Death Ray: The law of fatal attraction


James Ray, self-help guru, bestselling author of The Secret, and close personal friend of Oprah and Dr. Phil (whose on-air shilling contributed mightily to the success of his book), has finally been arrested for manslaughter in connection with the killings he caused last October at a resort in Arizona.

The case involved participants who’d paid over $9,000 each to be led by Ray in a four-day-long retreat that would supposedly turn them into “spiritual warriors.”

At the end of several days in which people fasted and tramped around in the desert, Ray, a disciple of a New Age doctrine called The Law of Attraction, marched his would-be warriors into a makeshift sweat lodge. There, within a shockingly ill-designed structure constructed from plastic sheeting held in place by old tires and offering only one small escape route for  the 60 people roasting inside in pitch-black darkness, two people died on the spot while another, a 49-year old woman from Bloomington, died a few days later.

Ray’s actions immediately following the first of the deaths were indicative both of his priorities and of his pathological narcissism; he ordered his staff – who’d earlier in the retreat dressed up as minions of Death while Ray donned a costume  in which he literally played  God – to dismantle the sweat lodge before investigators arrived on the scene. Then Ray hit the road, showing up at seminars for which he earns (or earned) as much as $100,000 a day. Not only did he protest his total lack of responsibility for an accident that he claimed was unforeseen (despite near-fatal hyperthermia experienced by people participating in earlier Spiritual Warrior retreats), but even blogged about how the victims had chosen to die rather than leave a site where they’d experienced such an exhilarating sense of liberation. 

There are lessons to derive from this sad incident. On her website, Nancy Marmolejo, a Californian of Aztec descent who describes herself as a social media expert, made the point last fall that while Ray appropriated one of the principal healing instruments of Native American culture – the sweat lodge – in “traditional Native American circles money is never exchanged for prayers or access to ceremony.”

True enough. But as I have been trying to explain to my New Age friends for decades, there is in fact no authentic spiritual tradition anywhere in the world where the exchange of money is required for “prayers and access to ceremony” None. The safest thing for anyone seeking those kinds of spiritual gifts is to run – not walk – to the sweat lodge exit the moment payment is demanded. This advice goes equally well for interactions with New Age gurus and latter-day Elmer Gantry’s on TV and in suburban megachurches preaching the so-called Prosperity Gospel, a “Christian” version of the same positive thinking shtick at the heart of The Law of Attraction.

But there is yet a larger point to be made here: what is it about American culture that renders so many people vulnerable to the appeal of a snake-oil salesman like James Ray? What is it about the combination of affluence, cultural values, celebrity worship, lifestyles, and whatever term we might use for “un-wisdom” that creates an emptiness, a psychic pain so great that it creates an opening for charlatans like him to exploit? Is all this the ineluctable product of a political economy based upon consumption, one that commodifies everything it touches, including us, and that has sold us on the idea that “happiness” and “the American Dream” means sleepwalking though life within a pain-free bubble?

Probably some version of “All of above.” The very least we can say is that whatever the cause or causes of our collective malaise – call it the Unbearable Lightness of American Life – it lies at the root of a host of pathologies that vex us more and more, from the obesity epidemic to the explosion in teenage suicides to the devolution of our democratic system into a nasty, and increasingly sterile, spectator sport.

It is, after all, a malaise powerful enough to cause apparently well-educated and obviously affluent seekers (not everyone can pony up $9,000 for a retreat) to put their faith in gurus and preachers who, promising to lead followers to heaven, drive them like sheep straight to the gates of hell.