I: “I feel another birth coming on.”
In fall 2002, I was 14 years old, and I felt like the world couldn’t possibly get any worse.
I had just started my freshman year at a Catholic high school that was beyond my family’s economic means, George W. Bush was president, the racist and hate-fueled aftermath of 9/11 was tearing communities apart, another American war in Southwest Asia was on the horizon, Aaliyah had been dead for a whole year, my mom’s alcoholism was getting more severe, I wasn’t straight, and something I can now identify as gender dysphoria was changing the way I viewed myself and how I interacted with the world around me. I wanted so badly to be the kind of kid who was obsessed with the Spider-Man movie that came out that summer or Kelly Clarkson’s now legendary run on American Idol, but everything was so distracting that not even the glitz of big summer blockbusters and reality competition shows helped me escape.
Being a child in the 90s was strange because it felt like everything in the U.S. was constantly moving forward even when it technically wasn’t. When the new millennium came around, it felt as if that forward momentum halted entirely. By the time high school began, some of the most common political conversations revolved around the questions of same-sex marriage, whether Islam was “compatible” with “American values,” and how much state surveillance is too much state surveillance. Although neither my school nor my family were quite as conservative as they seemed to me then, I felt trapped in a box of traditionalist thinking that I couldn’t define or speak about properly. I didn’t know how to explain myself to others, and I didn’t understand how and why people around me kept pretending everything in our society was business as usual even though I could see through their behavior that nothing was right about what was going on.
In the few years between elementary school and high school, my life at home became turbulent. Communication between me and my parents and extended family wasn’t as open or intimate as it should have been. I didn’t think anyone was really listening to me when I talked, and I couldn’t get straight answers to anything that was unrelated to the very basic details of my daily life. School, for me, had long been a place where adults listened, even if it was only to correct me, so I always looked for as many possible ways as I could to be heard there. I loved reading and writing, and I loved to be a part of teams and groups. I thrived in situations where I could do all of these things at once.
When I originally chose Journalism as my elective class that summer before high school started, I believed it would teach me to turn my endless curiosity and concern into investigative skills that could help me both uncover the answers to the questions I had and discuss my findings in a way that would make people want to listen. The teacher of the class at the time was a middle-aged man who wasn’t married, didn’t have any children, and had a certain flair about his movements and the way he talked that all my friends and I identified as gay. There was absolutely no hard evidence that he was, but he felt like family to us, so we treated him that way and thought of his word as gospel. Desperate to learn all I could and be taken seriously as a “person with opinions,” I poured myself into that class from the moment it began. I respected the teacher more than I ever had any other teacher in my life, so I also wanted to prove to him that my personal growth was worth his extra time and attention. As winter break crept up on us that semester, he was the first person I went to for book recommendations. In the fall, he’d recommended James Baldwin’s work, which I was immediately transfixed by, so I trusted him to know what was most important for me to read.
“I just read this incredible novel called Middlesex,” he said. “It’s kind of dense and has some surprising subject matter, but I think you’re up for the challenge of both.”
I took the bus to the library that day to get the book.
II: “Like Tiresias, I was first one thing and then another.”
This is technically an essay about Jeffrey Eugenides’s Middlesex on the 20th anniversary of its release.
It feels surreal to imagine the birth of a book that is so wholly focused on being born/”born” and dying/”dying” and being “born” again. And that, 20 years later, I’m still interrogating my relationship with this text. But before we go any further, I feel like I should give some plot context.
