"I think I'll sell a gazillion books"
Want to know a secret? Thoughts of fear and powerlessness among the people who died in Hurricane Katrina and the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks attracted...
The Associated Press
CHICAGO — Want to know a secret? Thoughts of fear and powerlessness among the people who died in Hurricane Katrina and the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks attracted them "to being in the wrong place at the wrong time."
That's probably the most eye-popping claim associated with "The Secret," a book that tells us that the "law of attraction" — basically "like attracts like" — governs our universe.
"If people believe they can be in the wrong place at the wrong time, and they have no control over outside circumstances," the book says, "those thoughts of fear, separation and powerlessness, if persistent, can attract them to being in the wrong place at the wrong time."
"The Secret," is the work of Rhonda Byrne, an Australian television and film producer. The book, which advocates the power of positive thinking, has more than 5.2 million copies in print. A 90-minute DVD of the same name has sold 2 million copies.
A pop-culture phenomenon, it's also attracted critics who are particularly bothered by what they see as a philosophy that could dissolve into a blame-the-victim mentality and suggest it could be dangerous to those suffering from serious illness, who don't get any medical treatment.
Others find the movement embarrassingly materialistic or the latest example of an American propensity of wanting something for nothing.
Most of the book and DVD focuses on how people can improve their lives, health, relationships and financial situations. But it also says people can draw negative happenings toward them.
In the DVD, for example, a man so worried about his bicycle that he secures it to a pole with heavy chains returns to find his bike has indeed been stolen.
"The condition of being overweight," the book says, "was created through your thought to it. To put it in the most basic terms, if someone is overweight, it came from thinking 'fat thoughts,' whether that person was aware of it or not."
And during "events in history where masses of lives were lost," the book says, the "frequency of their thoughts matched the frequency of the event."
The positive spin the book places on that assertion is that believers will no longer be worried of being victims of the "luck of the draw." Instead, "whatever you choose to think will become your life experience."
Byrne expanded on the issue in a response to several e-mailed questions.
"In a large-scale tragedy, like 9/11, Hurricane Katrina, etc., we see that the law of attraction responds to people being at the wrong place at the wrong time because their dominant thoughts were on the same frequency of such events," she said.
"Now, this doesn't mean that they thought of the same exact event, but if their dominant thoughts and feelings were in alignment with the energy of fear, separation, powerlessness and having no control over outside circumstances, then that is what they attracted," she said.
She said there is "no one to blame," in such cases and that besides the deaths, injuries and other losses, "there were also many miraculous stories of survival."
That whole concept is one of the most troubling assertions of "The Secret," according to John Norcross, a psychologist and professor at the University of Scranton in Pennsylvania who conducts research on self-help books.
"So that would mean that if you're poor, you have somehow earned it by your thinking," Norcross said. "If you've been sexually abused, you'd be surprised to hear that some way, you're responsible for that."
The book's mantra of "ask, believe, receive," he said, easily transforms into a blame the victim mentality.
"Cancer victims. Sexual assault victims. Holocaust victims. They're responsible?" Norcross said. "The book is riddled with these destructive falsehoods."
Such concerns seemingly have not dimmed sales. And "The Secret" has been featured on the TV shows of Larry King, Ellen DeGeneres and Oprah Winfrey, who devoted two episodes to the subject.
Byrne said she was struggling personally and professionally several years ago when she was given a nearly 100-year-old book called "The Science of Getting Rich," by Wallace D. Wattles. In it, readers are guaranteed to become wealthy if they learn and follow "certain laws which govern the process of acquiring riches."
Byrne resolved to create a film to spread the word about what she felt she had learned about the "law of attraction."
The DVD, also available as a Web-based, pay-per-view video, was released in March 2006. It resembles a videotaped seminar, featuring commentators with titles such as "quantum physicist," "philosopher" and "visionary" — many of whom had already written their own books.
The book followed last November. It's currently the No. 1 nonfiction book on lists of best-sellers, including Publishers Weekly, The Wall Street Journal and USA Today, and is No. 1 on The New York Times' hardcover advice list.
Dr. Maria Padro, a psychiatrist at St. Vincent's Hospital Manhattan in New York City, believes that Americans turn to self-help books because contemporary society is stressful and there is still sometimes a stigma connected to visiting a therapist.
She read "The Secret" to see what the "jibber jabber" was about and sees value in its positive outlook.
"I think the secret is that everyone has their own secret, and everyone has their own dream," she said. "And the book is one of the tools we can use to get it, but I don't think that it's a little magic wand."
Psychotherapist and lifestyle coach Stacy Kaiser also praised the positive thinking espoused in "The Secret" but questioned its failure to discuss action.
"People start to think that they don't have to use their free will, that they don't have to have power anymore, that they don't have to make choices," Kaiser said. "They don't realize they have to do the work. And that's the conversation I keep having to have with people."
Dr. Gail Saltz, an author and psychiatrist at New York-Presbyterian Hospital/Weill Cornell Medical Center, pointed out that cognitive behavioral therapy seeks to modify harmful thoughts as a way to improve patients' feelings.
She said that among people who are ill, those who remain hopeful and have a positive attitude tend to do better. But she was especially upset about a woman in "The Secret" who claims her breast cancer was cured without radiation or chemotherapy; the woman watched funny movies and had faith that she had already been healed.
Saltz received hundreds of angry e-mails after she talked about her concerns on the "Today" show.
"Living is difficult. ... People want ... a solution and an answer. If it were an easy one, like 'think it' — that would be even better, right?" she said. "I understand. It's a wish fulfillment. I really do understand that."
Regarding the woman with cancer, Byrne said "The Secret" fully supports all forms of healing and feels "enormous gratitude" for what traditional medicine has accomplished.
She counters that the type of action her critics discuss isn't required by the "law of attraction."
"Become that which you want on the inside, and you shall receive it in the outside world," Byrne said. "The most important action to take is the work within you. When that is done, you will be moved in the outside world to receive what you asked for."
Sam and Sara Lucchese create handmade pasta out of their kitchen-garage adjacent to their Ballard home. Here, they illustrate the final steps in making pappardelle pasta.