Norah Vincent is a journalist whose work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, The Village Voice, the New York Post, The New Republic, and The Washington Post.
Years ago, she underwent voice and physical training, sought help from professional make-up artists, and lived as a man for eighteen months. Among other activities, she joined a bowling league, dated, and joined a men’s therapy group. Self-Made Man is the story of her experiences, a thoughtful, humanitarian outsider’s view on what it means to be a man.
In Vincent’s words, it is “a woman’s-eye-view of one guy’s approximated life, not an authoritative guide to the whole vast and variegated terrain of manhood (p. 17).” The same applies to this article. It’s a generalized overview informed by this book.
I’ve read plenty of feminist work. When I picked up Self-Made Man, I expected stories of privilege, of all the things the author got to do, and say, and be as a man, that I don’t get to do, say, or be. The perceived freedoms, the absence of fear.
What I got was a look into the dark, an analytical, compassionate portrait of the men I know and love.
Men Love Their Male Friends Dearly
In chapter two, Vincent joins a bowling league and finds immediate acceptance as Ned, her alter ego:
“From the inside it was completely different. There was something so warm and bonded in this handshake. Receiving it was a rush, and instant inclusion in a camaraderie that felt very old…. It was more affectionate than any handshake I’d ever received from a strange woman.”
Men don’t tend to chatter as women do, and it’s easy to judge poorly when you’re only looking at the outside. Men base their friendships on different criteria than women: respect, long acquaintanceship, hard-won skills, admiration.
As she flails at bowling, she nevertheless forms friendships with her bowling partners, and learns, underneath their gruff exteriors, of their deep but quiet affection for each other, of the affection of men for men, expressed not vocally or physically as with women, but subtly.
Men Express Strong Emotions Non-Verbally
One of the lessons Vincent takes away from her time with the league is that just because you don’t see it, doesn’t mean it isn’t there.
“So much of what happens between men isn’t spoken aloud, and the outsider, especially the female outsider who is used to emotional life being overt and spoken… tends to assume that what isn’t said isn’t there. But it is there (Self-Made Man, p. 46).”
Vincent befriended men of all types. She stuck around for months getting to know them, slowly learning their broad range of emotion, but also their different ways of expression, “silent and underground, invisible to most women’s eyes and ears (p. 105).”
Looking at men from the outside in, I used to miss so much. Now I understand that when my boyfriend goes back to the store for something I need that he forgot, that’s an act of love. When he replaces a lightbulb in a socket I can’t easily reach? Act of love. When he does the dishes, mops the floor, makes sure there’s half and half in the morning. Silent acts of love.
Being raised by a conservative, sexist father who talked about my college education as my opportunity to get my MRS. degree, I had a certain vision of “what men were like.”
Vincent’s analysis doesn’t refute or confirm dad’s limited vision of my potential; it gives it dimension. Underneath the belittlement lay concern for his liberal, artistic daughter to be safe. Even though his idea of safe didn’t mesh with mine, and even though he couldn’t express his desire for me to be so.
Men Are Unfairly Judged by Women
Vincent’s chapter on love and dating was similarly illuminating. She met and dated several women—and had spectacularly problematic interactions.
It wasn’t that her disguise was thin and therefore seen through. In fact, during the entire experiment, she was never busted. It was that she felt the women she met up with, for the most part, had been so hurt, or were so defensive, that she didn’t get a fair shake as a human being.
“She had chosen to get involved with someone… unavailable, yet she blamed him for refusing to leave his wife. He was the… coward. She was the long-suffering party,… the used one who deserved better. Her predicament was of her own making and entirely predictable, yet she used it to bolster her distrust of [men], and as with many of the other women I dated, Ned took that accumulated load on his shoulders…. He was just the next man who would hurt her.”
I’ve been that woman, so tied to the relationships that ended badly that I brought that pain into new interactions in the form of unearned mistrust.
Once I realized I was letting my desire for companionship overrule my good judgement and place me in a position to be hurt, I was able to meet the next man I dated on surer footing, get to know him for the superb human being he is, instead of bending that to fit into my own preconceived ideas.
This isn’t a blanket suggestion we all go forward with blinders on. It’s a reflection on how my relationships changed when I laid down my anger and started judging whether or not I liked the men I dated and how they treated me, whether being with them made me feel good about myself, or bad.
The Tip of the Iceberg
While reading this book, my over-riding emotions were compassion, respect, and a sense of men as ‘other,’ rather than as people who don’t communicate or behave more like women.
While reading this book, my conception of what I think men “ought” to do and be, changed.
While reading this book, and after, I want to check in with my own mate more often, to do more to silently care for him in a language he understands.
There’s so much more knowledge here, so much meticulously recorded observation and respect. There’s so much more I want to say, about tenderness, stifling, love of women, male role models, but this article is of limited scope. I encourage single women to read this book, and partners to read it and discuss it together.
Curvylou is an eternal optimist with sixteen years sober and a jones for textiles. She blogs over at www.curvylouise.wordpress.com/, and would love to lure you into the mindsmack of knitting, spinning yarn, and hand-dyeing. She’s also been known to blog about sobriety, self-doubt, belly dance, American Sign Language, road trips, digging up other people’s back yards, and stupid decisions. Misadventure dogs her heels.