NEAL CONAN, host:
This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.
By now "The Secret" is hardly secret anymore. For those still in the dark, though, "The Secret" is a hugely successful DVD and more recently a book which is up to number two on Amazon's bestseller list. It's self-help program that teaches that positive thoughts and feelings can lead to extraordinary outcomes: money, happiness, success, anything you might want. Of course self-help books are nothing new. Guides that teach that a better life is only a few happy thoughts away date back centuries, and every few years it seems like an especially clever or well-crafted version explodes into the mainstream. In fact, even less spectacular self-help books are staples of the publishing industry. Today we'll talk with one of the teachers behind "The Secret," with a publisher who markets the self-help genre, and with a skeptic who thinks this can not only be a waste of your time and your money, but could be bad for you. We'll also speak with you.
Later on in the program, William Langewiesche joins us to talk about "City of Fear," his article about a monstrous prison gang, the human compulsion for order, and the collapse of the state.
But first, the secret of self-help books. If you've ever bought a self-help book or video, call and tell us why or why not and whether it worked: 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. E-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also join the conversion on our blog. That's at npr.org/blogofthenation.
And we'll begin with "The Secret." Hale Dwoskin is the author of "The Sedona Method." He joins us now from the studios of member station KNAU in Flagstaff, Arizona. Nice to have you on the program today.
Mr. HALE DWOSKIN (Author, "The Sedona Method"): Hello, it's great to be here.
CONAN: And let me begin by asking, is "The Sedona Method" the same as "The Secret"?
Mr. DWOSKIN: No, "The Secret" is a - as you described, is a way of holding positive thoughts in mind...
Mr. DWOSKIN: ...and "The Sedona Method" is a way of letting go of the emotion that generate the thoughts, and it's also a way of letting go of the beliefs that hold you back. So it shows you how to tap your natural ability to let go of any uncomfortable or unwanted feeling on the spot.
CONAN: Mm-hmm, and it's association with "The Secret" how?
Mr. DWOSKIN: Well, I'm one of the 24 people that were interviewed - actually about 55 were interviewed, 24 were selected for this movie. And so I got involved because Rhonda Byrne, the producer, came to a meeting that I was involved in, something called the Transformational Leadership Council, that was founded by myself and John Gray and Jack Canfield and a whole host of other people in the movie and other well-known authors.
CONAN: Mm-hmm, and so you all participated in the this film, and so when you look at it - I mean do you associate yourself with "The Secret." Is this something that you would endorse?
Mr. DWOSKIN: I would, actually. I mean it's not the whole truth of the universe, but it's certainly something that works for people very effectively. It - even if you don't believe that you create what you think...
Mr. DWOSKIN: ...it certainly influence how you think and feel throughout the day. And if you're having negative thoughts and not feeling very well, you're obviously not going to perform at your best. If you take that a step further, many people believe - and I agree - that we're always creating in our lives the sum total of our thoughts and feelings, both conscious and subconscious. Where we run into trouble is that most of our thoughts and feels are subconscious, not conscious.
Mr. DWOSKIN: And we're always saying and doing things that we later regret because we're not really dealing with all our accumulation of excess baggage that we carry around all the time.
CONAN: And as I understand it - and please correct me if I'm wrong - but as I understand it, it argues that if you can focus your thoughts, including your subconscious thoughts, on positive - on positive results, the universe will deliver them to you. Similarly - the universe is neutral on this - if you focus on negative thoughts, you're going to be in trouble.
Mr. DWOSKIN: Yes, well, that's exactly it. And again, it's a combination of the thoughts and the feelings, and if you're feeling - you can wake up on the wrong side of the bed and feel angry or sad or depressed all day long, and all your thoughts, all 50 or 60,000 thoughts that day, will be colored by that feeling. Whereas if you feel well, if you have a positive feeling inside, then your thoughts naturally follow that. So it's much more effective to deal with how you feel than just how you think, because trying to control 50,000 thoughts a day is a forever job.
CONAN: And an implication - and I'm sure you've heard this criticism - but an implication is that if you get cancer or hit by a bus or a child is kidnapped and tortured, somehow that's their fault, their negative feelings?
