Thursday, January 8, 2009

Between The Lines: What Norah Vincent's New Book Really Has To Tell Us

Never-boring author Norah Vincent has penned a new book that's quite controversial. But its most fascinating revelation seems to be mostly ignored. I'll discuss after the jump.

I remember reading Norah Vincent's book Self-Made Man: One Woman's Journey Into Manhood and Back back when it first came out. I was fascinated by the tale. In it, Norah dressed herself in male disguise as Ned and went undercover in a all-male bowling team, reporting on such masculine rituals as visits to the strip club, forays into the dating scene, working a high-pressure sales job, and living in a cloistered monastery (well, okay, so maybe that one isn't a typical male experience, but the rest certainly are). In some ways, her findings felt a little boring and cliche, at least to me (and probably anyone with a basic gender studies background). But it also managed to touch me on another level, as Norah spilled out her guts in a way I've rarely seen in other books. I actually felt concerned for her as I read: her mental anguish at lying to her new friends, having to conceal her real self, took a huge emotional toll. (Note: I still think it's an incredible book for this reason alone- anybody who thinks critical analyses of masculinity or maleness in our culture has to be cold, dry, academic and misandrist would do well to pick it up and be charmed by and worried for Norah and her sympathetic, in-depth portrayals of the men she came to know.) But by far the real hook of the book was less on what she discovered, and more about what she underwent in her sociological experiment.

Now Norah has written a new book, Voluntary Madness: My Year Lost and Found in the Loony Bin, which chronicles what happened after her last book. The book, as the title proclaims, follows her year in the loony bin, but is not quite a memoir: she goes on to compare and contrast her institutionalization at three different facilities and evaluate the entire psychiatric profession, with the help of illustrative tales from her anonymous fellow patients.

Already the book is making waves and garnering tons of criticism, as the reviews and commentary fills up with the stories of upset sufferers of mental illnesses who are angered over Vincent's denunciation of medication, and the somewhat more valid critiques regarding the purity of her intentions and the ethics behind it. I can already see that it will be violently debated in the psychiatric community and by those who do- or choose not to- take medication or seek therapy.

But when I saw that she'd written a new book and read the blurb, my first thought hearkened back to "Self-Made Man" and the mood that permeated its final chapters. Apparently my concern for the author wasn't misplaced at all. And while it's possible that it's included in the book, I have a feeling that was actually caused Norah's depression will be glossed over in an opening explanation, and never returned to again. The gem that I pull out of the entire thing is not about mental illness and psychiatry at all, but in her answer to a question posed in an interview by The Advocate:

Q: What was it about living as a man that pulled your psyche apart at the seams?

A: It was emotionally exhausting to be an impostor, and also an impostor of the opposite sex. That’s what most transsexuals feel before they make the transition. When I started, I’d thought that gender had to do with costumes and haircuts. I didn’t understand that there was some mental component of how you view yourself in terms of gender that’s deeply embedded in your brain and that you can’t just pull that out and not expect trouble. (emphasis mine)

But neither of Vincent's books are treatises on gender and transsexuality; Self-Made Man focuses mostly on her observations and not her internal experiences, and Voluntary Madness focuses on the general dysfunction of the mental health business. Lost in the controversy of each is the compelling tale of how being forced into the wrong gender (whether by birth or so you write a book) can literally make you go insane. At a time when some studies indicate that the rate of attempted suicide for transgender youth is higher than 50%, and when the general public's understanding of transsexuality is vastly misunderstood, it really is a point we can't afford to let be lost. The Advocate, as a GLBTQ magazine, managed to ask this crucial question. But no other news pieces that I've seen, not NPR, not U.S. News, not the Chicago Sun Times, not even the lesbian site has thought to follow that angle whatsoever. For them, the only links between her current and last book are their similar style of firsthand account investigative immersion reporting.

In the end, I really would like to read this new book . . . but I'm somewhat sad knowing that nobody [else] will capitalize on the fascinating and affirming phenomenon of a non-trans voice giving credence to the trans movement.

No comments: