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Norah Vincent is a former “immersive journalist,” but she’s left that all behind now.
Vincent’s latest book is Adeline: A Novel of Virginia Woolf. Her website is norahvincent.org.PLAYLIST
Title – Artist – Album
Contact – Andrew Pekler – Cue
Tomorrow Morning – Arovane – Tides
Tides – Arovane – Tides
Infernal Selection Enceinte Version – Karen Gwyer – I’ve Been You Twice
Miyajima – George Fitzgerald – Fading Love
Das Wort (feat. Dirk von Lowtzow) – DJ Koze – Amygdala
Changes – Anthony Naples – Body Pill
Ten Tigers – Bonobo – The North Borders
Alone in Kyoto – Air – Talkie Walkie
Second Movement (Jeux de Vagues) – Claude Debussy, Tokyo Kosei Wind Orchestra – La Mer
Nonlin.r – Arovane – Atol Scrap
Wind in Lonely Fences – Harold Budd, Brian Eno – Ambient 2: Plateaux of Mirror
Om Mani Padme Hum – Constance Demby – I Am The Center: Private Issue New Age In America, 1950-1990
Sonic Mandala – Ryuichi Sakamoto – Year Book 2005-2014
Chorale|Look For Me Here – Ryuichi Sakamoto – Year Book 2005-2014
Tomorrow Morning – Arovane – Tides
Das Wort (feat. Dirk von Lowtzow) – DJ Koze – Amygdala
Norah Vincent – Author
Hey, you’ve reached Love + Radio listener line, at 641 715 3900, extension 55 403. You can leave a secret here, or leave a message about anything else you want. Thanks.
Hi… Yes, I’d like to stay anonymous. I… Let’s see… Four years, I’ve been extremely suicidal, but haven’t been able to tell anyone, except for very close friends and a boyfriend. And I don’t know, I can’t even tell my therapist, because I’m afraid that my mother’s finding out, which isn’t very fun. But um… Yeah, for anyone out there who feels similarly – it’s possible to get better. You just gotta work through your own shit. Yeah… I love the podcast… Thanks for listening. Bye.
I think that’s really beautiful. I mean, it’s like a work of art. Is there anything more important than what she said there? In our entire lives, is there anything more important than that message, that she’s saying, “I’m here, is there anybody else there?” and the need for an answer? But you know, the first thing that struck me when I was listening to her voice was how much you can hear the pain, and I feel it so strongly, and I know what that’s like, that terror and pain… And even your friends or your boyfriend more than likely haven’t been there, so they can only be sort of sympathetic, not empathetic. So it’s like I wanted to say, “Yeah, I know exactly how you feel, and I get it. I’ve been there.” And the fact that she’s made that call at all is hope, and she’s right, you can get better. You can hear, even as she’s struggling; it’s that other part of her mind, and you can feel those two things fighting. You know, the one part that’s reaching out and saying something really beautiful, and like putting her hand out there and saying, “Is there anybody out there?” Because I guarantee you, all these hands will come out of the darkness to meet hers, and they will say, “Yeah, I’m right there with you, sister.”
* * *
I have this photo that sits on my desk… I’m about three or four, and I’m wearing a little plastic fireman’s helmet, and I’ve got this big band-aid on my forehead and my face is all scratched up. I’m not smiling at all, and I just look really intense. That has been true of me for a very, very long time. I was always a tomboy, I had a cowboy outfit I used to like to wear; I was like a little warrior. I would run around in the neighborhood, I would climb trees… All those cuts are from falls. I got in a fight with all the boys in the secondary class, and I just remember that they all started coming out for recess, and then I found myself fighting most of the boys, and I ended up in a barrel. I had a lot to prove.
Androgyny was always a part of my life, it was something I really could not escape. There was one day usually, maybe two out of the year when you had to wear a dress to school; it was May Day, or something. People would, of course, tease me all day because I was known as the kid who wore boys’ clothes, and they were like “Norah’s in a dress, can you believe…?”
