The Tim Ferriss Show Transcripts: Neil Strauss — Books I’ve Loved

Please enjoy this transcript of another episode of the “Books I’ve Loved” series, in which I invite amazing past guests, close friends, and new faces to share their favorite books—the books that have influenced them, changed them, and transformed them for the better.

This episode, we hear from Neil Strauss (@neilstrauss), a ten-time New York Times best-selling author, award-winning writer for Rolling Stone, and former reporter at the New York Times. Strauss has also contributed to EsquireSalonSpinEntertainment WeeklyDetailsThe SourceNew York Newsday, and many other magazines and newspapers. He has interviewed some of the biggest icons in the world of entertainment and beyond, including the legendary Chuck Berry, Tom Cruise, Madonna, and Elon Musk. He received The President’s Volunteer Service Award for work during his book Emergency.

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Neil Strauss: Thanks, Tim, for having me back to talk about some of my favorite books. I wanted to do something different today, which is, I wanted to recommend some books that I’ve never recommended before on this podcast and that I haven’t heard other people recommending. Things that people may not know about, I want to turn people onto some new stuff that’s, like, so central to me.

My criteria were: what are the books where I’ve underlined the most amount of things? Some of these books that I’m going to recommend, I literally have underlining or marks on every single page. I have a kind of involved system I use to mark up books depending on the residence of the idea and different things going on in the book.

The second thing is brought together. These books sort of encompass, like, the body of what I think right now, the kinds of things that I write about and post on Instagram and teach and coach and have had so much value in my life and changed them, and I’m going to walk you into them from, let’s say, the simplest book to the most complex—from one that’s just so easy to read  to one that’s almost like a textbook.

If you’re into these, start at the beginning and see how far along you get. I love all of these, and they’re really great on the path to understanding yourself and who you are, the obstacles that get in your way and where you self-sabotage in your relationships, and, ultimately, real freedom.

The first author is Cheri Huber, and I wanted to tell you about her past, but I looked it up online, and I can’t find anything there. I don’t know if it’s public, but as a child, Cheri probably faced one of the worst traumas a young person can ever go through. She not only survived it, she became a Buddhist monk. Of all the people I’ve ever met in my life, I think she’s one of the most centered, wise, powerful presences I’ve ever been around. There’s just something about her that I would like to get to one day, I really would.

She writes tons of books—I’d love to read every one, and her books are very simply written. They’re just distilled to pure wisdom, almost like a wise mentor is giving you the advice. There aren’t, like, supporting arguments and footnotes and research studies. It’s just, like, the wisdom from high on the mountain. It’s also written in a unique font, where part of the story and the power and the impact of the words is done through the font and style of writing changing, as well as the illustrations by June Shiver or it could be Shiver, the illustrator in the book.

Really look through all her books and read anything, but I’ll share with you the two that have had the biggest impact on me. Actually the only two I’ve read, but I do want to read the rest. I started with The Fear Book and The Fear Book is so powerful because so many of us have a certain area where fear and doubt and uncertainty get in our way. The book walks you through the idea of how to embrace them and move beyond them, and often it’s very counterintuitive but so true. I highly recommend this for dealing with it.

I want to go read you one quote from it. I’m going to read a couple of quotes from it. And her basic idea is that moving toward your fears and getting past them is the path to freedom. I love this part—and her books, by the way, are very short, 150 pages at most. She writes, “If you no longer believe what fear tells you, you will live and it will not. That is a point on a spiritual journey that almost nobody gets past, when that terror arises, when it gets backed into a corner and it’s a matter of its survival or yours. Almost nobody has the required combination of courage, desperation, willingness to stand up to it. When this force in you that has controlled and motivated you all your life is screaming, ‘If you do that you’re going to die,’ very few people are going to say, ‘Well, I just need to find out if that is true or if that is so,'” she writes. “That’s why it’s so important to remember that projection is going on. What’s being screamed”—I’m going to paraphrase a little, so it kind of sinks in—”What’s really being screamed here is, ‘If you stay with this fear, I will die.’ The fear, the ego, will die, and that’s true. It will die. It’s life is your death. It’s death is your life.”

