The Upper Hand in Relationships

         People perform some astoundingly clever maneuvers in pursuit of the upper hand in their romantic relationships, and some really stupid ones too. They try to make their partners jealous. They feign lack of interest. They pretend to have enjoyed wild success in the realm of dating throughout their personal histories, right up until the point at which they met their current partners. The edge in cleverness, however, is usually enjoyed by women—though you may be inclined to call it subtlety, or even deviousness.

            Some of the most basic dominance strategies used in romantic relationships are based either on one partner wanting something more than the other, or on one partner being made to feel more insecure than the other. We all know couples whose routine revolves around the running joke that the man is constantly desperate for sex, which allows the woman to set the terms he must meet in order to get some. His greater desire for sex gives her the leverage to control him in other domains. I’ll never forget being nineteen and hearing a friend a few years older say of her husband, “Why would I want to have sex with him when he can’t even remember to take out the garbage?” Traditionally, men held the family purse strings, so they—assuming they or their families had money—could hold out the promise of things women wanted more. Of course, some men still do this, giving their wives little reminders of how hard they work to provide financial stability, or dropping hints of their extravagant lifestyles to attract prospective dates.

            You can also get the upper hand on someone by taking advantage of his or her insecurities. (If that fails, you can try producing some.) Women tend to be the most vulnerable to such tactics at the moment of choice, wanting their features and graces and wiles to make them more desirable than any other woman prospective partners are likely to see. The woman who gets passed up in favor of another goes home devastated, likely lamenting the crass superficiality of our culture.

            Most of us probably know a man or two who, deliberately or not, manages to keep his girlfriend or wife in constant doubt when it comes to her ability to keep his attention. These are the guys who can’t control their wandering eyes, or who let slip offhand innuendos about incremental weight gain. Perversely, many women respond by expending greater effort to win his attention and his approval.

           Men tend to be the most vulnerable just after sex, in the Was-it-good-for-you moments. If you found yourself seething at some remembrance of masculine insensitivity reading the last paragraph, I recommend a casual survey of your male friends in which you ask them how many of their past partners at some point compared them negatively to some other man, or men, they had been with prior to the relationship. The idea that the woman is settling for a man who fails to satisfy her as others have plays into the narrative that he wants sex more—and that he must strive to please her outside the bedroom.
          If you can put your finger on your partner’s insecurities, you can control him or her by tossing out reassurances like food pellets to a trained animal. The alternative would be for a man to be openly bowled over by a woman’s looks, or for a woman to express in earnest her enthusiasm for a man’s sexual performances. These options, since they disarm, can be even more seductive; they can be tactics in their own right—but we’re talking next-level expertise here so it’s not something you’ll see very often.

           I give the edge to women when it comes to subtly attaining the upper hand in relationships because I routinely see them using a third strategy they seem to have exclusive rights to. Being the less interested party, or the most secure and reassuring party, can work wonders, but for turning proud people into sycophants nothing seems to work quite as well as a good old-fashioned guilt-trip.

           To understand how guilt-trips work, just consider the biggest example in history: Jesus died on the cross for your sins, and therefore you owe your life to Jesus. The illogic of this idea is manifold, but I don’t need to stress how many people it has seduced into a lifetime of obedience to the church. The basic dynamic is one of reciprocation: because one partner in a relationship has harmed the other, the harmer owes the harmed some commensurate sacrifice.
          I’m probably not the only one who’s witnessed a woman catching on to her man’s infidelity and responding almost gleefully—now she has him. In the first instance of this I watched play out, the woman, in my opinion, bore some responsibility for her husband’s turning elsewhere for love. She was brutal to him. And she believed his guilt would only cement her ascendancy. Fortunately, they both realized about that time she must not really love him and they divorced.
          But the guilt need not be tied to anything as substantive as cheating. Our puritanical Christian tradition has joined forces in America with radical feminism to birth a bastard lovechild we encounter in the form of a groundless conviction that sex is somehow inherently harmful—especially to females. Women are encouraged to carry with them stories of the traumas they’ve suffered at the hands of monstrous men. And, since men are of a tribe, a pseudo-logic similar to the Christian idea of collective guilt comes into play. Whenever a man courts a woman steeped in this tradition, he is put on early notice—you’re suspect; I’m a trauma survivor; you need to be extra nice, i.e. submissive.

           It’s this idea of trauma, which can be attributed mostly to Freud, that can really make a relationship, and life, fraught and intolerably treacherous. Behaviors that would otherwise be thought inconsiderate or rude—a hurtful word, a wandering eye—are instead taken as malicious attempts to cause lasting harm. But the most troubling thing about psychological trauma is that belief in it is its own proof, even as it implicates a guilty party who therefore has no way to establish his innocence.
          Over the course of several paragraphs, we’ve gone from amusing but nonetheless real struggles many couples get caught up in to some that are just downright scary. The good news is that there is a subset of people who don’t see relationships as zero-sum games. (Zero-sum is a game theory term for interactions in which every gain for one party is a loss for the other. Non zero-sum games are those in which cooperation can lead to mutual benefits.) The bad news is that they can be hard to find.
            There are a couple of things you can do now though that will help you avoid chess match relationships—or minimize the machinations in your current romance. First, ask yourself what dominance tactics you tend to rely on. Be honest with yourself. Recognizing your bad habits is the first step toward breaking them. And remember, the question isn’t whether you use tactics to try to get the upper hand; it’s which ones you use how often?

           The second thing you can do is cultivate the habit and the mutual attitude of what’s good for one is good for the other. Relationship researcher Arthur Aron says that celebrating your partner’s successes is one of the most important things you can do in a relationship. “That’s even more important,” he says, “than supporting him or her when things go bad.” Watch out for zero-sum responses, in yourself and in your partner. And beware of zero-summers in the realm of dating. Ladies, you know the guys who seem vaguely resentful of the power you have over them by dint of your good looks and social graces. And, guys, you know the women who make you feel vaguely guilty and set-upon every time you talk to them. The best thing to do is stay away.
     But you may be tempted, once you realize a dominance tactic is being used on you, to perform some kind of countermove. It’s one of my personal failings to be too easily provoked into these types of exchanges. It is a dangerous indulgence.

Anti-Charm - Its Powers and Perils

           It’s the most natural thing: you like someone, you want that person to like you, so you give him or her a compliment. You may point to some quality you genuinely admire. You may comment more generically. The basic idea, though, is to make this person feel good because you want them to associate feeling good with you—you say nice things because you want to be liked.

            If you’re someone who tends to make people you talk to feel good about themselves, or just good in general, you’ve likely been accused of being charming—and rightly so. And charm is considered a good quality to have. But there are a few ways it can go wrong. Attempts at charm can be construed as manipulative, in which case you’ve got more smarm than charm. You may try to charm someone who has already been subjected to numerous, nearly identical charm offensives, in which case your compliments will sound like clichés.

            Charm can also fail in a way that’s more subtle than coming across as insincere or unoriginal. The desire for another person to like you suggests that you have lower status than that person. By approaching him or her with offers of gifts—“Can I buy you a drink?”—or compliments—“You have the prettiest eyes.”—you’re effectively saying, “You’re more important than I am, so I’m going out of my way to curry favor with you.”

            If you send out this signal of lower status, your attempt at charm will probably backfire. By and large, people want to associate with others who are of equal or higher status than themselves. And there are all kinds of negative emotions that get triggered when we’re in the presence of someone who doesn’t measure up. We also have all kinds of nasty labels for people like this.

            The plain fact, however, is that status can be faked. It’s difficult to behave in a way that's incongruent with our feelings, but once you understand what types of behavior signal higher status you can deliberately perform them. And the signals of status are easily—even automatically—mistaken for the real thing. The signals are so powerful in fact that they won’t just work on other people; by behaving as if you have higher status, you’ll begin to feel like you have higher status.

            The sense that you’re raising your relative value and authority is inherently rewarding. So every behavior that has this result is seductive. This is especially the case with anti-charm. Charm entails making people feel good so they’ll like you; anti-charm, then, is making people feel bad so they’ll recognize you as someone who doesn’t give a damn whether they like you or not. In the same way charm often backfires by making the charmer seem unworthy, anti-charm often has the counter-intuitive effect of signaling high status and so making the anti-charmer seem eminently worth winning over.