Every time I kind of went to a new phase in my life, I thought maybe I should try to conform more, and be more like the female version that people expected. When I went off to college – I went to Williams College in Western Massachusetts – I made a very conscious decision that summer before I went, to buy some dresses, and I wore them for like the first month I was a student there. I consciously thought, “I need to start again, and I need the people around me not to think of me as Norah who’s a gender weirdo.” I had no idea – which is, I know, hard to believe – that I was queer. There were very few out queer people, and they were considered really, really strange. You know, like the women who were witches and the dudes, you know… Who knows. So I just couldn’t identify with them; I mean, I was like everybody else; I thought, “I want to be normal.” And it wasn’t until I got bludgeoned with it at the very end of college, and I just found myself looking into the blue eyes of this woman, and I just thought, “Wow.” It’s like my body took over.
We spent the summer together, and then I began to realize, “Oh, I see. This is what people were talking about.”
* * *
In 1998 I started being a writer full-time, a journalist. I had a higher education column for the Village Voice for a while, I wrote a column for Salon, and then I wrote a column that got syndicated for the Los Angeles Times, op-ed page. That was usually politically oriented, whatever was topical, but I became known at the time as being somewhat conservative for a lesbian.
It was easy to rile people up, because you say something that isn’t received opinion and it’s very easy to… Like the orthodoxy of being gay, you know? Especially as a lesbian. You know, back then you had to dress a certain way, you had to have certain political opinions. There were words you could say. “You have to use this word.” The minute you tell me that, I’m like a little kid; I’m like, “I’m gonna get the opposite then, because this is a free fucking country. Sorry, no, you cannot tell me what I can and can’t say.” That’s what I’m fighting for. I’m just not in a club; there’s no place I belong, including the gay world. This is not my world, because I don’t share their opinions, because I’m shouting a little bit; you know, I’m young and I wanna say what I think, and I’m pissed off… So they’re pissed off too, and what they’re basically saying is, “Get out of the club house. If you’re gonna criticize it, then get out.”
I was watching a reality TV show…
[Now, these real men get to experience a whole new way of life… If they’re man enough.
– Does this make my butt look big?]
… and it was about cross-dressing. This was sort of the era of the extreme makeover TV show.
[…whether living in a giant dollhouse, or strutting their stuff in public.]
But, of course, what they really wanted to show was just the process of making over, and then they showed very little of them passing. I thought, well, first of all, I can do this much better than they’re doing it, and I can pass better, but also when you passed, what happened? I decided that I was gonna write a book about being a guy, and I called him Ned, and I went about dressing up, and working out, and taking voice lessons to become this guy named Ned. I called it immersion journalism. I have the natural advantage that I’m tall and my voice is deep. You know, I’m still mistaken for a guy sometimes, so it wasn’t really that hard to push it.
You would take fake wool hair and you’d cut it into very little pieces, and you’d take something called stopple paste and you would literally stick it onto your face. It would really look like stubble. He would talk more slowly, and when I would talk more slowly my voice could get deeper and I could let it fall, and I could relax more. I gotta have to slow down, and I would let my voice fall, and then it would get harsher. I mean, you can hear it getting deeper, and then I would just be a lot less accessible to you. It would just be, “How you doin’? What’s going on?” It would just get very terse, and very… Like, I’d be a dick. [laughter] I would try to be a dick.
Have I been doing this whole male thing wrong…
Yes, exactly. Because I didn’t have the truth of manhood I couldn’t get away with things that a lot of men do. I had to be kind of a caricature of a guy, because there could be no question. Part of being more convincing sometimes was being a bit of a dick, but you could be a dick and get away with it. You’d be at a restaurant, and you’d just be like, “I want the steak, medium-rare. Get me water,” and I wouldn’t be perceived as rude, whereas a woman would never say that, because she’d be a bitch. So as a woman, you’re stumbling over yourself, you’re like, “Would you mind getting me some water?”
