Interview: Norah Vincent, Author of Voluntary Madness

Monday, December 22nd, 2008

By Kathy Ritchie

“It’s really a process of disrobing to find your own voice. Keep pulling off the layers of social expectation and all these things you put on yourself and get down to you. It’s a lot harder to figure out who you are, and therefore speak as yourself than you think.”

norah-vincent-credit-frederick-broden.JPGWhen Norah Vincent goes after a story, Norah Vincent doesn’t tiptoe around. She dives in, head first—sometimes forgetting to see just how deep the pool is. In her first bestselling book, Self-Made Man: One Woman’s Year Disguised as a Man, Norah, or Ned, spent 18 months living as a man and doing many manly things: he/she joined a bowling league, dated the ladies, and hit up the occasional strip club. Although heaps of praise were bestowed on both the book and the author for her bold reporting, the work took an emotional toll. Pretending to be someone she was not and deceiving innocent characters in her book left Norah brutally depressed. At the urging of her psychiatrist, she checked into a mental institution.

The experience inside the bin was crushing and grotesque, and she checked out of the institution with the idea for her latest book, Voluntary Madness:My Year Lost and Found in the Loony Bin. Over the course of a year, this immersion journalist—reporters who live the experience (us non-immersion types refer to these folks as guinea pigs)—voluntarily walked into three very different facilities: an urban public hospital, a more mellow private institution in the Midwest, and an alternative-therapy private clinic.

She chronicled the effects of these different places on the individuals, the doctors and their relationship with the people they are suppose to help, and the psychopharmaceutical industry. Vincent’s story is unsettling and raw. She leaves the reader feeling uncomfortable at best, and nauseated most other times.

“If you wanna be happy and well, put your boots on, because you gotta fight for it,” says the author. “It’s not just going to come to you. I guess that’s the best saying I’ve heard: Happiness is not a gift; it’s a consequence.”

SMITH’s absolutely horrified and non-immersed reporter, Kathy Ritchie, talked to Norah Vincent by phone from Vincent’s home in upstate New York.

It was a very intense book. You said this stemmed from your experience living as man for 18 months. What was going on during that time between being a man and going into the bin the first time?
It’s a very difficult thing when you try to live as another person, and it’s just that much harder trying to cross the boundaries of sex. It was emotionally exhausting and it got to the point where at the end I couldn’t hold up the trick, I couldn’t do it. I started to feel—I felt really bad about the people I had deceived in process. Most of them were small deceptions. I felt these people didn’t know who I was and I think there was some part of myself that rebelled against that: I can’t be someone else anymore, and it brought about this really bad depression.

Your book left me feeling anxious and uncomfortable, but I also had mixed feelings about your role in it. There were moments when I felt sad for you, and then I remembered you voluntarily placed yourself in that situation. How do you respond to that?
Certainly one way that I address that in book is first of all to try and give perspective: Yeah it’s true, I was doing a job. It was amazing to me knowing that I would get out, and knowing that I was there because I put myself there—it still didn’t do a whole lot to mitigate the unpleasantness and the feeling that you lose perspective very quickly in those kinds of circumstances. That’s another reason why these places are not very good, because perspective is what you’re trying to gain or regain when you go into a place. So I think the book shows you the number it can do on pretty much anyone. I’m also trying to lend you the perspective of those individuals who weren’t there voluntarily and what it felt like. I was drawing on my previous experience when I had been there the first time around when I decided to write the book. Again, voluntary can mean you go in thinking, “maybe I should go,” but it doesn’t mean you can get out when you want to. That’s a fine line, too. What does voluntary mean?

Many of the characters in your book are incredibly vivid and tragic. How did you cultivate relationships with these people? How did you go about extracting their stories?
There was always the question: is someone’s story reliable? And in many cases it may very well not be. It’s their versions of their stories—although the doctors would only know what they’ve been told by them as well, which again is an interesting wrinkle in diagnosis, and most of what they go on is what you tell them. They admit you according to what you told them. There is no real criteria that stands objectively outside the person, and in that sense, my portrayals are based on what they told me and what I observed. And that’s inherently flawed, I think.

