My life as a man

Dressed in drag, Norah Vincent visited strip clubs and dated women to find out what it means to be a man. She ended up in the loony bin.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Executive Editor

Published January 20, 2006 12:13PM (EST)

You might well look at Norah Vincent in male drag on the cover of "Self-Made Man" -- she appears in rectangular glasses, fake stubble and suit and tie -- and conclude that she doesn't make a terribly convincing man. But as Vincent might be the first to tell you, she doesn't make a terribly convincing woman either. In her "female" photo, she is wearing lipstick, eyeliner and a black dress with a plunging neckline, but she is unmistakably one of those women conventionally called "mannish," a woman who, as she has discussed in print, has sometimes been addressed as "sir" throughout her adult life.

After I had finished "Self-Made Man" and looked at the cover photos again, it dawned on me at last that for Vincent both photos are a form of drag, an attempt to inhabit a defined identity she isn't entirely comfortable with. Psychologists and gender theorists might argue that we're all in drag all the time, performing our assigned roles, but most of us have internalized them beneath the level of conscious awareness. "I have always lived as my truest self somewhere on the boundary between masculine and feminine," Vincent writes, and this tormented, fascinating, frustrating book is an effort to test the permeability, and perhaps even the ontological reality, of that boundary.

Vincent's man-drag was good enough, as it turns out. Before writing this book, she spent a year and a half posing as a man and, insofar as she could, living as one. As "Ned," she joined a bowling league, went to strip clubs, entered a monastery, dated heterosexual women (and slept with one of them), worked a sales job and went on a men's-movement retreat, all without being discovered. Some of Ned's social contacts found him pretty strange -- justifiably, from the sound of things -- but nobody, apparently, guessed his secret before being told.

Passing for male, Vincent writes, was much easier than she expected. Although she began with an elaborate ritual of applying fake stubble, binding her breasts -- a sports bra two sizes too small worked better than Ace bandages -- adjusting her voice and mannerisms, and even wearing a prosthetic penis in her pants, she discovered that once Ned was established and accepted in a given milieu, none of that was necessary.

Walking the streets of New York's East Village for the first time as a man, she reports, was immediately and definitely a new experience. No one stared, no one took a second or third look -- and that was the difference. "As a woman, you couldn't walk down those streets invisibly," Vincent writes. "You were an object of desire or at least semiprurient interest to the men who waited there, even if you weren't pretty -- that, or you were just another pussy to be put in its place." Men, on the other hand, tend to meet each other's eyes for a split second and then look away, in a gesture of mutual respect or at least "a disinclination to show disrespect." I think Vincent is being overly dramatic when she suggests that for one man to look another in the face is to invite either conflict or a homosexual encounter, but she's right that those things are under the surface somewhere, and for any male reader it's startling to see one of the most ingrained codes of male public behavior so briskly dissected.

Bracing as Vincent's clarity of vision as Ned sometimes is, the consequences of becoming Ned turn out to be more far-reaching than anything she anticipates. Vincent may be a relatively butch lesbian, but as she carefully explains, she is nonetheless a genuine female-type woman, not a transsexual or a "drag king" transvestite. She goes on to say, "This is, therefore, not a confessional memoir. I am not resolving a sexual identity crisis."

To which I say, Hmm. In a publishing world awash with self-indulgent and/or bogus confessional memoirs, it seems churlish to castigate a writer for not writing one. But "Self-Made Man" is self-evidently about one woman's journey into gender bewilderment, and into a neurotic state not far from schizophrenia. As it manfully struggles to avoid the confessional mode, it becomes ever more opaque and unspecific, pretty much strangling itself in the process. And while I'm playing Viennese doctor, let's just say that the statement "I am not resolving a sexual identity crisis" is highly ambiguous. As in: No, you're not, are you? Whether the crisis in question belongs to Vincent alone, or is more societal (or even species-wide), is open to debate.

