The Secret: Let’s Meet the Experts of This Thing

The Secret: Let’s Meet the Experts of This Thing March 17, 2020

Hello and welcome back! Man alive, was Saturday a trip or what? That was such an incredible slog. I’ve binged many hours of TV shows and movie series before, and I can’t remember any of them tiring me out like The Secret managed to do in 90 minutes. Just wow. One thing I noticed about the documentary caught my attention and never let it go: a stream of self-proclaimed experts selling this ideology to eager new customers. I wondered who they were. I’d only ever heard of one of them, as it turns out. So let’s go meet them!

a gorgeous sight
Cathedral Rock, Sedona. (Tommy Tang.)

(I use “expert” in scare quotes in this post.)

(Previous posts in this series: Rethinking the Power of Positive Thinking; Toxic Positivity; The Secret: Background; The Secret: Review.)

An Oprah Show Helped Me Prepare.

While researching The Secret for the warm-up post, I ran across a thing on Oprah Winfrey’s site. I’m not a fan of hers. I think she preaches love and acceptance, while making clear she thinks non-religious people are subhuman. And she falls for every snake-oil scam that crosses her path. So of course she fell hard for The Secret when it came out. I don’t know why I didn’t already suspect that and look specifically for it.

Her site featured a gallery of “experts” pushing this ideology, of course. I noticed a few who stood out. I’ll be referring back to this slideshow as I run through our own roster of speakers appearing in The Secret. I’ll also be checking out how their own stories played out after the documentary.

This Oprah slideshow was all I had ever heard of the people appearing on The Secret. As the documentary ended, I’d only ever heard of one of them beforehand to the point where I could connect a history to the names getting thrown at me. (I’d heard of another one, but didn’t realize he was that guy who did that awful thing. I hadn’t remembered his name, but oh yes, I’m very familiar with his history.)

It amazes me how deep down into the barrel self-help gurus must dig to find anybody willing to vouch for their snake oil. It shouldn’t, and yet here I am, all amazed.

Rhonda Byrne.

The creator of The Secret, Rhonda Byrne, accomplished little of note before 2006. Seriously. Here’s her IMDB page. It lists four TV shows she produced. Three involve wackadoodlery: UFOs and psychic detectives. The other one is a wedding-based reality show. Beyond that, I’ve learned she did a lot of other TV stuff locally in Melbourne. Chance are good that if you live in that area, you’ve watched something she was involved with. If you’re outside Australia, chances are good you’ve never even heard of any of her shows.

Then there’s her 2006 IMDB entry: The Secret. That’s where her life turned completely around.

However, she is in no way whatsoever qualified to be handing out life advice.

What she’s been up to lately: She wrote some sequels to the book version of The Secret. I hear she holds court in her lovely mansion in Los Angeles nowadays. However, she doesn’t mingle much in public. In 2016, she published How the Secret Changed My Life: Real People, Real Stories. In it, she collects various testimonials from people using her self-help ideas.

Over the years, a lot of people have sued her. We’ll be covering some of those lawsuits soon in their own post. Suffice to say: this gal is nowhere near as saintly and ethereally serene as she presents herself. Rather, she’s a ruthless, cutthroat wheeler-dealer who very deliberately set out to create a viral self-help sensation. She just needed a gimmick that would fleece the sheep. And she found it in The Secret.

The Eyes of Joe Vitale.

Right after he victim-blamed those suffering misfortunes.

Dr. Joe Vitale, MSC.D., Metaphysician. He’s one of Byrne’s first “experts.” He wears a lot of hats: author, “spiritual teacher,” musician, and — as we saw in The Secret — victim-blaming nutjob preaching the “Law of Attraction.” He’s a “Doctor” of “Metaphysical Science.” (See here for interesting info regarding his one claimed credential.) Otherwise, he has no real credentials whatsoever.

Skeptico figured him out very quickly. Vitale has no clue in the world how this “Law of Attraction” he babbles about even works. Worse, though, he has a fundagelical’s way of dealing with pushback on that point. (The “Law” clearly doesn’t work for him, or he wouldn’t need to pre-moderate posts.)

