“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.”
At the age of 14, Calliope Stephanides learns that she has “5-Alpha-Reductase Pseudohermaphrodites,” a genetic disorder that leaves her in-between sexes: Calliope is both male and female, a hermaphrodite.
Thirty-three years later, at the age of 41, Calliope, now known as Cal lives as a man with a full beard and a love for women. Now, he is ready to share his story: how he went from a young girl named Calliope from Detroit Michigan to Cal, a middle-aged male.
Though sexual identity—what it means to be male or female—is the book’s most obvious theme, it is also about cultural identity and familial ties. Thus, not only is Calliope Stephanides physically trapped between being a woman and a man, the protagonist walks the fine line between being Greek and American, the sins of her ancestors past and her family and society’s perception of her in the present.
As Cal attempts to understand his condition, he recounts the evolution of the affliction all the way to 1922 in the Greek village of Bithynios in Asia Minor, where a brother and sister came together and became his paternal grandparents. Desdemona and Eleutherios (“Lefty”) Stephanides become victims to fate and history, their marriage spurs a recessive genetic condition that finds its way to Calliope. And as the story of the narrator’s grandparents come to light, it becomes clear that just as they fled to America and hid their former lives as brother and sister, Calliope does the same.
Calliope, fourteen years old at the time and raised as a girl, gets into an accident where the doctor finds out that she is ‘trisexed,’ which finally allows her to understand why she’s always felt “different.” However, fearing a future involving many tests and fearing sexual reassignment surgery, she runs away and becomes Cal, her male counterpart. Hitchhiking across the U.S., Cal finally ends up in 1974 San Francisco, which was also the heyday of the city’s sexual revolution and was even called “The Smut Capital of America” by the New York Times. He becomes the main attraction in a burlesque show. As his family searches for ‘Calliope’ a death occurs and he is forced to return home as a man where his grandmother confesses their dark family history.
Genetics may have been the turning point for Cal’s biological discovery, but his references to the Greek god’s of Asia Minor, his grandparents homeland, as well as to Tiresias (the seer who could change genders) or the Minotaur, who was half-man, half-beast, he asserts that his choice to be male was an act of his own freewill. Thus, even if he lived as a man, he avoided the gender-reassignment surgery because he preferred to live in the in-between, in the ‘Middlesex.’
The reader journeys with young Calliope and the reflective Cal, as teenager in the 70s, the small Greek village of Bithynios in 1922, life in during the Second World War in the America and finally, to the height of the sexual revolution and gay movement in San Francisco.
As we move forward in this generation, with eyes constantly looking towards the future, we must not forget, that like Cal, our destiny is inextricably tied to the past. Thus, even as we observe our family’s genetic disorders, such as heart disease or cancer, we often forget how our history, the triumphs, struggles and mistakes of generations before us, are passed on, morphing into an amalgamated recreation of the same flaws and failures. However, the book presents a choice, just as Cal faced the option of taking the surgery that would allow him to continue as a girl: Should we run away from the past, to be forever hidden in the dark corners of memory, or confront it and have the strength, just as Cal did, to define ourselves in our own terms?
As the world grows smaller and smaller, with people traveling and migrating to different parts of the globe with the greatest of ease, we are just like Cal, hybrids in a world that still demands definition. Thus, as a generation in search of an identity—whether by nationalistic affiliations, a membership in particular society groups, sexual preference or economic standing—maybe the greatest definition we can find for ourselves is that we are all and none at the same time. Maybe like Calliope, we are in the ‘middle.’ People and countries have crossed territories, state lines or through the cyber wires, yet many still allow others to define them. The truth is, we are all products of many different influences: genetics, history, sexuality, family, cultures, media, and migration. A single belief, word or title can’t capture beings, machines, animals of such immense complexity. And that’s a good thing. After all, “Life can start out one way and then suddenly turn a corner and became something else.”
Jeffrey Eugenides’ sophomore effort had a lot to live up to. His first novel, The Virgin Suicides, was such a huge success, not to mention such a startling and mesmerizing novel. His second novel succeeded, and some would even say, surpassed the triumph of his introductory piece. Published in 2002, the book won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2003.