Have they found the secret?

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HERE are some life-changing revelations that The Secret promises to deliver to you: that losing weight has nothing to do with how much you eat and everything to do with not "thinking fat thoughts" (so much so that, if you see a fat person, you should "immediately" look away); that having a low income has nothing to do with your education, work-rate or being born to poor parents, but rather "not visualising yourself as wealthy"; or that people caught up in calamitous "events in history where mass

These ideas - daft, simplistic and deeply offensive as they might sound - are the direct application of an apparently immutable "law of the Universe" encapsulated in a slim but controversial new self-help book, The Secret, that is sweeping America and which has now crashed into Britain's bestseller charts.

Written by a bleached-blonde Australian daytime-TV producer, Rhonda Byrne, The Secret promises its readers the key to health, wealth and happiness. What is this deeply held secret? "The Secret is the law of attraction," Byrne, 55, writes. "Everything coming into your life is attracted to you by virtue of what you're thinking."

It's a mantra you may have heard before. In 1952, Norman Vincent Peale's The Power of Positive Thinking told us that attitude matters, that if we think good things, good things will happen, and that negative thinking generates negative outcomes.

But Byrne's "genius" has been to update this now commonplace concept by harnessing the thoughts of 24 modern-day motivational gurus - including Jack Canfield, co-creator of the Chicken Soup for the Soul book and DVD series and John Gray (Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus) - and repackaging the message inside a pseudo-scientific Da Vinci Code-like mystique.

So it is that Byrne claims to have first "glimpsed the Great Secret" when she started reading a 100-year-old manual, The Science of Getting Rich, given to her by her daughter in 2004 after her father died and her work hit a cul-de-sac.

"I began tracing The Secret back through history. I couldn't believe all the people who knew this. They were the greatest people in history: Plato, Shakespeare, Newton, Hugo, Beethoven, Lincoln, Einstein." (It's the first of many such startling assertions that Byrne makes without ever offering any substantiation.) "Incredulous, I asked: 'Why doesn't everyone know this?' I began searching for people alive today who knew the Secret. The Secret was buried, the Secret was coveted, banned, suppressed. But now the great glimmering of truth can be revealed again."

While Byrne believed she had assembled a dream team (none of whom were paid), others saw her "experts" as a collection of self-promoting snake-oil salesmen. American critics had a field day - rounding on Byrne for claiming that her positive thinking mindset has power over our health and can "miraculously" cure illnesses such as cancer.

"You are like a human transmission tower, transmitting a frequency with your thoughts," Byrne claims. "If you want to change anything in your life, change the frequency by changing your thoughts." But despite all this The Secret took off, with the gullible and insecure attracted by its seemingly easy mantra: "Ask, believe, receive." Released first as a 92-minute film on DVD, then as a book in November last year, Byrne sold 1.5 million DVDs at $34.95 and 2.5 million books in the US, where it has been No 1 on bestseller lists for the past ten weeks. ( The New York Times, though, refuses to acknowledge it on the grounds that it's not really a book.)

It is touted by celebrity actresses Scarlett Johansson, Meg Ryan, and Nicole Kidman, but the tipping point came when Byrne, having appeared on Larry King Live, was invited on to the Oprah Winfrey Show, where the host gushed that she'd been living her whole life according to the laws of attraction "without even knowing it!"

Now, with Byrne being told by Time magazine that its May issue will feature her as one of "the world's 100 most influential women of 2007", she is hoping her book will make a big splash in the UK, too.

"My intention is that it brings joy to billions around the world," she said, radiating generosity, in one of the rare TV interviews she has given in the US.

But dig deeper into the background and a somewhat different picture emerges of Byrne, the working-class daughter of an electrician, and now said to be worth an incredible $40 million thanks to The Secret. Motivational guru Esther Hicks claims Byrne took her ideas and then reneged on their contract (of which more later), and Byrne's mother, Irene Izon, claims she hasn't been offered "a dollar" of her daughter's earnings to supplement her meagre state pension.

"She has made so much money that I have to pinch myself," says Izon, 74, speaking publicly about her daughter for the first time from her modest home in Melbourne, Australia. "We talk on the phone most days. I miss her. I am so proud of her. Last week, she told me she'd made $20 million in just a few months, which just blows me away, and that she was giving away 10 per cent to charity.

"As for me, she said she wants to fly me over to visit her in Los Angeles in the summer - though when I asked her last week, she said she hadn't bought the plane ticket. She is very generous giving all those millions to charity, but I have to admit she hasn't given me a single dollar, though I'm expecting she'll send me some financial help soon. That's what she told me. In the meantime, I'm OK: I get by on my state pension of A$1,050 [440] a month."

