Neil Strauss and his son, Tenn.
Rickett and Sones
The best part, imho, of Neil Strauss’s new book The Truth: An Uncomfortable Book About Relationships is a scene where after breaking up with his girlfriend because he has decided he can’t live a monogamous lifestyle, he gets kicked out of an orgy by its New Agey organizer for eating popcorn from the snacks table during the orgy. If you can get kicked out of an orgy for anything, eating Trader Joe’s organic olive oil popcorn is the best possible reason.
The Truth spans several years when the Rolling Stone writer and co-author of several celebrity autobiographies undertook a personal quest to understand the nature of relationships. The popcorn orgy incident occurred after he cheated on his longtime girlfriend, tried sex addiction rehab, broke up with the girlfriend, gave up on monogamy, and set off on a series of adventures in polyamory.
“It began saying marriage is an anachronism: Look at all these people cheating and in unhappy marriages; it’s a broken institution,” Strauss said in an interview at BuzzFeed. “So let’s go find something that works better. I tried all these subcultures trying to find a new model, but I discovered it wasn’t the institution that was broken, it was me.” A long period of self-reflection occurred, guided partly by his friend the music producer Rick Rubin, who pops up at key moments in the book on a surfboard, full of bearded chill vibes and Zen wisdom. Eventually, he realized that he just wanted to be back with his old girlfriend, and he went to win her back. In a happy ending, they are now married with a son.
It’s impossible to read The Truth without thinking of Strauss’s earlier book that deals with his personal dating life, The Game. In it, Strauss embeds with a group of pickup artists, ostensibly for journalism, and becomes a master pickup artist himself. The book, which came out a decade ago, had a huge cultural impact. Not only as an intriguing curiosity complete with its own language like “kino” (touching) and “HB8” (hot babe, 8 out of 10) and “negging” (a light insult as a mind trick to woo babes), but also as a source of inspiration for young men to believe oversize furry hats could win them the hearts of women. Pickup mania perhaps culminated with the ultimate validation of a mid-aughts trend: a 2007 VH1 reality show, hosted by “Mystery”, the main character of Strauss’s book.
Today, pickup artists, or PUAs, are either a punch line or flat-out reviled, largely because of a steady ideological creep over the last few years into the world of men’s rights activists and antifeminist “red pill” thinking. The stereotype of a PUA has shifted from guy desperate to get laid to internet troll.
Erik von Markovik, aka Mystery, on VH1’s reality show The Pickup Artist.
This shift has largely happened since Strauss hung up his snakeskin suit, but I wanted to know what he thought of it. As someone who had undergone a transformative change in looking at human relationships, does he see this new, often toxic version of PUA as some sort of monster that has grown beyond his control?
“I used to be in the camp of ‘there’s good pickup artists and there’s bad pickup artists,’” Strauss said. “But now I am in the camp that any manipulation is not a good thing. And anytime you’re trying to get esteem or validation from outside yourself is not a good thing.”
I should admit I’m a little more sympathetic to PUAs than perhaps the rest of my feminist cohort. I am very aware of the dark side of the culture — as a fan of any sort of weird internet subculture, I love lurking in PUA forums and subreddits — but I can also see that there are young men who just want help learning some basic social skills so they can find someone to love. I think about myself as a young teenager — my friends and I would pore over magazines like YM or Seventeen that were full of tips to tell if a guy likes you or instructions for how to ask someone on a date, or endlessly analyze our crushes with each other.
There’s no equivalent media to help teenage boys understand how to read signals or how to act if you like someone. A large part of interpersonal dating skills are learned, and there’s an education gap there between men and women. For a guy who wakes up at age 22 and realizes he wants a girlfriend but never figured out how to talk to girls, “game” can help them learn those basic social skills. A lot of “game” is just overcoming social anxiety and practicing how to talk to humans out in the real world. Force yourself to say hi to an old woman at the grocery store enough times, and eventually you’ll overcome shyness enough to ask out a pretty girl at the bar. There’s a version of “game” that is self-help to find love, not a sex creep’s manual.