Since The Secret aired: He’s been busy appearing in documentaries, such as a biography he did in 2017 for Zig “Amway Rules, Normies Drool” Ziglar called Zig: You Were Born to Win. (I can easily perceive a great overlap between Ziglar’s game and the ones Ambots play.)

Lately, Vitale shills for Law of Attraction Coaching. There, he preaches get-rich-quick schemes to the desperate as part of his “Awakened Millionaire Academy.” He also runs his own shopfront site called “Mr. Fire.” I noticed a pic there of him posing in front of a Rolls-Royce. I wonder if he knows that Ambots do the exact same thing to persuade potential recruits that Amway made them richer than gods. Oh, and there’s a blog.

However, I see no signs that he’s become a kabillionaire thanks to the “Law of Attraction.” He scrabbles and hard-sells potential customers for whatever he gets. He’s a standard-issue hypocrite. Indeed, I found frustrated consumers writing many posts about feeling conned by him.

What a great “expert!”

“Philosopher” Bob Proctor.

bob proctor
I have no idea why he’s pointing to his eyes.

Bob Proctor, Philosopher. He’s one of the most prominent “experts” in this dreck. However, I notice he has no honorifics at all mentioned. He’s simply a “Philosopher.” Whatever his education and training might involve, he keeps it all very much on the down-low (one site reveals that he’s a high-school dropout). He’s just another self-help get rich quick huckster. But he signed on early with Rhonda Byrne, so he plays a prominent part on The Secret. Elsewhere in this documentary, we encountered James Arthur Ray; Proctor apparently mentored him for many years, starting in the 90s by his own account. (On the same link, you’ll notice the name “John Assaraf” among the list of Ray’s own students. Assaraf also appears in this film. For now, just know Proctor supported Ray to the very wall.)

Since The Secret aired: Proctor has kept busy running his own self-help business. He’s written a number of books — all on the same topic. I notice that he also got involved with Zig Ziglar’s business. He appears to be still alive.

However, The Secret didn’t work too well for Proctor either. In 2008, he successfully sued David Schirmer, one of the other “experts” in The Secret. They had some kind of business dealings together that went very sour. Proctor claimed Schirmer had committed “misleading or deceptive conduct.”

When a woo-peddler doesn’t mention their credentials, it’s because they entirely lack credentials. And yet Byrne trots this guy out all through The Secret to talk about scientific stuff he absolutely doesn’t understand

What Motivates Lisa Nichols.

lisa nichols, labeled as not a therapist
Guessing she’s not a real therapist.

Lisa Nichols, Author. She was another early sign-on with Rhonda Byrne’s ideas. I noticed her on that Oprah slideshow, done shortly after The Secret dropped. On the next slide, she discusses how she “fell madly in love” with herself. It shows, too. Like Bob Proctor, she possesses no real credentials. Her Amazon biography mentions nothing about it, either. The word “therapist” floats above her to suggest she’s a real live therapist, but her byline says she’s simply an “author.” I’m guessing she’s not legally allowed to use the title “therapist.”

In 1998, she started a business called “Motivating the Masses,” which used Law of Attraction teachings; this business is probably how she came to Byrne’s attention.

In The Secret, she plays a very prominent role. She narrates most of it and shows up often to explain ideas (sort of).

After The Secret aired: She’s written lots more self-help books, including two with Jack Canfield called Chicken Soup for the African-American Soul (2012) and Chicken Soup for the African-American Woman’s Soul (2012 as well). In fact, she’s literally the only woman credited out of three writers for that one. (Jack Canfield also appears prominently in The Secret.)

Between her self-help business, books, and whatnot, she’s apparently amassed quite a fortune. I can see why. She tells people exactly what they ache to hear:

  • It’s completely your fault, whatever it is.
  • You can think yourself out of any bad situation.
  • Focus more on yourself.
  • I’ve got this figured out. Listen to ME.

Maybe The Secret worked for her (OMG). See, when Esther Hicks got cut out of the documentary, Nichols got to redo most of Hicks’ narration! I guess nobody consulted her regarding how to mend Hicks’ and Byrnes’ relationship. She coulda told them exactly how to do it. Weird!

