It’s Wednesday, which is usually the Open Thread day. But since it’s the week of the release of my new book, I’ve got books on the brain. I’ve been sent a number of books by people hoping I’d read and give them a review and it seems a shame to not actually dig in to a few of them. This’ll be a somewhat irregular feature since a) I only have so many hours in the day and b) my to-read pile is fucking huge and and c) if I don’t like something, I tend to just not review it unless it’s egregiously bad and I can get some funny out of it.
(Don’t worry, I’m not talking about you. Or you. Or you over there in the back.)
But since today is also Back to the Future day, I thought it would be appropriate enough to start with a book related to my past – Neil Strauss’ The Truth: An Uncomfortable Book About Relationships.
So full disclosure: I was given a free copy of The Truth for review, I’ve hung out with Neil and, y’know, I’m a former pick-up artist myself. So with all that in mind…
The Truth is an interesting book. It’s one that’s fairly easy to be cynical about. I mean, first Neil Strauss becomes famous1 for writing a book that taught millions of dudes to try to use Svengali-esque techniques to get laid and now he’s writing about leaving it all behind and embracing monogamy? So clearly now he’s making up for his past sins, right? Like that’s not part of every self-help guru’s progression. After all everyone loves a reformed sinner, right? I mean, shit, the book itself enforces this view – its white faux-leather Bible stylings is the literal opposite of The Game’s presentation.
So needless to say: it’s incredibly easy to see this as being Strauss grabbing for a redemption narrative now that he’s become a poster-child for annoying douchebags at clubs and pushy OKCupid dates and the assholes clustering around public streets in major cities in order to pick up women walking by.
And the first couple chapters don’t necessarily help. The book opens with the fact that Neil has cheated on his long-term girlfriend with one of her best friends and – as many men have done upon getting caught – is heading to rehab for sex addiction. Again, this is something we’ve seen over and over again: get caught doing a bad thing, claim that bad thing is out of your control, make public showing of trying to beat bad thing through therapy at a resort-cum-retreat that’s less therapy and more of a long vacation.
So you’d be forgiven for seeing this as Neil doing a very public mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa. But that’s not what’s going on.
What we’re reading is someone who’s doing some very explicit, very unpleasant and incredibly painful soul-searching, trying to come to terms with a lot of ugliness in his past. It’s almost shockingly vulnerable, Neil Strauss as open as we’re ever likely to see another person, trying to figure out just what it is that drives him to push away people he cares about.
Now to be fair: one of my longest-running pet-peeves is the trope of “the womanizer is only a womanizer because he has some trauma in his past and is healed to settle down to life-long vanilla monogamy,” and it’s incredibly easy to see The Truth in that light. But thats’ not quite right either.
There’s a saying: the path to wisdom is along the road to excess. And God knows Neil goes to excess here. After breaking up with his girlfriend and leaving sex addict rehab, Neil decides to pursue ethical non-monogamy and – as in The Game – dives in head first, visiting polyamory conferences, swingers parties, play parties and kink salons and – not surprisingly – having a lot of sex. Like, Caligula-levels of sex at times.
And here’s the thing: despite the fact that Neil is doing some Olympic sport-fucking, none of it is portrayed as all that appealing. In fact, despite living out scenarios that would be hard to swallow (sorry) in porn, most of it feels awkward and uncomfortable and leaves the reader feeling like they’d really rather just go. As with many an ill-advised hook-up, as soon as the one busts one’s nut (or realizes it’s not going to happen at all), it quits being fun and becomes something that you’d rather leave as quickly and unseen as possible.
As many people have before him, Neil is slowly being forced to realize that all the sex in the world isn’t going to make him happy. It’s a way of filling a hole in his life, a sort of addiction to numb the pain… and like every addict, it’s never going to be quite enough to do what he ultimately wants.
