Friday, April 17, 2015

Dispatches from the SHAMscape... April 17, 2015

Is Oz's yellow brick road leading him out of Columbia's gates? Some of you may recall that I was already panning Dr. Mehmet Oz back when it was the height of political incorrectness to do so. At the time Oprah's hand-picked medical guru was a cultural icon and a TV star of the highest magnitude; to attack him in public was to invite litigation. Here's a piece of mine that editor Josh Greenman of the New York Daily News was courageous enough to publish after the Wall Street Journal, my usual venue for such social critiques, wimped out. Now, however, it seems that the dump Oz movement has even spread to his home turf, the Columbia University Medical School. At least 10 high-level Columbia docs are demanding that Oz be stripped of his faculty position due to his "egregious lack of integrity" in promoting what they call "quack treatments." Oz's Columbia peers focus chiefly on his entrepreneurial exploits in the area of weight loss, but it's clear that he has also hit the top of the Woo Scale for any number of the methods he has endorsed through the years (with or without compensation). This is going to be a toughie for Columbia and it wouldn't surprise me if the whole mess ends up in court, one way or another, but I applaud the anti-Oz squad for their integrity in bringing this to the fore. It couldn't have been an easy call for them. It's about damn time, though.  

From April 14: 
"The Secret to the Secret of Knowing the Secret..."? If this if this is not the most generic, buzz-phrase-strewn and ultimately meaningless tease for an upcoming self-help book, I'd like to have your nomination for what that could possibly be. And Gillian Anderson is somehow the perfect person to lead today's women (which is to say, "girls, transgender, anyone who identifies themselves as being intrinsically female") though the minefield of modern gender? Oh wait, I get it!...The X-Files. See, Gillian boasts a pair of x chromosomes, and therefore...but I guess that's about as solid a set of credentials as you're apt to find in any self-help author.

From April 13:
My sentiments exactly. Which is to say, the title of this story. And yet...and yet...I've heard some good things about cognitive behavioral therapy. I'm not sure I buy the notion that CBT "rewires the prefrontal cortex," but surely for some people who face certain common challenges (intractable panic attacks, addictions) there's anecdotal evidence that CBT gets the nod over the likes of AA or even conventional counseling. Alsoand one hates to play into the hands of the NLP crowd or Byron KatieI wholeheartedly agree that "thoughts are not facts," which is to say, that your interpretation of a situation may be 180 degrees removed from the facts of the matter. We all know people for whom almost everything that happens that isn't peaches-and-cream is evidence of some grand vendetta/conspiracy. (Maybe the person you know who's like that is you?) The piece does a nice job of expanding on this so I won't belabor it here. 

Friday, April 03, 2015

Prior dispatches-of-note from the SHAMscape...


Family ties? Interesting buzz building over Hawaiian Congressperson and rising Dem star Tulsi Gabbard, and not just because she's easy on the eyes. Gabbard is believed to be the first person of Hindu faith elected to Congress, but more important for our purposes are her clear lifelong ties to a little-known Hare Krishna sect led by the charismatic Chris Butler. (For the sake of convenience as well as a desire to avoid throwing my Blogger spellchecker into digital arrest, I am using Butler's given Anglo name; the link will take you to his religious name, should you care to give it a try.) The sect itself is Krishna fare heavily seasoned with airier New Age concepts as well as pseudo-scientific nonsense reminiscent of the pabulum Deepak Chopra feeds his followers. Overall, not the sort of belief system you want driving someone's actions in Congress, I'd think. (And then there's the question of excessive political access granted to folks with weird/scary agendas. Gabbard is also a vice-chair of the DNC.) Of course, you don't need to leave the contiguous 48 to find culty influences in politics. As you may know, many Hollywood A-list Scientologists count Beltway insiders among their circle of friends, and lesser-known Christian groups with a distinct cultish aromaThe Family International (which curried much of its political favor under its previous name, Children of God) and James Dobson's Focus on the Familyare said to have the ear (if not other organs) of such GOP luminaries and POTUS contenders as Rick Sanctimonious (oh wait, I misspelled that) and Ted Cruz. Notwithstanding their "Yes, Jesus loves me!" PR, not a few Christian-right sects are dogged by persistent allegations of misogyny, homophobia, physical/sexual/emotional abuse and other delightful expressions of tolerance and brotherhood.

