March 15, 2006

BOOKS: Self-Made Man, Norah Vincent (2006)

For 18 months, Vincent disguised herself as a man and spent time in a series of all-male environments in order to find out what life is really like for men. "Ned" spent eight months in a mens' bowling league, lived for several weeks at a monastery, joined a mens' support group (and went on their weekend retreat), and visited strip clubs.

There are always ethical issues raised by this sort of undercover journalism, and it is one of the strengths of the book that Vincent is aware of these issues from the outset, and does her best to deal with them. She ultimately does tell most of the men she meets who she really is, and when she chooses not to, it's clear that she's given the decision a lot of thought.

Most of what Vincent discovers doesn't come as any great surprise. Or do I only think that because I'm a man? I don't think so; surely these days, most women understand that men pay a significant emotional and physical cost because of the expectations and pressures of life in what is still a male-dominated society.

Of course, understanding it and actually seeing it close up are two very different things; Vincent writes with great emotion about the men she meets, men who seem desperately in need of the sorts of close relationships and conversations that women take for granted, but cannot find a way to have those things while adhering to cultural norms.

I was disappointed that none of Vincent's explorations dealt specifically with gay male culture (and one would have thought that as a lesbian herself, she'd be more sensitive to assuming heterosexuality as a default). And at the end, looking back on her experiment, she goes way overboard into Deborah Tannen/John Gray territory, declaring that "there is at bottom really no such thing as that mystical unifying creature we call a human being, but only male human beings and female human beings, as separate as sects."

But Vincent has a sharp eye, and a gift for drawing out the thoughts of the men she meets. She's also very aware of her own role in this process, of the ways in which "Ned" succeeds or fails in pulling off his deception and of the ways in which she can't be entirely objective about the experiment.

Particularly interesting is her failure to anticipate the impact that the deception would have on her; she calls the term "nervous breakdown" overly dramatic, but does check herself into a hospital for several days. The strain of presenting a false identity for so long takes its toll, and I'd have thought her own sexual identity might have kept her from being quite so surprised by that.

This is a fascinating book, and Vincent is an entertaining writer. Her "journey into manhood and back" proved far more complex than she'd expected; her book, likewise, isn't the simplistic "aren't men awful" rant I'd feared it might be.

No comments: