Secret of 'The Secret': Unlocking the Mysteries of the Runaway Bestsellerby Karen Kelly
The bestselling blockbuster The Secret by Rhonda Byrnes has taken America by storm. The Secret of "The Secret" explores the explosive success of The Secret as well as the intriguing people and ideas behind it.
The Secret has already become a runaway sensation. All across America, people are clamoring to embrace it. Karen Kelly delves/i>/i>/i>/i>
The bestselling blockbuster The Secret by Rhonda Byrnes has taken America by storm. The Secret of "The Secret" explores the explosive success of The Secret as well as the intriguing people and ideas behind it.
The Secret has already become a runaway sensation. All across America, people are clamoring to embrace it. Karen Kelly delves into this extraordinary phenomenon What IS the secret? Where did it come from and does it really work?
The Secret of "The Secret" also investigates why this little book, particularly in America, has struck such a chorddoes hope always spring eternal in the U.S.? What is it about our culture that has historically drawn us to seek answers and change our destiny using the power of the mind and the universe? Scholars and popular culture experts provide perspective on what makes the idea so appealing.
Several participants from The Secret share their behind-the-scenes stories and insights. Renowned psychologists, scientists, and theologians, weigh in on the power and limits of positive thinking and The Law of Attraction (the basis behind The Secret). Uncover the scientific and religious roots that form the building blocks of The Secret, as experts evaluate the author's claims about the various connections between these principles and "the secret."
Finally, the answers to the burning questions behind one of the biggest success stories of our time have arrived. Discover The Secret of "The Secret."
Rhonda Byrne's 2006 best seller, The Secret, is getting The Da Vinci Codetreatment: spin-offs. Author and journalist Kelly rounds up a team of experts that includes scholars, scientists, popular culture experts-even some of the participants from Byrne's book and DVD-to share their insights on the powers and limits of positive thinking and the "law of attraction," the tenets on which Byrne bases her book. Their arguments are as varied as their professions, e.g., that it is not simply about what you want but your wants not hurting others; that the law of attraction may work generally, but nothing is a guarantee.
Who Moved My Secret?, meanwhile, is a hilarious spoof of the book. Journalist and playwright Gerard introduces a secret he believes far superior called It's the Secret, Stupid! (ITSS), providing detailed instruction on how to use it and the great success that will come with it. He states that in order to get what you want, you must conceive, believe, and also receive and act like you already have everything-in other words, act delusional. Each chapter includes such sage words as "we are all connected, which makes it impossible to get dressed." Kelly's book is recommended for public and academic libraries as well as for anyone wanting to know the real "secret" behind The Secret; Gerard's is for anyone seeking a humorous read and a lighthearted look at life and the laws of attraction. [For a biblical perspective of the best seller, see the review of James Garlow and Rick Marschall's The Secret Revealed, p. 92.-Ed.]
- St. Martin's Press
- Publication date:
- Edition description:
- First Edition
- Product dimensions:
- 5.73(w) x 8.52(h) x 0.81(d)
Read an Excerpt
THE SECRET OF "THE SECRET
From Down Under to On Top: How the Secret Spread
IT'S TOO SOON to tell whether or not The Secret book will make the list of bestselling titles of all time, which is a very high bar to reach considering that those at the bottom of the list have sold nearly 30 million copies. Books at the top of the list include everything from the Bible (50 to 60 billion) and Quotations from Chairman Mao Zedong (900 millionbut he had a built-in audience) to Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone (107 million) and Richard Bach's Jonathan Livingston Seagull (40 million). (The numbers are from Wikipedia.com and Amazon.com.) Yet The Secret is heading in the right direction, with nearly 4 million copies in print. People who do not work in the publishing industry sometimes misunderstand what big print numbers actually meanand what an accomplishment it is to achieve sales of even 100,000, let alone a million. Most books are lucky to make sales in the five-figure range.