Mr. DWOSKIN: Again, I don't think it's anyone's fault. I mean most of what we think and feel is based on years and years and years of environmental influences and so many other factors that - and blaming someone for what they experience only adds weight to that whole problem. It's not anyone's fault, but what we tend to do is we tend to attract what we think. And if you blame yourself, you would - you just magnify a lot of suffering.
CONAN: Mm-hmm, but if you have negative thoughts, those things can happen to you.
Mr. DWOSKIN: Absolutely.
CONAN: If you have positive thoughts, somebody would say, you can still get hit by a bus.
Mr. DWOSKIN: Oh, of course, of course. I mean having positive thoughts and feelings is not going to prevent life from continuing, but it will help you deal with every moment much more effectively. It will help you - for instance, if you're lost in a lot of negative thought and feeling, often you may not see what's going on around you and you're more likely to step in front of a bus. Whereas, obviously, if you're in a car, for instance, and you get blindsided, that's what happened. And in my experience, though, as you let go of this accumulated negative thoughts and negative feelings, your world does reflect a more and more positive outcome on every level, and it also feels a lot better to be alive when you're not having all this negative self-talk in your mind and you're not - have this knot in your gut all the time. So yes, we're creating the externals, but more importantly is that as you take control of your thoughts and feelings, your internal world, which follows you everywhere and can spoil even things going your way and can magnify things not going your way, if you take charge of that, your life is a lot better.
CONAN: Let's get some listeners involved in the conversation. Our guest is Hale Dwoskin, author of "The Sedona Method," and one of the teachers featured in "The Secret," and if you'd like to join us: 800-989-8255. E-mail is
FRANK (Caller): Hey, how are you?
CONAN: I'm well, thank you.
FRANK: I was calling to say that I have bought self-help books before, but they really - I've never really had any success with any of them. And the reason I get them is that the company I work for will say, well, this is the book we're going to read, you know, this quarter. And it's a good, well-intentioned attempt to help people out and maybe do some team-building, but it really - I have never really seen much success come out of it. And once you get away from, you know, the higher-ups, pretty much everybody has the same opinion.
CONAN: Uh-huh, so they're motivational tools basically used by your company for leadership kind of things...
CONAN: ...and maybe not so effective in your case. Have any of them ever been "The Secret"? Have they tried that one?
FRANK: No, I - you know, they are somewhat interesting, some of them, and I would really hope that some of these things that your guest is saying would work - you know, your thoughts are in control the way that reality is, you know, reflected, your own reality or the world is reflected to you - but I mean I kind of agree that you can choose to look at things one way or another...
FRANK: ...and having a more positive outlook definitely makes things much more enjoyable. I think there is a bit of decision in there.
FRANK: But as far changing reality with your outlook, I don't think so.
CONAN: All right, well…
FRANK: Hopefully I'm wrong.
CONAN: OK, thanks very much for the call, Frank, and good luck with the next motivational tool. It might be the one that catches on. Mr. Dwoskin, I'm sure you run into skeptics like that all the time.
Mr. DWOSKIN: Yes, well, and again, part of the problem in that situation is The Sedona Method - we don't go into a company and do a corporate program unless they make sure that it's voluntary. When someone's forced to change, that's kind of invasive...
Mr. DWOSKIN: ...and I really don't agree with that all. I would recommend that any company wanting to help people could make suggestions, but to make something compulsory, to go in this direction about working on your own inners in a corporate environment, we actually will not do a corporate training under those circumstances because it just causes unnecessary push and shove and suffering for the people involved.
CONAN: Joining us now is Micki McGee. She's the author of "Self-Help, Inc.: Makeover Culture in American Life." She's with us from our bureau in New York. And Ms. McGee, nice to have you on the program today.
Ms. MICKI MCGEE (Author, "Self-Help, Inc.: Makeover Culture in American Life"): It's a pleasure to be here.
CONAN: And I'd like to ask you, in your opinion, self-help books have been a phenomenally successful, and particularly "The Secret," why do you think so?
