A few months ago, I was introduced to the work of best-selling author and life coach Tony Robbins while writing about Oprah's 5,000-person live "Lifeclass" at Radio City Music Hall for OWN: The Oprah Winfrey Network. Robbins was appearing as Oprah's guest teacher. I was immediately taken with his charisma, his power and eloquence as a speaker as well as his big heart and caring to help people develop strategies to improve their lives.
A few weeks after the show, I did a comprehensive interview with Tony Robbins, in which he reflected on his work and impressive career (which has included popular seminars for millions of people around the world and counseling people such as President Bill Clinton, Nelson Mandela, and Mother Teresa) and his own personal life experiences. He invited me to attend one of his upcoming seminars, something I was looking forward to doing. At the time I joked with my family that I might be expected to walk on fire, which I knew from my research was a very transformative part of his seminars that he uses as an experiential "metaphor" for creating breakthroughs and facing and overcoming our fears.
I loved watching Oprah do it on an episode of Oprah's Next Chapter, which was taped last year when Oprah attended his "Unleash the Power Within" event in Los Angeles. She expected to only stay for two hours but got caught up in the energy and experience and stayed for 12 hours instead, completely surprising herself by being inspired to undertake the fire walk exercise, something Oprah had clearly stated early on there was no way she was going to do. Yet I watched as Oprah triumphantly and jubilantly walked over the coals (you can see video here), declaring afterward: "This was one of the most incredible experiences of my life."
So that is why, when lazily scanning my Twitter feed a week ago, I was surprised by a headline saying two dozen treated for second- and third-degree burns at a Tony Robbins event. I clicked on the story, which painted a horrifying scene at the four-day "Unleash the Power Within" seminar in San Jose, Calif., where it was described that the event ended with participants wailing in pain and agony. I sensed something was wrong with the story. I knew that the fire walk exercise was a practice Tony had been incorporating into his seminars for more than three decades and that it was a very carefully monitored exercise in which attendees voluntarily take part, are well-briefed and prepared for hours beforehand, and appropriate precautions are implemented.
I do remember hearing that a very small percentage of people might experience minor blistering, but usually for the few that do, it is seen as almost a badge of honor and certainly nothing to cause much concern. Such was the case with Arianna Huffington, who wrote in her book The Fourth Instinct that she had done the firewalk and had the blisters to prove it. As she elaborated in an email: "It was a powerful experience of the inner strength we have to create the lives we want, not the lives we settle for -- an inner strength greater than we often give ourselves credit for. And my tiny blisters were a reminder of that!" The stories proliferating on the Internet didn't sound right to me, and I decided to investigate.
When I looked into what three of the medical professionals who were actually on site treating people had to say, they shared their disappointment and frustration with the media reports that they say disregarded the facts for opinions of people who were not directly involved in order to create a sensationalized and inaccurate story. I also reached out to Robbins himself to find out what he had to say about what actually happened at the San Jose event.
It appears the debacle started with a report in a local paper, the San Jose Mercury News, which stated that 21 participants suffered second- or third-degree burns at the event and quoted a young college student who was passing by at 11 p.m. at night and was shocked by the sight of 6,000 people chanting, yelling, and firewalking. He claimed it was a "horrific" scene and he heard "wails of pain, screams of agony."
Those who participated said the young man must not have realized that seminar participants are encouraged to yell and scream to psyche themselves up and they were not all screaming in physical pain. The article in the San Jose Mercury News was taken at face value, and like a bad case of telephone gossip, repeated and embellished across various media outlets around the world with even more severe and shocking titles to grab people's attention. Fox and Friends took the liberty of stretching the truth farther by reporting a "hot coal catastrophe," stating that two dozen people had been hospitalized with second- and third-degree burns, which then became quickly duplicated by others in the media. According to the medical professionals on site, while several participants received minor burns and blistering and received medical attention on site or afterward, these exaggerated reports apparently became the basis of a story then told around the world.
Dr. Bart Rademaker, M.D., a plastic and reconstructive surgeon who was a member of the on site medical team, said he was incredulous about the misleading news coverage.
"I am shocked to hear all the untruths and misrepresentations made in the media and on the Web over the last few days. I was present when 6,000 participants voluntarily did a fire walk, and the claims that people were wailing after sustaining severe burns to the feet is completely untrue, nor were dozens of participants admitted to the hospital!" He added, "Contrary to the media claims, as a medical professional experienced with burns, I can tell you there were no third-degree burns whatsoever as guessed by the fire chief, who was indeed not present personally treating these participants as I was. "
Glen Lechtanski, who is a certified emergency nurse with a masters degree in burn and emergency trauma and Tony Robbins' director of medical operations at live events who was also there on site, confirmed his account.
