CHICAGO – The woman with long, dark hair looks yearningly at the gold necklace in the window of a jewelry store. She fixates on the bling. There's some kind of disruption in the atmosphere. And then, the necklace is draped around her neck.
The scenes unfold in "The Secret," a 90-minute-long DVD advocating the power of positive thinking that has sold 2 million copies. More than 5.2 million copies of the book of the same name are in print.
While "The Secret" has become a pop culture phenomenon, it also has drawn critics who are not quiet about labeling the movement a fad, embarrassingly materialistic or the latest example of an American propensity of wanting something for nothing.
Some medical professionals suggest it could even lead to a blame-the-victim mentality and actually be dangerous to those suffering from serious illness or mental disorders.
"It's a triumph of marketing and magic," said John Norcross, a psychologist and professor at the University of Scranton in Pennsylvania who conducts research on self-help books. He believes some are very useful when backed by science and focused on specific problems, such as depression.
"'The Secret' has earned my antipathy for its outrageous, unproven assertions that I believe go beyond the ordinary overpromises of most self-help books into a danger realm," he said.
"The Secret" is the work of Rhonda Byrne, an Australian television and film producer. Her central claim is that the "law of attraction" governs our universe.
"The law of attraction says that like attracts like, and when you think and feel what you want to attract on the inside, the law will use people, circumstances and events to magnetize what you want to you, and magnetize you to it," Byrne said in an e-mail in response to several questions posed by The Associated Press.
She said she was struggling personally and professionally several years ago when she was given a nearly 100-year-old book called "The Science of Getting Rich," by Wallace D. Wattles. In it, readers are guaranteed to become wealthy if they learn and follow "certain laws which govern the process of acquiring riches."
Inspired to do further research, Byrne said, she resolved to create a film to spread the word about what she felt she had learned about the "law of attraction."
The DVD, also available as a Web-based, pay-per-view video, was released in March 2006. It resembles a videotaped seminar, featuring commentators with titles such as "quantum physicist," "philosopher" and "visionary" — many of whom had already written their own books. Its trailer has cloak-and-dagger images, yellowed scrolls and mystical music evoking another massive publishing hit, "The Da Vinci Code."
The book, which followed last November, features images of wax seals and paper that mimics parchment. It's currently the No. 1 nonfiction book on lists of best sellers, including Publishers Weekly, The Wall Street Journal and USA Today, and is No. 1 on The New York Times' hardcover advice list.
As with many publishing hits, the "Oprah Effect" played a role. Winfrey devoted two shows in February to "The Secret," and Larry King and Ellen DeGeneres also featured it on their shows. It was spoofed on "Saturday Night Live" when a man portraying a refugee in the Darfur region of Sudan was blamed for having negative thoughts.
However, the fear that "The Secret" will lead to a blame-the-victim mentality is a serious claim of critics.
For example, the book dismisses conditions such as a genetic predisposition to being overweight or a slow thyroid as "disguises for thinking 'fat thoughts.'" And during times in which massive number of lives were lost, the book says, the "frequency of their thoughts matched the frequency of the event."
Psychotherapist and lifestyle coach Stacy Kaiser said that after reading "The Secret," several patients have worried that it was their fault they were abused, or laid off from their jobs. Others seem to expect everything in their lives to change overnight, she said.
The Los Angeles-based Kaiser joined several other therapists who praised the positive thinking espoused in "The Secret," but who question its failure to discuss action.
"People start to think that they don't have to use their free will, that they don't have to have power anymore, that they don't have to make choices," Kaiser said. "They don't realize they have to do the work. And that's the conversation I keep having to have with people."
Dr. Gail Saltz, an author and psychiatrist at New York-Presbyterian Hospital/Weill Cornell Medical Center, pointed out that cognitive behavioral therapy seeks to modify harmful thoughts as a way to improve patients' feelings.
She said that among people who are ill, those who remain hopeful and have a positive attitude tend to do better. But she was especially upset about a portion of Byrne's DVD in which a woman claims her breast cancer was cured without radiation or chemotherapy; the woman watched funny movies and had faith that she had already been healed.