Ms. MCGEE: Well, self-help books appeal to Americans' need to imagine that they're in control. One of the things that's most clear here is that the marketing effort of "The Secret" would not have been successful if there wasn't an existing market. And what is that market? That market is a country, a nation - in fact, a world - that's desperate to feel that they can be in control of their lives. When things are spinning out of control, the idea that you can recline on your divan and imagine that your life will be better and suddenly it will be better, that's a very appealing fantasy. But it is a fantasy, and we have to remember that.
CONAN: Mm-hmm. Mr. Dwoskin, we'll give you a chance to respond to that.
Mr. DWOSKIN: Sure. Again, one of the things that's really important is you can't just sit on your divan and think positively and expect your world to change. You also need to change how you feel and you also need to get into action. Sure if you're living in fantasy, you will just get into trouble. But there's a lot more involved in "The Secret" and in "The Sedona Method" than simply fantasizing. And I do agree that if you just fantasize and sit on the couch, your bills are just going to pile up.
Mr. DWOSKIN: And it's important to think positively and it's important to feel positively, but that's only a piece of the puzzle.
CONAN: And so that there's actual work involved here, that there's actual discipline, that there's rigor to this?
Mr. DWOSKIN: Oh, absolutely. I mean, again, part of the problem is if you have a positive fantasy, you're not dealing with your subtotal ,thinking this, you're just dealing with a small fraction of it. And, two, if you don't actually follow through with action and you don't - aren't acting responsibly in life, just having a positive fantasy - it's just like putting a Band-Aid on top. So it's important to be integrated and to have - take appropriate action to deal with the world in a conscious, integral way, and bring to that a positive mental attitude. The combination is extremely dynamic, and I'll give you just some examples. I've seen people who...
CONAN: Could you give it to us in 15 seconds...
Mr. DWOSKIN: Yes.
CONAN: ...because we're running out of time here.
Mr. DWOSKIN: Sure. I've seen people lose weight, stop smoking, get rid of depression, feel happier, feel more alive, have better relationships - all of that I've seen, combining letting go with holding in mind what you want.
CONAN: All right, Mr. Dwoskin, thanks very much for your time today, and good luck to you.
Hale Dwoskin is the author of "The Sedona Method." He joined us today from KNAU, our member station in Flagstaff, Arizona. We'll continue talking with Micki McGee and take more of your calls when we come back from a short break. We'll also be speaking with a publisher of self-help books, among others.
I'm Neal Conan. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
(Soundbite of music)
CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington.
Self-help titles can promise money, happiness, even miracle cures, all for the price of a book or a DVD, and plenty of Americans spend the 24.95 to find out more. Today we're talking about the secret of the self-help genre. In a few minutes we'll speak with a publisher who works with this kind of books. And right now our guest is Micki McGee. She's the author of "Self-Help, Inc.: Makeover Culture in American Life." Of course we want to hear from you on this. If you've ever bought a self-help book or video, call and tell us why or why not and whether it did any good: 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. E-mail is
And Micki McGee, I wanted to return to you, and I want to read this e-mail we got from Ray Anne(ph) in Trenton, New Jersey, who says: I just finished the audiotape edition of "The Secret" and have very mixed feelings about it. While I absolutely found some of it inspirational and a provocative way to express our connectedness as one human family, I was really turned off by the focus on money, possessions, trophy wives, and dates with women. There were a number of ludicrous examples of methods employed by the author and others, pretending bills were checks, etc., that sort of put speakers and writers into the realm of out there rather than dealing with the real challenge of creating positive thinking while living in the real world. The focus on self seemed to leave our creator in the dust, which leads to a question - if gratitude is so important, and I certainly believe it is, to whom are we grateful? This is just one of the many series of questions that arise after reading this and other self-help books.
Ms. MCGEE: Well, I don't think we need to be grateful to the self-help publishing industry. I think that's where we can start. One of the things that's very interesting in these - I call them "The Secret" charlatans - is that this is not a secret, this idea that they have come up with. That part I agree with. It's not a secret. This idea of mind cure or the idea that you think it and it will be or become, is a very old idea. In 1904, a book called "In Tune with the Infinite" by Ralph Waldo Trine was an enormous bestseller. Now if it had worked, then we wouldn't need a resurgence of this idea, right?...
