No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Saturday, February 21, 2009

#10: Self-Made Man -- Norah Vincent

I don't really know what it's like to be a man. I never could. But I know approximately. I know some of what it is like to be treated as one. And that, in the end, was what this experiment was all about. Not being but being received. (p. 273)

Norah Vincent wanted to see if she could pass for male: when her first experiments succeeded, she decided to attempt to live as a man for a year and a half. She took her project seriously, changing not just her physical appearance (haircut, bound breasts, fake beard, glasses, men's clothing) but -- courtesy of drama coaches -- the way she talked and moved. Norah became Ned, and Self-Made Man is the story of how Ned became increasingly different from Norah.

Ned saw that, and then I saw Ned seeing it, and then I saw myself. ... [Ned] was a mirror and a window and a prism all at the same time. (p.99)

I started reading this last year -- possibly the year before -- and set it aside, perhaps because I was bothered by one of Vincent's experiments: entering a monastery in male guise. I still don't feel happy with the morality of that, the infiltration of an all-male community that is defined by the vows of its genuine members, by retreat from exposure to the female sex.

Each chapter deals with a different 'social experiment': 'Friendship' involves becoming one of the boys on a bowling team; 'Love' is about dating women; 'Sex' is about hanging out at the local 'titty bar' (does it help that Vincent's a lesbian? apparently not); 'Life', where I faltered, is the monastery experiment; 'Work' sees Ned becoming a door-to-door salesman in a predominantly male company; in 'Self', Ned joins a men's therapy group. And in each chapter Norah/Ned sees a different side of what it's like to be male.

Dating women as a man was a lesson in female power, and it made me ... into a momentary misogynist, which, I suppose, was the best indicator that my experiment had worked. I saw my own sex from the other side, and I disliked women irrationally for a while because of it. I disliked their superiority, their accusatory smiles, their entitlement to choose or dash me with a fingertip ... Typical male power feels by comparison like a blunt instrument, its salvos and field strategies laughably remedial next to the damage a woman can do with a single cutting word: no. (p. 97)

There were a few recurring themes. Class, for one (and forgive me for framing this in British terminology: I know American society doesn't work the same way. But there's a sense of elitism, of superiority, that seems based on something I recognise as social class.) Vincent is a liberal, well-educated, middle-class individual: several of the social experiments brought her into working-class environments, and it's as though she was doubly a fraud -- not a man and not one of them.

Another theme is the all-male environment. Where there are women involved, they're the Other Side (dating) or objectified, or even objects of hatred. I'd have been interested to read about Vincent passing in a mixed-sex, less polarised setting: a hobby group, an evening class, something less loaded.

And I do wonder if she passed as well as she thinks she did: or whether people (not the men she was closest to, the men she bonded with, but those less involved) did notice, and simply didn't say anything -- for fear of embarrassment, for fear of being wrong, or just because it was none of their business.

I'm glad I continued reading to the end: the chapter about Vincent joining the men's therapy group -- a workshop / retreat based on Bly's Iron John -- was utterly fascinating, not least because it showed Vincent beginning to fall apart. Throughout the book there's a growing sense that Ned is a different person to Norah, and in the 'Self' chapter she's beginning to write about him as a distinct entity:

... I hadn't had an opportunity to find out how many of Ned's feelings about his masculinity and his place in the world were real or imagines, a genuine part of masculine experience of just the product of my female eyes filtering that experience. (p.251)

In the men's group Norah starts to feel guilty about the deception she's practicing. (This is especially interesting as by this point 'Ned' is more real than he's ever been before.) She ends up craving punishment, asking one of the men to cut her as part of a ritual 'spirit dance' where the men work through some of their issues. I thought that if I paid some penalty, some physically painful penalty for lying to [the group], then everything would be paid for; not just everything there in the group, but everything throughout the project. (p. 261) She doesn't go through with this 'penalty', but she does appreciate that her mental state's not great. Later, still apparently not realising that 18 months as an imposter -- imposters who aren't sociopaths eventually implode (p.269) -- have led to some mental health issues, she starts to think that her anti-depressants aren't working and checks herself into a hospital. With hindsight, she understands the consequences to herself of her deception rather better: I found it increasingly difficult and then impossible to keep my male and female personae intact simultaneously ... it was like trying to sustain two mutually exclusive ideas in my mind at the same time, and ... this cognitive dissonance essentially shut down my brain. (p.285)

I found the 'Self' chapter, about the men's group, most fascinating because most strange. The men's tales brought home to me some of the issues that afflict contemporary men: Vincent is sober and thoughtful about the role of both sexes in perpetuating stereotypes and gender-polarised behaviour. I don't think she's saying that any of the gender differences she found are innate, chromosome-based, biologically determined: it's more about society and the way that gender roles form a rigid framework.

The book's full of interesting observations and discussion: the different ways in which men and women treat pain, the differences in how they talk to and about one another, the body language, the unspoken intimacies of masculine bonding. How a man (or a woman pretending to be a man) assumes power, and relinquishes it.

People see weakness in a woman and they want to help. They see weakness in a man and they want to stamp it out. (p. 213)

I found Self-Made Man fascinating, occasionally immoral, occasionally deeply irritating. I wonder what male readers think of this book. I wonder if I really do -- as I believe -- have any more understanding of what it's like to be male today.

Atlas [holding up the world] can't protect himself in that position. Anybody could just walk right up to him and kick him in the balls. (p.257)

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