Gayle Madwin (queerbychoice) wrote,
Gayle Madwin

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Why I Am Not a Fan of Jeffrey Eugenides' Novel _Middlesex_

I long ago lost count of how many of you have recommended Jeffrey Eugenides's novels to me: off the top of my head I remember recommendations from frankepi, rekraft and theobscure, but I'm pretty sure there were even more than that. I also remember one person - I think it was theobscure - mentioning that they had some reservations about the book's tendency to promote biological determinism. This warning caught my attention, yet I never imagined that this issue would turn out to be nearly so all-encompassing a problem as it did.

I finished reading Middlesex today. Yes, it won the Pulitzer Prize. Yes, the sentence structures were pretty. Yes, it meets most of the usual standards for being considered an extremely well-written book. But it has also caused me to strongly dislike its author. I feel that this is a very politically right-wing reactionary novel brilliantly disguised as a left-wing revolutionary one.

The novel is about an intersex person named Calliope Stephanides. Calliope (more often known as "Callie" for short) is born with externally female-appearing sexual organs, and is assumed to be a "normal" female baby, and is raised as such for the next 14 years. But Callie's chromosomes are actually XY, and this is discovered at puberty when Callie develops all male secondary sex characteristics. After narrowly escaping a doctor who wants to chop Callie's sexual organs down to "normal female" size, Callie shortens "her" name to Cal and chooses to live as a male for the rest of "his" life.

The scientific name given in the novel for Cal's condition is 5-Alpha Reductase Pseudohermaphroditism, although this condition usually produces visibly intersex sexual organs that are immediately noticed at birth, rather than ones that could easily be mistaken for those of a "normal" female for Cal's first 14 years of life. The author explains away this failure to notice anything unusual with the fact that Cal's grandparents are longtime personal friends of a particular doctor, who immigrated to the U.S. with them before Callie's parents were born, and so Cal's parents are loyal to this longtime family doctor even though by the time Cal is born, he's 74 years old, with badly deteriorating vision, and just to top it all off, in the middle of checking newborn Cal's sex, he gets distracted by the sight of a beautiful nurse who he marries soon thereafter (yes, at age 74 - or 75, by then).

The scenario of nobody noticing anything unusual about "Callie"'s body is somewhat of a long shot, but certainly not impossible to believe, especially with all these convenient excuses provided. It's just that there's very little data on any real life cases to base this fictional work's characterization upon.

Oh, also, the novel goes much further out of its way than necessary to detail a much larger amount of inbreeding than necessary to "explain" Cal's inheritance of a recessive intersex genetic mutation. Not only are Cal's parents first cousins, but Cal's paternal grandparents are brother and sister, and not only that, but in addition to being brother and sister, they're also third cousins - due to even more intermarriage further back in the family tree. Cal even adds that these intermarriages specified in the book are only a tiny simplified fraction of all the total intermarriages in the family. But really, why is all of this necessary? The recessive genetic mutation is specified as involving only a single gene: people who inherit one copy of the muated gene but a "normal" copy from their other parent end up "normal," but people who inherit two mutated copies, one from each parent, end up intersex (at least if they have XY chromosomes: XX bodies are affected if they get two copies, but the degree to which they are affected is far less noticeable). Because the mutation involves only the two copies of a single gene, one from each parent, all that is required for Cal to inherit the recessive genetic mutation is that Cal's two immediate parents both possess a copy of the same mutation. The odds of this happening are much better if Cal's parents are genetically related somehow, and their being first cousins certainly accomplishes that. But for Cal's paternal grandparents to be brother and sister is quite unnecessary - Cal's father could still inherit his single copy of the genetic mutation just as easily if Cal's grandparents weren't related at all. If anything, all this intermarrying of so many generations prior to Cal's parents just makes it less believable that the family somehow isn't full of dozens of other intersex people in addition to Cal. So I feel that Jeffrey Eugenides's gratuitous inclusion of far more incest than is actually relevant to explaining Cal's intersex genes betrays just how "unnatural" and "undesireable" he really considers intersex people to be - he stigmatizes them as though they can only come to exist in families with levels of inbreeding comparable to historical British royal families!

Anyway, on with the genetic determinism. On page 19, Cal goes out of "his" way to state: "If you were going to devise an experiment to measure the relative influences of nature versus nurture, you couldn't come up with anything better than my life." Then, of course, Jeffrey Eugenides helpfully explains to us exactly what the outcome of this experiment would be, in spite of the fact that it's being conducted purely in fiction. Despite not having the slightest reason to suspect that "she" is anything but female, "Callie" proceeds to be completely exclusively attracted to women "his" whole entire life, even from the age of eight, fully six years before actual puberty. (I've heard enough other people talk about having experienced sexual attraction long before puberty that I've come to accept that it does happen to some people, but it did not happen to me or to a lot of other people I know, and so I consider it to be a relatively rare event. In this case, I think the author resorts to staging a relatively rare event specifically because it's just that important to him to assert that "Callie"'s sexual attraction to females had to have been produced solely by having XY chromosomes, because puberty was still too far off for any of its beginnings to have suggested yet in "Callie"'s mind that "she" might not be a "normal" female). The revelation that Cal has XY chromosomes is supposed to suddenly explain why Cal has always been exclusively attracted to women. Cal remarks on page 166: "Breasts have the same effect on me as on anyone with my testosterone level." Despite the fact that hormone balances have been studied continually for a century in search of "explanations" for queerness and have been so thoroughly discredited as an "explanation" by now that not even the craziest of the "gay gene" seeking scientists like Simon Le Vay and Dean Hamer bother to bring up that notion anymore!