It’s so good, it’s really about letting go of the stuff that holds you back, that you’re so attached to and just isn’t serving you, and is keeping you from being free and keeping you from being yourself. Here’s one last little bit from the book you can do right now—so good: “Do something you fear, not to conquer the fear, not to accomplish a task, but to familiarize yourself with the process with which fear protects itself, to demystify it.” I love this. I always say—I’ve said in this podcast before—”Become a scientist of your own lows.” And this is the same—become a scientist of fear.

It’s almost… Like, I call it “false survival mode.” There’s so many things that we think are survival threats, and we treat them like survival threats. We go and start fighting like our life is in danger when it isn’t, so it’s a great demystifying, empowering book. It’s called The Fear Book.

The other book of Cheri Huber’s I recommend—I’m pulling it out now as we speak—is, Be the Person You Want to Find: Relationship and Self-Discovery. The title kind of says it all, and I love this book because it’s exactly my philosophy on relationships, which is: if you want to meet a better person, then become a better person. This is, like, this beautiful book that really elegantly sort of weans us away from these crazy relationship miss we have and these expectations of other partners. It begins by really boldly saying, “This book is about you taking 100% responsibility for yourself all the time.”

I really think if everybody could read this book and really live by it, things would go so much better. It’s about things that we’re going to get into later and with the next set of books, about how much of our childhood, sort of, stories we end up playing out on our partner. Again, I’m just going to read one part, then we’ll move on. I mean, this book is so good that, instead of underlying lines, I’ve literally, like, marked entire pages, so these are two of the pages. Again, it flies by, it’s a short book.

“The sad, strange, unfortunate, dysfunctional part of life”—by the way, so I’m going to read this part; I’m going to paraphrase a couple of bits just so it makes sense out of context—”The sad, strange, unfortunate, dysfunctional part of life is that as adults, most of us are still trying to survive childhood. So, I have become the person I believed as a child I needed to become in order to make it through adulthood. Now I’m an adult and in an intimate relationship, and I’m suffering. This is traumatic. I have picked, consciously or not, someone who’s going to relive parts of my childhood with me, is going to play the parts opposite me someone else did back then. I’m going to suffer in the same way I did as a child, and I’m going to use the same survival mechanisms.”

Right there is literally… It doesn’t matter what recurring problem you’re having in a relationship, that is the reason why, and this book gets you past them. I love it, highly recommend.

Next author… So we’re going to move sort of one level up on—I don’t want to say, like, difficult to read or advancement of concepts, but also very, very accessible books. They’re by Pia Mellody, and I’m going to recommend two books, and we’ll start with Facing Codependence.

Codependence is a word that’s used a lot, but really rarely understood, and this book isn’t just about relationships for me. What it is, is it presents a model of trauma that to me has been key to understanding my life and to helping others and is really life changing. Here’s what’s fascinating about Pia Mellody—she doesn’t do TED Talks, at least as far as I know; she doesn’t have a big social media presence, if one at all; she doesn’t even have a Wikipedia entry.

She was, I believe, a nurse at a inpatient, sort of, rehab facility called The Meadows and started to develop her own system based on a number of different, they were sort of therapies and tools, and it’s really powerful. If I was to say, “Hey, if you really want to change what a modality”—even though I hate that word—”what modality should you follow,” I’d say, “Check into Pia Mellody’s work, what’s called PIT, Post Induction Therapy.” I think that’s what it’s called, what it stands for.

Her whole idea is, your childhood is a hypnotic induction; you’re being sort of indoctrinated. It’s like a cult, and you’re then to be un-brainwashed or un-hypnotized and start living your true and free life. What an elegant idea. The great part about Facing Codependence—besides its exploration of what codependence is, why it happens, how it happens, the signs, the patterns—there’s also a breakdown in the end of how she defines trauma. It’s a way to sort of self-diagnose trauma. And I’m just going to check out the contents right here.

To me as a new parent, it’s also a parenting book. She talks about the nature of a child, how a child has these rights. I’ve thought about it with my child as I’ve raised him to be spontaneous, to be protected, to be—and I love this line—perfectly imperfect. In other words, some parents expect their child to be perfect and that’s sort of a form of trauma when they’re not allowed to make mistakes or learn from their mistakes or do things that are sort of age appropriate.

Then she talks about abuse, generational abuse, and then breaks down trauma to these different categories of physical abuse, sexual abuse, emotional abuse, intellectual abuse, spiritual abuse. The main thing about these, is—it sounds obvious when you read it—she defines abuse as anytime a child has a dependency need that’s not met, that creates abuse.

A quick example of spiritual abuse—I see many with it—is when a parent has to always be right. The parent’s always right, they can never be wrong, they can never be corrected. She sees that as a form of spiritual abuse because the parents blame God, the parent becomes the child’s higher power. It creates such a deep insecurity on the part of the child in terms of their reality. In fact, I find these people often resistant to work with because they feel like to say anything negative about their parent is like blaspheming God. It’s fascinating, so I highly recommend it.

The second book to read next—and this one is more about relationships, but I love it, definitely something that’s brought a lot of value in my life in terms of breaking some patterns—is called Facing Love Addiction. It’s really about the love addict and the love avoidant. And this is probably 75% of relationships to some degree. I’m just throwing that out, ballpark, but what happens is, one person in a relationship is more needy, and one person is more resentful. It doesn’t begin that way, it begins in this flowering of love and projection. Then eventually this pattern plays out, where one person needs more, and the other person wants to give less. The less the other person gives, the more the other person needs, and there’s this neediness and resentment pattern that eventually plays out and blows up in negative ways.

Often sometimes when I know people who have been… their partner’s been having an affair for a long time, and they never saw it, they’re often in the haze of love addiction, where they’re holding on to this fantasy. It’s a powerful book. I love these both. Really read these multiple times, and you’ll have an understanding of the matrix of how relationships work. That’s Pia Mellody, Facing Codependence and Facing Love Addiction.

The next book is not for everyone, but it’s for a certain percentage of people here. I’m among its target audience, and I didn’t think I was amongst its target audience when I first heard about it. It’s called Silently Seduced. It’s by Kenneth Adams, and it’s related to the Pia Mellody books I mentioned earlier, and specifically for those who’ve experienced enmeshment. 

Enmeshment is not a word that’s often used, so I’m going to explain it super quickly. It’s the opposite of abandonment. Abandonment, as we all know, is a parent who’s somehow not meeting a child’s needs, whether emotional, physical, protection, being absent, whatever it may be. Enmeshment is when a child is meeting a parent’s needs. And we don’t talk about it because abandonment is disempowering. You feel disempowered, helpless, vulnerable, no one there. Enmeshment is falsely empowering. You feel, as a child, like you have power because you’re there for your parent—a parent who lives for a child, who needs the child’s accomplishments to make up for their own accomplishments, who has a parent with tons of anxiety needs to over-control the child. A parent who’s lonely or has a bad marriage or is going through a divorce and is using the child for their own narcissistic reasons. Or to get back at the parent or just because they’ve nobody to talk to.

There are so many ways that enmeshment works, and here’s a little rule of thumb: That [with] abandonment, you feel bad about yourself. With enmeshment, it’s generally when you feel sorry for the parent. If you ever… There’s a moment where you felt sad or sorry for your parent, that probably was enmeshment going on. I remember interviewing Jay Leno and talking about comedy, and he became a comedian because his mom was depressed, and he was always trying to cheer her up. That’s enmeshment. Silently Seduced deals with a form of enmeshment that they call, shockingly, emotional incest.

I remember when the book The Truth came out, I actually wrote an editorial for the New York Times on emotional incest, and it wasn’t printed, it’s such a shocking term. It shocked me when it was used to diagnose me. But what it is, is, it’s when a child is used, not sexually by the parent, when a child’s used emotionally by the parent, becomes an emotional partner to them. Often it’s a parent who’s in a troubled relationship, who makes the child their emotional partner. As my mom 100% did with me. She’d sit there in my room and talk to me about my father. I remember she actually said, “Neil, never grow up to make anyone as miserable as your father makes me,” which really, really messed in my relationships for a while. I felt like somebody was sad or wasn’t happy, I would just sort of end the relationship.

