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.'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.


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..

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

Sunday, March 01, 2015

There are no Mulligans in life. On delayed gratification and other contemporary sins.

It's because of deceptively appealing sentiments like those depicted at left that I consider SHAMblog to be of such importance. (Saw it this morning on one of those "self-esteem-building" sites that proliferate on Facebook.) In our broad culture these days, there is very little counterbalance to this type of "inspiration." For all its frothy panache, Komiser's notion contributes to the ruination of the minds of the young people to whom it is endlessly sung: this mantra that you're supposed to be happy and fulfilled and "following your dreams" at all times... Uh, until one day you wake up and realize that you pissed away all those formative years when you should've been building something, preparing for something. You should've been laying a foundation for stability and security and true happiness, which is more about peace of mind and less about fun...and suddenly you're 25 or 45 or 65—as I am today, in fact. And it's too late to go back for a "do-over."

Today's abiding Happyism stands in stark opposition to the ethic with which our parents' generations, and their parents' generation, came of age. Back then the emphasis was on planning, on impulse control, on the components of what we used to call "common sense" or "being practical." Being a mature adult. (Now we scorn such imperatives.) Back then we understood, and raised our kids to understand, that sometimes (if not often) gratification must be delayed, because if you don't approach life with that mindset, you may end up living a life totally devoid of gratification. Irony of ironies.

"Arguably the greatest unintended consequence of all is that if you spend most of your time chasing happiness, you risk finding little of it."
We don't need to encourage our kids to be fanciful or hedonistic, because the selfish desire for gratification is the instinctive one, the one that must be socialized out of us (to some degree) if we are to be productive, congenial members of a functioning society. 

Alas, we react angrily to common sense nowadays. Telling a kid that an idea is "impractical" is made out to be tantamount to child abuse. Or God forbid you publicly dismiss your son or daughter as "a Dreamer." Because, after all, they're supposed to be Dreamers!!

But why belabor the point. Instead I'll give you some selected readings* on the topic (all of which I confess to producing), should you care to go further. 

"The Happiness Myth," from the Wall Street Journal, December 2007.
"Happy Talk," from the Wall Street Journal, October 2008. 
"Positively Misguided," from Skeptic, April 2009. 
"Please, Give Up Your Dreams," from the New York Daily News, February 2015.

* Depending on your browser you may or may not have to register/pay for some of these sites. I've never been able to figure out how the algorithm works. Even on my own home computers, the first story above sometimes opens with no problems, and sometimes asks me to register. 

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Guest post on the good, the bad and the ugly.

Received an email the other day from a gentleman who wanted to know my main gripe about self-help and its resident gurus. When I replied, more or less, "I sorta wrote a book about it," he replied with what follows. 

I publish this with his permission. He has asked to be identified simply as "Anonymous."

You raise important points; often people in desperation cling to anything that can give them hope, no matter how faint and costly. This is a field wide open to charlatans and schemers, and it has always been the case.
It was against the samurai code to exploit other people's misfortunes. We have no such codes today.
My question though is more like, by being so critical, are we not throwing the baby out with the bathwater?
If I may, let me state what is bad and good with self-help, using some examples close to home:
[Ed note: I wrote a deceptive headline. He omits the "ugly."]
A friend of a very good friend of mine (a Hungarian lady, very pleasant on the eye) attended a Tony Robbins conference. She was so excited she wanted to take the next step. And what was it? She signed up for €100,000 worth of training, with 10% paid upfront. When she realized what she had done, there was no turning back. She was on the hook. What they said is that she would find a way to get over this. And eventually she did, by raising funds from three wealthy Hungarians. She now works for their institution.
I'm sure all of the schemers have similar programs. People should realize that to change and improve their lives it takes a lot of introspection and hard work. Most of us are just not up to it. But that does not stop the huge marketing machine of TV and publishes to foist these programs on unsuspecting people. And that's really bad, with the consequences you very rightly outlined.
In fairness, I'll use Tony Robbins here again. A former colleague attended his conference in the early 2000s. He said it changed his life by giving focus. He is now a very wealthy guy, after starting a few businesses that worked out spectacularly after that. Was it thanks to Tony? Who knows...but it helped in his case. [ED NOTE: If we don't know if it was "thanks to Tony," how do we know it "helped in his case"?]
And Tony counts among his clients some very bright and intelligent people like Paul Tudor Jones, Andre Agassi and others who credit him with getting their lives back on track. I certainly think there is a lot of merit in interviewing the brightest people who have "made it," spot the commonalities and see if they can be replicated. This is the crux of Tony's latest book, which, coming from the financial world, I can say that it makes a lot of sense (including going after the mutual fund industry).
Moreover, science is now backing some of these self-help claims. Like how your subconscious influences many of our actions [ED NOTE: Just "many"? I would argue that we never know consciously why we do anything; nor do we have any choice in doing it], the importance of having goals and so forth. There are a couple of decent "self-help" writers that I would recommend, such as Eric Barker and James Clear. They put their stuff out for free, and try it on themselves as they go along.
And perhaps this is the crucial differentiator: whose interests do you have in mind when you peddle out self-help advice? Certainly charging thousands for it seems like a scam, but there are some good honest people out there.
That said, I think we should all learn to go through life on our own, without having gurus or parents or others telling us what we should do. That's the only way we can be free. But I do cherish the advice of many sage people I have met along the way - unfortunately my gut is not all that reliable!*
* In a prior exchange, I had suggested to Anonymous  that he would "know in his gut" if he were in the presence of a scammer. On further reflection, what he says is likely true for many of us: Our guts are not that reliable. If they were, we wouldn't have so many successful con men and Ponzi schemes, so many bad marriages, so many cancerous guts, etc.