Sweat lodge guru's attempted comeback angers victims

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Story highlights

  • Relatives of those who died in a 2009 sweat lodge ceremony speak out
  • Self-help guru James Arthur Ray, who led ceremony, is out of jail and writing a book
Watch "Enlighten Us: The Rise and Fall of James Arthur Ray," Saturday at 8 p.m. ET on CNN.

Westtown, New York (CNN)Virginia Brown is blunt about the way her daughter died.

"She was cooked to death," Brown said. "This beautiful woman who was drunk on life and had friends all over."
    Kirby Brown, 38, was among three people who died after entering a sweat lodge during a self-help retreat outside Sedona, Arizona in 2009. James Arthur Ray, then a prominent figure in the self-help industry, was overseeing the retreat.
    Courtroom testimony alleged that instead of answering some participants' pleas for help, Ray pushed them further, encouraging them to tough out the sweltering conditions as part of a rebirthing process that would transform their lives.
    Ray was convicted of negligent homicide and sentenced to six years in prison -- two for each victim. A judge allowed the sentence to be served concurrently, meaning Ray would serve two years. He ended up serving 20 months.
    Now out of prison and beginning a return to public life, Ray's attempt to rebuild his self help career is featured in the new documentary "Enlighten Us," which premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival and will air on CNN.
    "On October 8th, 2009 I was involved in a terrible accident and I lost three friends," Ray says in the film to a modest group gathered to hear him speak as a newly freed man. "People I really cared about," he adds tearfully.
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    A mother's anger

    Virginia Brown remains skeptical.
    "His three good friends that he left in the dirt? Unconscious and did nothing to help them?" she counters. She is among the families of the three dead and 19 hospitalized who are angered by Ray's use of the tragedy in his presentation.
    "Really, returning to self help? Why don't you sell cars?" Brown asks of Ray. "I don't hold out that I want his life to be ruined. He should have a second chance for a good life, but not in this venue."
    Based on what she has seen in the film "Enlighten Us," Brown considers Ray to be a dangerous force in the unregulated, $11 billion self-help industry.
    Ray told CNN by phone last week that returning to self-help is "exactly where I should be, and absolutely must be." He said to quit now "would be disrespectful to the memory" of those who died.
    "They're heroes, not victims," Ray said. "Like all of us they were there for a specific reason — something they believed in. So if their memories are going to live beyond the tragedy, to continue to have meaning, I really believe I have a responsibility to tell that over and over."

    A calling, not a crime?

    The victims' families question Ray's sincerity after he filed a motion earlier this year seeking to restore his civil rights and set aside the judgment of guilt against him. If granted, Ray would regain voting rights and international travel would become easier.
    While he'd remain a convicted felon in Arizona, Ray would have the ability to explain to potential business entities like insurance companies that a court set the conviction aside, finding him to be a different person than the one originally found guilty.
    "It's frustrating that the sentence he got was pretty light, and it's frustrating that he's trying to get it to look even lighter," said Andrea Puckett, whose mother Liz Neuman followed Ray for seven years until her death in the sweat lodge incident. "It's frustrating he's able to file motions and make things better for himself while the rest of us are all still living with the pain."
    Puckett, along with Virginia Brown and family members of James Shore — the third person to die in the sweat lodge — all wrote letters to the court asking a judge to deny Ray's request.
    Ray insists he's not trying to shirk responsibility for his actions.
    "I've served two years in custody and paid restitution and complied with all of the laws. I'm applying that same law to get my rights back," he said. "I have an unwavering commitment to inspire entrepreneurs to live their best. That's a calling, not a crime."

    Attempting a comeback

    Today, Ray lives in Los Angeles and says he's working on a book along with an online learning platform. He doesn't deny that the sweat lodge incident should be a part of his story forever.
    "The biggest error I made was participating myself — I was in there for 12 rounds," Ray said of the sweat lodge process, which consisted of participants sitting shoulder to shoulder in a large tent as hot rocks were doused with water. The resulting steam heated the air inside to well over 100 degrees.
    "There was no way to anticipate what happened," Ray said, though he admitted that participating in the extreme conditions may have prevented him from objectively assessing the health of his followers. "Sure we were doing something extreme, but extreme athletes in our country are heroes and I believe Liz, James and Kirby are heroic as well."
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    Ray said he hopes the public will see his return "and say I can get through my challenges as well."
    But the victims' families see the incident as more than a "challenge" to overcome. They point to witness testimony that outlined a horrific scene unfolding in front of James Ray: people were "vomiting," "babbling," "screaming," "crying," and "passed out," according to court documents.
    Victim James Shore dragged someone to safety in view of Ray before returning to the tent to save Kirby Brown. But Shore and Brown did not make it out alive.
    The incident, and resulting trial, left the victim's families raw and worried about Ray's attempt at a comeback.
    What Ray said Friday on "CNN Tonight" to promote the documentary has caused the family more pain. When asked on the show to respond to Virginia Brown's comments made in this story, Ray said "my greatest critic, who said her daughter (Kirby) was 'cooked,' was actually estranged from her daughter and that was one of the reasons her daughter was there."
    Kirby Brown's sister called that statement "absolutely untrue."
    "Kirby was the maid of honor in my wedding at my parents' house three months before she died," Jean Brown said. "She was obviously seeking her own way in life but to say she was 'estranged' is a horribly, insulting misrepresentation of the truth."

    'I want her death to save lives'

    Virginia Brown has decided to be what her daughter always called her: a "Warrior Princess." She's trying to get the self-help industry regulated.
    "Seeking isn't wrong," Brown said. "My daughter was a seeker and was always wanting to grow and expand her life."
    Brown started a non-profit group called SEEK Safely, whose letters stand for "self empowerment through education and knowledge." While not a fan of regulation, Brown is now pushing for legislation after first asking big names in the self-help industry to sign a set of guidelines aimed at keeping consumers safe. She says they wouldn't do it.
    But regulation may be difficult, admits Christine Whelan, a clinical professor at the University of Wisconsin who studies the lucrative self-help industry and now sits on the board of SEEK Safely.
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    "Do we regulate the physical things someone can do at one of these workshops?" Whelan says of the challenges of regulation. "Are we regulating the speech in terms of what advice people can give? And then who is the judge of what is good and bad advice?"
    Whelan says the immediate solution will likely be more consumer awareness.
    Through SEEK Safely's website Brown recently received an email from Calcutta, India. The writer was considering a series of self-help seminars echoing "The Secret," the documentary that propelled James Ray to stardom in the early 2000's.
    "After looking at our site," Brown said, "this person said 'I think I better understand that maybe the answers are within myself, and not within someone else.'"
    It's a small victory for a mother who says her daughter -- who tackled everything from surfing to horseback riding to building a painting business -- "never did anything small." Brown just wants people to live like her daughter did, not die like her.
    "I want her death to save lives," Brown said. "I want the story of her death to be a cautionary tale that will save other people's lives."