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It was March 2009. And in a big chain hotel in New Jersey, a crowd milled around waiting. Once the doors opened, everyone headed for the same place. It was a large auditorium with a big stage in front.
The event was called the Harmonic Wealth Weekend, a rigorous two day seminar that promised to get participants on the fast track to personal and professional success. It wasn't the kind of thing Jeannie Brown was normally into, but her daughter Kirby had insisted that they go together as they walked in. She had to admit the atmosphere was exciting and they had to walk through a gauntlet. I will say cheerleaders who were jumping up and down, revving up the energy in the room.
And I remember saying to men, women and men, you girls really had your coffee this morning. And she said to me, oh, we don't drink coffee. Like, that's poison. Oh, okay. Well, I do. I love it. As everyone took their seats. The lights dimmed. James Arthur Ray stepped onto the stage and began a version of a speech he often gave.
Let's talk about what's changing right now in your world. You see, I firmly believe that you live in the most exciting time in our world history. It's a time where science and spirituality are realizing that their sister studies.
James was tanned with a bright white smile, wearing a bright white shirt.
Pretty trim, athletic build, fairly good looking.
Just can't get going in the morning with my coffee. Give me a frickin break. Total command of the audience.
People laughed. They nodding their heads like. Yeah, you know that higher energy kind of environment is just kind of fun. You you want to be part of it. You want to belong.
You don't want to stand down and be kind of against what's going on. Because James Ray was a star.
Law of Attraction says like attracts like. And as you lock your attention upon that, then another particle which is in harmony with it is attracted. Another is attracted. Another.
You've got a Mercedes onstage. He talked about reflecting on yourself and your position in life. Then he began to pull audience members onto the stage and ask them questions.
And I like to have for two volunteers to help me out here. I need a couple of volunteers, OK? Both come on him. Give him a hand.
Give a hand as they come up first. Jenny was impressed. I was fascinated by his ability to really read someone. You know, he read people really well.
But as she watched, something began to nag at her.
There were a couple of times where he brought people up on the stage and had them reveal very deep, personal, troubling things in their life.
Ginny is a clinical social worker. And I sat there thinking, you know, as a trained therapist, those are the kinds of questions that I would ask if someone was sitting in my office, not in front of hundreds of people. I was both fascinated and uncomfortable.
She turned to her daughter, Kirby, who was mesmerized, just said, you know, that's you know, that's that's really not such a great thing to do.
But Kirby was focused on James Kirby was in her late thirties and had bounced around careers and relationships. She wanted more success and stability in her life. Ginny knew that Kirby had been doing her own soul searching and that James's teachings had already helped.
And she was going to stay there to get the most out of the experience, whether she believed everything or not. But neither of us ever thought he was dangerous. Later that year, after attending another James Ray event with her father, Kirby Brown would get in her car and drive to Sedona, Arizona, for a five day intensive retreat with James called Spiritual Warrior. For James, his followers, it was the pinnacle event of their journey. And Kirby spent her life savings nearly ten thousand dollars to be there.
The retreat started on October 4th, 2009. Five days later, Jenny was at home in upstate New York. Around eight a.m., the doorbell rang. At age 15, the trooper comes to the door and asks me if I know Kirby Brown. My first thought was, oh, my God, is she in some kind of trouble? But it was more than trouble. Ginny would never see her daughter again. We are pleased to have simply safe as our presenting sponsor.
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The first time I met James Arthur Ray, I was at one of his events. I was in Phoenix working on a story about him. I was fascinated by how James had managed to evolve from a small time corporate motivational speaker to a self-help celebrity who filled ballrooms with people who'd paid thousands of dollars to be there. The event I attended was in suburban Phoenix. And just like Ginny Brown and her daughter Kirby, I was impressed by how polished and confident James seemed onstage about midway through the event.
He came over to me. He was shorter than I expected, but muscular. He shook my hand firmly.
How are you enjoying the day so far? I'm enjoying it. Yeah, well, yeah. Oh, good.
I'm glad he had a big smile when he spoke. He looked me straight in the eye and he was charming.