What happens with people who are enmeshed is, they want love, they want relationships. Then, they get in a relationship, and they feel suffocated. They feel trapped, and they sabotage it or want to get out of it somehow. It’s this crazy intimacy attraction, that avoidance pattern usually, and it’s a great book about it. It walks you through it, explains the cases, and then gives you steps to break the pattern. I highly recommend it, Silently Seduced by Kenneth Adams. If this is appropriate to you or someone you’ve dated in the past or someone you care about, it’s a good gift. I’ve definitely given at least 100 of these away.

I love this next author, and I’m just going to start with this quote. “He,” meaning the type of men he’s talking about, “will believe that his masculinity is proved by bedding women, driving a high-powered car or making lots of money. Underneath he knows the truth of course, and he is desperately afraid of being found out. He believes himself an impostor in the company of men.”

 In this era in our society when we’re trying to sort of look at the roles men play and the mask they wear to have a sort of better, healthier society, I highly recommend this book. It’s another one that I’ve given, at this point, probably like more than 100 copies away. It’s called Under Saturn’s Shadow: The Wounding and Healing of Men by James Hollis. 

James Hollis is a Jungian psychoanalyst, an amazing author. I actually loved his book so much, I had him be my therapist for a while and was literally, like, taking a college class. It’s so good. It’s not the easiest book to make it through, but it’s so dense with meaning, with historical example, with amazing quotes. It really looks at a deep, mythical, psychological level of the struggles that the modern, sort of, man faces and attempts to put a framework around it that’s so wonderfully full of wisdom. I really don’t see this, sort of, addressed a lot in a helpful, useful, non-shaming, self-understanding way.

I was looking for another quote, but I stumbled across this—I literally have something underlined on every page: “What a father cannot access in himself cannot be passed onto his son.” Such a good thing to think about it for the parents out there, like myself. So good, I’m just going to read a little part. I’m literally just turning to a random page, there’s so much in here; it’s just worth rereading all the time.

He writes this: “Joseph Campbell expressed it, one can spend one’s whole life climbing the ladder, only to realize that it’s been placed against the wrong wall. For men to begin the process of healing, they must first risk being honest with themselves along with the feelings they think they can’t afford. They must admit they’re not happy in spite of what they’ve achieved. They must admit they do not know who they are and what they must do to save themselves. They must overcome the fear that blocks such thinking, the fear that they will have to change their lives if the emotional cat is let out of the bag.”

Ultimately it’s a book about self-examination and making sure you’re not just running on these preset tracks that the culture has given you, and really living out what’s important to you. Or as Hollis says it—and we’ll end the description of the book with this—”The crux of the middle passage is the requirement that a man, whatever his age or station, pull out of his reflexive behaviors and attitudes, radically reexamine his life, and risk living out the thunderous imperatives of his soul.” So good, highly recommended.

So one of James Hollis’s central ideas is, is that we have these two fantastic quests we go on in our lives. One is the fantasy of immortality, and the other one is the fantasy of the magical other. The latter is the heart of his other book that I love, which is The Eden Project. And let me get the subtitle here… The Eden Project: In Search of the Magical Other. Kind of like the Cheri Huber book, he just cuts to the core of it. I’m going to look right now, one of my favorite quotes from it. It’s so good. It’s so good.

“Being in an intimate relationship is a bit like asking someone to join hands with us, but only after walking across a field in which we have planted mines.” Another great quote—and I think this just captures the book—he writes, “The best thing we can do for our relationships with others, is to render our relationship to ourselves more conscious. This is not a narcissistic activity. In fact, it will prove to be the most loving thing we can do for the other. The greatest gift to others is our own best selves. Thus, paradoxically, if we are to serve relationship well, we are obliged to affirm our individual journey.”

It’s so good, and yes, it’s just like the wisdom the Cheri Huber book. What I love about all these books, whether it’s, sort of, Pia Mellody coming from inpatient addiction rehab, or it’s James Hollis coming from Jungian or Cheri Huber coming from Buddhism, it’s the exact same wisdom. If you read all these books and you put them all together, they’re all telling the same thing, so go do it.

The Tim Ferriss Show is one of the most popular podcasts in the world with more than 500 million downloads. It has been selected for "Best of Apple Podcasts" three times, it is often the #1 interview podcast across all of Apple Podcasts, and it's been ranked #1 out of 400,000+ podcasts on many occasions. To listen to any of the past episodes for free, check out this page.

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