“I believe that the truth matters,” Oprah Winfrey assured her viewers last year following her on-air confrontation with author James Frey. By then the Smoking Gun had revealed that Frey’s best-selling “memoir,” A Million Little Pieces, which Oprah’s book club had promoted, was partially concocted, and Oprah was pissed. “I feel that you conned us all,” she admonished him during a stern and thorough grilling. Her indignation had been slow to develop, but once it had (following public outcry) it wasn’t reserved for Frey alone. Nan Talese, who had published A Million Little Pieces under her Doubleday imprint, also came in for a share. “As the consumer, the reader, I am trusting you,” Oprah lectured. Eventually, the publisher would settle a class action lawsuit by offering refunds to the book’s “defrauded” purchasers.
Oprah may trust Doubleday, but she’s also well aware that masses of consumers trust Oprah–implicitly. No doubt the talk-show Midas would like to keep it that way. For this reason one might assume that she has been especially careful, post-Frey, in anointing pet authors. But her recent and intense promotion of Rhonda Byrne’s mystical self-help book, The Secret, strongly suggests that Oprah didn’t learn much from her experience with Frey.
The Secret and Oprah’s role in its wild popularity–she’s devoted two entire shows to it and there’s a 15-page feature on it at oprah.com–have already attracted censure: many reviewers have poked holes in the book’s profoundly flawed central premise that our thoughts determine every circumstance of our lives, as well as its promotion of selfishness and self-delusion. But illogic and irresponsibility are not the extent of The Secret’s faults. While many of the quotations Byrne uses to prop up her philosophy are shockingly divorced from their context, one has entirely eluded an extensive search for its origin: “The secret is the answer to all that has been, all that is, and all that will ever be,” attributed to Ralph Waldo Emerson on page 183.
To be clear, what I’ve come to suspect–strongly–is that Rhonda Byrne may have made it up.
So what? you may be asking. The question came up a lot in discussions of Frey’s dishonesty, and back then the only answer with any weight was that we value truth for truth’s sake. Many readers were inspired by what they believed to be a true story, but it’s hard to show that Frey’s lies did any real damage. But The Secret has potential to cause tangible harm to both believers and bystanders.
For those who haven’t read The Secret (or seen the film version) here’s the eponymous “secret” at its core: envisioning what we desire (or don’t desire) will give us just that. “Whatever you choose to think will become your life experience,” Byrne writes. Don’t bother looking for a figurative meaning here–she means what she says literally. “As you focus on what you want, you are changing the vibrations of the atoms of that thing, and you are causing it to vibrate to You.” Byrne labels this the “law of attraction,” which she describes as a “law of nature” that works on the principle of like attracts like: you think about a car, you get a car; you think about a disease, you get a disease. That The Secret’s premise is a fantasy is undeniable: if it were true, there would be no hypochondriacs, no one suffering from delusions of grandeur–no mental illness at all.
Despite such absurdities, the sparkling promises Byrne makes–combined perhaps with a reader’s fear of life’s uncertainties–have made her book attractive to many. “Do you want to believe that you can be in the wrong place at the wrong time? . . . Or do you want to believe and know that your life experience is in your hands and that only good can come into your life because that is the way you think?” she asks.
She guarantees her readers wealth, love, health–even eternal youth–all with little to no effort. Her book abounds with anecdotal accounts of the successful application of her method: how she willed herself to no longer need glasses, for instance, or how a ten-year-old won Disney World VIP passes for his family simply by saying to himself before bed the previous night, “I’d love to go on all the big rides and never have to wait in line.” Then there’s the guy who visualizes and then gets great parking spaces 95 percent of the time (the other 5 percent he waits “just a minute or two”) and, memorably, the young man who, for practice, envisions a unique and unmistakable feather–two days later, it lands at his feet on a street in New York City.
Byrne also claims that years of arduous study can be replaced by simple desire. “I never studied science or physics at school, and yet when I read complex books on quantum physics I understood them perfectly because I wanted to understand them. The study of quantum physics helped me to have a deeper understanding of the Secret, on an energetic level,” she writes. So why even pick up a book, then? Why doesn’t she simply will herself to understand quantum physics without reading at all?
This stuff probably sounds more silly than dangerous, but consider her health claims: “You cannot ‘catch’ anything unless you think you can, and thinking you can is inviting it with your thought,” she writes. Of course in reality the reverse is often true, as the case of Magic Johnson, diagnosed with HIV in 1991, illustrates. “I thought I was invincible,” he explained in a 2004 interview with CNN.
