I’ve sat down and edited this review several times and almost threw the entire thing out to rewrite it to try and keep it short. I have accepted that I have a lot of things to say. Get comfortable.
I first read Self-Made Man in 2008 and loved it. I’ve thought about it a lot since then and have become more and more uncomfortable with it. After several easy book club discussions where we all liked the book, I chose this one for our August meeting (yes, this is how far behind I am in writing reviews) because I knew it would be a lively conversation and would possibly involve angry punches. Not at each other of course… Just, you know, in general angry punches at the world.
It could not have gone any better. Is it weird that I’m really happy I pissed off my entire group?
Norah Vincent decided to spend over a year and a half as a man named Ned, although not 24/7. She wanted to see firsthand what the male experience was like and chose several male specific situations to infiltrate for her research. She spent eight months on an all male bowling team. She went to strip clubs. She went on dates. She worked in the testosterone fueled cold-call sales world. She spent a few weeks in a monastery living with monks. She joined a men’s movement group and traveled with them on their weekend retreat. As a lesbian woman, she wanted to experience the male life.
The idea came from an evening out when she was younger. She dressed as a man, although she never would have passed if anyone had looked closely, and was shocked at how different it was. Living in NYC, she never felt invisible. Men constantly look at you, either to leer or harass or just acknowledge that you are female. As a man, however, no one paid any attention to her. “It was astounding, the difference, the respect [the men in her neighborhood] showed me by not looking at me, by purposely not staring.” That sentence is what hooked me in when I flipped through the book the first time. I was fascinated by this idea of experiencing the familiar as a man to see how things change. I wanted to know if this would be a study in sexism and bias or if it would show acceptance and understanding. I thought Vincent would interact with people first as Ned and then as Nora, or the other way around, to see how she was treated differently.
But that’s not how this book works.
Vincent came to this project with very clear intentions and overwhelming assumptions and bias. She decided before changing her body and clothes that all the men she interacts with are going to be disgusting caveman pigs. She is astounded when men show feelings. My book club wondered if she had any male friends or if she had interacted with any males for any long periods of time. Two members of my club in particular hated her so much that they had physical reactions. Since I had loved the book when I first read it (I gave it five stars and labeled it “favorite” on GoodReads), I found myself wanting to defend Vincent, but the more I reread and the more passages I highlighted, the angrier and sadder I got.
I still recommend that people read this because it is fascinating to see her journey, but do know that this isn’t a controlled psychological or scientific study. This is one woman’s experience and she went into it without examining her own feelings ahead of time or coming up with any sort of thesis. Really bad things happen, morally and ethically.
At the end she checks herself into a mental institution.
It’s interesting to note how women come across in this book. When she joins the men’s bowling league, she is astounded that men from her team and competing teams want her to get better. Ned is the worst bowler in the league. When she isn’t bowling, several men will offer to work with her in an empty lane. Her teammates will yell tips and encouragement when it’s her turn to bowl. When one of the men is getting closer to bowling a perfect game, everyone sits down and silently watches. She feels like there was some unspoken primal rule that tells men to wait and watch when another man is about to succeed. She is surprised by this because in her experience, women love to see other women fail. As a teenager at tennis camp, she was lethal on the court, but wasn’t pretty. When the coach uses her example for how to properly serve, another girl remarks that she’d rather be pretty and bad at tennis than ugly with a good serve. Girls don’t care about girls. You are competition and if you’re better than they are, they will attack your body, personality, morals, whatever and if you are weaker than they are, then they will enjoy your failure.
It gets worse when Ned starts to date.
This is the part of the book that has made me more and more uncomfortable as I’ve thought about it. Even when reading it the first time, I found myself cringing at both the ethics and her tone. She comes across as really hating women, which was curious to me because she’s a lesbian. I wanted to know what Nora’s dating life was like that made her react and compare it to Ned’s. One of the things I found interesting was that she’s been passing as Ned for at least six months before she starts to date and I wonder if she would have felt differently if she had dated earlier or later as Ned. [I’m guessing this based on Vincent’s comments at the beginning of the book. She said she wrote it fairly in time order and the chapter about dating comes two after bowling. Since bowling lasted eight months and there was overlap with the next chapter, I’m guessing six months. Total guess. No proof.] This was one of those moments where I wished it was a psychological experiment to see how Ned would have felt if this was the first thing he did as a man or the last thing. Coming off his stint with the bowling league and spending lots of time in strip clubs (more on that later), I have to wonder where his head was.
Ned tries picking girls up in bars. Nora is shocked at how hard it is and how bad it feels to be rejected again and again and again. This part was really interesting to me because I don’t know what she was comparing it to. Vincent is a lesbian, but dated boys in high school. I don’t know what her own experience is with being hit on by straight men, so it wasn’t clear how she was relating to Ned’s experiences.
Ned is able to go on dates and Nora realizes that she is in a bad place. She decides that if she has two dates with a woman, she will out herself. With the rest, she will lie, but will keep their interactions brief so she doesn’t get their hopes up.
Before going into details, she explains that it is “hardly surprising…that in this atmosphere…as a single man dating women, I often felt attacked, judged, on the defensive. Whereas with the men I met and befriended as Ned there was a presumption of innocence – that is, you’re a good guy until you prove otherwise – with women there was quite often a presumption of guilt: you’re a cad like every other guy until you prove otherwise.” I don’t think I can’t argue much with this. She and her dates are in their mid-thirties and a lot of these women have had bad experiences. In my own life, I’ve seen friends go on and on about how all men are assholes and will often leave for a date with the thought of “Let’s see how fucked up this one is.” Still… she really found a few women that are horrible representatives of their gender. I don’t know if it happened by accident or what, but hell… these women are very unpleasant. She meets a few women, talks about how horrible they are and has sex with one of them.
Throughout the book there were moments where I responded “Yes! This is what I want to know! Talk more about this. Explore this more.” An example of this is the physical attractiveness and male dominance requirements in dating. Ned emails a lot of his dates and the women all respond to his writing. They appreciate his tone and the lengths of his emails. He is attentive and interested and they are attracted to this person. And then they meet him. Ned is not a big guy. Norah sometimes feels small when she’s dating as Ned. She thinks these women want a big strong guy who can take charge and throw a punch if needed, but at the same time be that sweet and caring guy from the email. I totally agree with this. Men are supposed to be strong, but not violent. They’re supposed to be in touch with their emotions, but not weak. They’re only allowed to cry under very specific circumstances. They are supposed to ask for help, but not appear feeble. It’s total bullshit, and I’m not a guy. I don’t know how guys deal with this.
The strip clubs she went to were really depressing. Again, she doesn’t talk about what her intentions were. Maybe she wanted to see if she could continue to pass as a man, maybe she liked the idea of being able to see naked women, maybe she wanted to study the men there. While I personally don’t think strip clubs are super amazing, I felt like she picked the worst one she could find. She even refers to it as a “hellhole”. She seems happy that the women are angry and intrigued by one woman who isn’t the prettiest or youngest, but makes a lot of money because she makes you feel like she likes you. This woman pays attention to Ned and is always putting on a show. The entire experience fills her with shame and embarrassment as well as guilt that her life didn’t lead her to the pole. It’s an uncomfortable chapter where neither the men or the women are redeemable. The men wallow in a helpless cry of having to give into their base desires and explain that it’s not their fault that they need to see tits. The women aren’t people and interact with the men as little as possible, barely hiding their hostility. It seems like no one is having fun.
I’m not going to write much about her time with the monks, but interestingly enough, this is where she learned a lot about the rules of what makes a man a man. Any time she showed the slightest hint of femininity, it was immediately noticed and judged. These men were adamant about crushing all sense of sexuality, especially homosexuality, while maintaining a sense of pure masculinity. There was friendship, but there was a lot of distance and distrust. One thing that was interesting to me personally was how older monks and priests struggled with their relationships because they were taught to put God before anyone else. Having a friend meant distancing yourself from God. This completely isolates them and they find it difficult and probably at times intolerable living with others. This has nothing to do with the book’s experiment, but I found it fascinating.
The final infiltration was the most unethical to me, barely edging out Ned’s dating life. Ned joins a men’s group. She is surrounded by different types of men in different stages of fragility and mental anguish. There are men who appear to be on the edge of a violent rage with each breath. Other men are desperate for friends, father figures or brother substitutes.
Nora is astonished at how difficult it is for these men to talk about their feelings. Some of them struggle with the idea that they even have feelings, and watching them try to articulate this is pure amazement to her.
She is also terrified. This is a group of MEN and she feels that if she will be discovered and outed, this is the group that will do it. She’s entered into a sanctified world where men are able to first realize they have feelings, acknowledge and articulate the feelings they have about women, and painfully work though the confusion, fear and anger that the women in their lives have caused. For a woman to lie to them and join their group? This could cause mental harm beyond repair and I hated Nora for being part of this. For her, it was an experiment. Observe the men in a habitat. Try and stay uninvolved, but also pick them apart to see how they work. For some of these men, this group was forcing them to do things that defied every instruction they had received in their lives about what it means to be a man. While some of the men were eager to make changes because they wanted something different and better, others seemed in a panic that they might uncover something too painful to manage. And here is a woman in disguise watching and making notes. I hated it. My book group was furious.
At a weekend retreat, Nora ends up completely caught up in the symbolism and emotions of the group and finds herself having her own psychological crisis. While she continues to observe these men trying to define themselves, she realizes that she needs to define who she is and how Ned fits in.
The weekend ends, she lets Ned go and soon checks herself into a mental institution. This leads to her second book Voluntary Madness, a book that filled me with such rage that I almost didn’t finish it. If you thought she made poor choices in this book, wait until she talks about how people should go off their meds.
I’m glad I read and then reread this book. There is a lot that happens and she does make many valid points and observations. The problem is that she assumes Nora’s version of reality is correct and when things don’t mesh, she doesn’t always continue to find out why. Men are kind to Ned but Nora doesn’t stop to wonder why she thinks men are cruel. Women are indifferent to Ned, but Nora doesn’t ask herself what kind of women she’s finding for him. I think this could have been a very different book if she had laid out her intentions and predictions before each experiment. I understand that she wanted to be Ned and watch what happens, but without untangling her expectations, she doesn’t always come across well. Again, I wanted to defend her to my book club, but there were too many times when I hated what she had done and they way she wrote about it.
I have to keep remembering that this is a real person who interacted with other real people. This is her own personal account of what happened. She experienced and wrote the book she wanted, not what a psychological experiment would have called for. There are many enlightening and fascinating moments that did make me pause and think about how I define myself as a woman and how I see men. It’s a thought provoking read and it forces the reader to examine their own thoughts.
If you have a book group, I 100% recommend this as a pick!