Mar 29, 2011

James Arthur Ray Sweat Lodge Trial: Day 20

Someone called Vortexter passed along her blog entry on James Ray and the Sedona scene. Her comment can be found here and her blog entry here. It got me to thinking about how I got interested in this whole James Arthur Ray debacle. It was really an outgrowth of my interest in The Secret. I started writing about the The Secret a few years ago when I realized I couldn't ignore the problem any longer. I posted a long entry here and thought it important enough that I sent it out as an e-newsletter. I expected a lot of hostility from people but I thought that even if it meant I lost some clients and some friends, it needed to be said. I got exactly one overtly hostile message and one somewhat quizzical one. And I got reams of messages from people saying, "Thank-you." A client told me just recently that he keeps that email in his quiver to send to any of his friends who bring up the subject.

So, my interest in this whole phenomenon grew out of my concern over something that I consider to be just bad metaphysics. When I first heard reports that James Arthur Ray's sweat lodge had gone so horribly awry I thought, geez, I knew The Secret was dangerous. I really didn't expect anyone to die. But aside from the recklessness, the egomania, the long con, the cultish manipulation, and everything else that characterizes this horrible event, I still keep coming back to bad metaphysics. As I wrote in my first post on the sweat lodge deaths, "A little learning is a dang'rous thing."

Years ago I was taking a class with shamanic healer Christina Pratt. She started out her first lecture of that weekend with the observation that it is the best of times and the worst of times when it comes to the range of spiritual thought and traditions available to us. She made the point that all of these wisdom traditions come as complete bodies of knowledge and provide essential safeguards we really need as we open spiritually. And many of those safeguards are not expressed in the marketplace of spiritual ideas.

A lot of what's out there is well-intended if insufficient. But sometimes it is venal, exploitative, and mercenary. And that, to my mind, is where The Secret and James Arthur Ray fall in. Their message is as deceptive as it is seductive. You need never suffer and you can have whatever you want. The universe just wants you to have happiness, health, and a Mercedes. And if you don't, the problem is your attitude. And your attitude can be changed. Voila!

Some of the techniques offered in The Secret are nice tools for mental focus and goal structuring. And I don't dispute that there is a relationship between intention and manifestation. But there is a difference between opening a dialog with spirit, in right relationship with the world, and trying to make the universe your bitch (or catalog or genie). 

When I was listening to Scott Barratt last week, one of the things that struck me was his explanation of the tobacco pouches and the use of the sweat lodge as a vehicle for manifesting goals. Nothing against Barratt, who was just articulating what he was taught by Ray, but the idea of ceremony as ego exercise disturbed me. This is not to say that there is anything wrong with bringing our goals and intentions into ritual or ceremonial settings but we are also there to open to spirit. In addition to our intentions we need to bring our humility. It's not just about telling the universe something. It's about listening.

There is no component, in anything I've heard thus far in this trial, of surrender to any kind of higher power; God, the universe, spirit, higher self.... The only "higher power" any of them seemed to be surrendering to was James Arthur Ray.

So these people were not listening to their own inner wisdom or to that still, small voice of spirit. They weren't listening to their own bodies. (They'd been told it was "mind over matter.") They were listening to Ray, who had been conditioning them to see him as God, however subconsciously. And their tin god was telling them they wouldn't die no matter how bad they felt.

A few more thoughts on the stupefying disingenuousness of Tom Kelly: During the bench conference last Friday Sheila Polk sought to introduce prior incidents of sweat lodge induced heat related illness. Kelly assumed a posture of indignation, waved his arms around a lot, and referred to the one hospitalization that occurred as "Daniel P. goes to the hospital and takes a shower." He then suggested the ludicrousness of Ray including pre-sweat lodge a warning like, "A guy took a shower back in 2005 at the hospital and I want to let you guys to know that."

I knew that didn't sound right, so I reviewed pdfs for The State v. James Arthur Ray and police interviews with both Daniel and Michelle Pfankuch. It turns out that his hospital visit was not simply about showering. Not according to Pfankuch or a number of other 2005 participants.

Pfankuch had become irrational and violent after the sweat lodge. After much deliberation the owner of Angel Valley had called the paramedics, and he was treated in the hospital for heat syncope. According to his police interview he spent "many hours" receiving IV fluids. I suppose it could be argued that Ray remains somewhat ignorant of what treatment he received since no one from JRI actually went to the hospital.

Pfankuch doesn't really seem to have completely recovered from his brush with, um, hospital hygiene. He described a kind of near death experience that he never really wanted to come back from. His marriage is over. He can't afford medical care to determine if there are lasting physical effects. James Ray wouldn't pay for his original hospital visit. He believes he had heatstroke, although the hospital placed him lower on the continuum. And yet, he appears to have been hallucinating which is consistent with severe heat related illness.

Another participant named David DuHaime believes he saved Pfankuch's life. He tried to cool his brain by hosing down his head with cold water. But DuHaime couldn't convince anyone from JRI to call 911. He found Angel Valley owner Amayra Hamilton and she called. This led to an altercation between Hamilton and Ray who said, "Don't waste your energy. I take care of my people -- leave." So, for all that, it was quite some time before Pfankuch actually got to the hospital to receive care. And, as we learned from testimony today, that kind of time lapse can skew the data.

Both DuHaime and Hamilton, as well as several others, confronted Ray over the incident and said his sweat lodge was unsafe. And JRI took greater precautions in later events; providing electrolyte beverages and fruit, and lowering the temperature the following year.

Pfankuch's now ex-wife Michelle said that Ray fixated on Daniel's "out of body experience." She was left with the impression that Ray thought it was a good thing.

So that was Daniel Pfankuch's "shower" at the hospital. Move along folks. Nothin' to see here.

In Session ran several segments of a taped interview with Ray's mother Joyce. She talked a bit about what her son was like as a child, the good person she knows him to be, and how she knows he's suffered over this tragedy. They've cried together. The whole family has. He cared about the people who died, she says --and this is the kicker -- because "they've followed him" for years. But "the rain falls on the just and the unjust" and it will all work out for the better because it says so in the Bible.

As she talked about the people who've been lost, and their poor families, her voice quavered with emotion. She talked about how devastated they all were over it. Her voice caught, the corners of her mouth turned down, and her whole expression was one of sorrow. But she never shed a single, solitary tear. There is always something disturbing about someone whose face does one thing when their eyes do another. And that was all I could think about watching Joyce Ray. She remained clear eyed throughout. Her eyes didn't even get moist.

I was acutely aware that I was watching a performance. Most people, when they cry in a public setting, particularly on camera, fight the tears back. They get embarrassed and struggle to regain their  composure. Joyce Ray did the exact opposite. She was workin' it but she doesn't know how to cry on cue.

Linda Andresano, whose testimony we just saw, comes to mind as a someone who was genuinely emotional and struggling to hold herself in check. It was heart-rending. And I got teary-eyed listening to her. I'm a sympathetic crier. I can't help it. The tiny, little people on the TV that I don't even know cry -- I cry. Beverley Bunn made me cry. A lot of the testimony has made me weepy. Joyce Ray? Nothin.' Nada. I didn't feel a thing because I didn't believe her for a minute.

The closest Joyce Ray came to looking genuinely emotional was when she talked about how misunderstood her her son is. She wants people to know that he's not a "dictator" at all. He cares about people. She knows that he can appear "egotistical" but it's just because he's so strong. He's just trying to teach other people to be strong.

She also gave up some rather intriguing details about her son's character. James Ray "was a very obedient child" and "not like other children," said his mother. He rarely needed to be disciplined. The girls, she said, were "sweet on him but he didn't care so much about it." He's still like that, she says. Lots of women are attracted to him because of his "bearing" and because he's "a nice looking man," but he doesn't seem too interested.