Saltz received hundreds of angry e-mails after she talked about her concerns on the "Today" show. She thinks that some fans of "The Secret" take it figuratively — they don't think they'll get a necklace just by thinking about it, but feel improving their thoughts improves their life. But from the e-mails she received, she said some people do believe it is based in scientific reality.
"Living is difficult. ... People want ... a solution and an answer. If it were an easy one, like 'think it' — that would be even better, right?" she said. "I understand. It's a wish fulfillment. I really do understand that."
Dr. Maria Padro, a psychiatrist at St. Vincent's Hospital Manhattan in New York City, believes that Americans turn to self-help books because contemporary society is stressful and there is still sometimes a stigma connected to visiting a therapist.
She read "The Secret" to see what the "jibber jabber" was about. She jokes that she keeps the book in her bedroom, out of the view of visitors. Still, she sees value in its positive outlook.
"I think the secret is that everyone has their own secret, and everyone has their own dream," she said. "And the book is one of the tools we can use to get it, but I don't think that it's a little magic wand."
Even one of the participants in "The Secret" DVD and book laments the lack of action. James Arthur Ray is billed as "a philosopher," although he says in a telephone interview that he is five hours shy of a college degree in behavioral science.
He speaks to groups on his own philosophy of success, and he maintains that the "law of attraction" is just one of seven "laws" people must use to improve their lives. He felt "The Secret" was "a good way to introduce people to a new way of philosophical thinking and looking at their world." But Ray said during the creation of the DVD, much of his talk about taking action ended up on the cutting room floor.
"You can watch 'The Secret' and come away with the illusion that you can sit around in your living room and visualize your millions dumping into your lap, and that's just not going to happen," he said.
Byrne counters that the type of action her critics discuss isn't required by the "law of attraction."
"It is impersonal, exact and precise. Become that which you want on the inside, and you shall receive it in the outside world," she said in her e-mail. "The most important action to take is the work within you. When that is done, you will be moved in the outside world to receive what you asked for."
As for the woman with breast cancer, Byrne said "The Secret" fully supports all forms of healing, and feels "enormous gratitude" for what traditional medicine has accomplished.
"The Secret" owes its life as a book to an Oregon dinner party where the president and publisher of Portland-based Beyond Words Publishing met one of the DVD's commentators, who prompted them to watch "The Secret." Atria Books, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, has a co-publishing agreement with Beyond Words. Judith Curr, Atria's executive vice president, said when she watched the movie, she immediately envisioned a book.
She was especially confident because of the success of the "teachers" featured on the DVD. The contributors, including Jack Canfield of the "Chicken Soup" series, had sold roughly 400 million copies of their own books, she estimated.
"I told everybody here when I still just had a DVD that we were going to sell a million copies," she said. "They all, of course, thought I was smoking something."
Now "The Secret" is being published in 35 foreign languages and is the fastest-selling self-help book in Simon & Schuster history.
"It's great to be involved in something that can help change people's lives in a positive way," Curr said.
Amanda Jacobellis, 25, believes her life has changed for the better since she watched "The Secret."
Earlier this year, she was trying to turn a building in West Hollywood, Calif., into a makeup salon specializing in eyelash extensions and evoking the glamour of Old Hollywood. Her renovation was only half done, her credit card bills were coming due and her banker couldn't explain why the money for a $50,000 approved loan hadn't arrived in her account.
Sensing her despair, a friend suggested she watch Winfrey's upcoming show on "The Secret." Jacobellis did, and bought the DVD as well.
She spent a night diagramming what she wanted in her life, using a piece of paper and a Sharpie pen: happiness, security, freedom; good relationships with her friends and family; fitness and health goals; less stress — and in one corner, she wrote that she wanted her $50,000 loan by the next day at 3 p.m. She made a call to her banker the next morning: no news. But by 3 o'clock, the mail arrived, containing a letter saying she could call to get the funds transferred into her account.
Jacobellis now sells the DVD in her Makeup Mandy salon.
"I think where people are mistaken when they watch it is they think all they have to do is wish and it's going to happen," she said. "That wasn't exactly the case. This is something I had put a lot of energy and time into.
"What I take from it is not that you just have to wish or hope or think something's going to happen. ... There's a way it's going to happen. ... When you're more positive, I think new ideas come to you and you're able to kind of get through hurdles or over obstacles."