One Woman's Self-Made ManI read Norah Vincent’s book Self-Made Man: One Woman’s Journey Into Manhood and Back Again during the week of the initial revelations about writers James Frey and JT Leroy. It was a pretty fascinating moment -- suddenly everyone was concerned with the meaning and value of truth, and subjectivity became a buzzword. Though his offenses were generally considered less egregious (or maybe just less mainstream), the Leroy drama seemed to me like the more interesting of the two. The Frey scandal was related to masculinity and macho posturing in ways that deserve a closer look, but Leroy’s situation was perhaps more obviously and immediately gendered. Leroy had always been painted as a literary wunderkind, a man-boy who was marginalized largely because of his sexuality and transgender identity, and marked by a history of abuse and trauma. But as was divulged in a torrent of articles in several major publications, JT Leroy doesn’t actually exist. He is the creation of Laura Albert, who has been writing under the name for years, and whose niece has been Leroy’s androgynous public face.
Considering this news and the sudden, widespread concern about constructed identities that came along with it, Self-Made Man -- in which Vincent, a lesbian, goes undercover as a man -- should have resonated more than it did. From John Howard Griffin’s 1959 Black Like Me, to Gloria Steinem’s Playboy Bunny exposé of 1963, to New York Times restaurant critic Frank Bruni’s recent stint as a waiter, immersion journalism has been the stuff of book deals and serious publicity. At its best, the work gets beyond the gimmick and into a real understanding of its subjects (à la Nickel and Dimed by Barbara Ehrenreich). Vincent’s investigation would seem to be a particularly radical version of this, since she is attempting to subvert gender, arguably the foundation of most people's identity. To the apparent surprise of some (male) critics, her intent was never to undermine men’s spaces and spill their secrets: she is driven by a relatively innocent desire to understand what life is like for men. Her male alter-ego, “Ned,” is sensitive and inquisitive (if not a little naïve), eager to gain access to men’s secret clubs but refreshingly lacking in expectations about what he’ll find once inside. It turns out that Ned and Norah are not really so different, apart from Ned’s faux stubble and a strategic prosthesis.
In the chapter on “Friendship,” Ned joins an all-male bowling league and builds camaraderie with other men. “Sex” finds him hanging out in strip clubs, bemoaning the emptiness of the interactions he finds there. The chapter on “Love” follows him on several dates, where he faces mainly rejection and embittered women. Ned explores “Life” by spending three weeks living among monks in a monastery, “Work” by getting a job as a salesman, and finally “Self” by joining a Robert Bly-style men’s group. In some of these sections -- particularly the ones that take place in the monastery and on the job -- the setting is more interesting than Ned’s maneuverings within it. Others seem reductive: it’s no surprise that Vincent finds the transactions between men and women in strip clubs to be empty and disturbing, but that doesn’t say much about men’s overall experience or understanding of sex. Ned’s time in the bowling league is one of the more compelling sections, while descriptions of the men’s group are both heartbreaking and terrifying.
According to Vincent, things are both more and less difficult for men than is commonly believed. As Ned passes in and through various masculine spaces, Vincent observes that there are important differences between male and female friendships, that heterosexual men face lots of rejection, that single women are overwhelmingly bitter and unpleasant, and more generally, that men face a host of challenges that largely go unrecognized.
Vincent’s elaborate drag involves more than just physical camouflage, but her investigation still feels less risky than it should. Too much attention is paid to the mechanics of her disguise, and too much time is spent on each eventual “reveal” (in cases where she decides to tell her secret to the people she’s befriended, and necessarily deceived). Simplistic judgments like “Men get married, but their sexuality doesn’t then magically disappear amid the bliss of family life” don’t lead to any striking insights, and given the intensity of her project, Vincent’s discoveries could have had more weight. Even with a more critical stance, I’m not convinced that an undercover immersion in male culture is really the best way to understand masculinity.
In the end, Vincent’s determination to remain emotionally detached from her experience is her undoing: after Ned attends a weekend men’s retreat, Norah suffers a breakdown and checks herself into a psychiatric hospital. Vincent’s language gets increasingly opaque as she relates this part of her story, and though the episode doesn’t discredit her as a narrator (a fear to which she admits), the book would have been stronger had she allowed the reader more access to her personal motivations and experiences before this point. As she considers the stresses that lead to her breakdown in the context of the overall “toxicity of gender roles,” she reflects, “My effort was disastrous of necessity.” Did she really need to spend 18 months in suffocating drag to figure this out?
Self-Made Man: One Woman's Journey into Manhood and Back by Norah