"I've participated in these events for 11 years, and I can tell you there's never been any third-degree burns. Hot spots and blisters do occur for about 1 percent of the people, and we're there to treat it." He further explained that "contrary to some media reports, the screams that people heard at the event were actually participants building their adrenaline levels to prepare themselves for the walk." He added that the fire walk "is an opportunity for people to face their fears and most find it to be quite profound and positive."
Dr. Rademaker concurred. "Talking to many of the participants I treated a day or two afterward their experience was very positive, transformative and most if not all symptoms had resolved, as the New York Times found when they interviewed people."
Dr. Rob Phelps, a podiatrist, was the third member of medical team at the event. "I not only volunteered to be on the medical team for a second time, but I also brought my wife and two teenage daughters. We had a wonderful experience. In my previous walks I had not burned. I had some small blistering this time (second degree) hotspots, like a sunburn on my feet. They were painful that night but the next day I had absolutely no pain and the blisters were short-lived after that.
"Prior to attending this event a year ago for the first time as a participant, my life was overwhelmed with feelings of stress, and that created an unbearable pattern of insomnia that was debilitating to my life. From the tools I learned I've been able keep the stress level extremely low, and I'm able to sleep well on a very consistent basis. This is worth more than you could ever imagine to me and my family.
"As far as this San Jose event, there were no more hot spots or blistering than usual. The next day I ran into two of the people with the worst blistering that I saw and they both stated that their feet were fine, and I noticed they were walking fine and were smiling. Boy, those news folks know how to tell a 'story.'"
It did appear that most of the misinformation seemed to be coming from people who were not actually present at the event -- in fact, in the articles in which participants at the event were interviewed (an audience that included corporate CEOs, doctors, lawyers, actors, a contingent of Marine and Navy Seals Wounded Warrior veterans and even Olympic hopeful Clarissa Chun), participants spoke only positively about their experience. Attendees like Carolynn Graves, a 50-year-old real estate agent from Toronto, told the New York Times that the seminar and fire walk "transformed people's lives in a single night ... It's a metaphor for facing your fears and accomplishing your goals."
I contacted Tony Robbins to get his take on the situation. He was obviously a bit frustrated by the media's distortion of what transpired:
"For 35 years, I have had more than 4 million people go through my programs from 100 countries, with more than 2 million specifically doing the fire walk seminar itself. Throughout that time we have been conducting these events healthfully and successfully, and we have medical support and attention at every single event for those 3.5 decades. This program in San Jose was no different than any other one that we have ever done. The fact is that the ratio is usually about 1 percent of the people will get some pain, hot spots or blistering, and at this event it was only one-third of 1 percent: 21 people out of 6,000. So while I don't want anyone to feel any pain, and I care immensely... and we make sure that everyone is taken care of, I also know that part of life is facing a fear and there is risk! You take those risks if you choose to, and that's how you reap the rewards." He added, "It's really sad that some in the media chose to turn such a victory for so many people involved with the event into a tragedy."
The whole episode triggered a flashback to my previous interview with Robbins, four months ago when I asked him about what he thought about Oprah creating OWN. He shared with me his respect for Oprah Winfrey's courage in "building a network on all positive content in a world where the famous news room adage has always been 'if it bleeds, it leads.'" He prophetically added, "When you turn on the news, and what's happening? Everything is designed to grab your attention. If you walked by a newspaper in the old days, before you had the news on your phone, you saw the newspaper and it says 'great weather this weekend' and you just kept walking. But if it says, big storm coming, in those days, you put 50 cents in and grabbed that thing as fast as you could, right? So in a world where people like to see their own sense of significance by tearing somebody else down, voting people off the island is much more popular than showing people how to expand their consciousness. "
It wasn't only the conjured-up "disaster" that troubled Robbins, but the way the media framed the fire walking without a context as some kind of brazen stunt. Robbins emphasizes that he prepares people for the fire walk for more than an hour and a half and makes clear all the risks involved, as well as all the theories of how fire walking works, including the "Leidenfrost effect," and the theory that coals are poor transfers of heat. And he adds, "This is really not about fire walking anyway. It never has been. It's been about getting people to break through their fears and limits. If you look at what holds people back from expanding and deepening the quality of their lives, what prevents them from taking the actions that are necessary to transform their body, relationships, career, business or impact their kids? Invariably, its fear! Fear of failure, fear of success, fear of rejection, fear of pain, and fear of the unknown. In order to get people to know that the techniques they are learning work, I like to use a physical metaphor that tests them to be able to take action in spite of fear. Originally I used sky diving, but as our groups got bigger it became an impractical metaphor. Firewalking became a useful metaphor.