Well, I appreciate being here. We all want to see our lives get better. We all struggle with our relationships, our careers, our finances. And when things go wrong, we look for help, for answers. This is a six part series about the search for those answers and where it led the SEEKERS'. This is episode one, Spiritual Warriors. The search for answers is what led Laura Tucker to James Arthur Ray for a long time. Laura had been unhappy.
She ran her own business working with car dealerships in Canada. And she'd always prided herself on being a high performer, professional, collected, competent on the personal side. Though things weren't as bright and shiny as business had been, I was struggling with what I guess you could call an diagnosed depression. Laura had moved across the country for work and she didn't have any family or friends in her new city. She wasn't happy with her love life either.
I still had some designs on having my own family. I was dating like one bad guy after another.
Whatever she was doing, it wasn't working.
Doing the same thing over and over again with the same frustrating, insulting result just wasn't leading me to have the type of life that I saw for myself. It was around this time that she heard about James Ray. He'd made his name in the film sensation The Secret. His charisma and charm leapt off the screen. He promised viewers that he could help them find happiness, money and love.
You will learn more about yourself than you could ever imagine. We get into your beliefs and the things that have limited you and where they've come from and how to release those and break through your barriers.
Brandy Amstell, then in her mid 30s, heard James's pitch to.
So the promise was get rid of the black bags that are holding you back in your life. The things that are buried so deep that you don't even know they exist. Brandy is something of a free spirit. She has colored streaks and her long blonde hair, and she loves to express herself through art. She's been a painter and a sculptor, and in 2008, she'd been trying to launch herself as a filmmaker. But like Laura, she felt as though her life just wasn't going the way she wanted.
And James sounded like someone who could help her. You see, I am so totally committed to not just giving you an event, but it giving you a transforming life experience. And that's what you deserve. Listening to these words at this point in my life, what new insights will happen? You'll begin to feel like a load is lifted off your shoulder.
I guarantee you talk to some of the people in the room who have been there and it was extremely swade to get you to want to be 100 percent in at the time.
James was travelling the country holding events like the one Ginny and Kirby Brown went to. But there were also chances to go deeper, to spend more time with him. Those events were a ladder from harmonic wealth to quantum leap, to creating absolute wealth to modern magic and to practical mysticism. At the top of the ladder was Spiritual Warrior. As Brandy climbed a letter, she heard those who had already been there rave about it. It's by far the best of all the programs.
It's like mind blowing. The pamphlet for the event was short on specifics. On one side were photos of Sedona striking desert landscape on the other.
A list of things to pack eight little swatches of fabric, one inch by one inch. And then you had to bring like lip balm and, you know, those kinds of things like personal care items and a swimsuit or shorts trunks. But other than that, no one would really tell her much about the event itself, except that she had to go. There's this secrecy of nobody wanted to spoil the event and really know what was going on. And so there was a little bit of anxiety about, oh, my gosh, what's going to happen?
What's going to happen there? In October 2009, Brandee flew into Phoenix, met up with some friends, then drove north to Sedona. They passed huge red rock formations on the horizon, majestic Butte's crimson canyons that seemed to stretch into oblivion. It's like this magical place that can be so amazing. It was like so divine.
After about two hours, they turned off the main highway and then we drive up on this dirt road and it's dirt flying everywhere. And I'm like, OK, it's not what I anticipated.
Previous James Ray events she'd attended had felt fancy resorts. Destination tourism. Five star hotels. These were places that suited the successful person. She wanted to be. She had paid over fifty thousand dollars for that lifestyle and ten thousand dollars just for spiritual warrior. But instead of a resort, here was a cluster of log cabins. When she arrived, Brandi was shown to her teepee, a meager tent covered in green canvas that would serve as her home for the event.
Nearby, Laura Tucker was settling into her teepee.
It's a rustic, beautiful, but rustic is very much like going to Camp two grown up camp.
Laura figured it would be like the other James Ray events that she'd attended. Fun, high energy affirming. And it was very, very different. Right. Right from the echo. That first day, James called everyone into a large cabin that would serve as their main meeting place for the week. He was wearing a business casual outfit, a white button down shirt tucked in with the sleeves rolled up, khakis, brown loafers. There were long tables with enough room for about 60 people to eat chat.