The Rapist's Creed? Today John Assaraf, another Secret-eer, tweeted as follows:

In reply I tweeted the title I chose for this item, and I concede it's a bit of a cheap shot. A bit. But let's face it, there are myriad settings in lifein personal relationships, at work, in business, in the armed forces, and so onwhere following Assaraf's "axiom" could have catastrophic results. For you and for who-knows-how-many people whose fates depend on your actions. Are there times when such advice could be useful? Of course. Just as there are myriad settings where the results could be catastrophic, there are myriad settings where the world is just waiting for someone, maybe you, to be bold, to forge ahead, to defy convention, possibly even to defy the direct orders of a supervisor or spouse. But as is true with so much of self-help, we almost never know which approach was right until later. Or the bold approach could be right for Sally and wrong for Sue, or vice versa. And if advice is only good half the time (or less) and/or in hindsight...how useful is it as a general prescription for success? (See under "never give up your dreams!") 
If the Earth is flat, don't book a 'round-the-world cruise... This is a small bit of news (or commentary) with a BIG point: Dave Ramsey is one of the nation's foremost finance gurus, and though I don't venture very far into the finance-writing realma world unto itselfthe point this trade article makes is valid throughout the SHAMscape: If a guru's assumptions are off, his advice will almost always be fatally flawed. I don't care how big a fan you are/were of Oprah or the New Age, if the law of attraction is a steaming pile of bat guano, you cannot implement it for good effect in your daily life. If that giant Genie-in-the-Universe isn't just waiting on tenterhooks to hear your next wish, you can't expect him (her?) to execute accordingly. Which is one main reason (among many) why The Secret was and remains such a boondoggle.

Tony has mastered the game. Tony Robbins, he of the estimated $480 million net worth (up a cool $390 mill since I wrote SHAM), wants everyone to Master the Game of money, as per the title of his latest bestseller. Robbins also has a significant ongoing business relationship with Advisors Excel (AE), an insurance wholesaler/marketing powerhouse that stands to derive great benefit from several key financial strategies Tony romances in the book. Robbins himself acknowledges that he has "partnered" with AE, so I suppose he can't be accused of having a secret agenda. But readers who think that Tony's book is a mere work of journalism, wherein he presents a disinterested, totally objective survey of the financial marketplace, may wish to reconsider. Especially since he doesn't really get around to discussing AE until page 431, by which time all of the seeds of his program have been planted and repeatedly fertilized.

And Dr. Phil boors on. Fresh from being cleared of (civil) improprieties arising from his having injected himself into the Natalee Holloway disappearance, Dr. Phil is taking flak for injecting himself into the ongoing saga of Bobbi Kristina Brown. McGraw interviewed and (many would say) baited an obviously wasted Nick Gordon, then used the exploitative video of same on his show.

Is there a nice way to waterboard your daughter's prom date? There are already various tomes on how to read people...ranging from decoding body language to listening for subtle aural cues to learning to quickly compose questions that jog people out of their pat responses and comfort zones. But now those ultimate extractors of truth, our friends from the CIA, are weighing in with what some frame as the ultimate guidebook on the gleaning of useful intel in daily life. Quoth the Guardian, "Using techniques developed in real-life counterterrorism and criminal investigations, in Get the Truth they present a step-by-step guide that empowers readers to elicit the truth from otherswhether that's in the boardroom, the classroom, or our own homes." Can a book from Putin on the creative use of polonium be far behind? 

Sunday, March 22, 2015

The return of James Arthur Ray. The method is the madness?

AFTER 20 MONTHS IN PRISON and an equivalent period of self-imposed exile from Gurudom—served concurrently—James Arthur Ray is back among us as a somewhat rebranded, slightly “lite” version of the New Age shaman he once was. It was in October 2009, you may recall, that Ray cajoled and coerced disciples through an interminable sweat lodge ceremony billed as the capstone of his $9695-a-head Spiritual Warrior weekend in Sedona, AZ. He exhorted followers displaying obvious signs of heat stroke to stay the course, to “play full on,” as if by sheer willpower they could squelch the breakdowns that were occurring in their bodies amid temps estimated at near 200 degrees; they needed "to surrender to death," he told them, "to survive it." Three who surrendered did not survive; their names were James Shore, Liz Neuman and Kirby Brown. Later Ray himself was forced to surrender to authorities; in November 2011 a jury found him guilty of negligent homicide.

Less well known is that the Sedona casualties were not the first deaths associated with a James Ray event. In fact, during a “pretend-you're-homeless” exercise at a program just months before Sedona, a female attendee, Colleen Conaway, suffered a mental breakdown and jumped to her death from an upper level in a San Diego shopping mall. The program proceeded on schedule, as did the after-party, even though a member of Ray's core team had evidently witnessed and, uh, live-tweeted the death.