“I had no clue there’d be this third path of other-hatred and self-hatred.”
But that isn’t the only version of pickup culture. “When I wrote [The Game], I thought there’d be two roads that pickup artist culture could go in,” Strauss said. “One road was a positive road where it’s a door to self-improvement for men. The other was a blip in the pop culture landscape where guys are walking around in stupid clothes repeating routines. I had no clue there’d be this third path of other-hatred and self-hatred.”
That third path looks something like “PUA hate,” the online community for people who are upset that the PUA methods have failed to deliver them girlfriends —including UC Santa Barbara shooter Elliot Rodger — to meet up to talk about how much they hate women. There’s a huge difference between “I could use some help with learning how to meet women” and “if I follow the right combination of tricks, I will be rewarded with access to women’s sexuality.” But whether it’s a slippery slope from the vulnerability of the former idea to the dangerous entitlement of the latter, I don’t know. Maybe?
“There is definite a side of that group that is so damaged…that…I don’t know. They just need help. And I don’t know if they’ll ever get it. And it attracts other people who have those wounds,” Strauss explains. “There are some wounds that they call neurotic wounds — there’s something wrong with myself — and there’s some that are called character disorders — it’s everybody else’s fault. Maybe that’s the distinction. Do you get into it because you think you can change yourself? And maybe those people that have the character disorders are the ones that go around saying crazy things — insane things. I’m not a spokesperson for that world, I just wrote about it. If I wrote the book five years later, I’d be writing about those people.”
“There’s some really damaged people with hateful and distorted view of reality gathering other people who share those views.”
Neil Strauss didn’t invent pickup artistry, but he is probably solely responsible for popularizing it. For years he taught workshops and made money off of PUA (he still runs a $179/month program called The Society, but it’s more about general self-improvement rather than just dating skills).
“There’s some really damaged people with hateful and distorted views of reality gathering other people who share those views,” Strauss said. Then, with a laugh: “And the good thing is that they’re all in one place online so now we know where to find them.”
However, he doesn’t try to find them anymore. “All I know about those people is what I read in the media. That’s just a general idea. I don’t follow it since I left it. This isn’t about [a particular prominent “red pill” PUA] specifically; I haven’t read any of his stuff or anything.” As part of his process of self-transformation before winning back his now wife, Strauss mostly gave up using the internet. His laptop has security software meant for parents who limit their kids’ internet usage time – it only unlocks the internet for one hour a day — and he doesn’t keep his phone with him for most of the day. He’s not completely cut off from internet culture, however. He had seen the recent viral video of a drunk college kid flipping out at the dining hall worker who wouldn’t serve him mac and cheese. But the new Neil, more Zen, more aware, has sympathy: “I think he might be sociopathic, honestly. There was something deeper going on there.”
The PUA community is still very aware of Strauss, however. Recently, commenters on a PUA message board lamented that “Style” (Strauss’s codename as a PUA) had gotten married and out of the game. They found photos of his wife, who is a gorgeous former model, and posited that it wasn’t even his good “game” technique that landed her, it was just because he’s rich and famous.
The Truth is surprisingly personal and deep, yet in an accessible way, and always very funny. It’s not a sequel to The Game; it feels more like something set in the same world where the minor character from one book (Neil Strauss) becomes the main one in the next. Like the connection between Frasier and Cheers. “There’s a convenient cultural narrative of ‘pickup artist renounces his ways and gets married.’ But that’s not the narrative to me.” Game helped him when he needed it — it was the positive thing for him that helped him become the person who made it halfway to where he is now. The second leg of that change came about totally differently, and that second half is where The Truth starts. If he had never gotten into PUA, he says, “I’d probably be alone or in a really unhappy marriage or cheating someway or something; either way I wouldn’t be happy. So either way I’m really grateful for the experience.”
Bonus: we asked Neil to do the classic pickup trick “The Cube” on our producer for the Internet Explorer podcast: