The Legal Storms Around ‘The Secret’

The Legal Storms Around ‘The Secret’ March 19, 2020

Hi and welcome back! Lately, we’ve been talking about the cult of positive thinking — a self-help phenomenon that has swept the whole world, it seems. One of the biggest profit streams in the entire shebang is The Secret, a blockbuster 2006 documentary put out by Australian woo-peddler Rhonda Byrne. Rhonda Byrne tells people that her Secret will give them lives of comfort, joy, and ease. But the reality behind her creation looks very, very different from the mythology she pushes about it. Today, I’ll show you what I mean by outlining some of the lawsuits swirling around her and her creation.

the forsyth county courthouse
(Timothy L Brock.) Forsyth County’s courthouse in Georgia. I liked the little “COURT HOUSE” sign. It’s so small, and yet so definitive.

(Previous posts in this series: Rethinking the Power of Positive Thinking; Toxic Positivity; The Secret: Background; The Secret: Mega-Review; The Experts of The Secret. The word “experts” is a scare quote. All other quoted material comes from various linked sources.)

Rhonda Byrne’s Origin Story.

The creator of The Secret, Rhonda Byrne, accomplished little of note before 2006. Seriously. Here’s her IMDB page. It lists four of the many TV shows she produced. She did network TV for decades, and soon became known as a wheeler-dealer. One of her previous bosses said of her, “She wasn’t ever caught napping, Rhonda.” She wasn’t doing badly at all. But the enormous fame and wealth she craved eluded her.

Then she dropped The Secret in 2006 and everything changed.

The Secret gave Byrne exactly what she’d always wanted. Since then, she’s been churning out expansion packs related to the documentary. It represents her sole claim to fame.

Her testimony confused the heck out of me. Not to be insulting, truly, but she didn’t seem like the type to just come up with something syncretistic like this. Certainly, she took an interest in woo. Definitely, she’s shrewd, driven, and intelligent. But this woo-peddler didn’t seem to match her own woo.

Then I found out about the plagiarism lawsuit that erupted in the wake of the documentary.

Well ain’t that neat, I thought. 

A Decidedly Odd Lineage.

Rhonda Byrne claims repeatedly that her inspiration for The Secret came from a book her daughter gave to her: The Science of Getting Rich, by Wallace D. Wattles (formerly a Methodist Christian). However, the documentary itself never seems to mention the name of the book. The introduction certainly doesn’t. I speculate that the title just sounded sleazy or obviously scammy, so they left it out. I found this info on Oprah’s site and La Wiki.

Published in 1910 originally, Wattles’ book probably reached Byrne’s attention because a self-help business called The Science of Getting Rich Network featured free downloads of it on their website in 1999. Once Byrne’s documentary began to focus a lot of attention on the book again, it was reprinted in 2007 with TarcherPerigee. And since then, a vast number of other publishers have done the same.

Wattles’ short book details “the Certain Way of Thinking.” It’s just the Law of Attraction: wish in just the right way, and you’ll get filthy rich.

It’s a weird book for a daughter to give a mother devastated by grief after the loss of her own father, though. And that’s the exact situation that Byrne described in her testimony. Like how’d that convo go? “Sorry you’re grieving, Mom! Here’s a scammy get-rich-quick book to cheer you up!”

Now I think Rhonda Byrne deliberately gave her “Secret” a lineage that didn’t require her to share its success with anybody else.

The Plagiarism Lawsuit.

After Byrne released the documentary and book, another self-help author cried foul. Fellow Australian Vanessa J. Bonnette claimed that Rhonda Byrne had committed over 100 “instances of plagiarism” of her own book.

In 2003, Bonnette published Empowered for the New Era. (She republished it in 2007.) On her own website at the time (archived here), she offered up selections from her book, then asked visitors to her page to compare her published work to The Secret.

Well, I did. As it happens, the very end of the Amazon preview for The Secret appears to be one of the sections Bonnette claims as hers. And yes, they do appear very similar. Byrne uses exactly the same analogy that Bonnette describes: that human thoughts are like TV transmissions beamed out to the universe, which makes humans into big ol’ transmission towers. It’s a striking similarity, though I don’t know if they qualify legally as plagiarism.

Even stranger, though, I found a blog claiming that in 2005, Vanessa Bonnette had sent a promotional copy of her book to the same TV station in Australia where Rhonda Byrne worked. The source the blogger cites is long gone, but if true then it’s an damning detail.

