Note: This piece contains details of sexual anatomy and gender-related issues.
My most recent excavation into the seldom-visited realm of “reading for enjoyment” (“seldom” because I generally have to keep up with other reading professionally or other work) was Jeffrey Eugenides’ novel Middlesex. I had originally run into this title in an issue of English Journal (see here for more discussion of the EJ issue in question), and I was curious despite some initial skepticism after seeing that Eugenides’ last published novel was The Virgin Suicides. (In truth, I shouldn’t have judged his work based on the title of one book, just like it would be unfair to judge Salman Rushdie on The Satanic Verses.) When I found a hardcover edition on sale for approximately $7-8 at my local chain bookstore, I decided to jump in.
It was a good move.
Middlesex centers around Calliope Stephanides, who is Greco-American (and as you find out from the opening lines of the novel) and a hermaphrodite (in his own words): he grows up as a female but eventually finds out that he is “genetically male”* in the sense that he has XY gametes typical of a male rather than the XX gametes of a female, which causes him to start taking on the gender characteristics of a male. This all comes about because “Callie” (as he is called during his years as a girl) has an atypical development (she never reaches menarche, and there is considerable anxiety about this), and the culminating incident is one where Callie is in an accident and there is some concern over her injuries. The concern is abdominal pain, which turns out to be a pair of undescended testes, and the Stephanideses† seek out professional help to figure out how on earth this was missed (and there is somewhat of a story explaining this).
The novel itself is fairly philosophical: Cal, who narrates everything (even things he shouldn’t or couldn’t have known – which is part of the book’s appeal), talks about his condition as something preordained, as the result of a series of events beginning with his grandparents in Asia Minor. There is conflict between the old ways and the new (Cal’s grandmother Desdemona vs. Cal’s father Milton), and there is anxiety about interfering with the natural order, specifically in one case that Cal’s parents use methods to conceive based on “science” of the time, and Cal’s mother Tessie later thinks this causes Cal’s condition and feels guilty about it. There is also a much bigger issue of “going against nature” with Cal’s grandparents: they are siblings in Asia Minor who escape at the time of the Greco-Turkish War (there is a depiction of the Great Fire of Smyrna which is very compelling) and come to America as a married couple. Cal sees these events – the incest of his grandparents and additionally that his parents are second cousins – as conspiring to give him the genetic makeup he does, which contains two recessive genes for 5-alpha reductase deficiency syndrome. (5-ARD prohibits the production of dihydrotestosterone, which inhibits the development of male secondary sex characteristics. However, female secondary sex characteristics don’t develop, either, which is why Cal neither menstruates [she has no ovaries, only undifferentiated gonads that would have become testes under normal development] nor has breast growth of any kind.)
The content, accordingly, is somewhat mature: it addresses sexual development, incest, sexuality in general, gender issues, and (perhaps the most compelling) the ethics of surgeries performed on intersex individuals to make their genitalia align one way or another with a certain gender. Callie’s parents, under the guidance of a specialist, try to force Callie to have surgery to make her genitals less ambiguous (under the presumption that she is perfectly content as a girl), and when Callie discovers her XY karyotype, she revolts, running away from their hotel room in New York and becoming a boy.
The novel holds together very well, with a multitude of storylines that interweave (and in a sense support one of the themes of the story) to create a beautiful mosaic. That’s not to say that there aren’t gaps: I still think that Chapter Eleven, Cal’s older brother, is one example of how Eugenides leaves out a little bit of useful information that would help make some details more intelligible.‡
Perhaps the most amazing thing about this novel is the amount of research that Eugenides put into his writing. There is extensive discussion of Greece and Asia Minor; sericulture (raising silkworms); the Greco-Turkish War; Detroit, its strange layout, and the great fire of 1805; the rise of the Nation of Islam in Detroit; the Detroit riots; and intersex conditions (of course), among other things. I find books like this remarkable because they are so educational: you can learn things from just paying attention to the details and soaking in what these authors have looked up for you. Sometimes, they are even useful.
Anyone who has been paying even cursory attention to major news right now probably knows about Caster Semenya, who has raised a great number of issues surrounding intersex by her high-profile success as an athlete. My mother-in-law and my wife mentioned this controversy to me before I saw any news reports (but after I read Middlesex), and one of my initial thoughts was that she might have Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome (Cal meets a woman in the novel who has AIS and explains it). Try to find a news article or online discussion of any length that doesn’t mention AIS (generally partial AIS) as a possible culprit – with evidence having been produced that Semenya has undescended testes (or again, perhaps simply undifferentiated gonads or even ovotestes), I think most people are assuming that Semenya has an XY karyotype to make their speculations. (5-ARD has been brought up as well, but it doesn’t really match the evidence being publicized.)
Of course, one can’t assume that a well-researched novel will be accurate: Michael Crichton’s excellent but inaccurate novel Timeline is a great example of this (the science is very bad, and virtually no one who understands quantum mechanics would find any of the novel’s claims plausible). But there is something to be said about reading that helps us soak in information about the world around us (when there is at least some verisimilitude) and understand it, especially cultures other than ourselves. Learning about the nomenclature of Russian patronymics from Tom Clancy is something that maybe I will seldom use (except in teaching some Russian lit, such as Chekhov’s plays), but I think it helps reinforce the general attitude about reality that we all ought to have: that there is a world of truth out there waiting to be discovered and assimilated into our individual views of reality, and any way we have to find that truth is worth pursuing. Despite the seeming contradiction of finding truth in fiction, I think that students ought to understand that their reading is not simply about becoming more skilled at comprehending written language but that it will help make them the kind of people that they ought to be. If being able to use information like this is a way to make that happen, then so be it.
Bring on the research, you authors.
*The genetic factors in gender are tricky: generally, XY is considered to be male and XX female. However, there are multitudes of non-normative karyotypes, such as XXY for Klinefelter Syndrome, XO for Turner Syndrome, XYY Syndrome, etc., that do not result in clearly delineated gender types. Even other intersex conditions such as Androgen Insenstivity Syndrome where the individual has an XY karyotype but female sex characteristics confuse the matter. It is clear that we cannot simply assume that someone with an XX karyotype is female and XY a male.
†I keep feeling like this plural is wrong given that Stephanides is Greek: should it be Stephanidei? Stephanidoi? Stephanidê? Someone who knows Greek better than I do (which is practically anyone who knows any Greek), help!
‡Chapter Eleven’s name confused me when I read the book given that there is no real explanation of why he is referred to as such; clearly it seems more like a nickname than a given name. According to this discussion of the novel, the name is a reference to the fact (stated in the penultimate chapter) that C11 ran Milton’s business into the ground, suggesting that he would need to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. Plausible enough, I suppose.