            I first began to understand this dynamic as a restaurant server. At wits end some nights, I’d get gruff or sarcastic or even a little mean with my customers. Not only did I not get stiffed, as I often anticipated I would, I actually developed some mutually respectful relationships with regulars. It was as if by letting them know I wouldn’t be pushed around I was showing them I was worth knowing. (I like to think my natural wit had something to do with it too.) (Click here for some interesting science that backs up the idea that rudeness or even bad service can lead to bigger tips.)

            Sometime later, the point was reinforced for me when I read Neil Strauss’s book on pickup artists, The Game. A useful strategy for arousing an attractive woman’s interest, it turns out, is to upset expectations and say something that, while not overtly insulting, isn’t at all complimentary. “Nice nails—are they real?” Or “That wig is amazing.” As the interaction proceeds, you continue giving her signs that you’re not interested in her, prompting her to put increasing effort into getting your attention. She’s a beautiful woman after all; she’s not used to being neglected or dismissed or teased.

            The danger is that, once you get that first taste of the fruits of anti-charm, you respond to the seemingly miraculous reversal in hierarchical roles by overdoing it. Apparently, using too many “negs” or “indicators of disinterest” is a common mistake for beginning pickup guys. And the problem extends far beyond the realm of men attracting women in bars.

            What pickup artists and salespeople call qualifying is an even more powerful way of controlling status dynamics. If done a certain way, it can make people feel good about themselves—it can be charming. How it works is you make a case for some quality you look for in friends or lovers. “I try to surround myself with creative people because they’re always finding new ways to look at things, and they’re always finding new things to look at.” Now it’s your interlocutor’s turn to speak. Most people, if they like you at all, will explain at this point why they believe they meet your criterion. They’ll qualify themselves.

            Anti-charmers can also use this tactic. There are some qualities almost everyone likes to think they possess: intelligence, kindness, good looks, sexual prowess, professional competence. So even if someone doesn’t know you, he or she can make you feel bad by suggesting you lack one or more of these qualities. Why would anyone want to do that? Because many people will respond by trying to redeem themselves in the eyes of the person who has just insulted them. They bend over backward qualifying themselves. And the anti-charmer enjoys the attendant boost in status.

            Qualification gets even more sinister when the anti-charmer focuses on qualities central to her target’s identity. Say you know someone prides himself on his fashion sense. In an offhand way, you can suggest you don’t like the way he dresses. (This will probably work better, for obvious reasons, if you’re a woman.) Or, if you know someone who prides herself on her intuition about people, you can make subtle comments about how dense she is when it comes to understanding social interactions. They’ll hate you. But they’ll make a special effort to convince you you’re wrong about them. Their intense feelings about you may even turn to obsessive lust.

            A lot of people who like to think of themselves as especially authentic and genuine, more substance than flash and gimmick, find anti-charm to be an appealing social strategy. And they definitely come across as more honest, courageous enough to be who they are no matter who they offend and no matter who they may have to confront. It can even work if the fault you find in a person is moral, which is precisely why so many people fall prey to self-righteousness.

Image courtesy of
            The scary thing, though, is that we may feel certain that we are merely representing our true selves, telling the honest truth, or legitimately indignant over some moral outrage, when in reality all we’re doing is power-tripping. Anytime we find fault, we’re placing ourselves above the person we’re finding fault with. Sometimes calling people out is appropriate—sometimes not calling them out would make you complicit. But we simply cannot rely on our natural intuitions to discern legitimate from trumped-up charges; we need some set of guiding principles. We also need, more often than we like to admit, to reference the perspectives of disinterested parties.

            When it comes to game, there’s a point when you either become much more subtle in your indicators of disinterest or you quit using them altogether. Pickup guys call this moving from the attraction phase to the comfort phase. The recognition that anti-charm has its place, but that it can be taken too far, clung to long after its usefulness is exhausted, is an important insight. Hierarchical relationships are inherently stressful. Spending too much time with an anti-charmer is a good way to make yourself miserable.

How To Be A Man

Women are attending and graduating from college at higher rates than men. The recession of the past few years has hit men harder. And skills like communication and nurturing that women traditionally excel at seem much better suited to the way the job market is sure to develop in the future than qualities like risk-taking, aggression, and physical strength, the ken of men. All this has lead Hanna Rosin to declare “The End of Men” in a fascinating article for The Atlantic Monthly. The same magazine declared, or rather asked about, "The End of White America?" a couple years ago, but it really does seem like something strange is afoot with manhood at this juncture in history. Penny Nance, on a Fox News blog asks, "Why Does America Have So Many 'Peter Pan' Men?". Nance's biggest concern, the statistic (which I haven't tracked down) that boys ages 12-17 actually spend less time playing video games than 18-34 year-old men.

But what else is a man-child to do? They don't want to go to school or try to get hired at some job where they'll probably be outshone by their female counterparts. And who do men have to look up to? Linda Holmes, in her blog on the NPR page, "Congratulations, Television! You Are Even Worse At Masculinity Than Femininity," complains about a new season of sitcoms, foremost among them How To Be A Gentleman, for positing "a dichotomy in which men can be either delicate, ineffectual, sexless weaklings or ill-mannered but physically powerful meatheads," and that "there are gentlemen, and there are real men, and each might need to be a little more like the other."

This dichotomy is even represented in literature. Jonathan Franzen's novel Freedom, for instance, features two college buddies plying their respective virtues in parallel attempts to seduce and hold on to a mutual love interest. Walter Berglund is an environmental activist and the quintessential nice guy. Richard Katz is the devil-may-care rock star. And Patty Berglund's dilemma seems to be shared by a growing number of women.

Kate Bolik, in another Atlantic article, "All the Single Ladies," relates how she and her friends, along with a growing cohort of the female population, are broadening the scope of their attraction. "Now that we can pursue our own status and security," she writes, "and are therefore liberated from needing men the way we once did, we are free to like them more, or at least more idiosyncratically, which is how love ought to be, isn’t it?"

Bolik continues:
"American women as a whole have never been confronted with such a radically shrinking pool of what are traditionally considered to be 'marriageable' men—those who are better educated and earn more than they do. So women are now contending with what we might call the new scarcity. Even as women have seen their range of options broaden in recent years—for instance, expanding the kind of men it’s culturally acceptable to be with, and making it okay not to marry at all—the new scarcity disrupts what economists call the 'marriage market' in a way that in fact narrows the available choices, making a good man harder to find than ever."

This strange longing for what she calls "traditional" men, and her and her friends failure to locate them, belies one of her central points--that what women want is somehow changing in a fundamental way. In a discussion of the Guttentag-Secord theory, Bolik relates her own experiences with a certain type of male:  "My spotty anecdotal findings have revealed that, yes, in many cases, the more successful a man is (or thinks he is), the less interested he is in commitment."

She later asserts that, at least in the "hookup culture" of college campuses, something called the "Pareto principle" is at play. It's "the idea that for many events, roughly 20 percent of the causes create 80 percent of the effects," and so "only 20 percent of the men (those considered to have the highest status) are having 80 percent of the sex, with only 20 percent of the women (those with the greatest sexual willingness); the remaining 80 percent, male and female, sit out the hookup dance altogether."

It may merely stem from my own scientific leanings, but I think Bolik is trying too hard in her article to fit her evidence into a scheme of extremely variable human mating behavior--even as she presents findings to the contrary. Bolik decries "singlism," discrimination against single women, because she's ridden her biological clock all the way to "marriage o'clock" and beyond but is perfectly happy and successful. It's a great article, and as a single, soon-to-be 34 year-old man, I sympathized quite a bit.

But what does any of this leave us with beyond status, self-perceived or otherwise, as the mark of an attractive man--or as a man as distinguished from a videogame-obsessed teen-aged boy? Let's go back to Richard Katz from Freedom. He's a bad long-term mate, maybe even a bit of a man-child, but he's such a good musician he gets away with it. This is a common theme on TV too. Dr. House gets away with being a sociopath, within narratively convenient limits, because he's such an awesome diagnostician. Then there's Don Draper, who gets to be bad because he's so good at advertising. I've recently begun to watch Californifation, which features the novelist Hank Moody, whose gift actually isn't his writing--which gets mixed reviews throughout the series--but his ability to charm women.

It could be that what makes these men attractive (they attract audiences of course, not just fictional women) is their passion for what they do more than their childish inability to delay gratification. But then of course women can be passionate about what they do as well. They can even be so good at whatever it is they do well that they get forgiven for bad behavior. And here we run into the problem that's been plaguing everyone who's been trying to figure out what roles men and women should play in society for the past few decades: as soon as you light on a possible answer, you can count on someone accusing you of sexism.