Ms. MCGEE: ...because all of our problems would now be solved, and we would be living in a paradise.
The problem with "The Secret" is that people like your guest who was just with us, Mr. Dwoskin, is that they're changing their message each time they speak. On the actual DVD of "The Secret," it actually states that you should not take action because to do so would be to question your faith. In other words, action is not only not suggested on the DVD, it is counseled against. But when some of the 24 band of charlatans appeared on television, all but one recanted on that point and stepped up to the plate and said that action was very necessary. So you will see that the message is retuned and refined each time they appear in the media. You'll also see that the person who is benefiting most from this, Rhonda Byrne, has stepped out of the spotlight because she doesn't want to be asked to - be called to account for the fact that she's encouraging people to forgo cancer treatment because they could heal themselves, she's encouraging people to imagine that, for example, the Jews brought the Holocaust on themselves. Now these are not the specific things that she says, but this is what is implied by a philosophy that says - if you think it, it shall be.
CONAN: Hmm, let's see if we can get another caller on the line. This is John, John with us from New London in Connecticut.
JOHN (Caller): Hi, Neal.
JOHN: Thanks for taking my call.
JOHN: I love the show.
CONAN: Thank you.
JOHN: When I saw "The Secret" - a friend gave us the DVD - and I wasn't sure whether I should laugh or break it into shards. And it's just really the most dangerous kind of narcissistic, you know, me-centered, humanistic tripe that you see everywhere now.
CONAN: You didn't like it, I take it.
JOHN: I was appalled by it. I mean, you know, I was an athlete and, you know, I remember many coaches, you know, practicing visualization. And I mean visualization is a great tool, I mean, in the arena, you know, in sports, when you're preparing for a job interview. But to sit back and say I want a 50-foot yacht and expect the universe to align to my whim is ludicrous, it's dangerous.
And another thing that I really disliked about this is that it kind of commercialized, you know, God or the creator. It took - I mean it just - it turned everything into a game. It's all a mechanism, and if you play the game, you can sit back and you'll get your checks and you'll get this and you'll get that. Where's the effort? Where's the works?
CONAN: Hmm, John, thanks very much for the call. We appreciate it. I suspect Micki McGee is not going to disagree with you much.
JOHN: And I do thank the lady for her comments.
JOHN: I think she's dead on. Thank you.
CONAN: Appreciate it. Well, let's turn to Steve Ross, who's the senior vice president and publisher for Crown Books, who joins us also from our bureau in New York. Steve, good to talk to you again.
Mr. STEPHEN ROSS (Senior Vice President, Crown Books): Good to talk to you, too, Neal.
CONAN: And I should, in the interest of full disclosure, explain that Steve and I know each other. Crown Books published my book, "Play by Play: Baseball, Radio, and Life in the Last Chance League," a few years ago. It was certainly not a self-help book and nor did it sell like one. So, Steve...
Mr. ROSS: But it was a wonderful book.
(Soundbite of laughter)
CONAN: Well, thank you very much for that, Steve, and available on remainder shelves everywhere. But why have - why - are self-help books, do you think, dangerous?
Mr. ROSS: Oh, Neal, is that why you had me on?
CONAN: Oh, yes.
Mr. ROSS: I thought you invited me for my sculpted pecs and my six-pack abs.
CONAN: No, that was yesterday's show.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. ROSS: Oh, I - OK. Are self-help books dangerous? Well, I think it depends, as so much of this discussion does, on how narrowly you define self-help.
Mr. ROSS: I have on my - anyone who's visited my office in the past seven years can affirm that I've got on my computer, on a Post-it, written out, a quote from Peter Drucker from his book on management - the world's foremost management guru, and that quote says "The Customer never buys a product. By definition, the customer buys the satisfaction of a want." End quote. Now maybe that want is to visit distant lands without leaving home...
Mr. ROSS: ...so that's - so you have the genre of armchair travel. Maybe it's to be entertained and transported out of your own life and into the mind and skin of - atmosphere of someone else, and that's what fiction is for. Or maybe it's to get thinner thighs in 30 days, or retire early and well-off or learn to cook clean and create crafts like Martha Stewart. That's your quintessential self-help. I'm not sure - we don't really - I should also preface my comments by saying that I have not read the book or seen the DVD of "The Secret." I was never a popular enough child to be...
