An Open Letter to Oprah, Regarding Your Silence on James Ray

Dear Oprah,

In 2006, you questioned James Frey, author of A Million Little Pieces, to find out the truth. You had promoted his book, and after the allegations mounted against the veracity of Frey’s supposed “memoir,” you wanted answers.

However, it’s not James Frey that I want to talk about, but another book and author you heavily promoted, The Secret and its contributor James Ray.

Twice you welcomed James Ray onto your show, extolling the virtues of The Secret and its psuedo-science philosophy, the “Law of Attraction,” as life-changing. You helped catapult Ray into fame–he would go on to appear on The Today Show, Larry King Live, and others. His company, James Ray International, became a Fortune 500 company.

But, like James Frey, James Ray was a liar. He misrepresented his experiences, he lied about his background, and he embellished aspects of his personal story.

And more significantly, James Ray would prove to be deadly. To date, 4 people have died at his events, one from an apparent suicide during an event, and the other 3 from heat stroke in his version of a “sweat lodge.”

Yet after these deaths in 2009, other than quickly distancing yourself from the man, you said nothing. Nothing. You made no substantive comment on what had happened, you did not reach out to the families of victims, you did not even mention the tragedy on one of your many platforms.

James Ray was ultimately convicted of 3 counts of negligent homicide and served time in Arizona state prison.

You still said nothing.

* * *

You helped make this sham of a man what he was. In fact, it was after seeing him on your show that my sister, Kirby Brown, read “The Secret” and became a fan of James Ray. I remember, when we were together for my wedding at my parents’ house in July 2009–3 months before she’d die of heat stroke in a plastic tent in Arizona–I remember Kirby telling me that I had to read this book, that it was amazing, that James Ray was amazing, that he’d been on Oprah, that she was looking forward to the Ray event she’d be attending a few months later… That’s right. She mentioned YOU by name.

Why am I getting on this, nearly five years later?

James Ray is out of prison and has quickly jumped right back into the self-help world. He is positioning himself as a man who has seen the greatest heights, and then fallen to the greatest lows, and is now climbing his way back up. He is telling/selling the story of how life has been so hard on him, and how these challenges are what make him the man who can help others. He is selling this story of a tragedy that happened to HIM, just like days after the deaths when he called our house and told my mother that this was the worst thing that had happened to HIM and he was sorry that it had happened.

But it does not appear that he has learned anything. He talks of the deaths of my sister and the other victims in Sedona as an “accident,” saying nothing of his role in what transpired. It’s the same tack he took right after the incident, passing blame to others, or worse, trying to spin the deaths as something that was meant to happen, something that the victims brought upon themselves.

* * *

In response to our horrific loss, my family has created a non-profit organization, SEEK Safely, dedicated to protecting people who are looking to the self-help industry to improve their lives. We hope to educate consumers of self-help about how to empower and protect themselves, and work with the self-help industry to create standards of ethics and safety. In fact, on June 6th, 2014, SEEK Safely is heading up the first Sedona Summit–a discussion of ethics and safe practices to protect consumers of self-help.

We are a small organization, trying to share our message. From the beginning, my mother has said she wants to be Kirby’s voice.

Had she lived, I know Kirby would have been speaking up about what happened. She would have ranted about the fact that at an event that cost nearly $10,000 and involved tough physical challenges, there were no safety procedures in place. She would have discussed the tactics of control and humiliation that took away her sense of self-preservation. She would have spoken up about the insanity of putting people in the desert for 2 days without food or water, then putting them in a boiling hot tent and bringing them to the edge of death, and then bullying them over that edge. She would have been outraged that a man she trusted, a man who presented himself as professional and caring, could be so callous, empty, and self-serving. Kirby was a force, and she would be screaming right now.

But she was silenced in that tent. By the man you built up.

* * *

Don’t misunderstand me. I don’t blame you for what happened to my sister. You were probably duped, just like she was.

But here’s the thing, Oprah. You have a voice. One that is respected, one that is listened to, one that is heard.

I can sort of understand why you’d hide after what happened–for legal reasons, your reputation, etc. But now that James Ray is “working” again, I implore you: As you did with James Frey, whose sins were far less deadly, challenge James Ray with the truth. Ask my mother about her truth. About Kirby’s truth.

The self-help industry is unregulated and there are few protections for consumers of self-help. I am certain that unless something is done, more people will be injured or killed as a result of the kind of irresponsible “help” people like James Ray are selling. Help us teach other people–who buy the books you promote and who listen to the teachers you introduce them to–to ask what is truth before simply trusting a guru with a fancy message and a fancier delivery.

You have a voice, Oprah. Start using it. Help us be Kirby’s voice.

Jean Brown, sister of Kirby Brown, who, along with Liz Neuman and James Shore, died at James Ray’s Spiritual Warrior retreat on October 8, 2009.


