How Neil Strauss became Mr Doom
I am not expecting to like Neil Strauss, but I calculate that meeting him might be useful. He says so himself: “When the shit hits the fan, you're going to want to find me. And you'll want to be doing whatever I'm doing. Because I've learnt from the best.”
Strauss claims he can start a fire by rubbing sticks together, identify 700 types of footprints, draw a holstered pistol in 1.5 seconds, find water in the desert, deliver a baby, fly a plane, pick locks, set traps and kill a man with his bare hands.
Not absolutely all of these skills are needed on a sunny morning on Hampstead Heath, even in the most secluded spots, but Strauss has consented to teach me some of his survival skills here – the closest London has to wilderness, where the gravest dangers, typically, are dog poo and the odd out-of-control kite.
But perhaps the tame venue is just as well, because, for all his swagger, Strauss isn't your typical gung-ho survivalist. At 40, he's an expensively educated writer from Los Angeles, best known until now as (in his own words) “the world's most legendary pick-up artist”.
A few years ago, after ghostwriting the memoirs of porn star Jenna Jameson, he wrote a hugely successful how-to seduction manual called The Game, which revealed how he immersed himself in the “seduction community” and had sex with hundreds of women, including, yes, a porn star. He used “waking hypnosis” to usher his more or less willing prey up a “Yes Ladder” (“Can I ask you a question?” leads to “Are you adventurous?”, which leads to “Can you prove it?”) and picked up Britney Spears during a Rolling Stone interview.
On his MySpace page he's pictured with a shaven head, goatee beard, permanent tan and sharp suit, and describes himself as “a selfish prick . . . a hot, rich, pampered intellectual with a big dick and a marathon tongue”.
In person, on the heath, Strauss doesn't seem like a prick at all. In fact, he is so startlingly different from expectations that our meeting feels a bit like the moment when Dorothy finally claps eyes on the shrivelled, timid Wizard of Oz: Strauss is terrifically polite, surprisingly short and given to earnest talk about homemade goat's cheese and dandelion wine.
Hang on, if he's adopted these mortifying personae for his books, and massive online fanbase, shouldn't he at least try to play the part in real life? And isn't his transformation from super-stud to survivalist – though consistent with macho fantasies – well, a bit of a stretch?
Not at all, Strauss says, the motive underlying both books was the same: fear. “One is about the fear of women, and the other is a fear of dying.”
His reinvention as apocalypse man could not be better timed, because it appears many of us are moving the same way. What with terrorism, extreme weather events and predictions of dire energy, food and water shortages, even fairly normal people – hell, even investment bankers – have started to stockpile chickpeas, bottled water and loo rolls, and generally carry on like Robinson Crusoe.
The Sunday Times reported online last week that New Zealand has already seen a substantial influx of Brits fleeing climate disaster, while web-based networks devoted to survival grow ever busier. One, the Ludlow Survivors Group, was formed after members watched a DVD of the 1970s series Survivors, about a global pandemic – a programme considerably more terrifying than the recent BBC remake. Another site, Off-Grid, gets some 75,000 hits each month, while the formerly right-wing Survival-Blog has seen huge growth in visits from greens and lefties. “The generation that was raised between 1980 and 2000 had 20 golden years,” Strauss insists, “and we don't understand upheaval. With everything falling apart around us, it's like a generational panic attack.”
He says he gradually lost confidence in American stability as a result of 9/11, Hurricane Katrina and economic collapse. “I began to look at the world through apocalypse eyes. All it would take is one war, one riot, one dirty bomb, one natural disaster, one marauding army, one economic catastrophe, one vial containing one virus to bring it all smashing down.
“I don't want to be hiding in cellars, fighting old women for a scrap of bread, taking forced marches at gunpoint, dying of cholera in refugee camps, or anything else I've read about.” Reasonably enough, he would prefer to be the guy who lives to tell the tale, preferably on “a beach far away from the mess that self-serving politicians, crooked CEOs and committed madmen are making of the world”.
Watching the looting in New Orleans on television after Katrina, Strauss began to subscribe to the view of human nature depicted in Lord of the Flies, and convinced himself that he was dangerously dependent on an unstable system.
“The so-called system is something we take for granted. We depend on it to give us an inexhaustible supply of electricity, water, food, gas, internet, phone service, garbage removal, long-distance transportation, civil order, 24-hour convenience stores and Seinfeld reruns. But what if it stopped working? Systems create dependencies. All my life, I'd never had to do anything practical. My tools were the telephone and the internet, which instantly summoned the services of other people. I'd been rendered completely helpless by convenience. I needed to become independent of everything.”
This doomy outlook, it transpires, is not purely generational but also, in Strauss's case, inherited. “My parents were worst-case thinkers,” he says. “When we went on vacation my brother and I weren't allowed to tell our friends, so that no one knew our house was empty. And we'd leave for the airport in shifts.”
