It’s starting to look like the self-help and wellness industry is facing a reckoning.
Netflix has taken on GOOP and hot yoga with “Unwell” and “Bikram: Yogi, Guru, Predator.” Over on HBO, a show called “The Vow” is doing a deep dive into NXIVM, an Albany sex cult that started off as a multi-level self-help scheme that peddled a mash-up of Scientology, neuro linguistic programming and Tony Robbins-style life coaching sessions.
Add to this countless newspaper, books, magazine articles and podcasts, such as this summer’s “Guru: The Dark Side of Enlightenment,” an eight-part podcast about James Arthur Ray, a motivational speaker who was convicted of three counts of negligent homicide in 2011. Two years prior, three people had died of heat stroke in Sedona, AZ, in a makeshift “sweat lodge” at one of Ray’s “Spirit Warrior” retreats.
One of these three victims was Kirby Brown, a 38-year-old artist and entrepreneur with an infectious love for life, friendship and outdoor adventure, who’d been hoping to achieve a breakthrough in her professional life with Ray’s five-day retreat. Instead, after four days of sleep deprivation and exercises that left her dehydrated, she and roughly 60 people were subjected to a heat endurance exercise. Ray stood at the exit and taunted people who tried to leave because they were suffering. Two, Brown and James Shore, died in the tent. Eighteen others were sent to the hospital with a range of conditions including burns and kidney failure and one from that group, Liz Neuman, died nine days later.
Even though Ray was held accountable for his actions (assuming you think two years in prison can be called accountable), Kirby Brown’s mother and youngest sister, Ginny and Jean Brown, respectively, got working on trying to prevent people like him from peddling fraudulent programs and endangering other self-help seekers. Not only did they write about their experience in “This Sweet Life: How We Lived After Kirby Died,” they also launched a non-profit initiative, SEEK Safely, which could be an important part of reforming an industry that is in desperate need of reform.
I spoke with both by conference call last week to ask them why they felt they had to take action.
“We learned that there’s danger in this industry that we did not know about before Kirby’s death and we had a responsibility to warn others,” said Ginny. “Not to discourage people from seeking, because that’s part of our human thirst to seek and to grow and become more, but we need to pay greater attention to the people within this milieu that really are not credible and are potentially very dangerous.”
While you might think the family would react by turning against the self-help industry entirely, Ginny, herself a therapist, is sympathetic to the seekers and the real, qualified healers. The issue is how to sort out the fraudsters and hucksters from actual experts in a wide-ranging industry with no real oversight or accreditation, beginning with a useful list of red flags on their website.
“I think one of the things to look out for is if a speaker says ‘There’s one solution to all your problems and I have it,’” says Ginny. “That’s a huge red flag because, even if that person is saying things that can be helpful, when that person is saying, ‘I hold the truth, I hold the answers and, if you follow what I’m teaching, everything is going to be fine’…well, that’s just not true. No one person has all the answers.”
Jean Brown, who lives in Toronto, added that one of the top things to look for is teachers straying from their lane. “If you have somebody whose focus is really fitness but they start calling people up on stage to talk about their past trauma…well, a fitness instructor shouldn’t be giving people mental health advice. They just don’t have that expertise.”
Ray would have triggered a lot more warning signs if the Browns’ list had been available 20 years ago, when this junior college dropout/telemarketer started giving seminars about the “Law of Attraction,” which holds that good things—including good physical health—will come to people with positive energy and thoughts and vice versa. Aside from the fact that this “quantum flap-doodle” (we’re quoting physicist Murray Gell-Mann—possibly my new favourite human) is nonsense, it’s also profoundly offensive and potentially damaging to followers who could now blame poor health on their negative thought patterns instead of, say, poverty, lack of access to health care, genetics, bacteria or viruses.
Despite these obvious problems, Oprah, the kingmaker, had Ray on her show. Twice.
And, no, she’s never apologized for her role in promoting Ray, even though he also had a record of incidents that put his followers at risk, including a heat stroke incident that hospitalized a man in 2005 at an earlier “sweat lodge” event. “Sweat lodge” here is in quotes because the Lakota people indigenous to the U.S. southwest, have repeatedly pointed out that Ray had no training in actual sweat lodge ceremonies and that his version of it was entirely invented and bore no resemblance to the sacred ceremony practised by Lakota tribes. They also had a thing or two to say about cultural appropriation.
Ray wasn’t open about his lack of qualifications or his history of failing to keep his followers safe. The Browns think that self-help consumers should have a “bill of rights” that promises transparency, honesty, accuracy and safety from gurus and have invited 167 people in the self-help industry (including Dr. Phil, Tony Robbins and Oprah) to sign a pledge offering these things. None of those three have accepted the invitation. The good news is 156 others have. I’d seek help from them, instead.
So, are we looking at a reckoning in this multi-billion dollar field, replete with everything from qualified practitioners to ruthless frauds? Can the Wild West of wellness and self-help be tamed?
“Maybe we’ve reached a tipping point, where this industry is worth so much money and so many of these ideas have gone mainstream that it’s being opened up to more scrutiny,” says Jean Brown. “But it’s also just grown so much and might have gotten so big that it’s hard to regulate or bring about any real change into the industry.”
We can only hope it’s not too late. For the sake of all the future potential victims of people like James Arthur Ray. Who, by the way, published a new book in 2018, and is still trying to make a comeback.
And no, he hasn’t signed the pledge, either.