Another “Philosopher,” John F. DeMartini.

Philosopher, again.

Dr. John F. DeMartini, D.C., BSC., Philosopher. It’s cute they put the books on one side and the spine on the other in his background, because “D.C.” means Doctor of Chiropractic and “BSC” means Bachelor of Science (Chiropractic). This guy is not qualified to talk about the various medical stuff he’s talking about in the documentary. Not even by half. Before The Secret, he wrote various self-help woo books (like this one in 2002) that had nothing to do even with his field of supposed expertise.

There’s chiropractors and then there’s the woo-peddlers in the field. You can tell the difference very easily: if a chiro is talking about sessions to cure acne and cancer, offers questionable supplements or quasi-medical retail products for sale through their office, gets overly excited about “subluxations,” or offers chiro treatments to infants and pets, you need to clear the hell outta there. And this one definitely focuses on that end of the business. He has been thoroughly debunked (start here).

When he shows up in The Secret to discuss “the placebo effect,” then, he’s not actually qualified to discuss it. For that matter, neither is Bob Proctor, who also appears in that segment.

After The Secret aired: DeMartini continued his deep-dive into pure pseudoscience woo. Moving on from chiropractic medicine, he’s ventured into various other woo fields — especially get-rich-quick stuff. He pushes his “Dr” credential every chance he gets, too. I’ve seen his name linked with no less than Dr. Oz. So he’s still floating around doing his thing. No lawsuits yet that I saw, so hopefully he hasn’t gotten anybody killed yet.

Ben Johnson’s Smirk.

ben johnson and his smirk
Egad, he’s not even trying to hide it.

Dr. Ben Johnson, M.D., N.M.D., D.O., Physician. His qualifications read, accordingly: “M.D. (Doctor of Medicine), N.M.D. (Naturopathic Doctor of Medicine, more or less), and D.O. (Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine).” Two of those are reputable. The middle one is decidedly not. So of course he pursued a career in naturopathy. (The real medical community completely rejects that entire field as pure woo.)

This legal document details his education. Johnson’s education does not prepare him to speak knowledgeably about anything in The Secret. But what else is new?

His appearance on The Secret consists of him chortling about how our thoughts have “vibes,” which is another way to say “frequency.” So obviously, our thoughts have actual honest-to-goodness frequencies just like sound waves do! He clearly never learned anything about sound waves. I haven’t much either. However, I do know a specious comparison when I hear one.

After The Secret aired: Between 2012 and 2013, Johnson worked for a naturopathic woo clinic in California called “pH Miracle Center.” The founder of it, Robert Young, pushed the idea that one’s blood pH levels could make or break diseases of all kinds, especially cancer. In 2016, Young got convicted of practicing medicine without a license.

Ben Johnson’s Lawsuits.

A couple of years after working there, Ben Johnson’s legal troubles began.

Dawn Kali sued both Johnson and Young in 2015 over her cancer treatment at the woo clinic. She won in 2018, with a jury awarding her USD$105M in that lawsuit. It probably offered some comfort after those two bungled her case so badly that a mild case of cancer turned into Stage IV and now she’s just got a few years left to live because of them.

In 2016, Ben Johnson faced a lawsuit for various breaches of the code of ethics. Specifically, Johnson stood accused of “gross negligence” regarding his care of numerous cancer patients. The lawsuit alleges some really serious stuff. He allegedly missed a number of important intake details, suggested all kinds of tests and treatments that made no sense, didn’t follow up adequately with his patients, and generally acted in capacities in which he was not trained (notably Oncology).

Undeterred, he published a very dangerous book in 2016. In it, he instructed women not to get freakin’ mammograms. Instead, he offered women his woo for freakin’ breast cancer.

Finally, in 2017 the State of California revoked his license to practice medicine at all.

He died in 2019. That’s good, because this guy ranked really high on my mental shitlist till I caught that.

What a wonderful “expert!”

James Arthur Ray, Out There Straight-Up Killing People.

james arthur ray
This one’s really a trip.