Being a man, or playacting one, drove Vincent crazy -- I mean that literally -- and this immensely peculiar book documents that slide into madness without ever confronting it head-on. Vincent can be a candid and brave writer, always eager to avoid political cant and hackneyed thinking, and this male reader kept turning the pages eagerly. Vincent has glimpsed some things about manhood that hardly any women get to see. But her refusal to reveal herself to the reader, even when the terms of her project demand it -- a project that, of necessity, involved falsehood and concealment -- ultimately renders "Self-Made Man" almost as frustrating as it is enlightening.

Vincent begins with a rigorous attitude, seeking to avoid gross generalities about gender and striking a note of caution about her perception of male experience. "What follows is just my view of things," she writes in the first chapter, "a woman's-eye view of one guy's approximated life, not an authoritative guide to the whole vast and variegated terrain of manhood in America."

By the end of "Self-Made Man," however, Vincent is flinging suspiciously grand pronouncements around with all the recklessness of the latest love-your-overexamined-life bestseller. "Manhood is a leaden mythology riding on the shoulders of every man," she informs us, a page or so after reporting that "my gender has roots in my brain, possibly biochemical ones, living very close to the roots of my self-image ... Far, far closer than my race or class or religion or nationality, so close in fact as to be incomparable with those categories."

Maybe Vincent is right about that, or about her bizarre suggestion that there is no such thing as a human being, "but only male human beings and female human beings, as separate as sects." But Vincent is not a geneticist or an evolutionary biologist (and neither am I). These strike me more as political opinions or ideological presuppositions than anything else. Before writing this book, Vincent was best known as a heterodox political commentator who combined libertarian social views with hard-line neoconservative ideas on foreign policy. (She wrote for Salon between 1998 and 2002, but I don't know her.)

I'd be surprised if these culture-war ideas about the ingrained and inflexible nature of gender weren't views Vincent has long held, and which she summons up at the end of "Self-Made Man" to explain, and depersonalize, the pain and difficulty she experienced as Ned. Vincent's compassion, sympathy and friendship for the men Ned bowls with, works with and drinks with are real; the last thing you can call her is a man-hater. But it is striking, and perhaps inadvertently revealing, for a woman who has already told us that she finds her truest self "on the boundary between masculine and feminine" to conclude that the human race is divided into two opposed and incompatible species.

Vincent does not conceal her sexual orientation, but she never really discusses it either. Early in the book she mentions her girlfriend (a person who makes only two appearances and is never named), and when she outs herself as a woman to the members of Ned's bowling team, she adds, "Hey, you know I'm a dyke, right?" (One responds: "Yeah, I gathered that.") Over the course of the book, we can deduce a bit more: She apparently dated guys as late as her college years, and at some point in her 20s she moved to New York and came out.

That's as much as she wants us to know, and maybe it's enough. As I've said, there's something refreshing about this restraint in the age of compulsive self-revelation. Clearly she doesn't want "Self-Made Man" to be read primarily as the Lesbian Guide to Manhood, and you could argue that someone like her, who has sexual experience in both directions but is now detached from the dramas of heterosexuality, makes the ideal subject for this experiment.

Still, there's something of a retreat here from what seems to me relevant material, when we're dealing with someone who is switching genders, partly for our edification and partly for personal reasons that don't seem clear. How does she feel about her past hetero experiences? Were they pleasant enough, traumatic or neutral? Did she always know she was a lesbian? Was coming out a seamless transition or a wrenching and difficult one? Does she have straight friends, or live mainly in a lesbian/gay social universe? How does she get along with her family? One could go on.

Of course Vincent has every right to keep these matters private. It's more that her management of information never seems fully confident or controlled; just as Ned conceals his true self from those around him, Vincent conceals herself from us. She never feels like a completely trustworthy narrator, which isn't what you want in a book by someone who has conducted a lengthy campaign of deceit.

