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A Tale of Courage and Rare Insight
am 6. April 2007
One of the most impressive books I have ever read is Black Like Me by John Howard Griffin. Following Mr. Griffin as he moved across his day's color line to see how his skin color changed the reactions he experienced created a searing memory for me. It was my respect for that book that brought me to Self-Made Man.
Norah Vincent's transformation from tall gay woman into a somewhat effeminate appearing man provides a very powerful reading experience as well. You have both gender and sexual orientation differences here to deal with. I admire her thoroughness and courage. The disguise preparations were extensive (down to a simulated beard and false frontal appendage), training in how to walk and talk, and research into male culture.
Many people would have been satisfied with taking on easy challenges: Ms. Vincent clearly pushed herself. She went into environments where many men wouldn't feel fully comfortable: a bowling team of friends while having little skill; working class stripper bars; dating women who have been hurt and haven't recovered; staying at a monastery; working in door-to-door sales; and a men's retreat. As a result, you see many dimensions of social class and religious differences as well.
Her observations obviously reflect who she is. She longed to build real connections to the people she fooled, but suffered from a great fear of a hostile reaction. Instead, people accepted her for who she appeared to be and were gracious when she revealed the end of her masquerade.
In her writing, I only noticed a few false notes. Some of what she's trying to experience probably depends in part on hormonal reactions so I'm not sure she fully grasped the stripper scene (but how could she?). In other places, I found the descriptions to be a little over-intellectualized.
Ms. Vincent paid a big price for her research, suffering a breakdown as her identity became blurred with her artificial role. I'm sorry that she had that problem. I suspect it's indirect testimony to the fact that we cannot be our best unless we live life as ourselves.
I found an unexpected benefit of the book was to see how a gay woman sees men so the perspective is a two-way street for many.
I suspect that many people would gain even more from this book is they went out and experienced some of these activities for themselves to have another point of perspective.
Impressive and thought-provoking!