45 responses to “An Open Letter to Oprah, Regarding Your Silence on James Ray

  1. I am going to look into this. I am so sorryfor your loss. I have never heard of James Ray. This sounds very strange. Your letter is well written and I hope Opray questions this man.
    I wish you the very best day.

    • Thanks for reading. Yeah, it’s a complex story. But as we try to explain to people, while it sounds very “out there,” the self-help industry is booming, and is consumed by so many people. You can quickly go from seeing some guru on an episode of Oprah to attending a retreat in the dessert with that person, to stepping into a sweat lodge to “break free of the physical and psychological barriers that are keeping you from your full potential…” Really, it’s a quick leap when you’re a motivated person and you find a message that resonates with you. Most of the participants were very “normal,” hard-working people. We are all susceptible to the tactics many self-help “pros” use to create an environment of suggestibility. But I do think that just the process of asking a few questions is good armour against that.

      Take care!

      • I took some time to reseach James Ray. I won’t write too much here because I’m sure you already know. I was shocked to find so much information even a reference to the phone call he made to your family after the tragedy.

        I understand how someone could follow him. The idea of being brought to your limit is nothing new, the military does the same thing. No one could have known that he would be so uncareful, unattentive, and not follow the proper regulations for a sweat lodge.

        I am praying for you, your sister and family and for this man that he does not start this scam again. I pray for all the other who were hurt and pray that no futher people will be tricked. I pray that Opra will question this man, she has much power and a responsiblity to use it concidering she praised his work,a work that has harmed and killed too many people.

        Praying is what I can do at the moment. I am gald that you are able and willing to do more. Starting SEEK Safely is an amazing way for you to actively help things like this from happening again. Keep up the good work. I wish you all the best.

        Have a nice day.

      • I am a Lakota from the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation and I didn’t want to speak about this because it was hard on my people and I, I go to Sweat Lodges down here and what James Ray done was wrong and did everything wrong the Sweat Lodge was way to big a normal Sweat Lodge can only hold up to 25 people if that. and we do not use two hundred rocks that way to much a human body cannot that that much heat we don’t use plastic as our covers we use canvas and buffalo robs as our covers you need a little air. My heart is deeply sadden to what i have seen and hear never in my people life and mine ever hearing people dying in the sweat lodge, the sweat lodge is a place of living a place of prayer to can Tunkasila (God) for healing not a place where you will life you last days on earth I sand my prayer to the family that lost love ones in the sad event that took place at Arizonan Aho Pelamayelo Thank you

        • Thank you so much for sharing your feelings on this issue, and for your prayers to my family and the families of the other victims. I did a lot of personal research about sweat lodges after what happened, and I realized quickly that what James Ray built barely resembled a real sweat lodge, and the way that he ran it bore hardly any resemblance to the traditional ceremony. We were all very upset by the way that this event impacted your community, but we have also been so appreciative of the prayers and support we’ve gotten from many–including those who attended the trial with us. Thank you for your kind words! -Jean

  2. Powerful. Persuasive. I hope Oprah gets the message and that she gets involved ‘to make a difference.’

  3. I just saw your exchange with Georgette on her blog, and became curious. I live so far outside the mainstream (or whatever it is) that I hadn’t heard of any of this. I do know who Oprah is, however, and I know something about those who enrich themselves at the expense of others. I intend to do some exploring, so I can understand better what happened here.

    I’m so sorry for your loss, and glad you’re taking some steps that may help others.

    • Yes, it’s a pretty crazy story. I certainly have my impressions about it, but you can form your own. Googling “sweat lodge deaths,” “James Ray sweat lodge,” etc, will bring up many of the news stories about it. The Verge also did an excellent long-form piece about it a few months ago. I’m happy to answer questions as well. It’s a pretty complex situation. I think a lot of people tend to form an initial opinion from the basic facts, that evolves after learning more of the details.

      Thanks for stopping by!

  4. Well said! Happy to hear you have started a non-profit to encourage spirituality and what to look for to avoid those false prophets. I would consider myself kind of a new-ager, however, there are freaks in this arena. From a guru with a hard on to money grubbing spiritualists. There are many that need to be weeded out for good. Ray was one of them. I hope you get your wish and that Oprah will respond. The Secret still continues to blind many. There is more to that story. Made a lot of people rich and left many in ashes.

    • Thank you Carolyn! Yeah, there were a lot of secrets behind “The Secret” that weren’t just about self-improvement. I’ll say it again–I do feel there are some honest and effective teachers out there in the industry, but it’s just so wide open to fraud and scam that people really need to proceed with some skepticism before jumping in.

      Thanks for you comments!

