There is something slightly disconcerting about Norah Vincent’s Self-Made Man. I am not unsettled by the lengths she goes to deceive people in to believing she is a man, but the lengths she goes to dispel them of this notion. The blurb on the book jacket claims Self-Made Man follows the traditions of Black Like Me. I beg to differ. Vincent alters her personality and identity to become Ned with the intention of building and studying his relationships. Griffin alters his skin color to study the actions and reactions of people based on their own perceptions. Vincent’s deceptions are for a book, she claims nothing less: While Griffins are for society. Perhaps the difference is one of degrees. How far will a writer go for a story?
As a writer, I have reservations about how far I am willing to go to create a story. I understand from Vincent’s qualifying first chapter that her intention to write the book is based on her curiosity and struggle with gender roles. Despite her summary conclusions at the end of each experience, I don’t buy that this experiment is not a more personal endeavor. The struggle I have is with disclosure, or the business of telling people you are writing about them as a part of your research: as you write. It’s self editing at its finest. Vincent deceives people, and then tells them about her deception. She studies their reactions to write about them. If the relationship alters after she tells them, she writes that too. Maybe it’s not that base. Maybe I don’t understand her sudden guilt, her sudden need to disrobe.
Something is happening to America. There is a return to honesty, to confession in relationships. And I, for one, do not like it. I am an avid believer and staunch practitioner of denial. I have never cheated on anyone, emotionally. I have never been compelled to tell any man anything other than what I wanted him to believe. And when I have been tempted, I find a conversation with myself typically cures my need to tell all. This is not the attitude I employ with friends and relatives, possibly because I don’t sleep with them. But to anyone I am physically bound, I am deceptive.
I have lied to boyfriends and husbands. Sometimes for their own good but mostly for mine. Relationships are based on such imperfections. So, I do not understand Vincent’s need to tell Ned’s bowling team, dates, brothers of the monastery and the self-realization group that she has included them in a textually crafted lie. What does she gain by hurting them? What do they gain by knowing the truth? For me to understand Vincent’s need to reveal Norah, I would have to recognize it as the hostile act I find it to be. I don’t see where one character, name changed to protect his identity, is better off by knowing of her deception. Many of her characters are bewildered and hurt when she tells them she is really a man. Supposedly most are relieved once she explains about the boo—I doubt that.
While I have issues with the lengths Vincent goes for this story, she reminds me that people are not characters. They don’t exist to enhance my narrative or to provide suspense or tension where none exists. I have fallen in to the temptation of viewing myself as the author of my own novel. That view provides me the ability to make choices, to view possibilities, to rewrite endings. It also allowed me the audacity to view people as characters, replaceable ones at that. My memoir, if I choose to write it, will represent people, events, lessons and experiences and I’ll write it when I’m ready. I won’t ask permission of those whose narratives intersect with mine. But, I won’t deceive people for the sake of enhancing my own story.