When Glenn Reynolds first blogged about Norah Vincent’s new book Self-Made Man: One Woman’s Journey into Manhood and Back, I knew I had to read the book not only because I have enjoyed this iconoclastic lesbian’s columns, but also because, like me, Norah is a graduate of America’s finest small college. Despite its hype, the book did not disappoint. Indeed, I would call it one of the most important books published in the past decade, particularly important for gay people as it deals with the difficult subject of gender difference.
I ***highly recommend*** this book and regret that I will not be able to address all of the many points Norah raises. I underlined so frequently that were I just to type up the passages that struck me, I would spend all weekend on this post.
After spending one evening in drag in Greenwich Village, then watching a TV reality show where two men and two women “set out to transform themselves into the opposite sex,” Norah realized that the show’s producers “didn’t have much interest in the deeper sociological implications of passing as the opposite sex.” So, she decided to do her own experiment and live for a few months disguised as a man named Ned so she could “survey some of the unexplored territory that the show had left out.” Over the course of eighteen months, she would join a bowling league, frequent a strip club, date a number of women, live in a monastery, work as a door-to-door salesman and join a men’s group.
Of the many things she learned in her life as a man, what struck me the most (perhaps because it relates to the Ph.D. dissertation I hope to write on the role of the goddess Athena in men’s lives) is her growing awareness of women’s role as “communicators, the interlocutors between men and themselves, men and their children and even men and each other.” She found that one of the downsides of life at the abbey was that the “nurturing influence that women could provide, the communicative skills they could lend and foster were lost to these men, and much to their emotional detriment.”
We gay men are as in need of that nurturing influence as those monks in the abbey. The monks “took refuge in machismo because they feared inappropriate intimacies between men.” They feared being seen as weak — or gay. And yet, we gay men, comfortable defining ourselves as such, seem often to take refuge in a similar machismo, boasting about our sexual conquests and making catty remarks about having sex with our buddies, not so much out of sexual desire, but because we too fear intimacy. It’s far easier to boast about sex or hook up with another man than it is to forge an emotional connection with him.
And perhaps that’s why this book is so significant for gay men, especially at a time when gay marriage has become a hot topic — and not only in our community. It seems this fear of intimacy is a problem which plagues all men. And without women to serve as interlocutors in our personal relationships, we need to find a means to overcome this fear lest those relationships be nothing more than erotic encounters.
Not only did Norah discover men’s fear of intimacy, but she also became increasingly sympathetic for our sex. She found that being a man in today’s world is hard work. Two guys in her men’s group drew their heroes as Atlas, the Greek deity who holds the world on his shoulders.
And she saw “how by turns brutish and powerless a man can feel in the company of women.” Many of the women she dated carried “the baggage of previous hurts at the hands of men” and frequently projected their pain onto men in general, not seeing the men on their dates as individuals but rather as representatives of a hateful species. In her men’s group, she met one man, outwardly the “powerful masculine ideal,” but “an outcast in his own life, excruciatingly insecure in his position, compelled to make a brave show of it on the outside, forbidden to show weakness, yet plagued by it nonetheless.” He was always afraid of losing his beautiful girlfriend to a guy with more money or “higher social status.”
The part she hated most about being a man was learning that, “As a guy you get about a three-note emotional range” whereas women “get octaves, chromatic scales of tears and joys and anxieties and despairs and erotic flamboyance” among other things. And it is getting beyond this three-note range where we find the emotions which draw us closer to our fellows and sustain us as human beings. More often than not, women help men access those emotions. And as gay men, we need to integrate that traditionally feminine function into our lives and so enrich our relationships.
There is much in this book that I haven’t touched upon in this post, intriguing experiences she recounts, observations she makes, insight into the difference between the genders — and her own life — that she offers. She was fascinated that even as she spent less time on making herself up to look like a man, people still saw in Ned what she had “conditioned them to see.” She concluded that her gender “has roots in my brain, possibly biochemical ones, living very close to the core of my self-image . . ., closer than my race or class or religion or nationality, so close in fact as to be incomparable with these categories.” It’s not just her gender. I believe this holds true for all of us.
I could not read this book in a single sitting — or even in a few sittings. Because it so made me think — and quite often feel — I could only read it chunks. As I read, I frequently found myself closing the book, yet marking my place with a finger as I pondered her experiences — and the conclusions she offered.
This book made me think deeply about my life, how, despite my sexuality, I am still very similar to other men, but also made me aware of where I differ from the majority of my sex. Her book made me wonder whether that difference was because of my sexuality or my individuality. And, like any good book which looks into our humanity, it opened some old wounds, painful perhaps, but the kind of pain (if pain it was) that makes us better understand.
Auden once wrote that “one cannot understand one’s mother country without having lived in at least two others.” Norah’s book makes me wonder that if we’re truly to understand our own gender, we need to live as a “member” of the opposite sex for a few months. Or at least read a good book by someone who has. And so, without further ado, go out to your local bookstore and buy this book or just click here to order it from Amazon. Read this book. And take your time doing so.
-B. Daniel Blatt (AKA GayPatriotWest): GayPatriotWest@aol.com
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