of the Cosmos
THERE are some surprising secrets behind “The
Peter DaSilva for The New York Times
INSPIRATIONAL Esther and Jerry Hicks, authors of “The Law
of Attraction,” in their bus.
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.
Published: February 25, 2007
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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.
Rhonda Byrne, the producer of the film and book called “The
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
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 Amazon.com.)
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
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.”