Men like objects and abstract concepts. Women like social interactions. But not all men and not all women fit the trend. And how dare you suggest that male nurses aren't manly! Or that female engineers aren't feminine! There's even a poststructuralist brand of feminism that views "gendering" as a high crime.

All accusations aside, and without going into cross cultural analysis, I think there's something to be said for a definition of manhood having something to do with a willingness to risk physical harm and give up material comforts for the sake of altruistic punishment. This is a point on which Chuck Palahniuk's  Tyler Durden is eloquent.

There's something to be said about being careful with your compromises and accommodations, knowing who you are and valuing what you do without reference to the opinions or lame assurances of women. Yes, women can be this way too, assured, independent, cocksure. But it seems to me there ought to be a way to recognize positive roles and hold up positive role models without encouraging negative reactions to men or women who don't fit those roles.

Maybe the way to be a man is simply to know what being a man means to you. Whether you base it on evolutionary psychology or on your own father or on some other model, you choose your ideal self and you do your best to be him.

There's even something to be said for being able to smash some shit when necessary--rhetorically and otherwise.

The In Love Test: Openning to Chapter 2 of "The Music Box Routine"

(Start from the beginning) 2:
            I could have moved on. It was just a restaurant job. My time in was accruing at UPS, though, and I figured I should just wait until a full time position opened there. At the time, I wasn’t writing. My mind wasn’t right for writing. I’d fallen in love with the twenty-five-year-old bartender and general manager. She was something of a phenom, a cute chick running the whole restaurant, somehow never brooking challenges. Thinking back, I see that type of intense competence came at a cost, but at the time I was bowled over by her, like everyone else.

            I started working at the restaurant just a year before Anton introduced me to the community, and I was getting sick of the bar scene. Maybe that’s why I had such high hopes for her. We had our differences though. But all that’s for another story. Suffice to say that at first she was after me but I was focusing on certain deal-breaking attributes of hers, but then something shifted and I decided to overlook those attributes. So then I went after her and things almost worked out. But then they didn’t. When it was over, I had gotten the worst of it.

            You show up at work one day and start your opening duties, and the woman you’re still in love with but who’s in another relationship now poses the question to a coworker, “How do you know if you’re in love?” You have the thought that she’s purposely torturing you, or at least assessing your response. Steve, the coworker, gives a lame answer like, “Well, you just know.” And then asks, “Why do you ask?” The woman you’re in love with says, “No reason, I’m just wondering.”

            You’re already set to spend the rest of the day agonizing over the implications when the fourth person in the kitchen, another attractive woman who’s much younger, chimes in with, “Yeah right, you’re in love with Steffen—you want to have his babies.” She turns toward you as she says this, clearly expecting to see you wince.

            Not wanting to indulge her, you turn your back to her just as the woman you love says, “I told him I wanted to have his abortion.”

            On the first date you had with this woman you love you went to her apartment and watched the movie Fight Club. After the scene where Tyler Durden tells the story of his night with Marla, she said, “I guess in the book Marla doesn’t say, ‘I haven’t been fucked like that since I was a school girl.’ She says, ‘I want to have your abortion.’” And she’s used the line with you on more than one occasion, saying, “I want to have your abortion.”

            If she hadn’t reprised that line, you would probably have just taken your licks and gone through the day, the week, the next few months completely miserable. But the line suggests her infliction of pain is personal and deliberate.

            “I know a test that will tell you whether or not you’re really in love.” You say this even though at that moment you really don’t have any such test in mind. But you have to do something to retaliate, and you do have some inchoate glimmerings of an idea. The younger woman hears you say this, even though your back is to her and you’re on your way out of the kitchen. The woman you love is prepared to dismiss it. But you can work with that.

            You go from the kitchen to the bathroom and stand looking in the mirror, taking deep breaths, recovering from the surprise onslaught, trying to recall a night of fun with your best friend, one of those ridiculous drunken misadventures that reliably cracks you up. And just like that your idea takes shape. You really do have a test to see if someone is in love. And you even have a plan for how to use it to get what you’re really after.

            Tina is the younger attractive woman at work. She’s the type of girl who gets hated on by other girls because she’s cute and skinny and has a sunny disposition. Until that comment about the woman you love wanting to have someone else’s babies, you thought Tina was on your side, that you could count on her to help you. But now she was going to help you whether she knew it or not.

            “What’s this test you were talking about?” she asks out in the dining room.

            “Well, I can’t tell you about it or it won’t work. You just have to do it.”

            So the two of you go to the server station, a small room with better lighting tucked in between the bar and the dining room. You position her against the wall where there’s the most light on her face, tell her to close her eyes and count backward from a hundred by sevens. In the middle of the task, you tell her to stop, open her eyes, and imagine Mike, her boyfriend, smiling at her. Now the light ought to make her pupils contract when she opens her eyes, but the thought of the man she’s in love with will be arousing to her and make her pupils dilate.

            Tina opens her eyes, grins fatuously, and you’re standing close enough to see her pupils contract from the light and then dilate. Trying not to be shocked that the test actually worked, you laugh and say, “You looked right at me when you opened your eyes, so now I don’t know if you’re in love with Mike or with me.” She laughs too and playfully pushes you away. You figure now you won’t have to recruit the woman you love for the test. Tina will do it for you. The key is to start with the minions and work your way up.
            Less than ten minutes later you’re facing the woman you love as she stands in the same spot in the server’s station where Tina was before. Only this time, four other people are crammed in behind you because word of your test has spread to everyone in the building. The woman you love makes it clear she finds you distasteful and only reluctantly agreed to the test. She makes threats about what will happen if you touch her. Tina assures her no physical contact is involved.

            She stands there, closes her eyes, and begins the distraction task of counting backward from a hundred by sevens. You wait a few moments and then say, “Now open your eyes and picture Steffen smiling.”

            You see her smile fatuously, just as Tina had, but she’s not directly facing you as Tina was. You don’t even bother looking at her eyes, which are blue and would be easier to see dilation in. You just watch her smile, as much from the sudden realization of how the test works as from the image in her mind, wait a beat, and then turn to the gathered audience with a devilish smile, saying, “Did you see it?” They’re all amazed, even though you doubt there’s any way they could have seen such a subtle change from as far away as they’re all standing.

            You make sure to be the one who’s in the biggest hurry to get back to work and you hear two more women coworkers wondering aloud what their own test results would show. But you won’t be doing any more tests today.
            Some time later, you’re sitting by yourself near the front door of the restaurant, awaiting the first customers of the day, and you see the woman you love emerge from the kitchen, walk the length of the dinning room, and sit down on one of a series of extra chairs lining a wall near the entrance. She looks perplexed. “I don’t think your test is valid,” she says, “because I’m not in love with Steffen.”

            You go through the motions of defending your research protocol—“Well, maybe it doesn’t test love exactly, but it would test attraction”—even though you want to howl in triumph. You know your test did exactly what you designed it to do.
            Will made me tell him the story of how I came up with The In-Love Test again and again. He liked it because he thought I was stubbornly aloof when it came to women and I’d only ever really been interested in two, both of whom had done a pretty good job of working me over before they moved on. For Will, my little scheme to get Laura to tell me she wasn’t in love with Steffen looked like this grand turnaround for my love life. And maybe it was. It was about five months into our first dabblings with pick up, and the idea was clearly influenced by the type of gambits used in the community. But somehow, as happy as I was that day, as triumphant even, I wasn’t really—well, happy. A turnaround for me would’ve been meeting someone I was attracted to and compatible with, someone I didn’t immediately come to loggerheads with over some major philosophical or personal issue.

            Will probably liked the jujitsu of The In-Love Test; someone came at me with superior power and I used her own power against her. I was surprised that in the conversations we had in the coming months he was as interested in the cognitive aspects of my creativity under fire as he was in how effective the product was—it not only put me even with Laura but also set me up to go to third base with Tina the following weekend. (I was overly passive with Tina, wanting to have fun, wanting to build some confidence, but not really needing to upset her life thoroughly—she called things to a halt after the progression stalled for a while, for the sake of her boyfriend. Still, I felt guilty.) If I had been on track to be the abandoned lovable loser of our little luncheonette, after the test I was no one to fuck around with. Pretty cool. 

            “So you left the kitchen,” Will said one night sitting across from me at Corner Pocket, one of our bars, “and you went in the bathroom to Zen yourself out. But you already must’ve had the idea in your head because you said you had a test before going out the door.”

            “I hadn’t worked it out all the way through. All I had was confidence that I could come up with something. That I could use pupil dilation came to me, I think, in the two or three steps between the kitchen and the bathroom.”

            “And you knew whatever test you came up with she would disagree with its results?”

            “Honestly, I hadn’t gotten that far. I think I just wanted to take control at that point, you know, steal the show so I could go wherever I wanted with it, get all the attention focused on me.”

            “So when did you know you could get her to admit she didn’t love the guy?”

            “I can’t say. Really, it seemed like I hadn’t known until she came out and said it, but afterward it was like I knew she would. I was kind of just following the general rule of dealing with rivals by appearing to push them together with the target. But on some level I recognized a scientifically framed test would have a particular significance to her, that she wouldn’t be able to resist challenging me.”

            As he continued trying to parse my process of inspiration, it began to seem less and less like I’d really managed to take control and more like I’d been ridiculously lucky. Even as I was feeling less triumphant about it, though, Will was seeing it as more and more impressive. And since he was aggressively dismissive of my feelings toward any one special girl, as if he disapproved of me letting anyone have that much power over me, I didn’t understand why he was so fascinated with the details of the ruse. It wasn’t like I’d figured out a way to turn off my feelings for Laura.

            Looking back, I think that the element of her having so much power over me and me still managing to get one over on her was what impressed him. And Will may be a much better performer than me, but he’s never really been clever or creative in a way that would make him capable of devising a new strategy under fire. Still, he ended up getting a lot more mileage out of the In-Love Test than I ever did, using it with women at the tail end of lackluster relationships with less motivated men. What a bizarre but thrilling experience it was to watch my best friend use the same words I’d spoken under the pressure of passion to woo a woman he’d just met.

            “What happened?” she’d ask eagerly.

            “You looked right at me,” he’d say laughing. “Now I don’t know if you’re in love with your boyfriend or just really attracted to me.”

            But Will would have his moment of passion, when he had to defend himself, and he dealt with it at least as cleverly as I ever could have. That’s why I look back to all those times when we talked about the In-Love Test, and all the pick up gambits he never would have learned if not for me, and I wonder if I’m not at least as responsible for what he did as he is. I didn’t know what the plan was when I mailed that damn music box—but I didn’t know what the plan was, really, when I tricked Laura and Tina. Somehow, though, I knew what I was doing. Will might have kept me in the dark because he knew I’d feel guilty. But apparently neither of us is clever enough to trick my conscience. The biggest surprise of the story, though, is that Will had so much trouble with his own.
            “I got a text that woke me up,” Will said over the phone at three in the morning. “It said ‘wake up. get a knife from the kitchen. go to the bathroom.’ It wasn’t real. I was fucking dreaming. But I woke up in the hall like I was on my way to the bathroom.” It was getting worse. He was in real trouble. “Scott, I have never sleep-walked before in my life. Stacy put some kind of curse on me, I fucking know it. I know it’s just suggestion. I know it’s all bullshit. But I can’t help it man. I’m freaking the fuck out.”

            Will had brought me the package with the music box in it. I’d had it delivered to Stacy. The label stated clearly that it had been sent two days earlier. The gift looked exactly like it was intended as nothing but a gift. It was perfect. And it had exactly the effect it was designed to have. But its effects continued beyond the one who’d received it. I knew I was responsible. So I had a new problem to solve.

Wrap Up to Chapter 1 of "The Music Box Routine"

(Start reading from the beginning)
            “Well, think about it. Say you’re a chick and you’ve just met this guy and you want him to like you. It’s exciting and scary. Things could turn out really great. You could have the Hollywood true love experience. But it could also go bad. The guy could just fuck you and then never call you again. Or you could end up dating him for a long time even though he treats you like shit. He could cheat on you. So what you’re trying to do is find out what kind of guy he is, Prince Charming or Mr. John Q. Asshole. At the same time, you want to let the guy know you’re testing him like this—like you’re challenging him to prove he’s one of the good guys. Because you know the more you make him work for it, the more you get him to invest in you, the more he’ll value the relationship.”

            Will and I were driving home from a club called Broadripple. It must’ve been close to 3 in the morning but we were still pretty amped up. This was before either of us had heard about the pick up guys, long before Stacy was in the picture. We’d gone out and stumbled into a conversation with three women who were out celebrating one of their birthdays. Two of them were recent college graduates and one of them was in graduate school for social work. She was the one I got into an argument with. After her friends let it be known that they’d been abused, she pronounced, “Sexual abuse is the main cause of all mental illness.” I had to call her on it. We had a lively debate. It would have been the first time Will heard me talk about the meta-analysis. Afterward, in the car on our way home, he posed the question, “Why do so many chicks feel like they have to tell us they got molested as kids right when we first meet them?”

            It was Will’s turn to drive so he was slightly less drunk than I was. Sober, I was less inclined to talk about this stuff. “You tell a guy you got molested and he blows it off, then you know he doesn’t think it’s a big deal. But if he seems genuinely appalled then you know he’d never do anything like that himself. That’s the idea anyway. Plus, he’ll probably show you a lot of sympathy.”

            “Yeah, but it’s too personal to bring up to someone you just met. It’s like they’re not even worried that we might just take off because we’re afraid they’re too screwed up.” I looked over at Will as he said this. I had been worried he was pissed at me for instigating the argument and ruining our chances with the girls. But it seemed he understood my reaction to a point.

            “I think most guys they talk to probably don’t think that far ahead. They’re too worried about getting rejected to ask whether the women are too screwed up to be good girlfriends or not. And a lot of men really are just trying to hook up and don’t care if they’re screwed up.”

            Will had a look of intense concentration as he looked over the steering wheel. “I bet most guys,” he said, “just cave immediately and start being all like, ‘I’m so sorry that happened to you. I’m gonna make it better for you somehow.’ Then they’re extra nice the whole time because they’re worried she’s, like, damaged. They try to be heroes.”

            “Totally, and just think if the first time you barely mention that something might have happened to you and there’s this sudden shift to where the guy’s falling all over himself to make you feel better—well, you’ve just taken control of this scary situation. You feel it. That feeling rewards the behavior, so next time you elaborate on the story a little. You make sure to tell it to the next guy a little earlier in the relationship. Before long you’re telling the story to complete strangers at a bar.”

            “Fucking bitches.” He said this in a tone of both incredulity and exaggerated anger. He was being playful. But he was scowling. The idea was really sinking in for him and he wasn’t happy about it. Another form of social control, like religion, was being exposed to him. And he was probably already planning his resistance.

            I started talking again. I don’t remember what I was saying. I do remember that when Will spoke again I was surprised he’d been stuck thinking about abuse the whole time, even though I’d changed the subject. “I think you’re wrong about them feeling rewarded by some sense of control over a scary situation. What’s really going on is that people compete to see who’s had the worst shit happen to them. It’s like with us, with men, we compete to see who’s the best at sports, at work, whatever. But for some reason women compete over who’s been through the worst shit. And it’s like they’re bragging, just like men do when they’re good at something. It’s like their veterans of a war, and they want everyone to know how deep they were in the shit. The difference is that the people I know who’ve been to war never talk about it. Because they’re all men.”
            I was both surprised and not surprised when Will told me Stacy texted him the day after their blowup at Louie’s. “Im sowry. i shouldnt of gone crazy like that.” What really surprised me was that Will didn’t just blow her off. I thought I was the one who was only attracted to lost causes.

            “Im sorry 2. I hve a big mouth. Need 2 b more sensitive.”

            Will ended up calling her to set up a Day Two. “I’m going on a bike ride with Scott,” he said. “We have an extra bike if you want to tag along.” You do stuff like this so you don’t end up falling into the dinner-and-movie trap, where everything is forced and you both have pressure on you to do and say date-like things. Day Twos allow you to spend time building comfort while at the same time doing things that are exciting, things that get her heart pumping. Will and I had three reliable Day Two locations. The role of the wing was to show up for the scheduled activity, and then take off when it was most opportune for the couple. Sometimes we both had a woman. Sometimes just one of us did. But we cooperated no matter how it worked out.

            I remember that bike ride because I actually felt a tinge of jealousy. Stacy showed up at the trail wearing black tights that made Will and me exchange a look of nearly uncontainable excitement. She even had her own bike attached to a rack sticking out from the trunk of her car. She was funny and charming and had a lot of interesting things to say. There was no trace of that hurt and vengeful undercurrent to her conversation. She made fun of us because we were both shivering from the cold before we warmed up enough on the trails. When I left, saying I was taking my nephew to a movie, they were gearing up for another lap.

