My Daughter Died at the Hands of Oprah’s New Age Guru. Why Is She Silent?
A new Wondery podcast examines the killing of three attendees at James Arthur Ray’s (of “The Secret” fame) sweat lodge—including Kirby Brown. And her mother Ginny wants justice.
Self-help gurus don’t come much deadlier than James Arthur Ray, a cult-ish charlatan who became a star thanks to 2006’s film The Secret and the publicity given to it, and him, by the likes of Oprah Winfrey and Larry King.
Having achieved lucrative heights, however, Ray saw his empire come crashing down on Oct. 8, 2009, when three attendees at his Sedona, Arizona, “Spiritual Warrior” retreat—Kirby Brown, James Shore and Liz Neuman—died as a result of a sweltering sweat lodge challenge, and Ray himself fled the scene without taking responsibility for the insanely reckless incident he’d personally overseen. Having preached the “law of attraction,” which contends that our lives are shaped by the positive (or negative) energy and thoughts we put out into the world, Ray’s career was rightfully shattered by this tragedy: the New Age businessman was eventually convicted of three counts of negligent homicide and sentenced to two years in jail, of which he served only 20 months before being released in 2013.
Ray’s rise, fall and shameless attempted comeback is the focus of Guru: The Dark Side of Enlightenment, a new Wondery podcast (available now) created and hosted by journalist Matt Stroud, who first reported on the story back in 2013. Recounting Ray’s scandalous tale in far greater detail than Oxygen network’s recent Deadly Cults episode on the subject, the six-part true-crime series is guided by candid interviews with former Ray acolytes who survived that fateful 2009 weekend. Yet it’s most poignant voice comes courtesy of Ginny Brown, mother of Kirby Brown, whose anguish and fury over this fatal turn of events is palpable, and who, along with her husband George, has channeled her grief into a nonprofit organization called Seek Safely which aims to create regulations and standards for a self-help industry that currently has neither.
That’s a particularly pressing issue given that, since leaving prison, Ray has restarted his business, reprehensibly recasting the “Spiritual Warrior” calamity as part of his narrative of personal growth. With the recent release of Guru, as well as Brown’s own book about her traumatic ordeal, This Sweet Life: how we lived after Kirby died (co-written with daughter Jean Brown), we spoke with both Ginny Brown and Matt Stroud about whether they view Ray as a cult leader, Oprah’s silence on the man she helped turn into a phenomenon, and the self-help industry reforms that Seek Safely is striving to make a reality.
The word “cult” is only fleetingly uttered in Guru, but the topic is discussed at length in the bonus Q&A episode. Do you view him as a cult leader?
Ginny: Kirby certainly didn’t go to “Spiritual Warrior” because she thought she was joining a cult. In the traditional sense of a cult, this was not a cult. However, there was a leader who was using the tactics that are often used in a cult to create suggestibility, and then people have given their power away before they even realize that’s happened. Some of the people who were there might not even believe that they actually did that, but you can’t have rational decision-making after a lot of sensory deprivation, and the kinds of things he was doing with people throughout the week.
What differentiates Ray’s seminars from a traditional cult?
Matt: I agree with Rick Ross, who runs the Cult Education Institute, who says that with cults, you’re looking at somebody who is pursuing a religion or a faith because they believe it will help them ascend to a higher position, whether that is into heaven or with a group that will be a part of some kind of godly future. With James Arthur Ray and his adherents, I equate it to buying a self-help book: you’re buying a book that will help you improve your business, try to find the next stage in your career, and try to find better relationships. It’s working on yourself to improve yourself. That’s what James Arthur Ray was selling, and that’s what people were buying.
As Ginny pointed out, some of the tactics he used were similar to those that you might see in a cult. But I think they’re closer to what you might see through groups like Landmark—these large group awareness trainings where you’re trying to get a bunch of people to have personal revelations in a group. The idea is personal self-development, and though there are some similarities between what cult leaders do and what James is doing, his motivation and his followers’ motivations were self-improvement and betterment rather than ascending to some higher plane.
Ginny, how did you get involved with Guru—and was your decision to participate made more difficult by the fact that it meant reliving this terrible trauma?
