I Taught Jonah Lehrer Every Word He Knows About Love

by Rikki Barrett

From time to time, The Awl offers its space to everyday citizens with something to say.

I don’t want to get Jonah Lehrer in any more trouble than he’s in already, but I felt like I needed to come forward and warn Simon and Schuster about something that’ll piss them off royally if they hear about it later. You know that book proposal he was shopping where he wants to write about love and stuff? A lot of what’s in there, as described in The New York Times, is taken straight out of the notes, texts, and emails he sent me in high school, when he had such a big crush on me that my friends started calling him The Boner With Rimless Eyeglasses.

Jonah was a cute kid but not my type: a quiet, shy, tiny, freshman nerd. I was a senior, and I was… hmmm, what’s the best way to put this so I don’t sound stuck up? I’ll start by quoting something interesting the school principal said to me once. “Rikki,” he said, “you are the toughest, roughest, sexiest, dirtiest-looking bitch in this entire school.”

Obviously, that comment was not appropriate coming from a school official, but, in fairness, it was said during a stressful moment for Mr. Thayer. He had just caught me beating the shit out of a Coke machine that took my money, and in the middle of yelling at me about that, he “lost it” and tried to mack on my neck. Still, I like to believe the old fucker was speaking from the heart.

I often had that effect on people, which is why I was unanimously voted in the yearbook as Girl Most Likely To Be Slut-Shamed by a Gym Teacher. Make no mistake: I was not the “prettiest” girl in our school. Nor was I “the most popular,” “the most athletic,” or “the smartest.” But I was the one who had sex with all four of those girls’ boyfriends, and they knew that if they said anything about it, I would kick their asses.

Back to Jonah. The first time he saw me, I was striding down the hallway full thrust, wearing jeans that made my ass look like something that could start a war between rival Starfleet Federations. He took one glance, banged his locker door into his forehead, and started making chipmunk noises. I wasn’t surprised when I went to my locker later that day and found a handwritten note jammed into the vent. Even for a little kid, Jonah didn’t have any game, so it began awkwardly. “Dear Rikki,” it said. “You don’t know me, but my name is Jonah Lehrer. A few minutes after I saw you this morning, do you know what I did? I puked into a recycling bin. Then I started to cry.”

It went downhill from there. Jonah bragged that, as a “keen student of neuroscience,” he knew where “all 429 female erogenous zones are,” and he’d marked them with push-pins on a Barbie doll he stole from his sister. He went on: “School years come and go; home lives fall apart; we give away what we don’t want and long for things we cannot afford.” Then, the money shot: “When you and I are stripped of what we are wearing, we will see what we want and will always need: two people who will love each other, even after we’re finished ‘doing stuff’ and might need to go away briefly to wash their hands or get something to eat or whatever.”

Within minutes, I had Jonah’s bony shoulders pinned against the cold metal of his locker. I told him that life is not a Wes Anderson movie, and that in the real world saying shit like this could get him clobbered. He stared at me but said nothing, his dark pupils the size of buttons, his breath coming out in hot, moist puffs. Finally, he spoke. “I have been found out,” he squeaked. “I have been caught in a desperate attempt to convey my love.”

That’s when it dawned on me: Jonah was a little nutty and (I intuited) mostly harmless. I put him down gently and whispered in his ear: “Just keep it between the lines, OK, little dude? Now run along.”

After that, Jonah kept writing, like a puppy flinging himself against a screen door, and I just rolled with it. I kept all of what he sent me — hundreds of messages over the course of two semesters — because I had a sense that he might turn out to be a bona fide weirdo genius. A lot of what he wrote would be familiar to people who’ve read his books — even then, he didn’t know fuck-all about Bob Dylan — and he already had that tendency to make overworked comparisons that don’t go anywhere. (“Shakespeare described the sex act as ‘making a beast with two backs.’ But it is better understood as the process that leads to the development of improved, high-yield, hybrid corns.”)

Still, as the world now knows, there was magic in that pint-sized head, and some of what Jonah wrote was beautiful, like the poem in which he called me “the Gorgon Medusa/whose very stare/turns men into ‘wood’/if you know what I mean.”

In short, the writings that I once despised are now strangely dear to me, and I’ll never part with them. But for $75,000 or so, I will rent them out to a publisher, for the limited-use purpose of a thorough self-plagiarism cross-check and liability scrub.

Rikki Barrett is a housewife currently living in suburban New Jersey. Her account was obtained for The Awl by journalist Alex Heard, editorial director of Outside magazine and author of The Eyes of Willie McGee. Photo by Pop Tech.