            “I think she might be someone I’d like to date seriously,” Will said to me over the phone that night. They’d gone as far as third base in the car before she had to go to meet some of her classmates for a group project. “She’s smart, but she has all these stories about partying with her friends. She says she’s only had two serious boyfriends, and aside from a hookup during spring break that’s it.”

            “She’s probably leaving a few out, but I can definitely see her being more reserved than most.”

            “I guess her mom’s some big shot. She works at a hospital—I forget which one Stacy said. Not a doctor or anything, but like a higher-up.”

            “Administration. Probably HR.”

            “I guess. Anyway, no dad in the picture, but I didn’t get that whole story yet.”

            Yes, you did, I almost said.

            “I just haven’t had that much fun with a girl in a while, you know, not when I wasn’t completely taking the lead and providing the entertainment. The only thing I don’t like is her eyebrows.”

            “Yeah, I saw that. Severely plucked eyebrows are a pretty reliable sign of narcissism in women. As if we needed another one.” He was quiet after I said this. All I could hear was the whoosh of the highway. “I just—”

            “No, you’re right. That scene she made at Louie’s was pretty bad. Still, it shows she’s got spunk. Besides, who are we to judge someone for being narcissistic?”

            “Ha! I aspire to narcissism. But I’m afraid I tend toward the other side of that continuum. ‘I’m not a narcissist, but I play one in the field.’ And I don’t know what you are exactly, but it’s not narcissistic.”

            “I just like that she’s so spunky.” Spunk is one of many words Will and I get a kick out of saying with comically exaggerated stress on the consonants.

            “You’re going to try to train her, huh? I’m sure you’ll have fun with it, but my impression up front is that she’s not the trainable type. I’m guessing you’ll date her for a while, it’ll be insane, and then you’ll just get sick of all the drama and bail.”

            He laughed. “You’re probably right. It’s just—something about her gets me.”

            “Her ass in those tights got me.”

            “Oh my god! Don’t get me started.”
            Will and Stacy were together all the following summer. He told me the transformation from closed off to genial to convivial to crazy that we witnessed when we first met her was mirrored in her progression from flirting to foreplay to crazed lover to climax to afterglow—and it was some of the best sex he ever had. “Well damn, I see why you latched on to her then. You saw something I totally missed. I just thought she was crazy.”

The Alpha Test: 3rd Excerpt from "The Music Box Routine"

(Read from the beginning)
            The night Will had to drag Stacy out of Louie’s wasn’t the same night we’d met her. According to Will, though I don’t recall, I was the one who first approached her, and he came in just after I’d done the Alpha Test on her and the woman she was out with. It’s hard to imagine now that I could’ve gotten Stacy to play along with that particular routine, but apparently I did. She was this five foot five blond who dressed to be noticed but who closed herself off with her body language, slouching, always facing away from the center of the room, legs crossed, arms folded. She was a bit skinny for my taste but had great legs she wasn’t opposed to showing off with tight jeans or skirts—never too short—and heels.

            Will said what he liked initially was that closed-off posture which he managed with just the right amount of effort to pull her out of time and again. Her slow glances would go from wary, even slightly hostile, like she knew you were about to try to get something over on her, to curious and coquettish, a gradual development which, along with the contours of her features and the shape of her face, reminded us of a wise old cat who had yet to fully outgrow her mischief (which may have been what inspired me to progress from the Alpha Cat Opener to the Alpha Test).

            I saw something else about Stacy those first few times we hung out I never mentioned to Will—or maybe I didn’t see anything and am now simply consoling myself by imagining there were signs. I can only describe it as a type of tension in the muscles of her forehead and around the outside edges of her eyes. It was like a quick expression of pain, a wince that was so subtle you could never be sure you saw it. And it was almost always followed by an easily detectable expression of determination, which could shade into aggression. To me, it was a red flag. It was a purer, rawer form of something I’d experienced with my first girlfriend. She was injured, and she was mad. Why Will was drawn to it or if he was ever aware of it I can’t say. Stacy was usually really fun, but she was also volatile.
            I came up with The Alpha Test because I so often found myself approaching women who were sitting at the bar in pairs. You don’t want to stand with your back to the room, talking to women who are seated comfortably and turning over their shoulders to listen. That arrangement will make the women feel like, and it will appear to everyone else in the vicinity like, you’re hitting on them. The more they feel that way the more defensive they’ll be. And if you try to approach a set who’s already seen you hitting on someone else you have no chance—you’re just the bold party guy playing a numbers game and no woman wants to be a notch on some dude’s belt.

            So you approach the less attractive woman to position her between you and the more attractive one. “You guys are pretty attractive,” you say with a one-sided squint and a tilt of the head that suggest what you really think is that they’re just so-so. “Can I get your opinion on something? It’ll only take a sec because I have to get back to my friends.” Unless they object—and that’s happened to me a total of one time—you don’t wait for an answer. “You know how dogs are hierarchical?” You go into The Alpha Cat Opener. Once you’ve told them the story and asked them what they think, you listen to their response with a knowing smile.

            “That’s interesting,” you respond, “because I was just talking to my friend about this and he said attractive women would be the most likely to believe cats are hierarchical. He said it’s because they feel an affinity toward cats—plus attractive women are also, like, the most dominant and competitive animals in the wild.”

            You’ll get a number of different responses at this point, the most common being smiles and quiet laughs. The quick-witted will ask, “Are you calling us catty?” Whatever they do, though, you have to progress somewhat quickly to the next step—don’t wait for the applause. “For instance, I know a test that will tell us which of you two is the alpha of your group.” You walk behind them and stand between their bar stools. “Yeah, all you have to do is stand together facing me.” They’ll exchange doubtful looks. “Now, this information is sensitive. Are you sure you can handle knowing who’s really in charge?” It’s important not to give the impression that you’re eager for them to play along. Have the frame in your mind that you’re offering them information and amusement. You’re doing them a favor. If they refuse, you can just say, “Yeah, I don’t want to start a fight between you two,” and then move on to something else or bail on the set. The one time I had to bail, the two sought me out about ten minutes later.

            But they’ll probably stand up as you take a step back from their stools. “Now come over here so there’s more light.” This is where you trade positions with them so you can lean back against the bar and have the two of them standing with their backs to the center of the room. Pick up guys call this locking them in. To everyone around the bar, it will look like these two nervous chicks are chatting you up—like they’re hitting on you. And they’ll feel that way themselves.

            “Now everyone’s watching, so don’t fuck this up. Quick, before you have a chance to look at each other, point to the one who’s prettier.” Model pointing to someone beside you as you say this. After they point, lean back and laugh. “Well, that was revealing. Okay, now same thing, but this time point to the one who’s the most intelligent.” Again, model pointing to someone beside you. This time after they point, though, just smile knowingly. “And now the last part—who’s the most fun?”

            The Alpha Test, at least this version of it, takes advantage of what Will and I call The Prettier Friend Dynamic. The most attractive of any group of women gets the most attention, and in humans attention is the most salient index of status. The dominant group member is the one who’s heard whenever he speaks. And people, even other women, seem incapable of ignoring attractive women. What a beautiful woman’s friends come to realize is that this attention causes her to overestimate the inherent value of her utterances. She’ll say some pretty bland things, even some outright stupid things, but then she’ll flash her teeth and everyone’s oohing and ahhing. Over time a woman will come to resent her prettier friend because no matter what she says the guys are hanging on every word. The less attractive friend, on the other hand, can be as witty and insightful as John Stewart and still get scarcely a sideways glance in acknowledgement.

            What you’re doing with The Alpha Test is dangling the promise of a man less shallow than all the rest in front of the witty friend, while at the same time threatening the prettier friend with the idea that as beautiful and charming as she is, there are important qualities she lacks. It makes no difference at all which way the fingers point. Either way, you’ve got two women vying for your attention. And just as you’re finishing up with the test your wing enters the set saying, “Were you guys just doing The Alpha Test? So, which one’s the alpha?”