Middlesex begins with the narrator, Cal Stephanides, explaining the unusual circumstances of his conception, but the story of the novel really begins about 18 pages in with Cal’s grandmother, Desdemona, a Greek sericulturist living in a small village named Bithynios on the Aegean Sea in 1922. At the start of the novel, Desdemona is grieving the death of her parents in the Greco-Turkish War a few years earlier, and her whole life is about to change. First, she’ll realize she’s in love with her brother, Lefty, and then together, they’ll be forced to leave Bithynios for their cousin Lina’s house in Detroit, Michigan because of The Great Fire of Smyrna. On their way, Lefty and Desdemona deceive the people traveling with them into believing they are simply lovers looking forward to starting their new life together in the U.S. Once they’re in the States, Desdemona and Lefty struggle to find their footing in a society that was still outwardly hostile to white ethnic minorities, and Desdemona loses sleep over the possibility of their secret coming out. Desdemona and Lefty don’t exactly assimilate, but they do begin to set roots in Detroit. Lefty opens a bar called The Zebra Room while Desdemona finds a job as a silk worker. Along the way, they have a son, Milton, and around the same time, their cousin Lina gives birth to a daughter named Tessie. Milton and Tessie fall in love and have two children, Cal’s older brother and a few years later, Tessie gives birth to Calliope, named so because at the time of his birth, the doctor believed Cal was a girl.
From there, the novel’s scope narrows, focusing its attention on Cal’s childhood and adolescence and how he views the events happening around him. We know at the beginning of the novel that Cal is born intersex, but he doesn’t know until he’s 14-years-old. Before that pivotal moment, we see various changes in Cal’s life and his family members’ lives through his eyes. During the summer of 1967, Cal is a firsthand witness to the Detroit Riots as he watches The Zebra Room burn down despite Milton’s best efforts to defend it. With the insurance money from the fire, Milton decides to move the family out to a strangely built house on Middlesex Boulevard in the suburbs of Detroit. Cal’s life in the suburbs is punctuated by the things most young people’s lives are punctuated by: crushes on his neighbor; being bullied by the pretty, rich girls at school; questioning the changes in his body; experimenting sexually with other teenagers; and falling in love with the first beautiful young woman he gets close to. After an accident lands Cal in the hospital and the doctors reveal to him and his parents that he is intersex, Milton and Tessie take Cal to see a doctor who specializes in “sexual disorders” like Cal’s. The doctor — modeled after real-life bad guy Dr. John Money — determines Cal has 5α-Reductase 2 deficiency and recommends he undergo surgery to ensure his genitals appear “more female.” In response to this plan, Cal cuts his hair and adopts a more outwardly masculine appearance, then runs away to San Francisco and works at a sex club until family trouble brings him back, fully himself, to that same strange house on Middlesex Boulevard.
Although grown-up Cal interjects commentary about his current life throughout the course of the novel (including a little romance that serves as a backdrop for his self-explanation and examination in the text), it really covers 80 years of Cal’s family history and the history of the U.S., from 1922 to 2002. The novel’s scale is long, and it includes references to many major events in American history throughout that time. There is so much contained within these pages that it would probably take several essays to get through the breadth of the plot entirely. Through Cal’s narration, we see much more than what was mentioned above. We see refugees coming to the U.S. through Ellis Island, World War II, the Civil Rights Movement, white flight, the Vietnam War, the hippie movement, the Cold War, the Watergate Scandal.
On a very basic level, the novel is about transitions, about things being one way and then another. Lefty and Desdemona go from siblings to lovers, from refugees to settled (albeit not very comfortably) in a new country, from parents to grandparents, young to old. Milton goes from the child of marginalized immigrants to a successful entrepreneur. Cal’s brother becomes a hippie then a communist then a burn out. Tessie is, at first, the mother of a daughter and a son then becomes the mother of two sons. And of course, Cal experiences a couple different “transitions” of his own. Even beyond that, we also see the culture of the U.S. shifting and transitioning alongside the Stephanides family and we see how those changes impact them. Desdemona is defiant against assimilation while Milton is willing to give up anything to be treated as the white American man he is.
