Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Norah Vincent's "Self-Made Man: One Woman's Journey into Manhood and Back"

Self-Made Man: One Woman's Journey into Manhood and Back by Norah Vincent

Well, good stuff. It seems to this reader that Vincent is further along than most people get on the journey to self-knowledge. She's also a craftswoman whose prose consistently draws along the reader's interest -- though there is the occasional glitch, such as "In [Robert] Bly's reading of the Grimm tale 'Iron John,' passive, fearful men must have the courage to reclaim their essential manhood by literally [sic] dredging up this lost fierceness and vitality from inside them, just as the young men in the Grimm story dredge up hairy, muddy Iron John from the bottom of a swamp."
(230). I guess the editor at Viking missed that one. But we are told later that Vincent's father was an icy grammarian, so it makes sense that so competent a writer can nevertheless be found making such a gaffe, in an unconscious slap at Dad. It's mostly well-written.
I did not like her third chapter at all. "Sex" is one unremittingly damning portrait of what must have been the worst strip club in the world. I am not about to launch into a paean to Strip Club Culture and lose six hours of my life researching the web sites and books that perfectly epitomize my nuanced position on the matter, but I do not regard them as either snakepits of abysmal cynicism nor innocent dens of Bacchanalian joy. Vincent wound up in some hellish hole in the ground, and seems to have taken it as representative.

The basic action of the book -- comprising the year Nora Vincent spent on a calendar she turned mosaic with Ned days and Norah hours; the choices she made at the keyboard; and the book that resulted -- is a gesture of social empathy, enacted through deception of that empathy's objects. Like the rest of us she, too -- this handsome, mag-writing, not-so-academic dyke -- is an ego with a c.v. who undertakes projects she can sell. But she also seems to care about people in general, and, with understandable ambivalence, she cares about men, too. The author's basic decency is what keeps the book interesting, not the ironies of deceiving someone in order to empathize with him. When Norah Vincent poses as one Ned Vincent in order to join a men's league bowling team, a men-only monastery, and then a men's movement retreat, the deception is necessary if the book is to appear; but the book is an act of love and understanding, and I agree with the author's reasoned if somewhat self-serving conclusion that it's a good enough book to justify the crap she put people through in getting it researched and written.
Strikingly, according to the book's final pages all this bullshitting in the name of the truth seems to have exacted a serious personal price -- a voluntary trip to the psych ward -- which itself became the basis for her next book, Voluntary Madness: My Year Lost and Found in the Loony Bin, out now from Viking.

I enjoyed the weird Self-Made Man, and I appreciate the sacrifices its author made in the effort to write it.

As with Susan Faludi's Stiffed, I find myself impressed with a book whose core motive is solidarity and compassion. Now here are some excerpts, all from a few pages just before the book's end. I find a few of Norah Vincent's formulations so compelling that I've put them in boldface. From
Self-Made Man: One Woman's Journey into Manhood and Back by Norah Vincent:
It was hard being a guy. Really hard. And there were a lot of reasons for this, most of which, when I recount them, make me sound like a tired and prototypical angry young man.

It’s not exactly a pose I relish. I used to hate that character, the guy in the play or the novel who drones on and on about his rotten deal in life and everyone else’s responsibility for it. I always found him tedious and unsympathetic. But after living as a guy for even just a small slice of a lifetime, I can really relate to that screed and give you one of my own. In fact, that’s the only way I can truthfully characterize my life as a guy. I didn’t like it.

I didn’t like how wooden I felt and had to make myself in order to pass as a believable guy. I had to do a lot of crossing out when I crossed from woman to man. I hadn’t anticipated this when I’d started as Ned. I had thought that by being a guy I would get to do all the things I didn’t get to do as a woman, things I’d always envied about boyhood when I was a child: the perceived freedoms of being unafraid in the world, stamping around loudly with my legs apart. But when it actually came to the business of being Ned I rarely felt free at all. Far from busting loose I found myself clamping down instead.

