Self-Help's Slimy 'Secret'

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."

Winfrey first featured it on Feb. 8. According to Nielsen BookScan, the book had sold 18,000 copies the week before. During the week of the show, sales rocketed to 101,000. The show did a follow-up on Feb. 16, and sales that week reached 190,000.

Yet none of the how-the-Secret-changed-my-life stories on "Oprah" mentioned the dark side of the book's pie-in-the-sky pitch. In February, Los Angeles Times editorial writer Karin Klein reported that local therapists were seeing "clients who are headed for real trouble, immersing themselves in a dream world in which good things just come." Klein told me in an e-mail that she had heard from readers who were worried about friends who "suddenly start buying things, certain that the money to pay for them will just show up."

Still worse is the insidious flip side of Byrne's philosophy: If bad things happen to you, it's all your fault. As surely as your thoughts bring health, wealth and love, they are also responsible for any illness, poverty or misery that comes your way.

That isn't just implied, it's spelled out: "The only reason why people do not have what they want is because they are thinking more about what they don't want than what they do want." By this logic, Holocaust victims brought it on themselves, as did those who lost their homes in Hurricane Katrina. Come on, New Orleans, get over it! Think positive!

For a few weeks, I joked with customers about this nonsense. One evening, I was talking to a regular who said she had come in to buy "The Secret" to "see what the fuss is about." A problem with the book, we agreed, is that it says nothing about old-fashioned luck. We hit on the word at the same time and laughed. But after she left, I took a closer look, and all at once the book's blame-the-victim philosophy didn't seem so funny.

Not even "Saturday Night Live," taking a poke at "The Secret's" finger-pointing fallacies, could make it so. One recent weekend, the show featured a skit about a man in Darfur being interviewed by Winfrey and Byrne. They scolded him when he lamented that his people were starving, saying it was all the result of his lousy attitude. That was played for laughs, but later that week I watched Bob Proctor, author of "You Were Born Rich" and one of the "gurus" Byrne quotes most often, being asked on "Nightline" whether the starving children of Darfur had "manifested" -- that is, visualized -- their own misery. In utter seriousness, he replied, "I think the country probably has."

The book is not nearly so equivocal. "Imperfect thoughts are the cause of humanity's ills," Byrne asserts, in a stunning sentence that had me pondering how to perfect my thoughts, pronto.

Poverty? "The only reason any person does not have enough money is because they are blocking money from coming to them with their thoughts."

Illness? "You cannot 'catch' anything unless you think you can. . . . You are also inviting illness if you are listening to people talking about their illness." So . . . got any sick friends who need a shoulder to cry on? Tell 'em to bug off! As for Elizabeth Edwards -- how selfish is she? By making people think about her cancer, she's basically giving them the disease.

What at first glance looks like the world according to Disney -- wish on a star, and it will all come true -- turns out to be a pretty ugly little secret indeed.

Winfrey, perhaps recalling how badly burned she was last year by James Frey's pseudo-memoir, "A Million Little Pieces," may have started to cotton on to that reality. A couple of weeks ago, she "clarified" her views on the "law of attraction." Although she didn't apologize for endorsing "The Secret," she said the law of attraction "is not the answer to everything. It is not the answer to atrocities or every tragedy. It is just one law. Not the only law. And certainly, certainly, certainly not a get-rich-quick scheme."

As I squeezed an endless stream of new self-help books onto shelf after shelf at the bookstore and watched the sales they generated, I realized just how many publishers and self-appointed gurus are making their fortunes serving up nothing more than snake oil to a ravenous public. Yet this latest little flimflam of a book seems to represent a new low for the industry. It takes the promise that "you can be anything you want if you just read this book" to its illogical conclusion: Simply believe and it will happen.

But the truth -- as M. Scott Peck, one of the earliest and best self-help authors, once wrote -- is that life is difficult. There are no easy answers. I'm hoping that "The Secret" will wake people up to the fact that anyone who claims otherwise is just ripping them off.

Wishful thinking? Maybe not, if I really believe hard enough.

Tim Watkin, former deputy editor of the New Zealand Listener magazine, is a freelance writer in San Francisco.

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