The Secret: Salvation or Hype?

updated 03/19/2007 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 03/19/2007 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Stopping at a convenience store in Schenectady, N.Y., with her son Kipling Silveria, 8, and a friend last month, Maria Papa bought two scratch-off New York Lottery tickets. "Halfway through the scratch off, my friend said, 'Oh, looks like I'm not going to win,'" recalls Papa, 43. "Kip turned to me and said, 'Mommy, somebody doesn't know the secret!'" Kip kept scratching. "Lo and behold," Papa says, "we won $20."

Just chance? Kip and his mom swear it's The Secret. A book and DVD based on what Australian TV producer Rhonda Byrne calls the law of attraction, The Secret offers a mantra ("Ask, believe, receive") that essentially says, what you think about you make happen. As Byrne—who spoke to PEOPLE a few weeks ago but declined to speak again for this story—says, "Close your eyes and imagine what you're wanting." Whether it's a BMW, losing weight or a cure for your cancer, "The electromagnetic field of you goes and attracts it."

Kip and his mom aren't the only ones sold: Byrne's DVD, which combines interviews with self-help authors and stories of miracle cures and sudden wealth, has moved 1.5 million copies; the companion book may be the fastest selling self-help book ever. After Oprah featured Byrne and The Secret last month, the book's publisher ordered 2 million more copies, bringing the total in print to 3.75 million. "It's the single largest reprint in our 83-year history," says publisher Judith Curr of Atria Books, an imprint of Simon & Schuster.

But not everyone's feeling the magic. Byrne, 55, has detractors dismayed by her appropriation of science—she invokes quantum physics in explaining how thoughts change reality—in the service of her claims. ("The idea is beautiful, but it doesn't make sense," says Ben P. Stein of the American Institute of Physics.) Others cite her lack of originality ("It's the same old stuff with a new spin," says Edward Grinnan, editorial director of Positive Thinking magazine) and her emphasis on material gain. Most potentially damaging of all, critics say, is The Secret's implicit blame-the-victim message. While no one disputes the value of upbeat thoughts, "I've known cancer patients who've done an extraordinary job at positive visualization but still died," says American Cancer Society president Richard Wender. "You don't want [to feel that] if your treatment isn't going the way you like, you did something wrong."

In her conversation with PEOPLE, Byrne insisted her methods get results across the board. "Health, the way your boss treats you, your financial situation: You can change everything," she says. "The law is infallible."

It's certainly worked for her. Byrne, a former producer at Australia's Nine Network who has resettled in California, hit a rough patch in 2004, following her father's death and some financial troubles. "I was in despair," she says. Her daughter Hailey gave her The Science of Getting Rich, a 1910 self-help tract. Energized, Byrne read books on Eastern, Western and ancient thought. "The law of attraction has been there since the beginning of time," she says—it just needed her to package it. By July 2005 Byrne was in the U.S. with a film crew. With her law of attraction in full swing, she happened upon 12 inspirational gurus, including John Gray (Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus) and Jack Canfield (Chicken Soup for the Soul), at a Transformational Leadership Council meeting. Byrne did back-to-back interviews. "Rhonda's the real deal. She's got a missionary zeal," says Canfield.

She also has "a beautiful apartment looking at the beach," says David Schirmer, a self-help wealth coach who appears in The Secret, and "she takes a limousine everywhere. She's got money at her fingertips." Quite a change from the old days. "I used to work ridiculous hours to make money. I had difficult relationships," Byrne says. "Now every single day I am excited, in absolute joy. Every relationship I have is the deepest love I've ever felt. My intention with The Secret was to give this gift to the world—I knew it would bring joy to millions."

People like Kip Silveria, who listens to The Secret on audiotape every day. "It has completely changed him," his mom says. "He has better experiences at school, more playdates. He honestly believes he can have anything he wants."

And now so does Papa. She recently signed a contract to pay $15,000 to have her house painted this summer. "I have no idea where the money is going to come from, but there is no question in my mind it will work out," she says. "I know it like I know my name."

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