Tuesday, February 17, 2009

The Secret: An Ancient Truth or New Deception?

I want to talk about something serious, though it's "only" a popularized book. Rhonda Byrne's The Secret, a book which has been printed in about 40 languages and has sold more copies than any other self-help book printed by Simon and Schuster. It's been a NYT bestseller, there are 12.4 million copies in print, and 3.4 million DVDs have sold (http://www.thesecret.tv/The-Secret-Press-Kit.pdf).

1. Why Is The Secret Important?

Why is this book important to us whether or not we have read it or subscribe to its philosophy? It affects the way people react to us, how they react to disability and illness. It creates prejudice and discrimination and fosters the opposite of empathy. It blames the victim, whether a child in Rwanda, a woman who's experienced sexual assault, or one of the many people who have lost a job in this economy. It and similar books and films have gained powerful hold over the American consciousness in particular.

Even if you have not heard of the book, you can bet that some negative reactions to you stem from its ideas. You are to blame for illness and disability, say the experts; this line of thinking allows people to tread upon you.

According to Byrne, "illness cannot exist in a body that has harmonious thoughts." (Evidently she doesn't know many people with long term illness or disability; I certainly know people with chronic and serious illness who exemplify harmony, spirituality, and calm.)

2. The Secret and Multilevel Marketing

The premise of The Secret is perhaps summed up best by Bob Proctor, who in the DVD says, "Everything that's coming into your life you are attracting into your life, and it's attracted to you by virtue of the images you are holding in your mind." An excerpt of the film, for those who have time to watch:

How does this relate to disability? According to Proctor (from the book):

You are also inviting illness if you are listening to others talk about their illness. As you listen you are giving all your
thought and focus to illness, and when you give all of your thought to something, you are asking for it. And you certainly are not helping them. You are adding energy to their
illness. If you really want to help the person, change the conversation to good things, if you can, or be on your way. (132)

Wow, just like Jesus taught. If you love someone, walk away. But does Proctor have any credentials in health and healing, alternative medicine, psychology? No. Identified as a "philosopher" in the film, Proctor's credentials are that he authored the book You Were Born Rich and bilked people out of their money through a multilevel marketing scheme.

Not to be deterred by the lack of credentials, Byrne attributes "the secret" to Plato, Shakespeare, Beethoven, Einstein, and other Western geniuses, who apparently hid their wanton wealth- and abundance-seeking ways under the guise of creating philosophy, art, or science.

So if you can't get into a building because the owners never made it accessible? Your fault. Somehow your negative thoughts now kept them from making it accessible 20 years ago.

Slave? Holocaust victim? Should have been more positive, according to this philosophy.

3. Quantum Physics

The Secret proposes that "like attracts like" and we can find such ideas in medicine, as in homeopathy. But The Secret uses "quantum physics" to back up its claims, using magnetism as the scientific principle and seemingly forgetting that basic rule many of us learned in high school physics: magnetism involves a positive and negative force (opposite polarities attract). Nevertheless, this new-and-revised notion of magnetism is what Byrne calls "quantum physics." "Quantum physics" is increasingly cited in alternative medicine and spirituality. While Byrne does include among her experts two physicists with actual academic credentials, their writings are fringe, and I still can't imagine how they would support some of the unscientific assertions she makes.

Another expert, Joe Vidal, looks rather official in his ministerial costume, but his degrees are from unaccredited schools and diploma mills. I could go on.

More importantly, do the "experts" cited in the chapter on illness have any credentials in health or psychology? Only one, and what he says isn't that impressive. The others are speakers and writers of popularized books (one who proudly says she was the worst writer in her high school class), entrepreneurs, and physicists. On this basis, we have millions of people, primarily women, thinking they are to blame for their illnesses--based on what some smug nonthinkers say and one story about a cancer remission. How many studies, peer-reviewed scientific studies, have these "experts" read?

Think an established publishing house will vet credentials? Not when there's this kind of money involved.

4. The Danger: The Secret in the Corporate World

According to an article by Barbara Ehrenreich, companies are now using The Secret: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/barbara-ehrenreich/the-secret-of-mass-delusi_b_42212.html.

What do you think happens to ill and disabled employees when their bosses follow this philosophy?

Beyond the workplace, what happens to friendships and to family relationships?

5. The Secret and Blame

We might safely view The Secret as another marketing scheme, but a dangerous one, one that not only bilks people out of their money, but out of their peace of mind and deprives them of needed social support. By encouraging people to avoid those in need and to view them as blameworthy, Byrne effectively masks evil as a good. While there is certainly a lot to be said for positive thinking and for working toward goals, magical thinking does not cure cancer or genetic illnesses or we'd have real evidence rather than the occasional anecdote. Going further, scientists have found that a surprising number of tumors spontaneously remit, but do we have any evidence this is caused by magical thinking? No, and studies suggest otherwise. Chemotherapy and surgery work, counseling does not have an influence on the death rate.

The Secret allows people to smugly self congratulate, seeing good luck as virtue and coincidental difficulties as a personal failing. Would she go far as to blame a child in Rwanda? Yes, she did, in Newsweek in 2007:

If we are in fear, if we're feeling in our lives that we're victims and feeling powerless, then we are on a frequency of attracting those things to us ... totally unconsciously, totally innocently, totally all of those words that are so important.

Such thinking absolves people of responsibility, of helping others and making a difference. I mean, why work in the medical field since you hear people complaining about health all day long? And given this reasoning, why aren't doctors and nurses our sickest population?

Ironically, what makes me feel powerless? Hanging around people who believe The Secret and similar books. What makes me feel supported and loved? Crip friends and those who accept me, illness and disability and all. No one's been made ill from me yet. My husband and children are well, as are my dear friends.

Why do I offer this critique? Not to criticize those who resonate with the positive thinking The Secret suggests and choose to apply it to set goals, but as an offering to those like me, who have accepted blame or guilt from one source or another or been discriminated against because of people's application of such beliefs. In order to accomplish this end, we have to recognize this philosophy for what it is: charlatanism.

Disabled and proud, Frida (newly self-appointed "philosopher" since credentials aren't required)

Other good sources: http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/17314883/site/newsweek/print/1/displaymode/1098/

http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4096

http://seattlepi.nwsource.com/books/321364_thesecret28.html

http://www.livescience.com/strangenews/090203-bad-secret.html

http://www.webmd.com/balance/features/the-secret-is-it-the-real-deal

11 comments:

The Goldfish said...

"The Secret is attributed to Plato, Shakespeare, Beethoven, Einstein"

So it's hardly a guaranteed of wealth love, long-life and freedom from impairment, is it? Especially Beethoven; unlucky in love, chronic tinnitus deteriorating to deafness, possible chronic lead poisoning...

Mind you, there is some mystery about why Plato is not recorded as being at Socrates' death, them being so chummy and all. Perhaps he thought that sticking by his hero when he drank hemlock was going to screw his aura...

I am so very glad that this book doesn't seem to have had any impact over here. You have my sympathies.

FridaWrites said...

Einstein had learning disabilities too.

This post has been simmering a long time and finally bubbled up.

FridaWrites said...

Gaah, I just realized you're not on my linklist. I wonder who else is missing--I deleted names as I copied from my list but apparently there are some missing. I had to add Patricia Bauer 3x. Blogger!

yanub said...

The Secret falls right in line with the long sorry tradition of blaming misfortune on some personal sin while assuming that good fortune is earned by personal virtue. People like to believe their is justice in the distribution of resources and fortune. To really recognize just how much is out of our hands altogether is frightening, so they'd rather cruelly "blame the victim" than accept that we really do all face the same fate and ought to care for each other because of it. I guess it's that "moral distress" we mentioned over at Beth's blog.

FridaWrites said...

I do find this blaming the victim thing to be strange and disheartening--it not only removes us from individual concerns, but from social concerns where changes are needed that affect a lot of people (such as abuse prevention or addressing racial discrimination).

Lisa Moon said...

Ah, yes; the Secret. I watched that video a while ago, hoping to find it more... something than it was.

Funny, when I try to recall the film, mostly I remember the scene of the young boy who desperately wanted a shiny, new red bike. When he wanted it SO badly, sure enough, he was able to get it!

Well, obviously his parents had money or other family... or someone stole it for him, lol.

Apparently the many times I've wished incredibly hard for something (praying, meditating, whichever you prefer) I wasn't doing it 'right' or believing it enough or something. At any rate, it's my fault I wasn't able to achieve my wishes.

And as for becoming disabled due to a workplace injury... well, apparently that's something I attracted to myself and, if I was more evolved, I wouldn't be as I am now - living with what is likely to be a long-term/life-long disabling condition.

On the other hand, I do believe there is definitely a lot to be said for positive thinking, for intention and so on; I've had it work for me before and I do believe it's entirely possible to affect aspects of your life.

As you and other commenters are saying, the whole tone of blaming the victim is insulting at the very least. Genocide is brought on by peoples' own fears? Rape is surely the victim's fault - we've heard that tired old excuse before.

It seems to me that it's another of the many ways people tend to distance themselves, to create the illusion of 'other' - that is, that's what happens to Other People, not me; therefore, it must be their fault, because I'm not like that!


And yes, the most commonly cited Secret: cancer survivors. Clearly the ones who survive cancer have done it 'right' and those other unfortunates weren't really wanting to be cured or to live!

I think I'll stop spluttering with fury here, lol. Suffice it to say that I heartily appreciated your well-stated post on the subject.

PS And thanks for your thoughts on my blog! I DO mean to write, soon... lol. Interested in comparing scooter notes at the very least!

FridaWrites said...

I'm with you--positivity and being proactive can benefit and change our lives, though we can't change all external circumstances or control other people, who make their decisions. If we could influence others so much from our internal thoughts, they could also influence us and therefore we'd not have free will to change our "negative thoughts"--the logical problems in this line of thinking are many.

I have seen people self blame because of this philosophy and there is a cancer video out in which a woman with metastatic breast cancer (who also runs a website) does in fact think whether she survives or not entirely depends on correct alignment of spirit. These things do make me feel insecure--insecure because of the judgment from others and they do lead me to self question too much.

You're welcome--anytime!

Tokah said...

The video literally nauseated me. I had to stop 10 minutes in or I might have lost my lunch.

FridaWrites said...

Yes, it's pretty difficult to tolerate it--it makes me cringe.

Lene Andersen said...

Took me a while to get to this post, but...

Effin' brilliant. And rage-inducing. Employers are using this pile of crap? Seriously?

FridaWrites said...

Yes--some employers give copies to their employees and employees/coworkers are mentioned in the book. Definitely scary business!