Laura thought they were there to hang out, to get to know each other, get ready for the next day.
The next thing I know, somebody is pulling out a shaver and saying, OK, it's time to shave your heads. A woman stood holding a set of hair clippers. Everyone turned toward her. The room was quiet for a few moments. Then another woman with thick, long, black hair stood up from one of the long tables behind Laura. She bounded over to the chair and sat down.
Strips of black locks fell to the floor, one after another. When the woman stood up again and faced the room, she was totally bald. Everyone cheered and clapped. The woman beamed as she fast walked past Laura back to her table.
That immediately threw me off balance and not in a way that I appreciated. Laura began moving farther and farther to the side of the cabin, trying to stay out of sight. One by one, attendees volunteered to sit in the chair to shave their heads. One of the men who I hadn't met before saw me hanging to the side and took the shaver or one of the chambers and came walking up to me and said, OK, it's time. Everyone, including James, was cheering her on.
I wasn't having anything to do with it at that point. This wasn't with Laura I had expected. She got out of there fast. James had told them to bring a journal to write down their thoughts and feelings over the week. So she pulled it out of her bag. You know, from the first most superficial level of if you don't want to shave your head, you're hung up on your appearance. I was having a struggle with feeling like I wasn't playing full of.
Play full on. This was a key slogan of James Ray's teachings. One hand, I didn't want to shave my head. And on the other hand, I wasn't playing full on. And that set up a huge conflict. She kept writing. I was writing in my journals about why is it that I was so hard on myself and writing?
I was so unforgiving of myself. I let people walk all over me and my personal life. This whole pattern of hiding and concealing myself. It was kind of convoluted, but it was around appearance. James's teachings were based around making breakthroughs, achieving moments of epiphany about one's life, where it was headed and what was blocking success, whatever that might mean. This event was about digging deep into your black bags, a metaphor for old wounds and invisible barriers to progress and happiness.
I was going in to my inner world exploring all of these black bags, but she kept hitting roadblocks. She felt like the answers were beyond her.
Like, I just wasn't getting there. And I finally said to him, obviously, I don't see it. If you're so smart, why don't you tell me? And he just looked at me. He says, You think you're unlovable. Why don't you go in and write about that? This time, as Laura wrote and reflected, something began to shift. Why would I date unsuitable men? Because I didn't think I deserved more.
Why would I stay in a business that I had long fallen out of love with? Well, because I didn't think I deserve more. It was like everything became clear. She knew she wanted to try new things to take risks. It would be worth it if she could be happier, more successful. It finally got to the point where all the dots connected for me and it became clear that I was hiding behind my parents. The Clippers were really loud when they turn them on.
And I close my eyes waiting to feel it, touch my head. And just before that happened, I opened up my eyes and I saw that somebody was poised with a camera to take pictures of me having my head shaved. And I absolutely lost it and said, there is no pictures of this. This is not for you.
The shaver went over my head and it was vibrating and strong. The next thing I saw when I did dare to open my eyes was my hair on the ground around me and a whole bunch of people just looking at me with their eyes wide open. And, you know, with smiles on their faces, I remember just feeling a sense of relief that it was over. It must have been adrenaline. This was it, a breakthrough. This was what Laura had been looking for when she signed up.
And to me, that's the whole point of doing this type of inner work. It's not the glamour or the fame or the fun or the stages or certainly it's you meet cool people. But at the end of the day, if you're looking to go on this kind of a journey like I was, I wanted to get to the heart of the matter because I wanted to feel better.
But she didn't get to savor that breakthrough for long. The surprises of the Spiritual Warrior retreat were just beginning. James told Laura. And the other is to come to the main cabin.
Once they were all assembled, James entered and he's dressed in a long, white flowing robe that's tied at the waist. He walked to the center of the room, raised a megaphone to his mouth and said. You know, that moment when you reach for your phone, you look at the screen and then you realize you have no idea why you picked up your phone in the first place. I'm really trying to avoid the mindless scrolling we're all prone to.
