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Pitching Woo and a Book Concept

Relationships* A psychologist looks for a woman with whom to create love as part of an experiment.

July 03, 2002|LOUISE ROUG | TIMES STAFF WRITER

On a recent Monday night, 48-year-old Robert Epstein waited outside the cliff-side restaurant Las Brisas in Laguna Beach, clutching a single peach-colored rose.

"I'm about to embark on a very bold, very personal experiment, one that some might call--and in fact have already called--crazy," Epstein, the editor in chief of Psychology Today, wrote in a June editorial-cum-personal ad. He was looking for a woman to fall in love with him in a given amount of time, say within six months. He and the woman would "create" love through weekly counseling sessions and a series of trust-building exercises.

During this period of self-experimentation, he would take copious notes and chronicle everything for a book. He already had the title: "The Love You Make: How We Learned to Love Each Other, and How You Can Too."

All he needed was a woman.

Hundreds had offered to be part of the experiment, pitching themselves in long, heartfelt letters. And the phones had been ringing off the hook. USA Today, the Boston Globe, the Washington Post, the British newspaper the Guardian and the BBC were interested in his project, he said. Producers from CBS and NBC were even throwing around the idea of a so-called reality series, starring Epstein. Camera crews would record "the milestones," he said. "The first meeting, the first kiss, meeting the parents, the first declaration of love, the counseling sessions."

Tonight's candidate was Alma Avery Rubenstein, the 33-year-old owner of Kooky Catering. She was not drawn from the Psychology Today responses. Rather, Epstein had found her on Matchmaker.com.

"She sounds like an ambitious woman. I liked that," he said. "I saw a couple of photos, and she looks kind of cute. She's Jewish ... that's a good bonus."

Though Rubenstein had inadvertently wandered into the middle of the Epstein juggernaut, she agreed to a date at Las Brisas, halfway between her Hollywood condo and his home in San Diego. And she didn't flinch when he mentioned he'd be inviting a reporter along.

He was being interviewed when a call came through on the other line. "Guess who that was? Tonight's woman," he said as he came back on the line. She had wanted directions to the restaurant, he said. "She sounded a little irritated that I couldn't give her directions straightaway. That's a bad sign."

But it didn't distract him too much as he continued to chat about his project and his new agent from N.S. Bienstock. "They represent Diane Sawyer and Dan Rather," he said before taking another call. Every national talk show has called, he said when he returned. "But I've been forbidden by my agent to do them. It would ruin the negotiations for the reality show. Which is a shame. I really wanted to do CNN. They wanted to pick me up in a limo. Paula Zahn. I really wanted to do that."

He got another call. "I hope it's not her again."

It wasn't, he said. It has just been so frantic. Even John Gray had contacted him. "The Mars/Venus guy. The John Gray."

Epstein, a Harvard-trained psychologist, got back to the business of relationships, explaining their typical trajectory. "What we normally do is we fall passionately in love or in lust in the beginning. But it fades and we're left with nothing."

By dispensing with the idea of finding "the one" or a soul mate, Epstein argued, partners-to-be could use tools culled from couples' therapy to ignite, rather than simply rekindle, romances. They'd use, for example, the exercise in which a person falls back into the arms of his or her partner. Epstein has named it "falling for you."

He was confident that his method, which he likened to an arranged marriage in which partners consciously decide to fall in love, would work "not for everybody--who cares?--but for many." He envisions teaching his techniques to other therapists. It could be a franchise, healing people on a national scale.

"This is good for the consumer, the general public, it's even good for the mental health profession," he said. "This project is going to give rise to a lot of therapists and counselors. I guess you could say it could bring in a lot of new customers."

Idea Proves Familiar

At the restaurant, a waiter seated the couple at a window table with a view of the ocean.

Epstein, a slight man with thinning brown hair, was wearing khakis, Topsiders and a blue blazer. A heavy silver chain hung around his wrist. Rubenstein, a woman with a husky voice and caramel-golden hair, wore a black top and skirt.

He was a little tired after a hard day's work. She had arrived in Laguna Beach two hours early. As Epstein unspooled his spiel, Rubenstein looked puzzled. No, she hadn't read his editorial. As he explained his quest, though, she quickly recovered.

"You know, I wrote a screenplay about the same thing," she said, "trying to get someone to fall in love with you ... in one week, kind of a crash course in love." She had never sold it because life interfered. "I actually fell in love and got distracted," she said, with a smile.

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