Essay review of Vincent, Norah, 2006.
Self Made Man: One Woman’s Year Disguised as a Man.
New York: Viking Penguin.
(c) 2016, Davd
I first chose to review this book because i was writing a review of John Howard Griffin’s Black Like Me. Griffin’s experience as an “American Negro” man in 1959 seemed to me to show some patterns of “intergroup conflict” which were rare between the sexes when Griffin wrote, but are common today. A book by a woman who spent longer functioning socially as a man, than Griffin spent as Negro, invited reading. Griffin had done a valuable, quality job; if Norah Vincent did as well, she might help clarify the extent to which the sexes today are divided and unequal.
Already, in that review, i had noticed that the sexes are more different than the races; and Self Made Man confirmed this. It also confirmed, not beyond all doubt but to the extent Vincent’s adventure and her book could, that men are more candid and women are more guileful; and that women who are dating, expect too much of men, especially relative to what they have to offer in return. Vincent’s acknowledgements that she has brothers and is Lesbian indicate that she most likely has philios but not eros love for men: She brought a sympathetic tendency to the groups of men she met. Still, she spent an unknown fraction of her year and a half, disguised as a man; while Griffin became Negro.
The cover photographs on the two paperback books are telling: We see John Howard Griffin from behind, walking down a hallway of sorts between stone columns and a wall, an ordinary, fairly tall Negro man. On the back cover we see his “white” and dark faces, half in light and half in shadow, the white from abaft the beam, the dark from an angle to the bow, with an ordinary pleasant sort of look on it—again, an ordinary Negro man. Norah Vincent’s cover photographs, both on the front, are of herself as a Lesbian woman and disguised as an ordinary-looking man—except [s]he is looking straight at the camera, implicitly straight at the reader, “making contact” in both of them. Griffin’s photographs don’t do that… and as Vincent’s book tells us, urban men don’t normally do that1.
Vincent’s observations on how women can be insincere, deceptive, condescending …; contrast with her observations of men accepting her with easy-going candor; and the contrast, plus her specific reports of women’s dissembling, add up to a confession of men’s merit. In general she, like Susan Pinker (2008)—and like my grandmother the Pentecostal preacher, and my sister2—gets my salute for honesty; but also my wish that Vincent had been more profound and organized (as Griffin and Grandmother, Kid Sis to some extent, were).
Beyond Self Made Man being an acknowledgment of men’s virtues that cannot plausibly be self serving, Vincent’s report of “the American man’s condition” is worth serious reflection, in context of Vincent’s Last Words in this book: “… I am fortunate, proud, free, and glad in every way to be a woman.” . This book is a report on the condition of men from someone who was a woman for comparison3 … successfully “disguised as a man.”
Norah Vincent is a tall, articulate, Lesbian woman, “a nationally syndicated columnist for the Los Angeles Times” [inside front cover]. who lived in New York City’s “Hell’s Kitchen” [p, 175] as the book was written. She joined a men’s bowling league, went to strip clubs with some fellow bowlers, dated via local bars where pickups were part of the reason for going, and via the Internet, took a 6-week retreat at a monastery, worked as a door-to-door salesman, and finally, joined a “men’s group” and attended its retreat. In total, she states, she passed for a man “in five separate states, in three different regions of the United States.” 
As she arrived for the first time to join the bowling league, she experienced a man-to-man greeting for the first time, and was very positively impressed [25-26].
When [Jim, the team captain] whom I’d never met before shook my hand he gave me something real. He included me. But most of the women I’d ever shaken hands with or even hugged had held something back, as if we were in constant competition with each other, or secretly suspicious, knowing it but not knowing it, and going through the motions all the same4. In my view bra burning hadn’t changed that much.
“Next I met Alan. His greeting matched Jim’s. It had a pronounced positive force behind it, a presumption of goodwill that seemed to treat me as a buddy from the start, no questions asked, unless or until I proved otherwise.” 
Men’s default attitude toward other men newly met, is friendly, she reports; women’s toward other women, less trustful and more calculating.
Once warmly introduced, the men greeted her much less effusively than other women would have done, which for a woman, took some getting used to; but “Everything was out and aboveboard, never more, never less than what was on anyone’s mind. If they were pissed at you, you’d know it. These gruff greetings were indicative of nothing so much as fatigue and appropriate male distance. … they were coming from long, wearying workdays ….” 