James Arthur Ray, Philosopher. Lookie there, another “philosopher” with absolutely no credentials! And this one’s especially wild. He appears all through The Secret, beginning early in. There, he advises people to keep pets and children around to “bring goodness into your life. What a gift that is!” Cuz parenting is all about you the parent, baby.

Born the son of a fundagelical preacher, he soon went his own way. However, he developed the usual dishonest testimony we see in actual fundagelicals — to serve as his credentials for his quickly-growing self-help business. His former classmates debunked his rags-to-riches sob story. As for his credentials, he entirely lacks them. He attended a junior college briefly in the 70s — that’s it. He worked as a sales manager mostly, like for AT&T; though he claimed to work for the prestigious firm FranklinCovey, those guys had never heard of him. In the 90s, he gained Bob Proctor as a mentor.

After The Secret aired: his career took off like a rocket — especially when he appeared on that Oprah show about it. Very soon, he took advantage of his fame to become a “paternal” (read: authoritarian) cult leader in Arizona.

At some point, Ray latched onto misunderstood, poorly-appropriated Native American rituals — like that of the sweat lodge. At various times, the very torqued Lakota Tribe tried to get him to stop doing those rituals. Ray didn’t listen, so in one of those rituals in 2009, three people in attendance died. In all, about 20 got very sick from overheating — that time. In 2011, a jury found him guilty of negligent homicide and his ass went to prison for a couple of years.

Since the trial: He got out of prison in 2013. Soon enough, he set about restoring his previous career. I don’t think it worked. In 2016, Enlighten Us, a documentary about him, revealed that he’s having trouble finding new sheep to fleece. I hope things stay that way.

Seeing a Pattern?

I’ve only offered up the histories and stories of a very small number of the total (and rather dizzying) number of people behind The Secret. Over and over again, though, we discover patterns.

  • These self-proclaimed “experts” possess absolutely no training or education in the subjects they discuss with such great authority.
  • These “experts” cavort through life after The Secret amid accusations of fraud, lots of lawsuits, and general fidgey-widgeyness. Most of their careers are marked by incompetence, negligence, and gross irresponsibility. Rhonda Byrne sure knows how to pick ’em!
  • The Secret ignores the strangely incestuous professional ties between these “experts.” The film discloses those ties, if it ever does at all, only in passing and as read between the lines.

We might do more biographies later, but so far I have absolutely no faith that The Secret offers us anybody who has the faintest real idea of what they’re talking about.

These are the “experts” that the fleeced sheep clinging to these woo promises have decided to trust. These are the people insisting that “The Secret” really works and can do real good in our lives.

The Broken Record.

And like look, I know, I get it.

Self-help, as an industry, is rife with these exact problems. It doesn’t matter if it’s fundagelicals or New Age woo peddlers hawking the miracle healing: whatever form it takes, it still won’t work and still might do great harm as it fails to achieve anything its hawkers promised.

The reason I focused on these few “experts” for this post is because they’re part of a greater pattern within the entire industry of self-help. The cult of positive thinking is full of these sorts of people. They’re innocuous and ineffectual at best; downright malevolent at worst. And for some reason, almost nobody talks about it or holds people like Rhonda Byrne accountable for her poor choices in “experts.” We’ve just decided, as a society, that we don’t care about qualifications when it comes to magical healing and getting rich quick.

Well, we can do better than that.

Until we figure this thing out collectively, the only people who’ll be helped by “The Secret” are the woo-peddlers. They’ll be helped quite a bit! After all, they profit grandly from the money they get from millions of gullible people.

NEXT UP: Our first chat post! Look for it around 6pm Pacific-ish. See you tomorrow!

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About Captain Cassidy
Captain Cassidy grew up fervently Catholic, converted to the SBC in her teens, and became a Pentecostal shortly afterward. She even volunteered in church (choir, Sunday School) and married an aspiring preacher! But then--record scratch!--she brought everything to a screeching halt when she deconverted in her mid-20s. That was 25 years ago. Now a comfortable None, she blogs on Roll to Disbelieve about psychology, pop culture, politics, relationships, cats, gaming, and more--and where they all intersect with religion. And she still can't carry a note in a bucket. You can read more about the author here.
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