It’s sweeping and expansive in scope, and every time I reread it or think about it, really, it’s still shocking to me that it was published. Even more shocking is that it ended up winning the Pulitzer Prize the following year. It’s true that before Middlesex, Eugenides was already a critically lauded writer, but on its bare face, the novel is long and dense and weird. It makes use of many of the tropes of both Greek comedy and tragedy, references tons of figures and events in Greek mythology, and both plays with and employs the structure of epic poetry. I mean, Cal even calls out to the Muses at one point. It’s a Bildungsroman, it’s a family saga, it’s a modernist masterpiece, and it showcases just about every narrative point-of-view available. The language is so lush, and to this day, has some of the most sublime metaphors I’ve ever read in my life. When Cal is narrating his grandparents’ journey to the U.S. and compares his revelations to the discovery of silk in 27th century BC China, he says, “I feel a little like that Chinese princess […] Like her I unravel my story, and the longer the thread, the less there is left to tell. Retrace the filament and you go back to the cocoon’s beginning in a tiny knot, a first tentative loop.” And the playfulness of the writing and sense of humor used throughout seem unusual for the story Eugenides is telling.
In the winter of 2002, I couldn’t get enough of it.
III: “My spoon was right.”
It’s not that I knew exactly what Cal was going through, but the familiarities were enough to make me feel understood.
The night I picked up the book from the library, I sat up in my room until 4 a.m. I’ve never been the fastest reader, but I finished it over the course of the next two days. Once I was finished with it, I wasn’t sure what to do with myself.
Somewhere over the course of the text, I felt something inside me cracking and breaking. I began to feel less restrained by and less beholden to the values swirling around me at the time. I had known I was queer since I was 11 and saw Sigourney Weaver strip down to her underwear in Alien. By the time that winter of my freshman year came around, I was already a couple months into an ill-advised, on-again/off-again relationship with a young woman five years older than I was who lived a few blocks away from my house. At 14, the question of “Am I?” or “Am I not?” was never what kept me up at night. What I worried about was what I was supposed to do with it all. I worried about how to tell my family, how to talk to other adults about it, and what it would be like to grow up into a queer adult. I had questions about my body — about the way I felt in my body, and about the way I felt when other people felt my body — but I couldn’t properly articulate them to myself or anyone else.
When I read Middlesex, I felt that tinge of recognition I think a lot of queer and trans people look for when they realize something is different about themselves. Someone, somewhere understood me. But Cal’s experiences with/within his body weren’t the only things that seemed to funhouse mirror my life.
As I read the book, I was growing up in a momentous time in American history in the same way Cal did in the text as a child. The year before, 9/11 happened. When I look back, I know all it did was expose what was true about American culture before it happened. But living through it felt different. It felt like everything was changing. And to be fair, a lot did change in terms of the way the state uses surveillance. But I wasn’t exactly thinking about that in 2002. I was thinking about the way people treated my brown neighbors and friends, the nasty things I’d hear adults say about immigrants, and the way everyone seemed to be on edge all the time. It didn’t feel good to be a kid, because it always felt as if adults around me were trying to get me to think like them in the same way Cal’s father Milton is constantly trying to get Cal and his brother to value whiteness like he does.
Similar to Cal’s grandparents escaping Bithynios in the 1920s, my southern Italian great-great and great-grandparents on both sides of my family came to the U.S. in the 1930s to escape the oppression and devastation by the National Fascist Party in Italy that they foresaw worsening in the 1930s. Arriving in the U.S. by boat — or in one of my great-grandfather’s cases, through an elaborate ruse he set up to get here by pretending he was going to compete in a bicycle race in Canada — with barely anything to their names, my ancestors entered an American society that was reluctant to accept them as American and as fully human. They felt the pressure to assimilate, going so far as making sure their language wasn’t passed down to their kids and grandkids out of fear it would signal they weren’t grateful to be in the U.S. I didn’t grow up feeling the diaspora vibes as strongly as Cal did, but there were definitely moments of my life that were made both more interesting and more difficult by the fact that I was different in this way from the kids around me, especially when it came to other white kids. Like older Cal in the book, it would take me until I was a bit older to see the way my family’s insistence on assimilation and their acceptance of the white supremacist values of the U.S. damaged our relationships with our heritage, with marginalized people around us, and with each other. Cal’s experiences have stayed in the back of my mind at every new discovery and understanding of their lives.