She tested their racial attitudes by asking, after a negative TV comment on a black quarterback, “Do you think McNabb deserves to be where he is?” They didn’t get excited about the question as Vincent had expected they would:
“… the conversation ended with a single comment from each. Yeah, he was doing a great job. … They were happy with his performance, on some nights very happy, and that was all that mattered. The policy debate over skin color wasn’t interesting to them, or relevant. They were rock bottom utilitarians. Either a guy was good and did what he was hired to do or he wasn’t, and that alone was the basis on which you judged his worth.” [31-32]
The men on her team—and even some men from other teams—made a supportive effort to improve her bowling game, which contrasted strongly with her experience as a woman competing with other women[43-45]; and she began to perceive the muted way—muted to her, anyhow—that men show emotion. Her first experience of it was when one of the other bowlers, not on her team, rolled a perfect game. Jim, her teammate whose turn it was to throw, didn’t step up to the line.
“Then I noticed that all the other bowlers had sat down as well [except] the guy who was having the great game. I looked up at the board and saw that he’d had strikes in every frame, and now … he’d have to throw three strikes in a row … to earn a perfect score, and somehow everyone in that hall had felt the moment of grace descend and had bowed out accordingly. Everyone, of course, except me.
“It was a beautiful moment, totally still and reverent, a bunch of guys instinctively paying their respects to the superior athleticism of another guy.
“That guy stepped up to the line and threw his three strikes, one after the other, each one met by mounting applause… then on the final strike, an eruption, and every single guy in the room, including me, surrounded that player and moved in to shake his hand or pat him on the back. It was almost mystical, that telepathic intimacy and the communal joy that succeeded it, crystalline in its perfection. The moment said everything all at once about how tacitly attuned men are to each other, and how much of this women miss when they look from the outside in.” 
Still, she inferred that men are emotionally inhibited, including her bowling team, and i can’t imagine a logically sound route to the inference.
She came to enjoy her bowling night each week, in spite of her poor performance as a bowler; and i’m inclined to credit that to the candor and easy-going warmth, the lack of subversion and innuendo, that the men naturally gave “Ned” as they gave each other.
I skimmed rather than scanned the chapter titled “Sex”, in which she went to strip clubs. There is very much more to sex than that; and the overreaching chapter title indicates as the bowling accounts did not, that there is much to manhood and men’s lives that a Lesbian columnist in disguise, could not access. Strip bars are open to the public, the bedrooms of long-married couples are not… nor are the beds where people just falling in love, “make love” after falling into them.
Much as “Sex” is a far too inclusive title for chapter 3, “Love” is far too broad for chapter 4. “Dating” would have been more accurate, more descriptive.
Trying to meet women in bars while disguised as a man, taught her mainly how unpleasant rejection is:
“I found myself thinking about rejection and how small it made me feel, and how small most men must feel under the weight of what women expect from them. I was an actor playing a role, but these women had gotten to me nevertheless. None of these interactions mattered. I had nothing real at stake. But still, I felt bad.” 
When she revealed to one group at a bar, that she was a woman in disguise,
“Then, with startling quickness we all began chatting like hens. Their aloof facade fell away, … knowing i was a woman, to let me in. … Now they turned all the way around to face me….”
“As a woman, i was accepted. As a man I had been rejected yet again.” 
Dating by way of Internet “introductions” brought “Ned” fewer and less painful rejections, and many dates: “… I made contact with almost all the women I dated via the Internet, and we usually exchanged a number of e-mails before we met.” 
The dates, however, were far less fun on average, than she had expected.
The women she dated wanted a confident take-control man who was also open, sensitive, and vulnerable [110-111]. Both Ned and Norah felt that was too much to ask: Being a “world bestriding colossus … [and] a sensitive new age guy at the same time is pretty well impossible.”  A very few such men might exist; millions of women want one. … and most are dissatisfied at best, if we can generalize from Vincent’s reports, when they meet less.
: “… while a man is expected to be modern, that is, to support feminism in all its particulars5, to see and treat women as equals in every respect, he is on the other hand often still expected to be traditional at the same time, to treat a lady as a lady, to lead the way and pick up the check.