The scenes when "Callie" is 14 and gets taken to a medical specialist who discovers "her" XY chromosomes do earn my approval for thoroughly condemning the tendency of doctors to carve people up without informed consent or giving them much of any time to think it over first. The medical specialist, Dr. Luce, asks "Callie" a variety of questions to determine "her" gender identity, many of which are actually questions about sexual prefence, and he does not tell "Callie" anything about chromosomes or what "her" body will develop like in the future or what all these questions are for. As a result, "Callie" lies and tells Dr. Luce everything "she" thinks "she" is supposed to say, in response to what "she" interprets as accusations of lesbianism: "she" omits all mention of having been attracted to girls, kissed girls, fallen madly in love with and had sex with a girl (all this at only 14!), and instead makes up lies about nonexistent crushes on boys, and throws in a mention of having had "sex" with a boy once (in reality this event would have been better described as rape, and "Callie" did not enjoy it one bit). Dr. Luce responds by informing "Callie" and "her" parents that "she" is a female who just needs a little quick surgery to chop "her" sexual organs down to "normal" female size, and then regular estrogen injections forever after. The only reason Cal escapes from this fate at all is the random coincidence that Dr. Luce's receptionist happened to call him out of the room unexpectedly during an appointment and then Cal, left alone in Dr. Luce's office, happened to wander over to Dr. Luce's desk and stumble onto his case description of "Callie," which Dr. Luce had never intended for "Callie" or "her" parents to read. Through this accidental reading, "Callie" discovers that "she" has XY chromosomes and "she" then reconceptualizes "himself" as Cal, and runs away from home to live on the streets, still 14 years old, just to escape the surgery Dr. Luce had planned.

So don't get me wrong: I'm certainly very glad that Jeffrey Eugenides thoroughly condemned Dr. Luce and other doctors like him. What I object to is that the alternative that Jeffrey Eugenides advocates in this novel is not a radical new world in which hermaphrodites will be free to explore multiple gender ideas and choose their gender presentation freely without being pressured to conform to anyone's preconceived notion about what gender they "ought" to be. Rather, he's merely substituting an absolutely thoroughly mainstream modern definition of gender as being determined by the chromosomes for a 1970s model of gender as being determined by the patient's personal "choice" when under massive pressure from unethical doctors who give hardly any information about what the "choices" actually consist of. This is the exact same absolutely thoroughly mainstream shift in our society's definition of gender that has been taking place in the Texas court system where transsexuals used to be only allowed to marry people of the opposite gender to their current gender but are now only allowed to marry people of the opposite gender to their birth chromosome gender. (And who the hell XXY and XXX chromosome people are allowed to marry in Texas, the Texas court system has not yet gotten around to commenting upon.) This shift in the definition of gender is completely not left-wing revolutionary. Hell, it's right-wing reactionary! A left-wing revolutionary shift in the defintion of gender would base the definition more on personal choice, and would simply eliminate the tendency for doctors to withhold relevant information and unethically pressure people about what to choose, and would eliminate the concept that parents can be allowed to make such choices for their children. But instead of turning the cruelly unfree so-called "choices" that doctors like Dr. Luce pressure people for into real choices with informed consent and no pressure, the "gender is determined by chromosomes" theory that Jeffrey Eugenides and the Texas court system are advocating just gives people even less choice (well, you can't really get any less than what was usually zero choice to begin with, but even less of even an acknowledgment that it should be their choice) about what their gender should be.

I think there's a tendency for people to imagine that any book that even acknowledges the existence of intersex people is somehow automatically left-wing revolutionary, but that is not true at all. To mention any topic does not automatically specify in which direction you're trying to influence your readers' opinions about that topic. In the case of Jeffrey Eugenides's novel Middlesex, I feel that his primary goal in writing the novel was to assert that gender and especially, more than any other aspect of gender, sexual preferences, are inborn. Lacking sufficient data for a real "experiment to measure the relative influences of nature versus nurture," he decided to invent a fictional experiment that he'd be free to write in such a way as to say what he wanted it to say. To do this, he found it convenient to invent an intersex person, but I do not feel that what he says about intersex people is particularly any less hurtful than what doctors like Dr. Luce say. The novel encourages any parents of intersex children who read it to interpret their children's chromosomes as the final say on what their children's gender identity should be and will be. Sure, there are occasional mentions that Cal's adult gender identity isn't completely unaffected by having been raised for 14 years as a girl, but certainly Cal's sexual preference for women is very clearly specified as having been biologically determined by chromosomes, and since most heterosexual parents still prefer to have heterosexual children, that belief alone would tend to bias them quite decidedly toward forcing their child into the gender of their child's chromosomes.
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