Self-Made Man: A Book Review

Self-Made Man is one of the best books that I have ever read. Witty, perspicacious and honest, Vincent’s direct and personal style immediately drew me in with an account of her first escapade in drag. She proceeded to describe a difference in how men made eye contact with other men — as though they were respecting an invisible territorial sphere that fell about them. What is surprising is that this secret lay in plain sight, yet remained hidden to Vincent until she adopted a male façade through which to bring forth the male-on-male gaze. This type of revelation became a theme for the book: that men and women live in parallel worlds replete with unique signals and codes, and a particular style of suffering invisible to the opposite sex. In the spirit of Michael Griffin’s controversial 1961 best seller “Black Like Me,”1 Vincent proceeded with pluck and humility, seeking to understand the secret lives of men and always reserving her judgment.2

A journey into the lives of the opposite sex would be incomplete without a theory of gender identity. Vincent explicitly aligns herself with biological essentialism informed by her experiences with lesbianism and deviant gender identity during childhood. All LGBTs experience the conflict between their basic nature and pervasive heteronormativity, and so expressing a minority sexual identity is a lesson in the power of culture to subvert one’s natural inclinations. Empirical evidence suggests that genetic and developmental factors are powerful in the formation of sexual identity. Interestingly, there is some relationship between gender behaviour in childhood and adult sexuality, although the biological basis of gender identity is far from clear. Nonetheless, in the introduction to her book Vincent joins biological essentialism with sexual identity and gender identity.

Vincent’s theory of gender identity is bound to raise the ire of social constructionists, which includes third wave feminists. Personally I wish that the book’s introduction adopted a more nuanced theory of gender identity that would not be so easily dismissed by feminists — an audience that Vincent explicitly targets. In the conclusion to her book, Vincent clarifies that she believes we are preprogrammed with a gender grammar, analogous to Chomsky’s nativist theory of language.3 According to this view, the formation of male and female gender identities is part of the human condition and remains something that we are attuned to throughout our lives. Thus we compulsively adopt a male or female identity (roughly speaking), perceive each other as male or female, and police each others’ roles. Vincent leaves the contents of gender identity to culture, just as culture determines the almost endless variety of human languages and expression.4 However, Vincent does leave a notable trail of biological essentialism throughout the book, typically when she encounters male behaviour that is beyond her significant empathic abilities. For example, Vincent confidently asserts that men are yoked with a virulent sex drive that is fundamentally different to the female experience.5 She also interprets the helpful behaviour of her bowling league friends as “comically atavistic” and “mandatory … in some absurdly primal way.”6

This biological bias exposes the book to strawman criticism based upon a false dichotomy between biological essentialist and social constructionist views of gender identity. Though never mawkish, Vincent validates male experiences throughout the book, and sometimes even chastises her fellow women. Feminists will find much to object to, and may even take offence to whole passages. Vincent has eased the wholesale dismissal of her book by adopting a theory of gender identity that is ostensibly inconsistent with the cherished ideals of third wave feminism. And so I believe that Vincent has sabotaged her attempts to impress upon one target audience the most important message of her book: that we do not know what we do not know, and therefore we should look to understand and not judge. This message obeys the logic of the all important golden rule, and points to an evolved intellect that is prepared to leave behind its own chauvinisms.

The gender wars have probably raged since the imaginary beginnings of humankind and leaves its mark upon us all — sometimes dramatically so. This violence that we visit upon ourselves must stop. Vincent identifies the archetypal enemies as ignorance of the other sex, and old fashioned chauvinism. As for overt misandry, Vincent says: “hostility breeds contempt … And so the self-perpetuating cycle of unkindness and discontent … go on and on, feeding on itself.”7 In the penultimate chapter Vincent pulls no punches in calling upon some feminists to bury their hostility.8 She leaves no doubt that there is a fundamental and sometimes horrifying inequality between men and women, but points out that the solution lies in raising the consciousness of everybody involved. As Vincent says: “Men’s healing is in women’s interest,”9 and further that “men and women are finally agreeing on something: the system sucks.”10

This message strongly resonates with my personal experience, for I believe that the politics of guilt are useful only with gross obscurations, and that lasting peace starts within one’s own heart. Thus men and women should both take advantage of their best qualities to look deeply into themselves and each other and nurture whatever goodness they find. Although men are to blame for many ills visited upon women, fixing the blame is only the first step to fixing the problem. And that does not mean fighting misogyny with moralism, as though a flame can be extinguished with a brighter larger flame. That flame burns upon our souls, and it harms most the ones that we love: our children, our partners, and ourselves. To make friends with misandry is exactly the same as making friends with the piece of ourselves that perceives men, and brings women closer to a place where they can understand and address the misogyny in those closest to them. Again this logic works both ways, and paves the way to permanently ending the gender wars. Unfortunately it is in the nature of hostility to protect itself, forming a psychic prison of misery that can deflect even the gentlest of blows. I hope Vincent’s message of mutual empathy has tickled at least one of those magical prisons.

But it would be a mistake to think that Vincent was solely concerned with the politics of gender. Her journey was suffused with revolutionary curiosity and I suspect her goal was self-discovery. The mechanism she chose was chiefly inter-relational. It was not enough to be seen and treated as a man. Vincent had to develop genuine relationships as Ned, and this seemed to inform Vincent as to whom Ned was and how he was shaped by codes of masculinity previously invisible to her. Sometimes the results were touching.