“Expectation, expectation, expectation. That was the leitmotif of Ned’s dating life, taking on the desirable manly persona or shrugging off its dreaded antithesis. Finding the right balance was maddening, and operating under the constant weight of so much political guilt was simply exhausting. Though, in the parlance of liberal politics, I had operated in my real life under the burden of being a doubly oppressed minority—a woman and a lesbian—and I had encountered the deprivations of that status, as a man, I operated under what I felt in these times to be the equally heavy burden of being a double majority, a white man.” 
Vincent did have some Lesbian indulgence with a few of her dates, (she does not specify what physically occurred [e.g. 114-123]) while other women she dated found Ned was not male enough for them: Too willowy, when many women wanted brawn.
As a Lesbian, Norah Vincent was attracted to women, playing the role of Ned, she found how much power that gave her/his dates:
“And if you have never been sexually attracted to women, you will never quite understand the monumental power of female sexuality, except by proxy or in theory, nor will you quite know the immense advantage it gives us over men. As a lesbian, I knew something of this. But it is different between two women, more an engagement of equals, an exchange of something shared. As a man, I learned much more, and I learned it, I think, from an unexpectedly disadvantaged point of view.” 
“Dating women as a man was a lesson in female power, and it made me, of all things, a momentary misogynist, which, I suppose was the best indicator that my experiment had worked. I saw my own sex from the other side, and I disliked women irrationally for a while because of it. I disliked their superiority, their accusatory smiles, their entitlement to choose or dash me with a fingertip, an execution so lazy, so effortless, it made the defeats and even the successes unbearably humiliating.” 
“When I was Ned, women became a subspecies to blame, just as for those women, men had become the adversary in the wrong.” 
“.. Women were supposed to fly already.6 And I held it harshly against them that they were so small and shitty and shortsighted as everybody else, including me. Ned saw that, and then I saw Ned seeing it, and then I saw myself. I guess that was the fascination of Ned. He was a mirror and a window and a prism all at the same time.7
“But the truth was that for all the anger I felt … directed at the abstraction called men, I was most surprised to find nestled inside the confines of female heterosexuality a deep love and genuine attraction for real men.8 Not for women in men’s bodies, as the prejudicial me had thought.”
Perhaps she discovered heterosexual women, as well as men, through her adventure.
The chapter that describes her six week retreat at a monastery, she titles “Life”, as if the bowlers, the women she dated, the men’s group members, were dead or alien.9 The real point of the chapter was to “to observe men living together in close quarters without women...” and “know what happens when you take sex away.” As with her other chapter titles, the word “Life” covers far more than the chapter’s content.
She “flew” into friendship with Br. Vergil10, who shared some of her interests in the arts, and was scolded by Fr. Jerome for “falling in love with him.” . She admits that “in comportment, I wasn’t bothering to be very butch. I was being me, though purposely less demonstrative than I would have been as myself.
“Still, even toned down, as a man, my hallmark female behaviors, my emotive temperament and even my word choice read as gay, or at the very least odd.” She was pressured to act more masculine and less emotionally florid. No surprise there.
She noticed and reports, considerable affection among the monks, expressed with at least average masculine reserve… but with that reserve, she seems unable to be comfortable.
Revealing to the monks that she was a woman, she reports, improved acceptance and rapport.
For “Work”, she chose not a naturally male job like carpentry, logging, and garbage collection, but door-to-door sales, which is not necessarily masculine. Writing of it as a “balls-to-the-wall sales job in a testosterone soaked environment” may be merely her usual hyperbole applied to the facts of the specific job she found; but it is not factually true of door-to-door selling. Though she does report the imagery of her “Attitude Red Bull” choices as a macho pseudo-culture, there were women as well as men doing those sales “jobs.” She herself, as Ned, succeeded by easing into the sale, letting the customer ‘discover’ the merits of the coupon books she had to sell. [214-6]
One important thing i noticed in that “Work” chapter, was the effect of wearing a suit. Unlike most of the salesmen around her, she knew how to dress up, and doing it in men’s clothing was still stereotyped. The men’s dressing stereotypes were familiar to her; she had brothers and worked in a large city where hundreds of thousands of men dressed up… and she took her time preparing the Ned persona.
