Self-Help’s Slimy ‘Se­cret’

The Washington Post Sunday - - Outlook - By Tim Watkin

t’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

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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-changedmy-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 old­fash­ioned 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-richquick 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.

watkin.tim@gmail.com

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