Izon, who comes across as a fiercely proud and dignified woman slightly bewildered by her daughter's generosity to others, describes how the family grew up in a three-bedroom house in a working-class suburb of Melbourne.

Rhonda left school, became a researcher for Australian television and then started her own television production company in 1994. Her first marriage lasted only a few years; her second, to Peter Byrne, yielded two daughters, Hayley and Skye, now 24 and 22, before the couple divorced amicably more than a decade later.

But it was the illness of her father, Ronald, an electrician at the greyhound racing tracks who died of leukaemia in 2004, that precipitated her life "collapsing" all around her and led to her discovering the 100-year-old book from which she first "glimpsed" the Secret. Or so Byrne says. Because, according to Esther Hicks, Byrne's claim is "complete nonsense". Speaking from Texas, Hicks says: "If you look in The Science of Getting Rich, you see no reference whatsoever to the 'law of attraction'. Instead, it was in our material - our books and tapes - that she found the precept.

"We were the first people she approached in America. She called us and said she'd been listening to our tapes and wanted to do a movie based on our work. She came over and we were tremendously excited. She wanted to meet other experts who had endorsed our work and through us, she met John Gray, Jack Canfield, Neale Donald Walsch and others such as Joe Vitali."

This is a who's who of America's self-help industry. With Hicks and her husband, Jerry, featured as "the most prominent interpreter" of the law of attraction, Byrne contractually gave them approval over the movie, as well as 10 per cent of DVD sales. However, when the couple saw the first cut, they were "livid". Esther's voice had been used to narrate the film, but her face was never shown. After much negotiation, Hicks's image was edited back in, the film was distributed, and the Hickses netted $480,000 from their share of sales.

But further conflict followed and Byrne and the Hickses parted ways, leading to a second version of the film being released a few months later. In this second version, like the book, the Hickses have, they say, been airbrushed out - with no attribution of their role whatsoever.

"Basically she ripped off our concept," says Esther. "When I saw her on Oprah, it was so painful, I couldn't watch. The worst part about it is that she's distorted what we say and makes it sound crude, so that it doesn't make sense. We'd never claim that the law of attraction deals with cancer. And the way she dishonoured our contract devastated me."

Byrne's London publisher, Simon and Schuster, said she was unavailable to comment. But she has said in her defence: "No-one owns the law of attraction because it is universal."

Everyone who's worked with Byrne agrees that the woman is smart and focused. "She's the perfect embodiment of the laws of attraction," says Esther Hicks. "People need only visualise what they want in order to get it - and in that sense, the book has been a spectacular success, at least for her, creating instant wealth. But this episode has raked up something that, to be honest, I'm still grappling with."

Which is? "That the law of attraction works equally well for good people as well as evil," says Jerry Hicks, jumping in.

"You don't need to be honest to benefit from it," says Esther. "I'm struggling with that. It makes me feel quite forsaken."

• The Secret by Rhonda Byrne is published by Simon & Schuster, 12.

Accentuating the positive

How to Win Friends and Influence People, by Dale Carnegie

NOT as lighthearted as it may first appear, this book, first published in 1936, continues to inspire millions around the world to improve their lives. It has achieved cult status and is seen as the management book. The business advice it offers also has very practical and effective uses for everyday life and social situations.

The Alchemist: A Fable About Following Your Dream, by Paulo Coelho

LIKE perennial bestseller Jonathan Livingston Seagull, this book is a simple fable to teach life lessons. As the Bible proves, a parable or two is always a good way to get your message across, and Coelho's tale is no exception - a global phenomenon, that has sold more than 30 million copies worldwide.

The Power of Positive Thinking, by Norman Vincent Peale

THIS book became a bestseller and earned Peale the moniker "the father of positive thinking". It outlines practical applications of spiritual techniques to battle defeat and build confidence. Peale's guidance aims to eliminate defeatist attitudes and help people fulfil their potential.

The Cosmic Ordering Service: A Guide to Realising Your Dreams, by Barbara Mohr

MOHR'S guide offers a simple introduction to the philosophy to which Noel Edmonds attributes his comeback success. The book is aimed at helping the reader realise their dreams - just by placing an "order" with the universe, sitting back and letting marvellous things happen.

Change Your Life in Seven Days, by Paul McKenna

BRITISH TV hypnotist Paul McKenna claims he found his true calling with this treatise on neuro-linguistic programing. His book claims to teach self-confidence via a series of simple verbal affirmations. It is billed as effective self-improvement, in the bestselling tradition of Unlimited Power and The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.