Friday, June 15, 2007

Norah steals my breath and makes me miss those who feel the same

I just finished the book Self-Made Man by Norah Vincent. It was amazing--both the book and the experience of reading something that had nothing to do with medical school. Norah conducted a social experiment. She spent a year and a half living as a man named Ned. Ned joined a bowling league and a men's support group, visited strip clubs, dated women, spent weeks in a monastery, and worked as a salesman. Norah's writing about these experiences (and her subsequent mental breakdown) is utterly fascinating.

I studied masculinity a bit in college. I had an incredibly patient English professor, Dr. Cynthia Richards, who let me create an independent study course called The Image of the Warrior. I read about masculinity in the context of war, trying to understand what motivated men to fight and die for their countries and queens. It was definitely one of my more interesting academic pursuits.

I was drawn to Norah's book as a way to revisit the subject of masculinity, this time with someone else doing all the work. And, I have to say, her work is incredible. As I read, I was bowled over by her bravery--not the bravery it took to head to the woods for a weekend men's retreat (although that was quite the feat), but the bravery it took to write with such honesty. I am always inspired by people who in talking about experiences can admit to seeing and feeling things they did not expect to see and feel. That is nothing if not brave.

One of my very favorite moments in the book came as Norah was revealing her true identity to a monk with whom Ned had been cloistered. The monk said that he had suspected that Ned was gay. He said, "Well, your mannerisms are pretty effeminate."

Norah, who is generally regarded as a fairly masculine woman, said, "This was rich. As a woman, no one had ever accused me of being effeminate. Here was another of Ned's tricks. Dress as a man, and thereby emphasize the woman. Reveal the truth under the rubric of a lie."

The last line stole my breath. I know that's cliche, but it perfectly describes how I felt as I read it.

At moments like this, I miss the English department of my undergrad years. In those halls, I could find kindred spirits who would understand what it was like to have your breath stolen by someone's writing--what an incredibly delicious feeling that is. I certainly don't have those comrades in medical school. Reading Robbins Pathologic Basis of Disease doesn't provide those moments. And, sadly, medical students are not, generally speaking, the least bit interested in those books that do.

I want to discuss Norah's work--not with uninterested med students, but with her. I looked on the back cover, and it seems the publisher neglected to include her cell phone number. My dad works for the IRS, but always refuses to get people's personal contact information for me, even when I explain that I really just want to meet them for coffee. So...I am resigned to the fact that Norah and I will probably never get together at Starbucks to talk about her writing. Damn.

I also want to discuss the book with a man. I'm interested in his perspective on all of this. There are many things about which I want to ask, "Is that how this feels for you as well?" And this, again, makes me miss college. There, I could have taken this book to another of my favorite professors, Dr. Bob Davis, and said, "Hey, if you get a chance, read this over the weekend. I'll see you during your office hours on Monday to talk about it." He would have laughed at bit at the request, but I have no doubt he would have indulged me.

I'm actually thinking of sending him the book with a note asking him to read it and then get in touch with me so we can discuss.

Now, though, I'm off to continue reading. Up next...Carson McCullers' The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. This is a book that I'm really quite embarrassed to say I've never read. Tomorrow, I won't have to say that.


Maria said...

"This was her, mick Kelly, walking in the daytime and by herself at night. In the hot sun and in the dark with all the plans and feelings. This music was her...the real plain her...This music did not take a long time or a short time.It did not have anything to do with time going by at all. She sat with her arms around her legs, biting her salty knee very hard. The whole world was this symphony and there was not enough of her to listen...Now that it was over there was only her heart beating like a rabbit and this terrible hurt."

Carson McCullers. The Heart is a Lonely Hunter.

This one stole my breath when I first read it in high school and it still does when I take it down and look at everything I circled. That book is full of my notes in the margin, breathless.

Mme Benaut said...

One day, Norah will google her name and you will come up and you will meet for coffee and you will be able to search her memory for any little bits that she left out of her book.
Sometimes your writing steals my breath away Terroni and I'm certain that there are some medicos out there who adore books in the way that you do.
One of my favourite books of all time is called "Fate is the Hunter". Another is called "Grace Notes" and yet another little book is called "Maestro". I'm currently reading "When Elephants Weep" - a book about the emotions of animals: fear, jealousy, love and loyalty.
Sometimes I'm just attracted by the titles - sometimes I follow authors. I have a lot of political books because I worked in politics for 16 years - as a speechwriter! But I probably told you this already. Now I am a housewife, gardener, mother to 5 cats and the strongest in MY family of 7 siblings (both my parents married 3 times - kids everywhere - step and half) and 8 nieces and nephews and 2-1/2 grandchildren. Hope you're enjoying time with your family little one - dragging them out of the closet and all ...

Cheryl said...

Any chance you could find a summer book club? Mine has read so many of the books I've loved and recommended and it's been wonderful to have them to discuss my books with.

The last book that I've loved was The Glass Castle by Jeanette Walls.

Terroni said...

Do you know how much I love that you are sharing that with me? Thiiiiis much (she says, stretching her arms out like wings).
Really love it. Really love you.
As soon as I finish the book, I'll share my favorite part with you.

I had no idea you used to be a speechwriter! So, did you work for the same political party for 16 years? Who did you write speeches for? Tell me more...
And, it would be so much fun if Norah discovered the blog. If she and I ever meet for coffee, I promise to dedicate an entire blog entry to praising your psychic abilities.

Unfortunately I start my surgery clerkship in just 2 weeks. I only have 7 more days of fun reading. Then it's back to the medicine to prepare for surgery. In the meantime, though, I may be treating this blog like my own personal book club.

Mme Benaut said...

Yes - same political party. I worked for a Senator primarily but also for two Govt Ministers, including a cabinet Minister - our very own Foreign Minister. I loved foreign affairs but I wasn't writing speeches for him - had several other interesting jobs. The thing about writing political speeches is that there are many different types: those for the Chamber which appear in hansard; party-political and public. Apart from the hansard speeches which are usually about legislation or reports on public inquiries, the rest are akin to tomorrow's fish and chips wrappers - nothing enduring. Writing under pressure is an enormous discipline though and being deferential all the time (as one needs to be as a politician) can be wearing. Not the least bit like blogging where one can vent any time one feels like it without any consequences.

Mme Benaut said...

I meant that blogging can be so liberating because of the freedom (refer to your next post - what the?)

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