In the course of his thorough, and discomfiting, researches Strauss sought out a fascinating variety of experts. “There is no single source of information on all this. I had to go to right-wing survivalists, green permaculturists, antigovernment people. Homeless people are survivors, I've learnt a lot from them. They have to learn self-defence, and they cache things.”
He also hung out with billionaires only to conclude, cheeringly, that people with skills will cope a lot better than the people with fortunes.
“The people I met who were most scared were the billionaires, because the only thing they have – money – is losing its value.”
Not all these mentors, you will have guessed, were charming. “The toughest survivalists were also the scariest human beings. But these are the kind of people I love to meet,” he says with evident relish.
He has in mind individuals such as “Mad Dog”, an Arizona-based survivalist who specialises in making weapons – razor blades taped to credit cards are good, though rolled-up magazines and duct tape will also do – and giving instruction on how to use them.
“He's gun-toting, maybe racist, and would certainly not get on with my friends, but he's absolutely the man to see about knives.”
For fun, Mad Dog visits airport gift shops to see which items he can turn into weapons. His daughters wear glass-epoxy composite chopsticks in their hair when they fly, so they can sharpen them into daggers if they need to stab someone. When Strauss, during one of their many rehearsals for the apocalypse, decided he would have to leave his then girlfriend behind as a “survival liability”, Mad Dog contradicted him: “Not necessarily. She's an excellent source of protein”. You can almost hear the chuckle.
With Mad Dog's help, Strauss killed, not a girl, but a goat – simply to prove that he could. The gurgle as his knife went through its neck was, he says, “the worst, most horrifying sound I'd heard in my life”. He didn't feel proud afterwards, but vile. “All I could do was make sure I ate and used every part of her.”
Today, Strauss keeps goats in his garden in Los Angeles, despite local planning laws that make self-sufficiency difficult; he has no permit to use his yard as agricultural land but has found a loophole involving the laws relevant to zoos.
He tells me he could never kill the goats he keeps now, not unless they were suffering. Usefully, his current girlfriend, Ghita – a charming young woman with absolutely huge sunglasses, whom he met through his seduction work – is made of sterner stuff. “I could do it,” she tells me. “I'm no vegetarian.”
Indeed, far from being a “survival liability”, Ghita turns out to be quite the survivalist, having grown up in Quebec and experienced a month-long ice storm as a child. Some neighbours starved, Ghita says. Others died when chunks of ice fell on their heads. Her own family had stocked up for winter on preserves and installed a wood-burner, and walked about outside, if at all, wearing hard hats. “We had to hack the ice with picks and boil it so we could drink, and wash. We went back to the Dark Ages, literally: we had to go to bed at 5pm when the sun went down.”
Many of her neighbours walked miles to take refuge in the city: something to think about for those ruralist romantics who imagine that an emergency will always involve an exodus to the land, and proof that the unexpected is exactly that – unexpected.
By definition, Strauss observes, it's impossible to prepare for an emergency. But there are some things we could all do, such as make plans to cope at home if utilities and distribution networks shut down, as they did in New Orleans and, less completely, in the British floods of 2007. Strauss himself has tried doing without for five days, pretty successfully: though he reckons he was lucky nobody saw him steal water from next-door's swimming pool to wash his dishes.
We should all, he suggests, put together an evacuation plan. Things to consider include avoiding contaminated air, water and soil; finding sympathetic neighbours (but not too many of them); keeping a supply of tools (imagine digging your vegetable patch without a spade); concealing supplies; and deciding how – or whether – to use force if concealment is lost.
This last point still bothers Strauss. “If there is a disaster, all my friends know I have stocked up.” What to do? He thinks: “You do what you can live with afterwards. I'd let them in, and hope that they would contribute in some way.”
But making plans doesn't mean you should evacuate just yet. “If you sacrifice the things you enjoy by going into hiding,” Strauss adds thoughtfully, “what happens if nothing happens? You have wasted your life. Those who run from death, like the survivalists in their bunkers and the permaculturists in the forest, also run from life.”
He learnt this lesson when, for unapologetically selfish reasons, he took a course in search and rescue and found himself, rather to his own amazement, becoming less selfish. “I started all this with a much more cynical view of human nature. But when I joined the search-and-rescue team I saw how much people will help each other. The generosity from the community was staggering.”
What he picked up on that course – how to put his anxieties into context – proved infinitely more valuable than any number of survivalist techniques. He now fears, not the end of the world, but crossing the road.
“Being in or around motor vehicles is probably the most risky behaviour we engage in as human beings,” he says, as we part amid the London traffic. “The mundane is far more terrifying than the apocalyptic.”
Emergency by Neil Strauss is published by Canongate
1929 words. First published 5 April 2009. © Times Newspapers Ltd.