Revisiting the Book That Inspired Pickup Artists, Cult Leaders–and Was Linked to a Murder

Revisiting the Book That Inspired Pickup Artists, Cult Leaders–and Was Linked to a Murder

The psychedelic cover of Frogs into Princes: Neuro Linguistic Programming isn’t exactly typical of my bookshelf: It features an oversize frog, a potion bottle, a gilded torch, and an enchantress wearing flowing, celestial fabrics. On the back, there is a dragon. The book, written by Richard Bandler and John Grinder in 1979, details their fringe, pseudoscientific theory of neuro-linguistic programming (NLP), a framework for purportedly influencing behavior using everything from touch to tone to hand movements. They write about hypnosis, the secret codes of human eye movements, and curing phobias and physical ailment in just minutes. They reject science and statistics, put “truth” in scare-quotes, and, above all, emphasize the ability to get your way using their tools. “It will get you almost everything,” Bandler and Grinder write, presenting themselves as spell-casters, magicians of humanity. It is the urtext of pickup artistry.

The pickup artist, or PUA, scene exploded in the mid-2000s with a pack of flashily dressed men with nicknames like J-Dog and Matador. They charged exorbitant amounts for “seduction” workshops, rated women on a one-to-10 scale, and talked about blasting through their partners’ “last minute resistance” to sex. Mystery, a “seduction” guru with a signature fluffy top hat and a method for subtly insulting (or “negging”) women into bed, had a VH1 reality-TV show. The journalist Neil Strauss hit the New York Times bestseller list with The Game: Penetrating the Secret Society of Pickup Artists, which detailed his “penetrating” investigation of PUA “secrets.” I recently found myself revisiting Strauss’s book and there I read about how Frogs into Princes was inspirational to Ross Jeffries, the so-called “godfather” of pickup, and how Strauss himself read the book as a foundational text in his PUA journey. A few days later, this book with a trippy drawing of an amphibian was sitting on my doorstep.

The Game credits the book with changing “godfather” Jeffries from an “angry,” “girlfriendless” 20-something into a supposedly master seducer and author of How to Get the Women You Desire into Bed. As Strauss wrote in a truly jaw-dropping pair of sentences: “One of [Jeffries’] heroes had always been the Green Lantern, who was endowed with a magic ring able to bring the desires of his will and imagination to life.” He continued: “After 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, Ross Jeffries believed he had found that ring. […] The power and control that had eluded him his whole life was finally his.”

Those three lines are about as succinct a representation of pickup artistry as I could ever imagine, but they also specifically tap into the themes of Frogs into Princes, a book that, despite its name and influence, does not explicitly deal with “seduction.” It does, however, speak of “magic” and the ability to control other human beings. The entire text is a transcript of a multi-day NLP workshop for therapists, hosted by Bandler and Grinder.

The pair first met years earlier at the University of California, Santa Cruz, as a psychology student and linguistics professor respectively. Together, they developed NLP as a therapeutic treatment, one that has since been roundly criticized for its lack of evidence, and research has cast dramatic doubt on its biggest claims. As one researcher bluntly put it in 2015, “there is still no credible theoretical basis for NLP.” Yet NLP’s influence expanded in the decades after its founding, and well beyond its original therapeutic intent. Since its publication, the book has been linked not only to pickup artistry and its associated ills, but also a murder, a sex cult, and a self-help guru accused of sexual harassment. Retrospectively reading Frogs into Princes, there is little about those connections that surprise.

The aim of the original workshop that became Frogs into Princes was to teach therapists how to apply Bandler and Grinder’s theories to the treatment of everything from alcoholism to a fear of heights. This pseudo-clinical focus might seem a far cry from bringing a woman home from a bar, except that their fundamental premise of systematically manipulating people into their desired reaction perfectly tracks to pickup artistry: try and try again, until you get your way. The players are different, therapist and patient versus PUA and target, but the basic ethos is the same.

