Norah Vincent Interview, plus links to author biography, book summaries, excerpts and reviews

Norah Vincent
Photo: Michele Asselin

Norah Vincent

An interview with Norah Vincent

Can you describe the process of your readjustment to life as a woman? How long did it take? Were there any surprises involved? What, if anything, do you miss about living as a man?

Living as a man taught me a lot about the things I most enjoyed about being a woman in the world, things I consider to be the privileges of womanhood—the emotional freedom, the range of expression, the sexual and social power we can exercise over men. Returning to my life as a woman was about reclaiming those privileges and taking greater satisfaction in them. Here's one small example, which may sound hopelessly old-fashioned and silly, but it made me smile so warmly: The other day a clerk in a store turned to me and apologized for having to refer to pornography in front of me during a discussion he was having with a male customer. I found it very thoughtful and sweet. When a man does something like this now, I connect again with all the vulnerability that I felt as a man in front of women, and I remember all the conversations I had with the men in my men's group about their need to take care of and protect women. Not all men behave the way this clerk did, of course, but nonetheless I feel a deep sense of the respect that men like him have for women and I feel grateful for it. It's nice to feel that someone is looking out for you, or trying to, and worries about offending or debasing you even in speech, and this is something I never felt as a man.

It took me months. Probably a good six months to really get back into being a woman. And this is partly because I had some unpacking to do. It wasn't just a matter of returning to myself, because I am a different person now than I was before I embarked on this project. I feel more womanly now, more in touch with my femininity, than I ever did before I lived as Ned, and that has taken some getting used to, though it has been very pleasant.

I don't miss anything about being Ned. The few social advantages I discovered in manhood—the swagger, the self-confidence, the entitlement—I've learned to incorporate into my life as a woman. Everything else I was happy to discard.

How has your concept of being a woman changed since your experience as Ned, in both general and personal terms?

Being able to incorporate the lessons of manhood into womanhood is, I suppose, one of the best examples of how my concept of womanhood changed because of Ned. In my view, this is the greatest liberation of feminism, a liberation that men haven't yet experienced in their own roles. They haven't really been allowed to express traditionally feminine qualities, and they are limited as a result. Having lived as both a man and a woman, it seems to me now that the definition of womanhood, at least as I live it and as I believe our culture defines it, is so much larger, can happily encompass so much more, than the definition of manhood. I can borrow from the boys—wardrobe, mien, temperament—and still be all woman. The reverse is not really true, or at least it wasn't for Ned. He had to shed all my female qualities and, as a result, became much smaller. I like to say that in that respect Ned can fit in Norah's pocket.

What influence do you think the media have on sexual roles? Do you see any trends that alarm or encourage you?

I think that the media reflect more than they influence. They show us images of ourselves, often idealized images to be sure, but I don't think they invent out of whole cloth. They're not that creative. Sexual roles are a very intimate business, I think. They change at the microcosmic level first. Individuals, often obscure individuals, are the creative ones, and they're the ones who end up changing the way we think and behave, and the media in turn digest those changes and spit them back at us as trends. If there's a trend that disturbs me it's probably that tendency on the media's part to homogenize originality, to dumb it down and sell it back to us as the norm.

Are there any public figures whom you admire for expanding social definitions of gender? Do you have any heroes—personal, political, or literary?

Though I disagreed with her often, I admire my friend the late Andrea Dworkin. Some heroes/heroines, in no particular order, are: Hamlet, George Orwell, Joan Didion, Graham Greene, W. H. Auden, Elizabeth Bishop, and Elizabeth I.

In Self-Made Man, you discuss the relationship between childhood experience and understanding gender roles—for example, fathers withholding affection in order to create tough young men. What advice would you give to a parent today to help him or her avoid imprinting gender expectations on children?

Having no children myself, I'm hardly in a position to judge, but if I had to say, I suppose I would suggest leniency when it comes to children's self-discovery. Too often parenting is a kind of narcissism. Parents see their children as little more than extensions of themselves, or potential re-enactors of their lost youths and missed chances. This is toxic to any child's self-actualization, especially when it comes to matters as intimate as sexuality and gender identity. If a child shows a proclivity for a particular style of dress or hobby or pursuit that the parent may not deem gender appropriate, or does not himself like, I think it is the parent's duty to resist showing disapproval, or, worse, distaste, and to encourage the child to be most authentically himself or herself in every way possible. God knows, the child will find enough disapproval in the outside world. Our parents are the first and foremost people whose job it is to love us entirely for who and what we are, and that means, when it comes to the expression of our individuality, letting us be.