Bonnette sued Byrne over plagiarism. Byrne, for her part, shot back with her own lawsuit against Bonnette, claiming defamation. The two gurus settled out of court in 2007.

Gosh, that whole Law of Attraction thing didn’t work out too well for either of them.

Seeking Spiritualists.

Esther Hicks is an American spiritualist from Utah. Even by spiritualism standards, she sounds weird. She and her husband write books, tour, give speeches, and offer consultations to teach people to think themselves rich.

Sure, most of the hucksters we saw on the “experts” post do that.

But this one talks to space aliens.

Well, “spirit entities,” anyway. They collectively go by the name “Abraham,” you see. This link at Cult Education Institute (CEI) says she doesn’t like to call it spirit channeling. Instead, Hicks meditates and then starts “receiving.” I’ll let you check out the CEI link for exactly what that “receiving” process looks like, because wow this gal gets into it.

“Abraham” tells her all kinds of things. And then she tells those things to other people, who then give her gobs of money.

By the time she and Rhonda Byrne crossed paths, Hicks was already very, very successful at her schtick. I’m guessing they met because Byrne wanted to get this popular spiritualist on her team. In fact, according to The Australian, Hicks was the only “expert” who got paid to be there.

Indeed, Hicks played a huge role in The Secret. In addition to being interviewed, she narrated much of the film.

She made about $500k on The Secret. But you’d never know she was ever involved to look at The Secret now.

The Contract Negation.

That’s because at some point Hicks began getting some bad vibes from Byrne (seewhutIdidthere?), which the CEI link characterizes as “grave vibrational imbalances.” Because of those vibes, Hicks asked to be removed from the film. Byrne duly edited her out of the film, re-casting other “experts” to read Hicks’ lines and asking others to narrate instead of Hicks.

At least, that’s what Hicks said. Sounds nice, eh?

Well, here’s what she told The Australian:

“We received an email from the producer of The Secret lovingly explaining (we never have received correspondence from her that was anything other than extremely loving) that the contract that we had all agreed upon and signed was no longer sufficient for their further distribution of the project.”

The Secret had originally been intended for television in Australia. But now Rhonda Byrne wanted to distribute it online. That meant that the contract needed to be renegotiated for the new medium. If Hicks didn’t want to play ball with the new contract, then Byrne would simply edit her out of the film.

After consulting “Abraham” and probably getting her feet tickled, Hicks and her husband decided not to pursue further action.

I’m sure it was pure coincidence that the one person sharing profits with Byrne with was also the only person who got written out of the film.

The Director, Pre-Burning.

Drew Heriot was a young director who worked at the same TV station that Byrne did (pre-Secret). They even worked together on some of the same shows, according to IMDB.

The Australian tells us that Heriot helped Byrne refine her ideas. Byrne then pitched the results of their collaboration to her network, which gave her $600k to film it. Heriot himself contributed $10k, and the two headed off to America to do their interviews with the various “experts” she’d found. Apparently 60 “experts” and testimonies got filmed.

I’m thinking it was Heriot’s youth and Byrne’s hard-sales skills that allowed her to do what I’m about to describe. I know we’ve got lawyers in the commentariat and beyond, as well as people who deal in contracts. And you’re going to cringe, and it’s okay because I’m cringing too:

She convinced Drew Heriot not to sign any contracts with her about the project.

Yep. She told him they’re just soooo limiting, like ya know, man? The Secret’s all about positive energy, and contracts focus on the negative, so they should just totally not do contracts.

Instead, Heriot told The Australian, she promised to pay him monthly fees and he’d get profit-sharing afterward. They’d “share the abundance.”

“Sharing the Abundance.”

All through 2005, the two worked feverishly — conducting interviews and cutting their footage down into usable form. Byrne paid him the promised monthly fees that added up to what he described as a “five-figure sum.”

But their network decided not to air the final product.

Byrne decided to release it on the internet instead. She obtained the services of Dan Hollings, an internet marketer based out of Arizona, to help her market the project — and under similarly vague terms.

The day after the film’s release online, Heriot asked about the profit-sharing Byrne had promised.

He says she told him he was being “unappreciative” and implied she might retaliate against him for even requesting his profit-sharing.

A month later, Heriot met Byrne at a restaurant in Santa Monica to talk about his money. He’d moved to California, like she had, to publicize the film and work on the sequel. The Secret was his job — and his only income source at the time. When he brought up payment, though, she fired him on the spot. He would never see a dime of that profit sharing. Oh, but she’d return his $10k.

She did that at least, but he was still fired — with no other way to make a living, no work visa, and stranded in a foreign country. And her fields were barren.

The Lawsuits.

Heriot lawyered up and sued her over her unfulfilled promise in 2007. In response, she sued him right back.

Much the same thing happened to Dan Hollings as happened to Drew Heriot. Blah blah blah, vague promises, emails sent, etc. When she decided not to pay him either, Hollings launched a lawsuit against her.

In response, Byrne’s people sued him right back.

(Sensing a pattern?)

And her lawyers issued Hollings’ lawsuit in Illinois, even though nobody involved lived there. When his lawyers asked if she had family there or something, she replied, according to The Australian,

“I don’t have blood relatives living in Illinois. I just – I just consider us all one family of humanity…”

Oh, okay, that doesn’t sound punitive at all.

In depositions, Byrne claimed selective amnesia about everything, including all of her emailed conversations with Hollings.

The cases both dragged on for a bit, but they look like they all settled out of court as well, probably around 2009.

Everyone Else.

When The Australian tried to talk to the other “experts” in the documentary, nobody but Jack Canfield would say a word to them.

Canfield writes those Chicken Soup for the Whatever Soul glurge books. And he likes Rhonda Byrne! See, she donated generously to his “Transformational Leadership Council,” which several other “experts” from the film help him run.

And I’m not even halfway surprised that everything’s hunky-dory between them.

Canfield is wealthy — maybe even more wealthy than Byrne herself. Even more than that, though, his wealth comes from a source that is totally unrelated to her and predates her documentary.

If she tried to pull any funny business with him, he would have the resources to fight back. So she seems to have conscientiously stayed on his good side. Maybe she’d learned her lesson with Esther Hicks, who also enjoyed enormous popularity and success before participating in The Secret.

As for the rest, their entire newfound wealth derived almost entirely from her. It’s easy to think they saw what happened to the others who’d tried to hold her to her promises — and then decided to dance to her tune for whatever she felt like giving them, and be grateful for it all.

She does seem to value gratitude, after all, as long as it’s everyone else’s gratitude to her.

The Lesson They All Learned.

Just as we saw about the “experts” Rhonda Byrne chose for her project, we see the same ruthless cunning in her business dealings as well. Over and over again, we hear about people who feel unfairly treated by her — even cheated by her and lied to as well.

For someone playing herself off as a super-serene spiritual guru radiating love to the universe, she’s sure not sounding like one based on these stories. She sounds more to me like a typical Christian hypocrite.

Her overarching goal, in all cases, seems to revolve around clawing for every bit of The Secret’s profits that she can: screw alla them, she’s gonna get hers.

You’d think that someone so very attuned to the Law of Attraction and who talks so much about the necessity of gratitude would feel some of her own — maybe starting with the people who made her vision come true. Those people made her a wealthy household name among self-help enthusiasts. Without them, she’d still be making TV shows about silly commercials and psychic detectives in Australia.

But nope. The only people who don’t seem terrified of her retaliation are the ones she would definitely know better than to betray.

It Sure Ain’t Helped Her None.

The surest sign that she’s peddling nothing but woo is that her “Secret” doesn’t seem to have made her into a decent human being. If she can’t even take her own patter seriously, nobody else should. (Where’ve we heard that before?)

Nor has her “Secret” produced a harmonious group of people working together toward the same goal. Instead, it’s given the world yet another kaffeeklatsch of bickering, backbiting, money-grubbing, downright nasty hypocrites spouting woo without any tether to reality and grubbing for money from gullible people.

The more I learn about The Secret, the less surprised I am that Rhonda Byrne is remaking her documentary into a fundagelical-pandering movie. They’ve been primed for her message for years. They’ll eat it up with a spoon.

NEXT UP: Another chat post tomorrow! Then on Saturday, we dive into the science behind The Secret (such as it is). See  you soon!

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Final Note: I ain’t even touched on the lawsuits involving other folks involved with ‘The Secret.’ Her “expert” David Schirmer’s faced not one but TWO legal problems– a lawsuit from Bob Proctor, another “expert,” and an investigation from the Australian Securities Investment Commission. A TV station there did a report on him. Here’s the first segment on YouTube:

“The Secret Exposed,” from A Current Affair, May 28, 2007. Oh, he’s in trouble.

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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