Ginny: I think from the very beginning, we realized as a family that we needed to do something to keep this story alive, and to make it very public. I realized that the other families weren’t in a position to do that. My husband and I are both therapists, so we had a fairly good idea of what had actually happened. We were gathering a lot of factual information from the investigators, and George’s nephew—Bob Magnanini—was helping us. My nephew Tommy McPheely came right away to help us manage media. I’ve done a lot of public speaking. I wasn’t uncomfortable going public. I felt that was absolutely necessary because this never should have happened. This is ridiculous! You don’t go to a self-help event to lose your life. And then what Ray allowed to happen afterwards was so egregious to us that we said we have to shine a light on this man.
The more we learned about the self-help industry, we realized there’s a tremendous amount of charlatans out there, because it is big money. The potential for big money is here. There are some wonderful leaders, but there are also a lot of people who are going to be hurt and scammed. So from the very beginning, even though it was painful and difficult, I felt a moral obligation to be very public about this, in order to alert people to the fact that there’s danger here.
The other reason I wanted to be public too was because my daughter was an amazing person whose life was robbed from her, and she was robbed from us. I wanted the world to know her. I got involved with Matt pretty early in the story; he covered this for The Verge, and it was probably one of the best pieces of journalism covering this whole story in the beginning. We developed a relationship over the years. I’ve been burned by media people, but I’ve always trusted Matt, and his intentions and integrity. Eventually my younger daughter Jean and I, we’ve written our story. Our book was just released—it’s called This Sweet Life: how we lived after Kirby died—to tell our own story of what we went through, and what really happened.
Ginny, you attended one of Ray’s seminars with Kirby. Did you get a sense of why people found him, and his teachings, so captivating?
Ginny: First of all, he’s a tremendously gifted speaker. His ability to command the attention of an audience is pretty interesting. He uses a lot of neuro-linguistic programming-type teaching methods which are very effective in a large group. He’s a storyteller. He speaks with such command and authority that, naïve me, it never occurred to me that you would stand in front of hundreds of people and lie about your background, your knowledge, your training—which is what he did. I did not question when he showed pictures up on the screen of places he had been all over the world, and what he had studied and learned and had to share with people. I didn’t question the fact that a lot of that was B.S.—it simply was not true.
Ray is now using Kirby, James Shore and Liz Neuman’s deaths as part of his redemptive learning-through-tragedy narrative. Even more than his comeback, were you surprised by this repugnant strategy?
Ginny: What surprised me more than him trying to reinvent his career and using the deaths as the springboard, so to speak, was that CNN would allow that voice to be so loud. That, to me, was so egregious, so upsetting—to sit in that theater in Tribeca [at the 2016 Tribeca Film Festival screening of Enlighten Us] and watch him on the screen, crying that his three best friends [had died], and he had to live with it. Yeah, he walked over their bodies and left them in the dirt and never looked back. Don’t tell me these were your friends. These were your customers that you did not care about. And then to say that Sedona had to happen so I could go through this trial in my life, and come out with an experience of redemption and now I can share that with others, is just horrific to me. So I wasn’t completely surprised, but it certainly makes me angry. If he had gone public when he came out of prison, saying, “After being in prison for almost two years, I realized the way I conducted that event was completely wrong, and I did all these different things to get compliance and then I ran away in the middle of the night, and blah blah blah”—if he had gone that route, we wouldn’t be where we are today. We wouldn’t be here.
Are you also disappointed that Oprah hasn’t spoken out against Ray, given her instrumental role in making The Secret—and him—such a phenomenon?
Ginny: Kirby thought Oprah was everything. She loved Oprah. Oprah has done a lot of very good things in the world. But after this happened, the fact that she would not address this in a real way… She would have a plagiarist [James Frey] on her show and, in front of a national audience, take that person to task for what he had done. But she wouldn’t have James Ray, or even speak about what he had done in Sedona—I just figured her lawyers said, stay as far away as possible, because they could sue you. That’s what I think happened. Yes, that really disappoints me, when you see someone who’s that powerful, and has that national platform, and doesn’t use it to do the right thing.
In response to the Sedona tragedy, you’ve founded Seek Safely, which among other things has developed a “Promise” that outlines principles to which self-help practitioners should adhere. What is it that the self-help industry needs most?
