Sitting at a restaurant close to his home in Malibu, journalist and bestselling author Neil Strauss admits that he's somewhat uncomfortable talking to the media about his latest book, The Truth: An Uncomfortable Book About Relationships. (HarperCollins). His previous bestseller, The Game, was an account of his days inhabiting a subculture of seducers — and it spawned a generation of pickup artists. “I'm a little bit nervous,” he says, “because The Game has become something so different than what I think it is. I just want to be honest without trying to defend it, but I don't want to throw the good parts under the bus.”
In short, he's a reformed man compared with the one he was in The Game — and The Truth reflects that.
“I ended up better because of it,” says Strauss, who's now married with an infant son. “I went through the darkness because of it. I think it's been good for a lot of people who got married or into relationships because of it, but I'm sure it changed [people] for the bad, too. There are some very hateful guys in that pickup artist community.”
To understand The Truth, it helps to recap The Game. The latter chronicles the two years that Strauss was embedded in a secret culture. Like a seduction bootcamp, the house where Strauss lived was filled with would-be pickup artists, learning and practicing specific techniques for attracting women. One such technique: the now infamous (and appalling) “negging” tactic, by which a man gives a woman a backhanded compliment in order to make her simultaneously doubt herself and desire the man's approval.
“It is thought of as a how-to book instead of what it really is, which is just my journey,” Strauss says, sipping cranberry and ginger ale (he doesn't drink alcohol). “And it's only gotten more controversial than less over time.”
Given Strauss' expertise in the art of seduction, it's natural to be skeptical of his latest book, which is about the salvation he finds in being true to himself and to his partner. What better marketing ploy than a follow-up book whose message appears to redeem the protagonist while rejecting the debased culture that spawned him?
Strauss says he knows there will be those who question his sincerity and that there's nothing he can do to overcome certain negative perceptions. “People are still living as if I'm the person who wrote the book 10 years ago,” he says. “They want a story about that guy. Maybe that guy never existed. Maybe he did for a while in The Game, then maybe he didn't by the end. It's like finding out there's no devil.”
However, he suggests that what is truly controversial about The Truth is that he's found true happiness in a committed, transparent relationship.
“We developed the relationship I'd been looking for the whole time, only I didn't know what it was: a relationship without fear,” Strauss writes. “Without fear of intimacy, without fear of suffocation, without fear of loss, without fear of speaking our truth, without fear of being hurt, without fear of boredom, without fear of change, without fear of the future, without fear of conflict and even without fear of other people.”
While Strauss admits in the book that temptations still arise, he writes that the trust he has with his wife is “much more powerful than a few moments of pleasure, followed by a lifetime of shame.”
Strauss tends to mold his books after classic literature to give himself a template. The Truth, he says, is modeled after The Odyssey.
Now married for two years to model Ingrid De La O, with whom he has a 7-month-old son, Tenn, Strauss is indeed a different creature than he was in The Game. Over six years in the making, The Truth charts Strauss' journey — beginning with his inability to fully commit to De La O, culminating in him cheating on her with one of her closest friends, winding through his group therapy sessions at sex rehab, delving into his sexual escapades, revisiting his earliest experiences (to discover the roots of his behavior) and, ultimately committing to his relationship with De La O.
Strauss explores many therapeutic modes and avenues, questioning them in order to find his own truth, which he also does not preach. He makes clear that what he discovers works for him — and that others should find what works for them.
“Learning about love is a long journey,” he says. “You have to unlearn all the shit you got from society and your parents, which is harder and harder now because we are blitzed by opinions.”
Strauss began his transformation from shameless pickup artist to repentant family man when he checked into a sexual rehabilitation clinic. “I don't know if I was a sex addict or not,” he says. “But I do know that going to sex addiction therapy really helped me, and it would probably help anybody.”
Underlying his sexual compulsivity, he says, was a constant need for validation. “It is the ultimate form of being liked,” he says. “If she likes me, then I must be OK with myself. Why else would she get naked with me? I must be OK.”
Strauss says he first envisioned a sex addict in a stereotypical way, as some kind of pervert wearing a trench coat — which, in addition to all he learned in the program, was part of why he found the sex rehabilitation program enlightening. “The sex addicts were all just married men who cheated on their wives.”
As opposed to having a midlife crisis, the 46-year-old writer says he lacked an authentic life until very recently. “I had a no-life crisis. I never committed to anything. I realized I always wanted my freedom but I wasn't free. If you have the ability to sleep with anybody you wanted and you can't commit to anyone, are you really free? There is more freedom in commitment.”
Strauss doesn't suggest that his relationship is always easy. “Ingrid and I still have clashes and little things that we have to work through,” he says. “To me, the success of a relationship is not not getting into conflict. It's how quickly you recover. One time we were arguing about something and then we were laughing hysterically within five minutes. We recover quickly, and then when we are ready we discuss what was going on for us.”
Both the details of his sexual romps and the darkest recesses of Strauss' mind are explicit in his book — and yes, his wife has read it.
“She knows every dark thought and every shitty thing I've thought and done,” he says. “It did shock her for a few days, but now she feels safer because she knows what was there. She said, 'It was not knowing that was stressing me out more than knowing.' I think that is true for people. You can't protect people from their emotions. Let them go through the emotion. On the other side of it, you will have a relationship.”