Middlesex, Jeffrey Eugenides


Middlesex, Jeffrey Eugenides

 coverKnopf, 2002

ISBN-13: 978-1-4299-5627-7

“I was born twice: first, as a baby girl, on a remarkably smogless Detroit day of January 1960; and then again, as a teenage boy, in an emergency room near Petoskey, Michigan, in August of 1974. . . My birth certificate lists my name as Calliope Helen Stephanides. My most recent driver’s license…records my first name simply as Cal.”

Told with humor and extreme candor, Middlesex by Jeffrey Eurenides is a straightforward account of a young intersex person’s struggle to discover, understand, and ultimately accept a condition that is very much ignored in the mainstream.

The novel is also flavored with stories of Calliope’s Greek-American family (loosely based on Eugenides’ family), Prohibition, and the 60s in Detroit.  Through Calliope, the reader begins to understand the surprisingly mundane as well as the particularly unusual situations and struggles faced by intersex youth.

Eugenides is not intersex, but he reportedly chose to write the book because he felt that discussion of intersex anatomy and emotions in Herculine Barbin’s 1980 memoir was unsatisfactory and incomplete.

Middlesex discusses the precise issue recently brought forth by the South Carolina case involving a child named M.C.   Like Calliope in the novel, M.C’s condition, previously known as hermaphroditism, is described as intersex, where an individual’s genitalia and or reproductive system does not fit the general definitions of male or female.

When M.C. was 16 months old and in foster care, despite determining that M.C. could develop to be either male or female, doctors arbitrarily decided to perform sex-assignment surgery, making M.C.’s genitals appear female by removing healthy genital tissue and potentially sterilizing him and eliminating sexual function.

While the surgery was performed to identify M.C. with a female, from a young age he began to identify as male.  Despite initially being raised as a girl in accordance with the surgery, M.C. is currently living as a boy.  His parents, pediatrician, school, and friends are all supporting the eight-year-old’s decision to live as a male.

In a groundbreaking lawsuit, M.C.’s adoptive parents are suing the South Carolina Department of Social Services, Greenville Hospital System, and the Medical University of South Carolina for performing sex-assignment surgery on M.C.

Each year an estimated 2,000 babies are born “intersex,” a set of over 60 different conditions that fall under the diagnosis of “DSD” (Differences/Disorders of Sex Development), occurring more often than Down syndrome or cystic fibrosis.

Medical procedures like the one undergone by M.C. have been performed on intersex infants in the U.S. since the 1950s; however, the ethics of this practice have been questioned in recent years.

In cases where children are born with mixed or ambiguous markers of biological sex (chromosomes, gonads, internal reproductive system, genitalia), current medical authority supports assigning a child a gender but not performing surgery until the child is old enough for gender identity to emerge and the child and guardians can make the appropriate decisions regarding surgery.  This also includes the choice whether to have any surgery at all, since surgery involves the risk of sterilization and elimination of sexual function.

Callie gives a voice to the struggles and choices faced by intersex people.  For one thing, her story shows intersex people in a light very different from the media sensationalism the condition usually receives, when it gets any attention at all.

“These are not storylines that serve to accurately define what intersex is, discuss why intersex is such a highly-charged issue, and help people to understand that we’re neither unrelatable weirdos, nor objects of fascination whose bodies and identities are available for public consumption,” writes Claudia, an intersex commentator.  “We’re just people, who happen to be intersex.”

Middlesex is arguably one storyline that gets close to a definition of intersex that is neither sensationalist or unrelatable.

Moreover, Callie’s situation illustrates the decision faced by intersex people about whether to have surgery at all.  After reading Callie’s story, it is clear that the only one that can make decisions about surgery is the intersex person.  For that reason, it is imperative that no medically unnecessary surgery is performed until the child is old enough to understand the consequences of this life-altering surgery and come to a personal determination.

In general, parents and guardians have the power to consent on behalf of a child concerning necessary medical procedures.  However, in intersex childr4en there is a difference between a life-saving or medically necessary procedure and one that is cosmetic and could have catastrophic physical, psychological and emotional implications for the individual in the future.
Read my article on M.C.’s case at:  http://bit.ly/18PHLFa