So I read the book “Self Made Man” by Norah Vincent. And I’m of many minds about it, but anything this interesting deserves to be talked about. ( A free sample you can download, which gives the tone well.)
The shortest version is that it’s the memoir of a lesbian, cosmopolitan woman who disguises herself as a man in order to see what it’s like to be a man today. It’s been praised by libertarians, conservatives, and rationalists for showing a sympathetic light of the other side of the battle of the sexes, and I understand that. In fact, their enthusiasm for it makes me uncomfortable. If you want to go into this book to find “men have it hard!”, it provides plenty of ammunition for that.
But that political level is a very shallow reading, and not why I enjoyed the book. I enjoy it much more as a work of fiction or an idiosyncratic story that sketches strong themes, rather than any value as research or analysis. Hence why I say “memoir”.
To me the book is more about her journey. She describes the various tricks she uses to disguise herself, and the parts that couldn’t really be disguised, but how people convince themselves to see past the errors anyway. She talks about the terror of being found out, but connects this to how *everyone* is worried about being found out, in one way or another.
The narrator janegoodalls herself into several deep scenarios that are much more specific than they are universal. She joins a bowling league, goes to a seedy strip club for months, goes to a monastery, works for a high-pressure sales firm, and goes on mens retreats. I bet many if not most men have never done *any* of these things. So it’s a really bad document to look at from any public policy standpoint. But it allows a lot more engagement with her subjects on a human level. She can tell the story of that experience, that place, and the people there. And from that story we can find truth, and we can understand dynamics that might unite us all. Which is something I expect more from fiction than non-fiction.
(She also dates, a lot, but that part is more generalized.)
Also, there’s no getting around that what the narrator does is deeply immoral. She deceives people into trusting her on false pretenses, and in many cases builds emotional relationships on those pretenses. She completely lacks distance from the relationships she gets involved with. Because of that, I’d be loathe to accept her words as a reporter. But as a fallen human being, who does some things wrong but still cares about people and about her ambitions, it’s a very compelling portrait.
(In particular, each chapter obsesses over how she will “come out” to the people she deceived, and I found those sections fascinating, but much more in terms of her personal journey, than as any data about the male experience.)
She is overall, just incredibly empathetic. She connects with these men who she never would have talked to in her normal life, and finds their secret pains and unacknowledged virtues. She does this less in a “men are actually great” message, but more in a “each individual human will surprise you” way. Which is beautiful humanist. (She also realizes a lot of this divide is about class, and much of her experience is as an upper-class person masquerading among the lower class, and what you find out from that.)
One point she returns to a lot is “if you think you or anyone is gender-blind, you are very wrong,” and she points out the subtle and overt ways everyone treats her differently as a man. Sometimes it’s worse or at least more frustrating, but it’s a very strong denial to the idea that we are all treated equally.
Anyway, if you like stories of “empathy for people in unexpected situations” and “complex, unreliable narrators”, this was really surprisingly good. And again, one should be skeptical of the political positions many people seem to push the book based on. But sometimes we have to look past what other people think about a work, and engage with the text ourselves.