And of course, there was our queerness and the queerness of our relationships to our bodies. Cal recognizes early in the novel that he’s attracted to girls, and his first kiss happens with his neighbor, Clementine. Eugenides’s description of Cal’s feelings in this part of the novel felt so dead-on to the way I felt when I also kissed a girl neighbor friend on the lips for the very first time, like “a kind of swish.” Then, as Cal gets older and his body begins changing the way puberty makes all of our bodies change, Cal starts feeling less connected to it, less like it’s his after all. He feels clunky and awkward in his own skin, unsure of where he belongs and why he feels the way he feels. Nothing looks right about his body to him, and he fears other people can see that there is, in fact, something wrong with it. As a fat 14-year-old who didn’t meet the criteria for our society’s standards of beauty, it was so easy for me to relate to this, but the relation came from somewhere even deeper than that. As young kids, neither of us had the power or the language to define what kind of bodies we had or how we wanted people to perceive them. Midway through the novel, as Cal is discussing his early adolescence, he says, “Unlike the rest of me, which seemed bent on doing whatever it wanted, my hair remained under my control” and then explains, “…there were virtues to my hair. It covered tinsel teeth. It covered satyrical nose. It hid blemishes and, best of all, it hid me.” The shared sense of something being off in a way that no one else seemed to be experiencing helped me feel less alone.
IV: “I’m quickly approaching the moment of discovery…”
Here is where I tell you there are some problems with Middlesex.
For some, the most glaring issue is that Jeffrey Eugenides is a straight, cis man. But you probably knew that already. When I’ve taught this book in my high school English classes, my students see Eugenides’s last name and Cal’s last name and ask me if this is about Eugenides’s life. It’s not, though I imagine many of the immigration-related and Michigan-related parts of the text come straight from similar experiences. But at the end of the day, it’s fiction.
At 14, I wasn’t thinking much about who was writing what books and when. I didn’t know anything about the book publishing industry, how it worked, who got published and who didn’t. I was lucky that in my high school and in my life at home, there was an abundance of diversity in the media I consumed. I read and watched stories about all kinds of people, and I didn’t give a lot of thought to who was producing those stories. I just wanted to experience them. Authors, to me, were just a small part of the equation.
Five years after reading the book for the first time, I learned in my second semester in college who Jeffrey Eugenides is. I don’t mean I didn’t realize he was the author. I mean, I didn’t know who he was until I was considering using Middlesex for a paper in one of my seminar classes. I searched for some information about Eugenides, and there he was, in about a dozen or so different interviews and reviews, talking about how the book was born, the decade it took to write it, and the story that inspired him to write Cal’s. To be completely honest, even though I felt disappointed that Eugenides is not a member of the intersex or queer or trans communities, I couldn’t handle juggling that knowledge with the emotional connection I had been actively fostering through reread after reread for so many years. The novel became one in a small pantheon of other texts that, in no hyperbolic way, kept me alive through some of the hardest moments in my life.
When I got to my upper level literature courses during my second year of college, I was being introduced to so many new ideas, writers, and theorists that I didn’t have time for rereads. I didn’t visit the pantheon again until I started graduate school. Reading Middlesex again after all of that time and radicalization and emotional development felt like a different experience all together. Emotionally, I was right there in it with Cal like I always had been, but intellectually, I could see where and why people — especially queer people, trans people, and intersex people — don’t always have the most positive connections with the text.