Think about that for a moment. This is a man who's teaching other people how to have, among other things, great relationships but whose own relationship status is, at best, mysterious. If his mother has any idea what's going on in her son's life, his love life is nearly non-existent. As he would say, "That's not real wealth." Relationships are, after all, one of the main pillars of Harmonic Wealth.

So this interview was very interesting. Creepy, but interesting.

Dr. Brent Marsden Cutshall

The very stoical Dr. Brent Marsden Cutshall testified today. This is the internal pulmonary and critical care specialist who treated Liz Neuman, Sidney Spencer, and Tess Wong.

This testimony got mind-meltingly technical and I lack a medical degree so I was running to keep up. But some interesting things emerged under Bill Hughes's direct examination.

Carbon monoxide poisoning was suspected early on and all three had blood tests to make that determination. They all had normal levels, so that's a negative on CO. They all appeared to be dehydrated. They all exhibited pinpoint pupils, and there's the rub. There was much discussion of this symptom, which is not a result of heat exhaustion and indicates drug or toxin exposure. The short answer: They were intubated by paramedics and narcotics are often administered when a patient is intubated. This would result in pupil contraction.

Liz Neuman and Sidney Spencer were dehydrated and comatose. Low blood pressure and elevated heart rate are consistent with dehydration. Liz Neuman's heart rate was 140; normal is 90.

Tess Wong presented with low body temperature and low blood pressure. She was not seen at the ER, though, until after 8:00 and may have cooled over those hours, according to Dr. Cutshall.

Cutshall still thinks heatstroke was a possibility but the body had cooled too much by that point to make that diagnosis. Her major problems were coma, and renal failure (which could have been caused by dehydration), and a collapsed lung. He believes the collapsed lung was probably due to difficulties with her intubation. She also had problems associated with muscle breakdown, most likely from having been unconscious and not moving for a long time. This could also have been responsible for problems with her liver and kidney function. 

Truc Do Takes Many Notes

I'm not sure if Truc Do was trying to confuse the good doctor, the jury, or me personally. If it was me, mission accomplished. This was one of the longest, most confusing courtroom examinations I've ever witnessed.

Do dragged out the Pictionary easel and took many over-sized pages of notes, writing down every medical term she could think of or pry out of Dr. Cutshall's mind. But this was all set-up for her actual argument. It took forever. The set-up took forever. I'm inclined to think that she was trying to overwhelm the listener with her own James Ray style, cult snapping process. I know I was feeling more than a little suggestible after a couple of hours of this. Increasingly I find the defense's presentations, particularly Li's and Do's, make me feel like I'm being softened up for interrogation. Dear God. They could go to work for the CIA.

Do started out by focusing on differential diagnoses; in other words, symptoms that can present for more than one disorder. And I have to hand it to her. She did what every good defense attorney does. She threw enough sand into the gears to create a shadow of doubt. It was boring. It was infuriating. It was cloying... well... I find her and California up-talking cloying, but that's my problem. I think, though, she actually accomplished her goal.

One curiosity: Do asked if heavier people would be more likely to succumb to heatstroke than fit people. He said yes if those heavy people had comorbidities common to overweight people. She dropped it after that. I think what she may going for is the suggestion that since the heavier people did okay and the people who died were fit, it wasn't heatstroke. But I'll take a wait and see attitude on that.

After Do had compiled her giant glossary of medical terms she finally made her way 'round to where we all knew she was headed: toxidromes.

What about those pinpoint pupils? Well, yes, they could have been caused by the emergency responders doing their jobs. But they could also have been caused by a cholinergic toxin. And you know what toxins ar cholinergic? Organophosphates. In other words, common pesticides.

It took her well over an hour to get there, but she got there.

Was Dr. Cutshall ever told that the sheriff's office considered soil testing? Well, no. He wasn't. Was he told that people at the scene witnessed foaming at the mouth, which would be consistent with a cholinergic substance? Well, no. But, he points out, getting a lot of random bits of hearsay isn't terribly helpful when you're trying to administer emergency care. (Note: Dr. Jeanne Armstrong who, as a participant, was at the scene administering care said that there was a little "frothy sputum." Not foaming at the mouth.)

