The book had been sitting on my mother’s bookshelf for as long as I can remember. When I was very young, I recall sliding it from its position and staring at its title with the kind of sly fascination that only “grown-up” words can elicit. Middlesex.
I was probably fourteen the first time my mother suggested I read it, noting, “It might be a little inappropriate for you,” but “the writing is amazing.” At the time, even my growing adolescent preoccupation with things inappropriate could not overcome my desire to ignore my mother, which in my early teens was in full swing. Also, my mother had mentioned the term “hermaphrodite” in relation to the story, and because I had no education on the subject, the word made me vaguely uncomfortable. So the book remained on the shelf, gathering dust.
In sophomore year, I was often too distracted to read because I was spending more and more time in doctors’ offices. At age sixteen, I had not yet menstruated; after several months of prodding, x-rays and beeping MRI machines I was diagnosed with MRKH, a rare condition where a girl’s reproductive system does not develop in utero. I would not be able to engage in intercourse without extensive physical therapy, and I would never give birth to a baby.
My reading habits fell by the wayside. Keeping up with mandatory work was difficult enough. For several months, I could barely stand to go to school. Although it wasn’t logical, I found myself uncomfortable around people who were “normal”, and I couldn’t seem to talk myself out of it. I wouldn’t call it jealousy; I’d never particularly wanted to give birth to my own children and after the initial shock, I realized that this was not as upsetting to me as it might have been to many others. However, I was scared of judgment. I had lost the genetic lottery, and with it my sense of belonging.
It was nearly a year after my diagnosis that I gave in to my mother’s suggestions, which had dialed up a notch in the past months for obvious reasons. I finally slid Middlesex from the bookshelf with the intention to read it.
Middlesex won a Pulitzer Prize, so I was prepared for a good read, something with sparkling writing and a well-developed plot. I was not prepared for this book to hit me as hard as it did. The story follows the life of Cal (formerly Calliope) a Greek-American male-identifying intersex man (intersex is defined as any deviation from standard genitalia). Cal is assumed female at birth, but starts developing as a boy at puberty. The account of his life is astonishingly detailed, stretching from his grandparents’ courtship to his own adult relationships. Even if I had no personal draw to the story, I would have thought the plot compelling. But because I am also intersex I found this book moving, relatable and somehow healing.
I had read one book that revolved around MRKH prior to this; I ordered it off Amazon in the hope of finding an anecdote that would make me feel less alone in my experience. The book was written by someone who did not have MRKH, and it completely missed the mark. Besides being riddled with typos, it was painfully clear that the author was merely using the condition to drive the plot. The character with MRKH had no depth beyond her inability to have children. I came away from the book feeling a little less than human, validated in my fear that people would be unable to see me as anything more than my condition.
Middlesex was the polar opposite of this book. Although my condition is quite different from that of the protagonist, we had many similarities and I could see myself in his actions and internal processes. One thing that resonated with me was when the character discussed his shame regarding his condition, something I immediately recognized in myself. The book reads “My shame. I don’t condone it”, and this simple phrase captured something I’ve been struggling with for the last year. In Cal’s case, he is embarrassed by his atypical genitalia in his dating life. I frequently feel this same shame about my biological uniqueness. I do not want to be ashamed. Intellectually, I know that there is no reason I should be ashamed. But some days, the voice in the back of my head whispers that my inability to reach the milestones that women in our society are expected to reach makes me less worthy than the rest.
Middlesex is written by a non-intersex man who clearly engaged in a huge amount of research to write something that rings so true. The book has been praised by many in the intersex community for being accurate both scientifically and emotionally. Some scenes were so specific that they could have been taken right out of my head. In the sequence of Calliope’s birth, the author describes how the doctor was distracted before he could thoroughly inspect the baby’s genitals. This is something I have often wondered about in my own situation. What could have been so interesting in that room that the doctor overlooked my physical difference? Another thing I have wondered about is what exact genes caused my condition, which strands of DNA did not mutate quite far enough, and what caused this anomaly.
This topic is dealt with extensively in Middlesex, going back several generations, and as the book is told from an intersex perspective, the curiosity and the depth of the delving into family history feels legitimate, something I could imagine myself doing in the future. The passage I found most poignant described Calliope, fourteen years old, noticing that every one of her classmates had gotten their period except her. Since sixth grade, when I was first asked by a classmate if I had a spare tampon, I have had the nagging worry that something was might not be quite right, but I attributed it to being a “late bloomer”. This subconscious reassurance and denial of the thought that something might be wrong was powerfully depicted in Middlesex.
But to me, the most important thing about the book was that it wasn’t only about being intersex. It was about love and family and children and sex and all these things that I had started to think were out of my reach. It was about a character who had every normal human experience without being what most people would call normal. It was about a person’s life, a person who happened to be intersex, but a person no less valid or worthy than anyone else.
I am a logical person, and question things like fate or higher powers. For most of my life, I have preferred to take the evolutionary perspective. Naturally, this did not serve me well in dealing with my diagnosis. In fact, the purely evolutionary perspective told me something along the lines of “There’s no real, biological reason for your existence.” This unfortunate conclusion is something I’ve been attempting to shake off for over a year. Middlesex brought me a long way towards transforming my viewpoint. I took a long look at my own life, as a good book will make you do. And I noticed how healthy my friendships are, how delighted my art makes me, how my boyfriend is happy dating me without any sort of “in spite of.”
Middlesex made me realize that I would still be able to have just about all the experiences I have been looking forward to my whole life. In fact, it made me realize that I am already having them. When you learn something about yourself that changes your expectations of the future, it’s hard to live in the present. But this book took a little bit of the weight off. It gave me back a little bit of confidence in my future. Even more, it made me feel less alone in my present. That’s the highest praise I can give any book. I think it’s for the best that I didn’t read this story when I was fourteen. It wouldn’t have meant nearly as much to me. But ultimately, I’ve never been more glad I listened to my mother.
Anonymous is an American high school student.