I liked, disliked, liked, disliked Self-Made Man. The title and cover photos are alluring. At first, I thought its premise was gimmicky; the pace seemed logy, slow to gather momentum. I felt the author’s subject and thesis were self-serving, not at all like Barbara Ehrenreich’s in-depth books where she goes undercover to retrieve answers to our country’s economical and social problems.
after two chapters, I slid right into my favorite part of reading – I became
totally involved in someone else’s world. Norah Vincent (aka Ned) pulled off something quite remarkable. The author came back from her eighteen months as a “self-made” man changed regarding her insights into what make men tick, what makes them happy, why they are more silent than women. She was empathetic and respectful toward her subjects. In reporting her findings and leaving herself open, she has done a good deed, especially for women who live with men in helping us understand the world of part of the other sex.
No, she had no surgery to change her sex. Vincent cut her hair, wore guy’s clothes, learned how to “paste on” a five o’clock shadow beard, donned mannish glasses, taped her boobs flat and wore a fake penis. She took voice lessons to lower her timbre. She learned to talk and emote less. She acquired a new handshake. Luckily for her, she has large feet and a somewhat androgynous look. But, as she discovered, she wasn’t quite hairy enough!
The two most fascinating, yet somewhat appalling, sections of the book were the chapters on men who frequent strip clubs (and the women who work there) and Vincent’s time spent in a small Catholic monastery where the men can’t hug each other.(Fascinatingly, though, the monks are permitted to hug children: “He [Father Henry] still went every Friday to one of the local maternity wards to participate in a cuddling program for premature infants. He and the other volunteers would each hold one of the infants for several hours…”) In both places, she was accepted quite easily, although the Catholics took longer opening up about their lives.
I admire Vincent’s project - she has courage and an open mind - and find most of her conclusions sound. Men do need a liberation movement; their roles have drastically changed, and many guys have been deeply damaged by their fathers. She also learned quite a bit
about her own sex: “And I came largely to forgive women and myself for our own all too apparent shortcomings. Our emotional arrogance, our lack of perspective, our often unreasonable needs and projections and blames, our failure, like men, to manage or acknowledge the imbalance on our own side of the equation.”
However, something gnaws at me. Vincent, a nationally syndicated columnist
who has written about politics, culture and gay issues, is not a psychologist or
a sociologist. She is a self-proclaimed “dyke.” She has a committed relationship
with a woman and admittedly hangs out with other lesbians. How can she possibly
make such grandiose statements as she does after studying a total of approximate
30 men during 18 months of her life? Although she does include the wisdom of a
few psychologists, has she studied male or child psychology?
It’s like saying, as one example, that a person who worked at IBM for 18 months
could understand the entire organization and be able to make great pronouncements about its total structure.
Vincent spent time with bowlers, guys who frequent strip joints, corporate guys, a few dates, and monks in a Catholic monastery. She joined a men’s group ala Robert Bly. She wanted mostly to see men in their own company. Yet, is this a representative overview of American men? What about musicians, artists, doctors, lawyers, politicians, farmers, military men? And did she attempt to cover all age groups?
Perhaps I am nitpicking. All in all, Self-Made Man is thought-provoking and a good read. Vincent is clear, sometimes funny, often profound in her findings. But I am waiting quietly to see what male readers and psychologists make of her work.