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In Enlighten Us, a disgraced guru fails to find redemption

A new documentary on James Arthur Ray doesn't go far enough

On a ranch outside Sedona, Arizona on October 8th, 2009, more than 50 followers of self-help guru James Arthur Ray approached the conclusion of a five-day "Spiritual Warrior" seminar they paid $10,000 or more to attend. Ray had already asked attendees to shave their heads, and meditate without food or water in the desert for days. For the seminar’s finale, they were asked to participate in a sweat lodge ceremony. Every participant would be ushered into a makeshift dome and encouraged to endure crowded, moisture-soaked, circulation-free extreme heat while Ray sat next to the dome’s only entrance. The ceremony did not go well. By nightfall, people were hallucinating and screaming for help in the middle of the desert. A first responder who arrived at the scene described it as looking like a mass suicide. Three people eventually died from heatstroke, and 18 others were hospitalized.

Ray was convicted of negligent homicide and sentenced to two years in prison. Shortly after he was released in 2013, I wrote a feature for The Verge about Ray’s crimes, and the beginning stages of a comeback Ray hoped to mount.

Three people died from heatstroke

Now, a new CNN Films documentary, Enlighten Us: The Rise and Fall of James Arthur Ray, follows Ray’s progress since then. Directed by Jenny Carchman — a producer behind documentary films such as Public Speaking, Martin Scorsese’s film about New York author and actress Fran Lebowitz — Enlighten Us debuts at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York.

Ray’s rise to fame followed his inclusion in The Secret — the ubiquitous film and book that spawned a self-help empire. Ray capitalized on his Secret inclusion by selling books, DVDs, and tickets to speaking tours.

The cornerstone of Ray’s business empire were his live events. In cold auditoriums, he would give high-energy presentations for free or very inexpensive prices. He would then offer an upsell: special, more intimate, multi-day sessions that cost hundreds of dollars. In those sometimes daylong sessions, Ray would upsell again, offering the opportunity to participate in multi-day journeys to interesting locations with Ray and his self-help team. That’s what lead to the five-day "Spiritual Warrior" seminar in the Sedona desert — and to Ray’s fall and his imprisonment.

Granting extraordinary access to Ray and his family, Enlighten Us documents Ray’s early life and rise in the self-help industry through file footage and family videos; his fame after being included in The Secret; and his attempts to rebuild his business after his prison release.

Much of the film’s success lies in what’s not said. Ray says ad nauseam — both in the film and in real life — that he feels sorry for killing three people. But those apologies are never said in the context of offering sympathy for his victims’ families, or regret for taking his schtick too far. Ray’s apologies are, instead, in the context of his ruined career and complaints about an overzealous criminal justice system.

In one scene, more than an hour into Enlighten Us, we see Ray in a blue T-shirt, his hair streaked with blond and nearly shoulder length, attempting with teary eyes to explain why he fled the Sedona crime scene when trouble began to mount that October evening in 2009. Ray claims, in the film, to have been oblivious to the chaos because he had gone to his room to take a shower as it transpired. "When they told me there were people in serious distress, I was like, ‘What?’" he says in the film. "I was in shock… I mean, my entire life completely collapsed within a period of about 15 minutes."

Ray does not seem contrite. When he addresses his crimes in a subsequent 2015 presentation shown in the film, he tells a crowd of about 15 people gathered in Phoenix that he’s been treated unfairly.

Those apologies are never said in the context of offering sympathy

"The case that ensued set legal precedent," he insists. It was, he says, "the first time in the history of this country [when] consenting adults participated willfully in a legal activity... an accident occurred, and it was prosecuted as a crime." He later says that the sweat lodge tragedy "had to happen for [him] to learn and grow."

Such scenes in the film are powerful depictions of Ray’s blatant narcissism. But they also represent where Enlighten Us fails.

The implication that no accident has ever been prosecuted as a crime is patently false: airplane crashes, hunting accidents, accidental heatstroke deaths in cars, the BP oil spill. Accidents are prosecuted as crimes all the time, and yet the filmmakers brush right past that, allowing Ray’s willful misdirection to pass as meaningful commentary.

