Self-Made Man

For about a year and a half, Norah Vincent tells us in Self-Made Man (Viking, 2006), she passed as a man among six different groups of men for varying stretches of time. Most were told of the deception when she felt that she had learned what there was to learn from them, but some were not. No one ever caught her out. She also dated several women, one of whom, although not (unlike Ms Vincent herself) a lesbian, decided to sleep with her after the imposture was revealed. Self-Made Man, however, is not, despite its title, about Ms Vincent's stunt. It's about a woman's discovery of the behavior of men among men, and of the feelings that men are so reluctant to express, especially to women. Ms Vincent began the project thinking that she would be entering a world of power and prerogative. She wound up feeling pity for her sometime chums. 

The project would appear to have two springs. As a writer, Ms Vincent knew that it would be research for a book. But more particularly, it was the surprise that she felt when, some years earlier, she allowed a drag king to dress her up as a guy. The disguise wouldn't have been very convincing by daylight, but on dark streets and in dark bars, she passed, and she was thunderstruck by the utterly different regard that men had for her.

But that night in drag, we walked by those same stoops an doorways and bodegas. We walked by those same groups of men. Only this time they didn't stare. On the contrary, when they met my eyes they looked away immediately and concertedly and never looked back. It was astounding, the difference, the respect they showed me by not looking at me, by purposely not staring.

That was it. That was what had annoyed me so much about meeting their gaze as a woman, not the desire, if that was ever there, but the disrespect, the entitlement. It was rude, and it was meant to be rude, and seeing those guys looking away deferentially when they thought I was male, I could validate in retrospect the true hostility of their former stares.

But that wasn't quite all there was to it. There was something more than respect being communicated in their averted gaze, something subtler, less direct. It was more like a disinclination to show disrespect. For them, to look away was to decline a challenge, to adhere to a code of behavior that kept the peace among human males in certain spheres just as surely as it kept the peace and the pecking order among male animals. To look another male in the eye and hold his gaze is to invite conflict, either that or a homosexual encounter. To look away is to accept the status quo, to leave each man to his tiny sphere of influence, the small buffer of pride and poise that surrounds and keeps him.

Those last words, especially "tiny," "small," and "keeps," reflect what Ms Vincent came to learn during her research. The entire passage highlights the fragility of the male constitution, at least at the middle and lower-middle levels of American life. As such, it colors the author's initial experience with the understanding that she achieved by the time she began to write her book. This coloring elides the process of her discoveries, which might well have been the subject of the book. But instead, the discoveries themselves are always the topic. The experience of discovery comes up only when a false move threatens to give Ms Vincent away. False moves are remarkably uncommon.

By "false moves," I mean gestures or remarks that raised eyebrows among the men around her. Ms Vincent is as surprised as the reader that she did not make more of them. She did make more of them - but she got away with them. Nobody noticed. Nobody noticed her wrists, or her missing Adam's apple. Toward the end of several of her experiments, she neglected completing her disguise, and nobody noticed. Once she registered as a man, men ceased to regard her. When she told them that she was a woman, they usually couldn't bring themselves to believe it right away.

After an opening chapter in which she talks about her preparation, some of which involved actors' tricks (although she improved on the method that she was taught for simulating stubble) while most of it was psychological (inventing the personality of "Ned Vincent"), the author presents six chapters entitled "Friendship," "Sex," "Love" "Life," "Work," and "Self." In the "Friendship," she joins a bowling team. Even though she's a terrible bowler, her team-mates are supportive and friendly. These men cannot be said to be flourishing. None have any higher education, and all are burdened by the need to make ends meet. Bowling is their one escape (aside from an annual ski trip that they take together, without their wives). Before to long, some readers will be thinking of Barbara Ehrenreich's Nickel and Dimed, a book that probably could not have been written about the lives of men at the lower end of the socio-economic totem pole except by Ms Vincent's method. Two other chapters, "Work" and "Self," also consider the economic vicissitudes of American life, and the abrasion of trying to make a buck without a college degree. This is not really a change of subject. It is as integral to these men's characters as are their codes of discretion and stoicism, their need for extramarital sex and the occasional drunken binge.

In "Sex," Ms Vincent is horrified by the denaturing atmosphere of strip clubs, and concludes that men don't desire real women at all, not, at least, for recreational sex. She discovers a kind of structural misogyny that is neither learned nor philosophical. When she says that they seem to desire Barbies, she's not being sarcastic or ironical. She is anything but contemptuous however, and she concludes that the misogyny is actually the opposite of misogyny.

