the self-styled life

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.