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norah200x150 I have managed to read four chapters of A People’s History of the United States and it is a very interesting book, but I got sidetracked by Norah Vincent’s Self Made Man. It’s a journalistic account of one woman’s experiences in her eighteen months undercover as a man. I’d heard a blurb about it on the radio, when Norah was being interviewed about her latest book, an account of her investigations into three mental health institutions. What tweaked my interest was that Norah ended up being admitted into one of those institutions as a result of her time spent in drag.

That’s  a gross oversimplification of events, and there were probably a myriad of confounding reasons for Norah’s mental breakdown, but the interviewer suggested that it was the cognitive dissonance related to inhabiting a different gender that resulted in her psychiatric collapse, which made me try to imagine what it would have been like to act as someone else, convincingly, for such a long period of time.

I started reading the book to get a sense of who the author is and what her motives were, but soon found myself transfixed by her take on what it means to be male in the United States. I don’t know if men reading this book would agree with Norah’s conclusions, but it sure was interesting to read about Norah’s experiences and her interpretation of them. She spent time at stripper’s clubs, joined an all-male bowling league, lived in a monastery and worked in a high-pressure/low-pay sales job to try to get a feel for life as a man. She undertook the experiment thinking that she would gain freedom, gain power, and gain options as a man, but found that she was forced to lose more than she gained by giving up womanhood. I found it interesting to read about a woman’s take on what it’s really like in groups of men when women aren’t around, and it was also very interesting to read about the reactions she got when she eventually divulged her secret. How the men treated her when they thought she was “one of them”, and how they treated her after they found out she wasn’t.

In the end, it was a book about how trapped we all are to some degree by our gender roles, and it was a reminder for us to try hard to look beyond those roles to see the individuals within.

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