DEPT. OF SNAKE OIL

Self-Help's Slimy 'Secret'

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By Tim Watkin
Sunday, April 8, 2007

It's the publishing phenomenon of the year so far, a small book with a parchment-brown cover engraved with the image of a red wax seal.

"The Secret," its title proclaims matter-of-factly, as if the slim volume held the answer to life's deepest mysteries. Which is precisely what it purports to do. Written by an Australian television producer, this latest contribution to the bursting shelves of New Age self-helpiana has come out of nowhere to sell more than 1.3 million copies in the United States alone.

Yet as bookstores nationwide have sold out of it again and again, controversy has begun to swirl around "the secret." Working in a bookstore recently and discussing the book with customers lured by the promise of instant success, I finally delved into its message myself. And where the buyers I talked to hoped to find the path to a better life, I found a disturbing little book of blame.

The secret of "The Secret" is, very simply, the "law of attraction." Despite claims on the book's Web site that it is revealing hidden wisdom "for the first time in history," the idea dates back nearly 3,000 years to early Hindu teachings that "like attracts like." But author Rhonda Byrne takes it to a new level. She told Australia's Herald Sun newspaper in January that she stumbled upon "the secret" while mourning the death of her father in 2004, via a 1910 book called "The Science of Getting Rich," by one Wallace D. Wattles.

The revelation that inspired her? "Everything that's coming into your life you are attracting into your life," Byrne writes. "You are the most powerful magnet in the universe . . . so as you think a thought, you are also attracting like thoughts to you."

Despite the rather inexact science -- when it comes to magnets, it's opposites that attract -- Byrne asserts that this secret is a natural law as "precise" as gravity. It was the power, she argues, behind geniuses such as Plato, Newton, Beethoven and Einstein. Of course, none of these gents is alive to vouch for the accuracy of her claims, so Byrne has rallied support from a Who's Who of the self-help industry, including John Gray, author of "Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus," and Jack Canfield, who wrote "Chicken Soup for the Soul." Oprah Winfrey had Byrne on her show and raved about "The Secret."

They all endorse a book, with its clever "Da Vinci Code"-like cover, that presents the law of attraction as the ultimate shortcut to success and the American dream. Anyone who wants it badly enough can be a millionaire, the president, even an American Idol.

What's missing from this recycling of an old egalitarian ideal is the Protestant ethic and Enlightenment beliefs. Hard work, talent, education, even luck go unmentioned. As "The Secret" puts it, all you have to do is "put in your order with the universe." Ask. Believe. Receive. That's the mantra.

In the book, investment trainer David Schirmer describes his own experience. He used to receive bills every day. "So I got a bank statement, I whited out the total, and I put a new total in there," he says. "I thought, 'What if I just visualized a bunch of checks coming in the mail'? Within just one month, things started to change. It is amazing; today I just get checks in the mail. I get a few bills, but I get more checks than bills."

You'd think an investment expert might be wary of sharing a secret like that. But you can even print out a check from "The Bank of the Universe" off "The Secret's" Web site. Write in the amount you want. Imagine spending it. Then sit back and watch the cash roll in.

It's all so laughably nutty. And it would be harmless but for the millions buying the book and DVD and the exposure that "The Secret" is getting from the likes of Winfrey and Larry King. And for the danger lurking in its philosophy.

I saw that danger at the Barnes & Noble in Northern California where I worked for several months. Three times in less than two weeks, the store sold out of "The Secret." Time and again, the customers coming to the counter were working-class people, spending their hard-earned money on this piffle -- $16.76 for the book and $34.99 for the DVD. When I started asking why, they said they'd seen "The Secret" on "Oprah."


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© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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