Initially especially, it was thrilling to get away with it, and sort of think, “Wow, they really bought it.” You can be someone other than who you are, and kind of be a spy.
What was the first thing that you noticed when you were walking around the world as a guy?
Well, I was living in East Village at the time, and the biggest thing that I noticed was that, as a woman, guys would either already be staring at you, or if you looked at them, they would just stare you down; I would really notice it. If I would go and I would dress up much more in a female way than I normally do, immediately it was like guys’ eyes… And then as a guy, my suit was my armor. I noticed right away that if you were perceived to be a guy they would look away, because that was either a challenge or a come-on. That was really startling to me, to realize I kind of became invisible.
Or like other guys would call you – you’ve probably had this happen – they’d call you ‘boss’, or they’d call you ‘bro’; it’s like this brotherhood thing that I’d never experienced. It’s like this bond between dudes, and I was like, “Wow.” This whole subculture, it was like someone had changed the channel suddenly.
I was living as a guy, and I was passing as a guy. I joined a men’s bowling team, I dated women, I went to a monastery…
You went to a monastery?
Yes, it was a Benedictine monastery in Oklahoma. They had this program if you wanted to do a retreat ten days, and I just applied. This was right after 9/11, and what’s funny about that is that I had to go through security as myself. So I had my fake penis in my bag, in a big bag of white powder. Try to explain that. I was told to keep it in corn starch, because it would get sticky otherwise. One of those TSA workers pulls out a bag of white powder. He was like, “This is a dick.” I could see on his face, it was like he just said, “No, I’m not going there.” So he just put it back in the bag, zipped it up and he was like, “Get away from me.” But anyway, then I got through and on the plane I had like a kit, and I had to go into the bathroom and become Ned; it was like Superman in the booth. I put my dick in my pants, wrapping down my breasts and putting my beard on, so that when I landed in Oklahoma I was Ned.
With everybody that I interacted with there was eventually a time when I told them, the reveal. In some cases it was nine months later, like with my bowling buddies at the end of the season. With the monks it was at the end of the ten days. First I’d say, “There’s something about me you’re not getting. Do you have any idea what it is?” This guy was like, “I don’t know, you’re a felon.” And a priest was like, “You’re not Catholic.” I was like, “Noo…”
You went on dates, too?
What was that like?
Pretty awful. I mean, I had a rule that after the third date I would tell anybody. It’s funny, because I went on dates with guys, and one of them got kind of interested in me as a gay man, and then when I told him, he said, “I’m not mad, it’s just, if you don’t have the equipment, I’m just not into it.” But chicks would often get mad. Either that, or they’d say, “Well, I wanna sleep with you anyway.” So it was a illustration, I guess, of the difference between male and female sexuality, in part, and also just the dating scene. Women were very angry a lot of the time at men, in general, and kind of projecting a lot of things onto men that had been from past men, and making a lot of generalizations that made me angry to be on the receiving end of.
What would they say?
Well, just assuming you were a jerk until you proved otherwise. Or I remember meeting some woman who was very into the whole idea, “Well, you know, you’re a guy, so you wouldn’t know.” But, just in general, it was like a statement about my character, and assumptions about my character, and it really made me mad that I always came in behind the eight ball. And always feeling on the defensive, and always feeling like I had to prove myself. And getting used to rejection, at a bar. I asked a woman, “What’s your name?” and she was just like, “I don’t feel like having this conversation,” and then just walked away. It’s not that I didn’t understand it to some degree, from the other side, but still, if you’re actually a nice guy and you’re on the receiving end of that, it kind of sucks.
What was it like for you, knowing that you could pass? Did it make you feel more confident? I mean, I walk through the day as myself sometimes, and I have a hard time being confident being myself, but now I’m imagining pretending that I’m someone else – I would be so worried about being found out.