So lately when I find myself picking up my phone, I play a few levels of best beans. Best Beans is a unique and exciting puzzle experience. Unlike other puzzle games out there, mostly because it feels like an adventure. You're playing strategically with these bugs. They're the fiends from the title who are battling against slugs. And you play matching games to unlock more creatures and rewards. It sounds complicated, but it's actually pretty simple to learn at every level you play.
The rules change a little and it gets a bit more challenging. So you do have to learn and adapt. For me, it's addictive in the best way. Best Beans is colorful and fun. Engage your brain with fun puzzles and collect tons of cute characters. Trust me, with over 100 million downloads. This five star rated mobile puzzle game is a must play. Download breastfeeds free on the Apple App Store or Google Play. That's friends without the R best viens.
Hi, I'm Rufus Griscom, the host of Wonderings Show. The next big idea where we bring you ideas that might just change the way you see the world, does it sometimes seem like you spend your days putting out little fires, solving an endless series of annoying problems? That's just life, right? Nothing you can do. But what if you could solve your problems before they become problems? That's the big idea I'm talking about this week with Dan Heath, best selling author of the new book Upstream.
Subscribe to the next big idea and other great wonder. He shows on Apple podcast, Spotify, the Wonder App or wherever you're listening right now. After James Ray introduced himself as God, he divided the room into two groups.
He told them they were about to play something called the samurai game. The game was common at corporate retreats as a team building exercise. Normally, groups would be divided up and given challenges. But James put his own spin on it to start with. No one was allowed to speak in silence. James made them all perform small, competitive tasks like balancing an egg on a spoon and racing from one spot to another. James was God, and no one was allowed to talk to God because doing so had consequences.
But at one point, Laura Tucker went up to him and I asked James a bunch of questions at a time when nobody was supposed to be asking him any questions. He looked at me as I was standing there earnestly asking him a million questions because that's what I would do. And then he just shook his head and went die.
And I looked at him. I was like. Fuck. Vlora dropped to the floor. The rules said that if God killed you, you had to lay on the floor for the rest of the game. And it wasn't a short game.
I could hear people moving around, stepping over me. Some were kind of giggling. Some were like, you know, poor Laura. Minutes passed, then hours. And I don't think I'd quite worked out at that point that being out of the game meant that I was going to miss dinner. So I was lying on the ground and hearing people leaving the room to go to the dining hall.
Brandi, Amstell, the filmmaker, was there, too.
So it was a very strange dynamic where you might have wanted to say something, but then you didn't because you saw the repercussion of it.
Brandi watched Laura and others drop to the floor. She followed the rules and remained silent. At first she thought she was doing well, winning. But after a while, I started to wonder when the game would end. I saw people freezing on the floor like so-called not doing well. We were all in silence, so we couldn't say, well, what about the people that are dead?
The game dragged into the night. It became harder for people to stay quiet. James stood up on a podium to get a better view of the handful of people who remained standing. He told us that we were so worried about dying that we forgot to live. But we all had to kill ourselves.
James instructed them to pull out imaginary swords from their belts. Then he told them to mime, slicing their own throats. We couldn't talk about it. We couldn't work it out. We couldn't ask questions. We could nothing, though. We didn't die by God's hands, per say. But we did end up having to commit hara kiri.
The game was over. It had been about five hours. When Laura Rose. She was a stiff as a board. She stretched her sore muscles and looked around confused.
I had no idea where my stuff was. I didn't know where my bag was at in waterwise. So I do remember running around in quite a panic. Next, James led them all into the desert.
So we all go out and where we had dropped off these different locations throughout the desert. It's nighttime like so dark. It's midnight after midnight and we're walking through pastures on these Little Rock trails. Brandi said, so did Laura. I don't think there were assigned spots for people, but we were told, okay, you stay here, you stay here, you stay here. And the idea was that we were to spend the night on our own. I wasn't totally alone, but I really couldn't.
