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Author disguises gender in ‘Self-Made Man’

As a man, Norah Vincent visited strip clubs, spent time in monastery
/ Source: The Associated Press

The only time Norah Vincent was ever accused of being too feminine was when people thought she was a man.

And when she bound her breasts, wore a pressed blue suit, a fake penis and faux stubble, and went to strip clubs and men’s groups to research her book, “Self-Made Man: One Woman’s Journey Into Manhood and Back,” she realized how undeniably female she is.

The result is an intimate account of the 18 months Vincent spent as “Ned,” penetrating tight circles meant only for men. It’s hard to imagine Vincent passing as a guy, though she does betray a sort of androgynous quality. She’s tall with seriously large feet. Her graying hair is closely cropped and she has striking eyes and delicate hands.

She answers the door to the Hell’s Kitchen apartment she shares with partner Lisa in men’s jeans and a black T-shirt. It’s not about looks, Vincent says. It’s all about the attitude.

What attitude she didn’t already have, she went to experts to get for her project. A makeup artist got the five o’clock shadow just right; a voice coach helped give her a deeper register. She lifted weights at the gym, wore glasses and got help from male friends for a new wardrobe of rugby shirts, sports jackets and suits.

At first, she worried that she’d be found out. She was too small. Too girly. But as she grew more comfortable, she stopped wearing glasses and heavy layers.

“I found the longer I was Ned, the more I became comfortable in him and less afraid ... I didn’t really need much of a disguise. I just got better at having the male attitude,” she says. “People accept whatever reality you give them.”

Publisher Viking hopes to tap into that reality. The book, which came out Jan. 19, has an impressive first printing of 80,000 copies. Borders Books spokeswoman Beth Bingham said sales were already strong, helped by a “20/20” special on Vincent and positive reviews. “When the buyer looked at it, he saw it was a serious and empathetic look at how the other half lives,” Bingham said. “We were really impressed with how scholarly and journalistic it was.”

From bowling leagues to strip clubs“Self-Made Man” is organized into sections on work, life, sex and friendship and details several different interactions in five different states; Vincent changed all names of people and places. In the first chapters, she reveals her gender often and is met with usually congenial responses.

She first stepped out as Ned with a bowling league. She spent every Monday heaving the ball into the gutter in a desperate attempt to fit in with the other guys, who accepted her as a geeky, weak dude who really couldn’t play. She befriended a man named “Jim,” and after a few months took him out for a drink and spilled her secret. He was almost relieved to discover that she was female. Most of the men treated her differently once her true gender was revealed. They hugged her, acted less reserved.

Throughout the book, she was often surprised by how well men took it. “I kept expecting someone to want to beat me up,” she said.

In the “love” section, Vincent chronicles her dating life. She met several women online, realized just how hard it is to be rejected and saw firsthand how hard it is to date as a man. She even had sex with some of the women, but only after she told them she was female.

She had to do a lot of things that didn’t make her “feel very good,” like getting lap dances from tired women at seedy strip joints. Vincent did the nudie bar circuit with her bowling friend. There was little or no actual stripping, mostly naked women dangling their manicured genitals in front of paying customers. “It repulsed me, and I am attracted to women,” she said.

She didn’t figure out why men frequented such clubs, but she observed how many men viewed women: odorless, tasteless and nearly plastic.

Vincent spent three weeks in a monastery, where she was presumed to be gay and was ostracized, and in a men’s therapy group. And, after a while, she was unable to lead a double life and keep up the disguise. She began to suffer from depression, though she didn’t realize it until she was off on a men’s retreat somewhere in the woods. During a fireside ceremony she asked one of her comrades to cut her.

“Here they were playing at all of this, and I was serious,” she said. “I felt like a deranged baby sitter. I just ... I figured if I could cut myself and bleed then I wouldn’t feel so bad about deceiving these people.”

Vincent checked herself into a mental-health facility for four days to get some stability and to recover from Ned. It took another few months before she was able to finish writing the book.

“I was very exhausted at the end of the day, sort of like I needed to become myself again,” she said. “In a way, had I succeeded in disappearing, I’d have been a sociopath. It was always as if I was sitting above myself, watching myself be Ned. It was an awful feeling.”

She ultimately discovered that men have it tough: They must be more reserved and on guard, and many of them are lonely. And Vincent found that she’s glad to be a woman. “In a post-feminist world, the definition of what’s acceptably female is a lot larger now than the definition of what’s acceptably male,” she said. “That’s what made it so hard to be a guy, because as a woman I have so much more latitude.”

Vincent says she is naturally curious about boundaries, especially because she is a lesbian, and had always thought herself to be a sort of masculine woman. She settled on the idea for the book after she went out — convincingly — in drag one night and later saw a TV special in which women tried to pass themselves off as men. Still, she wasn’t sure how editors would respond. She worried she wouldn’t be taken seriously, and was rejected by a few publishing houses before Viking.

“The thing about Norah is that she’s not gimmicky,” said editor Molly Stern. “The thing we all had to make sure was if Norah could raise the bar on this idea, which could seem like a stunt. But the minute you meet her, see how intense she is and wide-ranging, you knew she’d do a book with a lot of grit and meaning and social power.”

Stern said that Vincent came into her office dressed as Ned, and she was sold. They had early meetings to decide where the book would go, and Stern kept a close watch in the beginning. But as time went on, she let loose the reins and was pleased with the result. “I think she ended up with a fine book,” Stern said.

Vincent was born in Detroit, a tomboy with three older brothers. Her mother was an actress and her father a lawyer. “I always felt like I was missing something, being a girl, like my brothers had more fun or something,” she said. She spent high school in England with her family after her father was transferred, and attended Williams College in Massachusetts. Vincent dabbled in postgraduate psychology but eventually gave up and found a job as an editor at the New York Free Press. She wrote an article in 1996 for the New Republic about lesbian culture in America, and was branded — wrongly, she says — a “gay conservative.” She’s freelanced ever since, living mostly in New York.

What she did in “Self-Made Man” isn’t new. John Howard Griffin did it in 1962’s “Black Like Me,” in which a white man colored his skin and lived as a black man, and Barbara Ehrenreich went undercover to hunt for jobs in “Nickel and Dimed,” published in 2001. These books are kin to reality TV, but without the cameras. Vincent’s book is no exception. She is able to convey what it’s like to be a man, but from an outsider’s perspective, and to go places no woman could go.

Vincent is considering another immersion book, possibly about mental hospitals. But whatever she does, she won’t be in a disguise. For now, she’s enjoying just being herself.

As for Ned, she’s glad to see him go: “Ugh. Good riddance.”