A Conversation With Neil Strauss

“I look back on The Game and cringe.”

Neil Strauss.
Neil Strauss.

Photo illustration by Juliana Jiménez. Photo by Rickett & Sones.

Critics of The Game have waited a decade for Neil Strauss to issue a mea culpa. Plenty of readers saw his 2005 embedded investigation of the pickup-artist industry as an instruction manual on how to cajole beautiful women into bed. Strauss did, too: He seemed to morph from journalist to self-help guru, following up The Game with a step-by-step guide to best practices from the “seduction community” and a fee-based coaching system to teach eager men his sex-securing tricks, with regular “field reports” of each new notch on his bedpost.

Now, as Strauss puts it on his website, “The Game has changed.” With a new book, The Truth, and a new set of self-help materials, Strauss is re-branding himself as a relationship authority. After his infidelity almost cost him his then-girlfriend, now-wife Ingrid, he was compelled to face the demons that drove him to seek sexual novelty in place of true intimacy. This reckoning took him to a French orgy, a masked Las Vegas sex party, and a Tantric puja in Northern California, all described in graphic, field-report-worthy detail in his book.

The Truth also contains some real talk about the roots of Strauss’ insecurity and me-versus-them outlook on women. His father was an amputee fetishist (!), and his mother smothered him in what his therapist deems “emotional incest” (!!), leaving him with internalized trauma and a “love avoidant” disposition. By the end of the book, after lots of expert help, Strauss has rejected non-monogamy and convinced himself and Ingrid that he’s kicked the pickup addiction for good.

In a phone conversation last week, I chatted with Strauss about his new philosophy of life and love, his discomfort with sex parties, and his evolution from pickup artist to one-woman man. The following has been condensed and edited.

How soon after publishing The Game did you know you wanted to write The Truth?

Oh, years and years afterward. I had no clue that this one was even necessary. I hadn’t hit a life crisis that forced me to look at myself and my behavior and my beliefs. Even when I sat down to write The Truth, it began as a different book.

What kind of book?

It was going to be about how relationships don’t work, monogamy doesn’t work, marriage is anachronistic. I was going to design or find a new kind of relationship that works for modern times. It was sort of this rebellion against conventional marriage and monogamy, and it was all very confident and backed up with science and experience. But it wasn’t relationships that were broken. It was me.

Did that have anything to do with The Game, and how it made the public perceive you?

No. If you’re going to live your life worrying about what other people think of you, you’re not living your life—you’re living somebody else’s life. The bigger thing was what do I think of me? When I cheated on Ingrid, that’s when you’ve really got to look at yourself and be like, “What is wrong with you that you would do something like that to someone you supposedly love?”

What do you think of the person who wrote The Game?

The person who wrote that book was a journalist who went sort of undercover in this community and got seduced by it and swept up in it and lost himself in it. But in the end, the book’s pretty much reporting on things that exist and my experiences in them and trying to evaluate what I thought were the good and bad sides of it. It’s not a book of advocacy—though, that said, it’s certainly been taken like that. Today, I look back on the book and cringe. I wouldn’t write it now.

The subtitle of The Truth is “an uncomfortable book about relationships.” Was it uncomfortable for you to write? For people to read?

So many people hide or compartmentalize a part of themselves in relationships. If you’re going to live in intimacy or in truth, it is uncomfortable, but if you push past that discomfort, there’s a real relationship and a deeper connection waiting for you. Really being candid and transparent and honest with your partner is terrifying to most people, especially me. Or it was for me. When Ingrid read the book, there were a lot of discussions for a few days afterward, but it strengthened our relationship. It’s really all my horrible thoughts and all the worst things I ever did. After she read them and just knew who I was, that—to me—was the best thing that ever happened to our relationship.

So when you say the worst things you ever did, I’m assuming you didn’t mean cheating, because Ingrid already knew about that. What was new information to her?

I think the hardest is the [internal] monologues going on when we interact. Would you really want to know the things that are in your partner’s head in the worst moments? It was really like being able to read the shittiest part of someone’s mind about you. … The chapter in the book where I just resent everything [Ingrid] does, where she just makes me bristle with resentment—today, those are the same things that I either have no reaction to, or I say, “That’s awesome; that’s Ingrid.” What changed? The relationship didn’t change. She didn’t change. I changed.

Is that what you mean by The Truth? A sort of radical honesty?

I don’t think it’s radical honesty. I think it’s the intimacy that you might have with your best friend; people don’t have [that] with their partners. I thought, “What’s the opposite of the Game?” The Game is about—let’s face it—manipulating for an outcome that the other person isn’t aware of, right? And so what’s the opposite of that? I just said, “Well, the truth is the opposite of the Game.”

You went to a lot of sex parties while you were trying on different scenes and relationship types, and you approached them almost like an anthropologist, seeing things for the first time.

I found a lot of people who had read The Game, and then gotten into these [swinger/kink] communities and felt better there than they did in the Game community. A lot of them just wanted women and sensuality and connection in their life. And here was a world where it was really honest and really direct. I think The Game was about male insecurity more than sex. [These communities] are really open, and it’s a good way to get in touch with yourself emotionally.

You write so candidly about sex, and you’ve had a ton of different sexual experiences, and yet in the book, you’re kind of hilariously awkward at a lot of these group sex gatherings. Why?

Like, this guy is—what the hell is he doing? He’s talking about wanting free love and free sexuality, and then he’s in an orgy sitting in the corner because he’s so uncomfortable with free expression. I think I was going after sexuality for self-esteem purposes, not for the act and feeling itself. And obviously if you’re going in [with] poor self-esteem and you’re finally so free, and you feel so uncomfortable with yourself, it just exaggerates your own shame.

Do you think somebody who knows you from The Game and puts you on a pedestal—or in a box—do you think they’ll want to buy The Truth

My personal feeling is the people most want to read The Game are probably the people who need The Truth the most. If The Game, in a sense, is about your behaviors—you know, how you tilt your body this way, and talk like this, and cool things are gonna happen—then The Truth is about beliefs. It’s really easy to change behaviors and it’s really hard to recognize—let alone change—your beliefs. The biggest belief behind The Truth is “I’m afraid of intimacy, because if I’m vulnerable with someone, I’ll lose myself and not be safe.” People engage in a lot of self-destructive and damaging behaviors just to avoid that simple thing. Myself included.