‘Game’ Met Match: Pick-up Artist Godhead Neil Strauss’s Subtle, Surprising New BookDan Tuffs/Getty
To begin with, I should tell you that I did not expect to like this book.
I was a single twentysomething when The Game was published. For years, the only thing I knew about Neil Strauss was that he was responsible for ushering concepts like negging and peacocking into the cultural lexicon. So when I got word that the man who’d popularized PUAs had written a new book that involved him exploring the world of swinging and attempting to create his own harem, I was underwhelmed.
But I am not in the habit of turning down free books, so I said yes to the publicist’s offer of a galley copy, figuring it’d be good for a laugh. The Truth arrived in my PO Box shortly before Labor Day weekend; in the wee hours of Labor Day morning, I found myself curled up in the chair in my office, turning the final pages of a book I’d been unable to put down.
It is hard to review this book, not because of spoilers, but because it is difficult to convey the intense reading experience to someone who has not yet accompanied Strauss on his raw, brutal journey toward mental health and emotional maturity. But I will say this: The Truth begins with Strauss in a monogamous relationship, one that he’s effectively sabotaged with infidelity. Over the course of 448 pages, we follow Strauss through sex addiction rehab, intense therapy sessions, and sexual exploration of just about every kind of nonmonogamous relationship style, all of which results in Strauss figuring out how to have a stable, healthy relationship that works for him.
If that sounds incredibly simple, that’s because it is. Like any solid relationship advice, the epiphanies revealed in The Truth are simultaneously incredibly obvious and richly profound.
A month after reading The Truth, I am on the phone with Strauss. I haven’t stopped thinking about the book, haven’t stopped wishing that everyone I know would read it so that we could hash through its revelations together. But I am also worried about what will happen when the book is unleashed to the public, not so much because of Strauss’s writing itself, but because of the way nuanced arguments tend to be radically simplified and misread, twisted to fit the needs of whatever beliefs are currently convenient for us to reinforce.
I tell Strauss that the challenge of writing a relationship advice book in the first person is that it risks coming across as a how-to guide with instructions for achieving a healthy relationship, rather than a more open-ended call for self-exploration, which is what I believe he is offering up.
“It’s absolutely true,” he replies. “The solution has nothing to do with what you’re doing, whether it’s monogamy or nonmonogamy, or single or married. It just has to do with how you do it and why you’re doing it … Everyone has to take their own journey. As Joseph Campbell once said, if a path exists, that path belongs to someone else. You have to go to where the forest is the thickest and cut your way through it.”
The second-to-last page of The Truth, before a page with an illustration of two interlocked puzzle pieces, offers a quote from James Hollis that Strauss hopes will reinforce this message. “If we are to serve relationship well, we are obliged to affirm our individual journey,” the quote concludes, though it’s difficult to tell whether people will page far enough to find it.
“One of the things that I, with complete self-awareness, struggle with is part of me writes books to be understood,” Strauss says. “Because, hey, I was never understood growing up, so I write books to be understood. And the irony is the more you put things in the culture and become part of the culture, the more misunderstood you’ll be. So my thought is, you can’t control what anyone else will think of what you write, or produce, or create. All you can control is the creation itself. Right? And so once I was signed off on the book, whatever happens kind of happens.”
There are few people as intimately aware of how easy it is to have your intended message ignored in favor of one counter to your intent as Strauss. “I think of The Game. People were attached to what was probably the most unhealthy part of that book. The end and the beginning were critiques of that culture, but people look for the message they want in it, whatever it may be.”
The weekend that I spent reading The Truth, I was sorting through some emotional turmoil of my own. Nothing on the order of what Strauss went through — no one ended up in rehab or moved to San Francisco to found a sex commune — but my domestic bliss was nevertheless feeling shaky.
