Self-Made Man is Norah Vincent’s true account of how she managed to infiltrate the secret lives of men as an insider. I say infiltrate, because in order to accomplish this ambitious task, she had to actually take on a male persona whom she named Ned. She learned to look, walk and talk like a man and as Ned she participated in a series of activities that she felt embodied the masculine experience. The book is divided up into chapters, with each one devoted to a different pursuit. In one chapter, Ned joined a bowling league, in another he went to strip clubs. Ned also spent time in a monastery, he dated and he worked a high-pressure, comission-based sales job. One of the more interesting chapters came at the end, in which he joins a men’s group inspired by Robert Bly’s Iron John.
I have to admit that I almost didn’t finish this book. It wasn’t that it didn’t have its excellent moments or redeeming qualities or that I didn’t learn a lot. On the contrary, it got me thinking about gender in a new way. Well, not an entirely new way, but it got me thinking nonetheless.
Throughout the book Vincent openly discusses how difficult it was to be getting so close to these men all on the basis of a lie. She agonizes over the deception and talks about her discomfort at various points. This is perfectly understandable. There is something heavy and burdensome about looking people in the face and presenting something that is completely false. Yet, I got the impression as I was reading that she hasn’t quite processed all of the emotions surrounding her behavior yet and she seemed to bring that unresolved guilt into her writing. So much of the book was painted with an apology to these men and I felt she overcompensated for her actions by always portraying a sensitive picture of these men and that she sometimes went a bit too far in her understanding. Of course, I say that out loud or write it down on paper and I am instantly aware of how jerky that sounds. Clearly her writing brought out many of my own personal reactions.
I realize that she got to know these men on a much more personal level than she ever could have done as a woman, but at times it felt as if she were portraying them all in the same light, drawing sweeping conclusions and generalizations based on the few groups she interacted with. Frankly, I wanted more of them and less of Ned. Her ultimate conclusion that they are victims of the patriarchy too is nothing new — we know this, it has been said again and again. So it was a little redundant, sometimes overly sentimental and no matter whether she realizes it or not — still the observations of a woman looking into a group of men. And in fairness, she often stated that she could feel her responses as a woman and knew that this was not what she was supposed to be saying or doing as a man.
Her writing style was probably the most distracting element of all. It came across as part Sex and the City and part op-ed “reporting.” She drew her own conclusions and wrote about them. It was all very obvious and in your face and attempts to stylize her writing and make it more “literary” fell a bit flat. My personal preference is to be given the facts — obviously they will always be “the facts” as seen through the eyes of the author, but I like to be given a little more credit than that and left to draw my own conclusions. This did not happen with this book. I was not surprised to read that she does a lot of writing for newspapers. I don’t know if she intended for this to be some grand social commentary, but it wasn’t that grand and the writing was only so-so.
Here is what was valuable about the book. It did make me stop and think. And not just me either. Other people, specifically other woment that I spoke with who read it had whole epiphanies about men and new insights into their own relationships with them. My favorite one came from my dear friend Juno who said, when she got done reading it she felt she couldn’t just dismiss the behavior of men anymore that she had to give them the space to have their own emotional response and that she had to recognize that it was valid on some level — even if it was something she couldn’t understand or relate to, it didn’t mean there was no validity to it.
Also, it was, and I am aware of the irony as I write it, honest. Her take on the dating scene in particular was fascinating. The expectations Ned encountered, the hostility and bitterness, these are all things I have observed in women I have known (women who are genuinely surprised by their inability to attract a nice, stable mate). She talked about how much of the pressure in the dating scenario is still laid on the doorstep of men — making the first move, asking for the date, etc. Not to mention the constant rejection and sense of being on the outside. This chapter alone was worth reading through the book. Of course, as my sweetie pointed out, she also fails to mention that the women she is talking about are the kind of women who would be attracted and drawn to a man like Ned, so it is hardly an exhaustive or comprehensive look at dating, but it is an interesting and realistic one from its own corner of the world.
I think that I have sort of a knee-jerk reaction to some of what I see as hubris in feeling that she can understand what it feels like to be a man just because she dressed up like one and became “one of the boys.” As I mentioned before, I’m not sure she is entirely done processing her experiences and so the book at times feels a bit half-baked and not quite done. I never felt that in all her observations she truly understood that her conclusions were all still filtered through her woman’s brain. She certainly came closer to penetrating the veil of gender than many of us do, but nevertheless was always in her woman’s body looking out on these men. And let’s not forget how weighted down the deception left her. It ate away at her with unrelenting consequences.
Over all, I’m glad I read it. I do feel that I gained a tremendous amount of insight — not so much from her observations, but more from my own emotional reactions to the content. Throughout the book, her style of writing was not my cup of tea, mostly because I don’t think it was particularly great or artful and the older I get, the more picky I am about that. Particularly since there are so many non-fiction books out there that are written so well. But it clearly wasn’t meant to be great literature of any kind and she seemed to be concerned mostly with getting some kind of a message across. And in that, she accomplished her task.