I curtailed everything: my laugh, my word choice, my gestures, my expressions. Spontaneity went out the window, replaced by terseness, dissimulation and control. I hardened and denied to the point almost of ossification.

I couldn’t be myself, and after a while, this really got me down. I spent so much time worrying about being found out, even after I knew that nobody would question the drag, that I began to feel as stiff and scripted as a sandwich board. And it wasn’t being found out as a woman that I was really worried about. It was being found out as less than a real man, and I suspect that this is something a lot of men endure their whole lives, this constant scrutiny and self-scrutiny.
Somebody is always evaluating your manhood. Whether it’s other men, other women, even children. And everybody is always on the lookout for your weakness or your inadequacy, as if it’s some kind of plague they’re terrified of catching, or, more importantly, of other men catching. If you don’t make the right move, put your eyes in the right place at any given moment, in the eyes of the culture at large that threatens the whole structure. Consequently, somebody has always got to be there kicking you under the table, redirecting, making or keeping you a real man.

And that, I learned very quickly, is the straitjacket of the male role, and one that is no less constrictive than its feminine counterpart. You’re not allowed to be a complete human being. Instead you get to be a coached jumble of stoic poses. You get to be what’s expected of you.

[ ]

Of course, being seen as an effeminate man taught me a lot about the relativity of gender. I’d been considered a masculine woman all my life. That’s part of what made this project possible. But I figured that when I went out as a guy some imbalance would correct itself and I’d be just a regular Joe, well within the acceptable gender spectrum. But suddenly, as a man, people were seeing my femininity, bursting out all over the place, and they did not receive it well. Not even the women really. They, too, wanted me to be more manly and buff, and sometimes they made their fag assumptions, too, even while they were dating me. Hence the phrase “my gay boyfriend.” Women were hard to please in this respect. They wanted me to be in control, baroquely big and strong both in spirit and in body, but also tender and vulnerable at the same time, subservient to their whims and bunny soft. They wanted someone to lean on and hold on to, to look up to and collapse beside, but someone who knew his reduced place in the postfeminist world nonetheless. They held their presumed moral and sexual superiority over me and at times tried to manipulate me with it.

But standing in the pit of the male psyche was no better. There I saw men at their worst, too. I saw how degraded and awful a relentless, humiliating sex drive could make you and how…

[ ]

…someone hanging over my shoulder taking notes, and even though hearing encouragement was always better than being demeaned as a fag, or a brute, or a failure, it was still insulting all the same, because it told me that just being me wasn’t enough.

This was not just my complaint, not just a woman’s mismatch with a man’s part in the world, though that certainly heightened the contrast. It was the complaint of every guy in my men’s group, and a problem if not always a complaint for almost every guy I met, though some of them were too shut down to express, much less see, how much damage “manhood” was doing to them.

In that sense my experience wasn’t unique. Being a guy was just like that much of the time, a series of unrealistic, limiting, infuriating and depressing expectations constantly coming over the wire, and you just a dummy trying to act on the instructions. White manhood in America isn’t the standard anymore by which women and all other minorities are being measured and found wanting, or at least it doesn’t feel that way from the inside. It’s just another set of marching orders, another stereotype to inhabit.

Learning this surprised me. At the beginning of the project I remember thinking that living as a man and having access to a man’s world would be like gaining admission to the big auditorium for the main event after having spent my life watching the proceedings from a video monitor on the lawn outside. I expected everything to be big and out in the open, the real deal live and three feet from my face, instead of seen through a glass darkly. To be sure, there was a time in America when this would have been so, when boardrooms and a thousand other places were for men only, and worming my way into them would have gotten me the royal treatment and given me the very feeling of exclusivity and enlargement that I was anticipating.
But for me getting into the so called boys’ club in the early years of the new millennium felt much more like joining a subculture than a country club. Walking around and interacting with other men as one of them seemed in certain ways a lot like how it feels to interact with other gay people in the straight world. When certain men shook Ned’s hand and called him buddy it felt as if they were recognizing him as one of their own in much the same way that gay people, when we meet each other, often give each other some sign of inclusion that says: “You’re one of my people.”

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