A buddy of mine offers this fragile joke: Question: How do you avoid confusing James Earl Ray with James Arthur Ray? Simple, James Earl Ray killed only one person.
Before his comeuppance, Ray was embraced by self-help's (then) eminence grise, Oprah Winfrey, as the most charismatic of the Universe-is-your-friend set spawned by 2006's blockbuster book and video, The Secret. By 2008 Ray had his own best-seller, the derivatively titled Harmonic Wealth: The Secret of Attracting the Life You Want. As heir-apparent to Tony Robbins, James Ray played to SRO crowds in amphitheaters. He collected six-figure sums for one-on-one mentoring.

And now he's back. Recognizing that he can't simply rewind to where he left off—as if Sedona never happened—Ray has made lemonade out of the lemons of 2009. His patter, now, is more subdued and, he would have you believe, is informed by, enriched by, the deaths in the desert. He riffs on the lessons of his incarceration, packaging himself as the ideal person to lead his flock through life's adversity, at times seeming to cast Sedona as a misfortune that chiefly befell him. “In October 2009, my world changed dramatically," he told a recent audience. “I lost my business, I lost my home, I lost my relationships.” What he has not lost, clearly, is the messianic/Ray-o-centric world-view that had him referring to himself as “God” in prelude to the sweat lodge ceremony that would kill three people who'd placed their faith in him.

Despite such excesses—or because of them?—Ray is again finding a following. He may be starting small, in community centers rather than the likes of the Hollywood Bowl, and it may be for “just” $500 per person, but success-minded Americans are once again hanging on his words. They're even alibiing for him, maligning the “unfairness” of it all: that Ray was prosecuted for “an accident” involving clients who gave “adult consent.” (No matter that the Sedona victims were psychologically bullied every step of the way, or that they trusted their spiritual leader to know the limits.) And after all, doesn't everyone deserve a second chance?

But before discussions of second chances looms the larger question of why a guy like Ray was given a first chance. His regimen was always an inspirational trompe l’oeil—anchored in magical-thinking nonsense that seemed to posit a Carrie-like mastery of the physical universe via the mere projection of desires. He and his fellow Secret alumni preached a designer reality: You are what you believe yourself to be. The world is what you believe it is. The kinds of notions that, once upon a time, in a more serious-minded America, got people a prescription for Thorazine.

It would be one thing if it were just harmless silliness, but didn't Sedona prove otherwise? Pre-prison, Ray’s events, like others in the large-format genre, were emotionally claustrophobic affairs in which people's defenses are shredded and subcutaneous feelings are dredged up in the most confrontational of waysall of these stressors amplified in the mass-psychology environment.

The resulting risk of untoward events, up to and including death, should not surprise anyone, given the haphazardly conceived nature of so many of these so-called transformational programs. Consider that in Sedona, in the days immediately prior to the sweat lodge disaster, each participant spent 36 hours alone in the desert sans food or water. Self-help has a long and inglorious tradition of serving up “pathways to change” that have never been vetted for safety or efficacy; and seldom if ever are there qualified medical or mental-health professionals on-board to deal with any unintended consequences. 
Too often, in self-help, the method is the madness.
Still, our culture finds story lines about personal redemption irresistible. We believe steadfastly in reinvention; we root for those who've been kicked in the teeth. But is Ray's comeback really redemption...or something more like recidivism? On his blog of March 1, he writes, “Please remember that passion is the Latin word for suffering. If you choose to become great, you must be willing to suffer for your mastery.” He then writes, "If you haven't found something to give your entire life for, you'll never truly live." Note how closely such sentiments echo his oft-quoted entreaties for his Sedona attendees to “play full on” and “surrender to death.”

James Arthur Ray is building a second career out of the literal ashes of the first. In essence he has turned Sedona into a marketing op, a fresh hook on which to hang his metaphysical hat, complete with a core message about Overcoming that he deems himself uniquely qualified to deliver. Reflecting on the wider lessons of Sedona, he asked his recent audience, “If you never had a bad day, what would a good day be?”

For at least four people who fell under the spell of James Arthur Ray, there will be no more days, good or bad or otherwise. Their only redemption lay in our repudiation of the Pied Piper they followed to their deaths.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Whiplash...a film with neck-snapping implications?

Finally saw Whiplash, becoming the last jazz fan (and erstwhile jazz musician) in America to do so, apparently. Before all else, I must commend the film for its portrayal of true jazz, rather than the dumbed-down, "Starbuckian," Kenny G-inflected version that's (a) maligned in the film and (b) present in too many movies that use jazz, or the jazz world, as a venue or back-story. It's the finest portrayal of the medium and the music since Spike Lee's Mo' Better Blues, and surely is a better primer in jazz than Lee's film, as Whiplash is less about the lifestyle and more about the idiom's technical core. All in all I rate it a brilliant film that easily transcends its minor flaws. 