Short of dressing up as a member of the opposite sex for a year and a half, how can a person begin to break free of gender clichés? Is there such a thing as a beneficial stereotype?

As has often been said, stereotypes are born of truth. I found this in my research. They are useful shorthands that help us to make sense of our world. The danger lies in being slavishly devoted to them, or allowing them to cloud our judgment when it comes to seeing and treating another human being as a person and not a set of categories. Similarly, gender roles are born at least in part—perhaps in large part—of natural inclination. Women may always be the primary nurturers on this planet, perhaps because something in our hormonal drives directs us toward intimate and interpersonal life or because we give birth. Maybe instinct conditions us far more than we know or may want to believe. The same is true, I think, for men. Perhaps their hormonal drives will always make them more physically competitive and better suited to high-pressure, teleological pursuits. This may mean that no matter how we jigger it, by virtue of who we are as creatures, women will always tend to predominate in the nursery and men the boardroom. This doesn't mean, however, that either sex should be mindlessly shackled to a prescribed or straitjacketed role, even if the vast majority of each sex tends to make a traditional choice. The key word here is choice, the cornerstone of feminism. Women should be able to choose whether to work or stay home, and so should men. Breaking free of stereotypes means being true to yourself and being flexible within your choices. You can, after all, be a stay-at-home mother and not be a shrinking violet, and you can be a type-A breadwinning dad and still join a knitting group if that's what turns your crank, or vice versa and a thousand other permutations as well.

Self-Made Man not only exposes the truth about contemporary manhood but is quite intimate in its discussion of your personal history, sexual identity, and emotions. How do you feel having so much of yourself in the book? How did you decide what to reveal and what to keep private?

I tried to write about everything that I thought was relevant, even if it didn't reflect particularly well on me. I had to overcome a lot of shame, for example, about mental illness in order to write honestly about my breakdown. A number of people who read the manuscript early on told me to take certain things out because they made me sound nuts. But it's precisely the things that embarrass or discomfort you the most that are most important for you to write about. That's the good stuff. I don't mean that endless navel gazing is desirable or makes for good writing. Tempering the urge to overwrite the especially mucky parts is important, but I didn't want to edit out the weird bits altogether simply because I didn't want people to know that I'd been in the bin, or that I'm not always the most attractive person on the planet. Of course, the downside of this is that if you're extremely sensitive, as I am, it means you need to protect yourself from people who take a malicious pleasure in sharpening their blades on your misfortunes and brandishing their cleverness at your expense.

The psychological toll of your experiences as Ned is both frightening and completely understandable. If you did the experiment again, knowing what you know today, what—if anything—would you do differently? Do you feel that the knowledge was worth the pain?

Ignorance is courage. If I'd known then what I know now, I could never have embarked on the project. Yet, all the same, I wouldn't trade the experience for anything. The knowledge was absolutely worth the pain; especially because part of what I learned was how to better take care of myself psychologically in my everyday life. I listen to my emotions much more carefully now. I take care of myself. I take responsibility for my own psychic health, and that's a daily practice. The lesson I can apply to my next project is that I can never again try to be someone else, someone that I'm not. I can and will immerse myself in situations and environments in order to write about them, but I will never again do so as another person.

Among the people you met as Ned, what range of reactions do you expect the book will receive? Do you think they will recognize themselves?

As a writer friend of mine told me when I embarked on this project, "When you write this intimately about real people, you are an assassin." And he's right. Almost invariably people object to something you've written about them. Either they say you got them wrong, or it didn't happen that way, or that's not how they remember it. I expect some of the Rashomon effect: The story of the same event will be told ten different ways by ten different observers. All the versions will be true and none of them will. The people in the book will recognize themselves. They'll agree with the compliments and they'll object to the disparagements, and that is to be expected.

This was a difficult, even dangerous experiment that consumed a year and a half of your life. What's next?

Ned is going to be an extremely hard act to follow. I've spent a lot of time thinking about what to do next, and I haven't hit on anything definitive yet. I'm trying very hard to resist the Hollywood temptation to find a formula that works and work it to death. I'd like to follow my imagination and have an adventure and that's all I know right now.

Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.

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