"Writers are up against the 200,000 books that are published each year. One year the publishers will say, 'Too many books,' so they cut back to 195,000 a year," explains Constance Sayre, a principal in the publishing consultancy Market Partners International. Added to that, she says, new authors are also facing the fact that independent booksellers "are dying like flies and the chain booksellers' sales are dropping." The book itself is up against various forms of electronic media, which is why Sayre and others in the business say that the The Secret DVD made such a huge difference; otherwise, it is hard to get anyone to pay attention. Indeed, there would have been no book without the movieit is a direct result of the DVD's popularity and of its actual content (most of the book is a transcription of what the experts said).
Both DVD and book aroused a lot of debate and complaint (which is not to say that the Bible and Harry Potter haven'tof course they have). Yet the story surrounding Byrne's book, its marketing, and the inevitable criticism and discussion that generally follow are what cultural studies professors call part of its "production"the more people talk about something, the longer it exists. The story of how it came into being, which by now has become a mini-legend, offers lessons in publishing, Internet marketing, convergence culture, optimism, cynicism, collective unconscious, and wishful thinking.
Inspiration and Origins
The law of attraction is not new, and it's been called many different things over the years: positive thinking, psychology, flow, faith, the power of intention, or the law of abundance. It even has an opposite: Murphy's law. So was Rhonda Byrne simply rehashing an age-old idea, one that had appeared several times before in books and even movies? When New York Times reporter Allen Salkin asked Byrne about the Secret business, because it seemed like hocus-pocus, she said, "No, no, no, if you look at The Master Key System, it was very expensive knowledge to buy and was subscription only." Byrne was referring to Charles Haanel's twenty-four-week success program, which was originally published in 1912 and cost around $1,500a royal sum at the time. It is widely available in inexpensive book form today, and I even found a free Internet version. Apparently, Byrne believed that although the law of attraction wasn't new, compiling the ideas in an easy-to-digest and readily available format was ground-breaking.
According to the official Web site of The Secret, www.thesecret.tv, Byrne's version, which was first articulated as a DVD, came about "on a spring day toward the end of 2004." This may seem contradictory to those of us in the Western Hemisphere, where winter ends the year, but Byrne's home base is in Australia, which is in the Eastern Hemisphere, where the seasons are reversed. On this particular day, the fifty-something mother of two was in the midst of a personal and financial crisis, which she recounted on an episode of Oprah. According to Byrne, her daughter, Hayley, gave her a copy of self-help writer Wallace D. Wattles's The Science of Getting Rich, originally published in 1910 and still in print today.
Wattles's book explains the secret laws of the universeand most primarily, the law of attractionin this way: "A thought, in this substance, produces the thing that is imagined by the thought." Wattles repeats this idea in various ways throughout his book: "There is a thinking stuff from which all things are made, and which, in turn, in its original state, permeates, penetrates, and fills the interspaces of the universe. A thought, in this substance, produces the thing that is imagined by the thought." But it's not so simple: "To think according to appearance is easy," he writes; "to think truth regardless of appearances is laborious, and requires expenditure of more power than any other workman is called upon to perform."
More about Wattles later, but for now, it's notable that these quotes unmistakably mirror what The Secret says, and the similarities suggest Byrne did indeed read Wattles and drew upon his ideas. However, most books about the law of attraction say generally pretty much the same thing, so there is some debate about whether it was Wattles's book alone that inspired Byrne to create her documentary. And that's where this part of the story becomes interesting.
Reporter Allen Salkin, who wrote about The Secret for the Times, said that Byrne was "100 percent familiar" not only with other law of attraction books but also with another thematically related film, What the Bleep Do We Know!?, a documentary about the science of the mind and the power of consciousness made in 2004 by William Arntz, Betsy Chasse, and Mark Vicente. Salkin describes The Secret as "a watered down, Kmart version of What the Bleep; you may think you are watching something similar, but What the Bleep is much more about science," than spirituality, he says.
"The Bleep came out in Australia well before they started to make The Secret," says Bleep filmmaker Betsy Chasse, who interviewed one of the producers of The Secret DVD and asked him whether or not What the Bleep influenced him. "He said it did and it didn't, so obviously it had to have had an effect on the filmmakers. And there's a crossover of people they interviewed," she explained, including physicists Fred Alan Wolf and John Hagelin.
According to the official version of the DVD's inception, published on The Secret's Web site, Byrne dug a little further into the law of attraction and discovered there were people "alive today" who were aware of the information and were in fact writing books and producing tapes and DVDs about it, holding workshops, and traveling around the United States giving speeches about itrather than hoarding it all for themselves.
Byrne saw a hole in the market, and said she wanted to pull all the bits and pieces of information together in one easily accessible place, first in a documentarya medium she understood quite well. Part of the secret of the DVD's success is that Byrne is a savvy television producer who knows what she's doing. The Secret Web site includes information on her Australian film company, Prime Time Productions, and lists an impressive roster of highly rated reality and documentary-style programs, including The World's Greatest Commercials and related specials: "Adults Only," "Cannes," "Funniest Commercials Ever Made," and "SEX SELLS." Another program, Australia Behaving Badly, "explores the differences between what Australians say they would do when their conscience is on the line, and what they actually do when faced with temptation." OZ Encounters, a one-hour special made for Australian TV, features unexplained phenomena experienced by "everyday" Aussies that range from UFO sightings by entire towns to one-on-one alien abductions.
Since many law of attraction practitioners are in the United States, Byrne headed into the Western Hemisphere to start shooting footage with a range of self-help gurus, a physicist, and some metaphysicists. "The Secret is the first time anyone has ever put 24 teachers with their own following together in one movie," says bestselling Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus author John Gray, who appeared in the DVD. An experienced television producer, Byrne knows what she's doing in terms of appealing to broad public taste. "They are saying the same things in a very uplifting way, and that, along with good graphics, made an impact on people. We are a visual society and watch TV more than we read books; nothing holds our attention for very long, so she put the ideas across with that in mind," says Gray.
Among those experts Byrne enlisted to participate in the DVD were longtime law of attraction teachers Jerry and Esther Hicks. The Hickses are two of the most widely recognized and popular law of attraction speakers todaythe equivalent of rock stars in the metaphysical movementso naturally Byrne sought them out. The couple has been on the road talking and writing about the law of attraction since the late 1980s. They say their messages come from divine guidance via a spirit named Abraham who speaks through Esther (they do not use the term "channel"). Their books The Law of Attraction, published by Hay House in September 2006, and an earlier volume, Ask and It Is Given, also published by Hay House in October 2005, were both channeled by Abraham.
The Hickses are prolific; over the last twenty years they have produced more than six hundred Abraham-inspired books, workbooks, cards, calendars, cassette tapes, CDs, and DVDs. Byrne sought out the Hickses to participate in the first version of the DVD. In a letter the Hickses sent to friends and colleagues in late 2006 (widely available online by Googling "Jerry and Esther Hicks' letter to friends"), the couple related their dismay with how their participation in the DVD was handled. They consented to participate and signed an agreement with Prime Time Productions, Byrne's company, that would give them a small percentage of the net profits and 10 percent of direct-video sales. Esther's "Abraham voice" ended up being used as narration in the first version of the DVD, but neither Esther nor Jerry appeared on screen.
The first version of the DVD was released in March 2006. Something happened between the Hickses and Byrne, and Esther demanded to be cut from the DVD, according to Allen Salkin's Times story chronicling the rift, published on February 25, 2007. Esther was upset by the way she was used in the DVD and surprised that she was completely offscreen. Byrne recut the video, adding Esther Hicks's onscreen interviews back in.
But according to their letter, the revised DVD was distributed differently than originally promised (on television and via video sales): Byrne had asked them to revise the contract they had signed to allow for different streams of distribution. Byrne had indeed originally planned to go the traditional television broadcast route, but several sources told me that the programming of the 2006 Winter Olympics got in the way, and she decided instead to make the DVD available online for $4.95 per download view. This turned out to be brilliant marketing.