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. ROSS: ...brought into secrets, so. I do know people who have...
Mr. ROSS: ...and I've heard varying reports, but it does have the one thing that I am most surprised by, which is that ultimate, national good housekeeping seal of approval: Oprah Winfrey says this is something that people should read.
Mr. ROSS: Now Oprah Winfrey has brought - has done tremendous things for literacy in America. She has brought extraordinary books, books that might sell maybe two or three or 5,000 copies a year to 600 and 700,000 people. And the publishing industry as a whole bows down at her feet, and I have had no reason to doubt, until this book, any of her choices or selections or anything that she has endorsed. In general she has been consistently a hallmark of quality, so - I also wanted to say that at Crown, we don't publish only how-to books. We had last year, for example, 42 New York Times bestsellers, 12 of which were how-to books, and seven of them reached number one The New York Times and Amazon Bestseller Lists.
CONAN: There is a marketing, as you say, there is a market there or nobody would publish them at all. But as you look at "The Secret," I mean it seems to be - and again, I'm not a great devotee of this - but there's a remarkable combination of sort of "The Power of Positive Thinking," the old Norman Vincent Peale book, and "The Da Vinci Code." It seems - just looking at the cover, even, it's a miracle of presentation.
Mr. ROSS: Yes, you're right. I think actually that's a - the comparison to "Da Vinci Code" is astute. I haven't seen that anywhere before. Part of what we look for in our packaging of self-help is a very big promise, and I think what was so successful with "The Da Vinci Code" was that you were - the packaging promised the reader that they were being brought into a secret, a historical secret, that nobody else knew about, and everybody wants to below to a secret club, I think, secretly.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. ROSS: And I think that they have done that very successfully by going right to the very essence of what appeals at a very gut level, the notion of finally having a secret to everything and not really having to work at it.
Mr. ROSS: We live in an "er" culture: thinner, faster, stronger, younger, consumer. We consume. That's what we do in America. It's who we are, and multibillion-dollar corporations exist to widen our choices, and it appears widen our physique. Thus we have an epidemic of obesity when what we really need is a vaccine of impulse control. In the absence of that, we need reliable information.
So the media has a responsibility not to knowingly propagate untruthful information. But if you turn on late night television, those infomercials demonstrate that it's caveat dieter out there.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. ROSS: And so - I mean, it's hard to say who is going to be a reliable barometer for what is good information and what is bad information. I think you need to have an authoritative authorship.
I think we've been very, very careful. We're part of Random House. We are very proud of the books we publish. We have never had any difficulty along those lines in terms of the truthfulness or honesty or effectiveness of really any of the self-help books. And we've also even had some fun with the genre.
I mean, we published last year Dave Barry's "Money Secrets." We published a book by Jill Connor Brown, better known as the sweet potato queen. We published a book called "The Sweet Potato Queen's Big Ass Cookbook and Financial Planner." Now, I don't know if that'll get beeped out or not, but that was a fun book. And her…
CONAN: Well, let me just turn back to Micki McGee and to say other than, you know, somebody being divested of their 24.95 or whatever it is, where's the harm in this?
Prof. MCGEE: There are many layers of harm that emerge from this kind of rhetoric and discourse. The one that I think is the greatest…
CONAN: And when you say this kind, are you're talking about the secret kind?
Prof. MCGEE: I'm talking about "The Secret."
Prof. MCGEE: I'm talking about the self-improvement industry in the main, but also about "The Secret" in particular with its fantasmatic creation of reality from dream life. The trouble of it, the most significant problem with it, is something that Barbara Ehrenreich talks about in a recent essay in Harpers. It creates a culture of empathy impairment. It creates a compassion-impaired culture.
In other words, if we imagine that everyone draws to them their own fate - your own fate is your own creation - then we just don't want to hear about other people's problems, let alone provide any kind of assistance. And I don't know any fixed tradition in which that wouldn't be a very suspect idea.
