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by Jeffrey Eugenides
Picador, 2002
Review by Christian Perring, Ph.D. on Jan 1st 2005

Middlesex

Middlesex is a long family saga about Calliope Stephanides, who is raised as a girl but who has male biological traits.  The story reaches back several generations to the village of the Stephanides family in Greece, through Cal's childhood up to the present.  At over 500 pages, it is an imposing book to read, and despite the wide acclaim it has received, I found it difficult to get into it at first.  If I hadn't been listening to it as an audiobook, I doubt that I would have persisted.  It goes into detail about the lives of Cal's relatives, giving a clear picture of the cultural background and including some dramatic tales along the way.  Critics from the major newspapers have given the book high praise and it won a Pulitzer Prize, and so my own difficulty in finishing the book probably reflects more on my own deficiencies as a reader.  It is a sprawling book that portrays not only the life of a hermaphrodite but also Greek immigrants in the early twentieth century, Black Muslims, gender outlaws in 1970s San Francisco, and the medical approach to intersexuality.  Certainly it is a novel that repays the effort of reading it, and many of its scenes are memorable not just for the vivid descriptions of them, but also because of the narrator's distinctive attitude towards them. 

Cal's parents want a girl and disregard any indications during pregnancy and at birth that his sex is male.  Since he is born with ambiguous genitalia this is fairly easy to do, and it is not until puberty that it starts to become obvious that despite all the environmental influences on Cal, his body is not following the pattern of normal female development.  He tries hard to retain the illusion that he is a girl, even faking his own period and engaging in sexual play with boys.  But in fact he is much more attracted to girls.  When at last his parents take him to New York City to a specialist, he maintains the family doctrine that he considers himself a girl, and it is only when the doctor proposes surgery and hormones to get his body to conform to his supposed gender-identity that Cal starts to reconsider. 

One of the best features of the book is its skepticism towards medical expertise.  The doctors are shown to be more interested in protecting their own theories than really finding out the truth.  During his protracted examination and questioning of Cal, the expert never seems to consider that the answers he is getting might not be completely sincere, but rather might be the result of confusion and aiming to please other people.  Equally admirable is Cal's insistence as an adult narrator that he was quite comfortable with his identification as a girl when he was young, and that he never saw himself as a male misidentified as a female.  He just wants to be himself and is even unenthusiastic about wider social activism such as the work of the Intersex Society.  He does readily identify himself as a hermaphrodite, and sees no need to change himself to conform to other people's gender expectations.  It is indeed a pleasure to have a major portrayal of intersexuality that does not insist that people must identify as essentially male or female with all the stereotypes that come that such a move.  Eugenides not only advocates a position of tolerance with his work, but he also subtly shows how our different categories of male and female, heterosexual, homosexual, bisexual, and so on can be confining. 

However, it would be a mistake to say that Middlesex is simply about hermaphoditism.  It is not a theoretical work, but a story, and it is just as much about America and its tradition of immigration, with its focus on the Greek-Americans in Detroit. It is only in the last third of the book, mainly in its fourth part, that there is any sustained discussion of the themes of Cal's gender and sexuality.  Those looking simply for a novel about hermaphodites have to get through 300 pages of family history first.  Of course, all this history provides a context for Cal's struggles with her self-identification once she reaches adolescence, and it makes that part of the book far richer and more intelligent.  To really enjoy the book though, one has to appreciate the characters in the family for themselves, rather than simply as essential context-setting.  Eugenides is a talented writer with an ability to create great characters, especially Cal's parents and their friends. 

It is Eugenides' portrayal of Cal's internal life as he comes to terms with himself as a hermaphrodite that makes this novel an interesting one for mental health professionals though.  One of the benefits of making Cal narrator is that he is not forced to choose a gendered pronoun to describe himself.  He can just use "I," "me" and "myself" rather than having he decide on "he" or "she."  While he might be confined by language to some extent, Cal is articulate enough to overcome such restrictions, and his generous and amused attitude towards the people in his story makes their folly forgivable. 

 

© 2005 Christian Perring. All rights reserved.

 

Christian Perring, Ph.D., is Academic Chair of the Arts & Humanities Division and Chair of the Philosophy Department at Dowling College, Long Island. He is also editor of Metapsychology Online Review.  His main research is on philosophical issues in medicine, psychiatry and psychology.