If you have managed, one way or another, to become seriously ill, Byrne has more good news for you: medical intervention is unnecessary to become well again. She tells the story of a woman who claims to have cured her own breast cancer without chemo or radiation; instead she simply watched funny movies. Then there’s Byrne’s rather cruel prescription for weight loss: “If you see people who are overweight, do not observe them,” she recommends, because “food is not responsible for putting on weight”–it’s “thinking fat thoughts” that does it. Lucky for Oprah the Secret remained hidden until after she slimmed down, or she might not have gained such a wide audience.
Disregard for others, justified by this extreme interpretation of individual responsibility, is the attitude Byrne endorses. Don’t listen to sick people talk about their illnesses, she warns, lest you get sick yourself. Don’t harbor any misgivings about acquiring masses of wealth (and this may go a long way toward explaining Oprah’s interest), because, according to Byrne, Jesus was a millionaire. Poverty is something that happens to people who don’t spend their days repeating Byrne’s mantra: “I love money and money loves me.”
Her insistence that individuals are solely responsible for the bad things that happen to them is arguably the nastiest part of The Secret, but she doesn’t ignore the likelihood that readers may object to the idea that there are no victims. “Often when people first hear this part of the Secret they recall events in history where masses of lives were lost, and they find it incomprehensible that so many people could have attracted themselves to the event,” she writes. “It doesn’t necessarily mean they thought of that exact event, but the frequency of their thoughts matched the frequency of the event.” She doesn’t bother to explain the plight of those who are born into poverty, abuse, or with congenital defects. Extreme negativity in utero, perhaps?
There’s only one way for a reader of The Secret to avoid such questions and concerns, and Byrne provides it: “The moment a thought of doubt comes, release it immediately.” To assist in this mind-numbing process, Byrne defers to many well-known people by claiming they knew the Secret before her: Shakespeare, Newton, Socrates, Galileo, Beethoven, Churchill, Einstein, Mother Teresa, and Emerson are but a few. If Byrne’s intended audience is likely to have heard of you and to respect you–and if you are dead and thus unable to object–you could make the cut. (Forget that Churchill was notoriously depressed, and don’t bother asking why Mother Teresa didn’t share the Secret with all those children who were thinking starvation upon themselves.)
Byrne quotes many of them to bolster her claim that our thoughts control our experiences, and the author’s intended meaning does not concern her. “You create your own universe as you go along,” a line from Winston Churchill’s My Early Life, exemplifies this. True, it sounds very Oprah, but it is something Churchill wrote not as a description of his own beliefs but as one example of the “absurd propositions” of metaphysicians. He believed exactly the opposite of what Byrne would have you think. Says Churchill, three lines later, “These amusing mental acrobatics are all right to play with. They are perfectly harmless and perfectly useless. I warn my younger readers only to treat them as a game.”
When I began looking for the original source of the Emerson line about “the secret” being the answer to everything, I expected to discover it as easily as I had tracked down the Churchill. But Google merely turned up Web sites that had culled the quote from Byrne’s book, and as within The Secret itself, these sites gave no indication of the quote’s source beyond attributing it to Emerson. When I searched electronic versions of Emerson’s complete works for every appearance of secret, I discovered nothing even remotely suggestive of the line Byrne credits to him.
At this point I sought the expertise of a professional, a librarian from the Andover-Harvard Theological Library at the Harvard Divinity School, Emerson’s alma mater, who asked not to be named. Her extensive search through Emerson’s works for references to secret covered multiple collections of his complete works, stand-alone editions of his essays and poems, collections of his letters, journals, poetry notebooks, and miscellaneous other notebooks as well as several volumes of criticism. She was unable to attribute the quote to Emerson.
Thinking that the book’s publisher would have authenticated the line before going to print and would therefore be able to direct me to its source, I contacted Simon & Schuster, whose subsidiary, Atria Books, published The Secret. The publicity department graciously thanked me for bringing the matter to their attention, then referred me to legal. The attorney to whom I was directed denied any responsibility in the matter for the publisher, but agreed to forward an e-mail inquiry to Rhonda Byrne. I haven’t heard back from Byrne, or from Oprah, to whom I sent a similar query.
It’s difficult and perhaps impossible to prove that a line was never written by a particular author, especially if the author in question was as prolific as Emerson. The possibility remains that I’ve overlooked something or that Rhonda Byrne is in possession of an unpublished Emerson manuscript or letter. What shouldn’t be difficult is for Byrne to demonstrate the quotation’s legitimacy. So, I think she should. In fact, she should provide a list of the sources of all the quotations she uses. Why wouldn’t she want her readers to learn more from those she claims have mastered the Secret? And if Oprah values the truth so much, she should be asking the same question.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Oprah Winfrey and Rhonda Byrne photo/Evan Agostini/Getty Images and Ron Gaella/Wireimage.com. Photo manipulation by Godfrey Carmona.