The parties could not come to an agreement, and Byrne recut the DVD a second time, completely removing Esther's voice and image along with any acknowledgment of her intellectual contribution. To make up for the loss of Esther Hicks, Byrne enlisted Lisa Nichols, an author featured in Chicken Soup for the African American Soul (part of the series of books made famous by Jack Canfield, who is also featured in The Secret) and Marci Shimoff, a contributor to Chicken Soup for the Woman's Soul. (Byrne does thank the Hickses and the teachings of Abraham in the acknowledgment section of the book.)
None of the other participants were paid for their contribution, although they have certainly reaped benefits from being in the DVD, as I describe later on. According to the Times, the couple said they earned about $500,000 from sales of the original "Hicks version" of the DVD, but receive nothing directly from sales now that the DVD has been recut.
In their letter, the Hickses maintain that they feel very joyful when they watch the movie, and believe it represents Abraham's law of attraction in a very simple way that allows many people to access it. The Secret does offer up the law of attraction's most basic fundamentals, and its optimistic explanation is one aspect of the book that has received criticism by those who have long been familiar with its principles.
Kristine Pidkameny, editor in chief of the One Spirit Book Club and an expert on metaphysical literature, draws a distinction between The Secret and the Hickses' work. "The difference is that the Hickses put out pure contentyou can listen and watch one of their [video] talks many times and get different things out of it with each new viewing," she says. "Ask and It Is Given, Amazing Power of Deliberate Intention, and The Law of Attraction are straightforward but multilayered with information. The Secret is slicker. During my first viewing, I had to stay open and just say to myself, 'Let me not say this reminds me of other things, and evaluate it clearly.'"
More than one source has told me that the Hickses are not actually as magnanimous as their letter implies. If it is true that they are angrier than they are letting on, and it certainly seems credible, it's hard to blame them; their dignity in being so self-restrained is admirable. Allen Salkin says they are sensitive because they may have felt used by another author, Lynn Grabhorn, who they thought borrowed too liberally from their work without giving them enough credit. Grabhorn was a former advertising professional in New York. She also founded an audiovisual educational company in Los Angeles before moving to Washington state, where she ran a mortgage brokerage. At any rate, she had attended a Hickses seminar sometime in the 1990s and was so impressed with what she heard, according to Allen Salkin, that she approached the couple afterward with an idea. She asked them, "Do you mind if I take this material and turn it into a book?"
It's unclear how the Hickses responded to the question, but Grabhorn felt confident enough to follow through with her idea, and the result is Excuse Me Your Life Is Waiting: The Astonishing Power of Feelings, which she originally self-published in the late 1990s and then eventually sold to a small publisher, Hampton Roads, who issued its edition in 1999. Ancillary products and workshops followed, most notably her Life Course 101. "She plagiarized the Hickses, and this is why they were upset with Rhonda. They feel everyone is taking from them," says Salkin.
Grabhorn died in May 5, 2004, so while her Life Course 101 is no longer being offered (according to her Web site) for obvious reasons, her online presence is still active, and Grabhorn's books and products can still be purchased. Since the law of attraction isn't new, the concept is free for anyone to use and interpret. Still, Grabhorn does give a nod to the Hickses in the introduction to the book. In the beginning of the two-page section she describes her spiritual quest to get more out of life. She describes encounters with "learned professors of physics," and of studying "esoteric sciences."
What she writes next is important in understanding why the Hickses, or anyone in their place, would take offense:
Naturally, with my vast knowledge on the subject, when I came across some provincial teachings from this unlettered, unscientific family of teachers, my first impulse was to pooh-pooh the information because of their enormous oversimplification of what I considered to be a rather formidable topic. So it was more than a tad begrudgingly that I agreed to investigate this taped malarkey that a well-meaning friend had ungraciously shoved in my face.
Upon investigation, she discovered that there was substance in what the Hickses were saying, and made a crucial decision: "And so, in my own prosaic words and style I've reissued here the profoundly simple teachings of the Hicks family in Texas.*" The asterisk refers to a footnote at the bottom of the page with a post office box addressfor the Hickses, I assume; the annotation simply reads: "PO Box 690070, San Antonio, TX 78296." The Hickses received no compensation from Grabhorn in exchange for her "reissuing."
Excuse Me, Your Life Is Now: Mastering the Law of Attraction, which is authored by another life coach, Doreen Banaszak, carries on the work of Grabhorn. A message from Grabhorn, posted on her Web site (www.lynngrabhorn.com/messagefromlynn.htm), urges readers to continue teaching and using the law of attraction. In a letter to readers, Banaszak describes how the publishers at Hampton Roads asked her to continue Grabhorn's work now that she's gone (www.your-life-is-now.com/aboutlynnandi.html), and refers to being "familiar" with Abraham and the Hickses.
In spite of those who liberally "borrow" and cash in on the Hickses' work, they continue to actively teach their courses across the country, serving and building a large fan base out of a deluxe RV. "The Hickses blow through a town once or twice a year and for many people that one day with Jerry and Esther could be their entire religious observance for a year," says Salkin. One Spirit's Kristine Pidkameny says her book club offers the Hickses' material very successfully. "They are popular with our members. I have never met them personally, but I work with people who know them, and everyone is impressed by their positive focus. They do not let anyone or anything negative enter the picture. They walk the talk."
Once they closed the door on their relationship with Byrne, the producer was free to begin marketing the current version of the DVD unencumbered by contractual worries.
The Miracle of the Market
The success of the DVD, and later the book, are not simply based on the quality and intriguing nature of their content. "It was a marketing coup," says Arielle Ford, who leads The Ford Group, a public relations company that specializes in the metaphysical and inspirational categories. "There are a zillion other books and movies about the law of attraction and Rhonda came in as a TV producer and made it mysterious and positioned it as myth-busting information. It built slowly." The products' victories in the marketplace owe as much to the way the DVD was made available and reached its audience as to the way the book and movie packages were designed. "The way Rhonda crafted it really did make it seem like a secret," says Allen Salkin. "She knows how to fashion a television show; there is a lot of smoke and mirrors in The Secret."
According to book-marketing guru John Kremer, author of 1001 Ways to Market Your Book, The Secret found its audience in a way that is unconventional for most metaphysical and New Age books. "Almost every bestseller in the self-help spiritual categories, all those on the New York Times list for the last twenty years, are there because the author has gone out and tirelessly spoken. In this case, the author has not actively done that. Instead she created a viral campaign for the DVD, and built interest for the book in that way. No question it broke the rules."
Its promotion is what will likely become a classic example of how to take a topic that was previously of interest mostly to a niche group of people and make it appealing to the general publicmany of whom were previously uninterested in or unfamiliar with this type of New Age thinking or, as it is more commonly referred to nowadays, metaphysics. Metaphysics is a legitimate line of academic inquirythe study of the nature and interconnectedness of all thingsbut it has been appropriated by New Age thinkers for more spiritual purposes. It's an eclectic category that encompasses health, medicine, philosophy, psychology, multiculturalism, and a mix of religious beliefs.
Paul H. Ray and Sherry Ruth Anderson called people interested in metaphysics "cultural creatives" in their landmark 2001 book of the same name. They contend that about 26 percent of the population fit the category, which includes people who care deeply about the environment, relationships, social justice, self-actualization, creativity, and spirituality. Gaiam, a Colorado-based company, creates products and information specifically geared to cultural creatives and the mind-body-spirit market. The firm coined the acronym LOHAS for people who follow lifestyles of health and sustainability.
These people were the first and primary market for the DVD version of The Secret. Byrne had a direct line to them via the databases of the people who appeared in her DVD. "Basically, it started with the gurus marketing the movie to their own lists," says Salkin. In newsletters and e-mail messages, DVD participants such as Jack Canfield, Ben Johnson, and John Demartini would alert their fans and followers that they were featured in the DVD. "Rhonda had twenty-four teachers, all of whom have a platform and an e-mail list, and they told their list and those people told other people," explains Arielle Ford.
Those e-mails created instant interestand at $4.95 per download, it was easy for these people to check out the DVD and then tell their friends about it. Which is exactly how I heard about The Secret. An otherwise secular and very pragmatic friend in Los Angeles told me I had to check out the DVD online, because "it makes you feel like you're in control and there are possibilities." I asked him how he had heard about it. "My therapist mentioned it, then a friend from the gym, and then someone from AA." Call it viral marketing or word of mouth, it works. No expensive advertising necessary.
