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Can a Pickup Artist Unlearn His Tricks?

An evening with the author of "The Game"—and his fans

Vertumnus And Pomona by Peter Paul Rubens circa 1617-1619; Ben Gabbe/Getty

On a recent Tuesday evening, Neil Strauss, the man who introduced negging to America, stood in a dark bar in south Brooklyn asking men to talk about their mothers. Strauss is best known for The Game, his exploration into the world of pickup artists, and its follow-up, Rules of the Game, which distilled that wisdom into a set of tactics for approaching and seducing women. Like The Game, his new memoir, The Truth: An Uncomfortable Book About Relationships, is bound in leatherette covers, with gilt-edged pages and a ribbon bookmark; the large typeface and comic-book style illustrations are the only features that outwardly differentiate it from a Gideons Bible. But it’s also something of a corrective to the earlier book: It puts forward a more vulnerable approach to women and relationships, one that isn’t guaranteed to be a success with Strauss’s fans. This was publication day, so no one at his first author event—mostly men, who bought advance tickets to see their guru in person—had read it yet.

The new book chronicles his forays into sex communes, threesomes, and a modern-day harem, but Strauss didn’t mention any of that at the event. For him, this tale of redemption—you could call it an Eat, Pray, Love for the oversexed and under-committed male—starts in rehab for sex addiction, which he entered after cheating on his former girlfriend. (Strauss was anxious throughout the evening about spoiling the book, but the fans who follow him on Instagram already knew the surprise ending: He gets back together with girlfriend Ingrid De La O, marries her, and has a baby.)

Rehab, he said, wasn’t the answer (“Whatever sex-positive is, this place was just sex-negative”), but it did give him the chance to talk about his childhood—specifically, his controlling, self-absorbed mom. She had no boundaries; she made him into her private confidant. And as he learned in rehab, she was the source of his problem. This situation, Strauss noted, is hardly unique. Tucker Max also has a narcissistic mom. So does the author of The Art of Seduction. When Strauss ran seminars on dating—one of his lucrative post-Game gigs—he found out that many of the book’s biggest acolytes had similar backgrounds: distant fathers, narcissistic mothers. “I thought that I wrote The Game and millions of people read it, which meant I must be speaking some kind of truth. What I realized was that maybe I was just speaking to people with my same shit or trauma.” Strauss paused for a few moments to let that sink in, then added: “Guess what, guys? We’re all fucked up together!”

And Strauss was pretty sure that everyone there was fucked up in the same way. He speaks a new language now—the therapy-speak of trauma and wounds and “working on yourself.” He threw out questions to audience members about their parents, and as they became more comfortable, the event began to resemble an EST seminar for lonely men. Even in mundane complaints—one guy whined about being made to drive a carpool—Strauss saw evidence of trauma and “enmeshment,” a psychological term used for relationships without defined boundaries. When asked what to do when the passion leaves a long-term relationship, Strauss responded, “OK, describe your mom to me.” He told another man, “You get your self-worth by taking care of needy people.”

Though Strauss seemed to believe fervently in his newly adopted explanations of relationships and self-worth, it wasn’t clear if his biggest fans agreed. Audience questions throughout the night kept coming back to The Game, and this is the version of Strauss his followers have tried to emulate. A high proportion of men in the room were dressed like Strauss, a tonsured relic of the L.A. hard-core scene in head-to-toe black with ear piercings; some still addressed him by his pickup-artist alias, “Style.” Many felt they had been shaped by his philosophy in far-reaching ways. When a tall, long-haired Italian man stepped forward to talk about his own promiscuity, Strauss urged himself to consider that his mother—too controlling?—may have been the cause. “No,” the man insisted, “Because without your book I wouldn’t be a seducer. So you are like my mom.”

Another man, wearing a black sport jacket over a black Save Ferris t-shirt, tried to explain why the audience was resisting Strauss’s therapy-speak: “We liked what you said in The Game.”

“Guess what,” Strauss shot back. “In The Game I was giving you what you want. Here you might find that what you want doesn’t get you where you need to go.”

And yet Strauss doesn’t disown what he wrote in The Game. This is a commercial calculation as much as anything: how to sell your new book, which praises commitment, without denting sales of your very successful old book, which teaches large-scale seduction. His ingenious solution is to reposition The Game as one of the first steps on a journey toward self-understanding, especially useful for men struggling with “fear of women.” Strauss put it delicately: “The Game is about getting your self-esteem from the outside-in, from other people’s validation. Then The Truth, to me, is about getting your self-esteem the way it should come, from the inside-out.”

At least one of Strauss’s readers was ready for this message of redemption. Toward the end of the night, a man wearing a camouflage t-shirt and a thick gold chain announced: “You’ve been a legend of mine ever since I read The Game and that book changed my life in a lot a ways.”

He didn’t want more seduction tips. He wanted to know how to make a relationship work—in his case, how to find a woman who understands what it’s like to be the first person in your family to go to college, to feel “trapped between two different worlds pulling me in different directions.” Strauss’s best-selling success with women conferred on him a sort of authority that makes men who would never identify with the therapy crowd seek him out for guidance.

The final question came from a woman who said she had never read Strauss’s books, “no offense.” But she wanted to know whether The Game could be useful for women. Would reading the book help her recognize a player, or would she herself be able to play the game? The man standing behind her shook his head vigorously: That would ruin the whole system, he said; she is better off not knowing. Strauss disagreed. Most of the tactics in the book, he admitted, are “probably fooling nobody.” If someone likes you, he said, chances are they like you despite the pickup-artist moves, “so they go along with the nonsense you’re doing.”

He stopped short halfway through his explanation: “What are you doing there?” He looked over at the woman and the man in the black Save Ferris shirt. “They’re taking a selfie!” They both yelped and the crowd cheered. Strauss seemed surprised to see the logic of his decade-old book playing out as he talked about rehab and marriage. “Well,” he wearily told the couple, “You opened the door to that Pandora’s box.”