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Norah Speaks; GPW in His Element

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.

Perhaps due to her excellent college education, Norah did not do a traditional reading where an author reads a select passage from her (or his) book to whet book-buyers’ appetite for the rest of her work. Instead, she led a discussion, more like a college seminar than anything else. And yours truly was truly, truly in his element, frequently chiming in, noting how lesbians seemed to get relationships right and defending the book’s fifth chapter — about her experiences in a monastery — as one of the best. Two men (one gay, the other straight) who otherwise enjoyed the book did not particularly like that section of the book.

I liked that chapter because it was there that she realized how women serve “communicators, the interlocutors between men and themselves, men and their children and even men and each other.” She became aware of the absence of intimacy in the all-male environment of the monastery.

What was interesting about the conversation tonight was that we (that is, those who came to hear Norah) basically agreed with those who commented to my recent post on Vulnerabilty that our difficulty relating to one another has more to do with our gender than our orientation. Women seem to “get” relationships better than men.

There was, however, disagreement on whether or not women could really “tame” (my word which I acknowledge is perhaps a bit too clunky) men and that we would always be driven to stray. I got into a heated discussion with a gay physician, disagreeing on the ability of men to settle down. I believed we are capable of that. He was dubious. And to show you how I differ from many gay men, I gave him my card not because he was my type, but because I enjoyed our exchange. It seemed one could have a great conversation with him.

The conversation tonight reminds me why I loved Norah’s book so much. That it’s one of those works which really gets at important matters — and does so in such away that invites a good discussion. And I loved that Borders Bookstore gave Norah Vincent the forum to promote her book and she used it to initiate a lively exchange. While those of there did not always agree, we did show great respect for the other fans of this wonderful book. And had the kind of civil discussion of which I wish we could see more of on this blog.



  1. Interesting topic. A woman who disguises herself as a man, and successfully lives in a monastery for eighteen months? I have not read the book but am now interested in reviewing it.
    I was drawn to the comment about how the author became “aware of the absence of intimacy in the all male environment.”
    I’m just questioning that due to the forum in which she picked to do her research, she would not surprisingly find a lack of intimacy.
    The monks have taken many vows and pledged their life to god and have purposely given up “intimacy”. I’m just wondering if she, the author, was able to hypothetically disguise herself as a man in an all male company or corporation, she would see many signs of intimacy, male bonding and healthy monogamous and commited relationships. It is my opinion that the very environment that was chosen for this study, would create a certain bias to specific results she was looking for. If anyone else has read the book and can illuminate this for me, please let me know.

    Comment by Russell K — January 30, 2007 @ 1:56 am - January 30, 2007

  2. Russell, Norah spent 18 months disguised as a man. only about one of those was spent in a monestary.
    My sense from that chapter was that many of the monks had long forgotten why they chose that life style. Many of them seemed locked into a routine, forgetting the spiritual reasons that brought them to it in the first place.

    The one thing that she was unable to do was spend time with well adusted happily married men.
    She joins a bowling league, the men who are willing to spend extra time with ‘Ned’, beyond bowling – tend to be those who are not that anxious to go home to their families.
    She dates – spending time with a variety of women – looking for men.
    She works at one of those low end – commission only door to door sales jobs. Not the place one will meet confident successful men.
    She goes on one of those ‘Iron John’ all male retreats, again angst is required, I’m sure a weekend fishing with the guys would have been a very different group of men.
    And finally she delves into the porn – stripper club world – makes ones skin crawl just reading about it.

    I’m not trying to knock Norah, she did what she was able to do in disguise, and did an amazing job. But she wasn’t able to get into the ‘normative’ male experience.

    As for women being better at relationships. We sure get the emotional stuff, sometimes way too much. Women often lose all sense of judgement and fairness in their emotional mode.

    It is not women who tame men, it is a two way street. Women bring the emotional componant – men the rational. Women need as much taming as men do. Neither gender is superior, both bring important attributes to the table.

    Comment by Leah — January 30, 2007 @ 11:40 am - January 30, 2007

  3. Interesting theory, Leah. Just out of curiosity, do you consider yourself a “gender feminist?”

    I’m not trying to knock you, by any stretch of the imagination. I merely am interested in your views on the differences between the sexes and how they interrelate with each other.

    Reason I’m asking – one of my dear departed friends considered herself a gender feminist. Her view was framed by Camille Paglia, who postulated that a woman’s natural self was her key to equality with men.

    Peter H.

