The Guru From Mars

Chances are, if you're like most mature, sensitive Americans, you thought you could get through the rest of your life without having to think about John Gray. It was easy enough to skip his books ("Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus" and others) and switch channels when he appeared on "Oprah." But what worked with Robert Fulghum and M. Scott Peek might not be enough to escape Gray's utterly ineluctable message. Not only does he have a new book in the works--his third since Mars/Venus installed itself on the best-seller list 122 weeks ago--plus tapes, calendars, greeting cards and an online forum, but the 20-odd "facilitators" he has trained over the years will be joined soon by hundreds of others, spreading Gray's wisdom at churches, corporate retreats and hotels and on cruise ships. And that doesn't even count the random individuals he encounters in his travels, who get the benefit of Gray doing"what I do best . . . save marriages, create romances and passions and relationships."

Of course, all this is possible because of the radical simplicity of Gray's message, which he has pared to the essential insight that men and women have different emotional needs. Men want to feel competent and appreciated, but sometimes have to be alone; women need to feel loved and to share their feelings. So powerful is this singular revelation that, as Gray recounted to a sold-out crowd at Carnegie Hall this month, he was able to correct a cabdriver's lifelong difficulty with relationships in the course of a ride from the Chicago airport to Oprah Winfrey's studio. The man drove away "with tears in his eyes," Gray recounted, resolved to make up with his last girlfriend, the seventh in a string of failures. Small wonder that, as Gray's publicist from HarperCollins boasts, "we get letters from people who are almost functionally illiterate." That's a market few authors have bothered to cultivate, but Gray was smart enough to realize that they buy books, too.

Of course, there's more than this to what Gray calls "advanced relationship skills." Gray's academic credentials are scanty--his Ph.D. is from one of those universities that give credit for "life experience"--but he obviously learned a thing or two in junior high. In "Mars and Venus in the Bedroom," Gray deconstructs the semiotics of women's underwear, beginning with the observation that "black lace or garters is one very clear signal that she wants sex." He lists seven other things a woman might wear to bed, six of which also mean that she wants sex. ("When she wears silky pink or lace, she is ready to surrender to sex as a romantic expression of loving vulnerability . . .") If this sounds to you like Gray thinks a lot about sex, you're probably right. Although he makes a point of telling audiences that he is, at 48, happily married (for the second time) with three young children, for one whole year in his 20s he had sex almost daily with a variety of women. This was to make up for the preceding nine years, spent as a celibate monk and secretary to the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. His technique with women was to explain that he'd been a monk for nine years and ask them to teach him about sex. "This approach had a tremendous effect," he writes.

It undoubtedly did, even if it's probably too late for most of us to try it now. But everyone can learn a lot from Gray, even if it's not necessarily what he thinks he's teaching. His life is a testament to the power of the idee fixe, a simple notion pushed with relentless energy until it sells 4 million books. Men and women are different. Don't you wish you'd thought of that?