Ginny: In trying to see if we could get some legislation passed—with Consumer Protection in New York, we have some pending legislation that we’ve been working on for almost four years—what we’ve learned is that it’s very difficult to try to define this industry; it’s very diffuse. Therefore, it’s very difficult to regulate it in terms of credentialing and licensing. I really believe a lot of this has to be an educational effort—to educate the consumer to ask more questions and to be more aware of their surroundings, and what’s going on in the environment. When someone continually tells you that you’re more than your body—what James Ray was telling them was that the signs of heat stroke were actually markers of their success to have a breakthrough, and this is why they’d invested their time and their money—that was simply a lie! It was simply a lie. Your mind is very powerful, and there are things that you don’t think that you can do, that you can do. Physical challenges have their place. But to put people in such a dangerous situation, and to then lie to them, is like telling them you can fly off the top of Mount Everest. It’s ridiculous!
We’d love to have practitioners sign the Promise, not that that would necessarily make them keep the Promise. But at least then your followers would know just what they should expect. That this is the code of behavior that you should expect when you go to an event that this person is giving. There’s something wrong if they don’t value that, and if they don’t have a risk-management plan, or medical personnel on hand to manage your risk or to protect you if something goes wrong. I’d love to have practitioners sign the Promise. We’re trying to educate the consumer about, what are the red flags? What do you need to pay attention to, whether it’s on the internet, or buying a book, or going to an event?
Ray has done a media apology tour of sorts, but he refused to participate in Guru. Do you feel like he’s still trying to hide the true extent of his culpability for the deaths he caused, including from potential new clients?
Matt: I don’t think I’d say he’s hiding; he did come out with that book, The Business of Redemption, that talks about it. He addresses it in his way. He has just decided that any confrontational media appearance, or conversation with someone who might be confrontational, is not something he wants to deal with. It’s pretty cowardly on his part. And what he does instead is he floods Facebook and social media and podcast outlets with these tiny bits of non-wisdom, I think to overwhelm any searches that might get to deeper investigative reporting on what he’s done, and his lack of confronting people who want to ask him questions.
In 2014, he spoke to me on background only—there’s very short tape of it in the podcast—and that was I think largely because my employer paid to send me to one of his events. He actually received some money for that, and he felt some obligation to talk to someone who was technically a customer at the time. But as soon as the conversation went toward me actually quoting him on the record, he pushed against it, because I don’t think he wants to talk about this event in any kind of real way. That’s only speculation, because of course I’ve been trying to get him on the record for at least six years, and he’s consistently decided that he’s either not going to respond, or to reject my requests through intermediaries.
As you reveal in the podcast, Ginny, the only time you heard from Ray was in the immediate aftermath of Kirby’s death. Do you have a desire to directly confront him about what he did?
Ginny: I was approached by someone who wanted me to go on national television to say that I had forgiven him. I made it very clear that I’m not going to harbor unforgiveness; I’m not going to harbor bitterness or revenge. Everyone deserves a second chance, and Ray does too. I just wish he had chosen a different place for his second chance—or had understood what he had done. Because he’s either delusional and still doesn’t really understand that he caused these deaths, or he’s sociopathic and really doesn’t care. Either way, the man is dangerous. I wouldn’t do a public-forgiveness thing because I don’t think people understand forgiveness. They often think that when you forgive someone, it means what they did is okay. And the fact of the matter is, I will never trust him. I don’t trust him, or what he says. He lies.
I’ve never really wanted to try to see him or confront him. It was very difficult and painful to see him at the trial. When Ray says, “I am so sorry this happened,” that’s not an apology. That’s not a recognition that he did things that caused these deaths. I’m sorry it happened too! So that’s not an apology. He keeps saying, “I can’t apologize enough,” but he doesn’t understand what an apology is. An apology is taking responsibility for the fact that your behaviors caused this to happen. For me, what has been most important is that, knowing what happened, I have done everything in my power to warn people, which is why I’ve taken every interview, and every opportunity to speak publicly, and it’s why Jean and I wrote the book. I want to make sure that I’ve done everything I can, including by having this organization to educate people about self-help, and that you can continue to seek—it’s important to seek!—but you want to do it safely. You have to have open eyes as well as an open heart.
And I want people to know who Kirby is as well. I want her life to inspire people, because she lived in a pretty incredible way. But I also want her death to be something that they’ll remember as a warning, to be much more aware and careful of the people you believe, what it is you believe, and the circumstances that you put yourself in.