Oh, I was, yeah. I was, constantly. There was a lot of stress with that, and I never felt comfortable, and I couldn’t be nearly as natural as I am, and it took me until the age of 46 which I am now, to really feel comfortable with myself and not feel that I need to please anybody. But back then, when I was 34, I did care.
What were you worried about?
You know, being an impostor, lying to people… Because I did manage to convince people, and then when I told them… I mean, that’s part of the book, and it’s fun, because often the reactions were really funny, or indicative, but I was like anybody else – I was unsure, to some degree, who I was; that made it ten times worse, in a way. You know, here I thought I was conforming, and I was gonna be like a normal guy, but inside it made me feel even more of a conflict, which, of course, is what in the end I just couldn’t hold that up anymore; it was too stressful.
He was like an adolescent, because he was really having to learn how to be a man, and was having to go through all the hazing that guys go through about being a guy, and learning what was inappropriate, and realizing that there were all these things that I did that were actually very feminine, that I didn’t realize were feminine until I tried to be a guy; like putting on chopstick, and kind of moving your lips in a very female way, like you would with lipstick. These little things you never think about would give me away. I’m a touchy-feely person, sometimes; as a woman, I love that. I had a waiter in a restaurant the other day, and I was kissing his cheeks, and I was like, “You’re so cute” – just the word ‘cute’, you cannot use the word cute as a dude. Whereas I loved that stuff, and I would just play with it, but I couldn’t play as Ned, because I would make mistakes. And having to get slapped down for that, and that being painful… I took it personally, I was like, “Ouch.” So he sounded insecure, I think…
Well, especially if your character is to be emotionally withdrawn, I would think that that would really… You’d start to take that on and kind of feel alienated from people.
Yeah, I felt like my emotional bandwidth suddenly was tiny, and that was one of the conclusions that I drew, that I think the definition of manhood is so narrow. Women do have that privilege in our culture, to have a much larger bandwidth of what’s acceptedly female or feminine.
I felt much freer as a dyke. You know, I did all those pieces, and everyone wanted to know, “Oh, man/woman…” you know. And what I learned really in the end – and I didn’t say this in the book – is that you’re a fucking human being. It’s not easy, no matter what your challenge is, and really, in the end, it’s irrelevant. It’s just part of our social structure, it’s part of how we procreate, right? Gender being something very different from sex. My dog is female, she is not feminine. In the dog world, they’re not playing those games, and that’s what we would be like, except that we found over time that we need all these pretenses, but that has nothing to do with who you or I are as human beings. God, it’s so fucking old, it’s like come on, move on. Okay, we’ve done that! Queer? Yeah, I’m a dyke. Yes, okay. Big deal. Obvious. And that’s exactly why I hate the gay ghetto, why I hate academia, because they’re so still entrenched in that crap, and a lot of it is not in language, and it’s certainly not in academic terms, and gender studies, and all this shit.
I’ve started to feel like I peeled away a little bit of myself, such that I can see… Like, I’ll be watching a mother and her kids playing soccer on the lawn, and it looks like a stage set to me; it looks like what it is, which is fake. It’s all part of that fabric we put together, of culture and society that yes, makes things generally speaking run – but is that real? The world that you see all around you is not really there, at least not in that form. Your brain is taking in what it can take in, but what is really there would scare the living shit out of you, and you don’t have the ability to see it anyway.
What do you mean it’s not real?
Really what’s out there is mostly light, like an atom is filled with space more than anything else. It’s like there are these little particles in those huge spaces. So in a lot of ways, everything we’re touching seems solid, but it’s really made very much of air.
This is way off the rails…
Is it not gonna work? I don’t know, see – because there’s an evolution in me that I want to explain, and that is the evolution I’m talking about. When I think back to “Self-Made Man” — I gotta tell you honestly, I hate talking about that book, because I’m so far past that. That book came out in 2006, so here we are in 2015. To me, it seems like playing with little blocks, as a three-year-old, when what you should be doing is using lasers. But it was definitely the beginning of that process that I didn’t even understand at the time, of disappearing into another person. That’s what I did in my immersion journalism, but this time I really did it. I really just disappeared into Virginia Woolf.
