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Photograph by Felipe Buitrago

Working Overtime on the Seduction Line

Wannabe Romeos are paying thousands to learn how Neuro-Linguistic Programming techniques can make them the ultimate pickup artists. Not bad for a theory still haunted by its weird, checkered past.

By Bill Forman

FEW phenomena have embodied the distinction "only in California" quite so profoundly as Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP), a phenomenon which—like est, Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds and the Twinkie Defense—was formulated right in our own backyard. In the name of NLP, people have been known to walk on hot coals, educate Central Intelligence Agency spooks and, in at least one instance, tie a woman to a burning crucifix.

Along the way, eclectic strains of NLP have spread from its birthplace in Santa Cruz across the globe in a kind of hypnotherapeutic diaspora, as originators, acolytes and the occasional con artist spread its "technologies" through workshops and seminars. But these days, the place you're most likely to stumble into an NLP encounter, especially if you're a woman, is your local bar.

Before we get into all that, though, let's take a moment to engage in a fun little experiment. Do you like experiments? Great, then just lean back, relax and, for a moment, imagine yourself experiencing a feeling of warmth and euphoria. Maybe it's something you felt in the past or would like to experience in the future; maybe it's something you've only dreamt about—whatever it is, just go with that feeling and begin to experience a really deep connection ... as if everything you could ever want to feel was just flowing through you, and coming to fruition ... in a really special place ... that touches you ... deep down inside ...

Are we there yet? Good. Now imagine that, at the exact moment you're imagining this incredible feeling, you're stuck in some a crowded bar with, let's say, an especially unattractive person who just happens to be stroking your wrist in an attempt to "anchor" that special feeling in so that it can be accessed in the future simply by repeating the same gesture.

Congratulations, you've just been sarged.

More than that, you've connected with a living, breathing and, yes, sarging denizen of a lucrative pickup industry that uses Neuro-Linguistic Programming to help even the ugliest ducklings believe that they too can transform themselves into the cock of the walk. As a result, for upward of $1,000 each, exceedingly unsatisfied males from college to midlife-crisis age are descending en masse upon bars and nightclubs to try out their hypnotically charged pickup lines, all in the company of highly paid mentors, who demonstrate, observe and correct them on proper technique.

The Game

Make you a little nervous? Well, if it's any consolation, pickup artists are starting to get nervous too, now that their culture has begun to go mainstream. What was once a fairly underground movement, existing primarily through Internet message boards, seminars and nightclub expeditions, ended up surfacing in a big way this past fall with the publication of Neil Strauss' The Game: Penetrating the Secret Society of Pickup Artists. A former New York Times pop critic who penned celebrity bios for geek icon Marilyn Manson and porn star Jenna Jameson, Strauss tells how, after interviewing a particularly charismatic albeit manic-depressive pickup artist named Mystery, the author became so immersed in the scene that he ended up undergoing his own radical transformation.

Adopting the name Style, Strauss shaves his head and spends at least one evening enjoying the benefits of being mistaken for Moby. He dons garish jewelry and footwear from New Rock, the goth-obsessed Spanish company whose platform heels make aspiring pickup artists look like a cross between Arnold Schwarzenegger and Peewee Herman. And, over the course of the book, he goes from being Mystery's understudy to his full-on partner in a burgeoning cult-slash-seduction-seminar enterprise based out of an extravagant mansion perched above Sunset Boulevard, where Bacchanalian behavior and celebrity house guests like Courtney Love add to the decadent mystique.

While Style and Mystery have become the guiding lights for a new wave of pickup artists, Strauss is quick to credit Ross Jeffries as the man who "built the seduction community almost single-handedly." Jeffries was a failed screenwriter who went on to use his own lack of natural charisma to prove his techniques really will work for anyone. More important for our purposes, Jeffries is also reputed to be the first pickup artist to incorporate Neuro-Linguistic Programming into the, um, art of seduction. And it was also Jeffries who gave the pickup world the now ubiquitous term "sarging," which means going out and trying to pick up women, and was inspired by Jeffries' cat Sarge for reasons perhaps best left to the imagination.