“I was walking taller in my dress clothes” she writes. “I felt entitled to respect, to command it and get it in a way that Ned never had in slob clothes. … A suit is an impenetrable signifier of maleness … You see it, not him, and you bow to it.
“I, in turn, responded to these shifts in expectation. For the first time in my journey as Ned I felt male privilege descend on me like an insulating cape, and all the male behaviors I had until then been so consciously trying to produce for my role, came to me suddenly without effort.
“My voice moistened instinctively, loosening me into the pose of someone who doesn’t need to speak up to be heard. I spoke more slowly, and with what seemed to me to be an absurd authority, … ” 
Most of the other salesmen in the door-to-door enterprises where she worked, “were too hard up to afford a real suit and too tasteless to buy a presentable one. Not a single one of them had the slightest idea how to tie a tie. As a result, they all looked like the epitome of a cheap salesman.”  In comparison, Ned would have looked impressive.
She also reports, or was it concluded, that: “As a guy, I had to shed my sympathy for myself and the victim, and the appearance of weakness and need. People see weakness in a woman and they want to help. People see weakness in a man and they want to stamp it out.” 
That might have been true of “Ned”s specific door-to-door sales environment, where she also reports, success depended a little on the law of averages but much more on deceit: “... learning to lie better was what everyone who did well was really doing.”  It does her credit that she quit.
Rejection of the weak was false among the bowlers, who tried to help her improve Ned’s game. It was false among the monks. In the strip clubs and the men’s group, the question seems moot. She seems to report rejection of “Ned” as weak in the dating-bar scene, but not over the Internet. Perhaps most important, i didn’t notice Norah Vincent noticing that rejection of the weak is situational, and that in the all-male situations, it didn’t happen.
This book has told me more about women than about men—but with limited certainty because it is a “case study,” a one-woman report, and that of a columnist more than a book-length author. It has confirmed, and significantly, that men and men’s discourse are more candid, women and women’s discourse more florid and calculated.
Her bowling experience showed her that men are more accepting and dissemble far less than women; and that we have emotional perceptions and expression, but they are much less flamboyant.
In my reading, the bowling league was her best experience and her best performance as a guy… though she never did bowl well. It was evenings out with working class men who were unwinding from their jobs in candid, accepting, easy-going company; and that, she could provide and appreciate. It was really quite a lot like the Pygmy men in Turnbull’s The Forest People (1968), sitting and talking about the last hunt and the next, and about how to manage awkward social encounters. It was practical, it was mutually supportive, it was easy-going most of the time. I cannot “get” why Norah Vincent would rather be a woman , but i’ll allow it’s “just as well”, because that’s what she was born to be.
Her dating experiences confirm—not fully, they are one woman’s experience in disguise—some of the sense of needless antagonism that men have about early 21st Century relations between men and women.
They also summarize a separation of the sexes which, in fact, has been around longer than the 74+ years i have been alive: Men greet strange men willingly enough if the situation indicates peaceable rather than hostile intent, as “Ned” was greeted when he arrived at the bowling alley; but the women “Ned” tried to approach deemed strange men approaching them “only want one thing.”. Had they been strange women, the suspicion might have been more comprehensive [cf. 25-26].
In a pickup bar, that’s close enough to true for practical purposes; in a library, hospital, or at a kiosk—it’s not; but still, chaperonage, modesry, and some separation of the sexes, are good things (cf. “Jim”s distraction when a very attractive woman is in his work space, p. 35).
The chapters on “Sex” [strip clubs] and “Work” [door-to-door sales]; fall far short of representing men’s overall experience. Strip clubs with or without lap dances, are a very small and biased sample of male sexuality, and door-to-door sales is a very biased sample of men’s work. What both are, is more accessible to a woman in disguise, than more representative sexual activities, and than jobs like say, carpentry, logging, and garbage collection.
Several other men have talked to me about sex, knowing i’m abstinent myself (and yes, we have been more matter-of-fact than florid in how we talked about sex.) The range of experience and even of “sex drive” is large, and a section on strip bars should not really be named “sex”.
Many other men have talked to me about work, and much of it is not for the willowy physique. If John Howard Griffin’s adventure could go anywhere in the “Negro” world of his time, that he could have gone if he had been born Negro; Vincent’s could not really go everywhere that a natural man could go. The sexes are more different than the races.