Eugenides himself admitted in many interviews after the book came out that the idea for Cal’s story came to him after he read a book called Herculine Barbin, a short memoir by a French intersex woman who lived and died in the mid-1800s. The memoir follows the life of Alexina/Camille/Abel who — after falling in love with another woman, getting caught in the affair, and being found out as intersex — was sentenced by the courts to live her life as a man. She committed suicide at 30-years-old because of the forced isolation and poverty that came with the punishment of pretending she was someone she wasn’t. In one interview published in The New York Times in 2003, Eugenides calls Barbin’s work “very melodramatic” and “evasive about the anatomical details,” so he decided to “write the story that [he] wasn’t getting from the memoir.” Every time I think of this, it makes me feel like I’m complicit in the theater of some cis man’s morbid curiosity.
Then, there is the matter of the incest. Eugenides connects Cal’s intersex diagnosis to the nature of his family’s relationships. His grandparents are brother and sister, and his parents are second cousins, and through Cal’s narration, Eugenides treats the gene carrying 5α-Reductase 2 deficiency as if it’s its own character with its own thoughts, feelings, and intentions of coming for Cal in response to the “transgressions” of his family. Early in the novel, Desdemona refuses to consummate her relationship with Lefty because she keeps having nightmares of babies born with physical deformities, and later, Desdemona confirms to Cal that she had always heard stories in the small village where her and Lefty are from about people who were born girls and then turned into boys. Because the connection is so explicit, it’s easy to see how some might interpret or see this as further stigmatization of an already highly stigmatized group of people in our society. Children who are born intersex are often subject to surgeries they can’t and don’t consent to and grow up to be intersex adults who have to deal with the reality of that. Intersex people experience discrimination and hardships that many people don’t have to deal with and don’t understand.
Researching people’s reactions to Middlesex online yields criticisms that are all over the place. A lot of intersex people, trans people, and queer people hate the novel. A lot of intersex people, trans people, and queer people say it accurately reflected the thoughts, feelings, and experiences they had when they were younger. Some people say it’s too long or too odd or overly descriptive. Others think it’s the most well-written and meticulous account of growing up in the U.S. in the 20th century they’ve ever read. In the “critical reception” section on the Wikipedia page for the novel, a number of positive reviews in medical journals from doctors who specialize in care for people born intersex are quoted and cited. There is a post on Book Riot written by an intersex writer from as recent as 2020 that applauds the work Eugenides did in the text.
I’m not going to say people should excuse the problems I’ve pointed out here or ignore them — because they shouldn’t. I don’t. Even now, I don’t know how to fully reconcile the value I know resides in reading this novel and the dilemma of its existence.
V: “Biology gives you a brain. Life turns it into a mind.”
The fact that Middlesex was published and remains important in the American canon is not, in any way, a liberatory act that will help intersex people and trans people gain the peace and freedom they deserve, but it helped me free myself and my imagination of so many of the limitations I learned without even realizing. That’s what keeps me coming back to Middlesex. And it’s the reason why I adopted it as one of the seven anchor texts I use in my classroom.
In my Advanced Placement English Language & Composition course, we study Middlesex at the very end of the year because, by that time, we’ve covered books and materials that address some of the things mentioned in the novel in some way: xenophobia, white supremacy, systemic racism, the problems of capitalism, and immigration to the U.S. Before we begin reading Middlesex and during our discussions on it, we also read, watch, and listen to essays, articles, videos, and podcast episodes written or produced by and about intersex people and trans people.
We have conversations about gender and sex and the myriad ways we can categorize and define both. During our study of the novel itself, I talk to them about how I felt the first time I read it and about how much it taught me. I remind them about the power of fiction, about how much we can gain from just letting ourselves live in someone else’s world for a while. That first time I finished reading through the novel entirely, I didn’t think of Cal as a stand-in for every intersex person I’d ever know. I didn’t assume that every person born intersex was born that way because their grandparents were brother and sister and their parents were cousins. And I didn’t think that every person in Cal’s situation could or would get the same (fairly) happy ending that he did. So, my students and I talk about the limits of fiction, also, and the purpose of reading fiction in the first place.