In the wake of recent publishing news, and considering Vincent's refusal to name names or identify places (not even cities, or states, or regions of the country), I suppose one has to ask whether the details of Ned's life are invented or embellished. It makes me profoundly uncomfortable that "Self-Made Man" is so thoroughly unverifiable, but I don't think it's a con job. Vincent's moments of sharpest perception -- into the intricacies of male camaraderie, or the dreary, mutually hostile gamesmanship of heterosexual dating -- feel unfakable, and if she were making it all up the material would probably be both more explosive and less ambiguous.

In fact, Vincent is at her best when she reveals the most about herself, and that doesn't have to mean a blow-by-blow history of her sex life. Her bowling chapter ("Friendship") is a mini-masterpiece of sympathetic reporting, and there's no question that it took enormous courage for this New York lesbian intellectual to walk into a highly competitive bowling league somewhere in the American heartland, one of the most male of all male sanctums. Ned completely sucked as a bowler, and as Vincent ruefully admits, by the standards of this working-class environment, even the butchest woman in drag comes off as a girlie man.

But Vincent finds herself continually surprised by her teammates. Ned is hardly ever ridiculed for his wretched technique, but instead becomes the object of fraternal-paternal education and concern. By showing up week after week, he's accepted as one of the guys, oddball that he is, and his modest accomplishments are celebrated. This is the upside of the often ruthless male competitive urge, and any boy who has struggled with his own lack of athletic talent can identify with it. (The day I got a legitimate Little League hit, after numerous coaching sessions -- OK, it was a fisted bloop down the right-field line, but it went for a triple! -- is one of my fondest childhood memories.)

Ned's first meeting with his team captain, Jim, a pugnacious squirt in an oversize football jersey who likes to be the butt of his own jokes, is so good it deserves quotation. Vincent writes that they extend their arms toward each other in that ritual, dudelike sweeping motion. "Our palms met with a soft pop, and I squeezed assertively the way I'd seen men do at parties when they gathered in someone's living room to watch a football game. From the outside, this ritual had always seemed overdone to me. Why all the macho ceremony? But from the inside it was completely different. There was something so warm and bonded in this handshake. Receiving it was a rush, an instant inclusion in a camaraderie that felt very old and practiced.

"It was more affectionate than any handshake I'd ever received from a strange woman," she continues. "To me, woman-to-woman introductions often seem fake and cold, full of limp gentility. I've seen a lot of women hug each other this way, too, sometimes even women who've known each other for a long time and think of one another as good friends. They're like two backward magnets pushed together by convention. Their arms and cheeks meet, and maybe the tops of their shoulders, but only briefly, the briefest time politeness will allow. It's done out of habit and for appearances, a hollow, even resentful, gesture bred into us and rarely felt."

It's true, as Ned/Norah later observes, that the teammates scarcely discuss their emotional lives, and do so only in clipped, coded form. When Jim's wife is diagnosed with a recurrence of cancer, which is evidently life-threatening, the guys barely talk about it. Mainly what Vincent discovers is one of the hoariest truths of manhood, that these all-male institutions (sports teams, card games, hunting and fishing clubs) are in their own way zones of nurture and liberation.

On her own among America's most detested minority, working-class white men, Vincent discovers that these particular specimens are not especially racist or misogynist or homophobic. Sure, the talk is frank and raunchy, and considerable effort is devoted to planning clandestine trips to "titty bars." But Ned's teammates speak of their wives with tremendous respect and admiration, and when he finally spills his secret, they seem both impressed and relieved. "I gotta hand it to you, that takes balls -- or whatever," says one. Finally, Ned makes sense: This is why he's such a good listener, and such a crappy bowler.

