January 12, 2009

Self-Made Man

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I just finished reading Self-Made Man: One Woman's Year Disguised as a Man by Norah Vincent. What an amazing and seriously intriguing read. The description on Vincent's website:

"Shrewd, sympathetic, and courageous, Self-Made Man is one woman’s take on just how hard it is to be a man, even in a man’s world. With an ever-present five o’clock shadow, a crew cut, wire-rimmed glasses, and her own size 11 ½ shoes, Norah Vincent spent a year and a half as her male alter ego, Ned, and reported back what she observed incognito. Narrating her journey with exquisite insight, empathy, and humor, Norah ponders the many remarkable mysteries of gender identity as she explores firsthand who men really are when women aren’t around. As Ned, she joins a bowling team, takes a high-octane sales job, goes on dates with women (and men), visits strip clubs, and even manages to infiltrate a monastery and a men’s therapy group. Absolutely engrossing in its reporting and surprising in its analysis, Self-Made Man is a thrilling tour de force of immersion journalism."

I got the book on a lark on one of my new favorite websites, Paperback Swap. I thought it seemed like an interesting concept, but I had no idea how revealing it would actually be. In the introduction, Vincent discusses the process she used to become Ned, and how the whole book project came about. Then she dives right in.

In the first chapter, Ned joins an all-male bowling league. Although Vincent doesn't specify which chapters/events take place in which of the 5 states and various cities she visited, the bowling league seemed to me to be somewhere in the Mid-West. At one point during this chapter, she describes a scene in which all the men stop bowling to watch one of their league-mates bowl a perfect game. I would never have imagined that could have me in tears, but it did. The way she described the scene from the inside out was just incredible.

I think that the reason this book was so amazing is because as much as a man could try to write about the inner circle and workings of male relationships, it's just normal to them. They wouldn't be able to describe it in the same way as someone who is used to female relationships. It also gave Vincent a lot of insight into how women can be perceived by men, and why.

The last adventure Vincent went on as Ned was to join a Men's Movement meeting and then attend one of their annual retreats. The insight she gives into the state of men today, the difficulties they face, and the ignorance most of our society has about it is truly eye opening.

I found the book fascinating and touching. In the end, Vincent ends up having a breakdown and committing herself to a mental hospital. The stress of pretending to be someone else, worrying about being discovered, and the guilt of deceiving people day in and day out did her in. The last chapter, where she describes the unforseen early end to her experiment is insightful and passionate.

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