The group of filmmakers working in the same subject area also helped spread the word. Bleep producer Betsy Chasse describes the community as a brotherhood of folks who have a tradition of helping each other out because they all share the same missionto enlighten and educate the world. "We have a pact with each other that we will always support each other because we realize we are on the same path. The Celestine Prophecy, Conversations with God, The Bleepeach has a newsletter that reaches hundreds of thousands of people, and we support each other's work in those bulletins. So when The Secret came out, we figured it was another one of our siblings and we opened our network to them before the movie was well-known, and I think that made a huge difference. But they won't acknowledge that it helped them significantly. We did a huge story in our newsletters and others did too."
Unfortunately, Chasse says, The Secret producers refused to do the same thing when other filmmakers released their own topic-related movies. They did nothing about The Peaceful Warrior (a March 2007 movie based on Dan Millman's bestselling autobiographical novel Way of the Peaceful Warrior), and nothing when Down the Rabbit Hole (Chasse's Bleep follow-up theatrical film) came out on DVD, according to the producer. "We were surprised by that and thought it [the producers' disinterest] was odd," she recalls.
Ultimately, though, the Hickses, the participants in the movie, and those who work in the same realm all benefit by the incredible exposure The Secret has given to the law of attraction and metaphysics. I went to a two-hour talk hosted by John Demartini at EastWest Yoga in New York, and when Demartini asked the audience how many came because they had seen him in The Secret, 90 percent of the people in the room raised their hands. Demartini readily admits that The Secret opened doors for him, by introducing the already very busy and successful speaker to a new audience unfamiliar with his ideas.
Betsy Chasse describes being in a bookstore in the Pacific Northwest, where she lives, when a young woman walked in who had seen The Secret. "She asked the manager for something more in-depth, and the proprietor recommended The Bleep, so that kind of thing will happen," she says, "but The Bleep has always been a steady seller, and I also hope that people realize that it's about more than simply getting rich." When What the Bleep was released on DVD in 2004 it was on Amazon's Top 10 list, says Chasse, and has maintained a position in the Top 100 since then. (On the day I checked Amazon it was 136, still very high for a small-release film that's now more than four years old.)
Web sites of those experts featured in The Secret, and even speakers and life coaches who have nothing to do with it, use The Secret as a catchphrase and a platform to entice those who are searching for more information. Topic-related books, including the one you're reading, are in the works or have already been published. Atria Books signed up a book and companion video called Notes from the Universe by Mike Dooley, who is featured in The Secret; DVD participants James Ray and Lisa Nichols have new books in the works as well.
After the DVD reached its core audience, a more general buzz started to build and the media took notice. For example, it captured the attention of Larry King Live executive producer Wendy Walker Whitworth, and the talk-show elder statesman did a two-part story on the DVD and its message. Part 1 was shown on November 1, 2006, and featured DVD participants and law of attraction experts, including success coach Bob Proctor, life coach John Assaraf, inspirational speaker John Demartini, the Reverend Michael Beckwith, and spiritual medium JZ Knight (nee Judith Darlene Hampton), who was born in Roswell, New Mexico, and now channels Ramtha. Part 2 was shown on November 16, 2006, this time featuring success coach James Ray, Jack Canfield of Chicken Soup fame, marketing expert Joe Vitale, psychologist George Pratt, and therapist and social worker Jayne Payne.
A small, beautifully produced companion book, essentially a transcript of the DVD with some original material provided by Byrne, was quickly published on November 28, 2006. The book's smallish trim size and ancient-looking cover, adorned with an embossed image of a wax seal, makes it look like it contains special information. On Friday, December 1, Ellen DeGeneres broadcast a segment of The Secret on her popular daytime talk show, which featured two of the participants, Bob Proctor and John Assaraf.
Reporters picked up on the phenomenonwhich in turn created even more discussion, curiosity, and Internet chatter, along with outrage, jealousy, and jokes. On January 27, 2007, The Wall Street Journal was the first national newspaper to pick up on the story. Reporter Camille Ricketts and her colleagues even coined a new term for the genre of DVDs and other media created to uplift and inspire: enlightainment. "We had a roundtable discussion about it in my cubicle," she says. "It was born in the office after a bunch of us threw around a few other alternatives." After Googling the term to see that it wasn't already out there, she went with it in her story.
Ricketts was personally intrigued by the idea of writing about The Secret. "I pitched it from a personal place. I watched it in my own life. My mom had sent The Secret to me; she has been a fan of this form of thinking for years. I grew up listening to Williamson and Hay," she explains, recalling both the 1990s L.A.-based spiritual superstar, now XM Radio host of Oprah & Friends Marianne Williamson, and Louise Hay, the prolific self-help author and founder of Hay House publishers. "I was primed to embrace The Secret, and then I saw both book and movie were top sellers on Amazon, so it made sense to cover it."
On February 8, 2007, Oprah devoted an entire show to the book, and then again the following week. The Oprah effect took over. "It's hard to know if a book taps into a certain zeitgeist or creates one," says Sara Nelson, editor of the trade magazine Publishers Weekly. "But in the case of The Secret, I think a good portion of its mass success is the fact that Oprah spent two entire shows talking about it. That is extremely powerful." Nelson says it is hard to predict how long the book will sell, but the fact that the publisher went back to press for 2 million copies certainly means it will be one of the bestselling books of the year, at least until the new Harry Potter comes along. "Remember, M. Scott Peck's The Road Less Traveled was on the list for many years," she says, referring to another popular self-help book written in 1978, at the dawn of the Me Generation.
Allen Salkin says the reason he was first attracted to the idea of writing his February 25, 2007, Times piece was because he knew several friends who were going to law of attraction meetings. "A lot of people were talking about the movie. There was something going on, and it was gaining momentum, you could sense it. As a reporter you want to figure out what is going on and why people are so interested in a particular idea. And Rhonda brilliantly managed to convey a sense that there was something mysterious and hidden by the powers that be."
A somewhat less flattering piece about The Secret appeared in Newsweek on March 5, 2007, "Decoding the Secret," in which senior editor Jerry Adler takes a much dimmer view of the subject matter and its acquisition-focused message. And on March 5, 2007, Peter Berkinhead published a particularly scathing essay, "Oprah's Ugly Secret," in the online magazine Salon, attacking the talk-show diva in particular for championing what he sees as a dangerous, materialistic, blame-the-victim concept. In defense of Oprah, I think this was an overreaction and a misreading of her passion for The Secret.
"A lot of reporters since the Journal story appeared have pointed out the weakness in The Secret," admits Ricketts. Critics range from longtime practitioners who are disappointed because of its oversimplification to skeptics who charge that the idea is a fantasy that has no basis in reality or science, least of all quantum physics, as believers claim. "I really think that people are so staggered by its success that they want to try to poke holes in it. But I do think it has a place in the self-help canon. The backlash trend is coming from people who are resentful that it is making money and think it is a scam because it is profitable," says Ricketts.
If The Secret opens a door and creates an opening for other, less materialistic voices, as a way to improve relationships, that can be a real strength, according to Ricketts. "The get-rich aspect is how you attract a broad audience, but the people who watch it for that do get a dose of the other side."
"Rhonda delivered what she could understandI think she is actually a detriment to the law of attraction because she is stuck in the 101 version," says Arielle Ford. "But on the other hand, bless her heart, because she has opened up a whole new group of people to the idea."
Chasse argues that because The Secret got such a great reception in the beginning, Byrne may not have been ready for what many believe is the predictable onslaught of criticism that often follows, when journalists and others, including envious authors and onlookers, start their scrutiny. After all, her previous programs had never reached such a huge, observant, and opinionated audience. Chasse continues, "She is afraid now," referring to the fact that Byrne retreated from the press and stopped granting interviews. "We were thrown into the fire from the beginning [when What the Bleep was released], and faced vicious attacks from the get-go, so we had to be on top of our game because we knew we would get attacked. We knew everything we said would be twisted, and we did the best we could and did our homework and prepared to reply to tough questions."
