Sunday 25 August 2019

The game changer for pick-up manual author Neil Strauss

He was the pick-up artist whose infamous book made him the pin-up for misogynists everywhere. But now that Neil Strauss is older, wiser and a new father, he's changed his ways, he tells our reporter

New man: Neil Strauss and his infant son Tenn.
New man: Neil Strauss and his infant son Tenn.

Tanya Sweeney

It's a story as old as the hills: a fast-talking charmer who sees the error of his carousing ways once he finds the love of a good woman. Still, the last man on earth that anyone expected it would happen to was Neil Strauss, the author of infamous pick-up manual The Game.

If you've ever been approached by a socially awkward man in a bar and been given a backhanded compliment, this is likely Strauss's doing. In his bestselling book, Strauss advocated "negging"; giving a woman a negative compliment so that it puts her on the back-foot, all while making her yearn for a man's approval.

The tenet of Strauss's book reeked of misogyny; that women can be brainwashed or 'tricked' into sex, and that any man can have any woman he wants with the right seduction technique. Predictably, Strauss lived and breathed his own teachings, bedding thousands of women since the book's launch a decade ago. Suffice to say that it made Strauss a hero to some men, and a villain to most women.

Meeting Strauss in Dublin's Gresham Hotel, where he is having breakfast, it's immediately striking that he doesn't look like anyone's idea of a Casanova. He is slight, casually dressed and bespectacled; the slithery goatee long gone in favour of a more earthy stubble. The wolfish demeanour has also fallen by the wayside. He's no longer 'vibing' women, mainly because he no longer needs to.

His latest book, The Truth, follows the author's odyssey of self-exploration as he finally meets a woman he wants to commit to. When he meets his now wife, the model Ingrid De La O, he realises he has a hard time staying faithful to her (and goes so far as to cheat on her with her best friend in a church car park).

A friend beseeches him to acknowledge that he may be a sex addict. Once Strauss arrives in rehab, he is clobbered over the head, not just with a diagnosis of two forms of sexual disorder, but a host of other conditions, among them depression, ADHD and anxiety. It was the start of a highly painful, revealing recovery process.

"My friend Nick was like, 'you have everything you wanted and you can have any woman you want, so why are you still unhappy? Why hasn't it solved all your problems?'" recalls Strauss.

One doctor told Strauss that his playboy lifestyle had corrupted his brain to such an extent that getting back to 'factory' settings was going to be a barely surmountable challenge; that pursuing women was "so deeply ingrained, you're not going to be able to just walk out of here and stop it".

"For sure, it was a hard book to write," he admits. "The questions I was asking about myself were hard ones. Sometimes I'd read stuff that I'd written and think, 'oh you're kind of an idiot'."

Certainly, Strauss's own womanising ways - a happy by-product of his bestselling pick-up manual - are laid bare in eye-watering detail in The Truth.

"We're in the age of pleasing people with Twitter and Instagram and showing off our best, most socially palatable sides," he says, referring to his searingly honest account. "Then you create a fake facade that no one can live up to."

As is often the way in therapy, Strauss's early life and his relationship with his parents was given a combing over. One therapist mentioned his "emotionally incestuous" relationship with his mother.

"When the therapist mentioned that idea, it was like a hammer blow to the head," admits Strauss. "We looked at my early experiences; I was grounded all the time, my mom talked about her relationship with her father, she never approved of my girlfriends… it made no sense, but something in my body recognised what the therapist was saying and I went a bit numb."

As to what his parents made of the book: "I don't know what they thought, and I don't know if they've read it yet," says Strauss. "My family is very avoidant of anything personal."

Along the way, he delves into an investigation on monogamy and commitment in general, visiting harems, and orgies, and interviewing geneticists, scientists and those in open and polyamorous relationships. In some instances, he gets involved (he was single at the time), in others, he is a bystander. He tries an open relationship with a woman who leaves for Mexico with two men, leaving him heartbroken. There's a rogues' gallery of colourful types along the way: leather families, former child actors, swingers and sex anorexics.

It's a confessional read, but one that's highly informative and entertaining, too.

"I've always been in a place of ambivalence, like when I'm single I can't wait to be in a relationship, and when I'm in a relationship I'm like, 'can I do this? What about that person over there?'" he says. "It looked as though I might spend my whole life on the fence. It only worried me once I realised it was a pattern that wasn't going to go away."

Some might think that The Truth is an exercise in image rehabilitation; not so, according to Strauss. He's not making a volte face and turning his back on the teachings of The Game; rather, this book is a natural progression.

"It's funny, because the media has portrayed it as an 'about turn' but I don't see it that way," muses Strauss. "Even when I wrote The Game, I always wanted to get married and have a family, so The Game is about solving a more adolescent problem of social anxiety and meeting women.

"This book solves a more later stage problem - commitment, and family. I see it as part of the same continuum. Ten years later, I look back with embarrassment at the stuff I've written and The Game is certainly among that.

"I did an interview with Dave Fanning, and he was like, 'so you've sold out!' I was like, 'no I grew up'".

In The Truth, Strauss adds a note to his now-wife Ingrid, pleading with her not to read the book. She did, of course, and their relationship hit a rocky patch after she read about his experiences. But thanks to the book, they are now stronger than ever.

"There was some awkwardness after she read it, like, 'wow, did you really think those things and do those things?' but talking through it was the best thing that ever happened," says Strauss.

"We're really open and transparent, and there's nothing to hide. Even if I'm on the road and tempted to do something, because a book tour is the hardest time for that, I'll call her and tell her that this person hit on me, and we talk it out. It's pretty cool.

"I had the idea that, somehow, monogamy was something that she was making me do, but we do always have a choice," he adds.

On his wedding day, his pals asked him some pressing questions before he took the plunge. What if Ingrid were to go off sex, or the most beautiful woman in the world were to show up? I do wonder if these thoughts have ever crossed his mind since.

"I don't tend to ask 'what if' questions because they don't serve me," responds Strauss. "We'll cross that bridge when we get to it. If it comes to a point where the right thing for the relationship is to have other experiences, we'll look at that."

Strauss still gets tens of thousands of emails and letters from disciples of The Game; many come from Ireland, Sweden, the UK and US, but he has received correspondence from as far afield as Ghana and Pakistan. As it happens, he met his wife after she sent him a funny email about The Game.

"Sometimes women get in touch wanting to know if they can learn The Game," he reveals. "I've only gotten one negative email about it. People who haven't read the book see it as an advocacy manual, but the book is more of a journalistic account of a bizarre world."

Strauss is now a father to an infant son, Tenn, and this epic voyage of self-discovery, he says, makes him a much better parent.

"I'm conscious that he knows he was born with love, and I'm trying to attune to him and what his needs are," explains Strauss. "For sure, he's probably gotten the biggest benefit of this book being written."

A reformed man, certainly, but what would he say to those who believe a leopard can't change his spots?

"I'd say it's just a saying," he shrugs. "It seems kind of sad to believe that."

Still, no one is as surprised that Strauss went and found lasting love as the man himself.

"I was really surprised by the ending (of this book)," he laughs.

"I thought the ending would be me in a free love commune with about 20 men and women in different kinds of relationships. It definitely would have been better talk-show fodder than this, but I'm definitely happier this way."

'The Truth' is out now, published by Canongate and priced at €28.50

Irish Independent

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