The idea that we create our own future and create our own reality in our own lives is - there's the very tiniest kernel of truth in that. And that is why it's very seductive. But because something is seductive does not make it accurate. And that's one of the grave problems with "The Secret."
Of course, the other problem with it is that this is really a kind of Harry Potter for grown ups. Now, Harry Potter is an extraordinary series of books that brought enormous wealth to both Bloomsbury Publishing and also to Scholastic. And the wealth that came to those companies has been used for a number of very, very worthy projects.
What "The Secret" does is it feeds not into that Da Vinci Code idea, but also to the absence of magic in our lives. The idea of magical thinking is enormously appealing.
CONAN: We're speaking with Micki McGee, a sociologist, a visiting scholar at New York University, author of Self-Help, Inc. Also with Steve Ross, a senior vice president and publisher at Crown Books.
You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
And let's see if we can get another caller on the line. This is Michael. Michael with us from Detroit.
MICHAEL (Caller): Hello, Neal and everybody else.
Mr. ROSS: Hello.
Prof. MCGEE: Hello.
MICHAEL: Yes, hello. Can you hear me?
CONAN: Yeah, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
MICHAEL: You know, it's really interesting talking about truthfulness or untruthfulness. I mean, if there's such an interest that you guys are having in proving "The Secret" wrong. I mean, "The Secret's" talking about things that are very provable in a day to day situation.
For example, what you think creates your reality. Anybody who has pursued their own business understands that if you're constantly going around thinking you're not good enough, you don't have the right stuff, that starts to draw on your energy, and eventually that will translate into your business and your business sales.
I mean, if we're going to have a conversation about things that are being published that are totally false, why not talk about the Bible that talks to millions of people about a complete fantasyland that happens after you die and you have to pay these people to get there. I mean, that - at least "The Secret" is - whether it's true or not at least it's taking and encouraging people to be responsible. That it's up to them. It's within their power.
Whereas, something like the Bible is - you're at the mercy of a childish psychopath in the sky.
CONAN: Well, a lot of people would disagree. Micki McGee?
Prof. MCGEE: Well, I would be among the people who disagree on a number of points. I think the most important point here is to remember that this is not encouraging personal responsibility. It's encouraging fantasy and infantile omniscience.
Now, all of us have been infants. That's one of the features of being a human. We've all been babies. And it's very, very painful to be a baby and see one's mother walk out of the room. And you have no control over that if your mom walks out of the room. But you can fantasize that somehow it was you who forced her or made her walk out of the room. It was somehow in your control. That kind of infantile narcissism, that kind of fantasy of omnipotence and of omniscience, those ideas are what give "The Secret" its appeal.
I agree completely with what Steve said that there's got to be something that this product does for you. You're meeting a need. The need here is the need that is met by "The Secret" is it's incredibly enjoyable to sit around and fantasize that you have what you would desire. No one would argue with that.
Sitting around and fantasizing that you have attained all of your wishes that's a very appealing and enjoyable couple of minutes everyday. Who's going to argue with that? The problem is where this takes us in terms of what we're willing to do for others and where we go with it politically. Those are the problems with this. This is an ideological construct that is extremely dangerous.
CONAN: Steve Ross, before we wind up, I have to ask you if you've gotten any complaints about any of the books that you've published, the self-help books?
Mr. ROSS: No, I'm delighted to say that we have not. A couple of them have been controversial, but that controversy has played out publicly. Mostly, the last two books by Suzanne Somers - who has been a very outspoken and passionate advocate of bio-identical hormones for women who are going through menopaus -she's become, as she says, the poster child for menopause. And she's been -excuse me - a very powerful advocate for these natural compounds for which there's no pharmaceutical company that's making a profit. And the pharmaceutical companies have gone after her in a very substantial way.
CONAN: Well, Steve Ross, thanks very much for being with us. How about "Play by Play Two?" I don't know. We can think about it. And Micki McGee, thank you for your time today.
Prof. MCGEE: Pleasure to be here.
CONAN: They both joined us from our bureau in New York. Steve Ross, of course, president of Crown Books. We'll be back with more after this.
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