The 25 Most Influential Books of the Past 25 Years: Middlesex

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The latest issue of mental_floss just hit newsstands. Rosemary Ahern's cover story chronicles 'The 25 Most Influential Books of the Past 25 Years.' This week, we'll be revealing five of those influential books here on the blog. And if this puts you in a subscribing mood, here are the details.

Middlesex

by Jeffrey Eugenides (2002)

The Book That Showed Us That Mars and Venus Aren't the Only Planets

In less enlightened times, the hero of Middlesex, Cal, would have been called a hermaphrodite. But after Jeffrey Eugenides' novel won the Pulitzer Prize in 2003, the intersex rights movement stepped into the spotlight, and pejorative terms for intersex people slowly began to fade. Like 1 in 2,000 American children, Eugenides' hero is born with a body that exhibits mixed sexual characteristics. More specifically, Cal inherited 5-alpha-reductase deficiency syndrome, which occurs when the chromosomes indicate one sex and the genitalia indicate the other. People with the syndrome are born looking like girls, but when puberty hits, they begin to look like men. At birth, Cal is every bit as feminine as the next girl. But as testosterone begins surging through his veins at age 12, Cal becomes more and more masculine. When doctors tell his parents that he needs surgery and hormone therapy to correct the problem, Cal runs away.

Middlesex addresses the fallacy that intersex people must conform to one gender or the other to lead happy, healthy lives. Beginning in the 1950s, babies born with ambiguous genitalia were assigned a sex in infancy. After that, surgeries and medical treatments would keep the child's appearance in line with the chosen sex. Because female genitalia are easier for surgeons to sculpt, most intersex babies were made into girls. As they grew up, they were kept in the dark about their true biological status, and their feelings of "being born in the wrong body" were left unaddressed. Many wanted their sex changed as adults, only to discover that the surgeries performed on them as infants were irreversible.

It wasn't until the Intersex Society of North America (ISNA) was established in 1993 that intersexuality came out of the closet. The society is dedicated to ending the shame and secrecy surrounding intersexuality, and to outlawing the irreversible surgeries inflicted on intersex children. The ISNA also promotes the idea that traditional definitions of male and female are too narrow to contain the full spectrum of human biology. Although not officially affiliated with the ISNA, Jeffrey Eugenides has publicly stated that he hopes Middlesex will advance the cause. By all accounts, it has.

More Influential Books

Thinking in Pictures (The Book That Explained Autism from the Inside Out)
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And the Band Played On (The Book That Forced Us to Acknowledge AIDS)
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The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle (The Book That Lost Nothing in Translation)

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February 27, 2009 - 4:05am
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