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Lord of illusion

Lord of illusion


Author and former Advocate columnist Norah Vincent on Self-made Man, her engrossing new book about passing as male for 18 months

One night in New York City, writer Norah Vincent went out in drag as a prank and discovered that she could pass as a man. Walking around the East Village, bracing herself for the usual catcalls and penetrating stares of the men in front of the bodegas, she found that as soon as they registered it was a man walking by, they looked away. For men, she realized, as she recounts in her debut book, Self-made Man, "to look away is to accept the status quo, to leave each man to his tiny sphere of influence, the small buffer of pride and poise that surrounds and keeps him." If she could learn "such an important secret" about the unspoken codes of masculine behavior in that one night, what could she uncover if she passed as a man for a longer period of time?

So she supplemented her naturally deep voice and willowy 5-foot-10 frame, adding fake beard stubble, undergoing a bodybuilding regimen, and getting a flattop--and Norah became Ned. For a year and a half Ned interacted in five different U.S. cities as a man: joining a bowling league, dating, going to strip clubs, attending a men's therapy group, spending time in a monastery, and interviewing for (and getting) high-testosterone sales jobs.

Self-made Man is the fascinating and oddly poignant story of that journey into masculinity, which ended up revealing as much about women as about men. Vincent, a former Advocate columnist, and her wife, Lisa McNulty, agreed that she would have to date as Ned if she really intended to live an average guy's life. Though it's not recounted in the book, Ned dated a gay man briefly ("This guy lost interest utterly when he found I didn't have the right equipment"), yet he seemed to learn more from his experiences with women. "I wasn't at all prepared for how different a date would feel when I did it as a man," Vincent tells The Advocate. "On some fundamental social level women 'get' each other. We understand and act on the same socialized signals. Like men who, I found, do this with each other as well, we speak the same private language." As she puts it in Self-made Man, "it's a wonder that men and women ever get together."

The bitterness and self-absorption of many of the women she dated--and a taste of the power they wield--gave her a sharp sense of sympathy for men: "I suddenly understood from the inside why R. Crumb draws his women so big, and his diminutive self begging at their heels or riding them around the room," she writes.

Over the course of the experiment, Ned learned to perfect his male cues. Once, at a department store, he rubbed the insides of his wrists together after applying cologne at the men's fragrance counter, then noticed that "the woman behind the counter narrowed her eyes at me and then looked away as if she'd seen something indecent." But being Ned was not all a matter of costume and pose. "I learned that gender identity runs very deep in all of us, very near the center of our sense of self," Vincent explains to The Advocate, "and messing with it can have dire consequences."

In Ned's case, this meant a nervous breakdown. "All the guilt about being an imposter, the anxiety of getting caught at it, and the by then extreme discomfort of contravening my own gender identity came rushing in," Vincent writes. Still, being Ned has changed her. "I have a lot more sympathy for men," she says. "I understand that they too are victims of the so-called patriarchy, that their roles have been as toxic as ours, and that they haven't yet been liberated from them. Men often project a sometimes overbearing egotism and entitlement because that's what you have to do when you're not allowed to show weakness and need."

Does she ever miss Ned? "No, not at all. I was looking forward to killing him off as soon as I finished the project. But because his adventures seem to be sparking so much conversation, I see that he is probably going to be with me in some form or another for quite a long time."

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