Norah Vincent, Who Chronicled Passing as a Man, Is Dead at 53

Norah Vincent, a journalist at the time, was 35 years old when she started trying to pass as male in the winter of 2003.

She worked with a makeup artist to learn how to paint tiny pieces of wool onto her chin to give the impression of stubble. Her already short hair was styled in a flattop and she got new glasses with square frames to emphasize the sharp angles of her face. She did weight training to bulk up her chest and back, wore a sports bra that was too small, and her prosthetic penis was stuffed into a jockstrap.

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She worked for a while with a vocal coach at New York City’s Juilliard School, who instructed her to slow down and lower the pitch of her voice, lean back instead of forward when speaking and make better use of her breath. Then, she went out into the world under the guise of a male name, Ned, and recorded her 18 months of life as a man.

She did so in her 2006 book “Self-Made Man,” which became an almost immediate best seller. Ms. Vincent became a celebrity after this, appearing on shows like “20/20” and “The Colbert Report,” where she and Stephen Colbert engaged in playful banter about football and penis size.

The book, however, was not funny. The piece displayed nuance and depth of thought. Some have compared it to “Black Like Me,” a book published in 1961 by white journalist John Howard Griffin about his time spent passing as a Black man in the segregated South. Ms. Vincent’s book was described as “rich and audacious” by David Kamp in The New York Times Book Review.

Ms. Vincent passed away on July 6th at a clinic in Switzerland. Age-wise, she was in her mid-fifties. On Thursday, her friend Justine Hardy confirmed her death, which had gone unreported at the time. According to her, it was a medically assisted death, also known as a voluntary assisted death.

norah vincent illness
norah vincent illness

To put it simply, Ms. Vincent was a lesbian. She did not identify as transgender or gender-queer. However, she was curious about issues of gender and self-definition. Some of the essays she wrote as a freelancer for publications like The Los Angeles Times, The Village Voice, and The Advocate incited strong reactions from readers.

The woman was a staunch advocate of individual rights. She smirked at multiculturalism and postmodernism. She defended unborn children’s rights while condemning identity politics as immature and careless. One writer called her a bigot because she did not think transsexuals were members of the opposite sex after surgery and hormones. She had no problem proclaiming that she was an outlier.

Norah Vincent’s Illness

For a year and a half, Ms. Vincent posed as Ned and put him in a variety of overly masculine situations. Even though he was a terrible bowler, he joined a league for blue-collar workers.

He stayed with a group of solitary monks for several weeks. He tried his luck in singles bars and strip joints but was consistently rejected by the ladies. He was a salesman who hawked coupon books and other low-margin products door-to-door alongside other salesmen who, in their cartoonish bravado, could have been lifted straight from David Mamet’s 1983 play “Glengarry Glen Ross.”

It all came to a head for Ned at an Iron John retreat, a therapeutic masculinity workshop (think drum circles and hero archetypes) based on the writings of men’s movement author Robert Bly. Ms. Vincent felt lonely and isolated as Ned, so she checked herself into a hospital for depression after the retreat.

She realized that the gender roles society had predetermined for her were causing her as much pain as they were for the men she met; she wrote that they were isolating them and stifling them.

“Manhood is a leaden mythology riding on the shoulders of every man,” she wrote, and they needed help: “If men are still really in power, then it benefits us all considerably to heal the dyspeptic at the wheel.”

Voluntary Madness: My Year Lost and Found in the Loony Bin” is Ms. Vincent’s follow-up book, and it features another impressive example of her immersive journalism.

After her Iron John breakdown, when she was admitted to the hospital as a suicide risk, the idea struck her. She claimed that during her hospital stay, she thought, “Jesus, what a freak show. As long as I have a notebook, I can pretend I’m Balzac.”

What actually happened, however, was a lot messier than anything in “Self-Made Man.” Ms. Vincent’s depression deepened as she visited a variety of mental hospitals, including a Bellevue-style urban facility, a high-end facility in the Midwest, and a New Age clinic. In the final chapter, she urged readers in a similar predicament to “put your boots on” and get on with their lives, which did not win over critics.

Norah Mary Vincent was born in Detroit on September 20, 1968. Juliet (Randall) Ford was an actress and Robert Vincent worked as a lawyer for Ford Motor Company when this young girl was born. Norah, the youngest of three children, grew up in Detroit and London, where Mr. Vincent was sent for a while.

Ms. Vincent is survived by her mother and brothers Alex and Edward. Lisa McNulty, a theatre producer, and artistic director was her partner at home from the years 2000 to 2008. Divorce papers were filed after a brief marriage to Kristen Erickson.

Ms. Vincent began working on a new novel in 2013 titled “Adeline,” in which she imagined the inner life of Virginia Woolf from the time Woolf conceived of her novel “To the Lighthouse” in her bathtub until the morning in 1941 when Woolf walked into the river near her home in Sussex, England, with stones in her pockets and committed suicide.

While writing the book, Ms. Vincent made an attempt on her own life.

Later, in an essay for the website Literary Hub, she elaborated on how “Adeline” was “not just a work of fiction or an act of literary ventriloquism. It was my note of intent to end my life.

She also admitted that she regularly put herself in potentially life-threatening situations by focusing too intently on her work.

Novelist and memoirist Carlene Bauer gave it a positive review in The New York Times Book Review shortly after its publication in 2015. She described Vincent as “a sensitive recorder of a mind’s movements as it shifts in and out of inspiration, and as it fights before submitting to despair.”

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