* * *
[So with the lamps all put out, the moon sunk and the thin rain drumming on the roof, a downpouring of immense darkness began. Nothing, it seemed, could survive the flood, the profusion of darkness which, creeping in at keyholes and crevasses, stole around window blinds, came into bedrooms, swallowed up here a jug and a basin, there a bowl of red and yellow dahlias, there the sharp edges…]
Virginia Woolf was born in 1882, in London. She was not educated classically. This was still when women couldn’t go to Cambridge and Oxford, but she did study Latin and Greek, and that’s what’s even more amazing – she’s an autodidact. She’s become a feminist icon, really. I think her best novels are Mrs. Dalloway, To the Lighthouse and The Waves. What they are is an entirely new way of conceptualizing fiction, what they call the ‘stream of consciousness’ style. What she was trying to do was really be a painter on the page. It’s very impressionistic – bright colors, sensitivity to light. Nobody was writing about that, that the human experience is a mental experience.
I did not write this book, it wrote itself. It’s about the life of Virginia Woolf, told from her perspective, her creativity and her madness, and how they worked together. Initially, it started out actually being about marriage. It was going to be about the marriage she had with Leonard, but it’s also very much about the internal process of Virginia Woolf as she was conceiving To the Lighthouse, in 1925, to the moment she stepped into the River Ouse to kill herself in 1941. That’s where it ends.
What happened that last morning before she went into the river, what might have been going through her head?
I believe the key to reading her and to her character was that she literally had a psychedelic experience of the world. But she did it naturally. As she said, “Seeing eternity, peeking through skirts and waistcoats.” Describing things like they have an imminence; there’s something astounding about the fact that they exist, and there’s a light coming out of them… Something clicked, and I thought, “This woman was clearly having visions.” It’s like a dream, and it helps a lot if you don’t try to think of it in terms of your traditional story, but you just let her take you, and think about it as a trip. Don’t fight. Just let go.
To make her art, she had to cultivate that mindset, and she had to stand on the edge, but it also is a very dangerous place to stand. I don’t think you have to go to that place, that’s what I’ve learned. You can stand there. Samuel Beckett stood in that place, and in fact wrote an essay about this very idea of what the artist’s job is – to see beyond what’s in front of you, the everyday reality, which is not real, to the reality that’s behind it, and tell us what you see. But it’s also scary, and it’s also hard to live an average life once you’ve been in something that feels so intense. She fell sometimes, or Leonard caught her, and eventually he couldn’t catch her. It was almost inevitable.
I didn’t write this book. I just wrote down what I understood. I started this meditation daily. It became the conduit for this book, which I feel was received. The way I described it to people, it’s like watching a stain spread on a table cloth. I didn’t hear voices or anything, but what you’re getting is maybe something more like what Jung would call the collective unconscious. It’s something that’s not you.
I used to think this book wrote itself because I started taking Dexedrine. Now sure, speed will help. Meditating on speed is great, it really helps you to focus even more, and you get out of the way. It’s not gonna make you someone you’re not, and there’s nothing in that book that isn’t part of me, it’s not stuff that I read ten years ago; it’s just been there. I was just able to access it more.
I was often Upstate, in the country, seeing no one but my dog, and it was just feverish. I was so caught up in this experience, and getting it down. I was very much in what I described as a fugue state, and I worked all day, every day. In January and February I wrote 70,000 words. Unbelievable.
I wouldn’t even leave the house to get food, I would make whatever I could rustle out of the pantry because I didn’t want to leave the house. I was really sequestered. I didn’t have enough touchstones that are necessary for a stable frame of mind, to be with people. I don’t think I did enough of that.
