Dirty litte secret: How the cult phenomenon is dividing New York City

Charlotte Harrigan is a 23-year-old sophisticate who works in the fashion industry, lives in Williamsburg and is a somewhat embarrassed devotee of “The Secret” – the Oprah-endorsed self-help book/DVD combo that preaches the so-called “law of attraction.” Though, she adds, it did help her land her dream job. Her sister, too.

“My sister watches ‘Oprah’ a lot; she’s into all that fabulous cult stuff,” Harrigan says. “It sounds a little cheesy. We just did it kind of as a joke. We didn’t buy into the whole thing. ”

Funny. That’s not quite how one of her closest friends recalls it.

“Charlotte and her sister took it very seriously,” says Nicole Darling, a 27-year-old writer. “They told me they deliberately downplay it because they don’t want to sound like crazy people.”

As for Darling’s take on “The Secret”: “It’s the stupidest thing I have ever seen.

A crock of s – – -.” When friends tell her they are believers, she says her immediate response is, ” ‘Oh, God. No. Are you serious?’ Then I usually make fun of them.”

While the book and DVD have become pop-cultural phenomena since Oprah’s endorsement in February, it’s almost shocking that people outside her core audience – namely young, hyper-literate New Yorkers who pride themselves on their cynicism, taste and intellectual snobbery – would not only read it, but also actively embrace it. The same hipster who smirks at your iPod playlist or thinks the Serra exhibit is totally overrated may just be going home to make inspiration boards, meditate and talk to the Universe (that’s with a capital U, by the way).

It’s caused more than a few rifts among otherwise tolerant urbanites.

“My roommate is a 27-year-old bartender on the Lower East Side, and she’s really into ‘The Secret,’ ” says a graphic designer from Jersey City, who asked not to be named and who found this development alarming. “I was like, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me.’ She told me she has two friends who no longer speak to people who’ve tried to give them the DVD.”

So what makes “The Secret” – which traffics in the kind of harmless power-of-positive-thinking jargon that’s been packaged and re-packaged since the late 19th century, when the spiritualist movement in America began – so polarizing?

There is, of course, its dubious origins: The book and DVD were written and produced by an out-of-work Australian named Rhonda Byrne, who claims to have stumbled on “The Secret” to life in a 100-year-old book that remains unnamed. She writes that “Jesus was a millionaire” and wants you to be one, proffers the profoundly narcissistic notion that the Universe is a catalog and is just waiting for you to “place your order,” and throws around the phrase “quantum physics” without ever explaining just what that is.

She enlisted the help of self-help gurus – two of whom, Esther and Jerry Hicks, later claimed Byrne swindled them out of their share of profits. (Jerry is a former Amway salesman; Esther is a former secretary who claims to channel the dead.)

Hence the alarm when an otherwise young, cynical, well-read New Yorker begins to proselytize.

A 33-year-old writer recently discovered two of her best friends are converts. She learned this, she says, when neither would shut up about it.

“I get the power of positive thinking, but the people who get into it are like cultists,” she says. “Finally, I was like, ‘I love you, but you are not allowed to bring this up to me ever again.’ ”

“It’s intellectually misguided to put these ideas forth – it’s magical thinking,” says Andy Wibbels, who ran a “Secret”-debunking contest online.

Wibbels, 32, believes that “The Secret” resonates with young, well-educated urban dwellers partly because this generation came of age during the self-esteem movement: the idea that “just because you’re YOU, you can do anything. I think ‘The Secret’ hooks into that. All that matters is your perception of the world around you – it’s very egotistical.”

The Secret

“There is a downside. If we attract good things, then we can also attract the negative. So this means that if you are robbed, assaulted, or if your car is stolen, etc., then you attracted that to yourself. This has hideous implications if you apply this theory to horrific events like the Holocaust and 9/11.” – Marcy Montenegro


“My friend Tim and I are always getting into these ‘Where do we fit into the universe?’-type discussions,” says Candice Taylor, a 29-year-old New Yorker who works in vessel scheduling for the Hess Corp.

“The book gets a little scientific – people are made up of molecules, molecules are energy, molecules make up the universe . . . It makes sense when you break it down on that level.”

Also, Taylor says, “I think about what I want to be and what I want to do, and it comes. It’s crazy. If I’m thinking really hard about someone, they’ll call!” And what do her friends think? “They kind of laugh at first,” she admits.

“I drew sketches of images that I wanted to think about,” says 33-year-old video editor/musician Jeff Martini, who was introduced to “The Secret” by a Brooklyn-based artist friend.

“I wanted to get myself into good shape – I drew a picture of that. I wanted to upgrade where I’m living – I drew a picture of me looking out of a really nice apartment. I drew a check for a lot of money.” (“The Secret” encourages pursuing material things avidly.)

He says it has helped. “This is stuff we all already know. It just pumps you up. It’s like hiring a cheerleader.”

“[‘The Secret’] is incredibly materialistic and narcissistic, but superstitions and magical thinking are built into our brain,” says Michael Shermer, who writes for the Skeptic magazine and Scientific American. “It doesn’t matter what your education level or environment is. It takes a fair amount of vigilance to overcome that kind of folk psychology – ‘I know someone who tried it, and it worked for them.’ That’s normal.”

“It’s as if there’s no empirical baseline of data from which to operate,” says blogger Wibbels. He adds that while he doesn’t have any friends who are followers, he does have one who, he says, “worked on a TV show that heavily featured ‘The Secret’ ” and is shot in Chicago.

Would that be “Oprah”?

“I can neither confirm nor deny,” Wibbels says, laughing. “But I said, ‘Why did you guys have to do so many shows on “The Secret”? There was no voice of dissent, no historical context.’

“He just said, ‘It’s a TV show. They’re not journalists. It’s entertainment.’ “

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Religion News Blog posted this on Saturday August 18, 2007.
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