I couldn't have a conversation. I could have heard them scream if they screamed like they were close enough for that. We were to draw a circle around her. Our space was supposed to collect rocks, put them in a circle, close the gate. This whole ritual. And and that was to be our, I guess, sacred space or our physical space that we were to inhabit for that overnight. James called this their vision quest. They would meditate and journal by themselves in the scorching sun of the day and in the cold, dry night to really focus their minds.
There would be no distractions, not even food or water. Laura still remembers how she felt.
I was nervous, but it was also really excited to feel to do this because this is not probably something that I would do on my own. So all the way leading up to this event, I was like, oh my God, I am not getting anything. I am. I don't know what these black bags are. I haven't found any black bags. I'm just here doing stupid stuff and like, when am I going to get it? I do remember during the night there was some animal that did come and there were the sound of this.
There were hooves on the ground. And there there was some kind of a tussle. And I have no sense of how close it was. But I was terrified and making myself very small in my sleeping bag and just like praying that whatever it was, it would be satisfying enough to whatever it was, taking it out. I actually found the exercise to be extraordinary. I loved it. Finally, finally, I get to be in nature by myself and actually have a conversation that can make a difference.
Myself and finally, between me, the ants and like the CIO. I could hear CIO thin like the stars and the moon. I loved it. It was just a simple night out under the stars. And I felt such relief and joy. I finally felt peace when the vision quest ended.
They had been out in the desert going through their black bags for 36 hours straight.
It was early in the morning as they made their way back to the dining room.
Brandy was tired and extremely thirsty, but she was barely going to have a break before the most intense part of the retreat. Yeah. I'm Lindsey Graham, host of Wanderers Show American Scandal. We bring to life some of the biggest controversies in U.S. history presidential lies, environmental disasters, corporate fraud. In our new series. We head back to the 1990s when Big Tobacco faced a day of reckoning. Whistleblowers came forward and exposed countless lies about cigarettes, addiction and cancer.
But the tobacco industry fought back and soon found itself at the center of a legal battle that would change history. Subscribe to American scandal on Apple podcasts. Spotify or listen ad free in the Wonder Yapp. By now, you've been introduced to James Arthur Ray, whose methods pushed some to their limits, giving them the transformative experience they dreamed of and killing others. What was the fallout of the Spiritual Warrior retreat? What happened to the victims and to James Arthur Ray?
To find out right now, binge. All six episodes add free by starting your 30 day free trial of wondering plus in the new Wonder app. Download the app today. By now, everyone was starving. Some of the attendees hadn't eaten, drank or slept since before the samurai game on Tuesday. Now, after the 36 hour vision quest, it was Thursday morning and Brandy was so thirsty.
At breakfast, I need something with moisture, hydration. Some people didn't even do that. They were kind of feeling noxious from their, like, adventure out in the desert. And so they didn't eat and they didn't drink water.
Everyone had to head over to the main cabin. Brandy grabbed a water bottle on her way out. When she arrived, she settled into her seat and slowly scanned the room.
Not all the team was there. There were people gone. Not like not everybody was there after the vision quest.
Two participants had decided to pack up their stuff and leave right after the samurai came. But no one from James staff said anything about it. Wonder where those girls are.
Did they get eaten by the mountain lion? Like, really? Where are they? What happened?
That's when James Ray walked in. He congratulated everyone for making it this far. And Spiritual Warrior hearing from him gave Brandy some relief.
He finally breaks his silence. And we can start to debrief and talk about it.
Laura Tucker asked if anyone else had heard animals during the Vision Quest.
It was probably the first time that I had seen James since he killed me. We literally just looked at each other and, you know, started to laugh.
Brandy wasn't ready to share, but she eagerly listened to everyone's aha moments. One particular person stood out to her. Kirby Brown. She was the woman who had attended the harmonic wealth seminar with her mom, Ginny. Since then, she'd gone to more events. Spiritual Warrior was her third.
I found some rain. Rain go away, come again another day. And there was the rainbow. That was great.
But Kirby had an artistic bent and loved to travel. She was boisterous and fun, always the life of the party.