At the end of these very intense days of writing about Virginia, I needed to calm down. I had started drinking as a way of coming down from this fugue state, and being able to sleep at night. I really wasn’t sleeping well. I wasn’t eating much, and I was taking one miligram of Klonopin at night to sleep. This particular night I had three milligrams of Klonopin, and I had a full bottle of wine on essentially an empty stomach. When you take an anxiolytic or a benzo like Klonopin you seem less intoxicated than you are, and you do become sort of mechanical, and sometimes you’re enabled to do things that you wouldn’t normally do.
I do really want to protect the privacy of anyone else involved, so if you don’t mind I will leave them out… But I couldn’t sleep, and I became very agitated, and I ended up getting into an argument with someone who was home at the time, and they realized pretty quickly, “You’re not in a good place. You’re much more inebriated than you realize, and I’m not gonna have this conversation.” It was like a switch flicked. I got up out of the bed, I walked into the kitchen, I got a knife, I locked myself in the bathroom, I started cutting myself. It was very mechanical, the way the me that did it, did it. It was not a decision that I made.
Did they see you walking into the bathroom?
Yeah, and I didn’t answer, because I was someone else at that point; I switched over. Anybody that I would call ‘me’ or ‘I’ was on the ceiling, looking down, watching this happening. In horror, kind of. The next thing I was aware of was the police with a battering ram, on the other side of the door, calling my name, and I remember very distinctly answering them in this very calm way. They were saying, “Norah?” and I said, “Yes…?” “We’re gonna have to break the door down if you don’t come and open it. So I just said, “Alright, alright…” like they were being reasonable. So I got out of the bath tub and opened the door, and there I am, standing there with this butcher knife, bleeding. Of course, they freaked out and they were like, “Drop the knife!” Then I was taken away. They put cuffs on me, and I got stitched up, and all that stuff in the hospital.
Then finally they ship you over to the psych section, and then it was the long process of really sort of saying, “Whoa…”
It was the last stop on the train. It was actually a moment of complete obliteration of the self. That’s what the train really was going from Self-Made Man, all the way until now; that was the first time that I had truly kind of split away from myself, and I almost died doing it, but it was the act of that extremity that forced me into this place of much greater comfort with who I am.
I literally became so immersed in Virginia Woolf that I enacted, and that’s not a way of trying to say that it wasn’t me who did it. Looking back through the book, this was my suicide note, woven very carefully into the facts of Virginia Woolf’s life, but I put the words into her mouth, I put the thoughts into her mind. They were my ideas.
You know, it was a serious attempt… The scar on my left eye looks like a leech, I mean, it’s really big. That’s good and bad, you know? It’s good, because it’s a reminder, and I need that reminder, and anybody that I’m intimate with, I tell them right off the bat. I say, “You need to know this.” I’m not ashamed of it, I’ve been through it.
Now that you’ve had this experience and you’re able to talk to people about it, what do you say? What insight do you have that you’re able to share with…
Well, I talked to a guy who bought the noose, and the diapers and he was going to do it, he was going to hang himself. So I said to this guy, “You know, if you were really going to kill yourself you wouldn’t be talking to me. But you know what? That’s a good thing. That means you wanna live.” I talked about sex with him, and I said, “Are you still masturbating?” It sounds crass, but it’s like a way of connecting on a very abrupt level. And I would joke with him, I’d be like, “Whack off! Do it. It’s like an exercise. It’s part of keeping yourself alive right now.” Then other times it was validating his anger about the world and the way it works, saying, “I hear you. I totally get it, you’re right. But you know what? There’s gonna be one fewer guy that’s actually intelligent if you kill yourself. Don’t leave me here, man. Why not just hang around for a while? I mean, what have you got to lose, really?”
The fact that I was in Bellevue a year ago, and I’ve laughed since then, and I’ve had a wonderful time since then, and I told myself I would, and now that it’s come true I know that with certainty. So when I say to people “It’s gonna be okay,” and they say, “How can you say that?” I say “Because I said it to myself in the mirror in Bellevue, with the stitches in my neck. And guess what? It’s true.”
You can come back too, and you will…
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