In particular, aside from the obviousthe disturbingly hypnotic, Oscar-winning performance of J. K. SimmonsI must credit the direction of Damien Chazelle and the cinematography of Sharone Meir for sustaining the film's claustrophobic, OCD intensity scene after scene, rim shot after rim shot. The script is also generally wonderful, though it was a serious blunder to name the [spoiler alert] former student/tragic foil Sean Casey; the name will be a source of unintended humor for those who also happen to be baseball buffs, as it conjures images of the forever-grinning ex-first baseman for the Cincinnati Reds. A terrible fit with the Casey character's purpose in the film and the mood at the moment of his introduction.

He of the omnipresent grin.
(See how the pic of the real Sean Casey colors the feel of this post? That's a little bit how it is in the flick, too, alas.)

As to content: As both a musician and a man, I found the film alternately exhilarating and shattering. To be sure, it raises any number of questions about the nature and costs of success, and those questions force me to revisit, if not necessarily modify, some of my prior thoughts/assumptions.

However, I will concede here for the first timeremember where you read thisthat the ubiquitous mantra NEVER GIVE UP YOUR DREAMS! is indeed an appropriate message for the small handful of people who never should give up their dreams...which is to say, those who are destined to rise to the top of the field in which their dreams are set. We don't want those people giving up along the way. We want them to leap smoothly over every hurdle, to blow off all of the early criticism, to keep forging ahead even in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds. So, yes, we want them to be prodded to continue by those, like Terence Fletcher, in positions of influence. 

Therefore, I can see someone asking, Well, if we don't know who's destined for greatness, shouldn't we cheer on everyone? (Answer: Still no. For the reasons I've amply cited, in my recent New York Daily News piece and too many other places to list, including an entire chapter in SHAM.)

Other questions that occur: 

Does the end justify the means, if the end is greatness?

Will Fletcher's means reliably get a person to the desired end? I.e., is there a method to his sadomasochistic madness?

I'm not sure. How many people who have greatness within them might actually be discouraged from staying the course (if not traumatized forevermore) by a teacher like the bullying, profane, utterly implacable Terence Fletcher? Chazelle anticipates this question and seeks to answer it in the bar scene, late in the movie, where Fletcher states, "If he's the next Charlie Parker he wouldn't be discouraged." But creatives are often sensitive types, not all of whom will be motivated by the chair-hurling, fire-and-brimstone antics of a Terence Fletcher. 

Or let me put that another way: Some of them would be so terrified of the man and his methods that they list their drum kits on eBay the night of the first band class. I know personally of two very talented people, one who gave up music and one who gave up sports, because they simply could not deal with the over-the-top behavior of their teacher and coach, respectively.

Now...here's the rub: But was Fletcher ultimately right? Does the fact that they gave up indicate ipso facto that they didn't have what it takes? Does true greatness require, along with talent and effort, a warrior spirit?

Can we know? Isn't this at the last a little bit like the old question about whether the light in the fridge actually goes off when you close the door? Or the (non-GEICO) tree in the forest? In an unforgiving, brutally competitive realm like jazz, do you need to be able to survive a trial by fire in order to reach the pinnacle, in order to be motivated enough to reach deep inside you and unearth that last, most original grace note? 

Any thoughts? 

OK, I have one final thought. As a man who, in his youth, spent much time in both the band room and the locker room, I wondered why Whiplash's most dominant theme, other than the pursuit of musical genius, was its gay-bashing, which—at least in my experienceis far more typical of locker room than band room. I wonder about this especially in light of the distinct homo-eroticism of the movie's final scene, as Fletcher, now clearly won over, urges Andrew toward the climax of his renegade drum solo. 

Your take?

Thursday, March 05, 2015

Looking behind the headlines...a selection from SHAMblog's "greatest hits."

Although I have trepidations about nominating as a "greatest hit" a post focusing on a suicide in the family of one of my subjects, I think this item transcends such qualms due to its redeeming social value. It's a case where I believe that SHAMblog provides readers with an important missing piece of the puzzle, "the rest of the story," if I may appropriate the late, great Paul Harvey.

And can we stipulate before we start that the art is meant almost in self-parody? Yes, I am waging a battle for truth and justice, but I hardly see myself as Superman; anyone who really knows me and my circumstances would laugh out loud at the mere suggestion. I don't even own a cape. 

So here's my thinking:
1. Cindy Bassett and her former venture, the Midwest Center for Stress & Anxiety, have long been beset by controversy; this was all the more true in the years leading up to the second half of this post, which appeared originally in June 2013. My writing on the Center has generated greater reader interest than any other series in the 10-year history of the blog. Many readers have exhorted me to "keep digging." Some have chosen to recount their own experiences with the Center.

