Did Oprah help legitimize James Ray, now under investigation for his role in a sweat-lodge retreat that resulted in three deaths?
“Oprah has mainstreamed a lot of very questionable characters, in my opinion,” says anti-cult therapist Steven Hassan, a former official of the Unification Church who rebelled, escaped and became a prominent debunker (and was himself a guest on The Oprah Winfrey Show in 1989).
“I would like to believe that this incident could be something that would cause people like Oprah to do more responsible research and to question whether or not they are serving their viewers, as opposed to just promoting people and ideas that are fundamentally flawed.”
“Science tells us that everything is energy, and so your thoughts are energy,” Ray told Oprah’s vast audience in a typically glib outburst of pseudo-scientific sermonizing. “Your body, your cash, your car—everything you think is solid, if you put it under a high-powered microscope, it’s just a field of energy and a rate of vibration. And so are we. So if you think you’re this meat suit running around, you have to think again.”
On one level, the 51-year-old Ray—who, the year after his life-altering television appearance authored the runaway bestseller Harmonic Wealth: The Secret of Attracting the Life You Want, and these days is involved in a homicide investigation—is just another Oprah guest gone bad. On another level, he is a wakeup call for anyone who would dismiss all New Age dabbling as merely risk-free recreation, like incense and crystals.
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Florida psycholologist Michael Langone, who runs the 30-year-old International Cultic Studies Association—a self-described “global network of people concerned about psychological manipulation and abuse in cultic groups, alternative movements, and other environments”—says Ray’s operation might bear some of the telltale signs of a textbook cult.
Lloyd Grove is editor at large for The Daily Beast. He is also a frequent contributor to New York magazine and was a contributing editor for Condé Nast Portfolio. He wrote a gossip column for the New York Daily News from 2003 to 2006. Prior to that, he wrote the Reliable Source column for the Washington Post, where he spent 23 years covering politics, the media, and other subjects.