    Comment by Peter Hughes — January 30, 2007 @ 12:01 pm - January 30, 2007

  4. Peter,
    I don’t consider myself a feminst at all. I come from the Orthodox Jewish tradition of seperate but equal (I’m not orthodox now, but was my upbringing). I’m one of those weird people in a very traditional marriage, (28 years and going strong) my husband is the bread winner, I have earned my own money in the past but now have the luxury of being a professional volunteer. I have raised three amazing sons, who have a lot of respect for both men and women.
    I guess my big beef with feminism is the idea the women are better than men, they are not. I know many a woman who functions very well in the mans world, and men who have done wonderful jobs single handedly raising a family. I love the freedom and choices we have here in the west, and I’m just very happy to have a traditional marriage along with a the freedom to be a strong independent minded woman.

    Comment by Leah — January 30, 2007 @ 3:37 pm - January 30, 2007

  5. Leah, thanks for the insight. Your view is similar to (but not exactly like) Paglia’s, who coined the term “gender feminist” as sort of the anti-feminist that you broke down in the last paragraph. Sort of like a “feminine feminist,” if you will.

    The gender feminist is traditional in all sense of the word, yet she realizes that men and women are not only created differently but respond differently to the same stimuli. Therefore (according to Paglia), the gender feminist will use whatever the Creator gave her to achieve success without destroying or denying those things which make her different.

    Sounds like you succeeded beautifully. Thanks for being a great contributor and conversationalist. Mazel tov!

    Peter H.

    Comment by Peter Hughes — January 30, 2007 @ 4:24 pm - January 30, 2007

  6. Peter, I can live with being called a gender feminist. Though usually simply being refered to as a proud Jewish mom works just as well.

    Comment by Leah — January 30, 2007 @ 6:15 pm - January 30, 2007

  7. Good post, GPW. It piques my curiosity about the book, and I’m inclined to read it now. I also disagree with your (hopefully) newfound physician friend. Men are absolutely capable of ‘taming’ down once in a relationship. I think that this ability is universal for both genders, whether gay, straight or bi (are there ‘others?’ — ).

    In all seriousness, I’ve met and know many long term male couples, who over the years have mellowed and are very well grounded/nested. I knew a few of the men before they got ‘married’ and they are different people now than when they were single (believe it!). These men are very happy and secure in their relationships, and are inspiration for us all. Men are just as capable of ‘taming’ as women (maybe in a different ways, but capable/adaptable nonetheless). I think the majority of us are not only very capable of, but acually aspiring to settle down with that one special lifemate, especially as we age (and the older we get, the more we embrace the idea of married life). As an added footnote, I wish I didn’t have to put quotes around the word ‘marriage’ when I refer to same-sex committed relationships.
    *sigh* — maybe some day…..

    Comment by ndtovent — January 30, 2007 @ 7:00 pm - January 30, 2007

  8. Thank you Leah for your insightful comments. I had not been inclined to read a book about a woman masquerading as a male (putting on the clothes may fool somebody but it doesn’t give you that perspective) but now perhaps I will. But I liked what you said about real equality of the sexes and it was fair. I work for an herbal tea company which is drenched in political correctness (we start our diversity training on Thursday!) and the “women worshipping” is prevalent everywhere. When the company had done up its web site we were all asked to comment on it. I told the Marketing Department it looked like a feminine hygeine commercial. They were not amused. “But I’m not joking”, I said.
    Thanks for your thoughts. I wish more women thought like you.

    Comment by Jim G — January 31, 2007 @ 1:55 am - January 31, 2007

  9. Dear GPW,
    I’m on the fence about reading this book. I’ve read the review and heard her on the radio. It sounds like an intriguing concept but her conclusions all seem to be common sense / obvious. Every time I heard her interviewed, she talked about great discoveries like: her bowling league friends were not all knuckledragging women haters or that when she dated women they had the power of “no,” took great fun in rejecting men or brought all kinds of baggage on dates. So before I invest time in reading the book, did you find that she offered any new info or insights on the subject? If so, what were they? I’m not trying to be snarky but it just seems like that woman who wore the fat suit and discovered that people aren’t nice to fat, ugly people. Duh. Any info would be appreciated.

    Comment by BlackRedneck — January 31, 2007 @ 2:40 am - January 31, 2007

  10. Hey, BlackRedneck, you would do well to check the book out as it makes you think. And she does address the issue of the difference between the genders, offering a perspective that few have been able to give.

    Comment by GayPatriotWest — January 31, 2007 @ 7:09 pm - January 31, 2007

  11. Thanks for the info. I think I will check it out. If nothing else, the whole monastary thing sounds wicked cool.

    Comment by BlackRedneck — February 1, 2007 @ 3:41 am - February 1, 2007

  12. Hey, BlackRedNeck, I think you’ll appreciate her insights in that chapter — as well as in others in the book!

    Comment by GayPatriotWest — February 1, 2007 @ 7:26 pm - February 1, 2007

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