Two questions in particular emerged again and again. One surrounds Byrne's assertion in the book that people are fat because they think fat, and not because of what they eat. Instead, she recommends that those wanting to lose weight can achieve their goals by not associating or even looking at overweight people, and by having positive thoughts while eating. Don't hesitate to enjoy a Big Mac and fries if the spirit moves you. "She takes it too far with weight," says John Gray. "There is legitimate criticism of that idea. When people eat bad food, they should feel bad. Another version of her weight-loss line of thinking is that if you shoot someone, have a positive thought in your head while you are doing it, so it won't be a bad thing. Obviously it is. And putting bad food in your body is like shooting yourself."
Another idea that raised the ire of many is that you create your own reality and are, in effect, responsible for everything that happens to you, from genetic disease to genocide. What follows from that is the extremely troubling idea that the Jews created the Holocaust and the Rwandans conjured up their own slaughter. In one interview Byrne made the mistake of intimating that this last idea was true. Jerry Adler writes in Newsweek that Byrne responded to a question about the Rwandan massacre by saying that people who live in fear and feel powerless unconsciously and innocently attract such events. It's not that simple, as you see in Chapter 3.
Many believers think the book didn't go far enough and some details about how and why to use the law of attraction were left by the wayside. "There is nothing wrong with manifesting a bicycle," says Laura Smith, director of programming for Lime Radio, a health and wellness multimedia brand, referring to a scene in the DVD that shows a little boy pining after, and then receiving, a shiny red two-wheeler. "It is not simply about getting what you want. And you certainly shouldn't do it, for example, by taking it away from someone else."
Still Smith, like everyone who I spoke to in the DVD, is pleased that The Secret's message is reaching people and prompting them to think more deeply about their lives. "I am grateful that people who may have lost the concept that life is good and happiness isn't just for 'other people' but for them too, have found The Secret," she said, echoing what many of her colleagues told me.
Besides, criticism isn't such a bad thing for the book. The fact that there is a pro-and-con discussion going on in newspapers, in other books (like this one), and on the Internet is an increasingly common and sought-after feature of the promotion of media products. Believers see it as positive because people unfamiliar with the idea are now talking about it. It gives detractors a chance to release their cynicism at the entire New Thought movement. And it's good for the marketplace. Discussion keeps books and DVDs such as The Secret alive and selling. It's what Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Henry Jenkins calls "convergence culture." Jenkins, the director of the Comparative Media Studies Program at MIT, writes in his book Convergence Culture, "Because there is more information on any given topic than anyone can store in their head, there is an added incentive for us to talk among ourselves about the media we consume. This conversation creates buzz that is increasingly valued by the media industry." In other words, there's no such thing as bad publicity!
Secret communities, both pro and con, have popped up in cyberspaceto analyze it, share experiences with it, and meet like-minded people all over the world. "We have a consumer culture that no longer reduces the recipients to passive consumers," says John Belton, a professor of film and cultural studies at Rutgers University. "We not only need to tell a story; we need an explanation for it. This movie is providing a platform for others to tell stories, and among them is the story of why this movie or book in particular is so privileged over other storytelling alternatives."
And the cycle of media creating people who create media continues, present company included.
THE SECRET OF "THE SECRET.” Copyright © 2007 by Karen Kelly.
Meet the Author
Karen Kelly is a prolific author and journalist. She has collaborated on a number of non-fiction books, including Get Serious About Getting Married and Starring You! The Insiders’ Guide to Using Television and Media to Launch Your Brand, Your Business and Your Life. She has written articles for The New York Times, Natural Health Magazine, Yoga Journal, and The Wall Street Journal. Kelly also worked as a senior editor at Warner Books and was Editorial Director of Daybreak Books, Rodale's personal growth imprint, acquiring titles by Montel Williams, Darcy O’Brien, and Victoria Moran.
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