            You smile again, shaking your head. “I don’t think it would be a good idea to tell them.”
            There’s a scene in the movie “Troy” where Brad Pitt’s Achilles, talking to Briseis in his tent on the Trojan beach, answers her question about what he’s after by saying, “I want what all men want—I just want it more.” That’s Will. I remember hearing about him all the way back in first grade, even before meeting him. We attended a Catholic school and, being conscientious to a fault myself, I marveled at the stories of this guy who simply couldn’t be controlled by the teachers, who picked on everyone, even the kids who were considered the biggest bullies, who treated getting away with misbehavior as a game, who must’ve had no burdens of shyness or guilt like mine. When I heard the stories, I would laugh until I was red-faced and half-suffocated.

            We became friends in second grade because we had the same teacher and shared a passion for action movies. He was never the biggest or the most athletic kid in the school, but even back then he had a kind of relentlessness that set him apart. In third grade my parents went through a rocky divorce and I turned in on myself. I didn’t interact much with anyone until seventh grade, when puberty inspired me to begin an exercise regimen and start trying to talk to girls. Will fared much better in that latter endeavor than I did. But our friendship took hold again. That’s when I first started talking to Christine, who would become my first love, my first taste of the bitterness and danger inherent in romance.

            Either Will liked flouting the rules or the rules just didn’t mean much to him. When we were in high school and I was experiencing my first intellectual awakening, he was busy with more standard high-strung teenage boy pursuits like football, wrestling, and getting laid. The higher achieving students at St. Vincent’s got to take Latin for two years, which counted as one year’s credit at Bishop Dwenger. I hated this and all the other “smart kid classes” because my friends weren’t in them. But for some reason the teacher of my sophomore Latin class had us read large sections of The Iliad and The Odyssey, even though they were written in Greek, not Latin.

            I remember the day when our teacher, a short blond woman, rotund to put it politely, with long, tightly curled hair, tried to explain to the class that despite all the talk of gods and goddesses, what the people we were reading about believed and practiced wasn’t “real religion.” I’d heard that Will just a few days earlier had managed to frustrate this teacher so badly during study hall that she’d fled the room in tears. Now she was telling us that when Odysseus beseeched Athena to help him, what he was doing was not praying. The claim made me suspicious and got me to thinking.

            Will took the atheism I introduced him to over the coming months and ran with it. For me, the transition was much more difficult, as accepting that the whole religion thing was a bunch of bunk entailed realizing that I’d either been lied to by my parents and teachers or that they’d simply not put much effort into examining the beliefs they foisted on me so vigorously. I felt betrayed, adrift, and lonely. Will must’ve felt liberated—one less trifle holding him back.

            That’s how it has been between us. I’d be mired in regret and anger and confusion over some book I read, some idea I happened upon that upset my whole life, while Will would stand back from the turmoil, wait until I settled it for myself somehow, and then get the gist of the conclusions I’d come to. I’m pretty sure Will never read anything unless he was forced to. It only occurred to me years later that it was a bit odd for someone as bookish as I am to be such good friends with a guy who hates to read. We always seemed to complement each other. And Will did eventually find a topic he liked to read up on; he took in everything I gave him related to pick up as if it were a new type of gospel.

            Though I haven’t read either in many years, I remember that, at least for a teenage boy, the Bible suffers horrendously from any comparison with Homer’s epics. Even the most lurid and violent tales in the Old Testament are mired in a bizarre opacity. The characters have such gargantuan egos, and their god is so wrathful and bitchy, it’s hard for a modern Christian to get anything out of the reading beyond confusion regarding the message he’s supposed to be taking away. The message of all the tales seems simply to be, “Obedience to the invisible Alpha Bitch in the sky is a matter of utmost seriousness.” The Iliad has its outsized egos to be sure, but their battles with each other are easily comprehended, and often comic.

            The Odyssey was what really got me though. From the moment Odysseus tells the Cyclops his name is No One and flees to safety as the monster cries for help, shouting, “No One has stabbed out my eye,” you feel you’re in the presence of a man who can inspire you. The message of the Odyssey is that even if you’re outmatched in numbers or in brute strength, no matter how desperate your circumstances seem, you can prevail, you can deliver yourself through cleverness. Where boldness and sheer force of will fail, creativity can save you. What is an opener, like Alpha Cat, or what is any other gambit or routine, but a Trojan horse to get you past the gates separating the desert of sameness—night after night, looking without hope of approaching, or offering to buy drinks, or going up to a woman you’ve had your eye on only to have her disappear as the friend with lower standards swoops in to buttonhole you, hoping you’re drunk enough not to discern—from the citadel of new possibility, that most important of cultural sanctions for a young man, the approval, the desire of women.
            When I excused myself from the table at Louie’s to check on Will after he’d all but frogmarched Stacy outside, I expected to find him sitting next to her on the bench beside the entrance, talking about a completely separate topic. The dictum in the community for dealing with troublesome women is “Change her mood, not her mind.” If you try to point out the faulty logic behind a woman’s anger you’ll only manage to double it with each point you make. Whereas men insist on logic because they see it as a way to appeal to a disinterested perspective, a set of leveling principles like the rules of a sport, a way to ensure fair play, women tend to believe they possess some inner emotional compass whose power to lead them to answers supercedes logic. There are even some feminists who argue that logic is oppressive. So when confronted with an angry woman you avoid trying to reason with her at all costs and instead acknowledge that she’s upset, suggest you understand why, make a casual apology, reveal something personal as a token of reconciliation (have personal revelation stories at the ready), and then transition to a more playful topic. I’ve found it’s easier to follow this program when you don’t care about the topic of disagreement.

            What I found outside Louie’s that night was Will, pacing in the parking lot in front of the empty space where Stacy’s car had been parked. Since I’d waited several minutes before coming outside to check, I couldn’t be sure how long ago she’d left. Will had the sleeves of his thermal undershirt pushed past his elbows and the spring had yet to bring with it much warmth. The night was overcast and vaguely wet. But Will’s nervous energy and his gleaming intensity collapsed the atmosphere into a dense singularity that left a shimmering wake as he moved back and forth in the eerie light of the parking lot. “I don’t get it man,” he said over his shoulder before turning again. “I couldn’t let it go. We were having fun and I had to ruin it, even though I knew better.”

            I felt myself grinning. It’s at those moments when you know what’s good game and you just can’t go through with it that you show your true substance. And Will’s substance was the same as mine. We were brothers. You remember times when you make discoveries like this because they’re a tiny taste of what it feels like to be something other than utterly alone.

            Will and Stacy had tossed the ball back and forth a few more times before she refused to play anymore. I got the details in the car after we left Louie’s, on our own. He’d caught up to her in the glass foyer between the two sets of doors. “Wait, I didn’t mean anything personal by it—I didn’t know you had a history.”

            She whipped her face back toward him. “I have never in my life had the least desire to go on fucking Oprah.” She turned away again and pushed through the outside door. Will followed her as far as her car. After unlocking and opening her door, she turned and said, “You are a sick sadistic asshole. Who the hell are you to try and tell me I went through the most horrible experience anyone can go through because I thought it might get me on Oprah?”

            “Forget Oprah. My point was just that a lot of people prefer painful and scary to dull and boring. Listen, I don’t know anything about your—”

            “That’s right. You don’t fucking know anything about me.”

            She threw herself into her car, started it, and was backing out of the space before she’d even managed to pull the door closed, before Will could get out of the way. He said he almost had to dive over the hood of the car parked next to her.
            The Recovered Memory Movement fit well with the template left over in my mind from Catholicism. In place of the original sin of eating from the tree of knowledge, the new sin was being born with testicles. The task for any man interacting with the fairer sex was to redeem himself, to prove he wasn’t one to succumb to his nature. Learning that the process of uncovering repressed memories is in reality a ritualistic dance with a therapist or hypnotist—or even simply the author of the book telling you to delve deeper into your subconscious—that produces rather than uncovers impressions in the mind, that wasn’t what ultimately disabused me of the premises underlying this cultural program.

            One of the legacies of the Civil Rights and Women’s Movements is that Americans are obsessed with differences between groups in how awfully they are treated by those in power. This is especially the case among liberals and academics. But by the time I got to college my understanding of minorities and disadvantaged groups had already gone through three stages: there were no black kids at my grade school but I learned they were no different; then I went to a public high school for a year before transferring to Dwenger and I came away knowing that black kids were different but you just weren’t supposed to talk about it; and then I gradually started to become aware of some of the reasons behind that difference. The plight of women, on the other hand, was an unchanging narrative.