I have a terrible track record when it comes to picking partners. I used to make a joke about relationship red flags: For some people, an emotionally distant partner is a red flag; for others, it’s one who’s overly needy. For me, the merest flicker of attraction is an automatic warning sign. If I want to sleep with you, I probably shouldn’t. My dating history is filled with bad ideas: relationships that I knew were going nowhere, but for which I nevertheless stuck around; people whom I dreamed I could will into loving me, despite their obvious emotional shortcomings.
But my current relationship is nothing like any of those. Early on I knew that I had found something really special because — for the first time — I finally felt able to commit, with no qualifications. I didn’t feel like I was waiting for something to change; I didn’t feel like one of us needed to be fixed or to grow up or to be more present or any of that. I was, for once, content with the status quo.
But two and a half years in, something inside of me started to shift. I could say it was about one of the superficial details that worked its way into our arguments, but really it was something buried inside me that had finally started to crack.
It is easy to see The Truth as the comfortable tale of a prodigal son who abandons monogamy for hedonism, only to return to the comforts of a two-person relationship. It’s easy to gloss over the lines here and there that expressly dismantle that interpretation. I tell Strauss that I am worried that this book will be read as a pat endorsement of monogamy.
“It’s definitely not an indictment of alternative relationships or a manifesto of monogamy. What it really is about is — if I went into those other relationships healthy, and chose healthy people, it would have been just fine. The real lesson is that if you’re unhealthy, everything you do is going to be unhealthy, because you’re the one who’s doing it.”
It is a point that is surprisingly easy to miss from either side of the aisle. “I gave it to a friend, who’s also a well-known author, and who has a lot of relationship problems. And he read it. And instead of [him seeing] how his [relationship] with his mother was affecting his ambivalence about relationships, he read it and he said, ‘Oh, I think I can do all the polyamory things that you did, but I see the mistakes that you made and I think I can do it better.’ And I thought, Oh man, you missed the entire point of the book.”
I have been around enough would-be nonmonogamists to be intimately familiar with this logic, that nonmonogamy is merely a framework you can tinker with and fix on a superficial level, and at which you can be successful without ever having to look at the root of your relationship problems. I tell Strauss about a former partner — my first serious boyfriend — who professed one night that his desire to be in an open relationship was connected to the fact that he’d cheated on every girlfriend he’d had before me.
“See, that’s unhealthy,” he responds.
“Yeah, that’s the absolute worst reason to be in an open relationship,” I say. And yet it is a surprisingly common one: I’ve seen it repeated again and again, this idea that serial infidelity is born out of the rigors of monogamy, and not out of a brokenness within ourselves. That past partner? He still managed to cheat on me, even within our open relationship. The form of a relationship does not dictate its ability to function.
Strauss contrasts these unhealthy experiments with nonmonogamy with a healthier model, his friends Lawrence and Leah, who appear in The Truth. “They are just so loving and have the greatest relationship and they have other partners, and it’s just great. They’re so much in love, as much as any other couple.” But there are no eight simple steps to lead you to exactly what these two have found, and that’s the catch.
“People just want the easy information. Is it right or is it wrong? Should I do it or should I not do it? And I think — there is nothing that is right or wrong, or correct or incorrect. Nothing is that easy. And people just want the shortcut so they don’t have to think.”
I was surprised by how much of myself I saw in Neil Strauss. We are both too smart for our own good, too convinced that the solutions to our woes lie within our brains, our respective abilities to outsmart the systems we find ourselves in.
I have been in and out of therapy a few times over the years, mostly due to my issues with relationships, often manifesting as depression related to my feelings of inadequacy in my relationships. In college I started self-injuring after my first girlfriend broke my heart. Months later I began seeing an Upper East Side therapist, which ended, three years later, at a time when I was enmeshed with an emotionally abusive partner who inflicted damage that still rattles me more than a decade later.
At 29, I found a new therapist, whom I hoped would help me overcome the traumatic residue of my abusive ex. We did talk therapy, we did EMDR, and eventually I felt good enough to stop paying the hundreds of dollars a month I owed for this privilege. Not long after I exited therapy, I entered my current relationship. Everything was fine until suddenly it wasn’t, until an uneasiness in my stomach boiled over into body-wracking sobs and I knew that the issues that kept me from truly trusting anyone I got close to were still deeply knit into my being.