Norah Vincent’s writing is fluent, as we expect of a columnist. She uses nuance and qualification to avoid over-statement11 and she does so cleverly, so that many of her nuanced or qualified statements still seem assertive. She also indulges in over-statement = exaggeration which for all i know, might be normal woman-to-woman utterance.
It is evocative in ways i would find odd coming from a man12. I would not expect a man to write that bowling a perfect score was “crystalline in its perfection” ; nor “Small-shouldered guy sidles up to cute chicks with a canned line and a huge hole of obvious insecurity gaping in the middle of his chest” [94-5]. I’ve met many exceptions to the “every man” whose armor, she writes, “is borrowed and ten sizes too big, and beneath it he’s naked and insecure and hoping you won’t see.” [130, end of ch. 4]
With those words she evokes an image far more false than the men i know: Chefs Soren and Steve, Elders Art and Nelson, Farmers Stan, Pat, and Mark; Priests Laurence, Philip, Serge and Matt; Professors Bill, Louis, Pradip and Tapani, Sawyer Bernard, Welders Jeff, John, Louis and Smitty, men of several shades of tan and brown, several nationalities and languages, all wearing not armor but their working clothes13, and well fitted.
Perhaps she was thinking of the fictional little fellow she mentions on p. 271 who, as the Wizard of Oz, manipulated the levers that made special effects—in a children’s movie, not a real life. Perhaps she is saying that urban life is false for too many men, that for a man to be urban entails relentless pressure to be phony. Definitely, she contradicts her own statements of respect for “Jim”, “Alan”, “Paul”, some of the monks… at least. “Every man” is grievous exaggeration on p. 130; she reports in this very book that probably most men and at least a significant minority of us are authentic, humane, and worthy. Freed of misandry or even most of misandry, such men will be a solid majority.
I didn’t count the contradictions in Self Made Man, but there were at least a handful and perhaps dozens. To me, such contradictions imply a lack of discipline in the writing. More generally, absolute statements are false, as a course in probability taught me back around 1962.
The word disguised, like the concept of discipline, is important in comparing Self Made Man to Griffin’s Black Like Me. John Howard Griffin wrote that he became Negro: “… there is no such thing as a disguised white man, once the color won’t rub off. The black man is wholly a Negro, regardless of what he once may have been.” (Griffin, 1960: 6) Norah Vincent’s subtitle is One Woman’s Year Disguised as a Man. Black Like Me has more intensity, which i would guess results from three main causes: Discipline, immersion, and a novelist’s rather than a columnist’s approach to writing. Vincent, a columnist, seems to write more from a pursuit of pleasure and excitement; Griffin, a novelist, from a pursuit of “right” and knowledge.
Vincent’s impersonations spanned months longer than Griffin’s transformation; but except for a few days when he risked changing his skin color enough to alternate between “being white” and “being Negro”; John Howard Griffin’s six weeks were spent entirely as Negro, while Norah Vincent’s “passing back and forth between male and female—often going out in public as both a man and a woman in one day” seemed to indicate a much less complete immersion in the social and emotional life of men, than Griffin’s was in negritude.
Griffin’s background as a novelist led him to form, frame, and live a book-length story; he was used to readers who bought a book [codex], or borrowed it from a library, and had a much greater commitment to take care of it and to give it an hour or so before they might decide it was not worth finishing. Newspapers are stereotypically used to wrap the garbage; books stereotypically sit on shelves for years and are re-read occasionally, if only in part. I expect to put Self Made Man on a shelf and use it occasionally for reference; because Vincent seems to be writing honestly and there are few other sources for what i expect it to provide; but that will be despite rather than because of, its organization—and its cover photos.
The sexes are indeed more different than the races. It is long past time to cast aside the ambitions of a few bitter women in favor of the maternal and nurturant normality of millions more, and of the evident fact that most men, most of the time, will gladly respect women whose achievements have merit comparable to their own (Pinker, 2008).
No human beings can enjoy complete liberation without thereby abusing other human beings who must share with them, the inherently limited resources of Planet Earth.
No wonder Norah Vincent would rather be a woman: They’re the privileged sex, and her writing of “male privilege” shows she missed that important point even while describing it. Paradoxically, that could be taken to validate her observations of men’s good qualities, and our actually disadvantaged status as a “gender.”
