Shaking Riches Out of the Cosmos

There are some surprising secrets behind “The Secret.”

For one, most of the millions of people who have seen “The Secret,” a documentary that is the biggest thing to hit the New Age movement since the Harmonic Convergence, may not know that there are two versions of the film.

In both, “The Secret” intersperses interviews with authors and inspirational speakers who specialize in personal transformation with short dramatized episodes to deliver a message about how positive thinking will improve one’s health, wealth and love life.

The secret that the movie purports to reveal after millenniums of obscurity is “the law of attraction.” This principle, said to be known by an elite few, including Beethoven and 19th-century robber barons, holds that the universe will make your wishes come true if only you really, truly believe in them.

“Ask, believe, receive,” the movie instructs.

There is no better example of the magic than the staggering success of “The Secret” itself and of its creator, Rhonda Byrne, an Australian documentary producer turned spiritual entrepreneur. With no paid advertising or theatrical release, the movie has sold 1.5 million copies of a DVD at $34.95, according to the producers. More than half the copies have sold in the last month, as word-of-mouth appeal crossed over from New Age circles to the mainstream.

A book based on the movie, also called “The Secret,” which Ms. Byrne wrote in less than a month, jumps to No. 1 this week on the New York Times best-seller list of hardcover advice, how-to and miscellaneous books. “Secret” support groups have formed around the country. In Southern California, real estate brokers show the 92-minute movie to motivate sales representatives. Oprah Winfrey, in the first of two shows dedicated to “The Secret,” said its positive philosophy is the way she has long lived her own life.

In the film a woman says the law of attraction cured her cancer, but many followers settle for more prosaic victories. Victoria Moore, a saleswoman in Silicon Valley, said the principles of “The Secret” help her snag coveted parking spots. “But if I let in the slightest bit of doubt, it doesn’t happen,” she added. Elizabeth Cogan, a self-described shaman from Sparks, Nev., said the principle works at restaurants, where she envisions herself not having to wait for a table.

But behind the success of “The Secret” is a seamier story about the origins of the film. It involves big money and what some participants say are the broken promises of Ms. Byrne. The star of the first version of the movie, released in March last year, demanded to be cut out of the current version, which has been on the market since Oct. 1.

That star, Esther Hicks, 58, has been promoting her own version of the law of attraction with her husband, Jerry Hicks, in books and seminars for two decades. “We teach that you keep saying it the way you want it to be, and if you keep saying it the way you want it to be, the universe will line up and give you exactly what you’ve said you wanted,” Ms. Hicks said.

Ms. Byrne had promised Ms. Hicks 10 percent of DVD revenues to appear in “The Secret,” both parties said. But they had a falling out, and Ms. Hicks could not even bring herself to watch Ms. Byrne this month on “Oprah,” the movement’s moment of triumph.

In a backhanded compliment Ms. Hicks said, “I’ve got to give Rhonda credit,” adding that her former collaborator has shown a monomaniacal dedication to the law of attraction. “I’ve never seen anybody do that like she’s doing it,” Ms. Hicks said. “And never mind honesty, and never mind doing what you said you were going to do, and never mind anything. Just stay in alignment.”

Although “The Secret” is an overnight phenomenon, its message of think-and-grow-rich is but the latest version of a self-help formula dating back more than a century, with roots both secular and religious, and branches that have included Napoleon Hill’s best-selling “Think and Grow Rich” in 1937 and Norman Vincent Peale’s “Power of Positive Thinking” in 1952.

J. Gordon Melton, the director of the Institute for the Study of American Religion in Santa Barbara, Calif., traces the origins of “prosperity consciousness” to 19th-century Christian Science. “It’s always waiting for slightly different forms of expression, the same old message,” he said.

Last Sunday evening the Hickses relaxed in their $1.4 million luxury bus parked outside the Rancho Cordova Marriott near Sacramento, where they had just finished a six-hour workshop on the law of attraction in the hotel ballroom. Three hundred people had paid $195 each to hear Ms. Hicks, a former secretary, summon otherworldly spirits she says speak through her. The spirits, who collectively use the name Abraham, answered participants’ questions.

“I don’t have a lover yet,” one woman said.

Abraham, whose speaking voice is rounder, quicker and more computerlike than Ms. Hicks’s natural voice, replied by repeating the woman’s phrase roughly 20 times and then explained it contained its own negativity, which was leaving the woman paddling upstream on the river of life.

The audience applauded.

The Hickses spend most of the year traveling the country, leading workshops based on the teachings they say Abraham has given them. They record the workshops and have 10,000 subscribers, who pay up to $50 a month for CDs and DVDs of Abraham’s wisdom.