Early on in the transcribed workshop, the question of ethics is brought up by Bandler and Grinder. (It’s often unclear which of them is talking, so I’ll quote them jointly.) They are speaking with the audience about observing therapists in action and then asking them about the motivation behind each of their in-session maneuvers, whether shifting their tone or reaching out to touch a patient. Therapists, they say, have no idea what outcome they are aiming for and, in fact, are horrified at the idea of having one in mind. “They claimed that if they did specific things to get specific outcomes that would be something bad, calling manipulating,” they told the audience. The pair retort: “We call ourselves modelers.” Specifically, they mean modelers of human behavior.

The aim of that modeling is to manipulate human behavior. The first-hand clinical examples Bandler and Grinder give are spectacularly awful: for example, visiting a psychiatric institution and stomping on a catatonic woman’s foot in order to get a reaction. They speak, admiringly, of another therapist “willing to do anything to get contact and rapport,” who began gradually pulling hairs out of a catatonic woman’s leg, going higher and higher with each, until she purportedly yelled, “Get your hands off me!” They recall witnessing a therapist implanting false, disturbing childhood memories into the mind of a suicidal patient to cure her. They speak of, essentially, hypnotizing a man experiencing unwanted attraction to men, purportedly leading him from gay to straight (this kind of “conversion” or “reparative” therapy has been shown to be traumatic and abusive, not to mention ineffective).

Given these disturbing examples, it was no great shock when I came across the first instance of a PUA term adopted from their work: reframing. They define reframing as “a specific way of contacting the portion or part—for lack of a better word—of the person that is causing a certain behavior to occur, or that is preventing a certain other behavior from occurring.” In The Game, reframing is defined as a way “to alter the context through which someone sees an idea or situation; to change the meaning a person attributes to an idea or situation.” As Strauss writes, “Whoever’s frame—or subjective reality—is the strongest tends to dominate and interaction,” and that, of course, is the pickup artist’s aim.

During the workshop, Bandler and Grinder detail the process of reframing before concluding: “You continue cycling through this process until you have integrated all objections.” It is impossible to read those words and not think of the PUA concept of “last-minute resistance,” when a woman suddenly decides against a physical interaction that was just about underway. “Back up one or two steps, then continue,” writes Strauss. “Wash, rinse, repeat. It’s not real. It’s just ASD—anti-slut defense. She doesn’t want you to think she’s easy.” PUAs frame this as helping women to overcome societal restrictions on sexual behavior. Bandler and Grinder speak of “helping [people] find new choices in behavior.”

There’s another PUA term that looms large in Frogs into Princes: anchoring, in which a physical touch or gesture can be allegedly linked with a particular feeling. The concept is responsible for one of the most memorable scenes in The Game (aside from the moment where Strauss allegedly fucks a woman while writing his book: “I think she’s about to come. [sic] Sh e is coming allksd;Good for her.”). Strauss describes watching Jeffries try to manipulate a waitress into finding him attractive. Jeffries has her describe what she feels when attracted to someone, all while slowing his voice and taking his hand, “palm up, in front of his stomach,” and “slowly raising [it] to the level of his heart.” A bizarre back and forth ensues during which the waitress turns “beet red”—the reader is meant to assume she’s feeling hot and bothered for him—then Jeffries takes a sugar pack off the table and instructs the waitress to “take all those good feelings you’re having right now… and put them into this pack of sugar,” which he hands over to her. A fellow pickup artist tells Strauss: “That… is condiment anchoring. After he’s gone, the sugar pack will remind her of the positive emotions she felt with him.”

In Frogs into Princes, Bandler and Grinder offer a much less dramatic demonstration with the help of an audience volunteer. While asking her to recall an unpleasant memory, one of them touches her right shoulder. While asking her to imagine a resource that might have helped her “have had a wholly differ experience back then,” he touches her left shoulder. The theory is that these particular physical touches have been anchored to the feelings she was experiencing at the time, and that they can subsequently trigger those same feelings. They then proceed to show the audience how the volunteer purportedly has a disparate physical response to each of these touches. During one of these demonstrations, they say to the volunteer, “Now who tightened the muscles around your mouth? Whose free will do you believe in? Free will is a funny phrase.” They call this a “kinesthetic anchor” before announcing: “It will get you almost everything.” The concept of anchoring derives from Pavlovian conditioning (i.e. ring the bell, make the dog’s mouth water), but research has cast doubt on the validity of NLP’s use.