"Jeffries drifted between paralegal jobs, lonely and girlfriendless," writes Strauss in The Game. "That all changed when he was in the self-help section of a bookstore and his hand, he claims, involuntarily reached out and grabbed a book. That tome was Frogs Into Princes, the classic book on NLP by John Grinder and Richard Banlder."

Falling under the spell of NLP's co-creators, Jeffries went on to "devour every book on the subject he could find" until he finally got lucky by "using NLP to end a long streak of involuntary chastity by seducing a woman who'd applied for a job in the law office where he worked."

From these glorious and heartwarming beginnings sprang a whole cottage industry. Jeffries started out with the self-published classic, How to Get the Women You Desire Into Bed: A Down and Dirty Guide to Dating and Seduction for the Man Who's Fed Up With Being Mr. Nice Guy. Articles in men's magazines followed. But it was the marketing power of the Internet—along with his decidedly more streamlined branding of Speed Seduction—that enabled Jeffries to become the self-proclaimed "guru of g—" (we'll leave you to figure that one out for yourself, if you're so inclined).

Ever the class act, Jeffries made a bargain to mentor Strauss: In exchange for the writer taking him along to Hollywood celebrity parties, Ross would bestow his wisdom and let him attending seminars for free. Strauss reneged on the deal soon after Jeffries spent much of the first party "crawling on all fours behind Carmen Elektra, pretending to be a dog sniffing her ass."

If I Had a Hammer

"Unfortunately I don't have any personal pickup stories to tell you," laughs Terry McClendon, the author of Wild Days: NLP 1972 to 1981, which chronicles his early years hanging with NLP inventors Grinder and Bandler in Santa Cruz. "We did enjoy being with the ladies in those days. But for me, once you've learned NLP and it becomes part of your psyche, it's just an extension of your personality and there isn't any distinction between 'I'm Terry McClendon' or 'I'm Terry McClendon using NLP to pick somebody up.' I mean, I'm sure that the patterns—the anchoring, the language patterns, the rapport—you know, I don't doubt that I have used that in a lot of contexts over the years. But as far as going, 'OK, let's see, I'm gonna do this technique,' it really doesn't come into it. In fact, if you go into a communication or whatever—whether it's in business, education or trying to pick somebody up at the local pub—with the conscious intention of doing something using NLP, I think you would come across as a bit contrived."

That hasn't stopped the pickup seminar industry from growing at warp speed. "I was talking to a guy in Melbourne last year, and he went to one of these NLP sarging workshops, I think they call them," says McClelland, who left Santa Cruz for Australia, where he's pretty much cornered the Antipodean NLP market. "He said you reach over and touch your first date on the wrist, and he said, you know, have you ever met somebody and you knew just at that moment that you were just completely in love for the first time? And just using it as an anchor. So I mean, I'm aware that people use NLP in that context."

Robert Dilts, another Bandler and Grinder associate who continues to teach NLP from his office in Scotts Valley and at UCSC summer sessions, dismisses such debased uses of NLP. "These are patterns and processes that I'm sure pickup artists since the beginning of time have been using," he says, adding that, by being taught NLP, people become more aware of such processes and, like a computer with a virus filter, become more immune to such manipulations.

"Everything has its shadow side, right?" says Dilts, noting that legitimate NLP teachers understand that it's a powerful tool that should be used with wisdom. When you sell a car to someone, he says, you can't control what they do it with afterward. "It's the same thing with any tool," says Dilts. "You take a hammer, right? And you can build a house for somebody, or you can hit them on the head with it."

Into the Purple Wheelchair

If NLP culture seems a bit strange, it's worth bearing in mind that NLP's origins weren't all that ordinary either. Forged in the shadows of the University of California's newly minted Santa Cruz campus, NLP was masterminded by alumni Grinder and Bandler under the tutelage of Gregory Bateson, a brilliant if difficult thinker whose scientific theories about thought processes determining reality inspired the two renegade scholars to think well outside the conditioned brain box.

