Holy Hermaphrodites! A Cool Walk on the Wild Side

Holly Hughes once remarked, “I’m a man-hater, [but] I don’t hate men as much as a straight woman would.”

Ms. Hughes’ quip is a useful gloss on Self-Made Man, Norah Vincent’s brave, intelligent and endlessly problematic book about her 18 months living as a man—“Ned”—in anonymous parts of America. Ms. Vincent is a lesbian, and her heart isn’t as engaged in the masquerade of Ned’s life among men as a straight woman’s would be: She isn’t burdened by all that anger and resentment and neediness. And yet I suspect that the audience for this book is straight women. (Since when are men curious about themselves?)

Ms. Vincent is too ready to buy into the idea that men behave badly because they have to maintain a culturally mandated tough-guy front; she’s too quick to let them off the hook. The word that pops up over and over again is “sympathy”—as in feeling sympathy for men. Whereas in her chapter on dating women, we sense the real rancor of someone who’s had her heart broken.

Her own attitude toward sex (she doesn’t think it’s such a big deal) inevitably colors her view of male lust: She finds it base and assumes they’re bound to be ashamed of it. Perhaps this is part of her Catholic upbringing—one of the few details of her background she reveals. One of the subtlest, most artful chapters in Self-Made Man is about Ms. Vincent’s stay in a monastery. I could have read a whole book about the sad, hidden world she brings to light.

Self-Made Man is cool at the core. There are too many places where the author tells us that something is heartbreaking without breaking our hearts. Though she’s constantly mourning men’s lack of emotional expressivity, Ms. Vincent has ruthlessly kept her personality, her background and all of her tastes—fashion excepted—out of her book.

This may be the moment to mention that, about two years ago, I met Norah Vincent. She answered an ad I had placed on Craigslist—I was looking for women who’d played college tennis to play with a co-ed group at my club. Her e-mail response mentioned that she was gay; I was a little taken aback, mentioned that I was straight and let it go at that. On the court, she was unremarkably pleasant, a fine, controlled, unemotional tennis player. She’s as tall and almost as big-boned as an average man, maybe six feet and 160 pounds—not unusual for a woman varsity athlete. And yet, the receptionist at the club asked me conspiratorially if the new player was a man or a woman.

So I can vouch for her when she claims that while she was working on her book, even when she went out dressed as a woman, people almost invariably mistook her for a man. And yet, once she’d finished—once she’d “detoxed” from Ned—she was recognized as a woman even when dressed in mannish clothes. I’d have liked more about what she thought and felt about this and how she attempted, or didn’t attempt, to manage these responses. Pretty scary to discover that one’s perceived gender is all in one’s attitude, no? But Ms. Vincent is as neutral as ever.

Her writing in Self-Made Man is just like her tennis: smart, able, perfectly trained, but without the éclat that her obvious intelligence would have you hope for. Just when you think she’s edging towards catharsis, she goes all reasonable on you.

So it’s a shock when, on page 268, a few dozen pages from the end, Ms. Vincent casually mentions that when she finished impersonating Ned, she checked herself into a locked psychiatric ward. Her therapist told her she was “passively suicidal.” The strain of being an imposter had made Ms. Vincent “buckle” under Ned’s weight.

She seems unaware that her collapse might have something to do with what she’s done and where she’s gone as Ned: hanging out in all-nude strip clubs; secluding herself in a monastery; going door-to-door as a salesman. I wanted to hear more about her breakdown—and about why she was on antidepressants from the start. But she doesn’t want to go there, and her reluctance seems … well, very traditionally Anglo-Saxon and masculine.

What’s paradoxical—and very interesting—is that this is precisely the part of masculinity that Ms. Vincent dislikes: The last two chapters of Self-Made Man are full of calls for “healing” the wounds of male stereotypes and encouraging men to express their emotions. (I’m not sure I agree. Today’s young men are far too quick to whine; they could use some of the stoicism of their fathers—or of Norah Vincent.)

Whatever one’s taste in men, Ms. Vincent’s exhortations are based on a narrow demographic. When she deplores the “three-note emotional range” of men, she’s forgetting the diverse attitudes toward male emotion in the rainbow coalition of subcultures here in the United States (including my own American Jewish culture), and most of the rest of the world.

Men from parts of the Third World do plenty of the hugging that Ms. Vincent wishes American men would do more of. But their unabashed delight in playing with their children, singing soppy love songs, reading poems and putting stuffed animals on their dashboards flourishes in the same soil that nourishes honor killings and repressive social codes. In Afghanistan, men are free to hold hands with other men and write poetry because their society does not doubt for a moment the worth of manhood and its superiority to womanhood.

Let’s count our blessings. I saw Transamerica while reading Ms. Vincent’s book, and while the situation of Felicity Huffman’s male-to-female transsexual character is in no way the same as Ned’s, they both suggest the same moral: Gender dysphoria is a variety of human dysphoria. Ms. Vincent makes much of how hard it was for her to be a man and how hard it is for men to be men (“I passed in a man’s world not because my mask was so real, but because the world of men was a masked ball”); and many feminist writers have told us how hard it is to be a woman. But the works of art that endure—and I think Transamerica has a greater shot than Self-Made Man—speak to how hard it is to be human.

Ms. Vincent tells us: “But, of course, getting inside men’s heads and out of my own was what this project was all about.” I wonder if she’ll still think so in a year. (Note to writers: Question twice any statement you preface with “of course.”) How many men, straight or gay, are interested in finding out what a lesbian has to tell them about their inner wounds? Aren’t they more interested in what she has to tell them about her inner wounds? As a serial memoirist, I have some stake in the matter, but when in doubt, go with Montaigne:

“It is an absolute perfection and virtually divine to know how to enjoy our being rightfully. We seek other conditions because we do not understand the use of our own, and go outside of ourselves because we do not know what it is like inside.”

Ms. Vincent claims not to have written “a confessional memoir. I am not resolving a sexual identity crisis.” But aren’t we all resolving an ongoing sexual crisis? Ms. Vincent sometimes seems pre-Freudian, which is charming, but it deprives her of insights she could use. She’s written a fascinating book, one that will echo in many lives—not because she’s escaped herself, but because she hasn’t.

Ann Marlowe’s second memoir, The Book of Trouble: A Romance, has just been published by Harcourt. Holy Hermaphrodites!  A Cool Walk on the Wild Side