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.
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.
I have no clue how many stars to give this. It’s both fascinating and infuriating. On one page it’s a five star. The next chapter is a zero star.
So many feelings!