Two years ago, three people died in a sweat lodge near Sedona, Arizona, during a so-called “Spiritual Warrior” retreat led by self-help guru James Arthur Ray. Earlier this week, Ray was pronounced guilty of negligent homicide by an Arizona jury. The verdict is the correct one. Despite the nation’s ballyhooed emphasis on so-called “personal responsibility,” the verdict shows that the jury understood that sometimes people are actually not responsible for their own decisions when they are under the powerful psychological influence of authority figures.
Some background. In his early 50s, tan, and ruggedly handsome, Ray had appeared on Oprah and Larry King and penned a best seller. He was a big player in the self-help world — participants paid almost $10,000 to spend five days with him during the Spiritual Warrior retreat.
Toward the end of the retreat, the “warriors” were to stay alone in the desert without water or food for thirty-six hours, followed by a return to camp for a two-hour “purge” in a sweat lodge, vaguely modeled after structures used in some Native American religious ceremonies. There was barely space for the fifty participants to squeeze in around a fire pit, kept hot by fresh coals brought in by Ray’s assistants. Ray sat outside the tent flap, keeping it sealed.
About halfway through the ceremony, some of the participants started to become ill. Ray urged them to press on. As the heat grew more oppressive, one man tried to lift up one of the walls of the lodge to allow fresh air to circulate, but Ray chastised him. When some people vomited, Ray explained that vomiting was good for them. Ray hovered by the door, intimidating people if they tried to leave. A few people struggled out, but most stayed. “Play full on,” Ray insisted. “You are not going to die. You might think you are, but you’re not going to die.”
At the end of the ordeal, several of the participants were indeed near death. Two died that evening; another fell into a coma and died a few days later. In all, almost half of the participants ended up in the hospital suffering from injuries as severe as scorched lungs and organ failure.