"They had taken me in, and I had deceived them," reflects Vincent, in perhaps the book's most moving self-exploration. "I had condescended to them all along, even in my gracious surprise that they were somehow human. They had made that leap on my behalf without the benefit of suppressed snobbery. I have condescended to them still in these pages throughout, congratulating myself for stooping to receive their affections and dispense my own, for presuming to understand them ... They made me welcome in their midst, and by so doing, they made me feel like a bit of a shithead, like an arrogant prick know-it-all. In a sense, they made me the subject of my own report."

For all the heartfelt affection and gratitude Vincent feels for Ned's bowling buddies, we also find in this chapter the emergence of a theme that will dominate the rest of the book: Men are fundamentally different creatures from women, both because of the strangled, delimited quality of their emotional lives and because of the unique power of male sexual desire. The guys Ned hangs out with at the dead-end strip clubs of the "Sex" chapter seem to feel their sexuality, she writes, as an unwanted but inescapable burden, "something heavy you were carrying around and had nowhere to unload except in the lap of some damaged stranger, and then only for five minutes."

On the other hand, the 30-ish single women Ned dates in the "Love" chapter come off as aggressively hostile and profoundly confused creatures -- on one hand, they want sensitive men capable of emotional communication, while on the other they want a take-charge guy who can pay for dinner, open doors and then, a bit later, "pin them to the bed." Wounded in previous relationships, they transformed each new man (even when he wasn't a man) "into the malignancy they were expecting him to be," thereby fueling a "self-perpetuating cycle of unkindness and discontent."

I'm not disputing the validity of Ned/Norah's empirical observations, but Vincent basically threw herself into the most awful shark-tank version of heterosexuality, only to find that the water was full of sharks. Yes, many men find sexual outlet through gruesome strip clubs, dead-eyed hookers and the limitlessly demeaning universe of Internet porn. Yes, the dating pool is full of twice-burned women with barbed-wire defenses. But we didn't need some lesbian with a flattop haircut and a piss-poor bowling game to bring us back these Pop Gender 101 staples; they're found in every daytime chat show and women's magazine.

It's undoubtedly brave and noble that Vincent tried to cross class as well as gender boundaries, but as aware as she is of that issue on the bowling team, I think the former category is more important than she realizes. Beyond the agonizing dating chapter, she never tries to pass for the kind of straight man she might already know, an urban guy with bobo-style, liberal-arts values and inclinations. (For that matter, she also doesn't try to be a gay man.) In that context, I don't think being a man is half as hard as she thinks it is, and whatever one thinks about the biochemical basis of sex and gender, the performance of gender roles is a lot more fluid than she depicts.

My personal experience as a man may have no more general applicability than Ned's, but, hey, I've been a guy much longer than he has. If the legacy of feminism has complicated certain things about being a heterosexual male, I'm pretty happy with that. Maybe men still don't "open up" as readily as women do, but the intense emotional self-censorship Vincent describes is not ubiquitous or unanimous. I've discussed my dad's death, for example, intimately with my male friends on numerous occasions, and was grateful when my oldest friend reciprocated after the death of his own dad (a man I also loved).

I now have a son who's almost 2, and while I'm sure I'll make any number of dubious parenting decisions, I'm not worried that I'll ever deny him affection or hold him up to some bogus masculine standard. If it took the most pedantic excesses of Betty Friedan-style, '70s feminism, or Robert Bly's most embarrassing drum circle in the woods, to make that possible, then I'm profoundly grateful.

As for male sexuality, the old cliché remains true: Any man who says he has never jerked off to pornography is either a liar or the kind of pervert women really have to worry about. Man-size doses of testosterone can provoke all kinds of dumb, irrational and even violent behavior, and in that respect the difference between the sexes is clearly a question of chemistry. But Vincent seems to suggest that only men experience sexual desire as an inconvenient burden, an ambiguous appetite to be sated or repressed, and I'm not buying it.

You don't need a psychology degree to understand that if men have long been socialized to expend their excess erotic drives on sexual surrogates -- whether they're spending $5.95 on Miss January or $650 on one of Heidi Fleiss' working girls -- women have been trained to sublimate theirs into Manolo stilettos and Hermès scarves. Furthermore, it's no secret that the gender divide has narrowed sharply on these issues in recent decades, even if we don't agree on how or why it happened.