For me, the details were less important than the behaviors: the way they related to me, the way I related to them, and how those relationships changed as I stayed there. The way I got into it—I approached it in a different way than Self-Made Man. For example, I was only able to take a certain number of notes and I took as many as I could because I really wanted to have a lot to work from. And I had a couple of months where all I did every night before I went to bed was read through my notebook that I kept there, almost like I was studying for test.

This information soaked into my brain and became part of my thinking, so when I actually sat down to write the first chapter ["Bedlam: Meriwether"], it came out in the course of two weeks. That was because I had really conditioned my brain to have all of that information at my fingertips. And I had let those people soak into me, and [the memories] were able to come out in long streams. It was a very different approach than the one I had taken in the past. As for some of the nicknames, like Mr. Clean, it sounds like the guy’s real last name and also he tended to be unclean, so sometimes I let my subconscious have a little fun with it.

Was one chapter easier to write than another?
“Meriwether” was by far the easiest, and I don’t know if it was the method I chose or that I had a little time to let it sink in. The middle chapter (”Asylum: St. Luke’s”) was pretty hard because trying to write about depression in real time is little like swimming in molasses. It’s very hard to be creative, it’s hard to get your brain moving, so that took a while, and yet that’s what I wanted to try and do, at least in part, in that chapter was to give you a very real sense, moment to moment. Most people who have written about depression have done so with hindsight. ‘This is how I felt in the past.’ And I originally wrote the chapter in the present tense and in the second person because I really wanted it to be, “You are here, you are right in the moment, this is what you’re feeling,” and I really wanted to suck you into the feeling. But then I found that was too hard to continue with, because I couldn’t get the necessary perspective to really write the chapter. I decided to change the tense and go back to the first person, so that was a struggle in its own way. It was an interesting problem to have to overcome.

The third chapter (”Sanctum: Mobius”) was actually the hardest, and there again, I was trying to show a moment-by-moment process of therapy in real time: How does it work? What do you actually talk about with your therapist? What are your reactions? How do you build diagrams that can show you this is my chain of thought and these are my chains of emotions that go from here all the way down to here, and how do I break that chain? So all those things were very tiring to go through.

You have to expose yourself when writing a memoir, but I feel like we naturally want to edit ourselves, to put ourselves in the best possible light. How do you decide how much to put out there?
I think that’s something I really had tried to avoid—tried to do it in Self-Made Man and I tried to do it here, too—and that is not to write my own hagiography; I wanted to be able to show the ugly parts of myself, and to question my own [actions]. In the first chapter, in “Meriwether,” I’m the do-gooder. Because I feel so overwhelmed by my own privilege and by my pity for them, wanting help and realizing, in my little martyrdom, I needed to step back and look at myself being a martyr and realize how obnoxious that is. That was true at the end, too: Being a molested kid and telling people that. What I wanted to show was, ‘Here are some of the ugly things of that experience and you’re going cringe…’ I went through a tremendous crisis where I thought God, ‘I’m gonna be walking down the street and they’re gonna know all this stuff that’s in my head.’ But again, I had to had to overcome that and decide that this is more important.

What tips do you have for writers who trying to write their own story and are struggling to get past putting their own truth out there?
Probably two things: The best and most lasting advice I got from a friend was, when you feel ashamed or when you’re squirming, that’s probably when you’re heading in right direction. It’s almost as if you put a ring of shame around “it” to protect “it,” because that’s the most intense stuff you need deal with. It’s not an exhibitionism—that should be avoided at all costs—but I think you do have to ask yourself a question: Am I uncomfortable and is the reader uncomfortable? And you were saying you were uncomfortable and that makes me happy, because I think it was the kind of discomfort I wanted you to feel in the sense that I wanted you to feel what I was feeling. It’s not because I wanted to be a sensationalist, but because I think that would be the most immediate way to communicate what I was trying to communicate.