            If any two knowledgeable people discuss violent crime in America, they have to deal with the fact that an overwhelming majority of it involves African Americans. The implication can either be that there’s something about this group of people that makes them prone to criminality or that there’s something about the circumstances the average member of this group finds himself in that makes violence seem more acceptable. Most people are sensitive to the inflammatory nature of that first conclusion—it’s racist. Even if you’ve had an experience with violent crime, you don’t tell the story in a way that treats the criminal’s race as a race of monsters. Things are different, though, when people are talking about the crimes of one sex toward the other.

            If a young black boy grows up hearing white people tell stories about all the awful things his grownup counterparts routinely do, he can rightly be said to be experiencing an ugly form of racism. If a young boy of whatever race grows up hearing women tell stories about all the horrible things men do to women, what is he experiencing? There’s so much talk about getting beyond stigmas and bringing abuse to light. Nowhere is there even the paltriest acknowledgement that advertising the prevalence of abuse against women has implications about the nature of men. And if you try to defend the sex by suggesting the stories are exaggerated you can count on being accused of advocating abuse—and you can count on being treated as though you were an abuser yourself.

            Now I am, in fact, quite liberal: I believe blacks are convicted of more crimes because of income inequality and institutional racism, and I believe women should have the same opportunities as men. But once I came to understand religion as a type of participatory narrative, a fiction that people had real experiences of, it was only a matter of time before I applied that concept to gender politics. The first impetus for this second great disillusionment in my life was reading about all the families rent asunder, all the innocent men imprisoned, as a result of the Recovered Memory Movement. But what ultimately crystallized my skepticism was reading a report about a meta-analysis on the effects of childhood sexual abuse. There are women out there who to this day will bristle at the mention of this study, or even at the word meta-analysis, because they’ve talked to me about it. The study, I would learn some time later, was even brought up and roundly condemned on the floor of the United States Senate. How can you condemn research findings?
(continue reading)

Opening of "The Music Box Routine" continued.

(Read from beginnig)
            You enter a club with some friends. It’s dark and the music is loud. You’re comfortable here because you’ve been to this club before, and it’s not much different from the handful of other clubs you’ve been spending so much time in lately, since you became a part of the community, since you decided, as they like to say, to get this part of your life handled. One of your friends is telling an amusing story you’ve already heard in a booming voice. You throw your head back and laugh a good belly laugh. Anyone thin-slicing you and your friends entering the club will believe you are confident, sociable guys, and that you’re having fun. Gone are the days of coming through the doors on a mission, prowling the crowd to identify who among the gathered women appears worth risking the embarrassment of rejection, drinking for courage while keeping an eye on the one or two who’ve caught it, waiting for that crucial moment when she’s separated from her circle of friends, taking a breath, taking the march, and taking the plunge—then, all too often, going back to the bar to drown your shame.

            Moving through the club your focus is on your friends; they’re the most important people in the room; everyone else, even the best-looking woman in the place, is just a stranger. You can have this attitude because you have plenty of friends, know plenty of women, mingle with plenty who are just as beautiful as any you will meet, and, most importantly, it shows. Without scanning the room, you and your friends drift toward an empty table. But before reaching it, you find in your path a group consisting of three guys and one moderately attractive woman. Instead of lowering your eyes, mumbling, “Excuse me,” and sidling around them, you address them, over your shoulder because you’re still focused primarily on your friends, saying, “Hey guys…,” but before going on you say to your friends, “I’ll ask these guys.” Your friends continue on their way to the table, leaving you with the new group.

            “I wanna get your opinion on something,” is how you begin. “This will only take a sec because I gotta get back to my friends. We were just talking about cats and hierarchies. You guys know how dogs are descended from wolves, and in wolf packs there’s an alpha male—like a top guy who’s the leader?” You lift your hands, elbows out, to emphasize your words. “Well, do you think cats are like that too? Are they hierarchical?” By now you’re facing the guys, with your shoulders at an angle to the woman’s. But she’s the one whose face lights up first.

            “I think they are,” she says challengingly, as if she’s a little offended you’d have any doubt in the matter.

            “Whoa!” you say, feigning surprise. “I didn’t mean anything personal? I’m just talking about cats.” You’ve learned from all the previous times you asked the question that women tend to identify with cats (men are, after all, dogs) and that they tend to respond as if you had asked if cats are as good as dogs. But you only turn toward her briefly for this reproach before turning back to the guys. “Check this out. I have this ex girlfriend and we have kind of an ongoing discussion about her two cats. See, one of them is a little bigger and she noticed that this one always eats first when she feeds them. So she’s like, ‘He’s the alpha cat.’ But I’m like, ‘Aren’t domestic cats descended from solitary wild cats in Africa? And if they’re solitary, they don’t have evolved mechanisms for living in groups, like a sense of hierarchy.’” All of the sudden you’re on the savanna, hunting, keeping women in their place but not really—and the guys are eating it up. They start grinning and excitedly telling you about this or that Discovery Channel show, or some remarkable cat they had as a kid.

            You lead the discussion for a few minutes, encouraging the guys, gently teasing the woman when she chimes in, and then you turn saying, “Well, thanks guys. I’m gonna go find my friends,” leaving them ostensibly disappointed. You’ll be able to return to that group later if you want to. There’s still a whole club to check out. That was just a warm-up set.
            That’s how we would begin a typical night back then. Now I know a lot of people would like to read a story about how the cad gets his comeuppance, but that’s not really what this is. If anything I think of our winging as an example of how a culture of cooperation can bring out the best in people. Think of what usually happens when you have a group of guys who are supposed to be good friends and you throw a beautiful woman in the mix. It’s sad. But because with Will and me it was already established that we were there to help each other, and we taught ourselves to see even the most beautiful women as strangers, whereas we were each other’s most reliable allies, we never competed for the same woman. Whenever one of us entered the other’s set, the first man in would say, “This is the good one; this is the bad one.” You never game the bad one. (“I only talk to good girls” is a good follow-up.) That’s why we almost always had a good time—and that’s why the women almost always had a good time.

            But you have a culture which extols the virtue of every man for himself—and every woman for herself—and things don’t turn out so well. It’s scary how no one seems to realize how corrosive this conservative idea of selfishness as the highest principle is. Take away the cultural heritage that tells us we do best when we cooperate, when we check our selfish impulses for the greater good, and humans are basically apes, savage and cruel. You can’t have a civilization based on selfishness. You can’t even have a relationship based on selfishness. And that’s probably what Will’s problem is: for whatever reason, no matter how brilliantly he cooperates with me and his other guy friends, he doesn’t see women as reliable teammates. He doesn’t trust them. And it’s pretty damn easy to find women who believe you should always take care of yourself first.
            I can’t say the scene where we met Stacy stands out in my mind; it has blurred in with countless others. I don’t really even remember when Will and Stacy first started talking about childhood sexual abuse, even though it must’ve been surreal for me to witness since Will’s knowledge of the topic came solely from his conversations with me. The fact is, I had similar discussions with several women around that time, and I was present several times when Will had them. My interest in the topic was both intellectual and personal: I began my studies of the behavioral sciences in the wake of a confrontation between the old guard Freudians and the upstart cognitive neuroscientists, which culminated in the prior getting thoroughly trounced by the latter, exposing the central idea of repressed trauma as a fictional bogy man; and my first love had an abuse history, one that naturally aroused my sympathy, sympathy she leveraged to take awful advantage of me.

            “It’s the strangest thing,” Will would’ve said, “how women we’ve just met will make it a point to let us know about their abuse. And look around, you know, it’s all over Oprah and Dr. Phil and that other dude on MTV. Starting about twenty years ago, it became a cottage industry, uncovering repressed memories and helping survivors cope.”

            Picture Will: six foot one and square-jawed with salon-spiked hair, wardrobe courtesy of Von Maur, The Gap, and Goodwill—how you’re dressed is really the first thing you say to someone you’re just meeting. The black thermal undershirt and slightly too small red t-shirt said, “It is only natural for me to stand out.” The black leather cuff on his left wrist and the studded bracelet on his right said, “How I put myself together is one of the ways I express myself—and there’s a lot to express.” The boots, the perfectly fitted jeans, the pendant necklace, the rings: “I’m fun and outgoing,” and “You’ll have no difficulty picking me out of a crowd.” People often asked if Will and I were in a band. He would have been lead vocals, with me on bass—and, I suppose, penning the lyrics.

            Everything about Will is screaming “PERFORMER” to these women, and they must have him pegged as a bar guy, albeit an incomparably intriguing and impossibly fun bar guy. Then we get to a bounce location—in this case it was Louie’s, an all-night diner—and he starts waxing intellectual over pancakes.