Cutshall also explained a bit later that symptoms like foaming at the mouth that may have presented on scene but that had cleared by the time the patients arrived at hospital would not be his concern. He'd be looking at ongoing symptoms in making his determination as to how best treat the patient. And the patients presented to him with dry mouths and other symptoms of dehydration that would not be consistent with cholinergic poisoning.

Towards the end of Do's cross-examination, Cutshall explained that the patients presented with a mix of symptoms, consistent with both cholinergic and anticholinergic toxicity. This would make it difficult to narrow down a toxic cause. But again, Do doesn't need to prove what substance may have poisoned these people. She just has to confuse the jury enough that they think it's possible. She does this beautifully and I have the headache to prove it.

Do also set out to prove Neuman wasn't dehydrated because nitrogen, sodium, and chloride levels were normal. Dr. Cutshall explained that this doesn't necessarily mean she wasn't dehydrated. "Someone can be dehydrated with totally normal numbers," he went on. He described dehydration as a clinical rather than a laboratory diagnosis. In other words, it's based on observable symptoms; not blood work. None of this stopped Do from raising the issue of similar numbers with the other patients.

With the torrent of verbiage Do managed to obviously irritate the stoic doctor. It may have had something to do with her checking off symptoms on her giant list even when he didn't concur with their validity. And, of course, there was the steamrolling over everything he said that didn't accord with her thesis. (She does this very adorably by saying, "I understand," and then saying the complete opposite of what a witness says.)

Most of her questions, consistent with the defense strategy so far, focused on what doctors said while they were spitballing possible diagnoses to try to figure out how to quickly treat patients in an emergency situation. This, to the defense, is more important than what they concluded after more of the clinical and lab findings were in.

At the end of the exercise, though, Do accomplished what every defense attorney wants. The witness admitted that he "could not rule out organophospates with certainty." And with that she, she finally, mercifully, ended her examination. 

On redirect, Hughes had Dr. Cutshall again broke down the difference between cholinergic and anticholigeric toxins. He clarified that there was a mix of symptoms from column a and column b. In fact, aside from the pupil dilation, the symptoms were more consistent with anticholinergic toxins. (In other words, not organophsosphates.) The symptoms, though, across the board, were consistent with heatstroke, except for the small pupils which could have been caused by medications administered by paramedics.

I also give Hughes props for at least touching on the issue of the moist environment of the sweat lodge and how it would slow evaporation of perspiration and raise body temperatures. The doctor agreed.

Hughes also addressed the reported lack of dehydration in Kirby Brown and James Shore and claimed that they had presented at the hospital with normal hydration levels. Do had questioned Cutshall on whether or not a patient whose heart wasn't beating could take up fluids. Answer, no. But, Hughes asked, what if they were receiving CPR when they had an IV for an 45 minutes or so. Yes, it's possible, but it's hard to imagine keeping the heart pumping viably for that amount of time.

I just wish at some point the prosecution would deal with the straw man that dehydration is a necessary cause of heatstroke.

In the end, not surprisingly, Dr. Cutshall stuck by his diagnoses. But I have to admit that Do created a lot of confusion and confusion works to the benefit of the defense, not the prosecution.

I still have to say, though -- and I wonder if the prosecution will find some way to underscore this point -- if this was a freak incident due to poisoning, rather than heat,  and the symptoms are consistent with that poisoning, why were Ray and his staff so slow to respond? Why did they insist the unconsciousness and delirium were perfectly normal and that it was best to let people "have their own experience?" Have they been poisoning people with organophosphates all along?

Dr. Cutshall was excused subject to recall.

All information on the trial comes from news articles with provided links or live courtroom footage on TruTV's "In Session" or CNN's live feed. All quotes and paraphrased statements that are not linked to a source document are my best attempt to transcribe material from live broadcasts.

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