I did not want to read a book about a hermaphrodite, but I read this one. Calliope (“Callie”) tells of growing up Greek-American in Detroit and her discovery at age 14 that, although she looked like a girl, she was genetically — and emotionally, mostly — a boy. I’ll spare you the developmental details, but they square with what I learned in zoology. We begin with a set of parts which, depending on our genes, our prenatal hormone exposure, our own hormones after birth and cultural influence, can develop into a recognizably male or female body. Or, sometimes, a body which is a bit of both.
Callie’s story is about identity. While her grandparents and parents struggled to align their Greek and American identities, Callie had to decide which gender she/he was. Maybe he/she should be pushed more firmly one way or the other with hormone injections and surgery. In her encounter with the expert, she learned,
I thought that after talking to me he would decide that I was normal and leave me alone. But I was beginning to understand something about normality. Normality wasn’t normal. It couldn’t be. If normality were normal, everybody could leave it alone. They could sit back and let normality manifest itself. But people — and especially doctors — had doubts about normality. They weren’t sure normality was up to the job. And so they felt inclined to give it a boost.
Eugenides writes movingly of self recognition and acceptance, within Callie’s body and within Callie’s world. I was reminded of The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula LeGuin, another novel which explores the meaning of gender. In a science fiction format, she takes us to a world where people have no settled gender, but could be one or the other, depending on circumstances and, to a certain extent, choice. Callie also feels she has a choice.
And so a strange new possibility is arising. Compromised, indefinite, sketchy, but not entirely obliterated: free will is making a comeback. Biology gives you a brain. Life turns it into a mind.
This is not primarily a novel about sex. It is about family and adapting to a new culture and Detroit. I spent most of the 1950′s in Ann Arbor, Michigan, so the Detroit I knew then was an arrogant city of wheels, about to see those wheels go rolling away. I enjoyed catching up on the news from there, as Callie’s story takes us into the 70′s. It’s not good news as Detroit, like any hermaphrodite, contends with an uncertain identity.