by Norah Vincent
After years of wondering how daily life differed for men and women, Norah Vincent quit her job and spent a year and a half adopting the appearance and persona of Ned Vincent. Passing as a man, Vincent joined a bowling club, visited strip clubs, went on dates, and even tested the waters of a men-only therapy group. Although she found her experiences eye-opening, the pressure of maintaining her male façade led to a mental breakdown, forcing the end of the experiment.
I’m not sure how I want to react to this book. On the one hand, I was fascinated by the process by which Norah became Ned. She makes it clear early on that she isn’t doing this as a transgender experiment. Norah never felt that she was a man trapped in a woman’s body or not fully female. She’s merely curious about the difference between how men and women are treated when they step out into the world. She assumes that life for a white heterosexual middle-class man is easier than for a white lesbian, but by the end of the book many of her expectations have been altered or completely thrown away.
Yet this book makes me uncomfortable, because there’s so much deception in it. Norah doesn’t don the disguise of Ned for one night at a bowling alley, but maintains the persona for months. Ned signs up for a therapy group in which men unloose their emotions in a raw, hyper-masculine state under the expectation that no woman will ever witness them. She sneaks into a Catholic monastery, for crying out loud! In each situation, Norah does eventually out herself, and the men are always surprisingly forgiving – but it sounds like none of their friendships lasted for long after her revelation.
Even more manipulative and cruel was Norah’s dating style. As a man, she opted to date straight women. Although she did eventually reveal her true gender to most of her dates, many of the relationships progressed and became quite involved and passionate before she ‘fessed up. One woman did end up having sex with Norah anyway, but most of them ended up dropping out of sight after finding out they’d been lied to. I found it curious and rather disappointing that Norah could be so callous with the feelings of others. She eventually concludes that the constant rejection men face as they ask women out is much, much harder than the women could ever suspect – but doesn’t spend much time thinking about how hurtful a deceitful man (or woman) can be to potential dates.
As a case study for cultural anthropology, Norah’s book would fail because she used so much deception that it would be considered unethical. Her project isn’t especially balanced. She chooses traditionally “masculine” roles for Ned to try out, like joining a bowling team or taking a high-pressure sales job, and ignores more neutral positions, like men in a church group or mixed sports team. Finally, she makes no attempt to be objective – she admits some of her biases early on, but I don’t think she makes much effort to ignore them when making decisions and drawing conclusions.
As immersion journalism, it’s certainly an interesting process and I enjoyed reading about Norah/Ned’s experiences. But it was certainly a flawed experiment and the ethics of some of her decisions are dubious at best, so I can’t wholeheartedly recommend it. Ultimately, I found many of Norah’s final conclusions to be – well, rather obvious – which made her whole adventure seem a bit shallow.
If you do enjoy this book, Norah Vincent did write a follow-up book called Voluntary Madness as she moved through three mental hospitals in an attempt to treat the depression that followed her experiences as Ned in Self-Made Man.
2.5 out of 5 stars
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Peeking into the archives...today in:
2013: Oregon Shakespeare Festival 2013: The Taming of the Shrew
2012: Event: Christopher Moore and Sacre Bleu
2011: Rage (Horsemen of the Apocalypse #2) by Jackie Morse Kessler
2010: Dawn of the Dreadfuls by Steve Hockensmith
2009: Pride and Prejudice and Zombies by Jane Austen and Seth Grahame-Smith