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Norah Vincent’s Self-Made Man, A Must-Read Book on the Absence of Intimacy in Men’s Lives (Among Other Things)

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

WELCOME INSTAPUNDIT READERS!! While you’re here, take a look around at what columnist Dale Carpenter called “the most reliably conservative gay blog on the Internet.”

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17 Comments

  1. What a beautiful review. Absolutely the top of the form–this tells me so much about what the book has to offer.

    And in addition to being a great review, you give us such thoughtful reflections. This is such as excellent piece of writing, it stands on its own as a lovely essay.

    Thank you.

    Comment by Sarah Rolph — February 19, 2006 @ 9:14 am - February 19, 2006

  2. ‘The part she hated most about being a man was learning that, “As a guy you get about a three-note emotional range” ‘

    Actually that’s the good part. Low maint.

    Comment by Bandit — February 19, 2006 @ 9:15 am - February 19, 2006

  3. Hmm. This review implies, in a delicate way, that yet another woman has observed men to conclude that something is wrong with them that only women can fix. And dear GPW, men are not catty, queens are. Let’s not get confused, lol. All in all this book does not sound scientific. There is no control group, no baseline. It appears to be the opinion of a lesbian disguised as a man who decieves clergy, straight women, and bowling buddies, etc. whose own interaction in this “experiement” must have been bound to affect peoples behaviors and the outcome of this “experiment”. The expression of her opinion may well have been artful and moving. But as we are all observers of human nature we should also be at least somewhat skeptical of her conclusions.

    Comment by Dave — February 19, 2006 @ 10:15 am - February 19, 2006

  4. The book is worth a read. It’s alternately funny and insightful. Sadly, it is also more than a little creepy. The author (as a man) dates women, and as she’s seducing at leat one of them breaks the news that she’s really a woman. The author also tries to learn about men by visiting strip clubs. Fair enough. Except that the author spends what appears to be an inordinate amount of time (i.e. visit after visit after visit) to the lowest, foulest pits she can find. It’s also clear from reading the book that she went into the experience thinking that most, if not, all men were racists, homophobes, and woman haters who are slaves to their sex drives. In the end, she seems to learn that men are more complex and varied than that. In short, I felt sorry for the author.

    Comment by George — February 19, 2006 @ 11:40 am - February 19, 2006

  5. i was not familiar with norah before i read the book. i am a 43 year old male hetero who was fascinated by the subject. as i read the book i was slowly coming to realize something wasn’t what i expected. then she told me outright she was a lesbian and i was taken aback. it changed the whole outlook i had for the rest of the book. i enjoyed it immensely, but it wasn’t what i had been looking for. i want a hetero female to look into a man’s world the next time i buy a book like this. she is a great writer but way too conflicted for my simplistic mind.

    Comment by marc savard — February 19, 2006 @ 12:40 pm - February 19, 2006

  6. Dan ’85,

    What, no comment about how you and Norah ’90 share a common alma mater?

    Have no fear, We over at EphBlog will be linking to this and noting the lovely ephconvergence!

    Comment by Loweeel — February 19, 2006 @ 12:53 pm - February 19, 2006

  7. Ooops, I posted way too soon, as I just skimmed it looking class years… my apologies!

    Comment by Loweeel — February 19, 2006 @ 12:53 pm - February 19, 2006

  8. marc, my impression was that Vincent had mentioned it but, for whatever reason, chose to downplay it in the initial chapters. She threw out a lot of “code”: starting out with a mention of “drag kings”, commenting that she was a tomboy as a child and noting a “girlfriend”. But I think you had to already know that she was gay to decipher this code; in my case, from reading her Salon work back in 1997-2000 when Salon was worth reading.

    I’m not sure why she chose such seedy strip clubs for her experiment nor why she kept going back. Even Jim, the guy she went with, wasn’t comfortable with them. They’re certainly far worse than any I’ve visited. Although she does put her finger on why normal men, including Jim, prefer to attend more upscale joints and less frequently (when they go at all) rather than attend a “cheaper” place more often. Yecch!