2. Based on feedback directed to me personally as well as discussions that have flared in my comments section and in forums devoted to the Center, it's clear that I exposed a sizable contingent of consumers to new information...which they then used in deciding against a purchase they realized they would have regretted. No, it is not my job to tell people not to patronize self-help gurus. I simply want to equip them with info to which they're entitled as they evaluate self-help's role in their lives and in society. 

3. If it is gauche for me to blog cynically about a family that has been touched by suicide, then is it not at least as gauche for someone to exploit that same tragedy as the theme for the next in a series of consumer products? For while the death of David Bassett was surely a tragedy of unprecedented dimension in Lucinda Bassett's life, the basic pattern we see here was nothing new. From the outset, Cindy used the drama of her own life (some of which may be only "Brian Williams true") as the template for her outreach to vulnerable Americans who felt that she uniquely "spoke to them" because of what she herself had gone through. Without the added context I provide, how many consumers would be predisposed to take Bassett's spiel at face value?

4. Which brings us, finally, to the more general Fairness Question: Steve, how come you only seem to present the ugly side of self-help? This deserves a lengthier explanation, but the skinny is that if you want to see/hear/experience the so-called wonders of self-help and its foundational concepts (e.g. self-esteem), all you need do is turn on almost any morning talk show, go on Facebook, walk into any bookstore, attend any speaking event sponsored by your company (these are often mandatory), etc. Reinforcement of self-helpeven the most predatory kindis ambient and ubiquitous in American culture. I dare say, before SHAM and a small basketful of other books came along in 2005 or so, there was really no serious rebuttal to any of this stuff to be found anywhere; meanwhile, the top gurus were getting a daily/nightly platform from Oprah, Larry King and everyone else. Still today, it's just assumed that this stuff is "the right way to think." So if I'm doggedly contrarian, as in that recent essay for the Daily News, it's with good reason. 

Following is my original post.

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Courtesy of one of our regularswho also happens to have some first-hand knowledge of Lucinda BassettI received today this quote from page 258 of Lucinda/Cindy's new book*, Truth Be Told: A Memoir of Success, Suicide, and Survival.

Though she does not mention me by nameand I hope I'm not being self-aggrandizing in assuming that she's referring to meI have to think her use of the word sham is intentional. Here's the passage, in which she writes of her son's accidental discovery of my blog.

He'd been looking for something on the Internet and found a blog full of speculation and misinformation about how and why his father had killed himself. An aggressive blogger, a guy who apparently likes to write vicious, untrue blogs about people in an attempt to provoke a response, wrote that David committed suicide in our own backyard. Then he said that he killed himself because he knew our product was a sham."
"Mom, get that stuff about Dad off the Internet!"  Sammy shouted through his tears.
A few things. Assuming she's talking about me, she's specifically talking about my post, "A Death in Malibu," current holder of this blog's all-time record for most comments. Note that I do not say that David Bassett killed himself in their "own backyard." I say, in my first line, no less, "This past June 7, 53-year-old David Bassett walked onto a California beach and ended his life with a shotgun." That is not speculation. It is based on information contained in the June 12, 2008 edition of the Malibu Surfside News, and a follow-up conversation with the newspaper's very hands-on publisher, Anne Soble. Ms. Soble had spoken to the coroner. And insofar as whether I correctly identified David's tool of choice, here's a screen shot from Lucinda's own site, devoted to the book**:
While most people who commit suicide use a firearm over every other method combined, solving that problem isn’t as simple as removing guns from the home. That’s what we did for David and he was still able to get a hold of a shotgun.
So I had the general location right, and I had the gun right. ... Where's the misinformation?

And now we have my supposed contention that David killed himself "because he knew our product was a sham." Sigh. I did not say anything of the kind, and there was no "speculation" to that effect. I simply noted the irony: One would expect people hawking a foolproof method for beating anxiety and depression (as per the tenor of their own advertising) to be able to use that proprietary methodology to beat their personal demons. But faithful readers will know that I have recently rethought that whole proposition and revised my emphasis. See this post.

In closing, I choose to think that Cindy Bassett is talking about me. I also choose to think that her coloring of what I said epitomizes her general disregard for truth, and her inclination to rewrite history in whatever way suits her needs of the moment. The individual who sent me this tip knows Cindy very well, and contends that her book is full of such rewritten history. So even if she's not writing about me here, I suspect there's a good deal of convenient untruth in Truth Be Told..

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* New then, which was June 2013.
** That site has undergone considerable modification since then.