But as I made through strip club after strip club in search of some kind of answer, I wondered if maybe it didn't come back to shame. I knew from my own sexual fantasies that there is something appealing at least in the abstract about fucking someone who isn't there. When pure fucking and animal release is what you're thinking about - and that is what the male sex drive at its basest seems to be all about - you don't want there to be any witnesses. You don't want to be a dirty, senseless animal with someone you love or respect or are capable of loving and respecting. You'd be too ashamed for her to see that part of you in the light of day, and isn't a mind something like the light of day? A real woman is a mind, and a mind is a witness, and witness is the last thing you need when you're ashamed. So fucking a fake, mindless hole is what you need. The faker the better.

I suppose, oddly enough, when it came to genuinely heterosexual men, all of this added up in my mind to something that might have been the opposite of misogyny, the idea being that you could only treat as an object something that resembled a real woman as little as possible, because only then could you bear to mistreat it and yourself enough to satisfy your instincts.

This is as depressing as it is sordid, but although I have never been to a strip club, or hired a prostitute, or some anywhere near such experiences, I recognize that Ms Vincent captures here something fundamental about heterosexual male sexuality.

In "Love," Ms Vincent dates "a lot" of women, and here her surprise is redoubled, for she discovers that women don't, for the most part, treat men very well. Men have been complaining about this for years, but it appears that Ms Vincent didn't believe them until she saw with her own eyes and felt with her own shoulders the impossible demands that so many women placed on Ned when out on dates - which, after all, are supposed to be fun.

I felt this especially keenly on one of my earliest dates, waiting for a woman at a fancy restaurant I'd chosen. I was sitting alone in one of those cavernous red leather booths that you see at old-world steak houses, and I was holding the menu, which also happened to be red and enormous, and I felt absolutely ridiculous, like the painful geek in a teen movie who's trying to score with an older woman. I felt tiny and insignificant when held up against what I imagined this sophisticated woman's (she was a diplomat) expectations for a Cary Grant type who would know exactly what to do and say, and whose coat would be big enough to cover her. I suddenly understood from the inside why R Crumb draw his women so big, and his diminutive self begging at their heels or riding them around the room. I was so embarrassed I almost and got up and left rather than face the look of amused disappointment on that woman's face, a look that mercifully never materialized. We had a very pleasant, uneventful meal. Still, I'd never felt so inadequate on a date as I did sometimes as miniature Ned.

Yet as much as these women wanted a take-control man, at the same time, they wanted a man who was vulnerable to them, a man who would show his colors and open his doors, someone expressive, intuitive, attuned. This I was in spades, and I always got points for it, but feeling the pressure t4o be that other world-bestriding colossus at the same time made me feel very sympathetic toward heterosexual men, not only because living up to Caesar is an immensely heavy burden to bear, but because trying to b a sensitive new age guy at the same time is pretty well impossible. If women are trapped by the whore/Madonna complex, men are equally trapped by this warrior/minstrel complex. What's more, while a man is expected to be modern, that is, to support feminism in all its particulars, to see and treat women as equals in every respect, he is on the other hand often still expected to be traditional at the same time, to treat a lady like a lady, to lead the way and pick up the check.

It is almost comical to hear a very settle lesbian declare that, "To my mind, my first dates were often so bad that second dates were unthinkable, even in the name of research." The entire chapter is tickled by the author's surprise at the unpleasantness of so many members of the sex that in fact she prefers. With men, they become unattractive.

In the following chapter, "Life," Ms Vincent pays an extended visit to a Roman Catholic monastery. It is a small community, and there aren't many novices. In fact, there is only one, and he is no longer young. He abandoned an earlier novitiate to live in the real world for many years, but was eventually drawn back to the cloister. The author strikes up a friendship with him, only to have it quashed by the superiors. It turns out that the "fun" that the novice had out in the real world was homosexual, and the monks, perceiving Ned to be a little on the swish side, are determined to step on any inappropriate involvement. It is in the monastery, finally, that Ned comes to live with men around the clock, and Ms Vincent discovers that he has boundary issues. When he tells an elderly priest that he looks great for his age, the air at the table becomes thick with disapproval. He is reprimanded when he remarks that another monk is "cute." As the author adjusts Ned's behavior, she begins to notice that the monks are not having an easy time living together, either.

Clearly each man had his own struggles with intimacy - all of the monks did - and these attempts to address those struggles were always prickly, though necessary in a community where men were trying to live in a spirit of love with each other.