            “But check this out—all these therapists are talking about repressed memories and all the havoc they can wreak with the human psyche, and meanwhile these research psychologists are trying to find even a shred of evidence that repression is even a real thing. And they keep coming up dry. Now you’re probably thinking, what do these stuffy lab guys know? But they come up with some ingenious ways to test this shit. For one, they realize there are plenty of people everyone knows have survived traumatic experiences they can go talk to. So you go ask people who lived through the Holocaust if they remember the horrible stuff they went through. They’ll tell you the more horrible the experience the better they remember.”

            Even though at this stage, when we’ve been hanging with the women for a few hours, we have some leeway regarding what we talk about—the important thing is simply to have a surfeit of things to talk about—bringing up repression and abuse is bad game. We can go on with it for a while, and it gets women animated, believe me, but then we have to recover by shifting to lighter fare. I only ever brought it up in set when I wanted to test a woman, to see how she responded when I brought her into weedier terrain. It surprised the hell out of me when Will busted it out the first time.

            “And they did something that—it just blows my mind. It’s brilliant. These researchers comb through novels and memoirs and every historical text they can get their hands on, looking for any evidence of repression recorded before Freud—or actually they guys he got it from—came up with the idea. And—wait for it—nada. So they offer a prize to anyone who can find any earlier reference. So far the prize is unclaimed. It’s almost like alien abductions, you know, you never hear a peep about it, and then the idea gradually becomes more prominent in the culture. Next thing you know, people are having real experiences of it and totally freaking out. It’s like once you have the script you can do this thorough job of mind-fucking yourself.”

            Actually discussing the possibility that some people really have been abducted by aliens is a far more customary practice for pick up guys. But Will was up to something I began to understand only after he’d performed this “routine” several times. Anyway, once you challenge the concept of repression, you’re left with the question of why so many people not only accept the idea but why anyone would ever want to believe they themselves had experienced it. Isn’t the whole point that something awful happened?

            “Well,” Will would continue, “just think of how people would respond if you told them you’d been abducted by aliens. Of course, everyone’s first response is, you know, ‘Bullshit.’ But if you can convince them it’s true, well, then you’ve got them hooked. You’ve just brought them into a whole different world, and a much more expansive one. You’re like the most interesting person they’ve ever met. Just think of all the people out there who would kill their own mother to be on Oprah.”

            This is the point where the ramifications begin to set in. If the women are participating in the discussion as if they’re completely unfazed, you know they don’t have a history. This happened to us only once. If they’re sitting in that “cocoon of silence,” only opening their mouths to offer lame rebuttals in near whispers, you know they do. This is most of them. If the woman is glaring at you like she wants to tear your face off one minute, holding her hand over her mouth and crying the next, and then shouting her objections so loud you have to take the discussion outside, well, then she has a history—and her name is Stacy.
(Continue Reading)

From the Opening of "The Music Box Routine": My Soon-to-be-Completed Novel

            “There’s a rule for the whole place. No Dogs. Where the hell would they go? There are little scraps of yard here and there. If people had dogs, the yards would fill up with shit in a couple hours. There’s the neighborhood down the road—it could be coming from there. The barking. But I swear it’s closer than that. Do people let their dogs run loose in the cemetery across the street?”

            I had anticipated that Will would go through a period of intense guilt after what he’d done to Stacy—after what we’d done. So, I thought, this is the form it will take, a dog barking so incessantly it keeps him awake at all hours. His eyes were bloodshot and frantically darting around his apartment. “I went to Walmart and bought a fucking pellet gun so I can shoot the damn thing. But I’ve never even seen it. And I’m like, ‘What the hell am I doing? I love dogs. I can’t shoot the dog because his owners are fucking retarded.’ I guess I should shoot the owners.”

            I was sitting on his couch watching him move back and forth between the two windows overlooking the parking lot. “Where the hell is the damn thing? I swear if you wait a while, we’ll hear it.” I’d been over to Will’s apartment three times in the last two days. I’d never heard a dog barking. “And then there’re all the cats. They must hang out around the dumpster out back. Goddamn. Have you ever heard the sounds cats make when they’re defending their territory?”

            “I don’t think that’s what you’re hearing.”
            He turned and glared at me as if he’d forgotten I was even there, or as if he was afraid I was about to deliver more bad news. “What do you mean?”

           “Cats make terrible sounds when they’re mating. The females have a membrane sealing off their uterus. The males actually have spines on their dicks so they can tear through it.”

            His face twisted into a dual expression of fear and disgust. “Jesus Christ man, where the fuck do you learn this stuff?” I’d learned it from Laura. But I didn’t tell him that. I just sat there in silence. It occurred to me that if something bad happened to him, if he suffered some misfortune or injury that could be chalked up to karma, he’d feel better; he wouldn’t have to go around waiting for it to happen. Was there some way I could punish him? Better it be at my hands, in my control, than in his.
            If you had asked me a year before it all went down—or a few months even—I would have told you I didn’t have it in me. By the time I got the call from Will, though, I’d been wracking my brain for weeks trying to come up with a way to deal with Stacy, to get her to finally leave him alone. Will’s been my closest friend since he was Billy and we were both in second grade. I knew he was in trouble. I knew things had gone way beyond the point where you have everyone sit down together and talk it out like rational adults. I was scared for him. Someday one of your best friends is going to ask you to do something and you’re going to have a decision to make. The way I did it was to tell myself it was necessary, that it had come to this, and then I did my best not to give it another moment’s thought. I just did what my friend asked me to do.

            “Is it possible to change the date on a package I mail,” was what he asked me first, “so that it says I mailed it yesterday—or two or three days ago?”

            My mind was pulled in all directions, toward figuring out what had him so spooked—I’d never heard that sound in his voice, like someone was pinching his neck as he spoke—toward coming up with some sort of advice or word of encouragement, toward all the practical considerations like when would it be time to involve the police, and now toward how I could hack the scanner at work to print a label with the wrong date.

            “I’m not completely sure,” I told him, “but there are a few things I can try. And if they don’t work I can ask Max if he knows a way to do it. What’s going on Will?”

            “I’m going to Indie to get something for Stacy. I’ll be by your apartment tonight. I need to have it delivered tomorrow and say clearly on it somewhere that I mailed it yesterday or two days ago.” He went silent after saying this, but I sensed he was wrestling with whether he should tell me more, so I didn’t come out with all the questions I had.

          Finally I said, “It’s not a bomb is it?”

          “Not the kind you’re thinking of. But it is something that might end this whole thing. Can you do it?”

           “Bring it tonight when you get back and I’ll do my best.”

            I heard the sounds of the highway over the rise separating it from his apartment building. He has to go out on his balcony to get any bars on his phone so that highway is always yawning and roaring in the background when I talk to him. He must’ve called from his apartment. When I found out what Stacy had done, the mystery of why Will sounded like he did was cleared up—I started marveling instead at how he sounded as calm as he did. He must’ve called me just after it happened.
            Will met Stacy at what turned out to be the peak of our youthful carousing. We were going out to one of our favorite four or five bars two or three nights a week, and we nearly invariably ended up at one of three all-night cafes with a group of women we’d just met. I will probably still mine that swath of time for happy memories when I’m an old man—then again, in light of what’s been happening, I might not. You could divide Will’s and my clubbing phase into two very dissimilar periods. In the first, we did what young men traditionally do: go out, get excessively drunk, stumble around haphazardly, and on occasion come across women who are single and enjoying the same phase of their lives. The second came after a guy I knew from college started researching what he initially believed was a small online community of guys whose members spanned all the big cities in the country.

            Anton had been a journalism major and we had met in an upper level anthropology course. Though I had majored in anthropology, we both played around with the idea of science writing as a possible career and we kept in touch after graduating, exchanging articles and getting practice pitching ideas to each other. The group of guys he discovered online was trying to systematize the process of meeting a woman and starting a relationship with her. They all went out, plied their methods, and reported successes and failures on their posts. What emerged was a surprisingly regular sequence, and surprisingly effective techniques for helping it along. I had the same initial response to hearing about all this as you’re probably having now: first, they’re probably exaggerating their successes because it can’t possibly work as well as they’re making out; second, it must be based on deception—a series of tricks—so it’s immoral; and third, there’s just something outlandishly cynical about trying to master the recipe for a phenomenon most people delight in for its spontaneity. But it’s nothing like what you might think at first.