One of the scenes in Frogs Into Princes that most foreshadows NLP’s later application comes when a woman in the audience offers an interjection. Bandler and Grinder had been speaking of their concept of “uptime,” in which “we’re completely in sensory experience and have no consciousness at all” and “keep changing our behavior until you respond the way we want you to.” The woman says: “OK. I can see how that would work in therapy, being a therapist. But in an intimate relationship it seems like being in uptime wouldn’t be as intimate.” Bandler and Grinder respond: “Oh, I disagree. I think it would be much more intimate that way.” They add that intimacy is created by eliciting exact responses: “If I’m in uptime when I’m interacting with somebody, then I’m going to be able to elicit responses from them which are pleasurable, and intimate, and anything else I want.”

For Bandler and Grinder, human connection is mechanized, operationalized, and calculated. Intimacy is subject to one person’s will and successfully executed through another. The “magic” (a word favored by Bandler and Grinder) isn’t in the unknown and uncertain terrain of honest, vulnerable human exchange, but rather elaborate puppetry.

So much around pickup artistry has become clear with the distance of time, even if its misogyny was always right there on the surface. The community is still alive (if not well), but the phenomenon has been correctly placed within the historical context of an emerging “manosphere,” where it overlaps with men’s rights activists and “involuntary celibates,” communities that have been linked to deadly violence. Before Elliot Rodger went on a 2014 rampage that killed six and injured 14, he posted a video to YouTube detailing how he wanted to punish women for rejecting him. In 2009, George Sodini opened fire in an aerobics class, killing three women and himself, and left behind a note proclaiming his hatred of women. That misogyny, according to his internet postings, arose from women’s unwillingness to sleep with him.

Both men had PUA ties: Sodini attended a seminar and Rodger frequented a message board for “failed pickup artists,” as the writer Sady Doyle put it. The pickup artist industry, shaped by the manipulative promises of NLP, targets and fosters men’s entitlement toward women.

Time has similarly illuminated NLP’s dark side. In the 1980s, Bandler was charged with the murder of Corine Christensen, who was found shot in her home. Ultimately, he was acquitted. Christensen’s ex-boyfriend James Marino claimed he had witnessed Bandler shoot her. (Bandler had previously pointed guns at people, including during an NLP seminar where he directed a gun at a student, ostensibly as part of the therapeutic process.) Meanwhile, Bandler claimed that he witnessed Marino commit the murder and then himself left the scene, without calling police, before concealing his own bloody clothing, which was later discovered by investigators. Mother Jones wrote in 1989 that, whatever the truth, it “has disturbing implications, whether he is innocent or guilty.” But those implications went beyond Bandler himself, extending to NPL. “Here too NLP offers solace,” Mother Jones wrote “it is the ‘ right and duty’ of your unconscious mind, he and John Grinder once wrote, ‘to keep from your conscious mind anything that is unpleasant.’” Bandler has since been profiled, described by the Independent as “a sort of Messiah” while also being accused of brainwashing and cult leader-like behavior.

In recent years, NLP has linked to notable allegations of abuse. Nancy Salzman, the president of the “sex cult” NXIVM, reportedly studied NLP under a Bandler protege. Keith Raniere, the group’s leader, “saw the value” in Salzman’s NLP expertise, as his ex-girlfriend told New York Magazine. “Keith saw what [Salzman] could do to quickly engage a group of people, and her ability to hypnotize them,” she said. NXIVM proved to be an alleged cult masquerading as a self-help organization and Raniere has been charged with sex trafficking, conspiracy, and racketeering. NLP’s claims perhaps found more mainstream success with the influential self-help guru Tony Robbins, he of (injurious) fire-walking rituals, claims of hypnotic abilities, and the bestselling book Unlimited Power. Robbins counts Grinder as one of his most influential mentors. Recently, Robbins was accused of sexual harassment and berating survivors of rape and domestic violence during workshops. Robbins is also an idol to PUA icon Mystery, who once advised pushing through women’s sexual resistance by “just [taking] your cock out and [starting] stroking it.”

It seems easy enough to have anticipated these applications and associations of NLP and pickup artistry. Just put the Frogs into Princes ethos in its simplest terms: doing whatever it takes to get just what you want.

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