“I think we got therapy all wrong in our culture, in a lot of ways,” Strauss offers. “One way being that we should get emotionally educated the way we’re intellectually educated. We don’t really learn about our emotional or psychological life. Two is the model of weekly talk therapy that never ends doesn’t really work well. And I think doing these more immersive, in-depth processes where you really — an hour’s not enough time to get to your emotional center. So doing these more weekend-intensive processes where you really move things around and flesh them out and maintaining them through talk therapy is a better way to do it.”
I sometimes think that people would rather be normal than happy. When it comes to sex and relationships, especially, we are far more fixated on what is socially acceptable than on what gives us pleasure. Advice columnists are constantly asked whether some behavior or desire or fantasy is “normal”; countless books have been written about the “natural” way to date or marry or have sex. We seem to believe that, when it comes to the most intimate part of our lives, what’s right for our neighbor must, inherently, be right for ourselves — even though we hold few other aspects of ourselves to such rigid, conformist standards.
There is an industry of bunk science set up mostly to churn out, as Strauss puts it, “backward rationalization to support preexisting beliefs.” When we happen to believe that men cheat more than women, evolutionary sociobiology is there to offer an explanation why; when statistics show that men and women cheat in equal numbers, evolutionary sociobiology has an answer for that too. We have no shortage of ways to use science to justify the things that society already tells us to believe — even when we know, deep down, that those beliefs are responsible for our deep-seated unhappiness.
Strauss wants us to look not to some higher authority or dictator of norms but within. “The bigger lesson is we shouldn’t look to science or statistics or evolution or other species to decide what’s right to do. The only person we should be asking is ourselves.”
I am fine, and my relationship is fine, and you will be fine as well.
Neil Strauss did not save me or my relationship, but he did remind me of some basic things that I had forgotten: You have to love yourself before you love someone else. No one can save you, and a relationship will not fix what is broken within you — rather, what is broken within you will expand until your relationship matches your interior. And, most important of all: You have to be happy with the relationship you are in, not the relationship you hope will one day exist.
These are not complicated things, but there is something so powerful about traveling with someone on a journey as they figure these things out for themselves — and, in the process, relearning them for yourself as well.
If this all seems obvious and simple, that’s kind of the point. The challenging part is putting it into action.
“The Game was a book about behaviors, and they’re easy to do,” Strauss tells me. “If you turn this angle when talking to someone, they’re more likely to have a better response to you. It’s easy to change your behaviors. And this book is about your beliefs. And as the comments section underneath any article proves, people are so fixed in their beliefs. They’re not willing to look at what’s behind them. And so I think the biggest challenge of this book is it’s a much bigger mountain to move. But I hope somehow we can shift it. Just make that foundation a little less stable. I think that people will find that the things they cling to the most — if they’re willing — are the things they should most let go of.”
I want you to read this book. I want your partners to read this book. I want your families, your friends, your coworkers, and your colleagues to read this book. I want women to read it, and men — especially men — to read it. But more than that, I want you to think critically about it, about what it says about you and the world around you and your romantic relationships. I want it to inspire you to dig deep inside yourself and figure out what’s stopping you from making yourself happy: I want it to inspire you to embrace and engage with love, in an honest and healthy way.
In the opening minutes of our conversation, Strauss offers up a confession. “Every book I write I have a secret hope for, yet no book ever fulfills my secret hope,” he says. “But I have a secret hope that [The Truth] will improve people’s lives and relationships and understanding of themselves.”
I do too.
Lux Alptraum (@LuxAlptraum) is a writer and comedian living in New York City. Formerly the editor and publisher of Fleshbot, she now runs Out of the Binders, a nonprofit dedicated to advocating for women writers, and hosts The Wonderful World of Boning, a sendup of classic sex ed.