Self-Made Man

From Menletter March 2006


By Tim Baehr


As he extended his arm to shake my hand, I extended mine, too, in a sweeping motion. Our palms met with a soft pop, and I squeezed assertively the way I'd seen men do at parties when they gathered in someone's living room to watch a football game. From the outside, this ritual had always seemed overdone to me. Why all the macho ceremony? But from the inside it was completely different. There was something so warm and bonded in this handshake. Receiving it was a rush, an instant inclusion in a camaraderie that felt very old and practiced.


It was more affectionate than any handshake I'd ever received from a strange woman. To me, woman-to-woman introductions often seem fake and cold, full of limp gentility. . . .


This solidarity of sex was something that feminism tried to teach us, and something, it now seemed to me, that men figured out and perfected a long time ago. On some level men didn't need to learn or remind themselves that brotherhood was powerful. It was just something they seemed to know.


Norah Vincent, disguised as a young man, "Ned," was about to join an all-male bowling league where, for the next several months, Ned would infiltrate the male world, spying on it as an underground operative. Ned went on to five other adventures - going to strip bars, dating, attending a religious retreat, working as a salesman, and joining a men's group.


For eighteen months, Vincent went about in drag as Ned, passing as a man. Abandoning her job as a columnist for the Los Angeles Times, she went underground much as John Howard Griffin, a white man passing as a black man, had done in 1959.


Vincent reports on her experiences in Self-Made Man: One Woman's Journey into Manhood and Back Again (New York: Viking, 2006).


The report could have been played as a sensationalist, tabloid-like expose. It wasn't. In a series of well-crafted chapters covering each of the six adventures, Vincent reports straightforwardly on Ned's experiences. She discovers men at their worst and best and uncovers her own prejudices as a woman and a lesbian. She finds compassion for the way men are, and are expected to be, in the world.


There are limitations and a price to pay in this year-and-a-half-long subterfuge. Vincent acknowledges that she cannot feel what it is like to have a man's sex drive, or even to go deeply into the foundations of a man's psychological makeup. She is a tourist in the Country of Men, and has no interest in becoming, or any ability to become, an immigrant. Toward the end of her journey, she is exhausted and depressed. She suffers a kind of anomie and identity crisis from having been underground too long - perhaps similar to the sadness and disorientation experienced by some expatriates who relocate overseas and "go native."


Disguising herself as a man took extensive preparation. She was already very tall, with man-sized feet. She cut her hair short and bought square-rimmed glasses. A makeup artist showed her how to apply real-looking stubble to her face. She already had a deeper than normal voice for a woman; a voice coach taught her to slow down the pace of her words. Vincent worked out to build muscle mass. A too-small sports bra flattened her chest. She even wore, at times, a prosthetic set of male sex organs to give her pants a convincing bulge.  


Even with all this preparation, passing as a man was not as easy as Vincent thought it might be. Vincent had always been a tomboy, and her friends had told her that, as an adult, she was quite mannish. Ned, however, was seen by both men and women as somewhat effeminate. At first, Vincent was constantly checking up on Ned's behavior, worrying that Ned would give Norah away with a stray word or gesture. As the journey continued, however, Vincent saw that Ned was accepted as male simply because Ned's personality was able to project him as a man and therefore match what people expected to see, rather than what they actually saw. Sometimes Ned didn't even bother with the stubble, when doing so should have made Norah's smooth, light skin a dead giveaway.


Traveling with Vincent through six regions in the Country of Men, I felt as though I was with a knowledgeable tour guide into many experiences - inner and outer - of my own life. Like a good tour guide, Ned pointed out the major features in each region and filled in some interesting back stories and details about the local denizens. Sometimes Norah interjected a little too much of her own interpretation of things - offering, for instance, several theories about why men visit strip clubs. She may have been right or wrong about her theories (I've never been to a strip club), but I had the impression that her analysis was a bit of a stretch.


Most of the time, however, Vincent simply observed, reported, and reacted. Ned's journey left me with some sharp memories of his experiences and resonances with my own experiences.


      Bowling: The generosity of men accepting Ned (a horrible bowler) onto their team and helping him in his game without ridicule or ill feelings. This in spite of the fact that there was money at stake. Resonances with Boy Scouts, bicycle touring buddies, my writing mentor.

      Strip clubs: The observation that men in strip clubs were sexually jaded and hard to please, that they isolated this experience from their genuine love of their wives, and that one function of the clubs was to present women who resembled real women as little as possible. Resonance with long-ago research for my company into Internet filters and porn blockers: None of the images were of women I would ever expect to meet in everyday life.

      Dating: The experience of constant rejection from women who, though they were desperate for connection, stacked the deck against men, picking over them like inferior produce at a vegetable stand. Resonance with several disastrous blind dates when I was single.

      Monastery: The feeling of emotional isolation and loneliness, and fear of intimacy, among men who had chosen the celibate life. And true spiritual maturity and compassion among many of the monks. Resonance with religious retreats when I was in college - the kindness and serenity of the men I met.

      Work: The rush one gets in making a sale, even when the salesman knows he's being shamelessly exploited by the sales organization. Sales as seductions, almost sexual conquests. The influence on one's confidence of a sharp suit and tie. Resonance with a brief summer stint as a door-to-door encyclopedia salesman, totally swept up by the sales culture, and the thrill of conquest.

      Men's group: Rage and pain, and the ability of men to express emotions among their fellows that they would never show out in the world. Fatigue at the burden of carrying the world, and their families, on their shoulders. One man says at the weekend retreat: "I guess I think that if I hold it all together, if I take care of everything and everyone, that eventually I'll be loved. But the price is my life. I'm trying to do the impossible." Resonance with the sorrows and joys of attending men's retreats for the past seven years, and the tenderness among men who know and share each others' burdens and wounds.


Sometimes Vincent contrasts the male experience with that of women, or the theories of feminists. Here's one observation from Ned's weekend in the woods:


Being the man in charge brought with it a whole host of burdens and anxieties that seldom if ever occurred to me or the feminists I knew. We saw it from our side, and from there it seemed pretty damned good to be in power, make decisions, have choices, to escape the home-maker's gulag. For ambitious women, having a career was a lot better than changing your millionth diaper or staring at the yellow wallpaper. When you're feeling trapped and disenfranchised, it doesn't register that being the working stiff in the gray flannel suit isn't any picnic either.


Vincent ended up revealing herself as Norah to all the groups save the last. In all cases, the men (and women in the dating experience) took her revelation well but related to her very differently as Norah, sometimes sharing intimate details about themselves that had been told to Ned in far fewer words, through a male filter of reticence. (Men often didn't seem to be communicating at all with each other. Rather than drown or dilute a situation in a flood of prose, they often chose the more concentrated poetry of a few words, a small gesture.)


By the time Ned got to the woodland retreat with the men's group, Vincent was depressed and totally spent. She feared telling her men's group the truth about herself, even wondering if she was in danger physically. I have the feeling that this fear arose more out of her inner state than out of any real threat from the men. The retreat ends somberly for Vincent, realizing that she will have to carry Ned's secret with her.


I've heard and read some criticism of Norah Vincent for having bamboozled unsuspecting men into revealing themselves, and for having invaded male territory in the first place. She won't be the first or last woman to have taken it upon herself to speak on behalf of men, but so far she is the only one to have lived the experience. Hers is a book that rings with truth, compassion, and humility.


©Copyright 2006 by Tim Baehr