"We are trained, almost innately, to be scared of fire and to keep away from it. That is why walking through a pathway of fire is a powerful expression of moving beyond one's fears. Walking over any hot surface does encompass some risks, but it has been done safely for centuries, and when administered properly can have enormous value as a reminder of what we are truly capable of. And again, it's not some magical mind-over-matter process. As I tell people in our events... anyone can walk on fire! Anyone can also be up at 5 a.m. excited about their life! Anyone can start their day with a killer workout! Anyone can find a way to master a craft and find meaning in their work! Anyone can have a passionate and loving relationship! Anyone can, but... few people do! What people can do is amazing... what they will do is too often disappointing.
"My role, and the role of these seminars is to teach people for four days the tools and strategies for improving their bodies, relationships, finances, career and their life. The fire walk is just one portion of one evening where they get to apply their tools of overcoming fear and taking the first step."
Actor Steven Weber from the television show Wings, who attended the San Jose event and completed the fire walk himself, described his experience of the UPW seminar this way:
"Being somewhat of a skeptic myself, I didn't know what to expect... every second was worth it. It was an experience like no other I've had, and Tony is, to put it mildly, extraordinary. I've never seen anyone walk the walk like this guy, have never witnessed someone able to match and exceed the energy of an audience of 6,000 inspired, hopeful people."
Many of the Wounded Warrior veterans, who came as Robbins' guests, wrote thank you letters, including Omar Palaciosreal, who said of the fire walk experience:
"When I walked across the coals, I felt as if I was going back in time to the days as a Marine on patrol when I was not afraid of taking chances. After I made it to the other side, I felt as if I had my 'switch' turned back on. I felt a great sense of accomplishment to make such an epic step towards progress and growth in my life... it stands as a true testament of how much impact he has had on not only myself but other wounded warriors. He is a great American and true supporter of our men and in women in uniform who have sacrificed so much for our beloved country."
Staff Sargeant Karlo Salgado, the Wounded Warriors careers and transition counselor, wrote: "In my 32 years of the planet I can be honest when I say that nothing has ever made such a transformational impact in my life as this Tony Robbins event did ... If there were only a way to make this happen on a much bigger scale for wounded, ill and injured marines it would be transformational."
In the end, it is these missing testimonials, of life changes, that Robbins finds "frustrating, to do some of your best work and see it all distorted." Yet he admits, "It comes with the territory. And I can't complain because the media has also helped me in focusing attention on the positive impact of my work at different stages over the years."
And this is the story within the story: the double-edged sword of the media's power and influence and some inherent problems within our current media landscape, in which outlets often race to produce the most shocking headlines in a competitive 24/7 news cycle in a culture as Robbins puts it: "if it bleeds, it leads." This episode also serves as a potent reminder to take it all in with a wary, discerning eye and to make sure we clarify the facts for ourselves. It is also an opportunity to reflect on what it says about our own society if cultivating a horror story about 21 people getting badly burned and wailing in agony is more attractive to the media (and its viewers) than the true story of 6,000 people who came together for four days and created breakthroughs in their lives.
Update (9:42PM EST 8/8/2012): Since the posting of this article Fox and Friends has come forward and offered Mr. Robbins a rare on-air retraction and correction of their original inaccurate report. See statement below.
During a recent segment concerning a Tony Robbins' Fire walk experience in San Jose, California, we reported more than two dozen participants were hospitalized with burns. Well a few of the six-thousand received minor burns akin to a sunburn, they received on-site medical attention and continued to participate in the event.
None were hospitalized and there were no reported third degree burns. We understand news reports to the contrary were inaccurate. Now you know.
Photo Credit: © 2012 Harpo Inc./George Burns
Marianne Schnall is a widely published writer and interviewer whose writings and interviews have appeared in a variety of media outlets including O, The Oprah Magazine, Glamour, In Style, CNN.com, EW.com, the Women's Media Center, Psychology Today, and many others. Marianne is a featured blogger at The Huffington Post and a regular contributor to the nationally syndicated NPR radio show, 51% The Women's Perspective. She is also the co-founder and executive director of the women's web site and non-profit organization Feminist.com, as well as the co-founder of the environmental site EcoMall.com. She is the author of Daring to Be Ourselves: Influential Women Share Insights on Courage, Happiness and Finding Your Own Voice based on her interviews with a variety of well-known women. You can visit her website at www.marianneschnall.com.