    Comment by David Ross — February 19, 2006 @ 4:01 pm - February 19, 2006

  9. david,
    i was watching foxnews when she was interviewed. she was asked by the audience at noon if she had to kiss a woman, and all she did was nod her head, and everyone went ‘eeewwww’. it was never stated during the interview that she was a lesbian. pretty weird. i too think she could have gone to some more typical places like a professional office, a sports bar, a construction site. it was focused too heavily on the seedier side of life.

    Comment by marc savard — February 19, 2006 @ 6:03 pm - February 19, 2006

  10. I’m very glad she made it out with her sanity intact. Gender Dysphoria is bad enough when you’re born with it, and faking male is far easier when you have male hormones in your system.
    What she did was extremely dangerous. Having to act in a role contrary to your gender for long periods will cause depression, and usually suicidal ideation. It gets worse the longer you do it too.

    Comment by Zoe Brain — February 19, 2006 @ 7:28 pm - February 19, 2006

  11. What I wrote about it, three weeks or so ago:

    Who else will speak up for the guys? If we do it, anything we say will be dismissed as self-serving bloviation, and few are the straight women who are inclined to say anything on our behalf these days, especially if they suspect they’re being overheard by persons wearing “Crush the Patriarchy” shirts.

    As a garden-variety straight guy, I appreciated this book tremendously.

    Comment by CGHill — February 19, 2006 @ 9:36 pm - February 19, 2006

  12. I liked it. My wife is currently reading it now, and seems pretty wrapped up in it.

    I’m glad Ms. Vincent’s experience helped to disabuse a few misconceptions she had. I know her experience helped disabuse me of a few.

    Still some serious misconceptions about the military and those who serve, however. Hey, subject for her next book perhaps.

    Kalroy

    Comment by Kalroy — February 20, 2006 @ 1:38 am - February 20, 2006

  13. Actually, David in #8, I had a similar reaction when I first read the passages where she recounted going to the seediest places — and taking a job in a non-traditional line of work. The latter is more easily explained as it would be very difficult for her to maintain her disguise in a job which had the traditional interviewing and vetting process.

    While I thought she offered the most insight in her chapters on the monastery and men’s group, I thought she showed that one could learn from watching men even in the seediest places. It is her observations of men which make this book worth its price (and then some). And if you can draw a universal from the seediest of environments, you have still drawn a universal.

    Comment by GayPatriotWest — February 20, 2006 @ 2:00 am - February 20, 2006

  14. Hello,
    I am a French publisher based in Paris.
    I would like much to read this book “Self made man” by Norah Vincent : could you indicate me the name of the Publishing House so that I can get in touch with them and ask them to send me a proof copy ?
    Thank you so much in advance.
    Best regards,
    Florence Maletrez
    Rights Sales Manager
    LES PRESSES DE LA RENAISSANCE

    Comment by Florence MALETREZ — February 24, 2006 @ 7:59 am - February 24, 2006

  15. i will read it. i forget the exact name of the book, but i recently read something about the feminisation of the american man. how wussy some of them have became and how it is the result of pressure from women. it’s arguable, but it’s interesting…

    Comment by themoldlawyer — March 31, 2006 @ 2:44 pm - March 31, 2006

  16. […] I just got back from a discussion and signing of Self-Made Man: One Woman’s Journey into Manhood and Back, the wonderful book by Norah Vincent, a graduate, like yours truly of America’s finest small college. I had reviewed the book last February and still ***highly recommend*** it. In the book, Norah recounts her experiences living for eighteen months as a man and offers observations on what she learned in that guise. […]

    Pingback by World and Global Politics Blog » Blog Archive » Norah Speaks; GPW in His Element — January 30, 2007 @ 1:06 am - January 30, 2007

  17. […] for the meaning of manhood than perhaps anyone (I’ve encountered) since Norah Vincent wrote of her life as a man in Self-Made […]

    Pingback by GayPatriot » Athena at the Oscars — March 8, 2010 @ 5:01 pm - March 8, 2010

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