Journalist Norah Vincent and author of Self-Made Man wanted to experience life as the opposite gender so she could write about it. She was a lesbian, not transgender, but her inquisitive nature made her curious about gender and identity. In 2003, she hired a makeup artist to help her paint stubble on her face to match her short, dark hair. She worked out to build the muscles on her back, wore rectangular-framed glasses, and strapped her breasts against her chest. And with the help of a Julliard vocal coach, she was even able to train her voice to sound more manly. Norah Vincent was determined. There was no stopping her from switching genders. But what she found in living life as the opposite sex wasn’t “male privilege” — instead, Vincent learned what it was like to be at an incredible disadvantage.
For 18 months, Norah pretended to be a man under a new name: Ned. She did “manly” things and joined a bowling league, a Roman Catholic monastery, and an awareness group for men. She went to strip clubs and dated women. She even worked in a male-dominated industry. But despite these adventures, Ned didn’t feel alive, free, or fluid. In fact, Ned was wearing Norah down, and she began to fall into a deep depression.
“I suspect people will go into this thinking, oh, it’s written by a lesbian, she’s going to be male-bashing all the way down the line,” Norah said during a phone interview. “But my experience was one that made me feel very vulnerable and made me feel a lot of pain and difficulty. While all of us in the post-feminist movement are convinced that women have always had it worse and men have always had it better, it took me stepping into their shoes to realize that that’s not true at all.”
Norah’s immersive journalism was anything but empowering. She felt alone and defeated as Ned. “Men are suffering,” Norah said. “They have different problems than women have, but they don’t have it better. They need our sympathy, they need our love, and they need each other more than anything else. They need to be together.”
Norah’s mental state started to decline. She fell into a crippling depression as Ned and had to check herself into a mental facility while finishing Self-Made Man. Her experience in the psychiatric hospital inspired her next work, Voluntary Madness: My Year Lost and Found in the Loony Bin, in 2008. It was another immersive piece, and instead of disguising herself as a man, she disguised herself as a mental patient. But Norah’s artistic expression of assuming different identities only continued to cost her psychologically. “Still, getting lost, sometimes dangerously so, in my work is nothing new,” said Norah. “I began my writing life as an immersion journalist. I put myself inside other people’s lives, and I purported to write from their perspective, but inescapably, I did so by means of my own.”
Norah Vincent’s depression never went away, and she attempted suicide in 2014. “It bears remembering something that Robin Williams mentioned in an interview that he had given years before he committed suicide in August, 2014. He was discussing addiction, but the import of what he said, which was wisely cautionary and profound, applies equally to depression and suicidal intent. It never goes away,” wrote Norah. “It lies in wait for the moments when we are weakest. Managing it is a constant battle. We must be ever vigilant. Even so, we do not always prevail.” While Norah was incredibly self-aware and reflective, it seems she never got over the mental difficulties and setbacks she faced from immersing herself in her work. In the summer of 2022, Norah finally succumbed to her pain and died at the age of 53 via assisted death in Switzerland.
Male privilege in the modern era is a myth. In 2020, it was found that 70% of homeless individuals were men. Men are four times more likely to commit suicide than women. Men make up 80% of all murder victims worldwide. Men make up just over half of the workforce, and yet they make up 90% of all workplace fatalities. Like Norah was saying, men are in pain, and post-modern feminism refuses to acknowledge their suffering. It’s unfortunate that Norah had to figure this out the hardest way possible, and I hope we can all find a way to help her rest by finally helping men to heal.
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