Now, perhaps it’s the English major in me looking for any excuse to justify my BA, but I can’t help but notice that The Truth echoes other works. Like Warren Ellis’Crooked Little Vein, we’re getting a guided tour of the polyamory underbelly of the world. In fact in many ways, it becomes a Who’s Who of sex researchers, therapists and counselors; Dr. Helen Fisher, Esther Perel and Reid Mihalko all make appearances to one degree or another, while Tristain Taormino, Christopher Ryan, Dossie Easton and Janet Hardy all make cameos via their books.
But more than anything else, The Truth reminds me of – and is structured like – Dante’s Divine Comedy. Neil is the erstwhile Dante, crawling deeper and deeper into the pit of sexual decadence in search of his sacred Beatrice before reaching the Purgatory of therapy and ultimately the Paradise of a happy, fulfilled life. In fact, it’s as he’s literally climbing out of the pit that he finally realizes what he truly wants and what he needs to do.
This isn’t to say that the artful construction and structure of the book belies it’s claims to authenticity. There’s really not a moment where you feel that Neil is being untruthful or trying to polish up his image or excuse his past excesses. If anything, it feels painfully honest to a fault – even a little self-pitying at times; the phrase “I’m not the hero of this book, I’m the villain” echoes over and over through the narrative. This actually annoys me. While yes, I do have the benefit of being the detached outside observer, the fact is that there really aren’t any bad guys here. Yes, people get hurt, sometimes hurt badly… but it’s not out of malice or even self-absorbtion. What you see in The Truth are people who are well-meaning and well-intentioned but ultimately wrong for each other; square pegs convinced that they should be round and believing that if they try hard enough or find the right angle, they’ll finally fit into that round hole.
To be fair: most of the book focuses on Neil trying to convince himself that what he wants is different from how he used to be in his days as Style… despite the fact that what he ultimately wants is a harem, just as he did when he was part of Project Hollywood. Unlike his time as Style, he’s much more aware of justhow much he’s hurting other people – as well as himself. This is never driven home more than by excerpts from his various partners’ diaries and journals. We get to hear, in their words, just how bad things are from their perspective and it’sheartbreaking.
Much like The Game, The Truth is a book that’s going to be misunderstood. People saw The Game as a how-to manual, rather than the story of a group of men who were fundamentally broken inside trying to use sexual success as a way of increasing their self worth. People will also see The Truth as selling the cure. I’ve seen it already: people either assume he’s blaming all mothers or that the book is a blanket condemnation of non-monogamy and polyamory, which is a shame. See, the theme isn’t that monogamy is best and non-monongamists are fooling themselves, it’s that if you’re not emotionally healthy, no relationship is going to work.
Part of the overarching theme of the book is that Neil is continually sabotaging himself by throwing himself in head first, biting off more than anyone can chew. His very first foray into ethical non-monogamy involves trying to form a poly triad with everyone living under the same roof. His next involves trying to form his own commune. His third involves starting an open relationship with no rules whatsoever.
Small wonder he fails every time; it’s not what he wants deep down and so it falls apart. It would be almost comedic if it weren’t for the very human toll it takes on him and his partners.
(It’s significant, to me anyway, that the happiest and most successful polys and kinksters are at Reid Mihalko’s party, where everything is carefully structured and organized without the pseudo-spirituality of the pujas or the wanna-be pornstars of the parties at Bliss.)
The end of the book may be a foregone conclusion, but it – odd as it is to say this about somebody’s lived experience – feels earned; you understand why Neil behaved the way he has. You see how, despite having a sexual resume that would make Wilt Chamberlain and Gene Simmons envious, he’s still the same bundle of neuroses and insecurities that he always has been. Until he’s sorted his issues and fought his demons, he can’t let anyone else in, including himself.
You think you know what The Truth is about. It’s not about Neil Strauss seeking redemption or making amends for his old life. It’s about trying to figure out who he is and why he does what he does. There’re no excuses being made here, no attempts to deflect blame. It’s, well, the truth; naked and raw.
- Not strictly true. Strauss may have been infamous for The Game, but the man had written multiple NYT Bestselling biographies and non-fiction books well before The Game ever happened, as well as being a well-known reporter for Rolling Stone. [↩]