The Loony Bin Trip: A Conversation With Norah Vincent 

A journalistic Houdini, Norah Vincent follows up her best-selling book Self Made Man with Voluntary Madness, an account of her days inside a mental institution.

BY Charlotte Abbott

January 03 2009 12:00 AM ET

A journalistic
Houdini, Norah Vincent fearlessly immerses herself in the
most daring assignments and (so far) has lived to tell the
tale. Her last book, Self-Made Man, recounted
how she lived as a man for a year, venturing into
strip clubs, joining a bowling team, and landing
several high-octane jobs.

But maintaining
her male alter ego “Ned” for such a long
period ultimately landed her in a mental institution.
That brief stay ignited the raw outrage and
fascination that fuels her new book, Voluntary Madness:
My Year Lost and Found in the Loony Bin.
After
recovering from her breakdown, Vincent posed as a
patient and talked her way into a public mental hospital in
the urban Northeast, a suburban Midwestern facility,
and an upscale Southern treatment center.

Trusting her
ability to convince her doctors to release her after 10
days, she signed away her right to leave voluntarily. The
result is a gripping and opinionated account of the
dysfunctional doctor-patient dynamics she found in an
often frightening and inhumane mental health system.

Advocate.com:What was it about living as a man that pulled your
psyche apart at the seams?
Norah Vincent: It was emotionally exhausting to
be an impostor, and also an impostor of the opposite sex.
That’s what most transsexuals feel before they
make the transition. When I started, I’d
thought that gender had to do with costumes and haircuts. I
didn’t understand that there was some mental
component of how you view yourself in terms of gender
that’s deeply embedded in your brain and that you
can’t just pull that out and not expect trouble.

You’ve also struggled with depression since your
early 20s. Is your depression connected to your gender identity?
Yes. I was always told that I presented myself
as masculine, but I always felt deeply feminine
inside. I was always drawn to men’s clothing, but
when I became Ned, the feminine part of me popped out. The
book probably appealed more to gay men than anyone
else, because they’ve gone through similar
problems of being an effeminate man.

Why do you seek out such extreme experiences? Is
writing about them somehow therapeutic?
The reason I’m driven to write about
these things is that I’m deeply alienated on a
number of levels. Every day I have people staring at me
because I don’t look like I’m supposed to. In
a room full of women, I don’t feel the same as
them. It might be because I’m depressed or because
I have a different personality than most people. So I try to
look at the culture as though I’m an alien and
to see things in a fresh way. I try to use what I know
-- troubling or painful things that have become
obsessions -- and try to turn them to my advantage for once.

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