When we started the game, I was like, you know, I'm a hero, you know? And then I died so quickly. Right there. And before then, I overheated and I puke. And I fell down underneath that pillow. And there are I don't even like it. I realized that at this point, you know, that was incredible.
I just was like, wow. So imagine going from that place, having been dead for hours and hours and then straight out into the wilderness. Get dinner. So here she is finally getting to break her silence and say some stuff. I was it was really moving.
James sat on an elevated chair and announced we're not going to have lunch at that point. He tells us, oh, you better go drink some water because you're about to go in a sweat lodge and it's better if you're hydrated. Really? What James had been overseeing exercises that he called sweat lodges since at least 2003. His employees and people who'd been following him for years knew that these were harsh, challenging events. But in his speech, James called them sacred.
Sure, a good opportunity to once again partake in a tradition, a sacred ceremony and a practice that is as old as time. So a death and rebirth experience is the experience that I promise you my will be one of most difficult things you've ever done with me, if not in your entire life. If you choose to apply for law, which challenges you do, it will be the most intense experience most kids ever experience in your entire life. I guarantee that you will feel as if you're going to die.
I guarantee you that.
Brandy had heard of sweat lodges before, but had never seen one in real life. James described it as a rounded structure covered with tarps. He ducked his head to show them just how low it was. He told everyone they'd have to squat down and curl in.
The first is down here preparing our grandfather, not just feet. Now he is prayed over those stones. He's holding sacred space over those stones. He said intentions were a great experience for you over the Stones.
I'd start the fire at two, three hours before the sweat lodge and then keep piling wood on it and just make sure the rocks are good and hot and ready to go.
When they were ready for a while, James prepped the attendees. Ted Mercer was near the tent. A thin, bald man, James had made Ted the fire keeper. It was his job to heat up the rocks and make sure the tent stayed hot. When James and the participants arrived, he added more wood to the fire. And then he introduces me. And, you know, he asked me, how's the fire going? And I said it was the hottest fire we've ever had, you know, and they were all getting all excited about it and everything.
Ted's wife, Deborah Mercer, was also there to help with the ceremony.
I kind of felt responsible. I felt like I knew it was going to happen and I should be there to help the people. Basically, I knew there was more people and it was hotter and it was longer. But with James Ray, I expected extreme as Ted tended the fire.
James led his followers to the tent for one final exercise.
When you're going into the lodge symbolically, you're going back into the world. You're going into the world of Mother Earth. And symbolically, what you're going to do is to die, die. Symbolically, no one sitting in that room could possibly have anticipated what would happen inside the sweat lodge. On this season of Guru, because I can help you, but you have to be willing, you have to be willing to do what most people won't do.
I didn't understand or know what had happened. I didn't know if this was like some kind of cold or a mass suicide or what. I could see women walking around with shaved heads walking around almost like zombies. I don't think I remotely even understood that life was being lost. I don't remember hearing him say, I'm sorry. I was, like, numb.
I'm not this body. I have a body. I know my limitations and lack. I'm more than that. And there were some pretty heated arguments about whether or not this was a crime. From one to three, this is Episode one of six of Guru, a story about the dangers and the dark side of enlightenment. All six episodes are available on one read plus and on the Wonder app if you want to help us spread the word.
Please give us a five star rating in a review on Apple podcasts and be sure to tell your friends. Subscribe on Apple podcasts, Spotify, the Wonder App or wherever you're listening right now. Join Wonder E-Plus in the Wonder Re app to listen ad free for more detail on James Arthur Ray and the scandal that shocked the self-help industry. Check out the podcast Real Crime Profile. As professional criminal profilers and analysts, they break down the criminal behavior of James Arthur Ray to figure out what he was thinking and why he did what he did in these pivotal moments.
You can find real crime profile on Apple podcasts, Spotify or add free on the Wonder app. This episode was written and reported by me. Matt Stroud, associate producer, is a SEAL keeping story. Ed, is Casey Miner Sound designed by Jeff Schmidt. Fact checking by Sarah Maclure. Producer is Alex Blonsky, managing producer is Latha Pandya. And executive producers are Jorge Lavender, Marshall Lui and Hernan Lopez for wondering.