|Written by Mark Lineberger|
|Wednesday, 23 March 2011 00:00|
Testimony in the manslaughter trial of motivational speaker and self-help author James Arthur Ray continues in Yavapai County Superior Court in Camp Verde.
Ray, 53, pleaded not guilty to three counts of manslaughter after an October 2009 sweat lodge event left three people dead and several others injured.
The charges stem from an incident at the Angel Valley Retreat Center near Sedona during a weeklong “Spiritual Warrior” event.
Lizbeth Neuman, 49, of Michigan, Kirby Brown, 38, of New York and James Shore, 40, of Wisconsin, died after sitting in the sweat lodge, a large tentlike structure heated to sauna-like temperatures as part of a $10,000-a-head session organized by Ray and his organization, James Ray International. Brown and Shore were pronounced dead that day; Neuman never regained consciousness and died after she was taken off life support days later. Around 20 others were injured.
Prosecutors are arguing Ray is criminally responsible for the deaths; Ray’s attorneys say the deaths were a tragic accident.
While the jury heard different perspectives from witnesses throughout the week, Friday afternoon, March 18, saw Laurie Gennari on the stand.
Gennari, a database manager from Redwood City, Calif., provided some insight into her state of mind before and during the weeklong retreat event.
Gennari, under examination by Yavapai County Attorney Sheila Polk, said she had attended several of Ray’s other events. Each time, Gennari said she would really “latch on” to something Ray said and would go to subsequent events hoping to learn more.
“I’d think, ‘well that was nice, maybe he’ll get to the better stuff next time,’” Gennari said.
Gennari said she had been asking herself the “existential questions” about her life when she decided to pay the nearly $10,000 to attend the Angel Valley event, or as she put it, more money then she had ever paid for anything she “couldn’t drive.”
After arriving at the resort and being placed with her roommates for the week, Gennari said one of the first things participants were asked to do was to shave their heads, a symbol in part of shedding the old.
Gennari said she had previously shaved her head twice before in her life, so doing so a third time would have little meaning for her. Gennari declined to shave her head, but said there was a lot of pressure from the other participants.
“The pressure was like being back in junior high school,” Gennari said.
The participants were given writing assignments. Gennari said she was a little surprised by her assignment, which involved writing down everything that came to mind about her sexual experiences.
Sleep wasn’t encouraged, Gennari said, because of pressure from Ray to write all night. Gennari said she never got more than three or four hours of sleep on any given night.
There was also plenty of meditation and breathing exercises.
“If it’s possible to overdose on meditation, that’s pretty much what we were doing,” Gennari said.
There was a lot of focus on reaching “altered states,” Gennari said, something she pictured in her head as appealing.
Gennari said she thought it might even be relaxing and a way for a self-described cerebral person to get “out of [her] own head.”
Gennari didn’t see the meditation and yoga events as optional after seeing the way people who didn’t attend some events “got bullied by Ray.”
People with alternate points of view were “shot down,” Gennari said.
“I pretty much was going to keep my head down and stay off the radar,” Gennari said.
Regardless, Gennari said Ray was a compelling speaker and watching him work was like “watching a stage performance.”
Death was a theme throughout the week, Gennari said.
“On one hand I could see the poetic description of some things being dropped away so new things can grow,” Gennari said. “But it was an angle that didn’t really work for me.”
Later in the week, Gennari went on her “vision quest.” Gennari and the other attendees were separated and left alone in the wilderness without food or water for 36 hours. Gennari said she was supposed to stay inside a small circle, her “medicine wheel,” while writing and reflecting.
“I thought that was going to be the hardest part of the week,” Gennari said.
After the vision quest was over, Gennari said the participants were given a few hours and then told to change clothes and prepare for the sweat lodge event.
Ray told the participants that even if they had been in a sweat lodge before, they had never been in one like this one, Gennari said.
Gennari said she was feeling “almost nothing” at this point.
“I was tired, I was hungry, I was exhausted, I was done,” Gennari said, adding she saw the sweat lodge as just the next thing everyone had to do to participate.
Gennari said she had “no fear” going into the sweat lodge, in part because Ray said he had done them many times before and her research on Ray had never turned up any mention of any kind of problems.
Gennari said Ray told the participants they may feel like they were going to pass out and die in the sweat lodge, but she thought he was just using hyperbole.
Inside the sweat lodge, Gennari ended up sitting next to Neuman. Neuman was also a member of the “dream team,” a group of participants who had been through many of Ray’s programs and provided encouragement at different times throughout the week.
The ceremony was divided up into eight “rounds.” In between rounds, more heated rocks would be brought into the central pit to have water poured over them.
The first two rounds felt like sitting in a sauna, Gennari said. By the middle of the third round, Gennari flipped over and put her face in the dirt, where she said the temperature was much cooler.
Gennari said she remembers hearing one of the participants fall into a pit and burn himself; at another point a female participant left unable to deal with the heat.
Testimony was expected to resume Tuesday morning in Judge Warren Darrow’s courtroom.
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