At the end of our study, we talk about Eugenides. We talk about whether or not it was acceptable for him to write Middlesex and for the publishers to publish it and about some of the problems addressed in this essay. But because 17-year-olds are some of the most insightful people you’ll ever meet, these conversations usually aren’t very long. We spend a lot of time discussing this quote: “But in the end it wasn’t up to me. The big things never are. Birth, I mean, and death. And love. And what love bequeaths to us before we’re born.” And how inextricably tied to the past, to the histories of our families, and to the world that existed before us we all are. We discuss what that means for the trajectory of our lives and why understanding those connections is so important in our examinations of the world around us.
Often, my students — the majority of whom are white, cis, and heterosexual — are surprised by how much they find in the text to relate to, how much they can see themselves mirrored in the experiences of the characters. Some of them also experience that same cracking and breaking I did. They come to me in between their classes or at break or at lunch to tell me their minds are blown, and they don’t want the novel to end. I hope that after they’re long gone from high school, they’ll use some of the lessons they learned from it and from my class to help free people who aren’t in the same positions they are.
VI: “We’re all made up of many parts, other halves. Not just me.”
I’m not intersex. I was assigned female at birth, but I’m not a woman. I’m not a man, either. I describe myself and my sexuality as queer because that is the closest and quickest explanation currently available to me of who I am, what I believe, and what kinds of sex I like to have.
I don’t think Cal’s experiences are reflective of the experiences of everyone in the LGBTQIA+ community, but some of them are so close to mine, it’s sometimes difficult to even fully discuss it with people close to me when we’re talking about Middlesex. Like Cal, I never felt like I had full agency over my body and how people interacted with it. The world around me made me feel like my body was too big, too unruly, and out of place everywhere, so I never really knew what to do with it. Then, as I got older, it wasn’t just my body that felt out of control but also my desires. In middle school, all my friends dreamed of growing up and getting married to someone who looked like Nick from The Backstreet Boys. They would talk about kissing and having sex with boys from our school, while I was replaying the scene from Titanic where Rose takes off her robe over and over again in my head. I didn’t want to do any of it. I wanted to make out with one of the girls in the grade above me, and I wanted her to show me my body wasn’t as unmanageable as everyone made me believe it was. It felt like torture every day that I couldn’t — and that I couldn’t even talk about it.
I carried all of that straight into high school and into that relationship with the girl who lived not too far away from me. My first sexual relationship ever. Since she was older, she had much more experience, and she wielded that experience over me as if I’d never figure out queer sex on my own. She instructed me, “Think of yourself as the man” and so I did even though that didn’t exactly feel like the right way to explain how it was supposed to go. Then, whenever she would touch me back, I felt overwhelmed, not just because it felt good but also, surprisingly, because it scared the shit out of me to entrust someone with the soft places of my body. Trying to navigate this at 14 with the limited language I had due to my age and what the world was like back then felt lonesome and grim. Reading about Cal’s experiences in his 14-year-old and 42-year-old bodies helped open an escape route out of despair for me. It didn’t give me the language I needed to fully express myself, but it helped me envision other possibilities of who I could be and how I could be.
When I read Middlesex now, I still feel like I’m reading about myself, about how the past is part of us no matter what, and about a possibly freer future for people like me, like Cal, like so many others. Cal isn’t just an intersex person who was raised female and then later chooses to embrace his maleness. He still feels Calliope within him, and he honors that part of himself by paying attention to it. There is narration in the text to support the arguments that Cal thinks of his genes as a punishment and as a biological accident and as a blessing. He doesn’t hate himself or his parents or the doctor who delivered him for not noticing he wasn’t exactly the daughter they all thought he was. There is so much nuance in the way Cal’s story is presented and progresses.
In the end, when Desdemona finally confesses to Cal that Lefty was her brother and she thinks she is the one responsible for Cal’s condition, Cal isn’t angry or sad. He responds simply: “I like my life. I’m going to have a good life.” Despite it all.
Most days, I like my life, too. And I know I’m going to have a good one. I already am.