Middlesex and the Limitations of Myth
THEA HILLMAN / ISNA News Spring03
Editor's note: Lots of people have been asking ISNA board members what we think of Jeffrey Eugenides' new hit novel, Middlesex. The book, informed by ISNA's work and publications, mentions the Intersex Society of North America by name (the protagonist is even a member of ISNA), and Mr. Eugenides has said publicly that he hopes the book advances the intersex rights movement. It has certainly made many more people aware of intersex, the complexities of life with intersex, and ISNA, and we are grateful for that! We asked our Board Chair Thea Hillman to share with you her own personal thoughts on the book and its buzz, and here they are.
People keep asking me about Jeffrey Eugenides' new novel Middlesex because the main character is considered a hermaphrodite and so am I. But really, neither of us is. Outside of myth, there are no hermaphrodites. It is physiologically impossible to be both fully male and fully female.
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But you can be born with a mix or blending of male and female parts, known as "intersex," and indeed this is what Eugenides' protagonist Cal and I have in common. People with intersex conditions are those who were born with sexual anatomy that someone else decided isn't "standard" for males or females.
Unlike Hermaphroditus, the mythical creature who was both a man and a woman, people with intersex conditions are not magical. We're not even that rare. Every year in the U.S., approximately 1 in every 2,000 babies are born with an intersex condition, which makes intersex more common than Cystic Fibrosis. Intersex conditions include Congenital Adrenal Hyperplasia, Klinefelter's Syndrome, Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome, MRKH, and Gonadal Dysgenesis, among others. Why all the mystery and secrecy then? Because we're talking about genitals, here, and sex. And our intersex bodies have become collision sites for Western society's obsession with sex and fear of difference.
Intersex bodies are considered freakish because society has fallen prey to the myth that humans are sexually dimorphic, that is: all women look like X and are designed to have sex with men, while all men look like Y and are designed to have sex with women. Problem is, that's just not what happens in real life.
In real life, variations in genes, hormones, and maternal environments mean that some boys are born with very small penises or undescended testes, and some girls are born with enlarged clitorises or without a vagina. More and more people - including parents and doctors - are learning that our intersex bodies are just one of the many ways that human bodies vary. Unfortunately, many people in hospitals with decision-making power consider our genitals defective, even though in most cases they are perfectly healthy.
Each day in the U.S., five babies born with intersex conditions are subjected to unnecessary plastic surgery an their genitals. It's standard operating procedure to treat an intersex birth as a psychosocial emergency and to perform cosmetic sexual surgery as early as possible. There's another myth that intersex will go away with "corrective" surgery. It doesn't. But sensation often does.
Yet many people, including many physicians who treat intersex, remain under the illusion that technology can and should fix everything, and that anything that's different should be corrected, regardless of risk. This belief keeps them from listening to real people with intersex conditions, many of whom challenge unnecessary surgeries. (None of us object to surgery that preserves health or life, but these surgeries are performed for social reasons, not medical ones.)
Sometimes I think they just don't want to hear the real stories. I get cynical and think, who wants the everyday details of someone's life when you can use people with intersex to fulfil erotic fantasies, narrative requirements, and research programs? People with intersex continue to be used to satisfy the interests of others: as scientific specimens, as naked teaching models for medical students, as literary metaphors, as gags for popular sitcoms, and lastly - where we at least might get a cut of the profits! - as circus freaks and peep show attractions.
Intersex has increasingly been in the public eye, due to the work of the intersex rights movement, led by the Intersex Society of North America. The result has been that Eugenides and others are now realizing how compelling the idea of intersex is. Problem is, few of them are actually talking to people with intersex. But we've been here all along and we have plenty to tell. What we have to say may shock and surprise you.
We're not actually all that different. We are women, men, and occasional alternative genders such as transgender - just like non-intersex people. We are straight, gay, married, single - just like non-intersex people. We like to decide what happens to our bodies and like to be asked about our lives, rather than told.
We've told our own stories in books, websites, newsletters, and videos. I can promise you they are far more moving and powerful than any fictionalized account. While the myth of Hermaphroditus has captured the imagination for ages, it traps real human beings in the painfully small confines of someone else's story.
What do you think of Middlesex?
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