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He said, she said

Self-Made Man One Woman's Journey Into Manhood and Back Again Norah Vincent Viking: 290 pp., $24.95

January 22, 2006|Amy Wallace | Amy Wallace is a deputy business editor for The Times.

I couldn't put my finger on what was bothering me about Norah Vincent's new gender-bending book, "Self-Made Man: One Woman's Journey Into Manhood and Back Again," until I spotted an item about supermodel Tyra Banks dressing up in a fat suit.

Though "used to being stared at," Banks was surprised by the looks she got when she hid her celery-stick body inside a disguise that made her appear to weigh 350 pounds. When Banks went on three blind dates for an episode of her kitschy TV talk show, she became the first Victoria's Secret model ever to be rejected for aesthetic reasons.

The show's payoff moment -- Banks getting her revenge, revealing her inner babe to her disappointed fat-phobic suitors -- helped me identify the central flaw of Vincent's account of passing as a man. It boils down to this: What worked about Banks' stunt is that she went from one clearly defined place to another. What doesn't work about Vincent's stunt is that she merely pretends to.

"I have always lived as my truest self somewhere on the boundary between masculine and feminine," Vincent writes early in her book, introducing the idea that her gender has always felt more gray than black or white. In doing so, she appears to be laying the groundwork for something far more original and provocative than the basic Victor-Victoria transformation. But after asserting her androgyny, Vincent largely abandons it, declining to use it as an analytical tool. When she reverts to the simpler "woman's journey into manhood" trumpeted by her title, the book falters.

Vincent, a former columnist for the Los Angeles Times op-ed page, does the same bait-and-switch with her sexuality. After passing as a man in a bowling league, at a monastery, in a strip club, in the workplace and in the heterosexual dating world, she concludes, "I was beginning to feel happier than ever to be a dyke." But though she boldly dedicates her book to a woman she calls "my beloved wife," she shies away from viewing her experience as a "man" through the lens of her lesbianism.

Too often, when Vincent invokes her gayness, she does so as an aside or even a flip punch line. Though she asserts that she is not a transsexual or a transvestite, she fails to paint a full picture of how her sexual identity prior to donning men's clothing informs her experience in drag.

The result: The book, though at times perceptive, is disappointing. The key to transformative memoir -- and I say this having tried it myself -- lies in bringing all facets of your "before" self to bear on your description of your altered "after" self. Such soul-baring necessarily leaves an author vulnerable. But in its absence, readers are left wanting.

In his 1961 classic, "Black Like Me," John Howard Griffin, a white Southerner, described his experience posing as an African American. In Barbara Ehrenreich's 2001 "Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America," the upper-middle-class essayist and cultural critic made herself poor, working for minimum wage as a waitress, a cleaning woman and a nursing home assistant.

In "California or Bust," a piece I wrote four years ago for Los Angeles magazine, I described my own physical metamorphosis. Aided by the costume designer who made Julia Roberts fuller-figured for her Oscar-winning role in "Erin Brockovich" -- it took a "village ... to create that cleavage," she quipped at the time -- I went from an AA-cup to a double D. Then I walked around Los Angeles and saw the city, and myself, through different eyes.

Quibble if you will about the relative merits of these projects, which ranged from the serious (theirs) to the silly (mine). What is indisputable is that to the extent they succeeded, they each did so because the poseurs not only were transfigured but also were honest about what had driven them to try life on the other side.

In the opening of "Black Like Me," Griffin, a specialist in race issues, implies that for him, it was the painful realization that scholarship -- a pursuit to which he'd devoted his life -- couldn't fully reveal how it felt to be discriminated against. For me -- and it took several rewrites before I forced myself to admit it -- the motivation was less pure: While I firmly believed women shouldn't be valued primarily for their bodies, a part of me envied those who were. As I wrote, "I want to see how the busty half lives."

It's not easy to air your fears, insecurities or irrational desires in public. So I'm loath to criticize Vincent too harshly for not fully exploring how being a woman who loves women affected her 18 months as "Ned," her straight male alter-ego. Still, you don't have to be well-versed in critical theory on gender and identity to wish that "Ned" had looked more deeply into Norah.

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