There was a seed of love in all the relationships that Vincent made as Ned. Even with Paul, the self-help guru that she instinctively feared and despised, Vincent questioned her own prejudices. In her struggle she focused on an unmistakable hint of admiration for Paul’s determination to help himself and his entourage. I imagine Paul remembers a Ned that never trusted him, and would be somewhat ambivalent towards Vincent’s deception. I hope that Paul recognizes the respect that lay beyond the coldness, and I suspect he would understand Vincent’s passion for revelation.

Most touching was Vincent’s confession to Father Fat and subsequent unmasking with Brother Vergil. In both cases Vincent was instantly accepted as Norah, and her deception forgiven by men who displayed their best qualities of “receptivity and understanding.”11 The lines of communication opened with mutual heartfelt appreciation for being part of each others’ lives. Father Fat squeezed Norah with “great affection.”12 She was a “foundling daughter who couldn‚Äôt help thinking of him as a lost grandfather.”13 Upon her parting with Brother Vergil she sensed “newly intimate terms, awake to another potential in themselves and each other.”14 Even though Vincent had transgressed the sacred, she was accepted as Norah and so was her project.

By its nature ethics is both obvious and unfathomable. There are no rules. Even the golden rule might be unethical or become unworkable in certain situations. So it seems that ethics relies on some sort of spontaneous awareness of what arises and what calls out. The virtue of an action can be judged by what that calling out creates, and the degree to which it is laced with self-deception. Therefore, it seems that within ethical behaviour one finds a union of intelligence and realization.

There were no casualties in Vincent’s journey. For the most part the people she deceived benefited from knowing Ned, and sometimes from knowing both Ned and Norah. Vincent did not set out to create a misandrist expose. Her intensions were much closer to creating something that would be of benefit to everyone ‚Äì including herself and those that she deceived.

I am sure that many men will read this book and see their own lives, and be intrigued by Vincent’s response. Before Vincent started her journey, she thought that “living as a man and having access to a man‚Äôs world would be like gaining admission to the big auditorium for the main event after having spent my life watching the proceedings from a video monitor on the lawn outside.”15 In itself this statement is very revealing of a big misunderstanding between the genders. Men have a privileged position in society, but that does not mean that the grass doesn’t just seem greener on the other side. Discriminating the difference is an exercise in self-development. I would love to read an analogous book where a perspicacious man masquerades as a women and engages in equivalent activities to Vincent’s. Surely the resulting text would be equally revealing and highlight that men and women are two tribes that “live in parallel worlds.”16 That Vincent draws attention to this important and invisible aspect of human experience, and managed to pull it off without any casualties, speaks to the rectitude of her work.

Aside from a strategic misstep with fundamentalist social constructionism17, my only regret with Self-Made Man is that it does not go further. I would love to have read about Vincent’s insights into other diverse aspects of manhood such as: corporate leadership, homosexuality, artistic pursuits, and though it would be practically infeasible, the content and happy man who loves his family. At times I thought Vincent was a little too forgiving of certain male peccadillos, but was simultaneously in awe of the self-awareness on display. It seems that Vincent knows that she doesn’t know, and rarely forgets. I would love to meet her. Not that I would have anything to say, but rather just to show my appreciation for her work.


Endnotes

1 Griffin, J. (2004). Black like me: the definitive Griffin estate edition, corrected from original manuscripts (Original work published 1961). San Antonio: Wings Press.

2 Several other students have pointed out that Vincent is somewhat judgmental. Vincent makes opinions, but still points to good and innocent qualities.

3 p. 244: “Linguist Noam Chomsky is famous for positing that all languages share certain grammatical principles … In this sense, I wonder could there be a preprogrammed and possibly inescapable grammar of gender burned on our brains? And is every encounter prescripted as a result?”

4 I am speculating as to how Vincent makes a theory of mind that encompasses her self-declared essentialism, as well as her insight into the constructed aspect of human experience. For example, p. 199: “But that’s the quantum paradox of sexuality right there. … Anna didn’t sleep with me because I didn’t weigh two hundred pounds.” Here we see Anna and Vincent trying to unpack their experience with the conspicuous absence of any reference to essentialism.

5 p. 66-67: “Sometimes even respectable men with respectable lives have primal ugly stuff bracketed somewhere in their minds, kept in its place apart from the purported love that goes with the responsibilities of fatherhood and husbanding. … As a result, individual men and women were left to sort out the sordid reality on their own, hurting and getting hurt because sometimes it was too hard to successfully resolve the conflict between baseline male sexuality and the civilized role of a man.”

6 p. 44: “But their motivation seemed comically atavistic, … the tribes survival depended on it. This just seemed mandatory to them in some absurdly primal way.”

7 p. 107.

8 p. 271-273. Here Vincent validates the “clandestine” men’s movement, and calls for an end to hostilities.

9 p. 272.

10 p. 272.

11 p. 177.

12 p. 170.

13 p. 170.

14 p. 179.

15 p. 280.

16 p. 281.

17 i.e.: By asserting that objectivity cannot exist, one is in danger of neglecting an important tool for cutting through self-deception, which is seeking and yielding to evidence. After all, it is impossible to cut through a thought using another thought. That is why Siddhartha Gautama “touched the earth” before attaining enlightenment. Social constructionism becomes fundamentalist when evidence plays second fiddle to a tacit presentation of a political ideology.

© 2010, Aaron Michaux