Self-Made Man – Norah Vincent

January 26, 2010 § 11 Comments

The tagline for this book reads: “One woman’s journey into manhood and back again”.

Translating that, Norah Vincent lives 18 months of her life disguised as a man. Ned, Norah’s man-name, goes places and joins clubs normally exclusively or predominantly male. As Ned, he joins a men’s bowling league, visits strip clubs, dates women (not that as Norah she doesn’t do that already), retreats to a monastery, and even goes to men’s workshops (places where they talk about emotions, not unlike AA, apparently).

The experience, to say the least, is one of a kind.

To be honest, I think the book rubbed me the wrong way from very early on.

I found a lot of the narrative quite sentimental. This being a book written by someone who had the guts to disguise herself and live in a world full of testosterone for more than a year, I had expected it to have a bit more edge. Quite surprisingly, the writing style was a little wishy-washy, and not quite as straightforward as I would have liked.

There were some parts that annoyed me no end. Like this:

… I began to wonder whether the most extreme men resort to violence with women because they think that’s all they have, their one pathetic advantage over all she seems to hold above them.

To not quote her out of context, she says this next:

I make no excuses for this. There are none.

But somehow I was left wondering if the book sounded apologetic for the violence that some men fall back to, regardless of whether it was against men or women. It may not have been her intention at all, and frankly, it could have been me being (overly) sensitive, but it did feel insulting.

She also wrote about how she met men who were struggling to come to terms with emotions that society would not allow them to have. How they had to keep it all in. Again, it felt at times that this was used as some sort of ‘excuse’ to forgive them for rage and anger.

It did get better in the end. Which was the part where she wrote about how she came to terms with herself after spending so much time disguised as a man. Her transformation into Ned was not only a physical transformation, but one that required a psychological change as well. She talked about how impossible it was for her to be both a man and a woman at the same time.

I guess in a way, this book was interesting as an experiment, but not particularly enjoyable as a book to read.

Rating: 2

For: LGBT Challenge

*Note: This is submitted for the LGBT Challenge because the author herself is a lesbian. I had initially thought this could also be for the Women Unbound Challenge, but after reading it, I’m not so sure that the book touches on women’s studies at all. Given that the author is a feminist (or, she did Women’s Studies, but I’m not sure if she qualifies as a feminist), I didn’t think the overall theme of the book gave me much insight into a woman’s perspective in society.


§ 11 Responses to Self-Made Man – Norah Vincent

  • Amanda says:

    Strange-sounding book…but I’m not sure I would like this one either.

  • Susan says:

    Michelle, I’d never heard of this book before, but it sounds kind of interesting, especially to those who have wondered how it would feel to be the opposite sex. But it also sounds as if this book really did not work for you. And I’m not sure what the author “was after” with this experiment.

    • Michelle says:

      I think you’ve got what I meant. It could be that it was more of a personal journey and experiment than anything else, which would explain why I wasn’t quite brought along with her on her journey.

  • christa says:

    I have been meaning to read this for a while but never got around to it… now I don’t know if I want to!

    She’s written a second book – Voluntary Madness: My Year Lost and Found in the Loony Bin – apparently, living as a man for a year drove her to a mental institution…

    • Michelle says:

      It did actually! That’s how she more or less ended her book. She mentioned that she had something of a nervous breakdown because of all the guilt about lying and things like that. That was the part of the book I liked most. Hmm…

  • Vishy says:

    Interesting book! Sorry to know that you didn’t like it. Maybe the author got into her disguised role so much that she started reflecting some of the views that some men might hold. It must have been an interesting and tough experiment for her though.

    • Michelle says:

      Yes, it was tough for her. Like I said to Christa *nods up*, she ended up having a nervous breakdown, and had to go to a mental institution after. The book doesn’t go into much detail of her time after that, but her second book *might* be interesting as well.

  • mee says:

    Eh? I’m sure I left a comment here yesterday! Did I forget to hit submit?

    I’m sorry you didn’t like the book! I read it a few years back and I was probably a more forgiving reader back then.

    I guess the idea is interesting, but the author failed to deliver. I didn’t know she wrote a second book! But the premise doesn’t sound as interesting as the first one.

  • Blob says:

    >> I didn’t think the overall theme of the book gave me much insight into a woman’s perspective in society.

    Heh, I think the whole point was to try and see a mans’ perspective in the first place, or at least a female perspective on a mans’ perspective. I actually rather applaud the concept of trying to be open-minded about her experiences, and *not* cram everything into a female/feminist perpective.

    >> who had the guts to disguise herself and live in a world full of testosterone for more than a year, I had expected it to have a bit more edge

    Perhaps she did too, but the edge wasn’t there to find. It’s fairly clear that she half-expected to walk into a world of unbridled privelege, constantly fearing brutal retribution for having breached the deep male secrets of ultimate power, and the doubtless desperate measures that would be taken to prevent her leaking those secrets to the world – which kind of failed to happen

    >> I was left wondering if the book sounded apologetic for the violence that some men fall back to, regardless of whether it was against men or women

    Having *actually* experienced life as a perceived male, perhaps she merely has a better insight into some (not all) causes of male violence, rather than assuming that all male violence is simply a consequence of men being inherently violent beings.Violence can be bred by frustration and despair, as well as rage and hate. Understanding an action does not have to imply acceptance of, or be equal to condoning that action.

    I suspect her mental problems were partly due to the unaccustomed stresses presented by living as a straight white male, when most of her experience and socialisation has fitted her to deal with the challenges of life as a gay white female. Coupled with the continual stress of having to lie fairly constantly, and always having to think about every word and action, I’m moderately amazed she lasted 18 months. Even the most “Method” of actors only have to put on another skin for a few months at a stetch, and a not insignificant fraction of those get pretty unhinged at one time or another.

    Please note that this is not a “what about teh menz” comment. One of the most interesting, but unvoiced, messages of the book is how much “white straight male” is still a default in society, to both men *and* women, but that “default” does not automatically equal “priveleged”

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