WHAT A SMOOTH OPERATOR THIS JOHN Gray is. “When I take out the trash, my wife feels loved,” he tells a visitor to his redwood home in Marin County, just north of San Francisco. “I consider it the best foreplay for sex.”
So, what planet is John Gray from, anyway? Well, according to his own cobbled-together philosophy on gender roles in the ’90s, he’s certainly from a different one than his wife, Bonnie. In fact, in Gray’s cosmology, that’s the way of the world; his book, Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus (HarperCollins), is based on the premise that men and women can get along once they accept that there are immutable primal differences between the sexes. More than a million men and women, apparently intrigued by Gray’s theories, have snapped up the book, keeping it on The New York Times best-seller list for a year.
“All I’m trying to do is to honor the instincts inside of people,” says Gray, 42. “With the feminist movement, we’ve forgotten men and women are different. Now we’re realizing we can be different and equal.”
But Gray’s notions of equality might not be recognizable to feminists, male or female. “When a woman gets home from work, her DNA tells her to clean and take care of others,” he says. “It’s not in a man’s DNA to do that.” Some critics, not surprisingly, find such thinking positively Neanderthal. “His work is based on The Flint-stones,” says psychiatrist Frank Pitt-man, a columnist for Psychology Today. “It’s an effort to protect men from having to change and to do it by discounting the emotions of women.”
Psychiatrist and author Harold Bloomfield, however, says, “John’s book helps men and women be more sensitive to their differences.” And Gray says, “If you take some of my ideas out of context, they might sound sexist. The truth is I’m on women’s side.”
Gray’s retrograde insights must come from somewhere, of course—and Gray’s history does provide clues. The fifth of seven children, he grew up in the wealthy River Oaks section of Houston. His father, David, helped run the family oil-drilling business while his mother, Virginia, kept house (she now runs a spiritual-books store). “My father had many affairs,” says Gray. “As long as my parents didn’t talk about it, it was okay with my mother.” As a teenager, Gray reveled in sex (“I had a bad reputation with girls’ mothers”) and flirted with grass and LSD. Then he caught another late ’60s wave—Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s transcendental meditation movement, spending nine years, mostly in Switzerland, as a celibate follower of the man best known as the Beatles’ guru.
In 1979, disillusioned by TM and inspired by an erotic dream he had had about a woman, Gray took off for California. There he met a massage the rapist, the embodiment of the woman in the dream, and his hard-won celibacy came to a spectacular end. “We were in bed for three days,” he says. Gray later began simultaneously dating future wives No. 1 and No. 2, finally moving in with Barbara DeAngelis (who had just divorced magician Doug Henning and would later write three books on relationships herself, including the 1990 best-seller Secrets About Men Every Woman Should Know).
The couple’s not-quite-two-year marriage, during which they launched a lucrative business conducting seminars on sex and relationships, ended in the spring of 1984, when DeAngelis told Gray she had a lover. “It took months of healing to get over that,” Gray says. He then called Bonnie Josephson, the other woman he’d been dating before his marriage. “It was just like angels were singing to me,” he says. “We had a great weekend, and within a month and a half I proposed.”
Despite his romantic upheavals and a series of personal tragedies that included the murder of Gray’s father by a hitchhiker in 1985, Gray continued to leach seminars and counsel private patients—though he is not a licensed psychologist and his Ph.D. came via a correspondence course with Columbia Pacific University. He also refined his theories in two self-published books, What You Feel You Can Heal (1984) and last year’s Men, Women and Relationships (1990).
The idea for Men Are from Mars came to Gray while he was thinking about the movie-E.T. “When E.T. came to this planet,” he says, “people tried to figure out the needs he had in his world. That’s what women should do with men—treat us like we’re from another planet and respect our ways instead to trying to fix, change or improve us.” Ex-wife DeAngelis, though, may have the last, best word on John Gray’s notions of how men and women should live. “When he talks about men,” she says, “you can take the word ‘man’ out and put ‘John’ in there instead.”