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 womanhoodthe
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 manhoodthe swagger, the self-confidence, the entitlementI'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 boyswardrobe, mien,
temperamentand 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
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 heroespersonal, political, or
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 rolesfor 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
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
partperhaps in large partof 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
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, whatif anythingwould 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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