Hermaphroditus. Digital art done by me in Procreate

Middlesex is a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Jeffrey Eugenides, published in 2002.

Some spoilers ahead from the first half of the book. Not enough to ruin the book. But maybe just the right amount to make you want to know what happens next. 

Callie is different from most people. In fact, she is rare. She knows she is different, but she doesn’t understand just how different. In a heartbreaking moment inside the New York Public Library, Callie flips through an ancient-looking dictionary, looking for that word. The one she saw written in Dr. Luce’s clinical notes about her. The one that would come to disrupt her notion of self. The dictionary read as follows:

Hermaphrodite   —1. One having the sex organs and many of the secondary sex characteristics of both male and female. 2. Anything comprised of a combination of diverse or contradictory elements. See synonyms at MONSTER.

Throughout the 20th century, intersex people were referred to as hermaphrodites. The word hermaphrodite is ancient, and comes from  Hermaphroditus, who was the mythical child of the Greek gods, Hermes and Aphrodite. I won’t tell the whole story here, but essentially, Hermaphroditus ends up possessing both male and female qualities. In some broader thinking cultures around the world, Hermaphroditus and Callie would fall into the “third gender” category and be celebrated. In others, they would be isolated and demonized. But to even try to categorize intersex people is impossible. The rare condition is, like the notion of gender itself, too complex and misunderstood. Ultimately, it isn’t Cal’s genitalia that comes to define him. Yes, his condition influences the entirety of his life, but in the end it is his choice to accept himself, as he is, that allows him to move on with life.

Let us backtrack a bit so you can understand why I sometimes refer to Calliope as ‘her’, and sometimes as ‘he’ (Cal). Callie lives the first part of her life as a girl. That is, until puberty begins, and she realizes she isn’t developing like the rest of her peers. Callie was born with 5-Alpha-Reductase deficiency. This means that she is genetically male. The X and Y chromosome are present.  However, she cannot produce enough of the hormone dihydrotestosterone, which is critical in male sexual development. Thus, her genitalia appear female until puberty, when it becomes more ambiguous, and her identity crisis begins. 

Middlesex is an ode to the connection between ourselves and our history, and how our choices and our biology are inextricably linked. To discover how Callie developed this extremely rare condition, we have to travel back through time. In the very first pages of the novel, in a parody of Greek drama, Callie eloquently sets the stage for this modern reimagining of the epic: 

“Sing now, O Muse, of the recessive mutation on my fifth chromosome! Sing how it bloomed two and a half centuries ago on the slopes of Mount Olympus, while the goats bleated and the olives dropped. Sing how it passed down through nine generations, gathering invisibly within the polluted pool of the Stephanie’s family. And sing how Providence, in the guise of a massacre, sent the gene flying again; how it blew like a seed across the sea to America, where it drifted through our industrial rains until it fell to earth in the fertile soil of my mother’s own Midwestern womb. Sorry if I get a little Homeric at times. That’s genetic, too.” (4)

Oh, did I mention our narrator is Greek? In fact, the novel is profoundly Greek. And you know the Greeks love their epics. Middlesex is likewise epic in its scope, as it tells the story of three generations of the Stephanides family and their journey from a small Turkish village in the mountains to the industrial city of Detroit in the 1920s. To Callie, every action that led to her birth is significant and full of meaning, and she begins her story with the catalyst for it all – the incestuous relationship between her grandparents, Lefty and Desdemona. 

In the first half of the novel, Callie is an omniscient narrator, detailing her family history with the lyrical prowess that defines this novel. Interestingly, in Greek mythology, the muse of epic poetry was also named Calliope. She was believed by some to be the inspiration for Homer’s Odyssey and Iliad. Our 20th century Calliope’s narration feels like a tragic comedy, imbued with divine inspiration, yet humbled by modernist doubt.

Finally, it’s time to imagine this book as body. And what a special body it is. It is uniquely Calliope. A body at the center of debate. A body that stands at the center of the nature vs. nurture debate. On display. Studied. Examined. Demonized. A body that feels like it’s in the wrong skin. There is familiarity there as well as unfamiliarity. And its brain – cerebral, thoughtful, yearning for truth, always in desperate conflict with the heart. But this heart is broken, split in half like Callie’s life – into the before and after. And still, despite all the pain, guilt, and shame that fills this body, it does not fall into despair. Instead it grabs the reader by the hand, intimately, and heals by telling its story. Its complicated, beautiful story. 

By: Georgia Pistorio

Click here to buy Middlesex on Amazon