“There have been hermaphrodites around forever, Cal. Forever. Plato said that the original human being was a hermaphrodite. Did you know that? The original person was two halves, one male, one female. Then these got separated. That’s why everybody’s always searching for their other half. Except for us. We’ve got both halves already.”
I set out to read Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides years ago, but never did. And I’m glad. If I’d read Middlesex in 2002 when it was published, I’d have been eleven years old; much too young to understand its heavy themes and characters. I may have been able to read the words, but they’d have been in one ear, and out the other. I haven’t read a book as good as Middlesex in a long while – perhaps ever. For years, my top ten favourite reads have sat comfortably in their places. Then along came Middlesex, fighting Chris Cleave’s The Other Hand for the top spot and knocking Jack Kerouac’s On The Road to eleventh place. I tried to prolong my reading, but couldn’t help myself; I finished Middlesex last night before bed then failed to sleep entirely. Questions and conclusions about sex, identity and everything between continue to plague my mind.
Jeffrey Eugenides, author of The Virgin Suicides, is a truly gifted writer. His exploration of sex and gender in Middlesex is beyond complicated, but he writes in such a way that his complex themes make complete and lovely sense. Middlesex follows three generations of the Stephanides family from 1920s Greece, to Detroit in the mid to late 20th Century, to contemporary Berlin. The story is told from the perspective of middle-aged Cal, who was born a girl but grows into a man; a hermaphrodite. (Hermaphrodite: 1. (noun) One having the sex organs and many of the secondary sex characteristics of both male and female. 2. (adjective) Anything comprised of a combination of diverse or contradictory elements. See synonyms at ‘monster’.) Cal suffers from 5-alpha-reductase deficiency syndrome, a genetic condition that suppresses masculine hormones in the womb, but not at puberty, the result of family incest.
“I was born twice: first, as a baby girl, on a remarkably smogless Detroit day in January of 1960; and then again, as a teenage boy, in an emergency room near Petoskey, Michigan, in August of 1974.”
Eugenides cleverly jumps between the first and third person perspective, demonstrating Cal’s lifelong struggle with sex, gender and identity. Interestingly, Cal narrates beyond his own life, telling the story of his whole family prior to his, or rather, her, own birth. Cal’s narrative goes back in time as a means of better understanding the present. He shares the story of his grandparent’s migration from Greece to America, who flee as brother and sister but arrive as husband and wife, then the courtship of his own parents; third cousins. Through the Stephanides family journey, Eugenides explores the concept of the American Dream – a fight for freedom, opportunity and happiness. But for the Stephanides family, Cal especially, it is just as much a dream as it is nightmare; racism, poverty, wealth and tragedy cannot be escaped.
Middlesex is brilliant. I despise the adjective amazing but here, I feel inclined to use is. Whether male, female or somewhere between, Eugenides encourages his reader to think about gender, sex and identity beyond the typical realm. Whilst science may determine our physical identity as ‘male’, ‘female’, or ‘other’, it is society that shapes our gender identity. Until the age of fourteen, Cal is raised as a girl, and attends an all-girls school. He walks, talks and thinks like a girl (that’s scientific truth, not stereotype). But if we as humans are born without any such ability to walk, talk or think, how do we come to adopt gender-bound ways of walking, talking and thinking? Is it the result of our surroundings and our upbringing? Of our parents, our friends and our world? According to Eugenides: absolutely.
“…gender identity is established very early on in life, about the age of two. Gender was like a native tongue; it didn’t exist before birth but was imprinted in the brain during childhood, never disappearing. Children learn to speak Male or Female the way they learn to speak English or French.”
According to Eugenides, “It is clear…that sex of rearing, rather than genetic determinants, plays a greater role in the establishment of gender identity”. Our identification with a specific gender comes down to our ‘sex of rearing’; the sex as which we are raised. I, for example, was born a ‘female’, with female parts. Therefore, I was raised as a ‘female’. I played with dolls, I attended an all-girls school, and I wore pink ribbons in my hair, which was left to grow long. My stereotypical ‘female’ upbringing is equally responsible for my female gender identity, as was my being born with female sexual organs. That’s crazy to think.
How different might I, or any other girl, have turned out had we been raised as boys? If I had played with toy trucks, joined an all-boys football team, and worn ‘boy’ clothes, would I still identity as a female? With no amount of surgery could I ever become wholly ‘male’ in the physical sense, but my stereotypical upbringing may very well have changed me in every emotional sense. If my friend – a boy – had played with Barbies, joined an all-girls gymnastics team and worn frilly dresses as a child, would he still identify as a boy? That’s something we’ll never properly know. Is it bad for us to do this to our kids? To decide their sex of rearing without permission? Perhaps it’s worse not to.
If there’s one thing I learned from Middlesex, it’s this: more important than our being ‘male’, ‘female’ or ‘monster’, is our being human beings. At the end of the day, regardless of gender, sexual orientation or any other factors that shape our identity, we are all people.
“I was thinking how amazing it was that the world contained so many lives. Out in these streets people were embroiled in a thousand matters, money problems, love problems, school problems. People were falling in love, getting married, going to drug rehab, learning how to ice-skate, getting bifocals, studying for exams, trying on clothes, getting their hair cut, and getting born. And in some houses people were getting old and sick and were dying, leaving others to grieve. It was happening all the time, unnoticed, and it was the thing that really mattered. What really mattered in life, what gave it weight, was death.”
I’m going to leave it there. If you haven’t already, please read Middlesex. There’s a message in it for all of us. It’s important that we discuss issues such as sex, gender and identity – and in Middlesex, Jeffrey Eugenides provides the perfect platform for doing so.