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