t get enough oxygen to do more than stand there gulping air, and was unable to get out of there quickly. Fortunately, the road had enough traffic that he was able to flag down a sympathetic driver and get a ride back down. FWIW, my father has done plenty of hiking in the eastern US mountain ranges. He’s familiar with the temperature difference between foot vs. summit. In the Adirondacks, jogging up and back down would not have been a problem. It was the additional 4500 feet that hit him unexpectedly hard.

    I guess my point is that I don’t put any blame on visitors who get into unexpected trouble. We all (okay, most of us) make foolish mistakes and get into situations we’re not really prepared for. The person leading a group, however, is responsible for making sure that everyone following is prepared, and for keeping the group safe. James Arthur Ray is directly responsible for every death and hospitalization that occurred under his “guidance”, and I hope that the survivors sue his ass for everything he owns, and publicize his gross depravity widely through those circles in which he operates.

  40. Dr Pepper says

    In the 70’s the israeli military tried to develop a program to condition their soldiers to handle desert conditions. It didn’t work. They discovered that humans start to lose function almost as soon as they start dehydrating and no amount of endurance training will change that. So instead they switched to making sure everyone gets plenty of water and added, “chug that bottle, soldier!” to the sergeants’ repetoire.

  41. Nerd of Redhead, Dances OM Trolls says

    btw: what does it mean when a post has a yellow background?

    Either Chris Clarke or PZ. Heed any warnings directed your way….

  42. brucegorton says

    Caine #14

    I think I’m going to steal that turn of phrase. See if I can’t get it into verse.