ManPain

I just finished Self-Made Man, the new book by Norah Vincent which Jamie wrote about a few days ago:

Self Made Man, which came out earlier this year, recounts journalist Vincent’s 18-months as a man. To clarify, it recounts her year and a half posing as a man. Vincent, a lesbian and happily so, has no interest in becoming a man, but was interested in exploring the male experience, and so she disguised herself and went under the male veil.

Vincent didn’t live exclusively as a man for that year and a half—instead, like a mythical hero, she set out to complete a series of tasks. As “Ned,” she joined a bowling league for a season. She frequented strip clubs for as long as she could stand the desolation. She spent three weeks in a monastery, trying to negotiate the subtle, unspoken code of behavior the monks had evolved to contain the lurking, eternal possibility of brotherly affection developing into … something more. She went out on dates and tried to pick women up at bars; she even ended up sleeping with at least one of her internet-arranged dates—revealing her womanosity to her apparently straight soon-to-be-bed-partner only on the threshold of consummation.

To get the “Glengarry Glen Ross experience,” Vincent worked as a door-to-door salesman for a few hyper-masculine, hyper-competitive, existentially frightening companies where guys wear gold rhino pins in their lapel to symbolize their forward-looking attitudes (“Because rhinos can’t walk backwards”). She joined up with a Robert Bly-inspired men’s group and went on retreat with them for a weekend to get in touch with her inner warrior-child. She returned from each task with additional insights into, and sympathy for, the male psyche, and she gradually assembled herself a coterie of new man-friends, many of whom she ended up revealing her secret to.

I haven’t decided yet whether Self-Made Man is just a good book—highly readable, insightful, well-written—or an exceptional book, a book that has the potential, if it’s read and appreciated by enough people, to really make a difference.

Did I just say that, that she could “really make a difference”? Yeah, I did, which makes me suspicious of my enthusiasm for the book. I fear that I like it so much because it speaks so directly to so many of the issues I’ve been thinking about, and struggling with, over the past year or two. In fact, it speaks to that stuff so directly, and seems to have found so many of just the right men, and just the right incidents, to dramatize her insights, that I found myself wondering whether maybe Vincent just made a lot of it up. It almost doesn’t seem possible that she got all these hardened, frightened, vulnerable, wounded, repressed men to reveal themselves, consciously or unconsciously, to her.

The sad truth, though, is that she’s probably telling the truth. “Something is genuinely out of joint in ‘manhood,’” she writes. “?A lot of men are in pain.” If that’s true, which I think it is, then it shouldn’t be that surprising that she kept stumbling over men whose pain was leaking out so copiously that she was able to detect it just by looking for it.

I’m in an earnest mood, so pardon me for getting, er, earnest, but men are in a lot of pain, or at least this man is (long story, which I’ll be telling in the coming days, months, and years). I don’t think mine is an exceptional pain, and I don’t think men are, on average, in more pain than women—pain is the human condition—but men have aless articulate connection to their pain than women do, so there’s something moving about stoic, unexpressed, unselfconscious manpain thatwomanpain can’t quite match. And Vincent’s book is worth reading, and blogging about for a while, because it demystifies some of the manpain. She’s looking out for us guys, I think, in a way that I appreciate. She writes:

Healing is a vacant word in this context, limp, mealymouthed and reeking of self-pity. It inspires contempt, or it will in the men who need it most. Yet healing is what is called for, especially among men, where it will be hardest to inspire. Men have their shared experience going for them, their brotherhood, the presumption of goodwill that Ned felt in strange men’s handshakes. And that’s a start. But overcoming all the rest of it, the territorial reflex, the blocked emotional responses and the all-consuming rage, this will take more trusting vulnerability than most men grant to anyone. It will be like bulldozers learning the ballet.

Maybe it will happen. Slowly, fitfully, tentatively. I hope it does. Men haven’t had their movement yet. Not really. Not intimately. And they’re due for it, as are women who live with, fight with, take care of and love them.

I think our humble (or not so humble, I guess) blog is a part of that movement, which I actually do see moving, more quickly than Vincent seems to think it is, all around us.

Or at least there’s movement in my life.

“It’s taken me most of my life to figure out that I don’t think very highly of myself,” my Dad said to me, last month, in the last solemn father-son conversation we had before I left Massachusetts for Texas. “I’m glad it only took you thirty years.”

It’s difficult for me to describe, in brief, the conversation that brought us to that point, but the essence of it was this: I told my Dad that I didn’t want to be the screen, anymore, onto which he projected his own regrets about the mistakes he’s made. I wanted him to love me, to be proud of me, and to trust me enough to let me make my own mistakes. And once I was able to put it that way, which I’d never really been able to do before, he got it, and he promised to try.

Then the angels sang Hallelu! and our hearts grew three times larger.

Not really. It didn’t suddenly tear down the walls of our German (Jewish) reserve and allow us to experience our deep emotions rather than intellectualize them until it sounds like we’re talking aboutRussian literaturerather than life and love. It was a good moment, though.

Author: Masculinity and Its Discontents

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