For Dilts, one of Grinder and Bandler's most attractive core concepts was that of modeling, in which they claimed the NLP practitioner could forgo the traditional therapist's decades of study and practice simply by using linguistic and other techniques to observe and model a particular therapist's present behavior. Bandler was said to be expert at mimicking the voice and mannerisms of his influences, including family therapist Virginia Satir. But on occasion, a member of the nascent NLP movement would take modeling a bit too far.

"There's a form of modeling that's used a lot in NLP that involves what we call second position," explains Dilts, "which means that you basically just put yourself in the shoes of somebody else and take on their characteristics. And you learn. You start to think like they think, you act like that, you know, you begin to believe what they believe. It's a commitment, it's a form of learning by projecting yourself into somebody else."

Dilts remembers a period where fellow Grinder and Bandler protégé Stephen Gilligan took modeling to its ostensibly logical conclusion by confining himself to a purple wheelchair in order to emulate hypnotherapist Milton Erickson.

"That's what the whole business about Stephen being in a wheelchair was," says Dilts, who recently taught workshops in Florence and London with Gilligan. "He really wanted to totally commit to that, to see if he could really get the essence of what Erickson did, and the result was actually quite powerful. I mean, Stephen is a great psychotherapist as well."

So how long did this go on?

"Well, I think he did that for several weeks, until Erickson finally told him to stop it," says Dilts.

The elderly hypnotherapist was reportedly concerned that the young student would end up manifesting psychosomatic symptoms.

"The challenge with that particular form of learning is that it's a little bit like being a sponge, you pick up the dirt along with the water, there's no filtering."

"Terry can tell you more about the, um, interesting aspects of those early days," says Dilts, who found his way into Bandler and Grinder's inner circle a bit later than McClelland. "We used to say that we attended the academy of space, because we were all space cadets. A lot of people doing a lot of exploration."

Wild Child: Terry McClelland wrote 'Wild Days: NLP 1972 to 1981.'

The Crucifixion

Which brings us, of course, to the aforementioned flaming crucifixion. "That happened! That really happened," laughs McClelland. "I tell you what, those guys made up some really bizarre presents."

As McClelland recalls in Wild Days, it was around Christmas of 1974 that Bandler pursued the strategy of bestowing decidedly strange, purportedly instructional holiday offerings on his followers: "Richard was in the middle of the room and he would say, 'Who would like to have their gifts first?' Devra would always like to get hers first. She suggested she get her present to begin with and was very happy and excited."

McClelland recounts how Devra was sent from the room and 10 people, including him, were chosen to serve as actors and actresses.

"We were all given white sheets to wear and candles to hold and we walked out to the side deck of the house and were we surprised!" writes McClelland. "Because on that deck was an 8-foot-tall cross like the one that Jesus was crucified on."

And, yes, it does get worse. According to McClelland, "Devra was led out blindfolded and was then tied onto the cross," which was then set ablaze at the bottom with lighter fluid. "Devra at the time began to smell smoke and was wondering what was going on," writes McClelland. "Richard asked her if she would like to have her gift now. She said she would and so Richard took her blindfold off and gave her a knife which she could then use to cut herself off the cross."

McClelland figures Devra never forgave Bandler, in spite of a subsequent attempt to explain "how she could learn from the experience."

"These days people probably think it was absolutely nuts," says McClelland, when asked what drugs might have inspired such behavior. "But, in those days, you know, in the mid-'70s, it was just, the experimentation and all that stuff, it was just commonplace. People thought it was really cool, wow, this is neat. It didn't seem really bizarre, like I guess if you look back at it now. Or if you think of anybody doing something like that today, they'd probably commit him to a nuthouse or arrest him for God knows what, health and safety rules or something like that."

NLP Gone Wrong

As it turns out, more than a decade later, Bandler did get himself arrested and charged with the murder of his bookkeeper, who was also running a call-girl operation on the side. Bandler had plunged headlong into cocaine addiction, and only he and his drug dealer (who was also the victim's boyfriend) were present in her house when the shooting took place. In what appears to be a textbook case of modeling on someone's part, each told virtually the same story, but cast the other in the role of murderer. Bandler was acquitted by a jury that could not figure out who, beyond a reasonable doubt, was the guilty party.