When Ms. Byrne asked Ms. Hicks to appear in “The Secret,” as the most prominent interpreter of the law of attraction, she agreed to give the Hickses approval over much of the movie, according to a contract. But when the couple saw the first cut, they were livid. Ms. Hicks’s voice, chaneling Abraham, was used as narration throughout the film, but her face was never shown.

After negotiation, Ms. Hicks’s image was edited into the film and it was released, ultimately netting the Hickses $500,000 from sales, Ms. Hicks said. But the couple were unhappy with the distribution. They said they understood it would be shown first on Australian television, but instead it was being sold as an Internet download and later as a DVD.

Cynthia Black, the president of Beyond Words Publishing, a New Age imprint, who is both a longtime friend of the Hickses and the publisher of Ms. Byrne’s book version of “The Secret,” tried to broker a peace. She enlisted the help of Jack Canfield, the author of “Chicken Soup for the Soul,” one of the “transformational experts” who appears in “The Secret” (and whose nephew Zach Canfield says he used the law of attraction to score a date with the hip-hop singer Lady Sovereign). But Mr. Canfield was also unable to bring the parties together.

The Hickses consulted their lawyer, and Ms. Byrne in turn demanded changes to the contract, both sides said. No agreement could be reached. Ms. Byrne moved forward with a second version of “The Secret” without the Hickses. Advised by their lawyer to sue, the Hickses said they declined because litigation would take energy from their own pursuit of the law of attraction. “We don’t sue,” said Mr. Hicks, a former circus acrobat and Amway distributor.

Ms. Byrne does not seem overly troubled by the rupture. “I’m grateful to have had the journey with them for the time that we had,” she said, sitting on a plush chair next to a honeysuckle candle in her apartment in Santa Monica, Calif. With a glittering silver circle affixed with false-eyelash glue to the center of her forehead, she related how she had mortgaged her home in Melbourne, where she worked as a television producer, to finance “The Secret” and also received an investment from a former Internet executive in Chicago, Bob Rainone. The cost of the films was about $3 million, Ms. Byrne said.

Ms. Byrne, 55, seems possessed by the energy of her success, jumping from side to side as she speaks. Her gray eyes shine with the fervor of the true believer as she talks about setting the goal of taking her vision to the world and watching it come true. “It’s incredible to actually experience an intention that is so big, to experience it is … ” She paused as her voice crested and swooped as if on the edge of breaking. “It’s like I can feel the lives, every life changing, the joy,” she said.

Without the Hickses’ 10 percent cut, Ms. Byrne and her Chicago investor will reap millions in additional profits. None of the film’s other self-help gurus were paid. But “even though money was involved,” Ms. Byrne insisted, “it was never about that.”

And the Hickses agreed. “We earn millions of dollars a year” already, Mr. Hicks said.

No, the clash seems mainly over who deserves credit, and the wave of mainstream publicity, for this latest version of prosperity consciousness. The Hickses have preached the law of attraction while traveling with Abraham for 21 years. Ms. Byrne’s exposure to the notion is more recent: she was going through a rough patch in her life in 2004, when her daughter gave her a copy of “The Science of Getting Rich,” first published in 1910.

The book discussed how focusing on gratitude can help a person take control of life. Ms. Byrne delved into the works of other self-help gurus, like Charles Haanel’s “Master Key System” from 1912; Prentice Mulford’s 19th-century “Thoughts Are Things”; and Robert Collier’s “Secret of the Ages” from 1926.

By contrast, Ms. Hicks reads no self-help or spiritual material, she said, wanting to keep her mind clear for Abraham’s messages. Without knowing what others have written, friends of the Hickses said, it is easy to understand why they believe they did the most to popularize the law of attraction before “The Secret.”

“Some of the people who are in the movie, I agree, have clearly listened to Abraham tapes, said Ms. Black, the publisher. “But Abraham has never said ‘This is just mine, don’t share it with everyone.’ ”

For the second version of “The Secret,” Ms. Byrne used Lisa Nichols, an author of “Chicken Soup for the African-American Soul,” and Marci Shimoff, an author of “Chicken Soup for the Woman’s Soul,” to fill gaps left by Ms. Hicks’s removal. (The DVD of the Hicks version of “The Secret” is going for $104 on

Walking along the Pacific Ocean at surf’s edge on a sunny day last week, Ms. Byrne said no one owns the law of attraction because it is universal, like another famous law. “I can’t go ‘law of gravity, that’s mine,’ ” she said.

What the Hickses say bothers them most about the second version of “The Secret” is that those who watch it are not receiving enough explanation of the law or being told that its discovery was made by “vibrationally accessing broader intelligence,” Ms. Hicks said.

Bringing forth the voice of Abraham as she sat on a buttery leather seat in her motor home, speaking of herself in the third person, she said, “Esther’s concern is that they will destroy this information because they do not really know it.”

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Religion News Blog posted this on Sunday February 25, 2007.
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