From what I could tell, it wasn't just that, as Christians, they felt they had to express greater affection for each other, or even that, as housemates, they had to learn to mingle rather than simply coexist. It was that their needs, whether they could admit it or not, were poking through the formal web of this living arrangement. Their needs for affection and touch and companionship and compassion were making themselves felt. For some of them it was only the harrowing run-up to death, for others, it was in the trough of late middle age, and for some it was happening out of sheer constitutional sensitivity refusing at long last to be put down.

But they were socialize men and they didn't know how to talk to each other about much of anything at all let alone their feelings.

Later still, she discovers that one of the monks is an outcast. Brother Crispin suffers from depression and takes Zoloft. Ms Vincent concludes that "Crispin's fate was not linked primarily to monasticism, but rather to the all-male environment in which he lived, the only difference being one of degree." What Ms Vincent means by "degree" is that Crispin would be much worse off in the military or in prison, where weak men are singled out for physical as well as psychological abuse. In the monastery, there was no abuse, only a cool disdain, a limited charity. The very goodness that this community of men pursues throws such charitable lapses into high relief, and it is in the monastery that Ms Vincent learns the most about natural masculinity - American style.

In "Work," which comes next, she learns about affected, artificial masculinity, the hypersexualized, hyperathleticized world of aggressive sales at what Ms Vincent terms the "Red Bull companies." It's the hardest chapter to read, mostly because one feels that the outfits that hire Ned ought to be illegal. They pay meager commissions and treat their salesmen as independent contractors, putting them more or less off the grid in much the same way that some of Barbara Ehrenreich's subjects are. "Work" is also difficult reading because Ms Vincent doesn't seem to learn anything worth learning (however unpleasant) about men. She is teamed up with a twenty-seven year-old Hungarian immigrant, a tennis pro at home who meant to go to college in the United States but who never made it, now stuck in a nightmarish job that he never complains about directly because that would be to unman himself.

Like every other guy in the Red Bull companies, Ivan saw his job as an extension of his dick. His masculinity depended on his ability to perform, and every sale was like a seduction, like a pickup in a bar. It was, as the gurus always said, about taking control of the situation. Behind every door was a sale if you had the balls to make it. It was as simple as that. Every about the business was sexual or an extension of male sexuality - conquest, confidence, capability. Making the sale was like getting the panties, and losing it was taking it up the ass. There was no middle ground. There were no excuses. Just fortune or failure.

Ivan talked about sex almost constantly, which wasn't hard to do, when every sale or lost sale was a sexual metaphor. . When we lost a sale, Ivan took it personally and usually had to make it up to his ego in some way. He would say, "You know, some guys can take that and not do anything. But I can't. I gotta have my own back if somebody gets in my face." On the job, though, he usually knew enough to keep it to himself, so often he'd save his "own back" for a malicious comment in the car. It seemed to relieve his mind.

Ned is not very good at the job, but finally gets JUICEd up enough to have a really good day. That's the acronym for "Join Us In Creative Excitement," but it's also a meaningless chant, howled at meetings and greetings with sort of "Heil Hitler" zeal. Ned's good day leaves Norah feeling wretched, however, and she abandons the Red Bull world. Or at least she quits. There will be consequences.

The final chapter, "Self," takes Ms Vincent to the men's movement, "an intimate group of about twenty-five to thirty guys who met once a month" in order to "redefine themselves in the postfeminist age." In short, these are men who are not only willing to admit that they're damaged but also prepared to do something about it, including talking.

There, just sitting and listening, I thought I was going to coast through the end of Ned's odyssey in a cozy therapeutic setting. Little did I know that this last leg of the trek would push me to the breaking point.

Here, the avowed need for the asexual love of another man - something to take the place of and fill in for distant, incommunicative fathers, as well as something to clear the air of excessive mothering - creates a climate that, unlike Ned's other environments, is the opposite of routine, and the group's volatility shook Ms Vincent very deeply. The monthly meetings, she knew, would culminate in a retreat. The men would travel to a remote lodge, where they would undergo rituals in search of initiation as men. It is one thing for Ned to hang out with men who accept themselves, however unhappy they may be. It is quite another to jump into a pressure-cooker in which males are trying to refashion themselves, and it isn't long before Ms Vincent is viscerally frightened of being found out. In any of the other settings that she found for Ned, Norah would be an unwelcome outsider at best. Here, she would be a pollutant, simply by being a woman. What would Paul, the powerful and somewhat dictatorial founder the group do, if he saw through Norah's disguise? On the whole, she thought she'd be safe, but, as the retreat approached, she couldn't help thinking of Teena Brandon and Matthew Shepard.

Whether I had reason to or not, I was starting to get scared.

And on top of all this there was the guilt. It was gaining of me too. Despite the intimate encounter Paul and I had just had, all my initial fears about him resurfaced. They got worse, in fact. Now that we'd bonded in some way I thought it likely that he'd be much angrier about the lie if he ever found out. He'd shown me affection and concern. He'd been especially pleased to learn that I was coming to the retreat. I thought I'd actually heard tenderness in his voice.

Ms Vincent ends her prefatory chapter, "Getting Started," with a word about the deception involved in her project.

Finally, a word on method. It will become clear to you if it is not already that I deceived a lot of people in order to write this book. I can make only one excuse for this. Deception is part and parcel of imposture, and imposture was necessary in this experiment. It could not have been otherwise. In order to see how people would treat me as a man, I had to make them believe that I was a man, and accordingly I had to hide from them the fact that I am a woman. Doing so involved various breaches of trust, some more serious than others. This may not sit well with some or perhaps all of you. In certain ways it did not sit well with me either and was, as you will see, a source of considerable strain as time wore on.

I began my journey with a fairly naive idea about what to expect. I thought that passing was going to be the hardest part. But it wasn't at all. I did that far more easily than I thought I would. The difficulty lay in the consequences of passing, and that dI had not even considered. As I lived snippets of male life, one part of my brain was duly taking notes and making observations, intellectualizing the raw material of Ned's experience, but another part of my brain, the subconscious part, was taking blows to the head, and eventually those injuries caught up with me.

In that sense I can say with relative surety that in the end I paid a higher emotional price for my circumstantial deceptions than any of my subjects did. And that is, I think, penalty enough for meddling.

I agree completely. The experiment was important, and Mis Vincent is to be applauded for seeing it through. But the idea that a woman could sneak into the company of men undetected as such without severe emotional disturbance is so naive that it's childish. (A man, I'm pretty sure, could not attempt this experiment. Women would notice. Women do.) By the time of the men's group retreat, Ms Vincent's person had been repeatedly violated by wholly inauthentic behaviors, including the appalling language that men stop hearing as such before they're through puberty. Knowing that the retreat would climax in a ritual dance accompanied by weapons, Ms Vincent sank to the thought that she could atone for her transgression if one of the other men would cut her with a knife. Happily, he demurred. Hilariously, the weapons turned out to be made of plastic. But although she never acknowledged her deception to Paul or the other men (nor did she have to, something different), she emerged from Ned's final round a broken woman. She checked herself into a mental ward, and then took two months of bed rest at home, letting her mind and her body forget to be Ned.

Norah Vincent is very happy to be a woman.

I have two cavils, one very minor - but I'm sure it's on your mind, too - and one more substantial. The minor one: Ned evidently never had to go to the bathroom. I don't know how this aspect of life got left out. It's true that most men's rooms have stalls (or else they only accommodate one person at a time). It's really a testament to the seriousness of Ms Vincent's project that she does not get involved with such possibly farcical perplexities, but still - one can't help wanting to know.

My substantial cavil is that there are two groups that would have taught Ned a few things. First, the world of gay men. This world is probably more familiar to Ms Vincent than it is to most women - but only as a woman herself. What would she have come to feel if she discovered how differently the evasive disregard that signifies respect in the street registers in a gay bar where men are looking at one another hungrily? Since gay men notice things, too, it's possible that she decided that such an experiment would be fruitless, but as a straight man with many gay friends who has had the odd experience of being totally invisible in gay bars, I think it would have been worth a try. The other world that Ned never visited is the world of comfortable, leisured men. This world is so difficult to enter - for actual men, I mean - that it may have seemed too exotic for Ms Vincent's purposes. But when men are relieved of the pressures that she documents so brilliantly, they behave somewhat differently. A life led free of material fear, a life in which losing one's job to a slowdown or one's teeth to a bar fight never arises and is barely imaginable, many men exhibit typically feminine characteristics, without being at all "effeminate." They're much more open and trusting - and why shouldn't they be? The status quo with which we're sadly familiar is a consequence of the division of labor. Take away the labor, and, as I say, things change.

Never in a million years would I ask Norah Vincent to resume her identity as Ned Vincent simply in order to satisfy these items of curiosity. I list them only because what she did accomplish is so amazing that it's hard not to miss what she didn't undertake. It is a very felicitous ingratitude. (May 2007)

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