Personally, I've never dated a woman who wasn't at least somewhat titillated by pornographic fantasy or curious about the kinds of nonvanilla, nonmainstream "bad girl" experiences that only men were once supposed to want. For women as well as men, desire is not always desirable. I briefly went out with a lawyer who abhorred porn, and who subscribed to the Catharine MacKinnon ideology that it was itself a form of sexual violence that should be outlawed. At least that was her story during the daylight hours -- until the pile of impressively filthy magazines under her bed came out late at night, after three or four vodkas.

Yes, one of Ned's grueling date experiences eventually ended up in bed, even after his secret was revealed. Vincent draws a chivalrous cloak over the episode, except to say that the woman in question did not turn out to be a crypto-lesbian, or even bisexual. Ned's sojourn in a Roman Catholic monastery is a bittersweet essay in thwarted emotion and (I am shocked to report!) closeted homosexuality. But Vincent clearly becomes less interested in Ned's adventures in the outside world as they progress, and more consumed by her own internal torment.

Employing a mode one could almost call masculine, she eventually discusses her distress in the book's penultimate chapter, but only in clipped, half-ironic language. On a men's-movement retreat, Ned asks another man he admires to cut him with a knife. (This is received with alarm, partly, as Vincent later divines, because it's such a female-coded form of self-mutilation.) The only knives available to these wilderness-dwelling he-men turn out to be plastic toys, so Ned/Norah returns home, cutting urge unfulfilled, and ends up checking herself into a locked psychiatric ward.

Vincent is not unaware of the narrative pickle she has gotten into; we're reading a book by a hardheaded female journalist who puts on men's clothes for a bit of "Black Like Me"-style first-person reporting, and she ends up in the loony bin, defined as "passively suicidal." Pretty much the last thing in the world Vincent wants to write is another chick memoir about My Emotional Trauma, so she tries to weave her breakdown into her analysis of masculinity.

What happened to her as Ned, Vincent writes, "is what happened in some form or another to most of the guys in the men's group, though I experienced the alienation more intensely ... My effort was disastrous of necessity. But for these men, living in their man's box wasn't a particularly good fit either, and learning this in spades may have been Ned's best lesson in the toxicity of gender roles."

I appreciate the generous spirit at work here. When Vincent reports, "It was hard being a guy," she really means to say that it's hard for all of us to live up to the hackneyed ideals of masculinity, and maybe only a little harder for Ned. But I strongly suspect that she means it was hard for Norah to be Ned in ways she hasn't quite confronted, that pretending to be a man did not confer upon her any of the alleged privilege or freedom of manhood, and that that was subtly and perhaps subconsciously disappointing. She's too guarded to write honestly about the difficulty and pain she obviously experienced, yet also too locked within that subjectivity to see it for what it is.

Ned seems as if he was a good guy. A little dippy, a little overly earnest, a little too eager to please. But his heart was in the right place, and we can always use more guys like that. Is it as tough to be a guy as it was for him? Well, it can be; manhood 2.0 offers all the old pitfalls and some new ones too. We're all trying to make it up as we go, mixing something from Category A with something from Category B: a dose of old-fashioned stoicism, some dudely 'tude, along with the ability to cry every now and then, or hug each other without grotesque embarrassment. A shot of bourbon and a glass of Chardonnay; it doesn't always work.

Come to think of it, you could say the same thing about women. These days they're all trying to be the attorney general while wearing sexy lingerie and downloading killer cookie recipes on their BlackBerrys. It can be pretty awkward. Some, like Norah Vincent, are trying to find a form of femininity that borders on masculinity. It seems to me that it's pretty hard to be human, and that we might all be the same misfit, mask-wearing, role-playing species after all.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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