It was a moment I dreaded.
The first day of the James Arthur Ray manslaughter trial, in which he stands accused of the deaths of my cousin Kirby Brown, along with James Shore and Liz Neuman, two other seekers of leadership and self-improvement. We knew it was coming. It’s been longer than we hoped filled with one official delay, and hundreds of days of waiting.
I wondered what it would be like to be in the same room with the man who so callously treated those who paid a generous amount of money to follow him. I wondered what he thought about the loss of Kirby and James and Liz, the void it has created in our physical world where fear and loss and grieving are real emotions. He is fond of saying “Energy Flows Where Attention Goes” but even with a dozen journalists in the courtroom, he exuded little to no energy. At least to me, but I may not be like-minded enough to receive those vibrations.
I looked around the courtroom on the afternoon of March 1, 2011. The opening statements of the trial began around 1:30. I saw five lawyers with Mr. Ray; two on our side, the people’s side. I saw a panel of 18 regular people on the jury – people who needed to reserve four months to serve their civil duty to decide if the man who preached responsibility would be made responsible for what happened in his so-called sweat lodge. I saw curious journalists poised for the next detail or sound bite. I saw Mr. Ray’s parents, whom he has criticized in his own writings and performances, for not chasing wealth and therefore living incompletely. And in the row in front of me, I saw Liz’s cousin, James Shore’s mother and sister, and I saw my own wonderful relatives – Kirby’s brother Bobby and her parents, Ginny and George Brown.
What isn’t known about Kirby’s parents is that they are the ones doing the kind of work Mr. Ray purported to exceed at. Ginny is a teacher, public speaker and social worker – teaching anger management, family and sexuality within church and the community. George (who could insist on being called Dr. Brown but prefers his grandchildren’s ‘Papa G’ label) counseled 9/11 firefighters until the funding was pulled. A brilliant psychologist, Papa G is a quiet man, but he sees, hears, and processes everything. When he speaks, he says in 3 sentences what you tried to say in 20 minutes; his words are the by-product of five sharp senses and a brilliant mind that tied them all together.
And today, on March 1, 2011, he does not get to speak – just to observe. He must sit there and watch the man he believes killed his oldest child sit expressionless at a plain state-issued table at which the defense team sits. He holds Ginny’s hand most of the time, their minds and hearts connected by an unspeakable grief that most people, fortunately, don’t ever experience. A few seats away, James Shore’s mother shares some version of those feelings – also the member of this small, exclusive, senseless club. Parents who have buried children.
Opening statements are not concluded today. Prosecutor Sheila Polk calmly – almost too calmly – chronologically brings the jury through the events of the entire Spiritual Warrior event, a five-day retreat designed to push your limits. She shows little emotion or passion, which can worry those on her side, I suspect, but she has a good reputation for convictions. Style points aside, I think the big picture is more important here.
She does rely on a number of startling clips of Mr. Ray himself, mostly lectures, instructions, and other teachings from throughout the week. I was not prepared to hear these tapes – which were ruled admissible only a day or two ago by judge Warren Darrow – within the opening statement. They were chilling in general but the most disturbing clip was one in which he instructs the students that in the sweat lodge they will feel like they are going to die, but will not. That they look death in the eye but live to tell about it. That even if their physical bodies don’t die, they live on.
It was one thing to read his tweet from that fateful day, that in order for something to be born, another thing must die – but I chalked that up to irony of language. This constant talk of death and rebirth and of games in which Mr. Ray assumes the role of God – all of that gives me a feeling in my stomach that this all was truly senseless.
The defense tended to argue a lot in it’s opening: that the state did not test possible other causes, that they looked in only one direction (to charge Mr. Ray of course), and Los Angeles lawyer Luis Li tried to be a peer to a jury of mostly middle aged Arizona residents. He put the spotlight on rat poison in the shed where the lodge’s tarps were kept; he wondered about the lodging and what materials were in those rooms, and Li muttered something about Legionaire’s Disease.
When he talked about the God game, he talked about it being just another “corporate seminar;” when he talked about the multiple altered states into which Mr. Ray attempted to place his students, he likened it to “getting dizzy.” He even suggested that “falling in love” was an altered state.
Afterwards, I told the media that his argument blamed everyone but the bed bugs for these three deaths and that his version of events was “insulting.” When you boast about your lodge being the hottest, and then 3 people die (2 of whom succumbed to heat stroke), blaming rat poison and suggesting that adults can choose for themselves is just that: insulting.
The participants were sleep deprived: Mr. Ray suggested that they could sleep “next week.” I remember my college days. If I pulled an all-nighter, I might get my paper completed, or retain enough information to get a passing grade on an exam. But all my activities the next day were compromised. I was less than 100 percent, and certainly wasn’t giving my full attention to anything.
So how can 50 people who were discouraged from sleeping after 17 hour days climb into a sweat lodge and make a rational decision? Deprived of food and water for 36 hours prior, they were told they would feel like they would die, and that they might pass out or be disoriented. But that was part of the experience. They would be okay, their leader assured them.
Beyond the three deaths, I can’t help feeling there were 50+ victims in this story. Everyone got packed in that tent; those who worked outside of it; those who happened upon the scene in its aftermath – they are all victims. Even Mr. Ray is a victim; a victim of his own hubris, a victim of his pride, a victim of a false sense of power and godliness.
No matter how this trial turns out, he has to live with the fact that three people died and dozens of others are scarred – physically and emotionally. And he could have prevented it. But he pushed.
And this very effective motivational speaker has been motivated to be silent; to sit at a plain defense table expressionless. To listen to his lawyers attempt to confuse a jury of ordinary people that Mr. Ray’s understanding of the Laws of the Universe did not violate the Laws of the State of Arizona.
It won’t be an easy trial, for anyone. But the lines are drawn. And there is no getting around the fact that it is very, very sad.