Woman Trouble

Around 50 well-dressed black women fidget in their seats on a Sunday night, waiting for the show to begin. They've paid $25 apiece to hear Robert Myers, a Houston author who fearlessly tackles all the problems besetting African-Americans. In a mere 93 pages, he proposes to stop crime, teen pregnancy, gangs, divorce, moral erosion, drug abuse and more. All those social ills, he says, stem from the same terrible source, which he gamely identifies in his book's title: Why Women Are at Fault.

Incendiary name and all, Myers' paperback fits squarely in the black-self-help niche created by The Blackman's Guide to Understanding the Blackwoman: earnest, self-published books that urge African-Americans to return to patriarchal values. What the genre lacks in copyediting and coherence, it makes up for in certitude -- and in knowing what its audience wants. After seven years in print, The Blackman's Guide has sold a remarkable 1.2 million copies.

Myers isn't in that league yet, but he's trying. He published his book only a month ago and has sold many of the volumes himself at Funky Aerobics, the strip-center gym he owns. His personal trainees and members of his step class say they've been intrigued by the book's title -- and, they note, by Myers' cool, distant "mystique"; they want to know what goes on inside his head. For that reason, more than a dozen of them have ponied up for this seminar at the Power Center, a black-owned, black-proud gathering place in southwest Houston. At their tables in the middle of the room, the high-spirited Funky Aerobics contingent seems a kind of exercise sorority, superior to the other women in their prior knowledge of Myers.

At long last, after an Afrocentric fashion show, a couple of poetry readings and a buffet dinner, the author walks to the front of the room. The women look up from their plates and stop worrying their chicken wings with plastic cutlery, but the muscular 31-year-old fails to blossom under their collective gaze. His face is grim; his voice, a monotone. His widow's peak and close-cropped beard combine to form the shape of a heart, but romantic symbolism is clearly not his intent.

In fact, he'd probably deplore it. He holds his slender volume up for inspection: "In this book, I teach you how to date." That skill, he declares solemnly, is very, very important. Too many women conduct their love lives without a method; they follow their emotions rather than a logical plan. His logical plan.

He traces every societal evil back to some woman's faulty dating procedure. A kid on drugs? Wouldn't have happened if his mother had married the right man and raised the child in a happy, loving family. Joblessness? Ditto; after Mom picked the wrong guy, her messed-up offspring naturally failed to seek higher education and were thus job-market roadkill. Date rape? The woman should've vetted the guy better before allowing herself to be alone with him. And murder? "The wrong choice can be deadly," he says. "Just ask Nicole Simpson."

For a long moment, the room falls silent. A middle-aged woman shakes her head. It's not clear whether she's dismayed by the white woman's fate or by Myers' pronouncement.

Over the next hour or so, Myers rehashes the opening chapters of his book. Women -- not men -- control those all-important male-female relationships, he says, because women have more to lose. "Let's say I meet a lady," he posits. "We get together. We become intimate. She gets pregnant. Her life is gonna change. I could walk away, but her life is gonna change." Vulnerability equals power -- got it?

With power comes responsibility. Myers' dating procedure, the one that'll change the world, starts with self-knowledge and continues with a slow, businesslike courtship, in which the woman constantly monitors for the signs of a no-good man. Does he hate his job? Does he come from an unstable family? Is he a conformist? Is he possessive? Domineering? Anti-social? Negative? If the answer to any of those questions is yes, Myers commands his followers to dump the guy. Never mind that you believe you're in love with him. And never mind the high odds facing marriageable black women. If you accept a flawed specimen, you'll damage the race for generations to come.

Myers, who is single, bases his recommendations in part on surveys he conducted while majoring in sociology and psychology at Texas Southern University. In addition to his undergraduate research projects, he cites the personal observations he's made every day since grade school. Why are his observations better than anyone else's? "I am a very analytical person," he explains. "The masses don't think the way that I do."

Because the seminar time is short, the author covers only his book's early chapters. (He promises to speak at greater length at his next seminar, part of the Black Expo, June 8 and 9 at the George R. Brown Convention Center.) Those first chapters, the ones most directly related to his hair-raising title, are surprisingly the least controversial. At the seminar, Myers doesn't delve into his hard-nosed parenting theories. (Sample sentence: "Once fear has been instilled, a certain level of respect is gained from the child.") Nor does he express his animosity toward child support. (Abolishing it, he writes, would "force women to become more selective and careful when getting involved intimately with someone.")

There's no time, either, for his tough-on-crime social proposals. Women may be at fault, but Myers heartily endorses punishing men for bad behavior. In the book, he declares that drug dealers -- even two-bit ones -- should be publicly executed by lethal injection. Drug addicts should receive a single publicly funded stint in rehab; if they backslide even once, then they too should be executed. Murderers' hangings should be televised. And rapists, he says, should be shackled together and marched from city to city, where anyone who believes himself to have been affected by rape could whale on them with clubs, bats or pipes. "No knives or guns would be allowed," he writes, "because we want the pain to be lingering and sustaining until death."

Perhaps most tantalizing is Myers' proposal that government hold parents to minimum standards, including an income above the poverty line and a health-insurance policy. Parents who fail to meet those requirements would -- shades of Newt! -- lose their children to a government-run orphanage.

During the question-and-answer session, some audience members congratulate Myers for having written his book; others couch their disagreement in the politest of forms. They ask when he'll write a sequel, Why Men Are at Fault Too. They assert that women are not the problem but the solution. They mention a study, reported on the front page of that morning's Chronicle, that shows the fathers of babies born to teenage girls tend to be significantly older men. In a case like that, a middle-aged woman asks respectfully, isn't the man at fault? Not completely, Myers parries; the blame lies more with the girl's mother, who didn't prepare her to resist an older man's wiles.

Around 10:30 p.m., the seminar peters out. No one in the audience declares that her life has been changed. No one vows to drop her dog of a boyfriend, or even suggests that she screwed up when she picked her ex-husband. No one admits that she, personally, has been the ruination of black America. If Myers' plan is the salvation of the race, then the race is in trouble.

But one suspects otherwise. The women ask Myers to sign their books. They talk about how much pride they take in local authors. They smile. They know that Myers -- a business-owning black man who wants to get married -- is a precious commodity. And they support him. No matter what his faults, or what he thinks theirs are.

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