That’s one part of it, and the second part, and I certainly did this, and I’m still trying throw this off: you try to emulate the writers you admire—and I think that’s the worst thing you could possibly do. People say to find your own voice. The only way to do that is to really, absolutely be yourself, so that you’re not copying other people or you’re not writing the way you think writing should sound. For me, sometimes that means finding some strange mix of scatological and philosophical and everything in between. It’s really a process of disrobing to find your own voice. Keep pulling off the layers of social expectation and all these things you put on yourself and get down to you. It’s a lot harder to figure out who you are, and therefore speak as yourself than you think. My advice there is tear yourself down as much as possible and that’s when you let to the most real stuff and that’s when the best voice comes through.

Robert S. Boynton, a writer and director of NYU’s magazine journalism program calls your style of journalism, immersion journalism, the New New Journalism. What do you make of that? Is it really new-new?
It’s not. I would say [George] Orwell was one of the people who pioneered this. You think of about, for example, Barbara Ehrenreich or John Howard Griffin. I put myself in the circumstances I want to write about and live it. Orwell was my original model for that—Down and Out in Paris and London. Most people don’t read his nonfiction, they’ve never even heard of it. And also Homage to Catalonia. He’s going off to the Spanish Civil War. I think it isn’t new in that sense, it’s just that probably there’s a gap in time.

I also think you have to be suited to [immersion journalism]. I think the reason I do it more than anything else, I’m not very good at being a person who goes to library and takes a lot of notes. And I admire people who can do that, because I’m just not good at it. So in some ways it’s matter of, I chose it because it’s what I think I was better at. But there’s a big cost and you really have to be prepared, and obviously I discovered that twice now. You put yourself into a pot of boiling water every time you write a book and you have to know that that’s what you’re doing and you have to accept that that’s what you do. You’re probably going to get burned every time you embark on a project, but I like to think it’s worth it.

This was a job for you: the goal wasn’t to necessarily to feel better, so how did you establish boundaries internally. ‘This isn’t about me; this is about the book.’
I think I was less successful with that as time when on. Although I also think that always happens to me—in the sense that I put myself into the position of what I’m writing about, and objectivity always goes by wayside. But for me it’s even more so because I can never stay removed. I think I start out trying to be the objective reporter and then I get sucked in. I get sucked in by people that I meet and I care about them and I develop relationships with them, and then there’s no way to stay outside.

But also, in this case, it became very much about my own experience, and part of the reason that happened is because when I was in the second place, I was surrounded by a lot of depressed people—trying to write about someone else’s depression is a little like watching paint dry. It’s not like psychosis where it’s kind of a fluid, theatrical thing that you can describe. I think “Meriwether” had that going for it, which is part of what made easier to write. Everybody had all these things, and all I had to do was get swept up in their torrent and take notes. Whereas with depression, part of why I had to turn more inward was that it was the only way to get into it. I guess I never really tried to maintain those boundaries. After a while, in fact, I tried to push those walls down and really have no boundaries between me and my subject matter. I was my subject matter.

And what’s your six-word memoir?
Happiness is not becoming your parents.


For more on Norah Vincent, or if you have a story to share about your own experience with psychopharmaceuticals, visit

SMITH contributing editor Kathy Ritchie blogs about about coping with Alzheimer’s at My Demented Mom.

BUY Voluntary Madness

READ an excerpt from the book.

your story on Norah’s site

Tags: , ,

5 responses

  1. sarah says:

    Is the names used in your book the real names of the people you ran into and who did you connect with the most?

  2. Addu says:

    Must be thanks for the amazing post here i hope you sure like this enable cookies

  3. Robert Price says:

    What a great interview! He is really talented. I will get this book later. And I will write a review for it and post it here.

  4. ethan says:

    Thank you so much to this comment

  5. Norah Vincent: la donna che si è fatta uomo. Fino alla fine. - La Fionda says:

    [...] svantaggi dell’essere uomo. «Quell’esperienza mi ha fatto sentire vulnerabile», ha dichiarato in diverse interviste successive, «ho provato tanta sofferenza e attraversato tantissime difficoltà». Da lì l’illuminazione. La [...]

Leave a Reply

The name you want displayed with your comment.

Emails are not published with comments (i.e., everyone won't see it).

Your Website. This is optional.

SMITH Magazine

SMITH Magazine is a home for storytelling.
We believe everyone has a story, and everyone
should have a place to tell it.
We're the creators and home of the
Six-Word Memoir® project.