  5. I’m so sorry for the death of your sister to this maniac and his preachings, thankfully here in Ireland we as a nation in general don’t believe in these kind of self belief sessions, and I hope we never do, I just felt I had to say something to you and your tragic loss , I hope your organisation goes some way to letting your great nation know that these guys are out there only to make money and not giving a damn about who is hurt and how it affects the families of those who have passed away, may they rest in peace.
    Again , you have my deepest sympathies
    John Calnan ( rep of Ireland )

  6. I think there should be a ruling that on every speech he delivers and every line he writes and every programme that he appears on, there should be a statutory warning, “Following this man’s advice and led to the deaths of three women, follow his advice at your risk and consequences.”

    • Editing:
      I think there should be a ruling that on every speech he delivers and every line he writes and every seminar or workshop that he appears on, there should be a statutory warning, “Following this man’s advice has led to the deaths of three women, follow his advice at your risk and consequences.”

  7. I was fooled by the Secret also, then I found the only Real Truth. That’s Jesus. Everyone can make fun, but no one who had been touched by Him can deny the real truth. Spent 25 yrs looking for self help thing, glad I finally found the real thing

    • Thank you for your comments! I am glad for you that you found your path! I think most people would agree that it is usually a long and continuing journey to find the right way in your life!

  8. As a resident of Sedona .I want to convey our deepest sympathies….We are still upset with what happened here.I am sharing your letter on my timeline.Let us know if there is ever anything we can do for you and your family…..

  9. Hi Jean as a resident of Sedona I just wanted to convey to you how upset we all were with what happened.James Ray does not represent anything I know about. Sedona or ceremony…..I think we are and still devestated with what happened. If there is ever anything we can do for you and your family please let us know.I whole heartedly agree with your letter to Oprah and will share it on my timeline….

    • Thank you, Daniel, for commenting and sharing. Yes, we definitely sympathize with how the Sedona community was affected by the “sweat lodge” deaths. Part of the point of the Sedona Summit is to help contribute to your own healing process, and the process of strengthening the self-help industry for those out there actually doing some good work. Here again is the link for the summit if you’re not already planning to attend:

  10. Excellent. It’s a good question and I’m so glad you asked. Especially now, as James Ray is trying to ramp up his business — and questionable business practices — again. Oprah’s voice could go a long way toward informing and educating Seekers on how to stay safe in their journey. Oprah’s voice could also bring much needed attention to the Seek Promise among the many practitioners across the country (and beyond), further ensuring the safety and well-being of Seekers. Thanks for using YOUR voice for the greater good for all.

    • Thanks for commenting, Lily! Yes, it seems very clear as I’ve seen some of Ray’s current “work” that he will continue with his method of bending the truth, and I just wonder how long it will take for his irresponsibility to become physically dangerous again. And of course, the bigger picture is that he’s not the only one. While there are many great writers and thinkers in the self-help industry, there are many others who use questionable and dangerous methods to further their own interests.

  11. While this article is well written, it is entirely inaccurate. Oprah did, in fact, have Frey back in the show in an one on one interview, where she handed his ass to him for the misrepresentation he posed of himself, and the position he put her, and her show in. She also did a follow up on”where are they now” on the OWN network. Ms. Brown, perhaps you should’ve done more research before you penned your letter.

    • It’s not Frey she’s talking about here… It’s James Ray. Perhaps you should have done more research before you penned your reply.

    • Ummm. You got the names mixed up Brenda. Maybe it is you who should pay closer attention to details.

    • Thanks, all, for clearing that up. I think Brenda got the message. Indeed, I want to contrast Oprah’s reaction to James Frey with her non-reaction to James Ray, a man whose misrepresentations and irresponsibility had far worse consequences than James Frey’s lies.

  12. Oprah: You have worked hard to get where you are…and I admire you tremendously, but we all make mistakes…fall for these fakirs…and when we promote them, urge them on, make our friends believe in them, often to their detriment. I sincerely hope you make your listeners aware of the pain that can come from following this type of fakery. I am an investigative reporter…more than 60 years…retired, but I would help you in any way I could to expose these scum-bags. Please call
    me if I can help.

    • Hi Hugh. Thank you for reading and commenting, and offering your support. As I have learned about what happened to my sister, I have also realized that anyone really can be duped by these guys, especially when they are validated by people like Oprah. We are all consuming this self-help stuff. There are some great thinkers out there, but also more than a few dangerous fakers, unfortunately.

  13. Great post, it is extremely well written. I hope that you were able to send it to “Oprah’s people” because she needs to read this. I’m very sorry for your loss.

  14. My reply is to Oprah: I have followed your growth as a person through the years (I am 72 y/o) and have great respect for you! This is the time to step up and say what is in your heart. We need support like yours to squelch the likes of James Ray. He needs to be stopped!

  15. I have no words, other than I hope this reaches Oprah & she does use her voice. So sorry for your family’s loss and well done for trying to create awareness through SEEK Safely xo

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