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/