Anonymous, 2009. “Mothers commit vast majority of parental murders of children” VictimFeministCentral website, Tuesday, September 22,
Allemano, Peter, 2012. “The Bold, Independent Woman Of Today and the ‘Good’ Men and Boys in Her Life: A Sampling of Mainstream Media Representations” New Male Studies v.1 Issue 1: 31-51.
Bolles, Edmund Blair, 2011 “‘Project Nim. Reveals a Scientific Scandal”. Scientific American blog post, Jul 10
Deary, Ian J. et al, 2003. “Population differences in IQ at age 11: The Scottish Mental Survey 1932. Intelligence 32. cited by Pinker 2008:
Groth, Miles, 2012. Review of Baumeister, Roy F. 2011, Is There Anything Good About Men? New York: Oxford University Press.New Male Studies v. 1 Issue 1: 116-120. From the review: “… men do include the best among human beings, but they also include the worst. This has to do with biology and is seen in the greater presence of men as compared to women at the extremes of the so-called normal distribution: more geniuses and more mentally defective human beings among all males.” 
Griffin, John Howard, 1960. Black Like Me. Boston: Houghton Mifflin. Signet paperback, 1961.
Harris, T. George, 1972. “Some Idiot Raised the Ante” (an Editorial) Psychology Today V.5, #. 9 (February): 40
Nathanson, Paul, and Katherine K. Young, 2001. Spreading Misandry: The Teaching of Contempt for Men in Popular Culture Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press
Nathanson, Paul, and Katherine K. Young, 2006. Legalizing Misandry: From Public Shame to Systemic Discrimination against Men Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press.
Pinker, Susan, 2008. The Sexual Paradox: Extreme Men, Gifted Women and the Real Gender Gap. [no city listed in flyleaf] Random House of Canada; New York: Simon and Schuster.
Turnbull, Colin M.1968. The Forest People. NY: Simon and Schuster paperback.
Wells, H. G. 1961: The Outline of History Book Club edition, vol, 2. Garden City, NY
1. Perhaps one should add “in the United States in the early 21st Century,” because i for one am not sure that all men in all cultures, even if urban, might not look one another in the face to acknowledge rather than challenge—as rural and small town men have done in the Canada i know, even in this century.
This review is written with US rather than Canadian spelling; for consistency, given the several quoted passages and the convention of spelling words in their original language when quoting.
2. who, as Ralph Tomlinson wrote of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, deserved another thirty years of life
3. It is worth keeping in mind, still, that Norah Vincent is one person, as well as that she is a columnist, Lesbian, and tall (“Jim” she writes [p. 24]: , “was about five feet six, a good four inches shorter than I..”) What she reports has the extra credibility of a journalist’s authorship, but still, the limitations of a sample size of one or, in a common phrase, of a “case study.”
4. She elaborates on the previous page: “To me, women-to-woman introductions often seem fake and cold, full of limp gentility. I’ve seen a lot of women hug one another this way too, sometimes even women who’ve known each other for a long time and think of themselves as being good friends, They’re like two backward magnets pushed together by convention. Their arms and cheeks meet, and maybe the tops of their shoulders, but only briefly, the briefest time politeness will allow. It’s done out of habit and for appearances, a hollow, even resentful gesture bred into us and rarely felt.” 
5 … including misandry?
6 …an uncertain metaphor. She seems to mean “be immensely skilled emotionally”
7. Another metaphor i would not expect from a man [nor all women]; and i guess Shakespeare writing that Juliet is like the sun is comparably vague—but that’s theatre and Self Made Man is nonfiction. One can imagine what it might mean. One cannot work out by inference what it does mean.
8. The women who find that attraction natural, are the ones from whom we should draw the mothers of the next generations.
9. I deliberately do not call the “dancers” in the strip bars, nor the door-to-door sales[wo]men alive, nor dead; they were living a lie or lies, by her accounts. They were playing roles in which they may well not have believed, for money.
10. The names in the book are pseudonyms; i use the same ones Vincent did.
11. on p. 19 “… I can say with relative surety that …”
12. I’m more literal-minded than that, more concerned to be accurate, less willing to exaggerate. So are most men writers i read.
13 . Armor is, of course, the working clothing of a knight on horseback… a member of the medieval Ruling Classes of Europe.