Self-Help on Trial

Christine Whelan | Posted on 03/18/10

For all of you out there who assumed self-help was harmless crystal-clutching, navel-gazing nonsense, think again: What happened in Sedona is not an unfortunate coda to a crazy, fringe event.

The trial for self-help guru James Arthur Ray will begin in September, an Arizona judge said yesterday.

Ray has been charged with three counts of manslaughter after he allegedly blocked the only exit to a make-shift sweat lodge where nearly 50 people were baking to their deaths in a Spiritual Warrior retreat last year.

I've followed this story closely, written about it in The Washington Post and blogged about it on several occasions. But this isn't just some ordinary trial:

The trial of James Arthur Ray will be the first time in modern memory that a mainstream self-help leader has been criminally charged for events occurring in a self-improvement context.

For all of you out there who assumed self-help was harmless crystal-clutching, navel-gazing nonsense, think again: What happened in Sedona is not an unfortunate coda to a crazy, fringe event. Ray, and many gurus like him, motivate thousands of smart, accomplished adults by borrowing from two very powerful thought traditions -- modern psychology and esoteric spirituality -- creating a one-two punch that's nearly impossible to resist. If you had been there, you might be dead, too.

The upcoming trial--which will last three to four months--should be closely watched by social critics, academics and advice-givers of all stripes: It's not just James Ray who will have to defend himself before a jury of his peers-the  entire self-help industry will be put on trial, and it's not going to be pretty.

The self-help industry is a more-than $11 billion business. There are more than 50,000 self-help books in print and by most estimates, half of all adult Americans have read a self-help book at some point in their lives. So we're talking about a totally unregulated, big-money industry that influences a lot of people.

James Ray was one of the hottest new self-help gurus - featured on Oprah, Larry King Live, and The Secret. Since 2001, some 14,500 people have paid to attend his seminars and retreats and his company, James Ray International, made $9.4 million in 2008 from motivational videos, books and seminars.

But he's not the only one using powerful psychological suggestion to encourage people on a particular path. And we're going to hear all about them-and their tactics-along the way.

Brace yourself for one helluva ride.

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