The murder trial did little to enhance the reputation of NLP. Grinder, who had stopped working with Bandler years earlier, stayed in Santa Cruz, which serves as home base for a seemingly relentless schedule of international speaking engagements. Bandler left town after the trial but has also resurfaced on the NLP lecture circuit. While both are still acknowledged as the founders of NLP, their fame has been eclipsed, to some degree, by followers like late-night infomercial guru Tony Robbins, the guy who hypnotizes Jack Black in Shallow Hal.

"The story behind that," says Dilts, "is that Tony was like an encyclopedia salesman or something and he got really interested in NLP. So he went to John Grinder and asked him what he should do. And John talked about modeling and said, look, my suggestion is that you find something that is unusual in our culture but is a natural part of another culture, model it and bring it into this culture. So Tony went out and he did fire-walking. And he used the phenomenon as a way to inspire people from a motivational perspective. So Tony today is a very successful person and coaches a lot of well-known people and also does big, big seminars around the world and owns an island in Fiji or something. But it all started from that one piece of advice by John Grinder."

And where—or if—it will all end is anyone's guess.

The Death of Sargy J. Cat

On Jan. 27, Ross Jeffries sent out the following message to all subscribers on his email list:

"Dear Speed Seduction(R) Student,

"It is my sad duty to inform you of the passing of our beloved Speed Seduction (R) mascot, Sargy J. Cat.

"To those of you new to SS, the term "sarging," which means to use Speed Seduction® with women, was coined from the name of my Russian Blue kitty, Sargeant, aka Sargy.

"Sargy had not lived with me for some years, choosing instead a different human to own, but I saw him occasionally. I ran into his current human today at Starbucks and she informed me he had passed on in July from complications due to Feline HIV. (Speculation is that Sarge got into a fight—which he frequently did when he lived with me—and that he got infected from a bite from an infected cat.)

"Sargy was not the brightest kitty in the litter (to say the least) but he was beautiful and mean, as a male cat should be.

"I'm sure he's crossed the rainbow bridge to a better place, with plenty of 3 legged-mice, flightless pigeons, and loads of lizards to torture (his favorite pastime).

"Rest In Peace, dear grey-pawed friend,
"A very sad RJ"

It was a marked departure from Jeffries' more typical daily emails, which bear such subject headers as: How to Get Her Steaming Hot Using the "Three Joke Stack," the perennial favorite I Laughed When the Blonde Bitch Flipped Me the Bird! and last Friday's offering, She Left Her Boots and Bondage Collar On.

In Sargy's honor, Jeffries pointed out that he was even refraining from the extensive product pitches which normally accompany his emails. This apparently unprecedented gesture of selflessness only went so far, however, as Jeffries couldn't close without at least drawing attention to the link for his product webpage—for those who cannot wait even a single day longer to undergo their transformation.

But the strangest Internet occurrence arising from this story comes, appropriately enough, from Richard Bandler. "Bandler TV" features an animated caricature of a ponytailed, pear-shaped Bandler who talks to you in a raspy voice about the joys of London and Florida. With his arms lurching about and his eyes rolling around in what appears to be an inside joke (one NLP techniques involves reading people's eye movements), the cartoon Bandler tells you what lovely attractions lie waiting in these NLP seminar cities. "You can talk to Mickey Mouse and then you can come back and go into trances," enthuses Bandler-Toon, "and create rides that are better than any you'll find in any theme park."

It's strange to see this Bandler effigy standing in for the Orlando Chamber of Commerce. Sure, it's been decades since he's hosted a flaming crucifixion or been through a murder trial, even longer since he started encouraging followers to reinvent their own history if they don't like the one they're given. But still, there's something creepy about the whole thing, especially when the smiling, gesticulating cartoon intones a line that seems oddly resonant: "This is a chance for me to do whatever I want, however I want."

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From the February 8-14, 2006 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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