Furthermore, relatives of victims are never interviewed on camera in Enlighten Us. I followed up with some of them to see what they thought of the film. Ginny Brown is mother of one of Ray’s victims, Kirby Brown. Kirby was one of the three who had to be dragged out of Ray’s sweat lodge and who died of related injuries. I showed both Ginny and Kirby’s sister, Jean, the film.

Ginny said that Enlighten Us makes it seem as though the 2009 sweat lodge tragedy was an isolated incident — truly an accident with no warning signs. That’s false. Sweat lodge ceremonies organized in Sedona by Ray in years prior to 2009 had gone haywire, sending multiple people to nearby hospitals for heat stroke. Ray did nothing to stem the danger inside his sweat lodge, and in fact pressed in 2009 to cram more people inside, and to make the tent hotter, more intense. What’s more, just three months before the 2009 sweat lodge tragedy, a participant in one of Ray’s San Diego events, Colleen Conaway, committed suicide during an exercise in which Ray encouraged his followers to pretend they were homeless. Ray’s 2009 arrest warrant outlines those prior events and more. The film ignores them.

In the wake of Kirby’s death, the Browns started a nonprofit organization called SEEK Safely, designed to "educate, empower, and promote the public about the unregulated self help industry." Despite Ray’s insistence in the film that he "lost three friends" in Sedona, he has never attempted to contact the Browns and has failed to sign the SEEK Safely Promise — a set of guidelines for self-help professionals to "support every individual’s right to a safe and constructive journey so that each person might find the personal growth and change he/she seeks."

Relatives of victims are never interviewed on camera

Ginny — herself a licensed clinical social worker — tells me that no one from the Enlighten Us film crew attempted to contact the Browns. (Through a spokesperson, the filmmakers behind Enlighten Us deny this claim.) Ginny independently contacted Jenny Carchman, she says, and the two had lunch in Manhattan. But Carchman declined to interview Ginny on film. Kirby’s sister, Jean Brown, says she also attempted to get in touch with members of the Enlighten Us crew, but they never returned her phone calls. (Through a spokesperson, the filmmakers behind Enlighten Us could neither confirm nor deny this was the case.) The result, Ginny says, is that the film fails to tell the whole story it’s attempting to tell.

"I don’t think [the filmmakers] did enough work to sort out what happened," Jean says. "I understand that it’s a film about James Ray, and not about Sedona... But if you’re looking at Sedona as a pivot point in his life, then don’t you want to know for yourself — not from his perspective — what really happened?"

She continued: "When he says in the film that he believes what happened in Sedona ‘had to happen for [him] to learn and grow,’ that tells me that any introspective work he did in prison was all about how to turn his crime into a story of his own personal growth, and not about considering what he may have done that caused three deaths. That the film doesn't press him on that point makes me feel that while Carchman may not have paid for her access to James Ray, it certainly seems she bought in."

His large gatherings now fill only small hotel conference rooms

Carchman explains it differently. In an interview with The Verge, she says the decision not to include victims’ families was purely a narrative decision.

"We decided after a long conversation that this was a story that was going to be told through the point of view of the people who were there" in the sweat lodge, Carchman said. "It was important for us... to follow the characters into the sweat lodge as they were experiencing James’ events and James’ trajectory and pyramid of courses and the lead up into signing up for Sedona. We made the decision that we really needed to hear from the people who were actually experiencing the sweat lodge itself."

Jason Jones, an online investigator who blogged obsessively about the Ray trial while it was going on — and who obsessively tracked the story about Colleen Conaway’s suicide — dismissed that explanation and agreed with the Browns.

"Ray seems totally convinced that it was worth people dying for him to become the man he is today," Jones says. "They made a movie about James Ray stepping over graves into glory, without including a single word from the families of the dead. It's almost as ridiculous as James Ray still telling people how to find wealth and success... like he did."

Jones is right to imply that Ray sells a path to success without having much success to show for himself. There’s a point in Enlighten Us where Ray complains that book publishers tell him and his agent that he’s got a "great story" that "needs to be told," but that his story lacks something very important: a comeback.

Despite Ray’s obvious ambition, Enlighten Us shows Ray nowhere near the level of success he achieved after The Secret's release: his large gatherings now fill only small hotel conference rooms, and when he attempts to upsell, those sales often fail to materialize. If Enlighten Us is truly successful in any regard, it's in showing that a guru who deserved to fall is having quite a lot of trouble getting back up again.